And we’re back with a new SPFBO interview! Sorry for the delays in gettig them out, the last month especially has been rough. Today I welcome back an old friend and guest with Keith Blenman!
STARTING OFF WITH A BANG
Welcome back, Keith! An easy question to start off with. For our readers who didn’t catch your previous interview, tell us about yourself! What do you write?
Hi! Hello! It’s great to be back. I am a forensic investigation professor and computer store manager. I’m born and raised in Metro Detroit. Of course, I’m also an indie author. I mostly write genre fiction, with occasional blogs and satire. My work can be described as genre bending. I like to get experimental and weird with my fiction.
Umm. I don’t know. I also cats. So that’s exciting.
And this is your second year in SPFBO?
Yep! Last year, I entered Necromantica, which is a hybrid first- and second-person adventure about a necromancer and her rogue companion braving a city under siege. I was knocked out in the first round, but still made a lot of good connections and scored some solid reviews on Goodreads. I’m hoping for the same experience this year. My fiction has a tendency to be divisive. From the feedback I’ve received so far, my latest book is one people love or loathe. More than anything else I’ve written. Which, you know, that’s shocking, but I get it. I set out to write something that expresses my ADD, depression, and social anxiety disorder. Not in a negative light or even trying to discuss it. The narrative and protagonists embody my issues, but that’s not the focus. The characters are oblivious to it, in a world that wouldn’t ever analyze someone’s psychology. They’re just living their lives. Tonally, I wanted to lean into my mental health instead of treating it like an excuse to not write or some insurmountable obstacle. Not to be too self indulgent, but The Girl Drank Poison, is me just letting go and having fun with my flaws. It’s ridiculous. It’s all over the map. And it’s apparently the most polar romp in my catalogue. So now the game is to find an audience for my over-the-top, non-chronological, sugar rush with off putting protagonists floundering through an absurdly dark subject matter. The SPFBO is the best opportunity for that. The story likely won’t make it past the first round. It’s not easy selling the grand adventure of a self-loathing, landlocked pirate who barely leaves his comfort zone. My marketing campaign can’t scream, “Watch as Horace has a mood swing while trying to ignore the consequences of his actions! Behold our hero attempting to put his problems on someone else and hoping they’ll just go away!” I can’t exactly see the judges calling that this year’s most epic, stay-at-home blockbuster. But it will resonate for some readers. The people it does click with are going to have a blast.
What book did you enter into this year’s event?
The full title is The Girl Drank Poison or Ferrelf: Big Sister. It’s a tangled-web set in the same world as Necromantica, in a different region with new characters.
The plot revolves around a barmaid, Zellin. She gets tricked into drinking a love potion by one of her patrons. The potion is expired so instead of falling madly in love with this creep, she’s transformed into a giant monster and starts rampaging her way across the country, hunting him down.
Meanwhile, we have our retired pirate, Horace. Back in his day, he was infamous. There are songs and poems about his exploits. But he went into hiding and settled down. His family runs a few businesses in a small town, Sleeping Bear. When the story picks up, he’s been tracked down by a bounty hunter ferret, Griever. She’s an enormous fan of his sordid past. She knows Horace’s legend better than he does. So while she’s there for the bounty on his head, she’s also wants to impress her hero. So there’s this macguffin, a coin. When assassins, thieves, bounty hunters, or adventurers want to challenge each other, they’ll place a bounty of a single coin on an impossible feat. For some it’s a status symbol. For others it’s an excuse for adventure. Griever decides the best way to impress Horace is to earn a coin from him. Horace sees opportunity in that. She knows his past. She could expose him. Now there’s a kaiju heading to his town, likely to level his entire world. So the pirate sells the bounty hunter on battling the kaiju for a coin. Everything explodes from there.
Does one of the main characters hold a special place in your heart? If so, why?
Griever really hits home for me. Horace too, but writing Griever was so fun. I intentionally left a lot of details out about her. She has centuries of history that just would’ve bogged the narrative down. I wanted to give the reader just enough context for this moment. Here’s the Yojimbo, ronin, wandering samurai character. Here’s a massive threat for her to face. That’s it. She’s not worried about her life story in the single day this book takes place in, so just go! Have fun!
I already mentioned this being an expression of my psychology. Obviously the ferret is the embodiment of ADD, fixation, and a short attention span. She’s manic and destructive. Writing her is like playing the Grand Theft Auto games, when you fire a rocket launcher into traffic or get into one of those massive collisions. My audiobook narrator, Shaniese Reyes, was quick to make comparisons to Harley Quinn. She pretty well nailed it. Griever is a loveable villain, full of heart, playing the role of protagonist. Her decision making is impulsive, which is refreshing. In Necromantica, the character Lama takes the better part of a decade to find an ounce of goodness in himself. In this, it only takes one line of dialogue for Griever to go from wanting to murder Zellin to viewing her as a sister. All it takes is a heartbeat and her mind’s made up.
Also, just being an anthropomorphic character, my approach was to make her feel like an encounter with a wild animal. She’s being cute and seems pleasant at a distance, but she could attack at any moment. There are so many characters in fantasy who, if the reader is meant to feel uncertain about their motives, they come off like Professor Snape. They’re in the far corner, brooding over how the shadows aren’t dark enough. Griever is at the opposite end of the spectrum. She’s walking on sunshine, daydreaming about gnawing on a beehive because the waxy texture reminds her of candles. She’s playful but unsettling. The story really takes its time letting the reader decide whether or not they can trust her.
