I recently interviewed Briane Pagel, author of Eclipse, a novel about an astronaut drifting in space. (As you'll see, although that was the starting premise, the story is much more complex than that.) Our interview was so long I'm going to post it over two days. I always try to do some initial research when preparing interview questions, but there was a lot more to Briane than I first realized.
Please tell us about yourself.
Probably the one thing you should know about me is that I have a great deal of trouble taking myself seriously. The other thing you should know, if you had to know more than one thing about me, is that I am interested, quite literally, in almost everything. If I had to be picky, I would say that I’m not interested in Law & Order, regardless of what iteration it is in, but even with that, I’m kind of lying because my wife, who I call Sweetie in real life and on my blogs, likes Law & Order but she falls asleep during it sometimes, so I used to try to be a good husband and watch the episodes for her after she fell asleep, so I could report back to her about the episode and let her know if it was worth rewatching ,and as a result of that, I’ve even found myself getting interested in Law & Order at times.
When I do take myself seriously, which is rare, I’m a 42-year-old consumer lawyer in my real job – I sue debt collectors and mortgage companies and about two times a year, Wal-Mart, which poses problems for me because I like shopping at Wal-Mart and worry that by suing them I’ll drive up their prices. I have five kids, but the bulk of responsibility for raising them is on Sweetie, which leaves me free to play trains and have water balloon fights with the younger ones (who are 4-year-old twins) and give lengthy lectures about responsibility to the older ones (who are 19-24).
What drew you to writing horror?
The movie White Noise, starring Michael Keaton – but not in a good way. I’ve always liked horror movies, and that movie looked great. Looked. We went to see it for my birthday one year, and I was bitterly disappointed – and that was on the heels of many other bitterly disappointing horror movies.
On the way home from the movie, I commented to Sweetie, as I had many times before “I could write a better horror movie than that.” Sweetie said “Then do it,” so I did: I wrote a story called The Deal, in which a little boy is tormented by a demon and his parents won’t do anything to stop it – leaving him to wonder what’s going on, and also what ever happened to his brother, as he’s pretty sure he had a brother but his brother is gone, and his parents pretend his brother never existed. (The Deal is one of the stories in my collection The Scariest Things, You CAN’T Imagine, so I won’t spoil the ending. Suffice to say that there is an ending, and it’s a good one.)
That led to more short horror stories, which I posted on my blog, “AfterDark.” (www.whathappensafterdark.com).
How did you get the inspiration for Eclipse?
Our oldest boy, who’s now 19 and who I call “The Boy” gave me the idea: He said “What if you wrote a story about an astronaut drifting in space?” and then went on to fill out the original premise of what happens to that astronaut.
I thought about that for a day or two, and then began writing it, posting it on my blog as I went along. After writing each section, I’d bring it to The Boy to see if it was true to his concept, and his continued advice was “Make it weirder.” So I tried to make it weirder.
What is Eclipse about?
The story begins with Claudius the astronaut floating helplessly in space, awaiting rescue as he drifts along along, his back to the sun. From there, it unwinds backwards to retrace how Claudius ended up there – showing Claudius as a young boy and then as a cadet at NASA preparing to be one of the first astronauts to orbit the sun in a special spaceship. Along the way, the storylines diverge and cross over, as Claudius remembers and re-remembers what happened. Interspersed with the chapters showing Claudius now and Claudius then are chapters in which a man under guard in a prison or hospital is visited by a doctor – and the doctor, guard, and man in the room are all Claudius.
The idea behind Eclipse was not just to be weird; I’m quite proud of the story structure and the way it twists and turns on itself, and a lot of thought went into planning that out. Chapter headings mean something – each section of Claudius’ story is tied to the others and the way the chapter is titled tells you which portion of the story you’re in. For example, the first part is called “Speck” and begins with Claudius drifting in space; all other chapters after that which have one-word titles are part of that same line. Eclipse incorporates actual laws of physics into the chapter titles to explain what’s happening to Claudius, and for good measure, throws in some quotes from classic rock and roll.
In the end, it’s not just a riveting (other’s words, not mine) story about a possibly-insane, probably-murderous astronaut, but a kaleidoscopic psychological mystery tour that comes together only once you’ve read the whole thing. I was trying for a feel similar to Ray Bradbury’s The Illustrated Man stories, and while I’m no Bradbury, I think I got close enough for me.
Please tell us about your three blogs and what makes each of them different.
Okay, so I actually have seven active blogs; I seem to create them faster than I realize I am. I’ll take them in order of creation:
Thinking The Lions: This was my first blog, and it’s the one that’s really about me and my life and my family. I started it on a whim when I found out what blogs were, and for a while it was sort of formless and just full of junk. Now, it’s a more directed blog: I focus on trying to tell funny stories about my life and my family, interspersed with little featurettes like “Cool Stuff I Never Learned In School” or “Why I Hate People” or things like that.
I think I’m very funny, and recently, a writer in New York who follows me on Twitter compared me favorably to Stephen Colbert, Rob Corddry, and some other very funny people. I mention that about once a day to as many people as I can.
The Best Of Everything: I started this one next, back when I thought that just putting things on the Internet would make people come read them. Surprise! It doesn’t. This site started as an idea that people would post things they liked, doing so for a year, and at the end of the year all the readers would vote on those things and we’d pick the Best of Everything. That didn’t work because, as I found out, many people don’t want to post stuff on my blog. So I was mostly responsible for adding things to this blog, and over time it morphed into a series of posts about pop culture – I’d start writing about something like “The Best Detective Show” and end up ruminating about how all TV detectives solve crimes essentially by accident.
