A Conversation with Bracken MacLeod

I first met Bracken MacLeod at Necon in 2011. After a day of just noticing this semi-scary tattooed bald man with a ferocious goatee, he endeared himself to me with his untethered audacity…making fun at the newly dead Amy Winehouse within minutes of the announcement she had passed. I saw hearts.

So before we delve into the shortish interview he was gracious enough to allow me to conduct, let me tell you what I have learned of the man in the years since Necon. His name is Bracken…that’s exactly like the terrifying sea monster loosed by the Gods in Clash of the Titans, but with a B. B for Badass! He is a very smart and very humble man, a father, husband and former lawyer. He also writes gripping fiction, not always horror but quite often visceral and dark. I’d been lucky enough to read several shorts before Mountain Home arrived at Shiney Acres and I could already count myself a fan. Mountain Home cemented it.

With no further dithering, let’s talk with Mr. MacLeod…

John Boden: I just reviewed your debut novella, Mountain Home, and I wanted to jump right in to discussing it. One of the reasons this novella works on such a personal and chilling level, is that it could have been plucked straight from the headlines. A week doesn’t go by where there isn’t some sort of gun violence, rampage…or some horrific event. Was there one thing in particular that inspired this tale?

Bracken MacLeod: Novella? They all can’t be Under The Dome. You’re right though, Mountain Home isn’t what the big publishers call “marketable length,” even though at fifty-six thousand words, it’s technically a novel. Part of what gave me the freedom to keep it that tight was a conversation I had with one of my literary heroes, John Skipp (who also told me I should never name drop), about a project he was putting together at the time. He was getting ready to launch a line of short novels designed to be all chiller, no filler. Books you could read in the time it took to watch a (long) feature film. I took that to heart, cut all of the padding, and I think that’s what made the rhythm and pacing of this story pop the way it does. But that’s not an answer to your question.

I find real world violence much more frightening than any monster or demon someone can dream up. Right before I started this book, Anders Brevik shot up that summer camp in Norway. I wasn’t inspired by that, but I can’t say that it wasn’t in the back of my mind when I sat down to write. I wanted to tell a locked room story and needed a way to keep a disparate group of people together and under constant stress. Given that in the last thirty years there have been sixty-two different mass shootings in America, it seemed like the most plausible scenario—and one that scares me a whole hell of a lot.

JB: So you were aiming at Ravenous Shadows novella series with this? It would have fit in with that line so well. Shame that sort of went Kaput! But yeah, I’ll say again, your characters in here are so vivid and strong. Some despicable and others heroic. That’s not an easy thing to pull off. How did you manage it? Are any of them based on people or composites of people you know?

BM: An agent once asked me about a project I was working on, “Who are these people and what do they want?” I was stumped. I realized that was probably the most important part of any story irrespective of plot, genre, or length (and that’s why that book wasn’t working). Since then, I’ve made it a habit to do a complete personality/history sketch for every major character in a piece. What they drive, their least favorite music, whether they smoke, etc. Not all that information gets used, but it helps me understand what kind of choices they’d make and why. I think that’s why a lot of people sympathize with my antagonist, Joanie, even though she’s doing horrible things. She had to be a real person with a real reason for breaking the way she does for me to write her convincingly. I didn’t want to disrespect the reader’s intelligence or the real people serving in our armed forces by just making her a kill-crazy psycho. I needed to know why she’d do these horrible things and how she feels about them.

That said, I try not to draw too much from people I know. Some of Beau’s more annoying traits are cribbed from several bad bosses I’ve had, but for the most part all of the characters are original creations, except one. Leonard is very loosely based on a friend of mine who I hadn’t seen in a long time. He was murdered a few years ago and I wanted to be able to spend a little more time with him than I got to in real life. My friend was exactly the kind of guy who’d have Lyn’s back both on the job and under pressure.

JB: I happen to know you are an avid music fan, do you listen to music while you write? How important is it to your creative process?

BM: It’s not essential, but I find I can create more easily if I have a beat. I try to find a particular artist or album that embodies the tone and rhythm of what I’m working on and write to that exclusively. For Mountain Home it was Swallow The Sun’s Ghosts of Loss. Sometimes a single song propels a chapter or a short story and I put that one repeat for a few hours while I work. My wife hates it when I do that.

JB: Who or what inspired you to “take up the pen,” so to speak? I know you started out as a lawyer…and I can somehow believe that writing dark fiction would be better than that. Heh.

