Q&A With Kealan Patrick Burke
Here at LitStack, we’re lovers of all genres of fiction, but for me, personally, horror ranks at the top of my “must read” list. One of my favorite writers (in any genre) is the highly prolific Kealan Patrick Burke. Burke is best known as an award-winning author described as “a newcomer worth watching” by Publishers Weekly. Some of his works include the novels Currency of Souls and The Hides (Bram Stoker Award nominee), the novellas The Turtle Boy (Bram Stoker Award Winner, 2004) and Vessels, and the collection Ravenous Ghosts. He has also sold fiction to a number of publications, including Postscripts, Cemetery Dance, Grave Tales, Shivers II, Shivers III, Shivers IV, Looking Glass, Masques V, Subterranean #1, Evermore, Inhuman, Horror World, Surreal Magazine, and Corpse Blossoms.
Aside from his accomplishments as an author, Burke also edited the anthologies: Taverns of the Dead (recipient of a starred review in Publishers Weekly), Brimstone Turnpike, Quietly Now: A Tribute to Charles L. Grant (International Horror Guild Award Nominee, 2004), the charity anthology Tales from the Gorezone and Night Visions 12. He is also an associate editor for Subterranean Magazine.
I sat down recently and chatted with Burke about his writing roots, the emerging changes in publishing and his idea of success.
LS: You have garnered quite a bit of buzz for your work, from the Bram Stoker award winner The Turtle Boy and for the anthologies you’ve edited such as Quietly Now: A Tribute to Charles L. Grant. Has the success you’ve achieved been what you expected it would be? Would your definition of success be any different?
Honestly, when I started out, my idea of success extended no further than having the ability to write as a full-time job and having my books out there in the world for people to enjoy. I’ve achieved both of those things and I’m very content to have done so, because for a long time it was a struggle, and one I wasn’t ever certain I could overcome. Obviously you can define success in different ways. Am I making a ton of money doing this? No. Are my sales comparable to those of King et al? Of course not. But I’m successful enough to make a living doing what I love and the work is generally received well by critics and readers. If I don’t consider that a form of success, I’m already a failure.
LS: How did your writing journey begin? Have you always written?
I have. My mother was instrumental in getting me to read at a very young age, and though we didn’t have much money, the one thing she never denied me were books. By the time I was ten, I had a library in my room and hated to be away from it. The magic I discovered through the words and worlds of all those writers (everyone from Dickens and Poe to Hitchcock and Blyton) transitioned early into a burning desire to create worlds of my own in which other people could lose themselves. So I began to write. Then, once I discovered Stephen King and Charles L. Grant, I knew those worlds were likely to be very dark places indeed. In high school, my English teacher didn’t bat an eyelid at the grim content of my short stories. Instead he encouraged me to continue them and constantly advised me on how to better my craft. People like that are a rarity, especially in today’s intolerant times, so I’m thankful for those who fueled my need to do what I do.
LS: What were your first stories like?
Some of the ideas weren’t bad, but the execution was as bad as you’d expect from an eight year old. Ten years later, however, my first publication, “Praying for Angels” (in the Irish magazine Writings), a story about a boy locked in the attic by his sadistic mother and left there to die, was pretty sad, but beautiful at the same time. At least, the idea was. Again the execution was pretty shoddy. I hadn’t yet learned to regulate my breathing when telling a tale, so it was all rushed sputtering and therefore not as coherent as time, practice, and a willingness to learn made it.
…among the tools essential for any writer is a thick, bristly hide of get-the-hell-on-with-it, or you won’t be in this business for long.
LS: Many writers struggle with rejection. What was your road to publication like?
I’ve had my share of rejections, but despite the natural disappointment, I used each one as an opportunity to learn. Which is why, even though I understand the necessity of form letter rejections from an editor’s perspective, I despise them because I learn absolutely nothing from them. I’ve been lucky though, that most of the rejections I got back when I first started really writing and submitting were detailed enough that I was able to hone my craft. But writing is writing, and not everything you do is going to be loved by everyone, editors included, so I expect rejection as one of two potential outcomes whenever I send anything out. It doesn’t matter if I think the story is marvelous. It may not be a good fit for the editor who requested it, and that’s just the way it goes. Another editor might love it. And if they don’t, well then you may have to consider that the story you wrote just isn’t all that great and you go back to the drawing board. But among the tools essential for any writer is a thick, bristly hide of get-the-hell-on-with-it, or you won’t be in this business for long.
LS: What drew you into writing Horror?
I read all kinds of books as a child, and though I can’t really pinpoint why, as soon as I read Pet Semetary by King and Dialing the Wind by Charles L. Grant, not to mention titles by Lovecraft, Poe, and Bradbury, I knew there was no chance that I was ever going to be able to resist the lure to scare people with my fiction. And I come from an ancient country. So old you can take a breath of the air and taste the troubled history, and everyone you meet has a ghost story they swear is true, so I think a combination of those two things made it inevitable that I would put stakes down in the dark country and add my voice to the dusty wind.
LS: With the increasing popularity of e-books and self publishing, the scope of the publishing industry is changing. What is your opinion of this evolution and its impact on the industry?
