This is the full-length version of an interview I conducted with author Gary Braunbeck, sometime in June 2007. It did not get sold in this or two abridged versions, but that’s not Braunbeck’s fault. Braunbeck is a good writer and a fascinating conversationalist, so I thought I’d share the interview.
Listening to Gary Braunbeck talk about his writing—or about anything at all—one gets the impression he has thought long and deeply about a broad variety of subjects. This is unsurprising in the writer of such works as Prodigal Blues, Mr. Hands, and We Now Pause for Station Identification. In the last five years, Braunbeck has racked up three Stoker awards and one International Horror Guild award for his work, and yet I have difficulty thinking of what I’ve read as simply horror stories. Braunbeck’s tales are a combination of skilled writing, disturbing imagery, and fantastical situations (sometimes set in reality as we know it, but often straying beyond it), but soaring above all these is a penetrating, compassionate insight into the human condition.
The old adage is to “write what you know,” and despite the nature of his work, Braunbeck does this. The imagination that created Grendel in Prodigal Blues, or devised The Ballad of Road Mama and Daddy Bliss, would not be nearly as good at reaching into the reader’s head and hooking us on his stories if not for Braunbeck’s own experiences.
Submitted for your consideration: Braunbeck’s 2006 novel, Prodigal Blues. For those who have not read it, Prodigal Blues is a novel set in the all-too-real world of child pornography. The story encompasses a suspenseful escape attempt and its aftermath, along the way deftly grappling with such issues as the denial of bystanders, victim guilt, and the demands of compassion. But the care with which Braunbeck approaches such a difficult subject is astonishing, and the psychological profiles of the characters very realistic. I ask him if he drew on any personal experiences for this novel.
Braunbeck shares two experiences, the first from his childhood, when his “nice middle-to-lower middle class neighborhood” was devastated when “virtually everybody on our block was laid off at the same time.” Without blame, he describes the devastation when a factory suddenly closes, and hundreds of adults “used to being on their feet 10-12 hours in front of a lathe machine” suddenly have nothing to do.
“When you have the threat of poverty combined with alcohol, things tend to go wrong in a hurry. The kids in my neighborhood started a sad little game in which we came out in the morning to see who had the most bruises or cuts.” Braunbeck says this without self-pity, merely as the predictable consequence of a suddenly bereft community, and you can hear the writer’s perspective comprehending the awfulness of the situation for both children and adults.
The second experience Braunbeck describes happened in the course of a job. At the time, Braunbeck was working as a janitor. “I got a call one night from the owner of the janitorial company: ‘I need to get five guys together to do an emergency cleanup at a residence.’ I knew exactly where he was going, because about five days before this, a man in our area had snapped and killed his family.” Explaining that clean-up waited until the police were through with their investigation, he goes on: “I got to clean up the kids’ room. Something like that stays with you…You can see the arc of desperation and abuse, and the road that something can take if you’re not careful. I view these stories as cautionary.
“I probably carried that particular incident around for 20-22 years before I was able to get enough distance between myself and the guy who went in to clean up that night.”
But what is it like confronting such subject matter? Braunbeck explained that, “I’ve found that when something really profound happens in your life, if you try to write it down immediately, it almost never works, because you’re still too close.”
Braunbeck does have one exception to this, the story Duty, which earned him his first Stoker award and was written just after his mother’s death. Duty begins with the memorable line, “Mom woke up just as the priest was giving her last rites,” and that was exactly what had happened three days earlier. Braunbeck struggled with the story at first. “I’d delete it, write it again, delete it, write it again, and finally I realized I’d never write anything until I got this out of my system.” The story itself, of course, goes well beyond the actual events, but the strength required to allow such a story to pull itself out and appear on paper is considerable. “You can’t really discuss where stories like these come from without discussing the state you were in at the time—it’s a little like method acting, you have to be able to draw on actual experiences and emotions. In any kind of genre where you’re altering reality, you have to make doubly sure that the ground you’re writing in is pure.”
