HELLNOTES: Thanks for talking to us about your new novel, Come to Dust (available from JournalStone on June 23). Let’s start right at the beginning, because although this novel involves the dead rising back to (un)life, it’s clear from the synopsis (available on the preorder page here) that this won’t be a typical zombie novel. What kind of story is this, exactly?
Bracken MacLeod: Ha! Not typical, indeed. I don’t think of this book as a zombie novel at all, although there are living dead in it. I can’t deny that there’s an aspect of that genre that bleeds through any story dealing with the risen dead, though if we were splitting hairs, I suppose it’s more of a revenant novel. The dead in Come to Dust are far from mindless, nor are they flesh/brain eaters. These kids come back with a directed purpose, though that intention isn’t clear at first.
Zombies or revenants, at its core, this is a book about what we owe children—our own and other people’s. I prefer to think about this book as a story about family, responsibility, and compassion… with dead kids in it.
HN: One hallmark of your work is its focus on the characters and their emotional experience, so how did that interest come together with the idea of the undead and millenarian cults? In addition, are there any other books (or movies or other sources) whose influence readers might recognize in Come to Dust and, if they enjoyed those touchstones, would also enjoy this novel?
BML: The conceit of the dead returning to life to a large degree sprang from an attempt to cope with my feelings about the death of a friend. Bob Booth, the originator of my favorite writers’ con and a profoundly warm person, had asked if I’d be interested in participating in a novella project he wanted to launch. I said “yes” and immediately set to work. The project itself was a race against time because Bob was suffering from end-stage cancer. I didn’t realize it at the time, but a lot of what came out in the first draft was me trying to put my friend’s progressing illness into perspective. I was struggling with the conscious reality of what was happening, and my unconscious translated that into this story. My thought was, what would happen if some dead kids—some, but not all—came back to a kind of diminished life? How would that affect the lives of the people who’d lost those children? How would the rest of the world react?
As far as books and movies go, I was somewhat influenced by a 2004 film called Les Revenants (released in the States as They Came Back) about a small French town where the dead return and try to reintegrate into society. Naturally, that causes problems. (That film spun off French and U.S. TV series, but I haven’t seen either of them.) Again, sort of zombies, but sort of not.
As far as the millenarian part of it, I wanted to find an antagonist for my main characters that was big enough to match (or outmatch) their ability to handle the situation they’d been thrust into. Given the metaphysical implications of the dead returning to (a sort of) life, religion seemed to me to be the most logical front runner. I was inspired somewhat by the novel, The Leftovers by Tom Perrotta, where a Rapture-like event leaves a portion of the population behind. In the book a religious group emerges called the “Guilty Remnant” (again, I don’t have HBO, so I haven’t seen the TV series). The idea took root in me. It seemed like the kind of people who would respond first and worst of all to the returned children in my book would be religious extremists who’d see this as an opportunity to step out from the fringes into the mainstream.
HN: You’ve talked elsewhere about doing research in order to capture the authentic details that will hook readers, including such diverse topics as sniper practice and culture in your novel Mountain Home and Arctic platform supply vessels and oil rigs in Stranded. Was there any similar research necessary for Come to Dust? What kind of information–either from research or your own experience–did you feel was necessary to make this one feel grounded?
BML: I do love research; it’s a bit of my old life as a lawyer that I haven’t been able to shed. I did a lot of brushing up on what happens to corpses as they decay. I read a stack of books including Mary Roach’s Stiff: The Curious Lives of Human Cadavers and Corpse: Nature Forensics and the Struggle to Pinpoint Time of Death, by Jessica Snyder Sachs, but in the end, I didn’t want to weigh Come to Dust down with a bunch of technical detail about decomposition. I was concerned that Sophie’s physical experience would be a distraction from the emotional point I wanted to convey, so I downplayed her decay as much as I could. The “gory details” are not all that necessary. She’s somewhere in between dead and alive, but there’s something not quite right about her either way. The whole book is supposed to be just slightly off from reality like that, so it didn’t bother me much to throw that very specific putrefaction material out. The “gory details” are less important that that feeling of reality being out of joint.
I ended up drawing more from a couple of resources that informed living characters. Caitlin Doughty’s book, Smoke Gets in Your Eyes & Other Lessons from the Crematory helped me considerably with a couple of secondary characters who work in the death care field. And, most of all, Laina Dawes’ book, What Are You Doing Here: A Black Woman’s Life and Liberation in Heavy Metal very heavily informed my co-protagonist’s identity and attitudes (so much so, I named Liana after the author). That research was part of that very present conversation people are having about writing other people’s cultural experience. While I’m a metalhead, I’m not a woman or a person of color. I wanted to get that right so people from that background (as small as the community of Black, female metalheads might or might not be) would feel like I hadn’t done them wrong. Their opinion matters to me, so probably the most care I took in terms of attention to detail revolves around Liana.
HN: What was your process like in writing Come to Dust? Did you outline it beforehand or make it up as you went along, and how did it change as it progressed? Along those lines, what was the hardest part of the novel for you to write?
