Friday, 23 May 2008

Author Interview! Gary Braunbeck

If you browse through everything under the 'Horror' label, here, then you'll soon see that I've got nothing but good things to say about Gary Braunbeck, he writes some seriously scary stuff that is still rattling around in my head monthes after I've read it! Being more than a little bit of a fan, I was really excited when Gary kindly agreed to answer some questions about Cedar Hill, his writing and horror in general. Here's what he had to say...

Hi Gary, thanks for agreeing to take part in this interview!

1.‘Mr Hands’ is one of my favourite book titles as well as a great name for a murderous killer doll with huge hands. Where did that name come from? As a child, did you have a toy action figure with abnormally sized hands?

“Mr. Hands” was the name given to the creature by Alan Clark, who created a series of eerily gorgeous paintings and sketches focusing on it. Alan always wanted to know the story behind the monster, so he asked me to tell him its story. The novel would not exist were it not for Alan Clark, which is why the book is dedicated in part to him.

As a child, I had one of those red “Monster Magnets” that was designed to look like a grimacing face growing out of two hands, and the damn thing always gave me the willies. Wish I still had it.

2.For anyone reading who hasn’t read your work, what can you tell us about Cedar Hill and the overall tale that takes place within it?

Cedar Hill is a town that is located in a part of the world where – as one character describes it – “…the walls of reality aren’t quite squared, so sometimes things slip through.” It’s a nexus populated by people who have come to accept the everyday weirdness around them. There is a small group of central characters who always pop up in one way or another in the cycle of books and stories, and central to this group of characters is the man known only as “The Reverend” who runs the Open Shelter (and serves as the omniscient narrator in Coffin County). It’s a place where the sins, violence, and horrors of the past have never truly gone away, and can re-emerge anywhere at any time.

The overall story of Cedar Hill is one of…I guess you’d call it “reconciliation.” Only in the case of Cedar Hill and its denizens it’s an on-going grappling with violence, suffering, and grief, and how the characters try to reconcile these elements with the idea of a Just and Loving God who watches over a universe where, supposedly, even the most banal of a human being’s daily actions carry some greater meaning than what is glanced on the surface.

In short: the central story is concerned with how the individual faces unspeakable horrors and still manages to find a reason to keep going.

3.How much background knowledge, of the Cedar Hill mythos, do you think a reader should have before reading ‘Coffin County’? Is it a book that people can just jump straight into?

Coffin County can be read as a stand-alone novel without any previous knowledge of the myths and legends in Cedar Hill’s history. But if a new reader can, I’d urge he or she to read the 4 books in the order they were written: In Silent Graves, Keepers, Mr. Hands, and Coffin County.

This isn’t an underhanded attempt to sell more books, but if one has read the 3 previous novels, then there’s a bit more to (hopefully) enjoy. But, just to repeat, Coffin County can be read as a stand-alone.

4.Things get pretty bleak in ‘Coffin County’ as we see a mental process that leads people to commit unspeakable acts. How do you maintain a distance from your subject matter so that you don’t end up feeling really depressed and shooting your neighbours?

Who says I maintain a distance? Point them out, give me names and addresses!

At some point during the writing of a Cedar Hill story – be it a short story, novella, or novel – there is no distance, and I fall into a fairly grim mindset – just ask my wife. It’s not something that I can help, and even if I could help it, I’m not sure I’d want to. If you expect to make the reader feel something, you yourself have to be experiencing those emotions and impulses as you write the story, or else it’s all just posturing and affectation. If you only want to go for the throat, for a quick shock or gross-out, that’s fine, but if you’re aiming for something deeper inside the reader, the heart and psyche and spirit, you can’t fake it. Make it as honest and unfiltered as you can without killing yourself, and the reader will feel the truth of those feelings, even those that lean way over into dark territories.

And to be completely honest, I’ve been getting treated for clinical depression for most of my life, so it’s a lot easier for me to access these bleaker feelings and be able to express them with what I hope is honesty on the written page.

5.In ‘Coffin County’, policeman Ben Littlejohn is faced with a horrible decision to make right at the end of the book. As the author, how much leeway do you give a character in terms of letting them make these decisions? Do you allow them to surprise you with their actions? Have you ever had to shoehorn a character back into the direction you wanted the plot to go?

I’ve found that, if a character decides to step in and take things out of my hands, that usually means I was moving things in the wrong direction. For me, plot comes from characterization and the interaction of those characters, not vice-versa. The best example I can offer is that of Rael from In Silent Graves. I’d originally intended for him to appear briefly at the start of the book, maybe a second, shorter appearance somewhere toward the middle, and once more at the end – but he had other plans. No matter how hard I tried to keep him out of things, the son-of-a-bitch kept showing up and moving the story in different directions, and suddenly I had three major characters instead of the two I’d planned on. If I’d succeeded in pushing Rael out of the way, if I’d let my ego and not the story dictate the direction of the narrative, the novel would have been a disaster.

So, no – I’ve never shoehorned a character back into a situation or direction where he or she didn’t belong.

6.You’ve mentioned on your message board that you’ve written over a hundred stories set in Cedar Hill. Even though this is obviously a decision that you’ve made yourself, how does it feel knowing that your Cedar Hill cycle is coming to an end? Is Cedar Hill a location that you are planning to re-visit in the future?

The cycle itself is not coming to an end, merely this branch of it. Admittedly, it’s taken me 26 years to get to this point, so it does feel a little like saying farewell to over half my life, and in a way that saddens me, but it’s also a new set of challenges.

