“I ponder questions such as: At what point does a musician say, “I’m going to start a cover band.” And who are these people who say, “Guess what, Honey? There’s a Beatles cover band playing at the casino on Friday and I bought tickets for us!”~ Author James Brotherton
It’s pretty rare that a book charms the entire global staff of the Books for Dudes franchise, but this was the case in 2012 when we received Reclaiming the Dead by James Brotherton, a little gem of unexpected depth and speculation zipped up tight in nifty vampire-hunting casing.
Brotherton sat down with the BFD crew to discuss how Reclaiming came into existence, the writing process, and self-publication.
BFD: Hey who are you, anyway? Some lucky dude?
JB: I live in Bellingham, WA (north of Seattle). I did my Master’s in English, emphasis in creative writing at Western Washington University in 1997. I had the good fortune to find a gig as a technical writer for Microsoft, working from home in a community of awesome people. I count myself very lucky indeed.
BFD: Vampires, really? Aren’t you leery of being lumped in with all the crap out there?
JB: Reclaiming the Dead is buried beneath a tectonic plate of vampire crap. I don’t want to be regarded as an author of genre fiction because while it can be entertaining, it’s not thought-provoking. It lacks substance. And life is too short to clog your mental arteries with squeeze cheese. Writing Reclaiming the Dead took me right to the doorstep of blurring the boundaries between literature and genre.
BFD: How long did it take you to write it?
JB: I started this book in 1997 while under the influence of Dracula and Moby Dick. From the outset I was primarily interested in exploring the idea of being undead. Merton’s mental deterioration was, initially, far more interesting to me than his job killing vampires. But as I spent more time with the subject of the undead, I started asking questions about the mythology. The answers that came to me were interesting. I believe that Reclaiming the Dead enriches the mythology of vampires in ways that Stoker and Melville might find interesting. The first draft was nearly 600 pages and it was awful. After 13 years of drafts, refinements, and learning curve, I decided I needed an awesome, vile character that makes you shake your head and say, “WTF did I just read?” I also wanted to pay tribute to the influence of Moby Dick, and that’s when I introduced the Judas character.
BFD: You self-published on CreateSpace; can you speak to the unfair, yet very real, stigma associated with self-publication?
JB: You know, based on some of the titles and descriptions on Amazon, I’d guess the stigma of crappy self-published works has a foundation of truth. That said, I had a great experience. I’m sure that when agents saw the word “vampire” in my cover letter, their eyes glassed over. But since I still believed in Reclaiming the Dead—and because I didn’t truly want it to die a solitary death as an electronic file—I checked out CreateSpace. For the time being I’m content knowing that Reclaiming the Dead is finding an audience of devout followers who seem grateful that I wrote this novel. [Note: Folks can purchase the book from CreateSpace or Amazon]
BFD: Have you read any other self-published books that don’t suck?
JB: Nietzsche self-published Beyond Good and Evil. That book didn’t suck.
BFD: True, dat. Whether they care to admit it or not, most librarians are frustrated authors; What should they do with their impossible dreams?
JB: First, pause with a cup of coffee (or a beer) as you stand before a wide-open space and ask the question, “Why do I want to write this book?” If your answer is, “Because I have an idea, and I enjoy thinking about the human condition, and I don’t mind spending hours upon hours writing and re-writing paragraphs and sentences so that I can find the right rhythms and words, and I’m content to be alone for substantial portions of my life to ponder character and motivation and metaphor and the poetry of language…” then sit down and do the work. If it’s any other reason, reconsider. You almost never see a mosh-pit at an author reading these days.
BFD: Talk to me about Merton, the main character.
JB: I wanted the main character to be on the underdog/slacker edge of the everyman spectrum; there are good people named Merton working in feed stores and bowling alleys across the country. The name Merton felt right.
BFD: What’s next?
JB: The next book is about an academic who researches anomalous phenomena and a mystery from the netherworld. It’s about serial murder. It’s about making sense of senseless acts. I think Dante and C.G. Jung would approve. The working title is The Underlying Order of All Things.
BFD: It’s Halloween time; you must have some creepy titles to share since you wrote one of the creepiest things I’ve ever read. Also, what’s the ultimate book for dudes?
JB: Each of my picks presents a world where the perversion of an idea realizes a state of life that is darker and more disturbing than any nightmare simply because the state is possible (or, as is the case with Blood Meridian—and also McCarthy’s Child of God—a matter of historical fact). All these books are haunting directives of “Do Not Enter.” With the exception of McCammon, the authors (also check out Evenson’s Last Days), understand that language can produce gravitational pull that will suck you to the edge of an event horizon. As for the ultimate book for dudes? Dude, Moby Dick!
Melville, Herman. Moby Dick, or The Whale. 2002 2nd ed. 726p. Norton. ISBN 9780393972832. pap. $15. F
If you factor in “savages” with harpoons, Ishmael the outsider, a megalomaniac captain hell-bent on revenge, and the white whale with all of its symbolic potential, you’ve got a story that essentially taps into all of the primal dude urges. Apart from the mastery of that work (which Melville described as “a draft of a draft”) I appreciate that Moby Dick was a project born from the influence of Shakespeare. After notable success with his early South Pacific novels (Typee, Omoo) a wealthy merchant in Melville’s town opened up his personal library to the young writer. Melville read Shakespeare for the first time and suddenly felt disdain for his early works. He wanted to write a huge and compelling drama with all of the emotional and symbolic richness that prose fiction could sustain. Moby Dick was an attempt to throw back the tectonic plates (of his own making) that had encroached on his career. Moby Dick is a volcanic eruption of literary effort.
