Slaying Genre: Doing Battle With Monsters or, An Interview With Grub Author Bracken MacLeod
Many folks ask me why I choose to teach at Grub Street. I could give a million answers, but it all boils down to the people. The writers with whom I work are astoundingly talented, giving human beings who genuinely care about writing, who bring their incredible energy to every project.
Bracken MacLeod is an amazingly talented writer and I knew he would be a star from the moment he stepped into my classroom four years ago. Honest and extremely generous with his readers, MacLeod looks at the world with brutal honesty and takes us to the dark and deep places that we need to go in order to understand our own complicated humanity. His new novella, WHITE KNIGHT (out from One Eye Press NOW), is such a strong and compelling crime novella, I had to catch up with him and chat about it.
1) It might be pretentious to quote Nietzsche in the first question but I'm going to do it! You deal with a lot of human horror in your writing. Nietzsche's idea that: "He who fights with monsters should look to it that he himself does not become a monster." figures in to all of your work in some way, though seems particularly apt in your brand spankin' new novella, WHITE KNIGHT. Why do you think this is still so compelling and so urgent a concept?
Is it as pretentious as it is to open a crime novella with an Albert Camus quote? [winks]
Although it gets trotted out in pop culture a lot (although not as much as “that which doesn’t kill me...”), it is a very telling aphorism about people who hear the call to stand up for others. I know you know. There are all sorts of monsters to do battle with: institutional, social, conceptual, and literal. And they all take a piece of you every time you stand up to them. I went into law school filled with idealism and determination to be a crusader for victims of abuse. By the end of my first year of practice I realized that on my best day I was struggling twice as hard to save myself from crippling stress and depression as I was working to help anyone else. Battling monsters isn’t a reflective process; you don’t see yourself in them and them in you. It’s a transformative process. You become a new kind of beast when you get down to slay dragons. The tough part is not letting that new beast overwhelm what motivated you to do good in the first place.
The Prosecutor in WHITE KNIGHT is teetering on the edge of being a hardened realist and completely losing faith in what he’s doing. And then he meets a real monster--the one that changes him. If I could, I’d put the tag line to the first Texas Chain Saw Massacre on the front cover: “Who will survive, and what will be left of them?”
2) Can you tell us a little bit about the inspiration for this novella?
The first part of the book is inspired by my own experience in legal practice. The Prosecutor is not me, but I poured more of myself into him than I have any other character I’ve ever written. He’s sort of an exorcism of the old me who enlisted to win a war and the me who realized he’ll either retire or die on the battlefield long before the battle is over.
Once you get out of the courthouse, however, the book is my love letter to hard-boiled and noir crime fiction. A couple of early readers of the book have told me that my [Andrew] Vachss is showing. I take that as a compliment. His work is a huge inspiration to me personally and professionally.
3) Your prose is incredibly strong in this novella. As I read, I think it has a lot to do with the unrelenting way in which first person narration keeps us in the head of your protagonist. We never escape his voice and in that way are constantly surrounded by his anger, his yearnings, his hopes, and his fears, yet there is a kind of balance as well. How do you convey so much of the character without oversaturating the reader?
Thank you! That is exactly why I almost never write in the first person; it’s really damn hard! I wanted to make this book very intimate--to give the reader a sense of a single person’s internal struggle to the exclusion of all other points of view. At the same time, WHITE KNIGHT is a crime thriller as much as it is a character study. I want the reader to feel swept along by the things that are happening to the Prosecutor the same way he is. It was a profoundly difficult balancing act to find just the right amount of personal reflection to give a unique context to the action without navel gazing and killing the momentum. I had to keep throwing things at the Prosecutor so no matter how much he wanted to sit down and think it out. He had to keep moving.
4) What is your favorite crime story or novel? And what does it inspire you to accomplish in your own writing?
That’s an incredibly difficult question. There are so many crime stories that I love! If I had to pick a favorite though, I think it’d be Dashiell Hammet’s RED HARVEST. The main character in that novel (another nameless character) is facing down an evil so pernicious and overwhelming that if he doesn’t keep moving it’ll destroy him. French writer, André Paul Guillaume Gide, called Red Harvest "the last word in atrocity, cynicism, and horror." Needless to say, it was a huge influence on WHITE KNIGHT.
5) White Knight is incredibly tight and well-paced, gripping and emotionally engaging. Do you have advice for writers who are experimenting with the novella? What is challenging and/or freeing about the form?
The most challenging aspect of writing a novella is creating well-drawn characters in a limited amount of space. The number of pages you have to tell the entire story is the amount of space “commercial-length” novels dedicate to establishing scene and fleshing-out character. You can have a wonderfully tight plot and great action, but without fully developed characters, the book isn’t going to be engaging at all. Every word counts!
What is freeing about the novella, on the other hand, is the opportunity to create something really lean and right to the point. I like to think of WHITE KNIGHT as all chiller, no filler. There are no garden paths in this book. It’s pedal down, the whole ride. Every word counts!
6) Now say something that will blow our minds:
There is no god but God, and his name is CROM!
Want more Bracken MacLeod? Of course you do! Check him out:
Bracken MacLeod has worked as a martial arts teacher, a university philosophy instructor, for a children’s non-profit, and as a criminal and civil trial attorney. While he tries to avoid using the law education, he occasionally finds uses for the martial arts and philosophy training. His work has appeared in several magazines and anthologies including Shotgun Honey, Every Day Fiction, LampLight Magazine, Reloaded: Both Barrels Vol. 2, Ominous Realities, and most recently, Beat to a Pulp Magazine. His novel, MOUNTAIN HOME, debuted last spring, and WHITE KNIGHT, a novella, is out now from One Eye Press.
Connect with Bracken MacLeod on Social media:
Want to get your work out there? Take Advanced 6 Weeks, 6 Stories (Revision Focus) with me this summer at Grub Street! We’ll revise existing work and polish it up to send out into the world! Sign up for the morning section of Advanced 6 Weeks, 6 Stories or the evening section of Advanced 6 Weeks, 6 Stories before it’s too late. Hope to see you there!
KL Pereira's chapbook, Impossible Wolves was published by Deathless Press is 2013. Her fiction, poetry, and nonfiction are forthcoming or appear in The Drum Literary Magazine, Shimmer Zine, Lightning Cake, The Golden Key, Innsmouth Free Press, Innsmouth Magazine, Mythic Delirium, Jabberwocky, The Medulla Review, Bitch Magazine and other publications. Pereira’s work on fairy tales, sexuality, Wonder Woman, and Buffy the Vampire Slayer are featured on Studio 360 and other radio programs, cited in numerous publications, and assigned in courses all over the United States and Canada. Find Pereira online on klpereira.com and @kl_pereira.See other articles by KL Pereira