Fiction Fragments: Michael Arnzen

Last week, Matt Betts stopped by to talk about the upside of writing fan fiction and how it can help novice writers find their voices and improve their craft. This week, horror writer Michael Arnzen joins Girl Meets Monster to talk about his writing process and why humor and horror are so closely related in our psyches.

ArnzenShades18Michael Arnzen holds four Bram Stoker Awards and an International Horror Guild Award for his disturbing (and often funny) fiction, poetry and literary experiments. He has been teaching as a Professor of English in the MFA program in Writing Popular Fiction at Seton Hill University since 1999. New stories are coming out soon in the anthologies Knee Deep in Little Devils and Collected Christmas Horror Shorts II, with more insanity soon to come. To discover his writing, seek out the books Proverbs for Monsters or 100 Jolts. To see what he’s up to now visit gorelets.com or follow him on twitter @MikeArnzen where he routinely posts news, oddities and random tidbits of terror.

Three Questions

GMM: What inspired this story, and how autobiographical is it? Are you like Reynolds? Do you dread talking about your writing when people put you on the spot?

MA: My process is very loose and I’m always on the lookout for story ideas by twisting things we take for granted, or paying attention to the peculiarities happening around us in everyday life. The idea for “Poe Bread” came to me last time I was visiting Baltimore, the land of Edgar Allan Poe and a place where you can get good Poor Boy sandwiches. I think I made some dumb pun about “Poe Boy” sandwiches at a restaurant, but after I stopped laughing at my own joke, I wondered whether there was a story there, and it mutated into the phrase “Poe Bread” in my mind. As I drove back to Pittsburgh, I mused over a plot that might unfold the meaning of the phrase and started writing the next day to see if the idea had any legs.

All my characters are always extreme or abstract versions of how I imagine I would act or react if I were that kind of person, but even when they might have the kinds of roles I might have — writers, teachers, pet owners, etc. — I don’t really identify with them much beyond that, because they are all always splinters of my personality on some level, even when they are completely unlike me. This is a tough question to answer, but a fitting one to talk about in your “fragments” series, actually… because characters are always fragments of a writer’s identity, while being embellishments, too, at the same time.

So Reynolds is a writer, and I kind of like his imaginary fiction series about dead rock stars (I love pop music and could totally get into writing that!), but I wanted him to be more of the kind of writer that the restaurant owner would fawn over, rather than the kind of writer I am. So he’s probably a lot stuffier and more reserved than I am. I don’t dread talking about my stories (well, not the finished ones), but I do kind of feel uncomfortable with people asking me to explain them. Though I do appreciate it when people read my work and tell me they enjoy it, I really don’t enjoy adulation, because I write to connect with people of a like mind, not to feel superior to them. I like it more when someone says “You’re a sick man, Arnzen!” with a knowing gleam in their eye than when they praise me fannishly.  But I can be a fan boy too, so I understand.  The waiter in the Metallica t-shirt is probably just as much like who I really am, too, if not more so — even though I’ve never waited tables or owned restaurants or baked bread.  It’s all fiction, exploration of the fragments trying to find a whole. And I ain’t done yet.

GMM: Academics have suggested that there is a connection between horror and humor. I think even many lay people would agree that there is a healthy amount of comic relief in horror films. Your work tends to employ humor even though you write about dark things. When did this connection occur to you and/or have you always written horror stories with a thread of humor? Is it just a personality quirk that comes out in your writing?

I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.

MA: It’s funny: even when I’ve tried to write comedy, people tell me that it’s very disturbing or dark or not funny at all.  Or when I’m at a fiction reading, delivering a really devious and dark line with seriousness someone in the audience will erupt with laughter. Sometimes it’s just me, laughing at myself, too.  Fantasy is ludicrous, and the “gross out” often has a humorous (albeit juvenile) appeal, but that absurdity leads to originality and truth in a way that other things don’t. Horror comedy is tricky to write well and I don’t think I’m good at it when I try too hard to be funny.  So I have given up trying to be funny or scary:  I just write in a way that lets myself go, and try to not to censor myself too much.  I think what I’m doing as a writer is just like letting myself dream or be mentally drunk on the page, and to feel that liberty that you don’t get in everyday life.

An interviewer once categorized me as a “dark jester” in a feature story once and I kind of liked that, a lot, because it reminds me of Poe’s “Imp of the Perverse.”  Another writer called my work “sardonic” across the board, and I like that a lot too.  The comedic stuff I’m producing is probably just related to my worldview and my penchant for the absurd and ironic. I grew up with MAD magazine and Saturday Night Live, and love comedies as much as horror movies.  I like to laugh in the face of death and such — it’s a kind of defiance, but also a quirky way of dealing with anxiety and tension. I think laughter bonds us, even though we’re all doomed.

