Note: This interview originally appeared in Amazing Stories Magazine June 12, 2013.
Today we are joined by award-winning science fiction author Bradley Denton. Bradley’s fiction has received multiple Hugo, Stoker, Edgar, World Fantasy, and Nebula Award nominations, and his trophy case boasts a collection that includes the Campbell, World Fantasy, and Sturgeon awards. Bradley’s novel, Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede, is being developed into a feature film. (The teaser, starring Jon Heder from Napoleon Dynamite, will have you checking the theater for show times.) Scientifically trained and born with Mark Twain’s wit, Bradley weaves insightful stories that will both entertain and challenge you. Bradley rides the range in Texas with his guitar strapped to his back and his spurs jangling, while he prepares himself for the zombie apocalypse.
R.K. TROUGHTON FOR AMAZING STORIES: Welcome to Amazing Stories, Bradley. Hollywood is known for its fickle and slow moving ways. Rumors suggest that Apocalypse Now floated around the backrooms of Tinseltown for ten years before it finally found light. Even the options for Lord of the Rings gathered dust for decades before Peter Jackson broke the bank. Please tell us about your film project. How did it get started, who’s involved, and where is it now?
BRADLEY DENTON: My 1991 John W. Campbell Memorial Award-winning novel, BUDDY HOLLY IS ALIVE AND WELL ON GANYMEDE, has been under option with one producer or another since the mid-1990s. (Almost twenty years — so we’ve got Apocalypse Now beat!)
The current option-holder, Dahlia Street films, has had the property in development since 2004 . . . and they’ve come oh-so-close to “start of principal photography” at least three times in the past nine years. Each time, a crucial element in the domino-chain has failed at the last minute. But the Dahlia Street producers are tenacious, and they aren’t giving up. There’s a fair chance that funding will fall into place this summer, which could mean an Autumn 2013 or Spring 2014 shoot. (Again, if all the dominoes line up.)
The creative elements for a terrific film are all there: The screenwriter and director will be Robert Rugan, an award-winning commercial director who has also been signed to write and direct a couple of major projects for Warner Brothers. Jon Heder will portray the story’s protagonist, Oliver Vale — and his debut as Oliver in the YouTube teaser trailer made me realize he was born to play the role. Other well-known actors and actresses have agreed to play supporting roles as well . . . and I would love to tell you their names, except that they won’t be “official” until the shoot is scheduled. Trust me, though, when I tell you that your jaw will drop. (Mine did!)
So keep your fingers crossed, and make a sacrifice or two to the Hollywood Financing Gods. Whoever the heck they are.
ASM: For those that are not familiar with your novel, Buddy Holly is Alive and Well on Ganymede, tell us about your story.
BD: BUDDY HOLLY IS ALIVE AND WELL ON GANYMEDE begins on February 3, 1989 as every television program on Earth is taken over by a broadcast from the Jovian moon Ganymede. Rock’n’roll legend Buddy Holly (who died in a plane crash along with Ritchie Valens and J.P. “The Big Bopper” Richardson in 1959) has apparently been resurrected and is now performing from a transparent dome on Ganymede — and he announces that there’s a sign on the TV camera stating “For more information, contact Oliver Vale.” Thus begins an Earth-wide manhunt for Oliver, who hits the road in a panic.
The story also involves aliens, tornadoes, rock radio, sex, parent-child relationships, modern American history, and redemption. Among other things.
I’ve read Robert Rugan’s script, and I think it’s terrific. It condenses and changes certain elements in order to adapt the story to a 90-minute movie format — but it preserves my novel’s themes, its hero, and his quest. I couldn’t ask for more.
By the way, in an effort to help promote the film, I’ve made the novel available as a free ebook under a Creative Commons license. It’s available from various sites around the Web — and one of the best is ManyBooks.net (where the CC-licensed ebook version is not only free, but offered in all current ebook formats).
ASM: While some of your fiction is filled with humor, other pieces visit dark places where few would dare to tread. Please tell us about your novel Blackburn.
BD: BLACKBURN is about a young man named Jimmy Blackburn who, like many of us, has a highly developed sense of justice. Unlike many of us, however, Jimmy is willing to put himself on the line to enforce his beliefs whenever he sees them violated. This leads to many offenders being punished at his hands. Some of them die.
BLACKBURN was first published in 1993 . . . and after Jeff Lindsay’s DEXTER books came out a number of years later, some commentators said that BLACKBURN was actually the first fictional serial killer who only killed those who deserved it. I have to disagree slightly — because Jimmy Blackburn is not really a “serial killer” in the usual sense of the term. “Serial killers” do what they do out of a psychosexual compulsion. Blackburn, however, is compelled only by his hyperdeveloped sense of right and wrong.
