Interview: Gary A. Braunbeck

Gary A. Braunbeck will be the writer-in-residence at this summer’s Odyssey Writing Workshop.He was born in Newark, Ohio (the city that serves as the model for the fictitious Cedar Hill in a majority of his novels and stories) and wrote his first story in the seventh grade at St. Francis de Sales Catholic School. It wasn’t very good. He wrote his next one while still in the seventh grade. It was much better, but it also bought him several sessions with both a psychologist and a priest. Skipping ahead several decades, he has published 25 books, over 200 short stories, and co-edited two anthologies. Though he is best known as a writer of horror and dark fantasy, he has also published in the fields of mystery, suspense, science fiction, fantasy, bizarro, western, and mainstream literature. His 25th book, To Each Their Darkness, a non-fiction memoir/ writer’s guide, will be published in December of 2010 by Apex Books. His work has won numerous awards, including five Bram Stoker Awards, an International Horror Guild Award, three Shocklines “Shocker” Awards, a Dark Scribe Magazine Black Quill Award, and a World Fantasy Award nomination. His short story “Rami Temporalis,” was turned into the Parsec Award-winning short film “One of Those Faces” by director Earl Newton. Gary currently lives in Worthington, Ohio, with his wife, Bram Stoker Award-winning poet and novelist Lucy A. Snyder, a guilty conscience, and five cats that do not hesitate to draw blood when he neglects to feed them on time.

Once you started writing seriously, how long did it take you to sell your first piece? What were you doing wrong in your writing in those early days?

That depends on what you mean by “seriously” and “sell” – not tap-dancing around the point, but I didn’t begin to consider having a writing career until I was 17, back in Ye Olde days of the Olivetti manual typewriter with ribbons and white-out and the SASE and having no idea what amounted to a good “sale” versus a “bad” sale. Having said that, I made my first story sale for actual $$ in 1980, to the now-defunct Eldritch Tales magazine, for five cents a word. (Don’t knock it; Joe Lansdale, Bentley Little, and Norm Partridge started out in there with me.) I made my first bonafide “pro” sale to Twiilight Zone’s Night Cry in 1985, went on to sell Night Cry five additional stories, none of which saw print before the magazine folded, and thus learned of this wonderful, magical thing called the “kill fee”:  get paid 75% of what you were contracted for, the story never sees print, and you’re free to sell it again as a brand-new piece.

What I was doing wrong was simple, because I still catch myself – occasionally – doing the same thing every so often: focusing on a specific effect rather than letting the story assume its natural flow. If anyone sits down and says, “I am going to write a horror (or fantasy, or speculative fiction, or slipstream, or what-have-you) story,” they’ve hobbled the piece before Word One is on the page because, consciously or not, they will begin to insert and graft situations, characters, or tropes that quite probably have no damned business being there, but they – both as writers and readers – have become so insular in what they expect to see and/or are most comfortable with in a particular type of story, that it feels wrong to them not to have a particular element or elements present. That’s why I try to tell all my students in classes and workshops that the first thing they have to do is Forget Genre. It was, is, and always shall be the Story that comes first. Empty your head of all other preconceptions at the start and then see where that takes you.

Why do you think your work began to sell?

The smartass answer is because so many editors got so sick and tired of seeing so many submissions from me they all got together, drew straws, and chose one poor sucker to take one for the team, thinking that would make me go away. Bwa-ha-ha-ha.

Serious answer: I simply quit trying to write what I perceived was “expected” of a horror story, or a speculative fiction story, or a fantasy story, cha-cha-cha. I’ve got a pretty good imagination, but far from the likes of Dan Simmons, Harlan Ellison, Zoran Zivkovic, Joyce Carol Oates, Caitlin Kiernan, Peter Straub, or Neil Gaiman. So I decided to go with what I perceived to be my strengths:  dialogue and in-depth characterization. A lot of my fellow writers are always complimenting me on how deeply – even troublingly – emotional my work is. I choose to work from the inside-out; start with the source of the emotion, the mask a character has put over that emotion, and then allow the story to peel away the layers of that mask until the whole thing is an open, raw nerve. I suppose that’s why the matryoshka doll has been such a recurring symbol in my work; is there a better metaphor for the manner in which a human being can hide his or her own true fears and feelings from him- or herself, as well as the rest of the world? I don’t think so. And, yes, for reasons unbeknownst to me, people want to pay me for these tales, and then actually read them. Knock wood.

You have written in genres ranging from science fiction to mystery to thriller to Westerns, but your focus is undoubtedly on horror. What got you started on horror and what keeps you there?

