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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.