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by William D. Gagliani (Interview published in the Oct-Nov 2000 issue of Science Fiction Chronicle)

Bradley Denton burst onto the scene with the hilariously over-the-top Wrack & Roll (1986), a writhing alternate history of an America bound by anarchy and set to a pulsing, punky rock & roll soundtrack complete with a full catalogue of song lyrics. He followed with 1991's Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede, a John W. Campbell Award winner which eerily predates today's conspiracy and alien invasion craze while exploring America's love affair with rock & roll -- the protagonist, Oliver Vale, was conceived the day Buddy Holly died and now every TV set in the world shows nothing but an eerily live Buddy Holly broadcasting from Ganymede, singing and telling the world Oliver's address (which sets off a madcap race by agents and religious weirdos to capture the fleeing, innocent Oliver). It's a laugh-aloud funny and yet amazingly tender portrait of characters you really come to love. The humor never overshadows the story's heart.

Then came Blackburn (1993), a true contemporary masterpiece which built on Denton's penchant for off-beat characters by presenting a sympathetic serial killer -- that's right, a psychotic whose targets would be yours, too, given the chance. Again Denton mines his vein of unusual humor, but the novel is ultimately tragic and fraught with serious, disturbing and unforgettable subtext.

In 1995, Denton won the World Fantasy Award for the 2-volume, small press story collection published as A Conflagration Artist and The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians.
Lunatics (1996) presented an ensemble cast of likable, recognizable baby boomers whose tangled relationships become even more unmanageable in the face of Jack's crush on a winged moon goddess. Once again, Denton mixes humor, fantasy, and sympathetic characters to offer a modern fable full of serious insight into life and love and human motivation.

The serious side of Bradley Denton is often disguised by the humor in his stories, and by the oddball qualities of his characters, who still win readers' hearts with their ultimate humanity. Once sampled, his fiction cannot be ignored.

His new collection, One Day Closer to Death, has just been published by St. Martin's Press. The book includes several stories culled from the WFA-winning earlier, limited-edition collections, in the hopes of finding more readers. Recently, Bradley Denton answered some questions about this new collection, his novels, and his career.

SFC: What is your first memory of writing?

Denton: When I was five or six years old, I wrote -- and illustrated -- several stories with a protagonist named "Supercar." Basically, these were Superman stories, except that all of the characters were talking automobiles.

SFC: As you look back on it, what do you think of your earliest work?

Denton: I'm a better writer now, certainly. But I'm not ashamed of my early stories, and I'm not sorry they were published. In particular, I think that my first novel, Wrack & Roll, had major flaws . . . but there were some good things in there too, and a lot of energy. I was young. So despite its obvious weaknesses, I can't dislike it even now.

SFC: When and how did you know you were a writer?

Denton: Since writing my first stories as a child, it never occurred to me that I would ever stop. So I always knew I was a writer, simply because I didn't consider the alternative.

However, I didn't start thinking of writing as my sole profession until I was about nineteen. I went to college, the University of Kansas, thinking I would earn a B.S. in astronomy and eventually become a working astronomer who would write and sell fiction on the side. But about halfway through my sophomore year, I realized that while I was able to do physics and math, I had no real love for them.

Writing, on the other hand, I loved. So I shifted my academic path and wound up with a B.A. in astronomy and English, then went to graduate school and earned my M.A. in English with an emphasis on creative writing.

SFC: How did your family react to your ambition?

Denton: My parents were supportive. They always made it clear to me and my brothers that they would be happy with whatever we decided to do, just so long as we were reasonably content with ourselves and grew into decent, responsible human beings. Books and reading were and remain a part of daily life for almost all of my relatives. So while I've taken some ribbing from a few of my cousins because I have a job that involves sitting at home, no one seems to think it's freaky or weird. And everyone seems glad when I have a new book out.

SFC: Did you choose a genre, or did a genre choose you?

