Thursday, February 14, 2013

The Lord of Night, by Peter Clines

By Peter Clines
At the very start, it was clear Thom Brannan was destined for greatness.  Born two years after the tragic death of his parents, he entered the world an orphan and was sent to work building knockoff Walkmans in Hong Kong at the age of six weeks.  After rising to middle management at the assembly plant in a record-breaking three years, Thom fled the country and swam to Hawaii, where he was recruited by the U.S. Navy and assigned to their top secret Nautilus project under Captain Nemo.  After years of destroying deep-sea monsters, Atlanteans, and underwater alien bases, Thom retired to enjoy a peaceful life drilling massive holes through the crust of the Earth using giant robots. 

Oh, and he writes books, too.

Okay, there’s a chance I’m stretching the truth slightly.  Thom Brannan writes books, yes, he was actually closer to six years old when he made the swim from Hong Kong to Hawaii.  And the Navy still denies the Atlantis Wars of 1997-2006. 

Past that, this is pretty much all accurate.

In this little series of interviews, the Permuted Press authors are going to interview each other in a round robin/ pub crawl sort of way (the drinking metaphor is deliberate, believe me).  I’m kicking off the thing by interviewing Thom, he interviews someone next time, they interview someone else after that, and so on.

So, here’s Thom Brannan talking about oil rigs, outlines, and the pressure of finishing somebody else’s trilogy.

You’re a big horror fan.  You even have some horror-movie tattoos, yes?  What first got you into horror?

It’s a toss-up between watching Doctor Who and being scared out of my wits by the Zygons, or it was the aftermath of The Exorcist. Maybe it was both?

When I started writing, I just remember the effect they had on me, and that was the kind of visceral reaction I wanted to produce. All of the genres have their own gut-wrench moments, right? When you find out the Maltese Falcon is a phony, or that Sir Percy Blakeney is the Scarlet Pimpernel or that she’s the one who wrote the notebook for him to read. Everything touches you in one way or another. None of those moments compare to the time Kirsty Cotton finds Uncle Frank under her dad’s skin.

I wanted that. (Hellraiser is the movie some of my tattoos come from, yes.)

...they were fresh this day.
You’ve got a pretty unique and interesting job.  A lot of people put in their forty hours a week and try to write where they can, but your schedule’s very different.  Care to explain it to folks?

I work on an offshore drilling rig. Four weeks of seven twelve-hour nights, and then I get four weeks off... even though the travel time comes out of my end, of course. On the rig, I work on electronics and automated systems, as well as cameras, gas detectors, satellite communications, et-freakin’-cetera. I like to say I maintain the drilling robots, and the rig’s eyes, ears, and voice.

How much has this job affected your writing habits?

When I had a desk job, I didn’t have much of a method or schedule. Like you said, I wrote whenever there was time that didn’t take away from the other eight dozen things I wanted to do.

Now I only write when I’m offshore. After I knock off at six a.m., I get some food and soda and sit down to write for two hours, every day without fail, Monday through Friday. I take the weekends for cinema time, so the grey matter can decompress. In this, I was inspired by the late Robert B. Parker, who said he wrote five pages a day no matter what.

The output from that is enough that I don’t have to touch the stuff when I’m home to make deadlines. When I’m at the house, it’s time to put the long sessions at the keyboard away and wear the Daddy Hat. I love the Daddy Hat.

Do you write pretty fast with nothing else there to distract you?  How long does it generally take you to get a first draft done on a book?

It takes a couple of days to get warmed up, but once I'm there, I usually write ten SMF pages a day my first and second week, then up to 15 per day my third and fourth. Then there's all that time off, and it keeps me from burning out, I think.

Pavlov's Dogs had its hitches, because of all the back and forth between us. I wrote from March 26th to May 22nd. We didn't call the first draft complete, with all the changes for the both of us, until maybe early July?

Lords of Night was written the year before from March 3rd to May 6th, and it's about a quarter longer than Pavlov's Dogs. So I guess there's your answer, yeah? Ten to twelve weeks for a first draft, with an inevitable four-week break in the middle.

You’ve worked as an editor on several books.  Did this help you when you sat down to work on your own material?