Personally, I think it’s great. Dozens of my books, previously published as limited edition hardcovers by specialty presses, and long out of print, are now available digitally. I’m finding a whole new audience (a rather limitless one) and it has opened up all kinds of unexpected doors for me, so I can’t complain. The irony is, I don’t own a digital reader and probably never will. Just like that eight year old back in Ireland in 1984, I’m still sitting in a room surrounded by books.
The downside is now all it takes to call yourself a published writer is a computer and an Internet connection. Years ago, being published was a badge you wore with pride. It said you had been through the wars and come out better on the other side. You had run the gauntlet but your work was good enough to make it through. Now people have no gauntlets left to run and they vociferously denounce everything about traditional publishing as if was the only thing keeping them down. The truth of it is, quite often sub-par work was keeping them down, but that doesn’t matter anymore. Computer + Internet = Success.
On the flip side, however, quite a lot of very good work is rising to the top that absolutely deserves to be there and I couldn’t be happier about that. Savvy readers will find it, and savvy writers can now make sure it’s there to be found.
LS: Setting, it seems, can be either a hindrance or blessing to a writer. Do you feel setting is necessary in bringing readers into your stories or should the characters and plot be foremost?
It’s all vital. Without setting, you have people telling a story in a void. Without characters, it doesn’t matter where or why anything happens, because you have nothing but cardboard cutouts going through the motions. Without plot, you have a bunch of people standing around trying to impress each other with their words. Good writing combines all of these things to weave a tapestry that utterly hypnotizes the reader.
LS: KIN is decidedly a “brutally compelling” novel that examines, among other things, the ideals of religion and family. What drew you into these topics?
While the obvious answer is: my Catholic background, I’m not sure that’s entirely accurate, though I have struggled with matters of faith for most of my life. In the novel, Claire Lambert is the sole survivor of a massacre in which she watched her friends die. When a character survives at the end of a movie, we’re relieved, glad for them. But this happens at the beginning of Kin, not the end, and the rest of the novel shows how she copes with the grief, the guilt, and ultimately the rage that sends her on the hunt for her tormentors. When you’ve lost everything, the grief and sorrow leaves you with few directions in which to turn. Claire demands to know what force is out there that made this happen. She demands answers from somebody, something, anything, in order to ease the pain, or perhaps, to give her something besides her killers, and herself, to hate. Nothing, in my mind, confuses faith more than grief.
The bond of family, on the other hand, was necessary to explore because I needed my family of killers to make sense to me, to be more than just typical slasher-fare lunatics. They needed to be real people who believed in what they were doing. Their family’s bond is built on fear and that fear comes from the faith their father has instilled in them. The proper ingredients for any cult, you might say. But when that faith begins to buckle, so do the familial ties, and what results is chaos. You can point to many religious sects around the world and see the same thing happening to them. You can also see the same thing happening at family get-togethers. Family is as strange as any religion and just as corruptible.
LS: Did real life accounts in any way influence this novel?
Real life always informs the novels I write, but thankfully, with KIN, no, not to any significant degree. So you can rest better knowing I have never killed and eaten anyone or stabbed someone through the eye with a broken piece of a television screen, or plowed a truck into…well, you get the idea.
LS: You’ve dabbled in many different artistic venues: writing, editing and films. Do you have a preference? Is there anything that you haven’t done but will soon attempt?
Writing will always be where my heart belongs. And there are many things I haven’t yet done but would do given the opportunity. Whether those opportunities ever come along is another matter.
In writing, there are few boundaries.
LS: Hypothetical question: should a writer’s family and friends expect inclusion in their stories? Are there any boundaries that shouldn’t be crossed?
I think family and friends make it into a writer’s work quite often, just not in ways those people, or sometimes even the writer recognizes. Our work is part of who and what we are, and our stories are always threaded with strands from our lives. But I don’t think anyone should expect inclusion in a writer’s work. I write the stories that come to me and rarely could I alter them to include someone the story hadn’t already dictated should be there. I would hope that they would understand that, though in my experience, nobody but writers (and sometimes not even us) understands how writing works.
In writing, there are few boundaries. In family, plenty. If you can navigate the dangerous waters between them successfully, then why not?
LS: Any new wovels in the works?
No, but the “wovel” (and oh, how I have never cared for that term), THE LIVING, is being extensively reworked for release as a paperback later this year.
LS: What can your readers expect from you in the future?
Aside from the aforementioned novel THE LIVING, this year will also see the release of NEMESIS, the fifth and final entry in the Timmy Quinn series. Cemetery Dance will be releasing JACK & JILL, my very grim novella, in a few months. Darkfuse publishing has just released the Milestone (the town from my novel CURRENCY OF SOULS) novella THIRTY MILES SOUTH OF DRY COUNTY, and over the summer, another Milestone tale will appear in Subterranean Press’s self-titled digital magazine. I also have a teleplay in Richard Chizmar’s SMOKE & MIRRORS anthology alongside such greats as Neil Gaiman, Frank Darabont, and William Peter Blatty, to name a few.
Any readers who’d like to keep abreast of developments (and win free stuff) need only send a blank email to me at firstname.lastname@example.org with “Newsletter” in the subject line and they’re in. You can also find me on the web at www.kealanpatrickburke.com.
*We’re away at RT this week, so we’re recalling a few of our favorite pieces. This interview first appeared on LitStack in January 2012*