There are many things that could be said about Brian Keene, and many of them, good and bad, are said online every day. However, this is my intro, so you have to put up with some of the good ones. Keene is a hustler. While many authors are busy talking about writing, the man is writing. He’s also one of a handful of individuals that I, along with a plethora of fellow newbies and not so newbies, turn to for advice and heavy doses of truth about the writing/publishing. He’s also a guy with a hell of a platform who uses that to stand up for the little guy and take unprincipled publishers to task. He helps people, and that gets him all my respect. Keene will take down a publisher and then turn around and offer a blurb to a complete unknown. And yeah, Keene is one of the few people I mess with on social media, but that’s only because he has a great sense of humor. Since he has so many things going, I decided to steal some of his time and get him to answer a few questions. He had a lot to say.
GI: When the World Horror Convention came to Austin a few years ago, I tried to get an interview with you for HorrorTalk. That never happened for various reasons, but a lot of people told me that was better because you were an asshole. Later, we had a few conversations at BizarroCon and I quickly learned the opposite was true. What it is about your style/career/face that angers people so much? A lot of cool writers have that bad boy aesthetic going; did you piss some folks off on purpose in order to get that?
BK: (laughs) I don’t know that it’s any one thing. I suspect, rather, it involves several factors.
Publishing—and indeed, the entertainment industry as a whole—can be a refuge for bullies. I’m not saying every editor, critic, publisher is a bully, but they certainly do exist in our field. And I hate bullies. I was bullied by these two guys from first grade through sixth, until I finally had enough. I hit the first one, and was getting my ass kicked by the second one, until a teacher intervened. While we were waiting to talk to the principal, the second bully started crying, worrying about what his father was going to do when he found out his son had started another fight. I told him if he gave me his entire comic book collection, I’d tell the principal I started it. He agreed. The principal didn’t believe a word of it, but no other witnesses were stepping forth, and long story short…those two guys never bothered me again and I amassed the biggest comic book collection in all of sixth grade.
I hate bullies. I’ve never forgotten how it feels to be bullied, to be the underdog, and that has put me at odds with a certain element within our field—usually misogynistic troglodytes or racist assholes or publishers who think contractual terms are more of a suggestion than a legally binding document. At times, I’ve been criticized for “bullying bullies.” If that’s true…well, so be it. I’ll wear that hat. Somebody has to. Experience has taught me it’s the only thing bullies ever respond to.
I think another aspect is success. I’ve been lucky enough to have an enormous amount of success in our field, starting with my first published novel. They say success changes people, and maybe that’s so—but I think what changes is how people react to the person who had success. Folks expect you to help them achieve it, too, and I try to do my best in that regard, but there are only so many hours in a day, you know? People get resentful. They think you aren’t doing everything you can for them. Or they think because of your success, you must have Stephen King money. Nobody has Stephen King money, except for Stephen King. Or they think you got to where you are by some fluke, because they don’t see the twenty years of busting your ass that you put into it.
And I guess the final factor is…yeah, I can be a little cocky. A little brash. Probably more so when I was younger. I think I’ve mellowed with age. And a lot of that perceived arrogance was really just me joking around. I’ve always had a little bit of social anxiety, especially in large crowds. Being a clown helped ease that a bit.
But I still call it like I see it, and I don’t have time to mince words because, again, there are only so many hours in a day. I think some would like me to mince my words a little more? Make them more palatable? But…this industry is full of people blowing smoke up each other’s asses. I’d much rather somebody be honest with me. Smoke and empty accolades aren’t going to help you succeed. They aren’t going to assist you in becoming a better writer or avoiding a bad deal. Only truth does that.
Look, at the end of the day, I’m a father to two boys. One is twenty-five The other is seven. Those are two very different skill sets. My responsibilities to them come before my obligations to anyone else. I do what I can to help, but I also do what I can to maintain my own peace of mind and personal space and responsibilities to my kids. If there are people who don’t understand that or can’t respect it, then those are people I don’t really want in my life anyway.
GI: Asking you about “the” current project is a mistake because you always have more than one thing going, so tell us about the three you’re currently most excited about. The Naughty List time!
BK: Well, THE COMPLEX is about to drop in paperback and digital. Advance reviewers are calling it “my best novel in years” and “a return to form.” I’m not sure why, but I do know that it’s been a long time since I’ve written anything that dark and…mean. It’s a mean, heartless book. That will be followed by PRESSURE this June, coming out in trade hardcover from Macmillan. That’s a much more mainstream novel—a corporate espionage thriller crossed with a monster novel, that was a lot of fun to write, and should be fun to take to the beach. And filming has commenced on THE NAUGHTY LIST, Paul Campion’s adaptation of my short story “The Siqqusim Who Stole Christmas”.