Perhaps his stories are powerful to readers because they are powerful to Braunbeck, too. This may be why he finds himself disliking his best stories. “Do you know how I can tell—the way I use to gauge whether a piece of mine is ready to go out? When I finish it, if I really, really hate, loathe, and despise the thing, it’s usually ok. It’s when I really, really like it that there’s a problem. I think that if I hate a piece of work the minute it’s finished, that means the story came in and kicked myself and my ego out the door. It made itself the overwhelming factor, which is the way it should be. If it didn’t, then it wrote it the way I wanted to write it.”
Braunbeck’s advice to writers is to “Forget genre, it will only hobble the story.” As he points out, to set out to write a horror story, a science fiction story, or a thriller immediately limits and changes the story. “You’ll unconsciously start pulling tropes from the genre into the story,” he explains. “I write cross-genre—a majority of what I’ve written can be set into any of several categories… You write the story as it has to be written. If you have cowboys, then they have to yippee-ki-yay their way into the story.”
Braunbeck doesn’t see himself as a pure horror writer. “I don’t think I’ve ever written anything that could be classified as genuinely scary—my stuff is more on the disturbing side… If it turns out it lands more on the darker side of the fence, then so be it.”
Stories typically come announced. “It’s usually an image. Most of the time, maybe 70% of the time, an image pops into my head, and I’ll look at it from various angles… The other 30% of the time it’s when two people in my head start talking to each other, and usually I come into it in the middle of the conversation, and have to figure out what’s going on.”
Readers, publishers, and others seem happy with the results of this approach. The short story Rami Temporales was recently adapted into the short film One of Those Faces by Stranger Things—inspiring an accompanying song—and We Now Pause for Station Identification has been optioned. Braunbeck has also begun podcasting.
Braunbeck is not put off by the demands of adaptation. “I’m just going to enjoy the heck out of this while I can,” he says. Speaking of the adaptation process for One of Those Faces, “I’ve seen all three drafts of the script, and he’s [Earl Newton, Stranger Things executive producer] incorporated every suggestion of mine, and while it’s radically different from the story, the spine of the story is still there. And that’s what the adaptation process is all about.”
“It’s always interesting to see—over the years I’ve seen other people’s work adapted and I’ve wondered how they’ve felt with that, and this is first time I’ve been through that myself.” Working with another producer on We Now Pause for Station Identification has been quite enjoyable. “He’ll say, ‘Not sure what to do with this, any ideas?’ And I’ll send him a few ideas, and he’ll say, ‘This one works, I’ll use this.’ Both me and the story have been treated with a great deal of care and respect.”
The ease with which Braunbeck is adapting to these different media makes sense when you consider his influences. “There are three major influences in my work that have not changed since the time that I first decided to take up writing… One is the movies of Sam Peckinpah, [one is] the songs of Harry Chapin—because one of the things I always admired about Chapin was that he didn’t just write songs, he wrote short stories in music form, and they followed the structure of a short story. You have a protagonist, you have a problem the protagonist is confronted by, and by the end the protagonist has either overcome it or been overcome by it.
“And the third, and the biggest influence on me, was Rod Serling. Not just from the Twilight Zone, but the other works he did. Most of what I learned about presenting dialogue and characterization I learned from Serling’s work.” Braunbeck explains, “Most of the [screen]writers at that time had limited resources—they couldn’t do anything visually, so instead they did it the only way they knew how, they did it in this incredible dialogue.”
Speaking to his personal responsibilities as a writer, Braunbeck said, “I don’t like to deal in absolutes. Life isn’t made of absolutes. Life is filled with grays, and sometimes life comes down to the lesser of two evils… Some people say that there’s really no room for morality in horror, but of all the genres, to me horror is the one most in need of a strong moral core. Sometimes it’s a vindictive moral core, like the Brothers Grimm stories… At least in my work I know there’s a strong moral center to the story.” Again, it’s clear that the reason the stories make us care is because the writer cares himself.
Braunbeck’s latest novel, Mr. Hands, is being released this August. So, if you value imaginative, well-written stories with an edge—if you want a thrilling story that goes beyond itself into something more—then the next time you pick up a Braunbeck story and find yourself enthralled, be happy you can enjoy it. Remember—
Gary Braunbeck doesn’t like it at all.