Today Fantasy Literature welcomes Robert Brockway, currently celebrating the recent release of The Empty Ones, the second instalment in his horror-comedy-punk VICIOUS CIRCUIT trilogy. Mr. Brockway made time to chat with Marion Deeds and Jana Nyman about his wide-ranging influences, his reading preferences, and how he makes unlikeable characters interesting.
One random commenter with either a U.S. or Canada mailing address will win one copy each of The Unnoticeables and The Empty Ones.
Marion Deeds: As an editor for Cracked.com, you’ve written nonfiction. You’ve published short fiction and written four novels. What are the differences in those three types of writing? Is there one you prefer? Do you find that each type of prose fills a need?
Robert Brockway: I started off preferring non-fiction, but I definitely lean toward fiction now. It’s easier to explore the similarities between all of the markets, rather than the differences, and I’m pretty lazy, so let’s do that: The important thing, whatever you’re writing, is clarity and voice. Try not to let style overshadow content (honestly, I’m still working on this one), and do your best to preserve whatever unique voice or sensibilities you bring to the table, even if it feels like they don’t fit the type of writing you’re doing. Hunter S. Thompson’s style should never have worked for political reporting, and yet that was some of his best work. Be the Hunter S. Thompson you want to see in this world.
Jana Nyman: Many readers know you for your well-received fiction, but others (like myself) were first introduced to your style through your long tenure at Cracked.com, both as a contributing writer and as a Senior Editor. Was transitioning from non-fiction to fiction always your plan, or was it a natural evolution of your writing career?
RB: More of a natural evolution. My first book deal was for non-fiction, and though I did do some surrealist meta-fiction on Cracked, the bulk of my articles were non-fiction, too. But I’d always dreamed of writing fiction as a kid. It never seemed worth pursuing, because I thought it was like dreaming of being a rock star or a pro football player. ‘Good luck, kid. See you in the Arby’s drive-thru in twenty years.’ But when I took the plunge and wrote Rx, a weird little self-published cyberpunk serial novel, the reception was pretty good. Maybe not amazing, but far better than I thought. I dared to dream that dream. I seized opportunity by the throat. When destiny wasn’t looking, I punched it in the gut and stole its lunch money.
MD: The Unnoticeables and The Empty Ones both have plenty of creepy, gory horror, but there is a metaphysical aspect, an interstellar aspect, a quantum physics aspect; and then there is the toying with N-dimensional space if I’m reading it correctly. I know you’ve talked about one thing the “angels” do that is based on mathematics. I’m almost afraid to ask, but what were your other influences in this trilogy?
RB: That’s been a pretty hard question for me to nail down, and I think it’s because my influences are so broad. There’s comedy in here, sure — you can see elements of The Young Ones in Carey’s sections — but it’s not a comedy book. There are bits of Lovecraftian cosmic horror in the creatures, and the way they operate, but it’s not that, either. There’s some Chandler-esque noir in the ‘unknown’ chapters, a few action scenes that owe a lot to ‘50s and ‘60s pulp, and my modern influences — ranging from Italo Calvino to Robert McCammon — are mashed together on every page. You see the same problem when we try to define the series by genre: Nobody knows what to call it. Either because it’s something entirely new, or more likely, because there are just too many pieces that went into making it. I’d like to think of it as a literary paella, but that’s just me putting on airs: I write gumbo books.
JN: There’s a surprising level of metaphysics and human spirituality blended in with the beat-downs and pyrotechnics, and some particularly tantalizing hints at the dynamic between humans and the angels/flares throughout history. Will you expand upon that in the upcoming third novel, by any chance, or is it intended to be a head-scratcher that worms its way into reader’s brains and makes them question reality?
RB: A rule I adhere to, especially in horror, is ‘never explain everything.’ Sometimes you explain as much as you can and you wind up creating a satisfying, immersive world with tons of lore to delve into. But most times, you end up blathering on about some inane aspect of your universe that people thought was way cooler before you started talking. That being said, there’s danger in being too mysterious. You get some answers by the end of The Unnoticeables, you get more in The Empty Ones, and you get answers to the big stuff by the end of the third book. But it’s not everything. Maybe if the series really takes off, I’ll use those intriguing mysteries to do spin-offs and sequels until I run the whole franchise into the ground and destroy all remaining goodwill, as seems to be the fashion of the time.