GMM: What is Poe Bread? I’m dying to know what happens when Reynolds eats it.

MA: Well, it’s only a fragment right now because I haven’t >fully< plotted out what happens, and what I've written has barely gotten to the real story — I gave myself too much liberty to explore character and setting at the beginning, and that's all it really is right now, building up to the very question you asked.  I like to leave a lot of space for new plot directions and other ideas to occur as I write, so I often don't know what I'm doing till I'm doing it, to be honest. I like to think that transfers over to the reader too, where discoveries seem to happen logically and at natural points. But I do know the answer to your questions. Without giving away TOO much, let's just say that there is an old dough "starter" — that is, a baker's saved ball of old dough that gets put into the next batch, and then a ball is taken out of that batch for the next one, ad infinitum — which has been passed down since Poe's day through the bread baking process over the years at this restaurant, and "Poe Bread" contains it. This bread is somewhat magical (or contaminated?) in that it "inspires" Reynolds to write some twisted things… and he becomes both obsessed with the dough and the man who owns it. The two main characters reveal their suspicions about what the dough contains as the story progresses and they begin to do devious things. Does the bread have opiates in it?  Could the starter contain the DNA of Poe himself?  All is revealed in a twisted ending, which I hope echoes the plot of a famous Poe story.

If, that is, I finish it. I might need more… inspiration.  And it's lunch time now, so I'll end there.  Bon Appetit!

Poe Bread, by Michael A. Arnzen

Jim Reynolds had long heard of Baltimore Batter but it wasn’t until he was actually sitting in the restaurant bakery, holding a Poor Boy sandwich in both of his hands, that he understood its popularity. The place had that comforting, beery odor of yeast that most good bakeries greeted its guests with — but here it had seeped into the yellowing stone walls and worn wooden tables for a hundred years, if its storefront sign was to be believed, saturating the place like smoke in a whiskey barrel. He loved it. The bakery’s ambience was so out-of-place compared to the other shops in downtown Baltimore that it had felt to Reynolds like stepping into a 19th century painting. And though time had certainly taken its toll on the decor, the disheveled look of the place only made the food taste better. The shrimp on his sandwich was so fresh it virtually wriggled on the bun and the special sauce in his mouth was as tangy as over-sweetened tea. But it was the bread that made him drool between bites. Eggy and warm in his hands, fresh out of the oven. He squeezed the crisping bun like a lover, and devoured.

The waiter — a thirty-something man with covered with both muscles and wrinkles — brought his check early, sliding it under the vertical roll of paper towels that served as a napkin dispenser. He wore a sweaty black Metallica concert t-shirt that had had faded so much it simply read “licca” above a hazy upside-down cross. He stood there, tossing razor-cut jet black bangs to one side like they were getting in his eyes as he diddled impatiently on his pad.

Reynolds slid him his Mastercard and returned to the precious last bite of his Poor Boy.

The waiter snapped up the card, turned, took one step, then pivoted back. “Wait,” he said to himself, then crouched down so that their eyes could meet. “You’re not the Jim Reynolds are you?”

A bit peeved, he swallowed. “Don’t know what you mean. There’s plenty of them in the phone book…”

“Yes,” the waiter grinned, scanning his face. “You’re him! I know you from your book jackets.”

Reynolds smiled. It wasn’t often that readers recognized him.

“Man, I love all your stuff. The Hendrix Appendix, The Joplin Goblin…shit, I’ve read them all. ”

He nodded, never quite knowing what to say when these things happened. “Thank you.”

“You’re a god to me, man. Damn, I wish I had a book you could sign.” The waiter padded his pockets, as though searching for one of them on his person.

“I’ll gladly sign the check,” Reynolds said.

“No way, dude. The sandwich is on the house.”

Reynolds started liking this guy. “In that case,” he said, reaching into his satchel, “I’ve got something else for you.” He pulled out an advanced review copy of his forthcoming rock-horror novel, scribbled something on the title page and passed it to the man.

“Ho-lee shit.” The waiter swiped his hands down his apron and held the book like it was the Shroud of Turin. He read the title aloud: “The Johnny Rotten Corpse. Man!” Then his eyebrows went squiggly. “Wait a minute…ain’t Johnny Rotten still alive?”

“Not in my book.”

The waiter laughed, read the inscription — “Hope the Poor Boy didn’t struggle! Yours, JR” — and shook Jim’s hand when he stood.

“Loved the food. The bread here is amazing.” He shouldered his bag.

“Tell you what,” the waiter said. “Any time you come here, the food’s on me.”

Reynolds’s eyebrows nearly jumped off his forehead. “I couldn’t…”

The waiter held up his hands in protest. “No, as the owner of this place, I set the rules. And I insist.”