GI: A while ago: “I’m not doing the New York thing again.” Now: “I’m doing the New York thing and have a huge tour coming up.” Sure, you have bills and mouths to feed, but there has to be at least one enjoyable thing about big publishing. What about it do you enjoy?
BK: I enjoy the money. (laughs)
I’m kidding, but in all seriousness, once in a while, you need those big advance checks that only New York has the ability to provide. I’m lucky enough that I don’t have to rely on them. I’ve got an extensive backlist that’s in print and earns decent royalties every month. But yeah, once in a while, an influx to shore up your emergency savings is a nice thing to have.
I like PRESSURE’S protagonist, Carrie. I think she’s far more suited for a mainstream audience than say, my ex-Amish occult detective Levi Stoltzfus or the mutants from URBAN GOTHIC. PRESSURE isn’t a novel I could have published through Deadite or Sinister Grin or even Cemetery Dance or Thunderstorm. It’s a much more mainstream novel, written for people who don’t necessarily read horror novels. So it went to a publisher who publishes books like that.
Plus, I am looking forward to the tour. It’s hard to do an extensive promotional tour like that for an indie book, simply because the vast majority of bookstores don’t stock those indie titles. I’m looking forward to crossing the country and reconnecting with readers again and shaking their hands and thanking them. I’ve always enjoyed that part, and I’ve missed doing it these past few years. I came into this a fan, still consider myself a fan, and it’s nice to meet other fans.
GI: I really want to see The Cage made into a movie. How can we make this happen?
BK: Easy. Invest a minimum of $20,000. I’ll send you a prospectus.
GI: What’s with the guns, man? Are you gonna flip out and take over an unoccupied bird refuge?
BK: (laughs) Well, I had no plans to. No, I enjoy target shooting. I grew up…not poor, but there were a lot of years where what my Dad shot during hunting season helped fill the gap in the groceries so my parents could pay the other bills instead. I’ve shot all my life. I’m not a hunter. I don’t enjoy hunting. I’d much rather just watch a deer or a rabbit. Maybe take their picture. But I do enjoy target shooting, and I’m good at it. For me, it’s as relaxing and enjoyable as any of my other hobbies—reading, fishing, painting, listening to music.
People think, maybe because of the size of my arsenal—which I admit, is probably a little obscene—that I’m some right-wing gun nut. I’m not. I loathe the NRA. I think the gun lobby industry is a blight, and it makes me want to puke every time there’s a mass shooting and they immediately turn it into a political football and shout about how Obama is coming to take everybody’s guns. The man has been in office eight years, and guess what, assholes? He didn’t knock on my door and take my guns. But you know what? I also loathe the jackasses on the left who do the same thing, and make it all about how we should completely ban guns.
I think I confuse people, because I’m not Conservative or Progressive, and I get equally annoyed with both camps.
We don’t need to ban guns. But we also don’t need stupid people owning guns. I think the answer is simple. You need a license to drive, a license to fish, a license to own a dog. I think you should be required to have one to own a firearm, as well. And if you’re an idiot—if you leave it out where a kid can get ahold of it, or you wave it around while drunk, or wear it strapped over your shoulder while shopping at fucking Wal-Mart, then they should take your license away. Permanently. And there are other gun owners, hunters, and target shooting enthusiasts who feel the same way. The problem is, we get shouted down by the extremists on both the Right and the Left.
I think we also need to take a look at the already existing gun laws. We need to enforce the ones we’re NOT enforcing, and maybe change some of the others. For example, I own an AR-15. I bought it legally. It’s a fun gun to plink at bottles with. But you know what? I don’t really need it. It’s not a practical gun for deer hunting (if I was a hunter). If they passed a law tomorrow that said, “We’re not selling any more AR-15s at Wal-Mart”, I’d be okay with that. But I’m not okay with “Let’s get rid of all guns.” I’m not okay with it because on two separate occasions, a gun has saved my life and the life of my loved ones (once against an animal and once against an intruder).
There is common sense, logical middle ground to be found. Problem is, the lobbyists on the Right and the Left don’t want the rest of us to find it, because then they’re out of a job.
GI: Did you expect your podcast, The Horror Show, to take off the way it did? What’s the best part about doing it regularly? How often are you guys all naked while doing the show?
BK: I wasn’t sure what to expect. I thought people might enjoy it, and I thought it might build over time, but I don’t think I expected a response this big and this quickly.
