Back from my trip to Edinburgh, it is time to bring you guys another SPFBO author interview. Today I invite Keith Blenman into the interviewee’s chair for the latest grilling.
Mmm. . .grilling. Now I’m hungry.
Please check out my ongoing SPFBO5 Interviews down below!
Enjoy the interview, and it’s a long one 😀
First of all, tell me about yourself! What do you write?
Oh man. The last time I tried to introduce myself in writing was a dating app. It turns out I’m a hard swipe left for most people, so let’s hope I don’t botch this interview before it even starts.
Hi! I’m Keith Blenman. I too, enjoy walks on the beach. I’m from Metro Detroit. I work as a compliance coordinator in retail, and I teach forensic investigation to college kids. I’m short, chubby, have bad teeth, and a healthy abundance of tattoos. Never married. No kids, but lots of pets. DTF. Non-smokers only.
…Yep. Botched that one. Let’s move onto the next thing. My writing is mostly genre bending fiction. Some postmodern stuff. I love action-adventure stories, black comedies, horror, sci-fi, and fantasy. If I can cram all those elements into the same story without it feeling like a mess, I will.
How do you develop your plots and characters?
I pretty much just wing it.
No, really, I wish I could do that. It takes me months before I even commit an idea to paper. A random moment pops in my head, so I brood over it. And brood, and brood, and brood, and little by little the plot starts taking shape. I used to write these massive outlines. Just pages and pages of plot points and snippets of dialogue. In recent years, I don’t know if I’ve either perfected the process or just gotten lazy, but now I tend to do all my outlining in my head. Nothing gets written until I’m certain I have exactly the scene I want.
Characters on the other hand, are a lot more ritualistic. I have lists of questions that I go through to help flesh them out before I start writing. Just to give an idea, I published one. Character Development for Badass Writers. It’s a list of around three hundred questions ranging from physical appearance, tastes, lifestyle questions, and ridiculous hypothetical questions like, “How would your character react to discovering that a) aliens are real, and b) they currently have a glowing green probe approaching one of your character’s orifices?” Obviously not every detail makes it into the story. Certainly not that one. But knowing your characters is everything. So I spend a ton of time fleshing them out, throwing them in different, unrelated situations, and really getting a sense of them. If you firm up your characters and keep the plot points loose, you can’t help but keep focus on the character. Which always makes for stronger fiction. The goal is, whenever I hit an obstacle, I don’t want to say, “How do I get my character around this?” I want to ask, “How does this impact my character?”
Tell us about your current project.
My SPFBO entry is called Necromantica. It’s a little bit experimental. Sort of a hybrid between first and second person narration. The story is about an elf who was being raised to be a priestess and magic healer, when a nationalist regime burned down her village and slaughtered her people. When the story opens, she’s become a necromancer, and is the most wanted criminal in the world. Supposedly, the king is in possession of an amulet designed to enhance magic powers. So the plot is pretty simple. She wants the thing. As luck would have it, orcs are invading the kingdom and laying waste to everything in their path. So as they’re storming the holy city, and this apocalyptic battle is raging around every corner, she and her companion are trying to make it to castle to steal the amulet.
Is this your first entry into SPFBO? If not, how many times have you entered?
This is my first entry. I’d never heard of the Blog Off before. I was told about it by Lucasz Przywoski, who had written a review for Necromantica at Fantasy Book Critic. I’m so glad he suggested it too. I’ve been self publishing for almost twenty years, and the community around this competition is the best I’ve ever seen. It’s phenomenal how supportive everybody is, and eager to share each other’s work. I’ve already discovered several great reads I’m recommending to friends. This is such a wonderful celebration of indie authors. I love it.
Who would you say is the main character of your novel? And tell me a little bit about them!
There are two, and they’re so intertwined. It’s hard to think of one without the other. The necromancer, Mornia, is the second person component of the narrative. She’s mostly referred to as “You,” as her companion, Lama, or “I,” narrates their adventure.