“My friend,” Reynolds said, as his esteem for the man rose a notch and he held out a hand for another shake, “I will take you up on this. You can count on it.”

“Come as often as you like,” he said, shaking briskly. “But there’s just one stipulation.”

“What’s that?”

“That I get to sit with you and talk about your books.”

If there was one thing Reynolds hated about being a writer, it was being put on the spot about his work. He never took interview calls and he never attended conventions. He liked being a recluse — the chance to be left alone and be his own boss was what drew him to the profession in the first place. But the smell of bread in his nose and the tastes of yeast and fish still lingering on his tongue made this opportunity just too damned good to pass up. “You’ve got yourself a deal, my friend. Only I can’t promise I’ll be the best company.”

“Psht.” He waved his hand. “I’m sure I’ve seen worse.” A bell dinged from somewhere in the kitchen and the man frowned at the distraction. “For whom the bell tolls,” he muttered, and Reynolds wasn’t sure if he was being literal or referencing Faulkner or reciting Metallica. But it didn’t matter. He found his sneery reaction charming.

Reynolds began to gather up his bag.

“Okay, come back some… wait, don’t leave. I got something you’d appreciate in the back. Sit tight.”

Reynolds watched as he darted past customers and pushed into the “IN” door with his shoulder. He was back through the “OUT” door in what seemed like a heartbeat, carrying a paper bag, with a loaf of black bread nosing out of it.

“Take this, my gift to you.” The owner of Baltimore Batter handed him the bag, and Reynolds could feel lingering heat between his crackling fingers. “It’s the house specialty — a family recipe. It’s called Poe Bread. It inspires.”

Reynolds wanted to thank him, but the man was already back in the kitchen before he had the chance. He looked down at the Poe Bread, cradled in his arm and swaddled in crinkly brown paper like a newborn. “Inspires?”

Next week, Alicia Wright joins Girl Meets Monster. Do you have a fragment screaming to see the light of day? Show it to me at chellane@gmail.com. See you next week!

Fiction Fragments: Matt Betts

Last week, K. Ceres Wright joined Girl Meets Monster to talk about how writers of color can foster support for other diverse writers and become mentors for young writers. This week, Matt Betts is here to share a fragment, talk about his influences, and the benefits of writing fan fiction.

40645515_267465454090059_5099031125666299904_nMatt Betts grew up on a steady diet of giant monsters, robots and horror novels. The Ohio native is the author of the speculative poetry collections Underwater Fistfight and See No Evil, Say No Evil, as well as the novels Odd Men Out, Indelible Ink and his latest, The Boogeyman’s Intern. Matt loves to travel and speak at writer’s conferences and workshops. He lives in Columbus with his wife and their two boys.

He can be found at www.mattbetts.com, on Twitter as @Betts_Matt and on Facebook at https://www.facebook.com/mattbettswrites/.

Three Questions

GMM: Welcome, Matt. So, tell me about your fragment. What was your inspiration?

MB: This is a story I wrote a little over ten years ago. It’s a SciFi western that I really enjoyed writing. It was called a few things, but the final title was “Where It All Went Wrong.” This involves a ship with a crew of three, rather than the larger crew of the Serenity, but as the writer, I was really into Firefly and other space westerns at the time.

GMM: I love Firefly! So that totally sounds like something I would read. Why did you abandon it?

MB: Well, I’ve always meant to come back to it and rewrite it now that I feel a little more sure of myself, so I guess I can’t call it abandoned completely. But whenever I’ve circled back and reread it, it feels so much like Firefly fan fiction. Funny thing is, the story was accepted by two different magazines/webzines, but both went out of business before the story made it to print. I got a little scared it was a jinx and worried anyone I sent it to would fold as well. But I still really enjoy it and maybe I’ll consider expanding it, and cleaning it up, into a novel one day.

GMM: There’s often a certain level of stigma associated with writing fan fiction, but sometimes writing fan fiction can help you overcome writer’s block on another project, and in the highly improbable case of E. L. James, fan fiction can turn into a series of best-selling novels. Have you written fan fiction that you later developed into an original work of fiction?

MB: Writing fan fiction can certainly help with writer’s block, but it can also help with writing in general. I mean, if someone wants to get started as an author, but has no idea how to do it, writing fan fiction can help. With fan fiction, a writer already starts with characters they know, background, and a familiarity with the genre. Writing stories based off of that would be a great start for any aspiring writer. The pressure to create certain elements is off, so they can write character sketches, backstories, whatever. I’ve often heard that writing is like a muscle in that the more you work out (or write) the stronger you get. Any novice writer should practice writing in any way they can. Their work will improve and eventually, they might want to strike out and feel confident to do their own original work.

