Most authors have had many jobs to pay the bills in their quest to become successful. What are some of the jobs that you have held?
I don’t really fit that mold. I graduated college with a degree in advertising, and worked for a newspaper while writing my first two novels. They both sold around the same time. Then I went to my first convention, the World Fantasy Con, and that went so well it was the final straw. I quit the job, but spent awhile weaning myself off regular paychecks with a janitorial gig I could do in the middle of the night. That was it. I’ve written a lot of nonfiction, too, but those two early jobs were all I did on the outside.
Being an aspiring published author is ______________________.
…not for the highly distractible or the easily discouraged.
Would you talk about your upcoming books and their production schedule?
So far, definitely lined up for 2016, I have a novelette called “The Weight of the Dead” set to come out from Tor.com next June, and pieces in various anthologies: 2113: Stories Inspired by the Music of Rush; The Mammoth Book of Cthulhu; Tales of the Lost Citadel; and the fully compiled edition of Dark Screams, the joint project between Random House and Cemetery Dance Publications. Other things I can’t talk about yet, either because I’ve been asked to wait until they’re officially announced, or they’re still in progress.
How important are character names and how do you come up with them?
The right names are crucial, because they can convey qualities or personality traits, or imply ethnicity, or suggest a timeframe, or piggyback on associations we might have about a person of that name. Or you might want to have fun by subverting associations, like with the 300-pound guy whose friends call him “Tiny.” But this is a nebulous thing to explain logically. Usually it comes down to feeling. A name looks right, feels right, sounds right.
If the right name doesn’t pop into mind, I’ll try combing databases to see what jumps out. What names were popular in the 1920s, I looked that up recently. Historical names are trickier. I have a novel-in-progress that’s set in Anglo-Saxon England shortly after the Norman Conquest. While the male names were fairly easy to choose from, the main character is female. The trouble with early Anglo-Saxon names for women is that very few of them carry connotations of being female. Undoubtedly they did at the time, but to our sensibilities now, no. Or names like Milburga … that sort of does, but it feels clunky and stout. It’s that “urg” in there. It’s too guttural. But when I found the name Ælfwynn, I knew I had the perfect name for this character. What a beautiful name. It’s lighter. It has no plosives or hard consonants. It glides. It means elf-joy. I fell in love with it.
Have you ever devised a character and then written a plot around them?
If that’s ever happened, I don’t remember it. I tend not to work that way. A basic idea always seems to come first, and then right away I starting asking myself “Okay, now, who’s most likely to be around for this situation?” or “Who’s going to be able to help me squeeze as much out of this as I can?” So I end up developing the concept and the characters concurrently, and each side feeds the other.
That first novella I did for DarkFuse that you liked so much, Without Purpose, Without Pity, is a good example. I first had the idea of a Las Vegas cut off from the rest of the world. Then I figured the city’s combat sports culture would still be around, no matter what. I knew I wanted it to focus on a heavyweight boxer and this metamorphosis that was happening to him, which in part was suggested by a Zdzislaw Beksinksi painting. So that meant bringing in the relationship with his trainer, as well. But I didn’t think either one of them was the right mouthpiece for telling the bigger story — culturally, environmentally, sociologically. That’s when I hit on the approach of the narrator being a Joe Rogan or Jim Lampley type … someone already accustomed to being a commentator. Things ricochet around and set each other into motion, instead of developing in isolation.
Which of your stories holds the most meaning for you?
They’re all meaningful, because they’re all reflections of how ideas that emerged out of a specific frame of mind congealed at a particular time and place. The factors can never come together the same way twice. But some works rise above for different reasons.
Wild Horses, my first crime novel, sold at auction right after we moved to Colorado, so all that was very life-changing, and I’ll always be grateful for its role there.
With the novella Whom the Gods Would Destroy, not only was I happy with the way it came out, and the reception it got, but I also got the bug to compose and record a soundtrack to it, so the project was hugely satisfying on multiple levels.
“As Above, So Below,” the anchor piece for my collection Falling Idols, was a pick for a century’s best anthology, so that was a great validation in and of itself, but writing it was such a trippy experience. Those first few hours after I finished it, I was in this floating daze, like I’d opened some sort of doorway, and if I blundered the rest of the way through, there would be no coming back. I never experienced anything like that either before or since.