Hah. I’ve heard people say that such and such a novel was a how-to manual for that genre or whatever, but one of the books I edited was the opposite. I won’t say which, but there was so much wrong with that book and the reviews baffle me.

Being in on the editing of the first two volumes of Cthulhu Unbound allowed some interaction with other authors, and it opened up avenues of conversation about how they do things. I learned a lot doing that.

Jump back a bit.  What was it about the “cautionary tale” book that sat so wrong with you?  The characters?  Dialogue?  Structure?  I know you don’t want to name names or anything, but can you give a better sense of what didn’t work?

The grammar was put together in odd ways sometimes, and the dialog was pretty stiff, but that's what I was there for, right? The narrative followed a very natural course, introducing characters and the incredibly messed-up situation they were in. And there was a lot of action. It was just... derivative. And it was diluted.

If Dawn of the Dead was a packet of Kool-Aid, imagine taking a pitcher of it, copying the flavor using ingredients you bought on the cheap because they've been on the shelf too long, and then fill it to overflowing from your outside water tap. It would be familiar, tasting of the original, but mostly tasting of yuck.

That's probably as clear as I can get.

What’s your usual process as a writer?  Are you a big outliner or do you use notecards?  Or do you just start writing and see where it leads you?

My main output had been short stories, and for those, the main characters take some time to coalesce. After that, I put them in the situation and watch what they do, and most of the time, that’s the story I end up with. Most of the time, the only things I know about the story are where it started and maybe where it ends. I usually have no earthly idea what’s going to happen next until I pick up my pen (or keyboard, lately) and have a go.

This presents hazards. I have, more than once, found myself written into a corner which requires extraordinary gymnastics to get out of, or I have to go back and rewrite things, which I really hate to do. I've let a story lay fallow for months and months because of this.

Now, how did this change when you wrote Pavlov’s Dogs with D.L. Snell?  Was it really different for you, working with a writing partner?

Everything changed. Snell and I are just about polar opposites in our methodology. When we were talking about how it would go, with us tag-teaming the novel, he was talking about pacing and getting the beats just write to keep the poor reader saying, “Alright, just one more chapter.” Plot lines, character development, themes... I was lost, I’m afraid. I'm not as cerebral about it as he is.

The outline for Pavlov’s Dogs was magnificent. It was thorough, in that it told the entire story from beginning to end, but there was enough room in there for me to be inventive and write how I normally do. As a result of that, D.L. was always asking when things would pay off, or who was that and could we kill him? I never had good answers, but the way he kept reminding me kept it in mind for when I needed the threads later.

There’s also the fact that both our names are on the cover. My normal method is to write until I can’t write about it no more. Then I edit. With Snell, it was write, email, email, email, edit edit edit. Then we trade and do it again until the whole manuscript was homogenized. Not Brannan, not Snell, but Brannan & Snell.

Now I make outlines. Very loose, very general outlines, but... there they are. I blame Snell.

How did Pavlov’s Dogs come about, anyway?  Was it an idea one of you brought to the other or something you came up with together?

I was recruited. D.L. had developed the basic idea with Jacob [Kier of Permuted Press] and John Sunseri for a free online serial novel. I don’t know what happened after that, but it went away. And then at a convention, D.L. and Jacob got to talking about it, and I had just finished Z.A. Recht’s Survivors.

Synchronicity struck: D.L. needed somebody who could write quickly, and with a military background so the titular Dogs would be believable. That was me. I was asked, and the idea sounded so goddamn juicy that I couldn’t say no.

The rest of it was D.L. and I going back and forth, swapping ideas, and as the chapters began to pile up, he would read them and make alterations to the back half of the outline to better suit how I’d mangled the first bits.

I meant to ask you about Survivors.  What was it like, picking up Z.A.’s threads and continuing that story?  Was there any pressure or second-guessing?

All of that. The first few days of "writing" were more like me sitting there, my hands hovering over the keyboard, asking myself if I was really going to do this. Then I would go over the notes again, looking for a place to really start. And then I would hover.

There were two things working against me. The first is, I had already tried to write a novel, and I had failed. It was too short, the ending wasn't an ending, and the main plot lines weren't actually tied up where I was finished. It was, in short, a disaster.