He does do it over and over again, though. So in that regard, maybe he is a serial killer after all.
ASM: What was the process like writing something as dark as Blackburn? How did it affect you?
BD: The thought process and the research that I had to do before writing BLACKBURN were difficult and troubling. Once I started writing the book, however, I was in the best mood of my life — because it all came together just as I had hoped it would.
Twenty years later, BLACKBURN is still the book that comes closest, in its reality, to the mental vision I had before writing it. And I’m still very proud of it.
ASM: Your story “Sergeant Chip” won the Theodore Sturgeon Memorial Award for best short science fiction of the year in 2005, and last week StarShipSofa ran the audio version of the story on its site. When I first read the story, I had to immediately read it again. It is that good. Please tell those not familiar with the story a little about it.
BD: “Sergeant Chip” is science fiction, but it has a strong basis in fact. Dogs have served as soldiers alongside human beings almost as long as there has been warfare — and their heightened senses of smell and hearing (as well as their other physical abilities) have been crucial to saving human lives in hundreds of combat situations.
At the same time, there is an obvious and troubling moral question: Do we have the right to use animals in this way?
And that in turn, of course, leads to the even more obvious and troubling moral question: Do we have the right to use human beings in this way?
“Sergeant Chip” is told from the viewpoint, and in the voice, of a dog who has been specially enhanced as a warrior. As a dog, Chip does not understand the human motivations behind military action — but he does understand pack loyalty, combat, and love. So the challenge for me, as a writer, was to let Chip tell his story in the terms he would understand . . . while at the same time revealing the human convolutions behind Chip’s tragic situation.
I hope I was successful.
ASM: Looking back at your youth, can you point to a single catalyst or experience that ignited your interest in science fiction?
BD: I can’t remember any _one_ event — but certainly, my life as a whole was channeled toward science fiction at an early age. My first hero was Superman; I was fascinated with the American space program; I was crazy about chemistry and astronomy; and I loved to read books and stories. How could I have turned out any other way?
ASM: How old were you when you wrote your first story, and do you still have a copy of it?
BD: My first stories were Superman pastiches that I wrote when I was about five years old. I don’t have any copies myself, but my mother might still have them in a drawer somewhere. Basically, I just took all of the characters from Superman and turned them into automobiles . . . and I think the criminals that “Supercar” had to battle were evil foreign sportscars and big thuggish dumptrucks.
I first submitted a story in the hopes of having it published when I was fifteen. It was a science-fiction story about a lone human sentinel on a space station whose job was to blast any asteroids or comets threatening Earth. He got into a real pickle, though, when an oncoming swarm of asteroids turned out to be made of antimatter.
Nope, it didn’t sell. And I don’t have a copy of it, either . . . although it may be in the same drawer in my mother’s house with the “Supercar” stories.
ASM: What authors have influenced you the most, and what are you reading now?
BD: When I was young and first thinking about writing, I read a lot of Isaac Asimov, Robert A. Heinlein, Ray Bradbury, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Theodore Sturgeon, and Mark Twain. Along toward my late teens and early twenties, I was heavily into Kate Wilhelm, Ursula K. LeGuin, Edward Bryant, Harlan Ellison, and everyone who was being published in F&SF, Galaxy, and Damon Knight’s Orbit.
Currently, I’ll read anything by Maureen McHugh, Karen Joy Fowler, John Kessel, and Kij Johnson.
I also want to mention the terrific author James E. Gunn, who wrote The Listeners, The Joy Makers, The Immortals, and many others. He was my professor and writing instructor while I was a student at the University of Kansas — and he’s been an influence on dozens of other sf writers, critics, scholars, and teachers as well. I’m thrilled that Jim will be honored this year as one of the Guests of Honor at the World Science Fiction Convention, Lone Star Con 3, in San Antonio.
ASM: I recently witnessed you read your short story, “La Bamba Boulevard”, at ConQuesT 44. Rather than deliver a dry, straight-faced reading, you actually performed for your audience. You sang and did impersonations that brought the story to life. What are the origins of these grand performances?
BD: Partly, at least, it’s a function of getting older and losing a lot of inhibitions. When I was younger, I was terribly worried about what people might think of me — so I made an effort to remain as shy and retiring as possible so as to avoid any possibility of causing offense.
Now, though . . . I’m in my mid-fifties, I’ve gone through chemotherapy, and at least half the people I always worried about offending are dead.
I might as well have some fun!