And the new one, “In the Negative Spaces,” from Dark City, is right up there, too. I go through phases. For a couple-three years now, I’ve been in a cosmic horror phase, and that one feels like the most advanced thing I’ve done along those lines so far, and the main character ended up really close to my heart.
Let’s hear more about that one. At first glance, Dark City looks like a collaborative effort, but it’s not, really, is it?
No, it’s more along the lines of Dark Harvest’s classic Night Visions series, where three authors would time-share equal portions of a book and do whatever they wanted. Dave Barnett, the publisher at Necro Publications, gave Gerard Houarner and me half a book each to play with. Gerard split his into two pieces, and I did a really long novella.
“In the Negative Spaces” came out of my seeing a Facebook thread about how much real estate in high-value places like Manhattan sits empty all the time. You have a large number of condos and apartments that are bought and sold purely as investments, without anyone ever living in them, so you end up having these gilded dead zones. I started wondering what might take root and grow in this life-negative void, or be drawn through this vacuum.
At its heart, it’s about a woman who’s escaped an abusive marriage with not much more than her life, and who lands in just such a place to start putting herself back together again. Then it all starts going off-the-rails weird after she finds a stranger’s dream journal. It has probably the most eclectic collision of research topics I’ve ever woven together: Manhattan real estate rapacity, the Cambrian Period, alternate evolution, life as a luxury tower doorman, DMT trips, Russian mob tattoos … a real crazy-quilt, but the pieces fit.
Who are the authors that have influenced your writing the most?
I’m going to be a contrarian and answer this differently than usual. I’ve answered that question so many times, and the thing nobody ever asks is what editors were an influence. An editorial vision can make just as much of an impression as an authorial vision, because it can expose you to a much broader range of individual sensibilities than you can get from one author. For me, there were at least three writers who doubled as editors who made a huge formative impression.
Charles Grant had a substantial body of anthologies I found at the right time — most notably his Shadows series. Karl Edward Wagner’s year’s-best anthologies were key reading. Then there’s David B. Silva. Through his magazine The Horror Show, he introduced me to a lot of established writers and fellow newcomers, and also published several of my earliest stories. I learned a lot from his overall tastes and his direct feedback.
Your answer makes a helluva lot of sense-especially now. Editors don’t get the respect they deserve. – MC
If you were able to trade bodies with one person for one day who would it be and why?
The trap here is if you picked something that would make you feel bad for the rest of your life once you had to give it up and go back to your default body. “I experienced this for one day and now I’ll never have it again.” I’d rather have something useful.
So, being heavily into working out and weight training and Krav Maga and that sort of thing, I would choose this former Navy SEAL Commander named Mark Divine. Among other things, he runs a kind of boot camp called SEALFit. The way he approaches the mind-body-spirit triad clicks with me. It would be useful to experience that ultra-elite level of conditioning to bring back as a baseline to really know from the inside what’s possible.
What are the next three books you’re planning to read?
I’m going to go through my contributor’s copy of Ellen Datlow’s new anthology, The Monstrous. I also have cued up Bernard Cornwell’s The Empty Throne, the latest in his Saxon Tales series, and Mental Muscle, by Logan Christopher, about the mental side of strength training.
What five people living or dead would you invite to a dinner party?
Leonardo da Vinci, definitely. With a polymath on that level, that’s like seven people in one. Richard Branson. The world’s coolest billionaire — what could I learn from him? Plus maybe I could parlay the evening into a flight on Virgin Galactic. Helen Mirren would be delightful and tell great stories and keep us all in line. Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, who I hope would be antic enough to keep things unpredictable, and the after-dinner music would be unbeatable. Finally, John O’Donohue, so we could crack a bottle of Irish whiskey and talk deep into the night.
If you could claim one book as your own – think fame not fortune – what would it be?
Probably The Velveteen Rabbit. There’s something about having done a children’s classic that would appeal, and that one in particular speaks to me. It’s the most beautifully bittersweet thing ever. In one story from several years ago, I wrote “Children are natural animists; everything around them is alive and aware and possessed of deep feelings and exceptional memories.” I never quite grew out of that.
How do you want the world to remember you?
For me, that’s a moot point. It won’t, and I don’t care. I’ll be happy enough just to run out the clock on this existence and be done with it.
Thanks so much for a terrific interview, Brian. I, for one, will remember you for a very long time to come.
Scroll down for a review of Brian’s novella!