The second thing was, I'm a huge fan of the Morningstar Strain. It was my first foray into the more mainstream zombie novel, and it was brilliant. I loved the cinematic quality of it, and globe-spanning size of the story, and the large cast. The books had their warts, but still. They were great. It came as no surprise to find they were among Permuted best-selling novels for years running until the reissue.

So. With all that success peering over my shoulder at all the failure it was sharing hard drive space with, I set out to finish up the trilogy and put a cap on Z.A. Recht's legacy.

No pressure.

I had a lot of material to work from, as well as the vocal support of the fans at the MSS forums. But it was nerve-wracking. Especially after Jacob announced it on his FB page. There were a lot of comments about how it should have been left alone, how the only author that could do it justice was... well, not me.

(Looking at my résumé, I doubt anyone would have pegged me for the guy to get tapped to finish Survivors. It was all short stories in the crime and sci-fi genres, with one werewolf story.)

Once I got started, and the words just came, I stopped second-guessing myself and wrote. By the reviews, there are people who were unhappy with the outcome, but I'm satisfied with it, and so are a lot of other people. I was especially happy with the review from The Guilded Earlobe. He got what I was doing.

Let’s talk about Lords of Night, which came out in October, yes?  What’s it about?

Lords of Night is, at heart, a story about growing up and accepting yourself. It so happens that it's a story about growing up and accepting yourself during the End of Days, where the world has been turned into a dark and desolate place by an ancient evil from the dawn of man's history, and every corpse ever is up and walking around and interested in what you taste like.

The main guy, Jack, is the one doing the growing up, and he's got a quest before him because he's different. He's got something that lets him fight back, and to really use it, he's got to retrieve an artifact that's as old as the Enemy. He's not alone, either. He's backed by what might be the last team of Special Forces operatives on the planet.

Was there a particular idea or event that triggered this story in your mind?

Honestly, I can’t remember. The offer came to write something, and it was a whirlwind after that. I came up with three or four ideas, and my friends helped by mercilessly shooting down all but one of them.

After that, it was so much homage, so little time. Har!

I’m only kind of joking. As the storylines formed in my head, I was well aware of all the outside influences at play, and rather than shy away from that, I embraced the best and made them a part of the novel. I find that's always a concern: Source Amnesia. I guess that's one of the many reasons why it's important to have readers.

You became a dad two years ago, yes?  Has it altered your views on horror to any degree?  Are there all-new awful things mulling in your mind?

There are always awful things in my mind, Pete. It’s why I’m so much fun at parties.

I don’t know how much having my little bundle of terror has changed the way I see horror so much, but I do find myself reacting differently to things, especially stories where children are hurt by their parents or have lost them. I can’t understand child abuse. It’s a despicable thing, and in a world full of real horrors, that stands out.

Everybody asks what are you working on next.  Let me ask you this, instead—where do you want to be ten years from now?  Do you see yourself possibly trying other genres?  Styles?  Is there anything big you feel you might need more clout to tackle?
As for clout, I have another novel that may or may not see the light of day before then, and I would really like to see that adapted into a series of comic books. (Graphic novels, whatever.) The book is my love song to the greats, like Watchmen or Matt Wagner's Grendel, and to have it in the same medium would be something that would keep me warm for a very long time.

Hmm. A decade hence... I've started a series of novels that is my poor-man's answer to both The Dresden Files and the 007 series. (And I've since seen Simon R. Green's Secret Histories series, but I'm going to continue anyway.) In ten years, I hope to have written fifteen of them, and at least the first three adapted to a cartoon series, which will allow me time to work on my great literary dream:

I don't quite have the chops for this yet, but I really want to write a story about Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn in the years directly after the American Civil War. I haven't decided what it's going to be about, or even the tone of the thing, but I know that's what I want to do.

Some days I see them as troubleshooters, working for the U.S. government and investigating crimes and whatnot out in the Wild West, other times as turn-of-the-century Ghostbusters. I can tell you now, it'll be closer to the first one, but the other makes me smile. Either way, it would be something that I would feel comfortable letting my daughter read when she's twelve.

Please tune in next time when Thom gets to wear the funny hat and interviews David Dunwoody, author of Empire, Empire’s End, and The Harvest Cycle.

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