An Interview with Chris Woodyard

How did you decide to write about ghosts?

It runs in my family to see ghosts. And when I asked the librarians at my local library what kind of book they wanted, they said, “We need a book of Ohio ghost stories!” They told me that the books that get stolen most often were books on sex, books on ghosts, books on dogs, and books on bartending. I have not yet figured out a plot that would include all four of those topics.


When did you write your first book?

In first grade. It was called something like The Mouse that Scared the Bear that Ate the Witch. Even then I was interested in scary stories. I dictated it to my mother because I couldn’t write very well, then I illustrated it in crayon and stapled it in a red construction-paper cover. I still have it.


How many books have you written?

I’m best known as the author of the Haunted Ohio series (see below). I’ve just begun a series called “The Ghosts of the Past” with The Face in the Window: Haunting Ohio Tales. It will be followed by The Headless Horror: More Haunting Ohio Tales and The Ghost Wore Black: Ghastly Tales from the Past. I also have written a small collection of fictional stories: A Spot of Bother: Four Macabre Tales, which is available as an e-book. Here are the Haunted Ohio series titles: Haunted Ohio: Ghostly Tales from the Buckeye State (1991), Haunted Ohio II: More Ghostly Tales from the Buckeye State (1992), Haunted Ohio III: Still More Ghostly Tales from the Buckeye State (1994), Spooky Ohio: 13 Traditional Tales, (1995), Haunted Ohio IV: Restless Spirits (1997), Ghost Hunter’s Guide To Haunted Ohio (2000), and Haunted Ohio V: 200 Years of Ghosts (2003). I’ve also written a book called The Wright Stuff: A Guide to Life in the Dayton Area (1989) which is out of print, and a number of children’s math and spelling textbooks.


What are you working on now?

Right now I’m working on The Ghosts of the Past Series as well as fictional ghost stories, several mysteries, and a series of historical novels for young adults.


Why can’t you be photographed?

That’s my little joke. I don’t like being photographed, so I put that under the blank box. After all, ghosts can’t be photographed. Actually, if you look on the back of Haunted Ohio, you can see my legs sticking out from behind the tombstone. There is also a picture of me when I was very little in the back of Spooky Ohio. And Jessica Wiesel, the illustrator of that book wants to tell everybody that her picture was taken when she was in 4th grade. She is now more or less grown-up, although she’s still a kid at heart.


Did you always want to be a writer?

I said in first grade that I would be a writer. I also wanted to be an archaeologist. I think the first thing I published was a poem about a flowering tree in our school paper when I was in 6th grade. I used the pen name “Teri Martin,” after St. Therese of Liseaux, one of my favorite saints. I edited the yearbook, and sent lots of poems and stories to contests. I usually won something because I imitated published writers very well.


What authors did you like to read when you were a kid?

I liked reading Nancy Drew mysteries, books about dolls that came alive, like Miss Happiness and Miss Flower by Rumer Godden, books on Egypt, Japan, and medieval times, cartoon books by Charles Addams (creator of the Addams family), and anything on archaeology or doll houses. When I got a bit older, I enjoyed Victoria Holt, the Sherlock Holmes stories, O. Henry, Peter S. Beagle (The Last Unicorn), and the stories of Rudyard Kipling and Saki.


Where did you go to school?

I went to Indian Run Elementary School, then Dublin High School, in Dublin, Ohio, near Columbus. When I went to school there, it was a tiny farm community. There were about 95 people in my graduating class. I hung out at recess in the pioneer cemetery behind Indian Run Elementary.


Did you get good grades?

In English and history, yes. In math, no. I was 25 before I learned to balance my checkbook. I’m still not very good at it. I learned to read before I started school and I was very, very bored just sitting there while the other kids struggled through, “See Jane run.” So I made up stories to keep myself entertained.


Did you have lots of friends?

No. Even though I was pretty smart. I was also the second-ugliest kid in my grade. And the other kids thought I was very weird when I talked about seeing things they couldn’t. I didn’t really like school very much.


Do you have any children or pets?

My family is my husband, who is a computer engineer and my daughter, who used to go ghost-hunting with me and is now working in the needlework trades, as well as a younger sister and assorted aunts and cousins. No pets because everybody is allergic to animals except me. I used to have a guinea pig named Charlie Brown who went to the great Pen in the Sky. As a college student, I had a fluffy black cat named Norton. I also had a budgie named “Pteetsa”, which I think is the Russian word for “bird.” The ghost in my vintage clothing store taught the budgie naughty words. And I once took care of a bat named Barbie who used to snuggle into a suede glove in my hand.


Are your stories true?