The best part, for me, is using it as a platform to talk about the industry and make fans aware of other authors and talents they might not know of – same way I used to do with my Blog. I’m slowly going blind in one eye, and it’s a lot easier to talk these days than it is to type, so this is a nice alternative. It’s quicker to turn on the microphone and record for an hour than it is to hunt and peck on the laptop.
Neither Dave nor myself have been naked during a broadcast. Filmmaker Mike Lombardo, however, gets naked every time he’s on the show.
GI: Why are you such a big fan of ruining everything?
BK: One person’s ruined wasteland is another person’s economic development zone. (laughs). That’s not a serious answer, but print it anyway, so more people think I’m an asshole.
GI: Despite not being an old guy, you’ve somehow come to serve as a tribe elder (something you share with two of my favorite people, John Skipp and Cody Goodfellow). You dish out advice and sometimes used your blog as a platform to attack unscrupulous publishers and editors. Is this something you do purposefully or just something that started happening? What short piece of vital advice would you give new writers that’s not offered in the trillion writing advice blog posts currently online?
BK: When I was new to the business, I was lucky enough to have the support, mentorship, and advice of a number of authors I looked up to—Richard Laymon, Jack Ketchum, Yvonne Navarro, Joe Lansdale, Edward Lee, Ellen Datlow, Keith Giffen, F Paul Wilson, Tom Monteleone, Gene O’Neill, John Pelan, Brian Hodge, David Schow, John Skipp…the list goes on and on. I’m of a mind that you HAVE to pay that forward. If you don’t, then you disrespect all those people who helped you, and you disrespect yourself, because you’re not helping your field grow and evolve.
And myself, and others like myself—authors like Cody and Weston Ochse and Christopher Golden and Sephera Giron and Cullen Bunn and Carlton Mellick—we’ve been at this a good twenty years now. We’ve had some success. We’re lucky enough to be in a place where we CAN pay it forward.
One piece of advice I never see given? Don’t mix family with fans. If you’re on social media, have a public place for your fans and readers, and have a private, locked down, maybe under an assumed name place for your family members and close friends. Yeah, maybe nobody knows you now, but in ten years, when you’ve hit it big, do you really want some troglodyte who’s taking issue with your politics or your race or your gender or the fact that you didn’t write the kind of zombies he wants you to write, to make derogatory memes out of pictures of your kids, or send your spouse or partner hate mail?
You made the decision to be a writer. Therefore, you made the decision to be a public figure. Your partner, spouse, and kids didn’t make that decision, and it’s not fair to them to put them in that spotlight.
GI: Somewhat related: you took over and are working to ensure that J.F. Gonzalez’s work stays out there in the right hands and even that some unpublished/unfinished stuff sees the light of day. However, this is not putting a single penny in your pocket. This gets you all the respect from me, but it doesn’t explain why you accepted such a huge amount of work and responsibility. Fuck, this isn’t even a question. I just want you to tell folks what you’re doing and what they can expect from one of the best voices in horror that’s sadly no longer with us.
BK: Every author, no matter where they are in their career, should have a literary estate. There should be clear, legal instructions on what to do with your print editions, unpublished manuscripts, royalties, film adaptations, etc. in the advent of your death. There’s a wonderful, and free template for it available on Neil Gaiman’s website (he’s a big proponent of this, as well).
If you don’t have a literary estate, then you are being unfair to your loved ones, and disrespectful to yourself and to your craft. I don’t care if you’re writing about mutant fucking vacuum cleaners – it’s not fair to your kids to make them be the ones to deal with getting royalties on time and figuring out what to do if the book goes out of print.
J.F. was my best friend. We had asked each other to be in charge of our respective literary estates. He went first, so I’m fulfilling my duties. If it had been me that went first, he’d have done the same for me.
GI: Jonathan Safran Foer and Jonathan Franzen (known as The Two Jonathans) go camping in the deep, dark woods. What happens next?
BK: Slash fiction writers everywhere are reduced to quivering pools of jelly.
GI: How much of your time is spent on social media/platform building/crazy Twitter nonsense?
Not as much as people think. I use a service called WhoSay, and it lets me queue up posts and Tweets and such and then farm them out throughout the day. My Facebook activity is pretty much limited to my private friends and family profile. My Instagram and other feeds are all automatic through WhoSay. The only place I really make an effort to be engaged is on twitter, and that’s because the platform allows for quick interaction, and then – BOOM – back to work.
GI: Are you the Brian Keene who wrote that zombie book? Just kidding. How superior was this interview to the one you did for HuffPo, you big name author?
BK: Die in a tire fire, Gabino. (laughs) There. Now you can go back to those nitwits who told you I was an asshole and tell them they were right.
But seriously, you know I’m just kidding around, right?