Denton: When I was fifteen and first began submitting stories to magazines, I wanted to be a science fiction writer. So I sent my stories to Galaxy, The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction, Orbit, etc. But as I grew older, I thought less and less in terms of genre, and more in terms of what would work best for whatever story I was working on at the moment. It just so happened that a fair number of those stories were accepted by F&SF and other genre publications.

SFC: How do you feel about genre labels in your work, and in general?

Denton: Today, I never think of genre considerations when I'm working on a story or novel. I only start thinking about where to send something after it's finished. However, I suspect that I'll always be considered a member of the sf/fantasy/horror community, because that's where many of my readers reside. And I like the neighborhood.

In addition, I've come to realize that how one's books are published and perceived has a lot to do with on which side of the literary tracks one was born. Suppose you've published a few short stories, and now you've written your first novel -- a werewolf story that's heavy on atmosphere and metaphor, but also contains a few hearty disembowelments. If your earlier short fiction was published in the literary quarterlies or in The Atlantic Monthly, and you attended Breadloaf or the Iowa Writers' Workshop, the odds are good that your book will be published and reviewed as a mainstream work. But if your early short fiction was published in genre magazines and anthologies, and you attended Clarion or Clarion West, then your werewolf novel will most likely be published and reviewed as a genre work. From my own perspective, this state of affairs is just fine. Most of my current readers know my work because of my genre connections, and it's because of those readers' support that I'm able to continue working. So as long as they can find my books, I'm happy. Besides, more mainstream readers are checking out this side of the tracks every day.

SFC: Who were your biggest influences?

Denton: As a preteen, I read a lot of Asimov and Heinlein. But I also read Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Mark Twain, Edgar Rice Burroughs, Booth Tarkington, Edgar Allan Poe, and others. In the long run, Twain probably had the biggest impact.

When I was a teenager and began to write with publication in mind, I was reading Alfred Bester, Harlan Ellison, Edward Bryant, Michael Moorcock, Gardner Dozois, Joanna Russ, Kate Wilhelm, James Tiptree, Jr., Joe Haldeman, Cordwainer Smith, and everybody who was publishing in Galaxy and F&SF. I also became impressed with Dickens, especially David Copperfield and Great Expectations. I also discovered the darker side of Twain in Letters From the Earth, and recognized Huckleberry Finn for what it is -- a brilliant indictment of the status quo, whatever the status quo might be.

SFC: Who do you read today?

Denton: John Kessel, Connie Willis, James Patrick Kelly, Karen Joy Fowler, Joe R. Lansdale, Howard Waldrop, Neal Barrett, Jr., William Browning Spencer, Robert Crais, Alice Hoffman, Laura Mixon, Bruce Sterling, Don Webb, Steven Gould, and many others -- including some up-and-comers, such as Caroline Spector and Carrie Richerson, whose names aren't yet well known, but whose work will soon be scrambling everyone's brains like cranberry jelly in a Mixmaster. And I still read almost everyone I mentioned earlier, too.

SFC: Your novels, though generally dissimilar, tend to share threads. Music, for instance, especially in the earlier works (Wrack & Roll, Buddy Holly...). Is this conscious on your part? What are your musical influences? How significant is the title of this collection (besides being a partial Pink Floyd lyric)?

Denton: Someone once said that every writer should title every book How to Be More Like Me. In other words, it's inevitable that certain thematic threads are going to reveal themselves in some or most of my work. After all, the same guy wrote all of it. And although my attitudes and approaches will change over time, some of the things that matter most to me will always matter. So they'll always show up.

Music elicits an immediate reaction from the listener. So I'll always consider music to be important -- especially popular music that reflects and influences the culture that created it. My first published story, "The Music of the Spheres," dealt with the power of popular music, as did both Wrack & Roll and Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede. I was conscious that I was dealing with the same basic idea in each of those works, but I also did my best to explore different aspects of that idea. I don't want to tell the same story twice.