I’ve never done any fan fic myself, not knowingly anyway. The scrap I’ve provided today really ended up feeling like Firefly, but I never felt it until the story was done, edited and submitted. I didn’t set out to write about Mal and Jane and the crew of the Serenity, I set out to write a space western, and that’s what came out. I think since then, I’ve found my voice and style as a writer and I can avoid inadvertently drifting into someone else’s territory, or properties, a little better. Early on as an author, I tried to write in what I thought was Stephen King’s style, but the stories were my own originals, not based off of his stories or characters. And they were terrible. It took a few years for me to feel like I wasn’t copying off someone else’s paper as a writer.

I guess I’ve never tried to write fan fiction, really, and it might have helped me to learn story and structure a little sooner if I had. I can see how writing Star Wars or X-Files stories would have set me up for better storytelling earlier. Both have science fiction tropes, action, and strong characters — all things which play a prominent role in my work today.

Where It All Went Bad, by Matt Betts

Mason stared at the keypad next to the barn’s side door. The readout showed the security system was disabled and he hadn’t even touched it.

“Boss? We’re holding at the safe point, but we haven’t got a lot of time. What’s going on?” Bess’s voice came through his earpiece. “Are you inside or what?”

He pushed the door and it swung open with a creak. He sighed. Alarm turned off and door wide open? “Yeah. I’m in. Give me ninety seconds to start the roof’s retraction sequence and bring it in.”

“Can do.”

On a job like this one the unexpected was never welcome, especially after they had planned it so well. He pulled his sidearm and closed the door behind him. He paused next to a crate to let his eyes adjust to the low light.

Outside, the thumping of small explosions suddenly filled the air. “Looks like the town folk started their celebration a might early.”  Bess’s voice again filled Mason’s ear.

“Who can blame them? The festival of fruit only comes once a year,” he whispered.

Bess laughed. “Harvest celebration, genius.”

“Right.”

Mason scanned the building for any sign of life and found nothing; no movement, no sound. He could see a few crates here and there, some frames on the walls, a set of fuel pumps and, of course the ship in the center of the building that he’d come to take. He darted to the other side of the ship where the door control console was and began tapping in codes.

“On the way.” Bess said.

The crack of the overhead door coming to life drew Mason’s gaze upward and the light of the night sky began to creep in, punctuated by the occasional flash of fireworks. In the new illumination he could see his target much more clearly. The ship had been through a lot, and showed the scars of its long years of service; a scorch mark here, a cracked panel there. It was only about eight feet tall and three times as wide, it was designed as a one-man explorer, but two could fit in it easily.

“Thirty seconds.” Bess was right on time. “Secured yet?”

“Working on it,” Mason said “Take it easy.” He holstered his gun, walked to the nearest wing and set the lifting rigs before moving to the other wing and the craft’s nose. He took a minute at the front to lay his hand on the ship and feel its cold metal. He ran his hand along the letters that spelled out the ship’s name – Palomino. He smiled and nodded. “Nice to meet you.”

The retractable ceiling door clanged open to its limit and again, Mason’s eyes drew upward. He saw the clear night sky momentarily before it was blotted out by the underside of his ship.

“We’re here,” Bess said.

“No kidding?” The bay door of the ship opened and Mason could see the silhouette of the third member of their crew, Eli Fisher, feeding out the winch lines.

“Hey boss!” Fish’s voice yelled through the speaker in Mason’s ear. “Any problems?”

Mason grabbed the first line as it made its way down to him and attached it to starboard wing. “Not a one.” He attached the other two lines and checked them carefully. One last look around the barn made him marvel at how easy it had been. His stomach rumbled a little. “Not a one. Haul us up.” He stepped onto the ships ladder and grabbed hold of a rung for dear life as the Palomino was pulled up roughly off the ground.

“Sir?” It was Bess. “There seems to be a large crowd of angry folk headed our way in a hurry. We’d better move out and finish hauling you in later.”

Mason looked down at the building that was rapidly moving away from him. He’d nearly cleared the roof and could see the open sky. A flash nearby made him wonder if the fireworks were still going on, or if someone was shooting at them. The Palomino began to twist on the lines and Mason squeezed the rung tighter. “Uhm. Are you sure we don’t have time to haul me in?”

“Don’t be yellow. We’ll be to safety in two shakes. Fish? You may want to strap yourself to something.” Bess said.

Mason’s stomach churned again. “Wait! If he needs to strap in, what about me?” It was too late. Bess had already steered the ship sharply back in the direction it’d  come. More flashes burst nearby “Just fireworks. Just fireworks.” He hugged the craft and pressed his face against its cold exterior.

Next week, Girl Meets Monster welcomes a mystery guest. Stay tuned!