Fiction Fragments: Bracken MacLeod

Last week, I talked with Todd Sullivan about anime, writing YA fantasy, and cultural differences while living abroad. And this week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes Bracken MacLeod. I think I first met Bracken at StokerCon in Providence, but I’ve had the pleasure of bumping into him at other events and hope to eventually have time to just sit and talk one of these days. In the meantime, enjoy his fragment and interview.

2020-02-12 14.43.17aBracken MacLeod is the Bram Stoker and Shirley Jackson Award nominated author of the novels, Mountain Home, Come to Dust, Stranded, and Closing Costs, coming in 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt. He’s also published two collections of short fiction, 13 Views of the Suicide Woods and White Knight and Other Pawns. Before devoting himself to full time writing, he worked as a civil and criminal litigator, a university philosophy instructor, and a martial arts teacher. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and son, where he is at work on his next novel.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome to Girl Meets Monster, Bracken. I’m so glad you could join me today. Thank you for taking time to stop by and talk about your writing. I enjoyed your fragment. There’s a lot going on in Harlow’s world, internally and externally. And, a boring train ride through New York City becomes an opportunity for you to highlight several aspects of the human condition, including: feelings of loneliness and isolation even though we are usually surrounded by people, the way our communication has changed over time, and the very serious subject of suicide. Can you tell me a little bit about what inspired this story? Or at the very least, this scene?

BM: Thank you. I am so glad you liked it. This is a selection from the beginning of a new novel I’m working on we’ll call Moral Panic (not my real title, but I’m going to be a little protective here of a turn of phrase I think is pretty boss). I wanted to introduce the character of Harlow in a way that depicts someone trying to get back on their feet emotionally after a significant trauma. But reminders of that ordeal intrude in her life periodically, threatening to drag her back down. In the case of this piece, she’s feeling surprise at her own disappointment in not winning an award, and is heading home, when the world around her stops and points out in stark detail exactly how painful things can get. The details of the piece are drawn from my own experience in several different ways, but specifically, and most obviously, being on a train delayed by a person who’d jumped. It’s one thing to hear the driver tell you something’s happened, and quite another to ride by slowly, watching workers spreading sawdust on the tracks to soak up blood. Despite not being a first responder, I’ve seen considerably more than my share of public tragedy. A lot of Harlow’s interiority here is my own.

GMM: Many writers struggle with the concept of imposter syndrome even after they’ve had their work published and had some success with their writing. As a writer who has been nominated for some prestigious awards within your genre, does that kind of recognition make it easier or more difficult to approach your craft? Personally, I suffer from a fear of success, because success often means there are greater expectations for your next effort, and that also means more work on your part. Has success in your writing been helpful or a hindrance?

BM: Being nominated for awards is nice, and with few exceptions, I wouldn’t turn one down that was given to me, but there is an odd feeling of competition with yourself that creeps into the aftermath of being recognized like that. It’s less about not winning (PRO-TIP: you don’t LOSE awards, because how can you lose something you’ve never had?), than it is about what I think of the quality of my work. Why did this book get nominated and not that one? What was it about the story that resounded with people so much, and can I do it again? Imposter syndrome never goes away, but it does lessen. Still, while I was writing Closing Costs (coming in early 2021 from Houghton Mifflin Harcourt), I had considerable anxiety about the book and whether it lived up to what people might expect from a “Bracken MacLeod Novel” (whatever THAT is—how arrogant to think there even is such a thing). You have to sublimate those feelings and just go on. I know how to do what I do, and ideally, I’ve learned lessons about what lands right and what doesn’t from prior work. A little bit of anxiousness is good, though; it keeps you working hard.

In all honesty, I think I’d worry a little about someone who says they have no imposter syndrome. It sounds to me like admitting to Dunning-Krueger.

GMM: The overall feeling of your fragment is one of either despair or a sense of not feeling connected to the world around you. Disorientation. Genre wise, this feels like suspense or horror, but your use of language and detailed observation of what’s happening around Harlow gives your writing a literary feel as well. Where do you fall on the spectrum of the literary vs. genre fiction debate? How do you classify your own writing? Has your work ever been criticized for being too literary or too genre driven?

