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A Conversation With Kevin Brennan, Part Two

Part One is here.

MP. As the author of Fascination, is there something about the story that you particularly like?  Is there a part of the story, or an element of it, that you think you got particularly right?

KB. It’s not always easy to be super-objective about your own work, but in this book I like the overall tone most of all. I set out to write something in the mode of, say, Tom Robbins (without trying to imitate him, of course), but I wasn’t sure I could carry it all the way through a 300-page book. I hope readers think I succeeded!

I think the main thing I got right was telling a sprawling, convoluted, funny story that also gives the reader some interesting things to think about by the end. Ultimately, as the characters come to understand, the journey to heaven is heaven.

MP. It’s interesting that you describe Fascination as a “sprawling, convoluted, funny story that also gives the reader some interesting things to think about by the end.”  I want to use that comment to finally get into what I thought about the story.

When I think about what to write about Fascination, I struggle with how to describe it and why I think it was so good.  What I come up with is that it is an engaging story.  And that’s how I have felt about most of your previously published novels.  It’s engaging and entertaining.  And the other thing is that Fascination is actually a pretty simple story.  I hope you don’t find that offensive, but it’s one of the things that attracts me to your writing.

There are times when I read something that just strikes me at my core.  Stories that speak so incredibly to where I’m at with the issues in my life.  Everything Matters by Ron Currie and The Art of Racing in the Rain by Garth Stein are two examples of this.  There is this quality to both of those stories that made me want to wallow in them and left me in tears by the end.  And then there are the stories that are just a joy to read.  They are the stories that I think of as “race to the end” stories.  And Fascination, as well as Town Father and Occasional Soulmates fit that description.  There is something in these stories you write that just catches the reader’s imagination and, for me at least, makes me want to soar with the words and the tale that follows and get to the end and see how it all comes out.

Sally Pavlou and Clive Bridle and, yes, even Sally’s not so dead husband and his baby mama are characters that are, on one level somewhat odd and not really relatable to me, but on another level, they are.  They are just people, human beings like the rest of us, on this journey called life.  And each of them was on a different journey, but each of their journeys was related nonetheless to the other.  You drew me into these characters and their journey with lighthearted fun, without going into too much unnecessary depth with each stage of their journey (which would have been yawn-inducing for me at some point).

In some respects, Fascination is a story that a reader who is looking for light entertainment could enjoy at the same time a reader who is looking for something deeper also could enjoy.

I don’t really have a specific question here, other than to ask whether any of that has any meaning to you?!

KB. I’m glad you put Fascination in the category of a “race to the end” story. Thanks. I was trying to pace this book in a way that would make readers wonder what the heck could possibly happen next, and even though there’s kind of an inevitability about the plot, I wanted enough surprises along the way to interest all kinds of readers. And it’s not offensive to call it a “simple story” — not at all. I like to think of most of my books as “deceptively simple,” so that they can be read in a more casual way or with an eye toward themes that aren’t necessarily megaphoned through the books.

In Fascination, buried in a fun tale of “self-realization and vengeance,” are themes about the pursuit of happiness, personal identity, religion, social groups, self-delusion, and family, but readers are free to nod at them as they go through the book or to think about them in detail — and relate to them in their own lives. It’s always, at least casually, a fun road story.

As a writer, do you find that you gravitate to characters who have some kind of relation to your own life and issues? In some ways, writing fiction can become a way of working through things and trying different strategies to see how they might turn out.

MP. When I first started writing, I began with situations or characters that I could put myself into. I thought that would make the writing easier to accomplish since I had no idea if I would be able to write a story.  Once I established I could do that, I wanted to see if I could write characters who weren’t me and the stories that are as far removed from me as possible are the stories I am most proud of .

It’s interesting that you refer to fiction as being “a way of working through things.”  One of the struggles I have had over the last couple of years is that every new idea I have had for a story has quickly become about the same theme.  About characters who yearn for the thing that is missing from their lives.  And that is really about solving my own personal issues and I’m done writing that story.  So I haven’t written much in the last couple of years.  I have some WIPs that are about other themes, but they’re a struggle too, unfortunately.

One final comment before we take a break…  You say there is an inevitability to the plot.  I can’t disagree with that, but one of the story’s strong points is that there is always a surprise around the next corner.  Sally obtaining her vengeance may have been inevitable, but the manner and style with which she did it was a complete surprise.