Both characters have tragic histories. Mornia is essentially the result of genocide, driven mad, with a death wish and massive chip on her shoulder. She meets Lama, who more or less stabilizes her. Not entirely successfully, but he helps. He is an assassin and thief, who’s been imprisoned and given a death sentence. Early in their history, they were cellmates who bonded as he lied there dying. She kept him alive. He kept her company. Their relationship blossomed in this dank, dark cell. Ten years later, as they’re making their way to the castle to steal this amulet, he fills us in on their history together. A lot of the fun of the story, beyond the over the top action and horror of their situation, is understanding how these two broken people came together. They’re clearly villains. Them being together is terrible for the world, but their relationship really makes you root for them. Even as she’s raising corpses and slaughtering people in droves, you can’t help but want them to succeed.
What advice would you give new writers on how to delve into creative fiction?
Character is everything. Whenever I talk to fledgling fantasy writers, they tend to focus on weapons, magic systems, and all these awesome abilities. That’s cool, and I geek out just as much as they do, but I always try to reign them in and ask about the character’s childhood memories, or what their faith and religion are like. What’s their favorite meal? What was their first kiss like? Are they scared of bugs? Stuff like that. You can have the most incredible John Woo inspired action sequence ever, and readers won’t care at all if they’re not invested in the characters. There’s a huge difference in a scene like, “Tony drew his sword,” and “Jeff, who’s father was a wizard, and his mother was formally a strawberry his father had cast a spell on, drew his sword.” Whenever somebody draws a sword, it’s exciting. But which character are you more invested in?
Another great example is using a scene like, “You’re stuck in a traffic jam for twenty minutes. Little by little, as you make your way forward, you see the cause of the traffic. Two cars are smashed together in the left lane. One is on its side.” Picture the moment with two random cars. Any make. Any model. Just two generic cars. Think of how you view that accident as an outsider. Then, think of that exact same scenario, except you recognize the car on its side as your grandmother’s. Now, how does that change your perception? The little shift that just happened in your heart, that’s the difference you’re striving for in fiction. That’s why you need to know your characters.
What real-life inspirations did you draw from for the worldbuilding within your book?
I had written Necromantica for my ex. She was the inspiration for the adventure. Even if the relationship didn’t work out, this is a story we both still get jazzed up about. She even drew the cover art, which is pretty awesome.
The world I’ve had in my head for probably a good twenty years now. It was largely inspired by another story I’d outlined but still haven’t written. Actually, the epilogue ties directly into that story. So there was already a lot of world building in place. As for the characters, I teach forensic analysis, and have studied criminal justice quite a bit. So a lot of the character backgrounds are stemmed from flaws in our imprisonment system. We jail people. Our version of justice is to punish and lock away bad guys in a cell. Which is good and fine for scaring most of society away from crime. But our efforts in rehabilitating, educating, and getting convicted criminals on a better path are limited. Our system doesn’t legally do anything to help victims heal or restore from the harm that was caused. Not that Necromantica is a commentary on any of this, but it’s present in the characters. Hurt people hurt people. That shows throughout.
What inspires you to write?
I’ve been writing since I was a kid. I’ve always been a daydreamer. And I love entertaining people. Every now and again I’ll get on a high horse and write something I feel it important, or that I have something powerful to say. But for the most part I just enjoy sharing an adventure and taking people to different worlds. Gory, demented, and sometimes really off-putting worlds. But fun ones, full of good humor.
What was the hardest part of writing this book?
There are a couple of lengthy action sequences that were written and rewritten dozens of times. Since the story is told first and second person, present tense, I had a limited perspective to these massive events. The first draft is always a play-by-play, and a little bit of that stuck. But using those events to convey the relationship between Mornia and Lama, while making sure everything is clearly laid out in a three dimensional space that’s in constant motion was definitely a challenge. There’s a street battle scene about midway through. I remember writing and thinking over and over, “It would be so much easier if this chapter could just be a comic book.”
Maybe I’ll do that for the next book. Or when the reader is about to get the climax have a note that says, “Look. This chapter was way to tough to write, so if you’ll just hop on YouTube, I have a thirty minute presentation waiting with a map and assorted Monopoly pieces I’ll be using to represent the characters…”
What is your routine when writing, if any? If you don’t follow a routine, why not?
