Interview: August 28, 2009
August 28, 2009
Brandon Massey is the author of 11 books, which range in genre from short stories and suspense thrillers to horror and supernatural fiction. In this interview with Bookreporter.com's Joe Hartlaub, Massey discusses what separates his latest thriller, CORNERED, from his previous efforts and elaborates on one of the recurring themes of his work. He also explains why he chose to return to his "day" job, names his personal and professional influences, and reveals the most difficult aspect of his writing process.
Bookreporter.com: I read CORNERED in one sitting. One reason was the characters --- Corey Webb and the Reverend Otis Trice particularly resonated with me. Webb is a guy who was facing a future in Detroit that few of us would like to imagine. Thanks to the intervention of two people --- his Grandmother Louise and Reverend Otis --- as well as his own hard work and fortitude, he rises above his past and grabs a hold of the ring, acquiring a beautiful family and successful business. Within a few pages of the beginning of CORNERED, it all threatens to come crashing down when a past secret catches up with him and threatens his family and business. This story --- and Webb himself --- rang so true that when I finished reading the book, I could almost see him standing there in the room. Is this a true story, somewhat changed and thinly disguised, that you heard about? Or did it spring entirely from your imagination? And if the latter, how did it come about?
Brandon Massey: Thanks for the wonderful feedback. I really wanted this book to have a true-to-life feel, so your comments are quite gratifying.
I have to confess, though, that the story leaped entirely from my imagination. I've never been in Corey's situation (thank goodness). However, like most of us, I certainly know how it feels to see mistakes I've made in the past come back to haunt me in the present. Such experiences can serve as the seeds of compelling fiction.
Further, most of my stories deal with families in jeopardy. A family is the fundamental unit of a person's life; it shapes how we view the world, and the values that we hold dear. By placing someone's family in danger, you can push them to the limit…which, of course, makes a suspenseful read.
BRC: I also was impressed with Reverend Otis. He only makes a couple of appearances in CORNERED, but his presence seems to hover, just out of sight, on each and every page throughout the book. He was obviously meant to be an important figure in Webb’s life. How difficult was it to limit him to minor character status, in terms of his actual presence here, yet have him resonate to the extent that he does throughout the book?
BM: I wanted Otis to be a part of the story because I sensed that Corey needed a father figure, at some point in his life. When Corey was younger, Otis helped him shape his values and develop his aspirations. His influence was vital to Corey turning his life around.
At the same time, I felt that Reverend Otis would have more impact if he were onstage for only brief, memorable moments.
BRC: One of the most striking passages for me concerned Reverend Otis counseling Webb about the importance of forgiveness and absolution. I underlined his words in the book and later wrote them down. What inspired that passage for you? Is there a Reverend Otis in your life?
BM: A longtime family friend is the pastor of a small church here in Georgia. He has a particular knack for delivering quotable, highly meaningful messages during ordinary conversation. Although he and Reverend Otis are not exactly alike, he was certainly my inspiration for the character.
BRC: Leon Sharpe, the character from Webb’s past, and Billy, Leon’s partner, are as frightening a pair as one is liable to encounter in fiction. Sharpe, in particular, transforms CORNERED to some extent into a brilliant cautionary tale about the long-term evil of bad companions. Billy, on the other hand, is the living embodiment of the reason why you should never talk to strangers. How did you go about developing those two bad actors?
BM: I think Leon and Billy are the classic criminal pair that we've seen before in fiction: one guy is a quick-witted psychopath, the "brains" of the duo; the other is physically intimidating --- "the brawn" --- if you will, and completely controlled by his smarter, manipulative accomplice. I wanted to put my own spin on these conventional bad guy characters.
Leon Sharpe, in particular, was fun to write. He's a guy who's been a criminal for virtually his entire life, but he has tremendous intelligence that could have taken him quite far if he had chosen a legit career path. I've personally known several guys just like him. Most of us probably do, which is what makes him so believable.
BRC: The book’s pacing kept me reading. It was perfect, from Leon unexpectedly showing up to the climactic --- and very satisfying --- ending where a long-delayed justice is finally served up. Did you plot and outline CORNERED before you started writing? Or did you just start writing it with only a vague idea as to where you were going?
BM: I did create an outline for this book because I was on a tight deadline. I like to know where I'm headed when I sit down to write. But I do give myself the freedom to veer away from the outline, if inspiration strikes.
BRC: If the evil of bad companions is one of the themes, so is the benevolent influence of good people. Who has influenced you in your life, and in your writing? Are there any authors who have influenced your work or your career, either personally or professionally?
BM: In my personal life, my grandfather was a powerful influence on me. He was more like my father than a grandparent. Although he passed on almost 20 years ago, his influence lives on in my life. He was a decent, honorable man, generous to a fault. I was fortunate to have him as a role model when I was younger.
Professionally, I owe a lot to Dean Koontz. Beyond the considerable influence of his amazing body of work, Dean actually read a draft of my first novel, years ago, and was kind enough to give me some insightful feedback that I'm convinced saved me at least 10 years of trial and error. I've never forgotten his generosity.
BRC: What, if anything, did you do differently while writing CORNERED? Did you think of it as being your strongest work while you were writing it? And which, of all of your novels and short stories, do you consider to be your favorite?
BM: I think CORNERED is definitely the most fast-paced book that I've ever written. It's the one book where I made a focused effort to really keep my foot on the accelerator from page one to the very end. I want people to read the book in one sitting (which you did!).
I don't have any particular favorite book of mine, though. I love all of them, for different reasons.
BRC: You are almost equally as well known for your short stories as you are for your novels. Do you prefer writing one over the other? What are the advantages and disadvantages between writing a short story or novella, and a longer work?
BM: I enjoy both short stories and novels equally, although I think short stories can be harder to write. A short story requires a really strong central idea, or it doesn't work. But you can write an entire novel based on just a few decent ideas (not that I recommend this!) and your character development and pacing can carry the day.
The main downside to writing short stories is that the paying market for them has almost completely dried up. Readers are geared toward the longer works, which I think is unfortunate, because short stories offer a lot of value when done well.
BRC: Have you ever considered writing an ongoing series? And are there any characters from either your past novels or short fiction who you would like to revisit in a future work?
BM: I've considered writing a sequel to DARK CORNER, my second novel. It's a thriller about vampires in the South, and has a number of colorful characters that might work in a series format. And of course, readers seem to love vampires these days, too. We'll see what the future brings.
BRC: If you weren’t writing for a living, what do you think you would be doing?
BM: Actually, I don't write for a living any more. I was a full-time writer for five years, and it was fulfilling, but I missed the social interaction that comes with a regular day job. So I went back into my IT career.
The funny thing is that my day job is highly technical --- I think of it as a "left brain" job. But when I'm writing, I get to use my creative side, my "right brain," if you will. It's a very satisfying approach for me.
BRC: A number of our readers are also writers. How did you begin your career? Is there anything you did at the beginning that you now wish you had done differently? And is there anything you did that you are now, in hindsight, extremely pleased that you did?
BM: I started out by self-publishing my first novel, THUNDERLAND. Through luck and sheer hard work, I managed to sell a few thousand copies and attract the attention of a large publisher.
In hindsight, though, I think I probably spent too much time writing and revising my first book. I mean, I spent literally 10 years on that book. Even though I eventually published it, I think my time would have been better spent working on other novels.
I bring this up because I think it's a common mistake for writers to get bogged down in one project. I've met people who've been working on the same book for years. Eventually, they run out of steam, and never finish it.
It's better to set a firm deadline, finish the manuscript on time, and move on to the next one. That way, you build momentum, get work circulating in the market, and you keep learning.
As far as something that I'm pleased I did? I married the right woman. A supportive spouse can help you survive all of the trials and tribulations you'll undoubtedly experience in your writing career.
BRC: What sort of writing schedule do you maintain? Do you find it difficult to stick to a daily routine, or is it easy for you? And how has your schedule differed, if at all, since you first started writing?
BM: I like to get in two solid hours of writing before I leave for the office. Sometimes (if my brain has any juice left by the end of the day), I'll work in the evenings. And then I manage to carve out several hours on weekends, too.
Ironically, even when I was writing full-time, I probably spent the same amount of time at the keyboard as I do now. I wouldn't say that it's difficult. It's really a matter of establishing a realistic routine, developing the habit. By the time you reach that point, if you don't do your daily writing, you feel as if you're out of sync.
BRC: Do you ever experience writer’s block? If so, how do you work through it? And how do you keep coming up with new ideas?
BM: I've never had writer's block. I have enough ideas to keep me busy for at least the next 10 years. If I want new ideas, it's as easy as walking down the street.
Ideas are everywhere. Getting ideas is easy. Execution --- turning an idea into a strong story --- is the hard part.
BRC: Most writers are also voracious readers. What books have you read in the past year that you would like to recommend to our readers?
BM: I highly recommend the Tennyson Hardwick books, a mystery-suspense series developed by Blair Underwood, Tananarive Due and Steven Barnes. Highly entertaining, well-written novels.
BRC: Since you just published CORNERED, it might seem a little early to ask, but what can we look forward to from Brandon Massey next?
BM: I'm a little superstitious in that I don't like to discuss works-in-progress. But let's just say that I've got something brewing that will hopefully be published next year.
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