Next up:  More on Fascination, journeys, and guerrilla publishing.  And if you haven’t already, here where you buy it.

A Conversation with Kevin Brennan

Kevin Brennan has published another delightful story.  Fascination.  Only he’s taking the bull by the horns and is selling directly to his readers.  No publishing contract, no Amazon, nothing more complicated than buying the e-book directly from him.  Here’s how you do it.

Fascination tells the story of Sally Pavlou, Clive Bridle, and Mason Speck.  Three people who are on different journeys that wrap around each other forming the tale of one grand journey.  Mason and Sally have been married for years when suddenly Mason commits suicide.  Only he didn’t.  He faked his suicide and disappeared into a new life.  Once Sally realizes that he isn’t dead, she embarks on a journey of self-realization and vengeance, with Clive as her private investigator and erstwhile friend and companion.

This is the fourth book written by Kevin that I’ve read.  Each one is a lighthearted read that pulls the reader in.  I wanted to post a review of his book but thought there was a better way to draw attention to his work and his publishing direct effort.  Kevin and I have started a discussion about Fascination, writing, and what he refers to as guerrilla publishing.  I’ll be posting the discussion in parts over the next few days and weeks.  I hope you enjoy it.  More importantly, I hope this will prompt my readers who don’t already know about Kevin to hop over to his website and buy Fascination.  His idea is exactly what I have pondered over the last couple of years as I consider my own writing and publishing efforts.  Guerrilla publishing is an idea that needs to catch on but it only will if readers take a chance on writers.  Kevin Brennan is definitely a writer worth the chance.

MP. Is (or was) there an old arcade game like Fascination?

KB. There really is an arcade came called Fascination. I think it originated in the 1920s or ‘30s, and it was the kind of thing you’d find on beach boardwalks and places like that. In fact, I know there are still a few Fascination parlors (as they seem to be called) in operation, so if you’re in the mood for a little retro recreation, you can plan a road trip and try it for yourself.

MP. I may have to find myself a Fascination parlor.  It’s kind of amazing that such things still exist these days.

Whenever I read fiction I find myself wondering how the author came up with the idea for the story.  What was the spark?  Stephen King has always provided a little glimpse into his storytelling.  When I’ve published things, I try to do the same thing.  With Fascination, there are so many ways in which I could see where this story originated.  So, what was it?  What was the spark that started this story for you?

KB. Since this is a book that I started a long time ago, its origins are a little hazy. I went back to my early notes about it and was surprised to learn that I began with Sally’s husband, Mason, and not Sally at all. He was the one left alone after a faked suicide. And he was the one heading out on a journey to find his wife. It wasn’t going to be comic, and I think it was headed in more of a semi-thriller with philosophical overtones. After a couple of stabs at it, I just couldn’t make it work, so I switched characters and everything started falling into place. As for the Fascination part, I happened to see an article in the Chronicle at the time about the old Fascination parlor on Market St. in SF (which is pictured on the cover, by the way), and I thought it would be interesting to make Sally an aficionado. Or aficionada. It also seemed to have odd metaphorical potential — a game that’s almost impossible to win is a lot like life …

I’ll add that this isn’t the only book I’ve ever written that I put away for a long time then came back to with new enthusiasm. A lot of writers find that changing things up after a long hiatus offers a new slant on a project. You might just land on the perfect approach.

MP. If I remember correctly, Occasional Soulmates was told from the perspective of the female character.  In Fascination, you also tell a significant chunk of the story from the perspective of the primary female character.  One of the ways in which I want to challenge myself as a writer is to write from the perspective of narrators that aren’t me.  Old guys (I’m not that old yet), women, members of ethnic groups to which I do not belong, etc.  You clearly want to take that challenge on as well.  Do you ever doubt your ability to do that?  I mean, how can you as a man possibly narrate a female’s tale of self-realization and vengeance?  Or do you just roll with it and see what happens?