BM: I feel like my work firmly falls in the categories of horror and, more often, thriller, but I strive for literary style. My temptation is to say “literary quality” here, but I think there’s tremendous quality in stripped down, no frills prose as well as “literary.” I don’t like this rivalry we have with each other over genre v. Literary Fiction. Lit Fic is a genre with its own reader expectations and tropes, and there’s no reason why good genre fiction can’t also be literary. Read Paul Tremblay and Priya Sharma and John Langan and tell me those aren’t amazing literary writers working in genre. Colson Whitehead and Victor LaValle are two other examples of wonderful writers who I think of as literary first, but who clearly enjoy writing genre and are great at it. Anyway, I’d like to think of myself as a “slipstream” thriller writer falling somewhere in between traditional thriller/horror writing and Lit Fic.

I think I’ve had more pushback with crossing horror and thriller lines than literary. People have told me while they like this story of mine, it isn’t horror, as if there’s a bright line distinction with no overlap. But then, I tend to prefer what I call “secular horror” over supernatural most of the time. If given the choice between something like IT and McCarthy’s Blood Meridian, I’ll more often than not pick the more human monsters.

GMM: Secular horror. I like the sound of that. I think I know what you mean, but could you explain it a bit for a layperson?

BM: “Secular Horror” is a term I coined for my work. It’s kind of like the opposite of supernatural horror, PLUS. The plus is a matter of representation. While I try to do my best writing characters of all backgrounds and beliefs, my protagonists are always atheists and hard skeptics. Part of it is to make a point, perhaps, but a larger part is to give readers in that audience someone to identify with. So, when I say I write secular horror, it usually means that I’m writing non-supernatural work (though I have done supernatural in both novels and short stories) with a point of view coming from a position of skepticism and incredulity. Jack Ketchum, I’d say, wrote that also. Scooby Doo falls into the category as well, ALL the ghosts and spirits in those shows were normal people performing fraudulent supernaturalism! Scooby Doo is secular horror for children.

Fragment, by Bracken MacLeod

The operator’s crackling voice came on the public address speaker and said, “I’m sorry. We’re experiencing a delay.” The train operator sounded tired. It was late, but there seemed to be more weighing on her than the hour. “There’s a… a medical… a passenger just jumped in front of a train at the stop ahead of us. We’re been held here until cleared to resume. I’m very sorry.” The train car was silent. Those kinds of announcements used to be made by euphemism—there was a “police investigation” or “a passenger seeking medical attention.” These days, if you were on the affected train, they told you how it was. Matter of fact. In a sad kind of way, the passengers took it better. While any delay was frustrating, a kind of hushed patience came with the news of someone’s death on the tracks. People from elsewhere could believe all they wanted that New Yorkers were cold and aloof, but people in the city understood that tragedy outweighed inconvenience. They were the same kind of human beings as everyone else, whatever politicians had to say about “coastal elites.”

Harlow closed her eyes and visions of blood and chaos swirled in her alcohol-loosened thoughts. She realized she was better off with her eyes wide open. Perhaps all night. A couple at the other end of her car spoke to each other in hushed tones, leaning into one another. Other riders kept to themselves, typing on their phones or with wireless earbuds in their ears while they played Candy Crush. One woman quietly wiped tears from her eyes and stared straight ahead at her own reflection in the dark glass of the subway car window.

Harlow checked her phone. There were a couple of texts from people inviting her up to room parties, not realizing she’d left the con, and one from her mother asking whether she’d won. She closed her texts and opened Kindle instead. She tried to pick up her book where she’d left off, but the first paragraph seemed impervious to interpretation; she read it again and again, trying to discern meaning from the collection of words she knew had to make sense together but couldn’t force into clarity. She closed the app and instead opened Snapchat, using a filter to look at herself with cat ears and whiskers, then in grainy sepia, then as a biker complete with black five o’clock shadow and a skull-cap bandana. It was a stupid waste of time, and while she would’ve normally found it oddly narcissistic to stare at herself in digital costumes for a half an hour, it kept her from focusing on what had happened on the tracks ahead.

Sitting in a stationary subway car in a tunnel felt different than a delay at the station. Looking through the windows at people on the platform, moving from the gates to the exits, arriving and seeing a train waiting, was of a separate character than sitting in a car with black windows with only one’s own reflection looking back. A car one couldn’t easily exit and return to the world as it was. This felt like being lost. The tunnels weren’t made for lingering; they were intended to be sped through, viewed at a blur. This was a place of motion, not hesitation. And sitting still felt like being lost in time. Like being dead.

