Interview: July 25, 2008
July 25, 2008
Though established as an author and editor of horror and supernatural fiction, Brandon Massey tries his hand at traditional thrillers with his latest release, DON'T EVER TELL.
In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Joe Hartlaub, Massey explains why he chose to experiment with a new genre and describes what event in his own life partly inspired the plot of his current book. He also shares details about the real island off the coast of Georgia after which his fictional setting is modeled, weighs the pros and cons of writing novels over short stories, and discusses his future career goals and plans to continue penning suspense thrillers.
Bookreporter.com: The plot of DON'T EVER TELL involves an ex-cop, imprisoned for the attempted murder of his wife, who escapes and goes after her. She, in turn, has a new life and husband in another city. What inspired this story?
Brandon Massey: At the time I conceived the story, I had recently married, much like Joshua, Rachel's new husband in the book. (No, my wife has never been married to a psychotic ex-cop, thank God!) But I started thinking: what if a guy marries the woman of his dreams, the love of his life, and then finds out that she's kept major secrets from him? What would he do? Would he leave her, or stay? And on the flip side, what would she do once she realizes that her hidden past has begun to unravel? Would she tell him the truth, or not?
I've often found that major life events provide an excellent springboard for fiction. Birth, marriage, divorce, death, relocating to a new city...life-changing circumstances such as these are rich with potential conflict that you can spin into a compelling story.
BRC: DON'T EVER TELL is a different type of novel for you. Most of your previous work --- both of your own novels and the original anthologies you have edited --- has been in the horror and supernatural genres. While still firmly rooted in the thriller genre, DON'T EVER TELL is very much of this world. What made you decide to change direction in your writing?
BM: After writing four novels and numerous pieces of short fiction that explored the conventions of horror and the supernatural --- ghosts, haunted houses, vampires, psychic talents, werewolves and so forth --- I was itching to try something new. To write a story that could really happen, something chilling, yet utterly authentic.
The thing about supernatural threats --- let's take vampires, for example --- is that most of us don't really believe that they exist. When we read a vampire novel, we have to suspend our disbelief, to an extreme degree, in order to become fully immersed in the story. That's all fine and good, I enjoy suspending my disbelief as much as the next guy... but I get a special thrill when I read a book that takes place in the real world, peopled with characters I recognize, who face truly plausible dangers. Such stories, if done well, can linger in the mind long after you've turned the last page. I wanted to tackle the challenge of writing such a novel.
BRC: The conclusion of DON'T EVER TELL --- which is really electrifying, by the way --- is set on Hyde Island, a fictional barrier island off the coast of Georgia. It seemed as if you modeled Hyde Island as an opposing image of Jekyll Island, and I really enjoyed the very subtle way that you changed Jekyll Island to adapt to your purposes. Did we catch the joke, and was there any particular catalyst that caused you to do this?
BM: Yes, I deliberately named it Hyde Island as a little play on Jekyll Island, but what I created is actually closely modeled on Sapelo Island, another barrier island off the Georgia coast, which happens to have a prominent Gullah culture --- the Gullahs being the blacks who worked the barrier island plantations during slavery times and remained there after Emancipation, using the isolation to keep much of their original West African culture, language and customs intact. I'd long been interested in Gullah culture (it's very similar to Geechee, a group located on the barrier islands of South Carolina) and wanted to incorporate it into a book.
BRC: We all have different types of friends who fulfill different purposes for us. The implicit differences --- and similarities --- among Joshua's friends made for one of the more enjoyable sub-contexts of the book. Did you use any of your own friends as models for Joshua's in DON'T EVER TELL or share with us how you created these characters?
BM: I didn't use any of my friends specifically or deliberately, but I suspect every character I've ever created is an amalgam of individuals I've encountered at various times in my life. For this book, I worked to create characters who would serve meaningful roles in the story, and hopefully be colorful and interesting as well.
BRC: How does the final book differ from your first draft? Were there any significant character or plot changes?
BM: The pace of the published novel moves a lot more rapidly than it did in the first draft. That's an element that's key to a thriller, in my opinion --- a swift pace. It's difficult to achieve that effect in a first draft, which necessitates rewriting.
I also worked to deepen the character development by adding brief yet poignant flashbacks of Rachel's "previous" life. I think it gave the story more resonance.
Of course, I made probably a million other changes in regard to the prose: little details of dialogue, description, character and so on. Good writing, as writers often say, is all about rewriting.
BRC: How did you come to develop an affinity for writing, and reading? Did you have a model in your family, or at your schools?
BM: I was raised in a household where reading was strongly encouraged. My mom kept books everywhere. I fell into reading at an early age, found that I actually enjoyed English classes in school, and it grew from there. I didn't personally know any writers, in my family or otherwise. All I knew was that I loved reading, loved listening to the elders in my family tell colorful stories about "the good old days," and felt very comfortable expressing myself via the written word.