KB. One of the benefits of writing fiction is that you get to put yourself in someone else’s shoes. When you think about it, unless you write nothing but autobiographical fiction, successfully assuming the identity of any character is going to be the challenge because it has to be believable. I think, in a general way, that men and women aren’t that different psychologically. Socially, culturally, sure. But in terms of human instincts and tendencies, male/female isn’t a problem. That said, you can’t phone it in. Female readers are rightfully critical of male writers who don’t try very hard to draw believable women in their fiction.

I do doubt myself sometimes, but not just writing female characters. There are times I’m on shaky ground with, say, a character’s profession I don’t know enough about (like my doctor in Soulmates) or, in historical fiction, getting the period right in a way that doesn’t bother the sticklers out there.


I know your WIP has at least one first-person female character. How did you approach writing her, and did you have to go through a lot of drafts to feel comfortable in her head?

MP. I don’t generally go through a lot of “drafts” when I write because I edit a lot as I go along.  I consider my best stories to be the ones where I am able to narrate from the perspective of a character that is as far removed from me or my own experience as possible.  How do I do it?  I don’t really know.  I think it helps that I generally write stories about common life experiences.  As you suggest, there may not be much difference in how different types of characters react to common life experiences.  I also base the character’s actions and words on my own experiences.  For instance, in the second novella for the WIP you refer to, one of the female narrators is going to get pregnant.  How do I write in first person about her experiences with pregnancy and childbirth?  I look to the experiences and words and thoughts my wife shared with me during her pregnancies, to my sister’s when she was pregnant and I was her delivery coach, and to the many other women I have known through the years who went through pregnancy and who shared those experiences with me.

It’s these kinds of characters and efforts that really require writers to be educated and observant and to have good mental filing cabinets.  So, when it comes time to write a character that isn’t you, you’ve got something in there to base it on.

KB. Good point about having at least some awareness or familiarity with a character’s experiences. Talking to people is a great way to get the nitty gritty. Even better when you’re married to them…

Part 2 Coming Soon.  Don’t hesitate to go here and be a part of Guerrilla Publishing and treat yourself to a good read at the same time.

Vacation Reading

Several weeks before we left for Cabo somebody suggested that I read A Canticle for Leibowitz, an end of the world tale written by Walter M. Miller, Jr. and published in 1959.  I checked it out on Amazon, bought it, and then bought two more books that were in the “if you bought this, you might like this” category.  Those books were The Last Policeman (Ben Winters) and The Forever War (Joe Haldeman) — both books built around an end of the world theme. 

A few days after that, via Andrew Sullivan’s blog, I read about The Magicians by Lev Grossman, went to Amazon and bought it. 

I had four books to read while on vacation.  All in paperback so I could keep my Kindle at home. 

I ended up reading The Last Policeman in the days leading up to our departure.  It’s about a cop in New England who has a murder to solve in the months before a meteor is set to hit Earth, obliterating life as we know it.  Because everybody knows the meteor is set to hit, there aren’t a lot of people who really care about solving a murder that’s made to look like a suicide — which is what a lot of people are doing anyway because the end of times is near.  There’s a whole lot of other stuff going on, too.  The Last Policeman was published a couple of years ago and is the first book in a trilogy.

Next up was The Forever War originally published in the 1970s (1974, I believe).  This book was about a futuristic war fought between humans and an extraterrestrial race.  The narrator is a soldier in that war.  The gimmick is that when the soldiers are off in space fighting the war, time on earth moves much more quickly.  So, while they’re off fighting for a year, 20 or 30 or 100 years go by for the rest of the human race.  The narrator spends about five or six years at war, coming back to Earth every year or so.  During the course of the story human life progresses several hundred years, while he only ages those five or six years.  It makes for a pretty interesting experiment in how human life may ebb and flow over the next few hundred years.  This book doesn’t appear to be a formal part of a series.  However, the author wrote a number of books with similar titles, like The Forever Peace, which makes me wonder.

Wanting to take a break from the bleak world of the apocalypse and a space war, I turned next to The Magicians.  This is … well, basically an adult version of the Harry Potter story.  Only, the narrator’s schooling takes place entirely in the first book.  The main characters are teenagers, but the components of the story would definitely not be appropriate for the younger kids who read Harry Potter.  There’s sex, drugs, heavy drinking, foul language — all that good stuff we don’t want our kids exposed to.  This book was published within the last few years and is also the first in a trilogy.