Here's a scattershot list of musicians who have mattered to me: Charlie Watts, Keith Richards, Stevie Ray Vaughan, Buddy Guy, B.B. King, Etta James, Chrissie Hynde, Mark Knopfler, Eric Clapton, John Lennon, Otis Redding, Jimi Hendrix, Buddy Holly, Chuck Berry, Liz Phair, Carl Perkins, Robert Johnson, Muddy Waters, Willie Dixon, Pete Townshend, Melissa Etheridge, Neil Young, Hank Williams, Bob Dylan, Albert King. And many more. I also play drums and mouth harp, and write songs, for the Ax Nelson blues band in Austin.

As for the title of the new collection, One Day Closer to Death: I've joked for years that this is the phrase I mutter to myself when I wake up every morning, and for that and other reasons I thought it was perfect for the new book. Then, when I sent the manuscript to my editor, Gordon Van Gelder, he reminded me that it was also a Pink Floyd lyric. Until Gordon mentioned it, I had forgotten that the Floyd had used the phrase. So clearly, I can't get away from rock 'n' roll whether I'm conscious of it or not.

SFC: How do you achieve your characteristic rhythm?

Denton: I'm at a loss. I didn't know I had a characteristic rhythm.
I hope it's a good beat that you can dance to.

SFC: All your novels strike me as subversive to some degree, some more than others. Describe your subversive impulses.

Denton: When I was a child, I believed that I should behave myself, and that the people in charge were the people who probably ought to be in charge. Even as a teenager, I did my best to behave myself. But I wasn't so sure about the people in charge anymore. Now, as an adult, I don't see any point in just letting things go on as they always have without at least throwing a few spotlights on the absurdity of it all.

And I'm afraid I don't behave all that well anymore, either.

SFC: What portions of Oliver Vale, Jimmy Blackburn, and Jack are directly recognizable in you?

Denton: None. None whatsoever. All of my characters are made up from whole cloth, and not one of them has anything in common with me. Therefore, no reader can glean anything about my personal beliefs or private life from anything any of my characters says or does. Oliver is obsessed with the effect of popular music on his life and on American culture. Jimmy grew up in rural Kansas and developed a warped sense of justice as the result of overexposure to violence and hypocrisy. And Jack is approaching middle age and losing his mind. In short, none of these people are at all like their creator. That's my story, and I'm sticking to it.

SFC: I've recommended Blackburn to many people. They invariably love it and recommend it to others. More so than other novels, it seems to me. Is this a reaction you would expect? How do you account for it?

Denton: It's a reaction that every writer wishes for, of course, and I'm gratified to hear it. But I think it would be presumptuous of me to try to account for that reaction -- because I suspect that each reader has his or her own reasons for responding to Jimmy's life. All I can say for sure is that Blackburn means a hell of a lot to me, and that while I was writing it I was convinced it was really about something. My hope is that Blackburn's readers feel that way too.

SFC: If forced to pick a favorite among your novels, which would it be and why?

Denton: It's impossible for me to choose, because they were all different experiences and were all written at different times in my life. Wrack & Roll is the most flawed, but the youthful exuberance of the kid who wrote it still shows, I think. And you have to love your firstborn, regardless. Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede is less flawed, and I cared about it so much while writing it that it'll always mean a lot to me. It's my love letter to the America in which I was raised. Blackburn is the novel I wrote because it was going to eat me alive from the inside out if I didn't. And even after selling a few chapters as short stories, I was convinced that no one would ever publish it. But I had to write it anyway, and I worked on it like a dog. So no matter how it turned out, it was going to be important to me. Lunatics was my attempt to tell a story about some of the things that I think make life worth living, no matter what -- or whom -- you have to put up with to get them: Friends, family, love, laughter, chicken-fried steak. So this book will always be important to me too.

If I really was forced to choose one . . . my heart would choose Lunatics, and my soul would choose Blackburn.

SFC: What do you consider your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and how do you overcome your (perceived) weaknesses?