BM: I’ve been writing as long as I can remember. I think the first thing I ever put down on paper was a splatterpunk-style Christmas story about Santa Claus in a fight with Giger’s Alien. I’ve been writing horror since I was in single digits. Back then, they just encouraged my mother to stop letting me stay up to watch scary movies on cable. Today, I think I’d be suspended and led out of school in handcuffs.

Lawyering was a diversion—what I consider a lost decade—from writing. But it did teach me about crafting a compelling story. A jury doesn’t want a collection of facts and logical syllogisms. They want a narrative with a beginning, middle, and end. If you can give them a villain and someone to root for (ideally, your client), even better. So it wasn’t a complete waste of time, but I didn’t write fiction for about ten years while I did it. I’m MUCH happier now.

As far as literary/genre influences go, however, I think it was reading Andrew Vachss, Cormac McCarthy, and Jack Ketchum that taught me how to write. Those are the guys who gave me permission to not hold back and be honest about what’s happening to the characters in the story.

JB: How do you feel about the current state of horror? Small press seems to be experiencing a rebirth of sorts and horror seems to be blooming back in its popularity. We also have the influx of self-published material. What do you think about it all?

BM: I didn’t read in genre pretty much the whole time I was doing the trial lawyer gig. I went down into the billable hour abyss with Skipp and Spector, Clive Barker, and early Dan Simmons behind me and when I emerged, Kealan Patrick Burke, Adam Cesare, and John Mantooth were tearing the place up along with a whole bunch of others. I think small press publishers like ChiZine, Samhain Publishing, and Books of the Dead Press (my publisher, natch!) are putting out stuff that ought to make the big publishing dogs tuck their tails between their legs and run (if those big dogs had any shame, that is). The real quality in genre today is found with the small publishers and writers who are trying to really scare us rather than recreate their last big success.

That said, I’m not as sanguine about self-published books—what I guess we’re calling “indie” these days. I liked David Wellington’s zombie trilogy when he first put it out as a serial novel on his blog. But since Amazon has democratized self-publishing, it’s like escaping Shawshank Prison to find something good like that. You chip away chip away chip away and then you still have to swim through a tunnel of shit before the rain will wash you clean. I don’t think I’d be a Wellington fan if he just threw Monster Island up on Amazon now. Excepting Kealan Patrick Burke, I can’t remember the last time I just stumbled across a favorite writer without their book being recommended or coming from a really trusted source like Shock Totem.

JB: What is next for you? I know you are always writing and I am privy to a few projects that you have on simmer…anything you’d care to reveal at this time?

BM: Right now I’m working on a novella that I’ve tentatively titled God Bless All the Dead Kids. It’s about loss, grief, and undead children. So, you know, real upbeat stuff like you’d expect from me. That probably won’t be out until sometime in 2014, however. After that, I have plans for another full-length novel about tattooing, human trafficking, and responsibility. For anyone who’s looking for something sooner, closer to the end of the year I have a few short stories coming out in anthologies like Shotgun Honey’s Both Barrels: Reloaded, Grey Matter Press’ Ominous Realities, and Shroud Publishing’s Anthology Year Two: Inner Demons Out.

JB: Sounds like you’re a busy man…and all the more impressive as I know you’re a stay-at-home dad and you don’t deprive that boy of yours of the attention he craves. Where do you work writing in? You get too much accomplished to just be waiting for naptime.

BM: I write as much as I can when I can. Mornings, sometimes at night (but I’m usually no good to anyone after cocktail hour begins). Naptime is huge, and I’m lucky because my son still takes long ones. My wife also suggested he go to day care two days a week so that I had at least two full days to write without distraction. Without my family’s support, I couldn’t get a word on paper. Anyone who likes my work should thank my wife.

JB: I want to thank you for taking the time to field some questions. And for being such a swell guy. Anything on your mind, I’ll give you a “soapbox moment”…

BM: Thanks, John! The swelling is mutual. Wait. That sounded better in my head.

It’s funny you should end the interview like this. When I was practicing, I used to advise my clients that if they were ever asked, “Is there anything you’d like to add?” they should always answer, “No.” Being under oath is no time to riff or editorialize. But since I’m not under oath, I’d like to say…wait, where are you going?

About John Boden

Lives in the shadow of Three Mile Island. Likes Diet Pepsi, fried food and truck-drivin' music. Has ferocious sideburns and a heart of gold.
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