Other perfect books for dudes are:
- Orwell, George. Nineteen Eighty-Four: A Novel. Knopf. 1992. 325 p. ISBN: 9780679417392 $21. F
- McCarthy, Cormac. Blood Meridian, or, The Evening Redness in the West. Modern Library. 2001. 337p. ISBN 9780679641049 pap. $23. F
- Evenson, Brian. Contagion: and Other Stories. Wordcraft of Oregon. 2000. 152p. ISBN 9781877655340 pap. $11. F
- Trumbo, Dalton. Johnny Got His Gun. Penguin. 2009, 1939. 251p. ISBN 9780141189819. pap $14.35. F
- McCammon, Robert R. Swan Song. Pocket Books. 2009. 856p. ISBN 9781439156735. Pocket Books trade pbk. ed. pap. $18 F
BFD: Your book jacket says, “He attended the Bread Loaf Writer’s Conference as a contributor.” WTF is that? Was the bread good?
JB: The conference has nothing to do with bread or baking. Bread Loaf is the oldest and (arguably) most distinguished writers’ conference in the country. It’s held on the Bread Loaf campus of Middlebury College each year in August. It’s 10 days dedicated to honing your craft among kindred spirits in a gorgeous setting.
BFD: You started Reclaiming the Dead in 1997; was the writing an episodic experience?
JB: Yes. Several drafts after the initial [600-page] one, I realized that the first-person narrator wouldn’t allow me to go places I wanted to go. I rewrote the novel in third person and refined it as I went along. After having an agent tell me (circa 2001) that Anne Rice had a monopoly on the world of vampires and he’d never be able to sell the book, I dropped the project. I picked it up three years later after reading Blood Meridian by Cormac McCarthy.
By the time I finished multiple drafts with the new antagonist, the Northwest was no longer a viable setting for the book (it was originally set in Seattle) so I changed the setting to my home town of Des Moines, Iowa. The change of venue, along with countless revisions, took several more years. As recently as September 2011, I had resigned myself to Reclaiming the Dead being recycled when my computer died. I went back to the manuscript in October 2011 after a friend suggested I check out CreateSpace. I still believed in the project. It blurred the boundaries between literature and genre [fiction]. It deserved to live. Of course, I’d welcome the help of an agent or a contract from a publishing house.
BFD: On a scale of 1 to 10 where 1 is the alarm waking you from an awesome dream to go to work and 10 is constructing a workable raft out of live timber in a pine forest, how does writing this book rank?
JB: This book ranks as -1, like someone shoving a steel-wool pot scrubber down your throat when you’ve got strep.
BFD: Wow. Do you have any more advice, tips, or musings for hypothetical librarians writing hypothetical books?
JB: Even if it requires eight beers, write the answer to the question “Why do I want to write this book?” in blood on a wall that is visible to everyone who enters your place of residence. If the answer is “Because I want to be rich and famous,” then you should probably know that there are other, more compelling ways to become rich and famous. To put it another way, authors don’t get their own reality TV shows.
You already know that you will find inspiration when you write. You’re not the kind of person who waits for dark and stormy nights. And your brain is always preoccupied with this project, the characters, the themes, every single detail. They plague your mind whenever you walk your dog in the park or sit on the toilet or drive a familiar road. It’s an entity in and of itself growing inside you.
If you need support during the process of writing the book, find one or two readers. For God’s sake, don’t take the advice of an entire workshop or even a book group. You do not want to please everyone. If you manage to please everyone, then you’ve killed something in the book that was original and unique. Some people should really dislike what you’ve written. That is your goal. If you need a guide or a refresher about the mechanics or the process of writing fiction, check out Oakley Hall’s The Art & Craft of Novel Writing (Story Press, 1994).
BFD: Ever think you should have done anything differently?
JB: Nope. The book makes sense to me. It works. Readers who avoid squeeze cheese seem to think so as well.
BFD: What are you driving?
JB: An ‘01 VW Jetta wagon with tennis balls attached to the ends of the roof rack so you don’t hurt your head when you enter or exit the car. The passenger-side mirror is missing because my wife dropped a kayak on it.
JB: I chew tobacco—Redman. It’s an awful habit and my wife and son hate that I do it. I read too much, mostly nonfiction dealing with the boundary where science hasn’t yet provided the answers to such questions as “What is consciousness?” I write daily, hike and ski in the mountains, and ponder questions such as: At what point does a musician say, “I’m going to start a cover band”? And who are these people who say, “Guess what, Honey? There’s a Beatles cover band playing at the casino on Friday and I bought tickets for us!”
BFD: At 43, I am the exact age as “some old, rich dude” with whom [Merton’s ex girlfriend] Elise hooked up. How old are you?
JB: I’m 43 as well. David Mitchell is also 43 and that bastard has five novels, two of which were shortlisted for The Booker prize, and one of which, Cloud Atlas, has been made into a movie.
BFD: Hmph. So what’s the score of the big game?
JB: David Mitchell: 5; Jim Brotherton: 1; Doug Lord: 0.