Like the person ahead of them on the tracks.

After nearly forty minutes, the train operator came back on the P.A. and told them they were clear to move; however, theirs would be an express train through the next stop. Buses would be waiting at the following station to shuttle riders back. A couple of people on the car softly groaned, but no one made more out of it than that exhaled utterance.

The car began to move again, and the riders slipped from their pocket of stilled time into the continuity of life in the city.

As they emerged from the tunnel and passed through the station, Harlow tried to keep her eyes fixed on her smart phone, but she’d been through all the filters in her app, checked her e-mail and texts. There was nothing unseen to draw her eyes from the bright hardhats of the workmen visible through the window across from her, and she looked up. Two of the them spread what looked like sawdust onto a darkened patch of track on the opposite side of the center divider, separating inbound and outbound trains, while a third looked on. He stood stoically, having already done his job, or waiting to take his turn, so no one would ever know death had come to that small space in their underground world. But he knew it had. His co-workers knew. And so did Harlow. He looked up, eyes meeting hers and in that moment she thought of Gentileschi’s Judith slaying Holofernes—figures standing in the dark, captured in a golden ratio of elemental violence too far complete to be stilled, yet frozen. She hovered in that instant unable to look away, confronted by the workman’s face, his impassivity, but seeing deeper in his eyes a sense that blood was not unfamiliar, and despondence infected him. Had changed him. She understood, and felt pass between them a kind of grieving kinship. Harlow blinked and when she opened her eyes the man had looked away and she couldn’t be certain he’d ever looked at her. The train continued to move and another wave of bleary drunkenness washed over her, bringing Harlow fully back into her body.

A teary woman across from her stifled a sob. Harlow turned her head and tried to catch her gaze, and convey solace to her. She tried to be the presence in between violence and death for this other human being who was about to be overtaken. The way she did. The woman gave her a weak half-smile and turned her eyes toward her hands in her lap.

Harlow leaned back in her seat and for the next two stops, stared at the advertisement next to the door. A size zero woman with a heavy-lidded expression stood stiffly in a yellow bikini next to the legend,

ARE YOU
BEACH BODY
READY?

The scars over Harlow’s ribs itched.

The operator announced her stop and she snapped out of her trance. Harlow didn’t recollect walking home, but waking up the next morning in her bed, had found her way.

Do you have a fragment you’d love to share here at Girl Meets Monster? If so, send it my way at: chellane@gmail.com.

Guidelines: Submit 500-1000 words of fiction, up to 5 poems, a short bio, and a recent author photo to the e-mail above.

Fiction Fragments: Ed Kurtz

Last week, I talked with Lucy A. Snyder about her Lovecraftian space opera, Blossoms Blackened Like Dead Stars. This week, Girl Meets Monster has the pleasure of welcoming Ed Kurtz.

edkurtzEd Kurtz is the author of over a dozen novels and novellas, including Sawbones, Nausea, Angel of the Abyss, and the forthcoming Boon. Ed’s short fiction has been collected in Nothing You Can Do: Stories and Blood They Brought and Other Stories. A Wind of Knives, a reissue of Ed’s queer Western novella, is out December 9. Ed lives in Connecticut with author doungjai gam.

Three Questions

GMM: When I finished reading your fragment, my first thought was, holy shit, I want to read more of this story. And my second thought was, is this story part of a larger subgenre? Are queer westerns a thing? So, I did a quick Google search and was reminded that yes, there is a history of queer and/or LGBTQ+ narratives (fictional and non-fictional) dealing with the American West. When you wrote A Wind of Knives, did you research the history of the queer West(ern), or did something else inspire your novella?

