Interview: Brian Francis Slattery
Brian Francis Slattery is the author of three novels, Spaceman Blues: A Love Song, Liberation: Being the Adventures of Slick Six after the Collapse of the United States of America, and Lost Everything. All three novels deal in some way with the apocalypse, Spaceman Blues telling the story of the lead up to an alien invasion, Liberation taking place after a catastrophic economic collapse and Lost Everything showing the effects of contemporary civil war and severe atrophy on the United States. Slattery’s latest, Lost Everything tells the story of Sunny Jim and Reverend Bauxite’s journey through post apocalyptic New England as they attempt to reunite with Sunny Jim’s son. The novel, published in April, has been met with widespread critical acclaim. Geek Smash recently spoke with the novelist about Lost Everything, as well aswhy he keeps returning to the apocalypse and what’s next for him.
Geek Smash: What was your experience of breaking into the writing industry like?
Brian Francis Slattery: Oh goodness. That’s sort of a weird story. I kind of did everything backwards. My experience of it is pretty slipshod. I’m one of the people who got published off of the slush pile at Tor. It was mostly just due to my editor, Liz Gorinsky, really liking the book, and she just kind of championed it for a while. So that was how the first one was published, and then the other two were sold to her. I’m really lucky that the right person found the manuscript at the right time.
Geek Smash: Following up on that, it’s sort of a clichéd question probably, but what advice would you give to young writers hoping to find success?
Brian Francis Slattery: Oh my goodness. Boy, that’s another really good question. I feel like I talk to a lot of people who try to develop some sort of strategy for getting published. It’s almost like they’re doing some sort of campaign. And I don’t know, I always wonder how effective that is. One of those other clichés might be: write the best thing you can possibly write and then see who likes it. If you’re writing a thing, write the best thing you can and don’t worry too much about who’s going to like it. But then once you’re done with it, you kind of turn around and look at it and go “Ok, who’s going to like this?” That would be the time to be kind of strategic about it. I think if I had to do it all over again, it would have been nice to know more about the publishing industry. I didn’t realize that I fit so neatly into this small group of writers within the science fiction community. I didn’t know where I fit at all. It would have been nice to have been aware of their existence so that I could say “Oh, I’m like this person. I’m like that person.” That would have helped a lot. That’s one of those hindsight things.
Geek Smash: How would you define that community?
Brian Francis Slattery: There’s this whole group of people that get labeled as this sort of stripstream… even the label is a little bit unsteady. But it’s this group of people who like to play with various conventions of different genres and blend what people typically think of as high and low culture. That sort of stuff. To see if you can make those conventions work in an interesting way. I think that formally, that’s how I’m pretty simpatico. The experience of reading all those people is quite different. I don’t think that we write like each other, but I think we have the same set of formal obsessions. The big person that leapt out at as a person that, gosh, I wish I had read earlier- is Jeff VanderMeer. That sort of tribe of people, who love a lot of the same things about various kinds of genre fiction, but also sort of like the formal stuff that literary fiction has to offer and don’t really see why those two things can’t be combined.
Geek Smash: In your acknowledgements for Spaceman Blues you mention being taught to play music. Can you talk at all about the role music has played in your life and how it’s influenced you? The musicians in your novels seem to take on the role of folk heroes, just by hanging around.
Brian Francis Slattery: I’ve been playing music since I was three. It’s really a pretty big part of my life, to the point where if I could figure out how to make a living playing music, I would just do that. But that is a very, very difficult thing to do. I think there a couple ways that music shows up in the books, beyond the surface level thing that there’s a lot of music in them. I think part of it is that I find a lot of the forms of a lot of different music to be inspiring. Each of the books has sort of picked a set of music, and even the way the music is structured ends up in the book somewhere. That’s probably the easiest way to put it. Beyond just being inspired by music itself, there’s also the community of musicians that I know, which ranges across the country at this point, that’s just a constant source of inspiration to me. They’re just a pretty incredible group of people who are doing a lot of great things and are very thoughtful, and I feel like I learn a lot from them every time I hang out with them. For the local musicians, that’s quite often, and even for the people who live far away it’s at least once or twice a year. I think that it’s very easy for people like me who work from home to read the paper and get the impression that there’s a lot of bad things happening all over the place. And music is probably what’s saving me from falling into that trap. Because when people are playing music, especially for an audience, they’re kind of at their best. It’s really nice to see that on a really regular basis. The people that I see are really quite lovely.
Geek Smash: On that note, some of the most powerful moments from your novels come from your descriptions of how people make communities for themselves from the people around them. Is that recurring theme in your work based off of that music community?
Brian Francis Slattery: Yeah, I mean, that’s my community personally, apart from friends and family and the communities that I think everybody has. I think it’s usually through music that I’ve seen it, that you see people all over the place doing that. I live in the greater New Haven area where there are a lot of really strong ethnic groups that are constantly looking out for each other and forming this giant family. When things get bad it’s groups like that that prevent people from really hitting skid. That’s a really neat thing to see, that people really do try to help each other when things are lousy. I definitely remember feeling that way even writing the first book, that that kind of idea didn’t show up enough in books. (The idea that) generally speaking, people- at least in my experience- are pretty good to each other. That’s kind of nice to write about.
Geek Smash: All three of your books concern apocalyptic scenarios of some kind, be they alien invaders, economic collapses or civil war. What is it about apocalyptic situations that make you keep returning to them in your writing?