Denton: My primary weakness is lousy work habits. The truth is that I don't much care for the act of writing -- but I'm fiercely devoted to the things I write about, so I have to continue doing it. The trick is to keep my life at bay long enough to get the work done. Also, I write terrible first drafts. They have extra modifiers, sentences, and paragraphs hanging all over the place. Fortunately, I'm a pretty good rewriter, and I've never had a problem cutting my own prose. Sometimes, though, I'll snip something that should have stayed. That's when a good workshop partner or editor is invaluable. "Say, Brad, something seems to be missing in Chapter 22 . . . "

SFC: Describe your writing day, and/or your best writing situation.

Denton: I have to write in the afternoon, anytime between 1:00 PM and 6:00 PM. Sometimes I'll work for the whole five hours, sometimes for three or four. And if I'm blazing away, I'll occasionally work into the evening -- but not too often, because that's my time for my spouse, for my friends, for loafing, and for music. Mornings are for chores, errands, and anything else that doesn't require full consciousness.

SFC: Describe jobs you have held and how you feel they might have
helped/spurred/hindered you as a writer.

Denton: I've worked as a farmhand, dishwasher, busboy, short-order cook, laborer, plumber, librarian's assistant, and college instructor. The things I experienced and the people I met in each case have all been useful in my fiction. The toughest job to do well and still get writing done was the teaching gig. Teaching tapped into the same energy well that I use for writing, and there often wasn't enough in the well to supply both needs.

SFC: What is your favorite story in this new collection, and why?

Denton: Well, I picked the best ones I've written so far, in my opinion, for One Day Closer to Death, so in a sense they're all my favorites. And I'm happy with the new piece, "Blackburn Bakes Cookies," too. But I have a special fondness for "The Territory," for the entirely subjective reasons enumerated in the introduction to that story. It's set in a place that I love; I think my father would have liked it; and it's about deciding to go somewhere that no one wants to go.

SFC: I was reading "The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians" and had just reached the part when Belushi arrives ... on the day that Chris Farley was found dead in his apartment. I admit it freaked me out. I expected to see Farley arrive in the pick-up truck and stumble onto the grounds. What went through your head that day? As an aside -- it was even more strange because Farley graduated from Marquette University, which is where I work. I just felt strangely connected to it all, almost plugged in, as if I knew what was happening in his afterlife.

Denton: On the day Chris Farley's death was announced, I thought immediately of John Belushi -- and I knew that when Farley's postmortem bloodwork came back from the lab, there would be something on the list of ingredients that had a lot more kick than cholesterol. I too imagined him showing up at the Home . . . where he would be greeted by Belushi, who would smack him around and give him an incoherent lecture -- "Chris, you coulda been a star, you coulda been a contender, instead of a bum, which is what I am! You coulda tripped the light fantoccini, you coulda eaten pressed snails on triangle toast, you coulda whipped the Commies with General Pershing at San Juan Hill! But NOOOOOOOOO . . . " And then they'd go on a binge together. Comics -- the really good ones -- have it rough. They do what they do for love, but that love can only be expressed through the laughter of a crowd of strangers.

SFC: If you had to pick a story of yours that you felt did not work in some way, which would it be? Did it fight you as you wrote it?

Denton: Well, I'm not going to tell you about the ones that I consider to be outright failures. I don't want anyone looking those up. But with the benefit of hindsight, I can see that some of my more successful stories could have been better, too. "The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians," for example, probably should have been a few thousand words leaner. I'm not going to rework it now, though. That wouldn't be fair to the younger me who wrote it, to the readers who know and like it as it is, or to the story itself. And every story fights me as I write it. Sometimes the ones that fight hardest (such as each chapter in Blackburn.) turn out to be the ones that I think work the best.

SFC: The allegorical "A Conflagration Artist" packs a huge emotional wallop while exploring the relationship between life and art -- were you aware of it even as you wrote it, or did it sneak up on you?