ASM: When I heard you sing during the reading of your story, I was surprised at the quality of your voice. That brief sample of your talents made me excited to hear your musical performance that was scheduled for later that night. Regrettably an unforeseen event caused me to miss out. (See last week’s article.) A number of your stories reveal the connection you have with music. Please tell us about your love for music and how you harness it within your fiction.
BD: Music is such a constant in my life that I can’t imagine doing anything without it. I don’t think I could write without thinking of music any more than I could run without breathing.
My first professional story sale — in July 1983, thirty years ago — was a novelette entitled “The Music of the Spheres” bought by Edward L. Ferman at The Magazine of Fantasy & Science Fiction. It was about a musician searching for sounds and chords that had never been heard before.
Another early story sale to F&SF was entitled “Top of the Charts.” It was about aliens using rock’n’roll records to deliver hidden messages to Earthlings.
My first novel was entitled WRACK & ROLL. It involved an alternate history in which (among other things) rock’n’roll became popular a decade earlier than it did in our world.
Then there was BUDDY HOLLY IS ALIVE AND WELL ON GANYMEDE, in which rock’n’roll icon Buddy Holly served as a symbol of (among other things) societal transformation.
I don’t just write about it, either. I played saxophone and clarinet when I was a kid and young adult, and then I played drums in a blues band in Austin, Texas for about ten years. And now I play guitar in occasional pickup bands and in my solo act, Bland Lemon Denton.
You get the idea. This is who I am, and this (among other things) is what I do.
I write stories, and I play music. And my wife, Barbara, sticks with me anyway. How lucky am I?
ASM: It seems as if nearly everything you’ve written since you first became published has contended for awards. George R.R. Martin wrote that your short story, “The Adakian Eagle”, “deserves to be an awards contender, if there is any justice.” In fact it was later nominated for an Edgar Award. With such critical acclaim, it is clear that you don’t just rush through stories, as some writers might, just to fill up your bookshelf. Please take us through your writing process, and give us a peek at your dedication and passion.
BD: The process is different — or at least somewhat different — for every book or story. Despite the fact that I do revisit certain broad themes (like music) from time to time, I try to never tell the same story twice. And when every story is different, every path to the finished product is different, too.
For BLACKBURN, for example, I wrote the middle chapter first and sold it as a short story entitled “The Murderer Chooses Sterility.” Then I wrote the rest of the book around it.
For BUDDY HOLLY IS ALIVE AND WELL ON GANYMEDE, I gave each secondary character a chance to describe the same events from his or her different perspective, in every chapter — a story structure I had never used before, and have never used since.
For “The Adakian Eagle,” I read five books (three biographies of Dashiell Hammett, plus two of his novels), watched two documentaries, and researched dozens of articles and photographs about the Aleutian Campaign of WWII — all for one piece of short fiction. And it was wonderful.
Some things are almost always the same, though. I almost always have a detailed outline for everything I write . . . and I almost always deviate from that outline somewhere in the middle of my first draft, in some crucial way.
But I always know where the story will end. Everything else on the way can vary . . . but I always know how the protagonist will wind up when it’s all over.
One other thing is always the same, too.
I don’t always like writing, or being a writer. But I always love the thing I’m writing.
I always love the story.
ASM: I can imagine the finely tuned wheels in your head are constantly in motion. What are you working on now, and what can your fans look forward to seeing from you in the future?
BD: One of my quirks is that I never talk about what I’m working on. I have the superstitious belief that if I talk about whatever I’m doing, I’ll kill the magic.
Of course, there really is no such thing as “the magic.” Writing itself is just a process, just work. There’s nothing magical about it. But try to tell a pitcher who’s thrown three great games in a row while wearing the same hat . . . that the hat doesn’t matter.
Even Barb doesn’t know what I’m working on while I’m working on it. And yet she still seems to have faith that I am, in fact, working. (Again: How lucky am I?)
Once something is sold and scheduled, though — Sure, I’ll tell you all about it!
New stories coming up soon include:
“Blood Moccasins,” a horror story that will appear this summer in IMPOSSIBLE MONSTERS, a Subterranean Press anthology edited by Kasey Lansdale . . .
“La Bamba Boulevard,” a sort of twenty-years-later sequel to BUDDY HOLLY IS ALIVE AND WELL ON GANYMEDE, appearing in RAYGUNS OVER TEXAS, edited by Rick Klaw . . .
and “Bad Brass,” a comic-thriller novella that will appear in ROGUES, edited by George R.R. Martin and Gardner Dozois.
ASM: For someone that is new to your work, where should they start? What should they read first? Please take us through the Bradley Denton primer.
