Kealan Patrick Burke is a small-press superstar, writing the popular Timmy Quinn series (starting with The Turtle Boy), stand-alone novels like Currency of Souls and Master of the Moors, editing acclaimed anthologies like Taverns of the Dead, and even starring in the film Slime City Massacre. After a nearly year-long absence from the scene he’s about to coming roaring back with an armload of new short stories, a couple of novels and other top-secret projects all in the works. He’s kicking off the new year by offering much of his back catalog digitally, including a collection of winter tales called Dead of Winter. Kealan was kind enough to take a few moments away from preparing for world domination to speak with October Country.
OC: You were churning along a couple of years ago, having just released The Number 121 to Pennsylvania & Others plus your reworked novel Master of the Moors, and then there was silence for a while. Was the sabbatical a planned thing? Was it a break only from publishing, or from actually writing as well?
KPB: Unfortunately, it was a break from both. I got divorced in the summer of 2008, and relocated briefly to Arkansas, where I worked on a movie project that turned out to be just another disaster in a year full of them. I came back to Columbus, moved into an apartment and got a full-time job in an attempt to get things back on track, which eventually they did, but with little time for writing. I didn’t quit writing, of course, at least, not intentionally. As a writer yourself, you know such a thing is hardly possible. It’s a compulsion, not a hobby. But what little I managed to concentrate long enough to get down on paper wasn’t very good. I was exhausted both physically and mentally, and more than a little depressed. I know sometimes that’s a condition that produces the best writing (if it wasn’t, would anyone have heard of Poe?) Not in my case. My inability to get the work done began to affect my relationships with my publishers. Projects I’d promised weren’t getting turned in and that only depressed me further. It was my worst nightmare: realizing I might be done as a writer.
Then, last summer, I took a road trip with my girlfriend. We set out from Columbus, Ohio and drove through Indiana, Illinois, Missouri, Nebraska, Idaho, Wyoming, Utah, and stayed for a few days in Nevada. We came back to Ohio via as much of Route 66 as possible and passed through California, Arizona, New Mexico, Texas, and Oklahoma. In every state we took time to soak in the sights and saw more amazing things and met more incredible people than I can list here.
When I got home, the writing had come home with me.
Sometimes when you take a break – planned or otherwise – you come back to a thing stronger and hungrier. How do you think the time away from writing may have helped you?
Being away from writing made me realize what it had felt like to be a writer, how enormous a part of me it was to be a creator, and how badly I needed it to be complete, and happy, as a person. So I came back after getting out into the world and rediscovering my muse (sounds melodramatic, but it’s no less true) with a renewed hunger for the craft and an insatiable desire to get the stories that had been cluttering my head down on paper. But since that moment, where I knew I could write again, things have been different. My writing is different, more mature than it’s ever been. And darker. I have written plenty of stories over the past few months and the only thing they have in common is a distinct lack of light and hope. Funny thing is, that’s the exact opposite of how I feel these days. I’m happier now than I’ve ever been. I’m writing my best stuff in years, have a great woman by my side, and I have for the first time in my life, a solid plan for the future. But the voice inside, that one you never hear, but know never stops talking, that’s different now. I guess it’s like when they replace a character on your favorite TV show with a different actor. It’s jarring at first, but if you love the show, you go with the flow.
You’ve certainly come back to the scene in a big way, and we’d like to hear whatever you can share about a couple of upcoming projects you’ve been teasing. First up: Jack & Jill, which was recently announced by Cemetery Dance.
Without sounding like one of those nauseating actors in an interview who claims everyone was just great to work with! when in reality they probably weren’t, Rich Chizmar and Brian Freeman at Cemetery Dance are two of my favorite people. Ditto Bill Schafer at Subterranean. Not only have they provided me a great venue for my work for almost a decade, but on a personal level, they’ve always been very cool, understanding, and have saved my hide a number of times when everything in my life seemed to be falling apart. Up until The Dark Year, I had never been late on a deadline or failed to turn in a story they’d asked for. But like so many other things during that time, that changed. I tried to write and failed; I tried to force it, and failed, but I refused to give up until eventually I ran out of time, knew I was delaying the project and had to bow out. Now, any other publisher might have lost the plot completely and advised you to go run up a flagpole. Instead, after a few months of hearing very little from CD, Brian contacted me about the Collector’s Edition three-book series they were doing, and asked if I was interested in writing something for it. Grateful, and with the horrifying but endlessly inspiring details of my girlfriend’s dream from the night before still rattling around in my brain, I immediately got to work. The end result was Jack & Jill, which is a bleak, gruesome story about old ghosts and new ones, and it came out of me in a torrent the minute I opened that blank page. It’s also one of the best stories I’ve written in perhaps ten years. Because of the limitation on the Collector’s Edition series (500 copies or so), I do plan to reprint the story somewhere down the line, but right now, that’s not a priority. There are more stories to write first. Lots of them.