Denton: I was aware that it packed a wallop for me, at least. And I wasn't sure that I should write it, so I avoided it for a while. But it wouldn't go away. It even kept showing up in my dreams until I finally just broke down and did it. Thank God it was short!

SFC: Sam Clemens makes a great character -- was he hard to write?

Denton: By the time I sat down to write "The Territory," the story had been gestating for several years, and I had been reading the work of Mark Twain for more than a quarter century. So I knew Sam Clemens, as he would be depicted in the story, as well as I had ever known any character I ever wrote. And better than some. I simply put him in the situation and let him go. But I knew that when he finally realized what was really worth fighting for, his weapon of choice wouldn't be a gun. It would be a story.

SFC: You chose to end the collection on a downbeat, with your premature obituary. Besides the obvious connection to the title and the theme, why did you choose to do that? How did it make you feel?

Denton: That was a downbeat? Really? I felt pretty good about it, actually. For one thing, it gave me the opportunity to acknowledge some of the people who have inspired and/or tolerated me over the years. For another, it gave me the opportunity to scoop the journalists who'll be writing my real obituary on a date to be determined later.

SFC: How do you know when a story is finished?

Denton: I rewrite and revise over several drafts, changing everything that looks wrong in each draft until, at some point, I can't figure out what else needs changing. Then I stop.

SFC: Do you outline?

Denton: Almost always. Depending on the story or novel, though, the outline may be either quite detailed or downright thin. But I do need to have something on paper before beginning the story itself. However, I don't stick to my first outline if the story begins to head in a direction that works better. Stories have to go where they have to go, so it's easier to just change the outline.

SFC: What's next? How about a preview?

Denton: The novel-in-progress is called Laughing Boy. It's too soon for me to give you an excerpt . . . but I can tell you that it's about emotional dysfunction, domestic terrorism, and daytime television. In part. Sort of. Maybe. On second thought, none of that's right. Forget I said anything about it.

SFC: Any movie possibilities? Are you interested?

Denton: There are always possibilities. Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede has been optioned by a small company called Screaming Moon Productions, and they've written a script. So we'll see what happens next. I've also had inquiries about Blackburn and Lunatics, but nothing more than inquiries so far. And lately, I've been thinking of working up "The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians" as a film treatment. But whatever forays I may make into film, my primary medium will always be prose.

SFC: If you could adapt a story or novel of yours and write the script, which would you choose?

Denton: Lunatics and "The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians" might both work well on film. Blackburn and "The Territory" might also, but they'd be harder to film, and the scripts would be much more difficult to write. If I had to choose just one, I guess it would be Lunatics.

SFC: Just for fun, cast the movie.

Denton: This is one of the reasons I would choose Lunatics -- because it would require a true ensemble cast, as opposed to one or two protagonists and several supporting characters. Now, there may be better casting choices than those that follow. These are just the first names to pop into my head. Also, I'm assuming that money is no object:

Stephen ... Tim Robbins
Katy ... Holly Hunter
Artie ... Brad Pitt
Carolyn ... Michelle Pfeiffer
Halle ... Helen Hunt
Tommy ... Kevin Bacon
Jack ... Tom Hanks
Lily ... Isabella Rossellini

By the way, I didn't have any actors or actresses in mind while I wrote the book.

SFC: What are your goals as a writer?

Denton: I could give you a humorous answer, but that might leave the impression that I don't take my profession seriously. Or I guess I could give you a serious answer, but that might leave the impression that I'm pretentious. The truth is that I don't think there's any way I could define my goals for you that would be complete or correct, or that I would agree with tomorrow.
All I can say, then, is that I hope my goals are evident in my work.

Bradley Denton has been one of my favorite authors since I first read Wrack & Roll, but it was Blackburn which threw me for a loop, blew my mind, and every other chiche you can think of. The sympathetic serial killer! What a revelation. What humor! What pathos, and tragedy! The novel is a modern classic and should be assigned reading for every horror writer. Writer and musician Denton is a rare talent, one who deserves the widest possible readership. I eagerly await his next novel.