I’m going to answer that in reverse, if you don’t mind. I stay with the field because I truly believe that if it ever gets over its case of protracted literary adolescence (and the overly defensive attitude that often accompanies it), it has the potential of any fiction to become the great mythic literature of our time, and maybe even times to come. But to be completely truthful, a majority of horror readers don’t gravitate toward my work (some outright hate it) because it’s not what they’d expected. I remember one particularly amusing review from an Amazon reader that said – and this is a direct quote – “He writes literary stuff that makes you think, and I don’t read horror to think! And why does it take him so long before any violence or stuff happens? Pages and pages of dialogue and character stuff. Who needs it?” I’ve seriously considered having that engraved on my tombstone.

What drew me toward horror were those Friday nights when I was a child and Chiller Theater ran on Channel 10. Friday was the only night I was allowed to stay up late. Dad got home from work about 11:30 p.m. (he was a second-shift factory worker, 10 hours a day), and Mom would set up TV dinner trays in the living room so Dad and I could eat while watching classic films such as Creature From the Black Lagoon, The Wolfman, The Monster That Challenged the World, and even some classic stinkers – Zontar, Thing From Venus became a particular favorite of ours. Then one Friday night Dad comes in a little late and hands me this big roll of magazines – Creepy, Eerie, and Famous Monsters of Filmland. I was a goner before I was 10.

How do you go about creating fear in your horror fiction?

Genuine fear is an extremely intimate thing; one can’t know what’s going to hit the right nerve with all readers, so I don’t even think about that. I tend to concentrate on those things that move and terrify me on an intimate level – loneliness, suicidal depression, child abuse, elderly abuse, homelessness, someone I love contracting a fatal disease … the list is rather long – but I do an honest gut-check before diving into any of these particular intimate horrors and fears, and rather than try to force the reader to feel about them as I do, I try as much as possible to make certain that my presentation of such fears, filtered through the sensibilities of the central character, has the ring of authenticity to it. I think that may be the Grail, as far as horror fiction/dark fantasy is concerned:  if the fear your character is experiencing has the ring of authenticity and not manipulation, if you can take your own personal fears and revise them so that they become another story element to be molded as the tone and theme of the piece dictates, then [that element] is going to ring absolutely true to the reader, and they will associate that fear with an intimate fear of their own, and that holy symbiosis between story-teller and reader will occur. You cannot manipulate a reader into fear; they’re far too smart for it, and by now have seen all the standard tricks. It’s got to be authentic, and in order to be genuine, to be valid, to be bona fide to the bone, it has to come from the writer’s gut.

In your non-fiction, autobiographical work Fear in a Handful of Dust (recently re-released in a corrected and massively expanded edition entitled To Each Their Darkness) you explore how horror fiction and movies you have experienced have affected you as a person and a writer. What lessons can beginning authors take from this to improve their own craft and find their stories?

Faulkner said that anyone who lives past the age of nine has gathered enough material to write stories for the rest of their lives, and there’s more than a scintilla of truth in that; everything is so much larger to a child, so bigger-than-life, that it all makes a deep impression. If you can hold onto that, if you can carry those giant experiences and people from your childhood into your adult years, you begin to see how they fit into a much larger picture, and observing life, listening to music, watching a great film, reading an exceptional short story or novel or biography, [those experiences] all becomes sections of a jigsaw puzzle that the individual writer can assemble, disassemble, and re-assemble however he wants, and as many times as he wants. In less grandiose terms: Pay Attention to Everything whenever the chance presents itself. And if there’s a lesson that can be taken from this, it was crystallized to perfection by William Goldman, from his novel The Color of Light: “Life is material; you just have to live long enough to figure out how to use it.” (I have that on a card that hangs over my computer; better advice I’ve never encountered.)

How many stages does your work go through before you send it off to a publisher? How much of your time is spent writing the first draft, and how much time is spent in revision? What sort of revisions do you do?

For short stories, I can usually get it in three passes, sometimes two if the Muse is in a charitable mood. (If I can’t get a story by the fourth pass, that’s the multiverse’s way of telling me that I’m not ready to write it just yet, and I listen. One story of mine, “At Eternity’s Gate,” took me 20 years and probably a dozen revisions to get right.) I spend, on average, 2 – 4 days on a first draft; I don’t stop to correct spelling, punctuation, formatting, any of it: I plow through from beginning to end as quickly as possible. You cannot create that kind of momentum over the course of several days; it has to be spilled out in the first 48 hours or else it will come across as forced, artificial. Once the first draft is done, I leave the story alone for a day, then go back and fix the technical problems that I ignored the first time through, and then – then comes my favorite part: the fine-tuning, looking for unnecessary wordiness, searching for passages of narrative or dialogue that jump out at me and say, “See how wonderful we are?” And I immediately cut them. The late J.N. Williamson – a great mentor and second father to me – always insisted (rightfully so) that there was no short story that couldn’t stand to lose 500 words; and once those 500 words were trimmed, trim 250 more. I always keep that in mind with short stories: whatever I’m working on is going to lose at least 750 words when the pruning begins.