And, finally, I turned to A Canticle for Leibowitz to carry me through the last couple days at Cabo and the airplane ride home.  This is the post-apocalypse story of the time that starts decades after a nuclear war destroyed the earth.  It’s well … I didn’t finish it.  I read about two-thirds and then just didn’t feel like going on.  The book was originally published in 1959.  Forty years later, Miller wrote a follow-up to it — Sister Leibowitz and the Wild Horse Woman.

I generally don’t buy books because they win awards and didn’t notice that these had until after I purchased them, but here’s how they stack up.  The Last Policeman won the Edgar Award.  The Forever War won the Hugo and Nebula awards.  A Canticle for Leibowitz won the Hugo Award.  The Magicians apparently didn’t win any awards, but is described as a New York Times Bestseller.  So, they have quite the pedigree.

The end result for me was that The Last Policeman and The Magicians were good enough for me to move ahead to the second book in each trilogy.  My enthusiasm for those books is more for The Last Policeman, less so for The Magicians.  The Last Policeman is about real people in a real time and there is an arch of an interesting story I can see developing over the next two books.  The Magicians, on the other hand, starts in modern America and moves to a fantasy world with talking animals and all of that other fantasy stuff — what would have really interested me twenty or thirty years ago, but not so much anymore.  Still, the story was interesting enough for me to want to keep reading.

The Forever War was good as well, but I don’t think I’ll be looking to read any more books by the same author.  And, well, as already noted, I couldn’t finish A Canticle for Leibowitz.


The Calling of Mother Adelli

It’s finally here.  What was supposed to be completed about eight months ago is finally here.

ZOE 5x8 cover plain.Kindle

Feel free to take yourself over to Amazon here and purchase the book.  It’s available for Kindle and in paperback.  It is a beautifully written story about a young nun struggling with her calling; a young girl dropped off at Catholic boarding school by her too important father who is off to Italy; and the turmoil and trauma that follows.  Michael Curtis, who is the fiction editor for The Atlantic Monthly, describes Zoe Keithley as “one of America’s great undiscovered novelists.”

I ask you to give Zoe a read with this book.  It’s truly classic, literary fiction with a heart.

Corridors of Darkness by Patrick O’Bryon

I’m going here tomorrow.  I’m pretty excited about it.  I’ve got my overcoat and hat ready to go for a somewhat, kind of, semi-1930’s/1940’s look.  It’s my first chance to attend a book party for a self-published, indie author.  And one I am thrilled to support.

I finished reading Corridors of Darkness a few days ago.  I’ve been trying to figure out what to write about it ever since.  How many stars would I give it?  What exactly would I say?  Here’s why I struggle with the answers to those questions.

Corridors of Darkness is a self-published book that is more unlike any other self-published book I’ve read in the last couple of years.  It is, in fact, the closest thing to a traditionally published book in the self-published arena that I have seen.

I need to segue here and explain that this isn’t necessarily a poor reflection on the other self-published works I’ve read.  One of the things I love about self-publishing is the diversity of stories that exist out there that traditional publishers are ignoring.  From Tammy Robinson’s Charlie and Pearl to Vince Dickinson’s Fugue in C Minor to Misha Burnett’s Catskinner and Carrie Rubin’s Seneca Scourge and Jane Thompson’s Deeper and many others, there is a whole lot of good stuff out there in the self-published world and I don’t mean to belittle those works.

What Corridors of Darkness is though is a self-published work that crosses the boundary to a book that could very easily be a piece of the traditionally published world.  The best part of that world.  Whether we want to admit it or not, what most of us self-published authors want is to be accepted in the traditional publishing world.  What Patrick O’Bryon has done with Corridors of Darkness is write a story that is closer to that acceptance than anything else I’ve read in the self-published world.  It’s a thriller set in Nazi Germany.  Characters with histories.  Well-described settings and locales (Mr. O’Bryon clearly did his research).  A compelling story with intrigue, love, death, brutality, and twists and turns along the way.  Corridors of Darkness is a well-written, fictionalized journey through the horrors that became Nazi Germany, and its impact on many.

Carrie Rubin says I’m a self-published author that could produce a bestseller.  Whether or not that’s true, Patrick O’Bryon is ahead of me on that score.  He’s ready for some fame and fortune.  You should buy his book.  Give it a try.

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