BD: I suspect that every Bradley Denton reader would give you a different answer to this question. At ConQuest in Kansas City, for example, George R.R. Martin asked my fellow Austin writer Caroline Spector what her favorite book of mine was — and without hesitation, she told him it was LAUGHIN’ BOY. And George, apparently surprised, said, “Not BLACKBURN?”
So I’ll try to tailor my answer to my different (theoretical) readers:
If you like dark fiction with a streak of grim humor, read BLACKBURN first.
If you like comedies and romance (and don’t mind occasional nudity), read LUNATICS first.
If you like social satire and unexpected shocks, read LAUGHIN’ BOY first.
If you like rock’n’roll and slapstick, read BUDDY HOLLY IS ALIVE AND WELL ON GANYMEDE first.
If you’re not sure what you like, read my stories in ONE DAY CLOSER TO DEATH, A CONFLAGRATION ARTIST, and THE CALVIN COOLIDGE HOME FOR DEAD COMEDIANS first. There’s a little bit of everything in those!
ASM: Many of your can’t miss pieces are short fiction. As we all know, short fiction sometimes can be difficult to track down. How can fans purchase your work? Is there a Bradley Denton bibliography posted somewhere?
BD: My website (www.bradleydenton.net) is currently under reconstruction . . . but in a few months, I’ll have the new site up and running, complete with a bibliography (I hope).
In the meantime, my two-volume World Fantasy Award-winning collections A CONFLAGRATION ARTIST and THE CALVIN COOLIDGE HOME FOR DEAD COMEDIANS are still in print and are available through Amazon or (I believe) direct from Wildside Press. They contain the best stories from the first ten years of my writing career.
My more recent stories such as “Sergeant Chip” and “The Adakian Eagle” will be collected soon . . . and until then, they can be found in their original or reprint anthologies (such as DOWN THESE STRANGE STREETS for “The Adakian Eagle” and YEAR’S BEST SF 10 for “Sergeant Chip”)
ASM: How has science fiction and the publishing industry changed since you published your first story in 1986? What do you see as the future of the industry?
BD: I’m even older than you think. My first novel (WRACK & ROLL) was published in ’86 . . . but my first story (“The Music of the Spheres”) was published in ’84.
Clearly, the biggest source of change in publishing between then and now has been in e-publishing — in particular, e-publishing via the Internet. And that change is continuing to happen as we speak.
So predicting the future of the publishing industry is a dangerous enterprise right now, since no one can really say what the “final” shakeout will be. There may not even be a “final” shakeout, since the industry might just remain in a perpetual state of flux from now on.
I do think it’s safe to say, however, that traditional book publishing and publishers will have to continue to change rapidly in order to take advantage of — rather than being overwhelmed by — e-publishing.
I myself have been a bit slow getting up to speed in this regard, although (as I mentioned earlier) I have made BUDDY HOLLY IS ALIVE AND WELL ON GANYMEDE available as a free ebook.
Very few of my other works, however, have been available as ebooks up to now — except as pirated copies. Other than BHIAAWOG, my only novel currently in “print” as a legitimate, legal ebook is LAUGHIN’ BOY (available as a Subterranean Press ebook via Baen).
But that will change soon: Late this summer, I plan to make BLACKBURN available for the Kindle and other e-readers, to be followed by LUNATICS and the rest of my backlist.
I’m really looking forward to doing that, too. E-publishing will give me the opportunity to reach more readers than I’ve ever reached before.
ASM: We greatly appreciate your sharing time with us and eagerly wait for your next bit of fiction to make its way before our eyes. Maybe if we are lucky, we’ll get to see you perform at an upcoming convention. Before you go, is there anything else you would like to share with the readers of Amazing Stories?
BD: As I’ve noted, I sold my first story thirty years ago this summer — and I feel incredibly fortunate that all these years later, I’m still a full-time writer.
Not all writers become big names or bestsellers. But I’m living proof that if you keep working at it, keep doing your best, and keep loving the story being written . . . readers will find you, and they’ll be glad you stuck around.
Sometimes, they’ll even invite you to be Guest of Honor at their conventions. And to my great surprise and delight — I’ll be Guest of Honor at ApolloCon in Houston, Texas, June 21-23, 2013.
I’ve also been astonished and gratified, in recent years, that a number of newer writers have approached me at conventions and have told me that something I wrote — in some cases, years ago — inspired them to do what they’re doing now.
Sometimes, you really have no idea of the value of your work until long after you’ve done it.
And for me, that may be the most amazing story of all.
Thank you so much. Ad astra per aspera, y’all.