I used to love to write late into the night. After the whole world has gone to bed. When the pets are asleep and I’m not getting texts every five minutes. When it’s just me and my imagination. That’s ideal. Unfortunately I started working a nine to five job, so I can’t stay up until four in the morning typing away. You wouldn’t think it’s such a big deal, but I’ve spent the past couple of years trying to find a new routine that works for me. Early in the morning is good. Just me and my coffee. I’m occasionally late to work because of it, and I always seem to have to leave when I really get into it. Going to coffee shops and the park are always good. Except when geese attack. That’ll completely take you out of the moment.
Lately my big thing is that Google Docs is pretty much always open on my phone. As I go about my day, I’ll come up with next line or little passage. Everybody thinks I’m texting, but I’m just writing a novel.
What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write and why?
There’s this scene early on. Lama and Mornia are hiding in a church. They’re waiting for nightfall to make their way to the castle and steal the amulet. Orcs have breached the city wall. Mornia watches the war from the church’s bell tower. Lama sits inside, in one of the pews, just relaxing and listening to the cacophony of battle outside, all around him while he sits in this cavernous, ornate space. There’s so much fun juxtaposition going on. He was raised to be a thug and never had any exposure to religion. But there he is, surrounded by statues of the seven moon gods and an enormous painting of the king. He’s a chatty guy, so while he strips off his disguise to put on his thieving gear, he ends up talking to himself, and more or less confessing his sins to the painting of the king. Not the gods. The man who gave him a death sentence ten years ago. The man he’s preparing to steal from. Lama is naked, baring his soul to someone he would destroy. It’s tranquil. It’s meditative. And when you consider all the death and destruction happening around him, and why it’s happening, it’s such a unique moment. The book has a lot of highlights. I’d love to see any moment of it put to film. But that scene is something special.
Did you learn anything from writing this book and what was it?
I’ve became more experimental because of this book. I take a lot more risks in how I convey a narrative. How I play with readers. Pulling off second person to portray a character, filling in the right details so the reader can understand her while leaving her open enough for people to project themselves into her was a tough balancing act. Granted, I wish I’d read NK Jemisin’s Broken Earth Trilogy before I wrote this. She pulls off the same effect brilliantly. But for my own growth and development, Necromantica made me want to take more chances.
For example, one thing I wrote after Necromantica is a sequel to Tender Buttons by modernist poet, Gertrude Stein. That piece is from 1914. She was largely influenced by Dadaism, and was buds with Salvador Dali. So her work was a series of unorthodox poems about mundane objects. To say she ignored grammar is an understatement. Check it out. It’s awesome. Every writer should peruse it, and you can find it for free online. That said, I wrote a sequel, conveniently titled Tender Buttons Two. Basically I tried to do the same thing with the classical paradigm. In it, Gertrude Stein has taken the English language hostage, and it’s up to the grammar police of Scotland Yard to diffuse the situation. But the narrative that follows is off the wall. I consider it more of a performance piece than a book. I even did a reading of it once where myself and members of the audience read almost every chapter at the same time. It’s on YouTube, although the full effect of everybody’s voice is lost since it was recorded on a phone. It would’ve been better with a binaural setup. But I consider that the proper way to read the book. Standing in the middle of a room with the entire thing being read all around you at once.
Are you a plotter or a pantser? A gardener or an architect?
Oh, I’m a plotter working to pants. My structures are designed for gardens to run rampant.
It’s sometimes difficult to get into understanding the characters we write. How do you go about it?
Spend time with them. I mean, I talk a lot about character development and how I use it to approach fiction, but knowing your characters simply comes down to hanging out with them. Imagine them in different scenarios. Think of the worst part of your day. Or the best part. How would your character experience that differently? If two of your characters were to play chess, how would they play different? What are their strategies? Think about your characters. Project them into moments outside your story.