I always like to say they are “true, in spirit.” The people who told me these stories believed they had had some supernatural experience they couldn’t explain. I do not make up stories out of nothing. Even if a story is a “traditional” tale or folklore, it may still have a grain of truth to it. And, of course, I also tell stories about things I’ve personally seen. The stories in the Ghosts of the Past series were reported as “true stories” by the reporters. But 19th and early 20th-century reporters sometimes liked to stretch the truth, so you have to weigh them carefully.


Do you really see ghosts? What is it like?

When I am “out in the field” I often see ghosts. I am officially retired from investigating, but I visited many houses to help the owners figure out if there was anything there. Usually the people in the house just wanted me to reassure them that they were not going crazy—there really was a ghost. My rule was that nobody was to tell me anything about the place before I went in. I’d hear the peoples’ stories afterwards. That way I was not influenced by what they’d told me. Then I walked around and took notes about what I saw or felt and where I saw or felt it. Afterwards, I would sit down and talk things over with the people living in the house and see how what I experienced matched up with their own feelings. It often did.

When I see ghosts they look perfectly real and solid—like a living human being. They are not misty; I can’t see through them; they don’t wear sheets or bloody mummy bandages. They don’t have their heads tucked under their arms. They just look like ordinary people, in living color, and sometimes it is hard to tell who is a ghost.

I am usually scared when I see ghosts—scared and fascinated at the same time. There is no good reason for me to be scared—I compare it to the dog who hears the whistle that we humans can’t hear. That dog is whimpering and in pain. Sometimes I feel like I am picking up things that most people can’t see or hear and it is physically painful. Sometimes it feels like I was just punched in the stomach. But it is always interesting to see how close I can come to finding a ghost.


Why can you see ghosts and other people can’t?

I have no idea! I once read that one out of ten people can see ghosts. It does seem to run in families. I think seeing ghosts is just another kind of sense, like touch, smell or hearing. I’ve got really bad eyesight and can’t smell much of anything unless it’s on fire, but maybe this is nature’s way of compensating for that!


Have you ever seen the same ghost more than once?

Only a couple of times. Usually once I’ve investigated a house, I don’t go back to it. And ghosts tend to stay in their own place, not wander around.


Aren’t you afraid a ghost might follow you home?

Like I said, ghosts usually stay in the place they haunt. I don’t allow anything to follow me home.


Do ghosts talk to you?

Only occasionally, and usually I only hear a word or a phrase. More often, I just get a feeling about what they want or what is bothering them. I DO NOT hold seances, channel spirits, or use a ouija board or any other communication device.


Why not?

Ouija boards only attract lying spirits who will tell you anything—including things that later come true—just to make you believe it’s all real. They are a negative force and I don’t like it that they are sold as a harmless game. I’ve seen too many kids get obsessed with them and do stupid, dangerous things because “a spirit told me.” Think about it: is your beloved grandmother going to hang around slumber parties pushing around a plastic pointer for a bunch of giggling teenagers? I don’t think so! But you might get a spirit pretending to be your grandma! Stay away from ouija boards, seances, and other ways of talking to the dead!


Are you a ghostbuster?

I jokingly call myself that sometimes, but I’m not really a ghostbuster. I don’t drive a hearse or have a laser-pak. The only time I’ve been slimed was by my baby daughter with some creamed spinach. I don’t get rid of ghosts, although I can tell people how to do it. I just wander around and identify the ghost and maybe find out why they are still haunting.


Where do you get your stories?

People sent stories to me or would ask me to investigate. I also asked librarians all over the state for information, got clippings out of magazines and newspapers, and read lots of old books on ghosts all over the USA, trying to find Ohio stories. Now, for the Ghosts of the Past, I’m reading antique books, journals, county histories, and newspapers.


What books do you like to read now?

When I’m tired of reading books on ghosts, I like to read books about archaeology, biographies, history travel books or books on language by Bill Bryson or a funny novel by Tom Holt or PG Wodehouse, and books on art, antiques, jewelery, costume history, and dolls houses. Other authors I enjoy are Richard Altick (nonfiction Victorian history), Eric Newby (travel), Sylvia Townsend Warner (fiction), and Patricia Finney (mysteries and historical fiction). My favorite authors of ghostly fiction are Robert Westall, M.R. James, and Josephine Boyle. My very favorite magazine in the entire paranormal world is Fortean Times, a British publication.


Do you have any other hobbies?

I like visiting historical sites and museums, eating Japanese food (especially raw fish), and go shopping at antique shops and used bookstores. I collect dollhouses and miniature things as well as manger scenes and the little castles that go in fishbowls.


Do you have any advice for young people who want to be writers?

See my Advice for Young Readers–in the Resources section. To summarize: 1) Read everything you can get your hands on, particularly classic literature from the 19th century. 2) Learn how to do research, and that means somewhere besides the internet. 3) Write. A page a day is a book a year. Don’t talk about being a writer: Write!