BML: You already know I’m a big researcher. My background as a lawyer nearly compels me to try to find the answer to every question in a story before I start writing it. But I am also a compulsive outliner. I always work from a long synopsis. A lot of other writers hate them, but I actually enjoy the process of boiling a book down to its essence before I dive into its soul. Come to Dust was written using a 17-page synopsis as a roadmap. I also do pretty extensive character profiles of every point of view character in a book as well. I have a five-page dossier that I fill out for every significant character whose motivations need to be known. That’s not to say any of that is written in stone. I tend to revise synopses as ideas occur to me while writing, and often I “learn” things about characters as I see their identities coalesce in the story. This book in particular, had a big change.
As I said, I wrote the first draft in a rush so I could get it to Bob while he was still able to read it. The hardest part of writing the book was dealing with the fact that I failed to get it to him in time. He died before I finished, and it knocked the wind out of me. I finished the story the way I’d plotted it, but my heart wasn’t in it by that point. I wrote “The End” and shoved it in a (figurative) drawer. It wasn’t until three years later, when Brian Keene asked if I could deliver a novel for his Maelstrom imprint at Thunderstorm Books, that I had the heart to take another look at it.
With some time and perspective, I rewrote the second two-thirds of the synopsis, trashed the original ending and expanded the story from a novella to a full-length novel. That new spark that Brian Keene kindled is responsible for Come to Dust as Trepidatio/JournalStone is publishing it.
HN: Do you have a favorite line or passage from Come to Dust that you feel captures its tone or will otherwise pique readers’ curiosity past the tipping point?
BML: I think my favorite line is, “There was no word like ‘widower’ for someone who lost a child, because it was just too terrible a thing to give a name to.”
Jack Ketchum, on his Twitter account, singled out, “If you can look in the eyes of a person and ignore everything about them that resides in you, then there are no limits to the evil you can do.”
I’m pretty proud of both, and I think each line gives a glimpse at the soul of the book.
HN: In addition to your novels, you’ve also written a number of short stories, some of which were recently collected in 13 Views of the Suicide Woods. Looking back on your experience, what piece of writing advice would you give to our readers who are also writers? Similarly, what was the best piece–or the worst piece–of writing advice you’ve been given?
BML: I got two pieces of advice that were transformative for me as a writer. Both involve impact. The first came from an instructor (and now my good friend) KL Pereira who told me to linger. I used to have a problem second guessing myself about how much was enough or too much in a story. I’d flinch and look away from tough moments, afraid of putting readers off. But KL was right. I needed to learn to let the reader sit with an uncomfortable moment long enough for it to really sink in. That’s not to say one needs to dwell in it. Linger, not loiter. There’s a kind of Goldilocks zone right in the middle of too little and too much which, in my experience, has the perfect amount of emotional impact without being either disappointing or numbing. Linger.
The second piece of advice that changed for the better how I approach work came from Elizabeth Bear. She told me to write what I know. Now, I know that sounds like bullshit advice, but she wasn’t saying if you’re a lawyer you need to stick to legal thrillers, for instance. We’d never have sci-fi, fantasy, or most horror if that was the way it worked. What she meant was, write what you know to be emotionally true. That is, if you’re writing a story about people on a space station orbiting Europa who discover a hostile, sentient bacterium, there’s still an emotional truth there that you know from your own life experience. Write what you know means making the hopes, fears, aspirations, and reactions of the characters in that situation natural and impactful to the conscious experiences of the writer and the reader. Write what you know to be emotionally true!
HN: Finally, what’s coming up on your horizon? Not just what’s coming out next, but also what ideas are you playing with that maybe haven’t been worked out yet–give us something concrete and something abstract to anticipate.
BML: Right now I’m working on a new “secular” (not supernatural) home invasion thriller about a couple who buy a house that the prior owner isn’t ready to let go of yet. In real estate, they talk about motivated sellers. This seller is very motivated to get his house back. I’m writing that on spec, so I have no idea when it’ll see daylight.
In the meantime, I am looking to republish two of my earlier books. The rights to both Mountain Home and White Knight reverted back to me this year, and I’m going to reissue them both in the next 12 months with additional material. White Knight will be retitled White Knight and Other Pawns, and will contain the novella as well as some of my other uncollected crime stories. Mountain Home is also going to be expanded, but differently.
I sat down with Mountain Home and did a thorough re-edit of the material. I cleaned up some wonky first novel sentences, expanded a couple of character moments to give them added depth and, most importantly, restored the original ending that was cut by the first editor. Almost everyone I know who has read that last chapter has told me they thought it was a mistake to cut it. It was my first experience in publishing a novel, and I learned kind of the hard way that it is worth fighting for the work sometimes. This is going to be the author’s preferred edition—or as I like to think of it, The Restoration Edition.
Bio: Bracken MacLeod is the author of the novels, Mountain Home, Stranded, and Come to Dust. His short fiction has appeared in several magazines and anthologies including LampLight, ThugLit, and Splatterpunk and has been collected in 13 Views of the Suicide Woods by ChiZine Publications. He lives outside of Boston with his wife and son, where he is at work on his next novel.