By the time Far Dark Fields (the 5th Cedar Hill novel from Leisure) and The Carnival Within have been released by this time next year, the Cedar Hill timeline will have been at last established; here’s where it all started, here’s where it all ended. But I have deliberately been leaving gaps in the timeline that I can go back and fill in. If one is going to attempt to create an entire universe in which the majority of one’s tales are going to be set, then one sticks with it. Look at what Charles de Lint has done with his Newford tales. Damn near everything he’s written has been set there, and has continued to focus on a central set of characters. Because of his dedication to it, Newford is as rich and wondrous a universe as is Narnia or Middle Earth.

So I’m not leaving Cedar Hill anytime soon.

7.There’s a post on your message board where you’ve said that you will be taking your writing in a couple of new directions, namely mystery and urban fantasy. People can read your post and find out why you are moving away from horror but what was it that prompted you to move towards writing mystery and urban fantasy?

It’s not that I’m “moving away” from horror – I’m proud to be called a horror writer and always will be – but the majority of my stuff doesn’t quite fit in to a single category. That wasn’t a deliberate choice, it’s just the way it turned out. A lot of readers of traditional horror think my work has no business being mentioned in the same genre as King and Straub and Keene and Barker and Langhan and dozens of other writers because it doesn’t adhere to the traditional tropes (and that is not a slam against those wonderful storytellers, far from it). It boils down to my work being a bit too whimsical at times for hardcore horror readers, but way too grim and dark for readers of traditional fantasy.

As for mystery, I’ve written and published dozens of mystery and suspense stories over the years, many of which take place in or around Cedar Hill. If I’m going to more fully develop and explore this universe, then I’ve got to start making some unexpected turns, taking new chances, and moving a little more into mystery and urban fantasy will help strengthen the base on which the whole shebang is built upon.

8.Your short story, ‘We now pause for station identification’ won a Bram Stoker award but I can’t find it anywhere (I’m more than likely looking in the wrong places)! Where can I find this tale and why should all horror fans make sure they read it as well?

I was really stunned when “We Now Pause for Station Identification” received the Stoker Award because it was a zombie story – something I vowed I’d never write unless I could give it (in my eyes) a fresh perspective. When the chapbook was released, a lot of people were surprised to see that I’d dedicated the story to Brian Keene. Bear with me for a few more moments and I’ll give you an actual answer, promise.

I had been reading Brian’s The Rising, and early on in the novel there is this throwaway line about the main character listening to a radio DJ finally flip out and killing himself on the air. That conceit intrigued the hell out of me for some reason, so I asked Brian if he had any plans of doing anything with that particular event in a later book or story. He said no, it was just something he threw in in order to illustrate the psychological disintegration of society, and that if I thought I could do anything with that situation, I had his blessing.

So I decided to write a story about a DJ who’s barricaded in the broadcast booth while the dead crawl out of their graves and make their ways back home. But instead of telling it in 3rd-Person, I decided that the story would be a rambling, sleep-deprived monologue as he describes what has happened, what is happening, and what will happen. Midway through the monologue, the “zombies” began taking on much different characteristics than those usually associated with them, and I had no control whatsoever over what my narrator was seeing and describing; as a result, there’s this almost numinous sea-change right in the middle of the story that takes it in a direction I’d never even considered going in, and the story becomes more about physical and spiritual re-birth than about the end of days. I re-read the story before we started this interview and I still find it hard to believe that I wrote it. A happy, even joyous zombie story? What idiot would ever try that? (He said, nervously raising his hand.)

Why should all horror fans read it? Ooooh, boy, that’s not a loaded question at all, is it?

Okay, here goes (and hopefully this won’t sound egotistical or arrogant): horror fans should read it because it’s a good example of both what and how I write, but more than that, I think “We Now Pause…” shows that, with a little extra effort and a willingness to look at things from a parallax viewpoint, it’s possible to breathe new life into a traditional trope. Bear in mind, that was not my intention when I sat down to write it. I’m not claiming to have re-invented the wheel or have broken new ground or some-such happy horseshit like that; all I set out to do was tell a story about one man’s acceptance of his individual destiny, and how that destiny was tied in with that of all humankind. I wanted to write a zombie story that subtly incorporated String Theory.

Jesus, could I sound any more pompous? This is why I try to avoid questions about why people should read my work; once I get going on the explanation, I start to sound self-important in my own ears and wind up wondering why anyone would bother reading my stuff in the first place. Thanks, Graeme, for allowing me to parade my dreadful personality problems in front of everyone ;)

As to where you can obtain a copy of the chapbook – good luck with that. Your best bet would probably be to check Ebay or or Alibris. I’m hoping that there will be an opportunity for me to reprint the story somewhere soon.

9.Someone comes up to you, in a bookshop, and asks you to recommend them some good horror fiction. Name a couple of authors who you think are doing really good things right now…

Christopher Golden and Tom Piccirilli are both nearing the height of their considerable powers; Tim Lebbon has all but reinvented himself as a storyteller with his amazing Noreela series; Horror’s Two Sarahs -- Pinborough and Langan
-- are writing some of the most eerily beautiful prose to be found anywhere; Steve Rasnic Tem and Melanie Tem just released The Man on the Ceiling, which is to my mind a stunning work of art; and Richard Dansky’s Firefly Rain is a novel that illustrates everything good horror should be but so often isn’t.

10.And finally, Cedar Hill can be full of horror but there is beauty there as well (as your short story ‘I’ll play the blues for you’ shows). Would you live there?

Hell, I already do live there – and some nice property just became available a few doors down. Once they get the bloodstains out of the hardwood floors, it’ll be as good as new. I know the realtor and can get you a good mortgage rate…

Thanks for your time Gary, I really appreciate it.

For more information about Gary Braunbeck, and his work, have a click
Here for his official website. Reviews for Mr Hands and Coffin County are on the blog if you fancy a look.

No comments: