Meet Author Bracken MacLeod!
Truth be told, I don’t even know how to properly pronounce Bracken MacLeod’s increasingly famous surname. That’s okay. It’s yet another upside of sticking with social media, at least for now. You just have to spell it right. (I did; I triple-checked - see his picture? I really want to avoid pissing him off…)
As a writer that reads the work of my peers more for voice than content, Bracken excels on both counts to such a degree that I actually pay attention to the plot. Granted, I’ve only read a few of his short stories, but still, that's a big deal for me. But it really is the way he frames a scene and creates then sustains a foreboding mood that draws me in and keeps me there, no matter how disturbing the story gets.
In this insightful interview, you’ll get a sense of not only his intensity as a writer, but also his warm, generous and kind personality, a seemingly contradictory combination which is actually not too rare in the realms of noir and horror.
I guess nice, successful guys have demons to reckon with, too - preferably via their art, however commercialized for broader consumption. That’s what makes Bracken MacLeod, along with his well-drawn characters and uniquely gripping scenarios, so accessible to so many readers. And as a writer, I completely relate to his authentically independent nature.
You are a respected name in a popular and crowded genre, namely horror. How do you manage to distinguish your work as both author and marketer considering fickle reader expectations and an apparently endless field of competitors?
Ha! Way to start with a tough question right out of the gate, Will. You don’t mess around.
First, I don’t have competitors. I have friends, colleagues, and then there are other writers who I don’t know (yet). But no one’s success is a failure for me. I’m not in second place because I refuse to race against anyone but myself.
On the topic of marketing, the hard lesson to learn is that for most authors, word of mouth is everything. Sure, Stephen King and James Patterson will sell books, no matter what; they don’t need it. But writers like you and me have got to hustle. We need people to tell their friends, “You’ve gotta read THIS FUCKING BOOK!” Everyone hopes that they can just write good stuff, and hopefully the whisper stream will carry their name along based on its own merit. But that’s not enough. Part of the hustle is being good at social media too. Marketing is a requirement for writers, even when you’re publishing with Big Five legacy houses. I know that gets a lot of writers down because it’s tough, especially for a self-selecting group of people for whom solitude is a comfort and standing up and shouting “Hey, look at me” is the scariest thing imaginable. But it’s reality. And it’s made more difficult because the way you reach people changes with each platform. I’m pretty good at Facebook; I’m absolute dogshit at Twitter.
Some people think that being confrontational or controversial is a workable social media strategy. But both readers and your colleagues get fatigued by that shit, and at some point, if you really misstep, there might be no coming back from it. I think there’s more longevity in being interesting and affable, but that takes more work than shitposting and it’s hard to fake over the long term. The payoff is bigger though. People won’t feel bad buying your book, Will, because you’re a cool guy. And if they like the book, they might even tell someone. And that’s how guys like you and me get read by more people than our mothers.
There’s a saying that goes, if a person likes what you do, they might tell a friend, but if they hate you, they’ll tell fifty. I’d rather have a person like me, like what I do, and feel like telling fifty people. That takes work. Marketing is a marathon, not a sprint.
I’ll get off my soapbox now.
Given the escalating real life terrors engulfing society and threatening humanity these days, do you see (or are you indulging/instigating) any particular trends in modern horror - any and all mediums - as an artistic response to this universal sense of dread?
Last summer I was on a panel with a couple of friends who said they thought we were about to see a big resurgence in post-apocalyptic and dystopian stories in response to things like Donald Trump and the Black Lives Matter movement. I think they’re half right. The current state of the world and society is driving people’s interests in fiction, but the dystopian and post-apocalyptic markets have been run into the ground in the last decade. Cinema is a good bellwether here. Get Out, It Follows, and The Belko Experiment all point the way. Social horror (or “social thrillers” now that Get Out is an Oscar contender and we can’t call it horror) is the thing looming on the horizon. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists just re-set The Doomsday Clock to two minutes to midnight and we’re still in the nascent stages of even coming up with a plan to fix problems that movements like Black Lives Matter and #MeToo have brought to people’s attention. Who’s the next boogeyman hiding in the dark. WE are the next boogeyman hiding in the dark.
Or, I don’t know, maybe Kaiju. Trends are weird like that. I’m letting my money ride on social thrillers.
Speaking of sudden, violent death, there’s been a lot of grumbling in the online literary community about the “demise” of the short story as a viable literary format. Your thoughts?
Yeah, I don’t see us erecting a headstone to the short story any time soon. Sure, for casual readers, the popularity of the short story has been on the decline for a while. They’re hard work. Every twenty to fifty pages you have to do all the heavy lifting of figuring out who these people are, where they live, and what the problems facing them are. It’s easier to pick up book one in a twelve book series, do that labor once, and then let it ride for the next 10,000 pages.
On the other hand, I think there’s an audience of people, readers and writers alike, who love shorts. They love having a palate cleanser between novels, or even reading an entire anthology or single author collection because there’s something magic about feeling that hook sink in after only a few pages. Those people are real music lovers. They want to hear songs as well as symphonies. That’s where the short story market is. It’s not dead. Not as long as we’ve got great editors like Ellen Datlow and Lawrence Block doing cool things. There might be fewer big anthos, and magazines are going to pop up and die individually, but the collective heart will keep beating. There’s a reason legacy publishers still put out anthologies, and it’s not because people in suits are really interested in art for its own sake. Somebody’s buying them.
What are your influences, literary and otherwise?
My influence map is big. Writers like Cormac McCarthy, Andrew Vachss, Yukio Mishima, Joyce Carol Oates, and Jack Ketchum are just some of the people I learned from. I could go on and on, but those are the writers I always go back to when the well is dry. Ketchum stands at the top of the pile. I’ve been thinking a lot about him in the last few days since he died. He wasn’t just a friend, but he’s a kind of literary father to me. You don’t have to look with a microscope to find his DNA in my work. It’s right there in the way my books smile and snarl. Whenever we talked about writing, even if we differed about outlining versus discovery or something else, we always agreed that that if you want a reader to feel something when they read it, you have to feel that same something at the keyboard when you write it. He taught me how to not look away.
I’m influenced by movies too. I’m leery of any writer who says they aren’t (just like I don’t trust writers who say they don’t read). David Cronenberg is huge influence on me. The intimacy of his work is powerful. And even though the tone of a lot of his work is kind of cold (think about how aloof Dead Ringers and Crash are, for instance). What his characters struggle with and suffer through is as hot and urgent as a fresh cut.
What’s next for you?
I just wrote The End on a home invasion thriller I’m calling Closing Costs. It’s about a couple who buy a house from a man who isn’t ready to give it up. They collide in a way that could cost all of them everything. In a broad brush way, it’s about all those little expenses that aren’t part of the asking price and can sink the deal if you aren’t prepared for them. Life is full of those little hidden expenses that add up. It’s also about male entitlement and social violence too. This one’s one of my “secular” thrillers more like Mountain Home or White Knight than either Stranded or Come to Dust. I hope it lives up to what people expect from my work. I always aim for all thriller, no filler.
Keep preaching it, brother!
PHOTO: BRACKEN MACLEOD