EK: There is definitely a small but vocal movement in academia and elsewhere to recover the lost and buried histories of marginalized peoples in the story of the American Frontier, which I should hope would pick up some steam as it goes along. One book in particular I cannot recommend highly enough is Re-Dressing America’s Frontier Past by Peter Boag (University of California Press). Chris Packard’s Queer Cowboys (Palgrave MacMillan) is also pretty indispensable. Now of course, these are both academic, non-fiction works. The only Western fiction dealing in queer themes that I’ve ever come across falls more under the umbrella of romance/erotica rather than traditional Western literature. That makes something like A Wind of Knives fairly rare and unusual, though I’d rather it wasn’t! It is my most sincere hope that younger folks will discover or re-discover the Western through this lens of the diverse stories yet to be properly told and ignite a new passion for such a rich genre with such a troubled and exclusive past. When I was writing the novella, then, no, there wasn’t much more to inspire it than my own desire to see someone like me in the kinds of stories I love to read.

GMM: Speaking of genres and subgenres, you’ve written under more than one fiction umbrella. What are your favorite genres to read? Do you prefer writing in one genre more than others? When you set out to write a piece, do you already have a genre in mind, or does the story evolve before someone else labels it as fitting within a specific box?

EK: It’s easier for me to say what I don’t do than what I do, but even then it tends to not be exactly true. For example, I can tell you I don’t write romance, and yet the vast preponderance of everything I’ve written, dark as it may be, tends to be love stories. I like to write about down-and-out people, folks who have been knocked around by life some in ways that maybe others haven’t so that it gives them a different perspective and maybe an edge. That kind of character is all over my work, whether it’s horror, crime, or Western. People you won’t find on the Hallmark Channel (though I find those people the most deviant of all). Most novels I’ve written started as more than one small idea over time that I eventually realized go together to form a bigger picture, so I wouldn’t say I start thinking about genre so much as who these people are and what kinds of problems they’re going to be facing. A Wind of Knives was originally going to be a sci-fi story, if you can believe it!

GMM: Something else occurred to me after reading your fragment. This reissue of your novella might be the last thing I see of yours in print. And, the more I thought about it, the angrier I got. I’m not going to go into too much detail about the terrible treatment you and others were subjected to by ChiZine Publications. If people are interested in learning more about the ChiZine controversy, they can read about it at their leisure.

Many writers, including myself, suffer from impostor syndrome and it often prevents us from moving forward with projects, or at the very least creates space for long periods of procrastination. ChiZine’s unethical treatment of you has led you to make a decision to quit writing altogether. I’m sure I am not alone in feeling cheated and saddened by that fact given that what happened to you hasn’t stolen your ability to craft good stories or diminished your past successes.

I know you can’t predict how long it will take for you to heal from this experience, but do you think there’s a story inside you that would change your mind about continuing your journey as a writer? What would it take for you to start writing again?

EK: There is at least one more thing you can expect to see from me later in 2020, which is my first full-length Western novel, Boon. The genesis of that one, which I wrote over the winter of 2018-2019 (and haven’t written anything since) is kind of fun. I had been tearing through dozens of traditional Western novels, all of them featuring these beautifully painted covers of white men astride horses against stunning vistas in the background, determined and hard, and I couldn’t stop thinking about how it would look if that rider was my Asian-American female fiancée instead? (So not very different from A Wind of Knives in that I’m still playing in the traditional Western sandbox, just without the white, straight, cisgender male exclusivity.) Eventually I sat down and just started writing the story of a Thai (then, Siamese) woman in 1874 on a nationwide mission of bloody, familial revenge. I like it a lot and hope others do, too. But really, I just wrote it for her.

Boon is the only novel I’ve written since 2015 other than a movie tie-in I did based on The Ranger. I hadn’t really planned on doing it, either, but the idea wouldn’t leave me alone. In that sense, it is entirely possible that particular brand of lightning might strike again, but I honestly don’t know. My experiences in the world of the small press over the last few years has been so overwhelmingly traumatic in terms of the way people are treated and cheated that I’m not sure high school can measure up to the pettiness and ugliness of the whole thing. To date, I have published with well over a dozen small press publishers and can name only one that has ever consistently paid me on time. On the other hand, I can name five or six that never paid me at all and ran for the hills with my money. Meanwhile, I’ve watched at conventions and other writers’ gatherings how writers often step on anyone they can to get ahead, often with a smile on their face, just to see their name on the cover of a book. It’s silly and gross and just plain exhausting to deal with all of it when all I ever wanted to do was tell some stories I hoped others would find something valuable about. Most of this really came to the surface by way of the whole ChiZine debacle, of course, but as outlandishly awful as that situation is, it’s not entirely unusual, either. It’s a pretty ugly business, deep down, and too often the ugliest actors are rewarded for their bullshit.