From typing Word One of the first draft until delivery to the publisher (still using the short story as my prime example) takes between 5 – 10 days, double that if it’s a piece between 10, 000 – 20,000 words. Beyond that, we’re talking a minimum of 3 months. For novels, 6 – 9 months. (I always remember something Stephen King said: “Any writer who can’t complete a novel in a year is just dicking around.”)

As a guest lecturer at this summer’s Odyssey Workshop, you’ll be lecturing, workshopping, and meeting individually with students. What do you think is the most important advice you can give to developing writers?

It’s nothing personal. When one offers constructive criticism – and by that I mean pointing out what works as well as what doesn’t – it is, in no uncertain terms, an analysis of the story, not an attack on that particular writer’s talent, skill, or imagination. Park the defensiveness outside the door and allow yourself to be open-minded to everything your fellow writers bring to the discussion, regardless of how stuffed full of wild blueberry muffins it may initially sound. Sometimes the best suggestions are the craziest. You just have to pay attention and take it all in; more pieces for your interior jigsaw puzzle. Life is material. And the criticism you’ll receive is nothing personal.

You have edited several collections of fiction, including Five Strokes of Midnight, which won you two Bram Stoker Awards, the first as editor and the second for “Afterwards, There Will Be a Hallway,” a novella in the same collection. What criteria do you use when selecting stories to include in your anthologies?

For the record, I was not originally a co-editor for either anthology; I was first a contributor, and was then asked if I would come onboard as a co-editor. I actually had to argue with publisher Barry Hoffman when I wanted to withdraw my story from Masques 5 because I was co-editor. (I lost the argument.) With Masques 5, Jerry Williamson’s rapidly deteriorating health got the better of him, and he called me one day and asked me if I would take over the project for him. Of course I said yes. Finishing that anthology was one of the most frustrating and exhilarating experiences of my life. Having been an avid reader of the series for years (and having previously appeared in the third volume), I knew the type of story Jerry always looked for – what he used to call the “mix’em-ups”: stories that encompassed elements of several genres but left the reader with a chill in their core. The response I received from several writers for contributions was extraordinary: Clive Barker gave me two original paintings to use as the cover and frontice piece; Ray Bradbury, Ed Gorman, Tom Monteleone, and Richard Matheson gave me stories for the book, all of them wanting to make it a grand volume for Jerry. Jerry was deeply moved by their generosity – I remember him saying, “I didn’t think Clive Barker even knew who I was!” with these joyous tears in his eyes. He lived long enough to see the final Table of Contents but, much to my regret, not the final product. I like to think he would have given it the Williamson seal of approval. I insisted that the cover said “Edited by J.N. Williamson.” You don’t find my co-credit until you open the book.

Five Strokes to Midnight fell into place much the same way. Hank Schwable wanted to do an anthology wherein 5 different writers chose their own theme and wrote 20, 000 words, be it in 2 stories, or 3, or 4. He wasn’t quite sure how to go about soliciting material and knew that I’d completed Masques 5, so he called me up and asked me some questions; I told him that I’d bet Chris Golden would respond positively to a project like this and – voila! – I became co-editor. Deborah LeBlanc was quick to join the fray, as was the marvelous Tom Piccirilli, which left the fifth slot open. I said to Hank, “Hey,I’m co-editor and have stories in here, and I’m not walking up to that particular chopping block alone. You take the fifth slot. Which he did. And I think we produced an excellent collection – all of Tom Pic’s stories were picked up for various Year’s Best anthologies, several stories made Ellen Datlow’s Recommended Reading list, and – as you pointed out – my novella and the collection itself took home Stoker awards, as well as garnering a World Fantasy Award nomination that same year. So we seemed to have gotten it right.

Criteria? Write with conviction, from the burning core, and make it ring of authenticity. Give me characters – flesh-and-blood, fully three-dimensional human beings – who are going to gain my sympathy, and then put us through the emotional ringer, be it Jack Ketchum-visceral or Robert Aickman-cerebral. Move me in some way. Stay true to your own narrative voice. And remember that, in the end, it’s the story, not you, which assumes final control. Never fight it when the story makes an organic shift in direction or tone; you’ll always lose.


For more information about Odyssey, its graduates and instructors, please visit our website at http://www.odysseyworkshop.org.

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