Brian Francis Slattery: Personally the reason I like them- I shouldn’t say “like”, because that’s a terrible word to use to describe awful things- but I guess the reason I kept coming back to them was because it was a neat way of asking some big questions without having that be too dramatic. I wrote this first book and there was just kind of a lot left on the plate, and that sort of made the second book. And then there were bits left on the plate after the second book and that made the third book. You answer (a question) and then it makes another question and then it makes another question. That sort of thing goes through all three of them. At the time I didn’t think of it this way, but now looking back on it there were just some questions that I wanted to kick around. And having the situation be pretty dire was the right frame to talk about the questions without having it feel kind of forced, or too much like an essay. It’s hard to ask the big questions about faith and community and identity with four middle class people just sitting around their house. That’s something that stoners do. If the situation is bad enough, then those questions are important, and they’re important to the people who are living through it. Those kinds of things are what are going to keep them going or not. I think that’s really what it was about.
Geek Smash: What questions were you hoping to ask for Lost Everything?
Brian Francis Slattery: I think that the biggest one came up in the first book and then I kind of forgot about it while writing the second one. I did want to write this book about faith, even though I myself am thoroughly agnostic, partially because I know people who have strong religious or spiritual convictions and partially just because of what you read in the paper. You hear a lot about how religious values are often described as a force that pulls people apart. You don’t hear too much about how it pulls people together, but then you see it in the paper and you see real life examples of that. It’s just this super powerful force that can be turned in all kinds of directions. That’s kind of what I wanted to tackle. Also, I was interested in- not from an overtly religious place- the idea that someone can have faith in something without having the religious apparatus. One of the things that drove the book is the two central characters. They are facing the same central problem and they understand it from pretty different viewpoints, but they’re always looking for the place where those two points can come together. That dynamic was really satisfying to try to work out.
Geek Smash: There’s a bit of a meta aspect to the novel, with the narrator interacting with some of the supporting characters and describing the importance of their stories being told, even if not all of them are true. Where did that idea come from?
Brian Francis Slattery: The idea that there’s this narrator character?
Geek Smash: Yeah.
Brian Francis Slattery: This book went through a few different forms before it ended up where it did. My original thought was to write a book that was very much like something like The Canterbury Tales, where there is a narrator. At first it was very much like those kinds of books, where there was just one story after another with character after character, but then I couldn’t quite make that form go. It ended up being that it was a little too stagnant even for me, and I have a lot of tolerance for that, both in things that I write and in things that I read. I think that the kernel of that idea remained. A lot got stripped away, but the idea that there’s a narrator pulling everything together and trying to pull meaning out of it really persisted. And even as the narrator got more marginal in subsequent drafts, it was really important that the narrator was there. And I liked the formal constraint that the narrator doesn’t know very much. In the other two (novels), the narrator is crazy omniscient all the time. It was neat to write something where that option was closed. It was kind of like “Well how can this narrator tell this story if he’s a real person who’s quite limited in what he can learn and what he can find out?” A lot of the satisfaction of putting the book together was figuring out how one person can know everything that he knows in the book.
Geek Smash: In the first draft, were the two central characters in one of those smaller stories and were they expanded into a larger role because you liked them? Or did they come about in a different way?
Brian Francis Slattery: That’s kind of what it was about. Originally those two characters didn’t have much to do with each other. There was always the guy looking for his boy and then there was this priest and then there were these other people. In the earlier versions of this thing- which I didn’t even finish, I’d get halfway through and be like, “Well, I got to start over, but I can salvage this.” As the drafts went by, those characters got closer and closer together. To the point that I realized, “I just want these two to be together all the time,” and that they’re going to be the spine of the book, that they’re dealing with the same thing, and how if they just had more of an opportunity to talk to each other, they’d be able to get somewhere with that. This process is probably the result of me not bothering to outline everything. You get halfway through and realize that the last 70 pages you wrote can just be condensed into ten pages. But then it’s a different book at that point so you sort of recalibrate things from there.
Geek Smash: I know Lost Everything just came out in April, but are you already starting work on a fourth novel?
Brian Francis Slattery: Yeah. Let’s see. How do I describe this in three sentences? There’s a big, wealthy, dysfunctional family. It’s an intergenerational family thing, and at the same time it’s also about the rise of organized crime and capitalism in the America and in Eastern Europe. That’s probably the easiest way to put it all together.
Geek Smash: Do you think that there’s a through line to your work?
Brian Francis Slattery: Yeah. I mean, I’m probably the last person to have a sense of what that is. I know that my editor thinks that, and I sort of see it, but only in the sense of what I described, of one question leading to another leading to another. At the same time, when I finished the third book, there was a pretty big sense at having come to the end of whatever started in the first one. Not to say that I figured everything out, because that’s crazy, but certainly there was a sense of “That’s it.”
Geek Smash: It feels conclusive.
Brian Francis Slattery: Yeah, I wouldn’t be able to… like if somebody said, “Hey can you write another book like those three books?” I don’t even know where I would start. It all feels kind of pleasantly used up.
Geek Smash: The three books sort of work as a non-linear trilogy about the end of the world.
Brian Francis Slattery: Yeah. And the things that I’m interested in writing now are pretty different than those three. It’s neat to look at those three and see that they hang together pretty nicely.
And there ended our interview. Not that it was much of a surprise given his literary output, but Slattery proved himself to be an interesting, articulate speaker with a lot of fascinating thoughts on the way in which a story comes together and on the apocalypse subgenre as a whole. Even if he is indeed moving away from science fiction, as it appears he intends to from his statements regarding his next book, Slattery is definitely an author to pay close attention to. His three novels are available on Amazon as well as in most bookstores. It was a pleasure speaking with him.