To keep things fresh, I started adding in other features, like the “SemiDaily List” and “Star Wars References” and “Is This Art?” and “THIS is a THING?!?” If you like things, you’ll probably find something to like on there.
The Best Of Everything is also where I posted the single most controversial thing I’ve ever written – an essay on which Olsen Twin was the Best, in which I maintained that they were identical twins. That drew a ton of comments. The essay is now in my book “Do Pizza Samples Really Exist?” (available on Lulu) but the comments spawned a whole new feature – “Stupid Questions,” in which I ask stupid questions about pop culture things.
AfterDark: This is where I posted those short horror stories, formerly in serial form, a few pages at a time. Since I’m not currently writing new horror stories while I work on a backlog of editing things I’ve written and getting them published in book form, I’ve been posting complete version of the stories that have appeared here in the past. You won’t find vampires or zombies or werewolves – this is new-style horror, like the one that’s up right now, “The Window,” in which some kids throw a rock into an abandoned shed and let something out, with horrifying results.
Nonsportsmanlike Conduct! I like to call this the sports blog for people who hate sports blogs; I like sports, but I’m not a “stats” guy and I was never much of an athlete – so this blog tends to be about sports the way The Best Of Everything is about entertainment – an off-kilter look that focuses on things like sports stars in advertisements, asks “But Is It A Sport?” about various activities like fishing, and makes fun of Packers’ QB Aaron Rodgers for not liking anyone. Even people who don’t like sports will probably find it entertaining.
For a while, this was its own blog, but I then discontinued it, thinking that it wasn’t popular. So I occasionally would do a “Nonsportsmanlike Conduct!” post on Thinking The Lions, and then I found out those were the second-most popular posts on that site (after “Sweetie’s Hunk of The Week”), so I re-created it as its own blog.
Lesbian Zombies Are Taking Over The World! This one is a serializes sci-fi/horror story that I started three years ago on a whim; it’s the ongoing story of Rachel, who woke up one day to realize that she didn’t know who or what she was. On the advice of her octopus (a tiny computerized hovering animal) she walked south and met her lover, Brigitte, and then learned that she might be the queen of the lesbian zombies who was probably destined to save the world from Armageddon. The entire story is available on Scribd, as well; I’m currently editing it to put it in book form before I start new installments, as it reached about 500 pages before I really knew what was going on.
Family and Consumer Law: The Blog: Remember how I said I’m a lawyer? I started this blog to remind me, and my coworkers, of that. It’s actually a professional blog where I write about cases that have to do with my area of practice. It’s fairly limited in scope and aimed at lawyers, but, as I say, if you have a family or spend money, it’s worth checking it out.
Publicus Proventus: This was the original site for my sports blog. Then it became a site where I serialized some novels for a while. Then, about two years ago, I began to get more and more agitated about politics and started posting, from time to time, on my blogs, posts about politics and government. Eventually, I started doing that so often that I thought the posts should have their own site, because if you come to Thinking The Lions looking for posts about how I opened a Twinkie and hid it in my office to see how long it would take it to disintegrate (something I really did; it’s still ongoing) you maybe don’t want to read my thoughts on health care or unemployment – and vice versa.
Overall, I try to view my blogs as though they’re magazines – each one with a particular focus, but inside that focus there are lots of little features that help frame what I’m writing about and keep it fresh, for me and for the readers.
How do you manage to juggle raising two children, posting to three blogs, and writing?
Like I said, I actually have five kids; the three older ones have moved out of the house, so they show up less and less on the blog (although they’re still there in spirit.) That plus the clearly-excessive number of blogs would pose a problem for someone who, say, is actually concerned with getting productive things done, but since I have little to no sense of responsibility, that’s not a problem for me.
Actually, though, there’s a couple of things working for me.
First, I never get writers’ block. Ever. I can’t recall a time I had trouble beginning writing something. Part of that is that I think a lot and need to pass that on, but part of it is that the many blogs and things I write help keep it interesting for me. By having topics, like “I Get Paid For Doing This,” or “Is This Art?” I get to filter what I’m thinking about into a format that makes it more fun to write. For example, I have a feature on two blogs I call “Whodathunkit?!” in which I ask, and answer, the questions you REALLY want to know about big events like Thanksgiving or the Super Bowl; that makes me able to write about the Super Bowl every year but have it never be the same. (I also do a 64-question megaversion every year for the NCAA Mens’ Basketball Tournament. Cracked.com approached me about doing that for their site, but they didn’t believe I could post it every year in the four days between when the teams are announced and when the games begin, and every year I’ve proven them wrong. Their loss.)
Second, my job has some flexibility; I can take a break and do smaller posts from time to time, and I really work on doing shorter posts, as I know I tend to ramble on and on.
Third, I’ve actually got a pretty good, if complicated schedule, that begins with me getting up at 5:50 every day, then going back to sleep until 6:15, when I finally get up for real and go down and work on writing for 30-45 minutes before going to get the twins ready for their day and set off myself to work. On Saturdays and Sundays, I do about 1-2 hours of writing work total, almost always first thing in the morning.
So the short answer is: I never stop thinking, and I do the writing before I do anything else during the day.
Interview continues tomorrow....