One thing I do- I’m an avid gamer. Any video game with character creation, I always end up designing my characters based around my fiction. Skyrim, Final Fantasy XIV, Soul Calibur, Tony Hawk Pro Skater. You’re creating a visual representation of your character, adding as much nuance to them as possible, and then sending them into experiences outside of your plot. Or if you ever have an opportunity to play Dungeons & Dragons, it’s awesome for character development. Not only are you taking your character on someone else’s journey, you’re also having that character interact with others in a freeform setting. A few weeks ago I joined a D&D group and made this Tiefling vigilante, named Bajja (inspired of course after a Taco Bell drive-thru menu). We haven’t had a proper game yet, and I’m already eager to write stories and adventures with this guy. His strengths and weaknesses came out of randomly rolling dice and realizing how those numbers structured his personality. So in a few years, when that character’s book comes out, everyone can say, “Yeah, that guy was inspired by chalupas.”
What are your future project(s)?
I have two series I go back and forth on, as well as a few random side projects. As for the main things, Necromantica is the first book in a series called The Vecris, which is a tapestry, telling the story of this world over several centuries. Necromantica begins one timeline meant to be the ancient, half forgotten past. There still are a few stories to tell from that era, which lead more into the main villain of the series. And the consequences of Necromantica. Then there’s the future timeline. It’s difficult to explain without spoiling parts of Necromantica. I can say that the next two books are about ferrelfs, which are (obviously) ferret elves. One story takes place seven years after the events of Necromantica. The other takes place hundreds of years later.
I’m also revising the third book in my other series, Roadside Attraction. These books are more modern day. They’re about an immortal hick and his lesbian sidekick hunting campy monsters. Each story features a different hunt, and a new monster. Books one is called Siren Night, and is about a trio of sirens stalking men in karaoke clubs along the Gulf of Mexico. Book two, Tramp Stamp Vamp, is a prequel, explaining how vampires brought the two main characters together. The series is demented, bizarre, and hilarious.
What is your favorite book ever written? Who are your favorite authors?
Tough question. Maybe The Heartsmith’s Daughters by Harry Campion. Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins is another strong contender. So is Douglas Adams’s The Hitchhiker’s Guide to The Galaxy. Life of Pi makes my heart sing and weep whenever I think about it. Lately I’m smitten with The Broken Earth Trilogy by NK Jemisin. I have to mention JK Rowling, Neil Gaiman, and David Mitchell. Just pick any of their books. Any one would make a solid favorite.
What makes a good villain?
Of course you want to humanize your villains. You want to make them multidimensional. But if you are creating a classic, gloved fist, comic book type villain, and they’re coming off paper thin, maybe a little too over the top, at least hint at the idea that they’re sporting some tiny, malformed genitals. You know, the reader asks, “What’s with this guy?” The character disrobes, and your reader is like, “Oh. That makes sense. Yeah, cool. I’d want to blow up the universe too.”
No really, I think making your villain scary is half the battle. If you can instill a bit fear, that goes a long way to get your reader invested. That’s not to say your villains need to come off like the monster under your bed. Look at Dolores Umbridge in the Harry Potter series. She was a bigot with authority, using policies to dominate over a school. She wasn’t the brightest person. She never gave the impression of being a particularly powerful wizard. But every time you read the words hem hem, you were seething with anger. She was the most practical villain in that series. Maybe the most memorable. All because seeing a fool with power is such a familiar and terrifying thing.
So that’s it. In a nutshell, make them relatable. Make them scary. Bonus points for having dilophosaurus frills on their junk.
What do you like to do in your spare time?
Mostly nerdy, hermit stuff. I love going to the cinema. At least once a week, and I’ll watch the same flicks over and over. I also love my video games. I have also the major consoles. I also built my own classic arcade cabinet with a Raspberry Pi. I have no idea how many games are on that thing, but man is it fun.
Reading is always good. I try to alternate between fiction and nonfiction. Right now I’m bouncing between Stephen King’s It and Moral Philosophy and the Modern World by Donald Phillip Verene. With the SPFBO, I also just started The God King’s Legacy by Richard Nell. I’m still in the opening chapters, but I’m digging it so far.
I have a lot of pets. Three cats. Three dogs. Lately I’ve been spending a lot time failing to train any obedience into my golden retriever. She’s a terror, but a cute one, so I spoil her and tell myself things like, “Hey, if she’s happy standing on the kitchen table, who am I take that from her?”