What can you tell us about Kin (described in your blog as your “longest and most violent novel to date”)?
I once got into an online debate about the merits of horror novels and movies in the backwoods-inbred psycho-cannibal subgenre. My contention was that efforts thus far had failed to give the characters, both antagonists and protagonists, any humanity, negating the viewer’s ability to empathize with the latter or care to understand the motivations of the former. One response to my heated diatribe was “put up, or shut up.” I really had no intention of writing a novel-length response. It just didn’t interest me enough and, in my opinion, had already been done to death. Until I took a trip to Alabama and saw for the first time a cotton field, red dirt, and a makeshift village of lean-tos all but stacked atop each other on the side of a hill. I was inspired.
At the end of a lot of these backwoods cannibal movies, there’s a survivor. Unless there’s a twist and he (though invariably it’s a she), gets shockingly murdered in the last five minutes, we see them sobbing and driving off into the sunset. I found myself wondering what life would be like for that survivor when they got home. What kind of existence awaits someone who has seen what they’ve seen, done what they had to do to make it out of there? Think of the survivor’s guilt, the trauma, the nightmares, the constant fear that the killers might still be coming for you. Think of the ghosts, the paralyzing terror that clings to you like a shadow, the ghoulish curiosity of the media, the barely restrained resentment from the parents of your dead friends, whose eyes say to you: why did you survive? why not my baby? And think of the primal rage that tells you the only way to set things right, and to keep the horror from being visited upon others, is to gather together people who also know loss, people perhaps a little less stable than you, and go back for revenge.
These are the questions that led me to finally sit down and write Kin.
You’ve been putting out digital editions of your previous work left and right, which is great for the readers who maybe weren’t able to shell out $40 or so for the limited editions. How is it working out for you so far?
As something that started as an experiment, it’s been a great, if strange, experience so far. I really only got serious about the e-books about a month ago, which is right about the time I figured out how to format the damn things so they were readable. I’m averaging about 50-75 sales a month between Smashwords and Amazon, which is dismal compared to the numbers of giants like Joe Konrath and Scott Nicholson, but about what I expected at this early stage. It’s humbling to realize that you’re marketing your work to a huge audience of people who don’t know you from a hole in the ground, so it feels like starting all over again. Rewarding and frustrating in equal measures. It’s nice having complete control of your book from layout to pricing and promotion, but trying to figure out what readers want and how to make your work stand out among 400,000+ other titles is tough. But that’s publishing for you.
Interestingly enough, I made “Underneath” a free download two weeks ago and as I type this, it has 3,200 downloads on Smashwords. So the work is definitely getting more exposure, which is great. How that will translate to e-book and print sales over the next year remains to be seen, but it’s fun experimenting with the process, and nice to see a whole new appreciation for books that have over the past few years only been available on the secondary market at prices few people would be willing to pay.
Any other future projects you can share about at this time?
There are some other things in the pipeline, some of which you’ve probably heard about, others you haven’t, but I can’t say too much about the latter just yet. What I can say is that in addition to more work in some Cemetery Dance releases (Shivers VI, Smoke & Mirrors, Crane House), hopefully in 2011 you’ll see two novels (Kin, and The Living), a novella from Bloodletting Books, a novelette from Subterranean Press, a darkly humorous, crime-horror story entitled “Stalled” in a long-awaited anthology, the mass market release of Currency of Souls from a Polish publisher, and some more short stories in various magazines. And on the movie front, you’ll see the DVD release of Slime City Massacre, in which I play an army deserter who turns to slime (a claim a few exes and detractors of mine have been making for years.)