So, yes, it remains within the realm of possibility that I’ll write again. I can’t say for sure either way. I only know I’m not doing it now, and I have absolutely no drive to do so at all.

The mere idea of it makes me feel nervous and nauseous, like I’d be walking back into an abusive relationship I’d already gotten away from. But for now, there’s A Wind of Knives, and Boon is coming. Also, there’s still a fair amount of stuff in my files that hasn’t found the right home yet, or that needs a re-release, so I expect there’s more Ed Kurtz on the horizon, even if I’m not writing it at this moment. After that, who knows?

Exerpt from A Wind of Knives by Ed Kurtz

The dusk gathered purple on the hills a few miles distant from Daniel Hays’ fence, the sun having vanished behind them. Clouds hung low to the earth, thin; nothing above them but gray-blue sky and the first emerging stars. Daniel narrowed his eyes and took it all in, a familiar view, common enough, though he had not yet grown tired of it. Most evenings he watched the sun set and the black night take control of his modest farm, those he did not spend away from home or sick abed. But it was never the same, not to one with an eye for the subtleties of Texas at sundown. This one in particular held its own, remarkable in the way the wispy clouds soaked up the color of the setting sun against the northern hills, the thrushes hurrying to the treetops before pitch fell. It was a time Daniel typically spent with Steven, his long-time hand, often on the porch Steven himself built three summers previous. Neither of them was on the porch tonight. Tonight, Daniel stood by the fence, grasping the sanded elm for support and keeping his gaze trained on the hills. Behind him, halfway between the fence and the main house, Steven hanged silent and still from the high branch of a juniper tree.

It was a beautiful evening, but a bad one. And bad beget bad. He spent a few more minutes with the sunset, and when it went from purple to a deep, dark blue, Daniel turned back to Steven and pushed a sigh out of his lungs. The corpse was stripped naked; red, raw stripes checked its back, its ass, and the backs of its legs. Blood had crusted black where the stripes opened, attracting flies. Steven’s face was a swollen, bruised and broken catastrophe, his lips split and curled to reveal broken and missing teeth. His feet were dark with the blood settling in the lower extremities. His groin was reduced to a yawning, red-black pit—they had sliced the man’s genitals off with a knife, though whether this was done before or after they hanged him Daniel did not know.

As good a man as any Daniel ever knew, Steven was the last to deserve such an outrage, though his simmering anger did nothing to heal the wounds, replace his severed manhood, or resurrect a purpling corpse from the dead. Daniel had yet to cry out, or scream, or rage at the gathering night, and in all likelihood he never would. Instead, he tramped back of the main house, to the shed, to collect a ladder and an ax.

He climbed the uneasy rungs and brought down the whole branch. Later, when all was said and done, he chopped the tree down and salted the soil. For now, he removed the rope from Steven’s red, ripped throat and carried the body in his arms to the bunkhouse at the south end of the property. Once the bunk served as sleeping quarters for half a dozen hands, hard working Texans who toiled on foreign dirt, Mexican dirt, for Daniel’s late boss. When the War Between the States broke out, those who were left lit out; either gone to war on conscription or run off further west, to keep from raising arms against the Union they still viewed as their own country. Only Steven remained behind. Three largely quiet years on the frontier, two men and the farm they worked. Now there was no one.

Daniel laid the corpse on the cot and arranged the legs and arms so that it almost looked at rest. Steven’s left eye stared glassily; Daniel pushed the eyelid down with his thumb, but it popped back open. He felt his throat constrict and averted his gaze to the shadows filling the corners of the musty room. Daniel struck a match and touched its flame to the wick of the lantern on the floor. The lantern offered little light, but enough to see that which he would have rather not seen at all. Yet none-the-less, he looked. He looked at what was left of Steven Houpe, a good man. It occurred to him then that was what he would carve on the marker when the time came: a good man. He could not think of anything better.

“I am sorry,” Daniel whispered, touching his fingertips to the cool palm of Steven’s hand. It was not enough.

Do you have a fragment that has yet to see the light of day? Blow off the dust and send it my way at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!