I also have bad cholesterol. I know that doesn’t sound like a hobby, but apparently it’s something I worked on for a long time. So I’m counting it as a pass time. I’m trying to make it to the gym more, researching diets and dishes. All that fun stuff. I’m a terrible cook, but having two jobs isn’t an excuse to indulge in quick, processed meals every night. So yeah. I’m trying to transition into smarter lifestyle choices. Wish me luck there.
If you couldn’t be an author, what ideal job would you like to do?
Nature conservation or working with animals would be great for me. Or I could try my hand at being a private investigator. That might get old though. I imagine there are only so many pictures one can take of cheating spouses before it gets tiresome. Alternatively, I think being an international jewel thief would be a fun gig. You know, like Hudson Hawk. But shorter. And chubby. Swing into museums at midnight. Do some flips around strangely visible lasers. Wave my hat and bow at the local authorities as my private plane is about to take flight. I could see enjoying that as regular work.
So essentially, anything with animals. And if I can’t do that, anything that involves wearing a fedora. Maybe a trench a coat. I’m short, so I’d probably trip over it or fray the bottom. Maybe just a cool jacket instead. But I definitely want to trespass late into the night. That’s the first thing I’d look for in the want ads.
You can travel to any planet or moon in the Solar System. Where would you go, why and what would you do there?
I would love to see the rings on Saturn up close. They’re only a kilometer thick. Just chunks of ice whipping by at seventy-five meters per second. Mostly I’d just want to toss random stuff into them and see what happens for a while.
Alternatively, I bet the view of Jupiter from Io is incredible. I’d love to pull up a lounge chair and enjoy that for a while. Not too long because, you know, all the volcanic activity and deadly radiation from the planet. But it’s still a great seat.
Pick any three characters from a fiction novel. These are now your roadtrip crew. Where do you go and what do you do?
I’m so glad you asked. Check this out. You got me driving ten over through the desert with Hester Prynne from The Scarlet Letter. She’s dressed like Hunter Thompson in his Fear & Loathing in Las Vegas getup. Like classic Ralph Steadman art. It’s glorious. In the backseat we’ve got Lestat from Anne Rice’s Vampire Chronicles, and he’s got a death grip on a black umbrella. Ancient blood or not, that’s some serious desert sun overhead. And he’s trying to play it cool. Like this is normal. He’s telling Hester lame vampire jokes, like “Wherever I am, you’re in Bat Country!” But we all know he’s terrified because we’re one speed bump or random gust of wind away from that umbrella breaking or slipping out of his cold, dead hands. But that’s not even the fun part. See, sitting right next to Lestat is the legend himself, Dr. TJ Eckleburg. Nice guy. Kind of quiet. He’s leaning as far from Lestat as he can get. I’m thinking, hey, there might be a little sexual tension between these two, and the good doctor is denying himself, but more likely they just don’t get along. Also it’s a safe bet Eckleburg doesn’t want to come aflame if Lestat ignites.
Now, when I first started typing this answer, I was headed in a “Let’s storm Area 51,” direction, but since that’s gone meme and will probably be old news by the time this interview is made public, I’m going to go ahead and say we’re just headed to Canada. We’re headed to Canada because this country is getting far weirder than digging up alien bones with a puritan, a vampire, and a self-proclaimed occultist. So we’re taking the long way to Toronto. We’re going to pick some syrup off the maple trees, sell it online, and save up money to open our own damn Pantages Theatre. And it’s still less weird.
Finally, what is your preferred method to have readers get in touch with or follow you (i.e., website, personal blog, Facebook page, here on Goodreads, etc.) and link(s)?
Oh, I’m all over the Internet. Here’s a list:
Twitter – https://twitter.com/keithblenman
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/blenmankeith/
Facebook – https://www.facebook.com/bluedonutbooks
YouTube performance reading of Tender Buttons Two – https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-D__c2XpRaw&t=159s
Review of Necromantica at Fantasy Book Critic – http://fantasybookcritic.blogspot.com/2019/05/necromantica-by-keith-blenman-reviewed.html