MD: Carey, who is a young punk in the 1970s timeline and an old punk in the 2013 storyline, is an unmitigated ass 99% of the time, but in spite of that I like him and worry about him. How did you do that? Seriously, how?
RB: It’s all about unflinching honesty. Not from Carey himself, though that would probably be his go-to excuse for the behavior — the primary defense of assholes is always “I’m just telling it like it is” — but from me, while writing the character. I picked an old-school punk rocker for a protagonist. I’ve known a few of those guys. They’re ‘good people,’ but they’re not ‘good’ people. I only had two choices once that decision was made: I could romanticize Carey and turn him into a hero — a white knight with a mohawk — or I could accept all of the many, many faults that come along with that kind of person, living that kind of lifestyle, and write them in. The first option bores me to tears; the second was interesting and, hopefully, makes for a better character.
JN: Were you ever genuinely concerned about potential problems arising from the character of Marco Luis? It’s an excellent skewering of Hollywood culture and the cult of celebrity, of course, but was there ever a moment in your mind when you wondered if the allusion was too spot-on?
RB: I was never actually worried about it, because I’m certain I’ll never get so big that Mario Lopez, the actor the character is based on, will notice me. I’m not saying he’s a huge celebrity above the world or anything — that’s just how small I dream.
MD: You’ve stated in other interviews that you did a lot of research into the punk movement of the late 1970s. In the first book we spent a lot of time with Carey in the New York punk scene; in The Empty Ones we’re in London, which has a different flavor. What sources did you use for your research? Did you listen to punk music while you were working on these, and if so, did any particular band influence you, or seem iconic of the period?
RB: I was way into punk when I was younger, and punk never really changes. So most of the attitude and priorities are pulled from my spotty memory of those times. But the books are period pieces, in a way. That requires a lot of research. The Unnoticeables owes a huge debt to Legs McNeil and Gillian McCain’s Please Kill Me, an exhaustive and decidedly un-romantic look at the start of the punk scene in America. The Empty Ones owes the same to Jon Savage’s The England’s Dreaming Tapes — an expansion of his previous book, England’s Dreaming. This one is huge: A bash-a-man’s-head-in tome that says it’s mostly about The Sex Pistols, but lies. A lot of it concerns the Sex Pistols, but there are interviews from, and about, most every major figure in the ‘70s UK punk scene. It’s less about profiling the biggest band around, and more about pointing at the biggest band around and asking everybody else “what do you think of all this?”
As for the music, I assembled massive playlists of every influential band I could find for each time period and era, and wrote while listening to them. My favorites from the states were probably Richard Hell and the Voidoids, and Rocket from the Tombs. From the UK: Gang of Four and Stiff Little Fingers.
JN: As a writer of both non-fiction and fiction, who do you read when you have time — either for entertainment or to guide your craft?
RB: It used to be non-fiction, but now it’s almost entirely fiction. I ground myself heavily in horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. Those are the genres I want to work in, so I still focus on learning them. Apparently there’s supposed to come a time when I’m so jaded by it all that I stop enjoying the genres I work in, and exclusively read dry books about the history of British tariffs, so I’m soaking up the fun stuff while I’m allowed. I’m currently reading Bird Box by Josh Malerman, and it is fantastic.
Finally, we’d like to ask if you have a favorite drink — either relating to your creative process (as a relaxation aid or a motivator while writing, for example) or something involved with your work. Are there any beverages which you particularly enjoyed while working on The Empty Ones, or which you drank to celebrate its publication?
Always, and forever bourbon.
Thanks very much, Mr. Brockway! We’re both looking forward to reading the third book when it comes out.
Readers, comment below for a chance to win one copy each of The Unnoticeables and The Empty Ones! This giveaway is open to commenters with either a U.S. or Canada mailing address.