By the time I was a sophomore in high school, I decided that I wanted to pursue writing as a career.
BRC: What led you to writing, and editing, as a vocation?
BM: The writing grew naturally out of my lifelong love of reading, language and stories. Probably the editing, too, actually. I think a good editor is able to recognize quality writing, and this kind of insight comes only from extensive exposure to fiction, good and bad.
BRC: There was a cinematic viewpoint to DON'T EVER TELL that was very intriguing. I could almost see it, reel by reel, in my head while I was reading it. Did you perhaps originally conceive the book as a film project as you were writing it?
BM: I'm pleased that you found the book to be cinematic, but I never conceived of it as a film project, in any formal sense. Quite honestly, with every story I write, I see it unfolding as a movie in my imagination. I often ask myself when writing how this play out if it were a film. And I try to bring that same visual orientation to my prose.
BRC: In addition to several full-length novels, including DON'T EVER TELL, you have also written a number of short stories collected in TWISTED TALES, and edited Dark Dreams, three volumes of original horror short stories. Which do you prefer --- writing short stories or novels? What are the advantages and disadvantages of each? And will you be editing any additional volumes of Dark Dreams?
BM: Personally, I prefer novels. By mere virtue of their length, they give me an opportunity to fully explore the characters, the theme, the background. Short stories are fun and challenging, but they are... well, short. Everything is greatly compressed.
With that said, most ideas are best suited to one form. Not every idea can or should be developed into a novel, and vice versa.
I don't plan on editing any more Dark Dreams anthologies. We've done three, all of which were well received and of which I'm quite proud. I think we'll leave it at that.
BRC: One of the hardest things about writing for a living, whether part time or full time, is adhering to a work schedule. What sort of schedule do you have? Do you follow a similar schedule when you are editing an anthology?
BM: My schedule changes constantly based on the work that needs to be done --- and how much time I have to do it! But generally, when I'm writing a novel, I aim to work at a consistent pace, which for me means putting in four to six hours a day of intense writing, at least five days a week.
The editing of the anthologies was much easier. We had an open call for submissions for each book, so I would spend a couple of hours each evening reading the stories that had come in, setting aside those that failed to grab me in the first few pages --- this weeded out most of them. When I came across a gem of a story, I would read it over a few times, making notes to send to the author, but as a rule I selected only those stories that were in pretty solid shape from the beginning. In that regard, I suppose I was much like the editors at publishing companies these days. Note to aspiring writers reading this: make sure your story is as close to perfect as possible before you send it out the door!
BRC: What authors, of any genre, have influenced you? Who were the first authors you enjoyed as a child, and later?
BM: Some of the earliest authors I recall enjoying were Dr. Seuss (okay, I'm going way back!) and books like WHERE THE WILD THINGS ARE by Maurice Sendak, and Madeline L'Engle's A WRINKLE IN TIME. In my teen years, I was a big fan of the Dungeons & Dragons Dragonlance series, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Robert McCammon, Peter Straub, Clive Barker --- lots of horror and suspense. I remember those years with so much nostalgia --- discovering those authors' works was like entering a new world, and had a strong influence on my work.
These days, my reading is all across the board, but some of my favorites are Walter Mosley, F. Paul Wilson, James Lee Burke and Tananarive Due.
BRC: What would you be doing if you were not writing?
BM: I would probably be an entrepreneur of some kind. My family is full of business owners --- my grandfather had a pretty successful courier firm, back in the day --- and I imagine that the entrepreneurial bug would have bitten me by now.
BRC: What goals for your writing career have you achieved thus far? And what milestones do you want to reach in the future?
BM: My initial career goal was simply to publish a novel with a mainstream publisher. I achieved that goal a few years ago, after years of rejections. With that done, the next goal was to write full-time and do it without starving to death! I've been doing that for four years now, and with luck, and a wife who believes in my work --- and who also happens to have a successful career in Corporate America --- we've managed to avoid starvation.
As far as future milestones I want to reach: How about hitting the New York Times bestseller list? (What writer doesn't want to do that, right?) Actually, I'm already living my dream, earning a living doing something I've wanted to do since I was a teenager. I'd just love to continue developing my skills and gaining new readers.
BRC: What books have you read recently that you would want to recommend to our readers?
BM: BLOOD COLONY by Tananarive Due is an outstanding read --- the third installment in her Immortals series. On my to-be-read pile I have books by Daniel Silva, Stephen L. Carter and Robert Crais.
BRC: What are you working on now? Will you continue to work in the thriller genre, as opposed to the horror and supernatural genres, in the future?
BM: I do plan to keep writing suspense thrillers. I recently completed another thriller that hopefully will see print next summer, and I'm currently kicking around ideas for the next one.