Another layer readers might not totally focus on is how Griever wavers between atheism and agnosticism. I’ve never gotten to express that with a character before. In the series as a whole, she plays a major role in the world’s polytheistic religion. She’s part of the reason there’s only one religion. I know I’m a tad spoilery right now, but the average indie book only sells a few hundred copies and this novel is already crazy divisive. So why not take the opportunity to ramble? This story plants a few seeds that Griever was meant for a specific fate. Her little brother, who one of my next books is about, ends up taking over Griever’s destiny to become a grim reaper. She was meant to cleanse corrupt souls before passing them to the afterlife. Due to what’s essentially a deal with the devil, she can’t fulfill her destiny. That doesn’t stop her from living a perverted form of it. She’s collecting coins and crushing impossible evils. Without belief, her soul still drives her on a path she can’t understand. She can’t have faith because she knows the religion is a lie. She still yearns for the spiritual connection “the devil” never gives her a comprehension of. In the narrative of the book, all of that is distilled down to how she was victimized by a man. She sympathizes with Zellin’s plight because as a child, Griever was poisoned.
Oh wow! Like in the title!
Sorry! I’m lame. Apologies. I was totally rambling there. The point is just that I really enjoyed writing a character who was spiritually conflicted. I know so many people who put themselves wholly into their faith, and so many others who despise the notion. Even though it’s kept to the sidelines, that internal conflict was what brought Griever to life.
What was the inspiration for the story?
It’s a few things tied together. There’s a clear parallel to King Kong. I loved the original black and white movie as a kid. When my Grandpa explained how it was about slavery, that was probably my first introduction into symbolism and subtext. So from probably nine or ten years old, I’ve always wanted to create an homage to that film. Instead of allusions to slavery, it’s a giant monster story about sexual abuse. But I’ll get into how that came up later. The earliest, quarter page outline focused on expired potions. I was lecturing on chemical reagents used in a forensic laboratory, discussing the importance of expiration dates. In any lab, when performing a test or process, you don’t use expired chemicals because that’s going to skew your data. You might get a false negative. In quantitative testing, the reaction may indicate a smaller concentration than what’s actually there. Especially in forensics, when lives are on the line, all it takes is an ignored expiration date to completely ruin a case. So like all great fantasy action-adventures, this ferret versus kaiju calamity was inspired by the dangers of ignoring expiration dates.
One of the inspirations for Griever was how I was diagnosed with ADHD. I think I just have ADD, but we’ll go with my doctor’s diagnosis. I was seeking treatment for my depression, and in the discussion I casually mentioned that people say my hearing is selective. I’ve always hated going to bars or crowded spaces because noise gets really disorienting. I was just rambling about it, and my doctor started putting two and two together. Turns out a common symptom for ADD is difficulty filtering sounds. I was in my thirties before I found out that’s something other people are capable of doing. In the story, it just sort of came up as a joke that Griever keeps mishearing a character’s name, then mispronouncing it for the rest of the story. But that was how the character started.
Lastly, every year, I do a lecture on sexual assault victims and evidence collection. I’ve had friends who were victims. I’ve had a few students listen to the lecture and decide to share their own experiences. A common thread is how people and society treat victims of sexual abuse. Women or men, the person is attacked and humiliated. Then we as a society have a tendency to turn our backs or not take it seriously. Women get vilified. They’re treated like monsters and their assailants get a slap on the wrist. There’s far more than one case where a woman gets hospitalized by her significant other or a family member because she was raped and the people who should’ve helped her work through that trauma became aggressive instead. People blame victims. I’m not sure if this will make a lot of sense, but was compelled to write about that. I didn’t want to write about the victim as much as I wanted to write about the callousness victims endure after the trauma. I wanted to write about how we distance ourselves to another person’s agony. That’s the lecture I’ve had to give over and over. That’s the story my friends and students have told me. Society is getting better, but even when these horrors get brought to light, it’s not good. Our focus is on the perpetrator and not the victim. It’s in the nature of a retributive justice system. We’re all about punishing the bad guy. We fail at mending the wounds. For my students who go on to be SANE nurses, something I focus on is that while the examination and evidence collection process can be humiliating, it’s an opportunity for them to provide even a tiny step toward helping someone heal. For official legal documentation, we have a consent form. I ask my students to really think about the gravity behind that piece of paper. You’re talking to someone who in the worst of cases has been stripped of their agency and power. They may require hospitalization and multiple surgeries depending on circumstances. So before you begin that examination, you really have to appreciate that you’re giving someone at their lowest point the ability to make a choice.
What were the key challenges you faced when writing this book?
Ha! Apart from all of my many obvious character flaws being on display in all the main characters?
The nature of the narrative is such a tangled knot. The subject is dark and my coping mechanism is always humor. It’s a deliberately grimy, easily distracted narrative in the way of a victim who deserves attention and doesn’t begin to receive it until near the conclusion, being told in a roundabout way by following unlikeable characters who have their own motives and are actively deceiving each other. There were frequent moments while writing and editing that I kept second guessing myself. This easily could’ve been the story of Horace being a man of action who saves the damsel by lifting the curse. This could’ve been from Zellin’s perspective and been even more involved in the victim’s psychology and the world falling apart around her. I could’ve even taken a few steps back to make the characters more loveable and easy to root for. Maybe I should be less weird and more commercial. You know, all the stuff any writer puts themselves through.
What is the future for the characters? Will there be a sequel?
Griever will definitely be back. There’s a ton about her story left unexplained. Especially for people who haven’t read this interview. As for Zellin, she shares the last name of a character from Necromantica, so I might be tying some threads together there. As for Horace, I don’t have anything planned. He let me indulge in a lot of my worst characteristics. I could potentially see myself revisiting him down the road, but I have so many other stories planned. I’m not sure I’ll ever make time for him. His story feels complete.
MORE RAMBLES ABOUT WRITING
Do you have any writing blogs you recommend?
I always recommend other writers cruise around reddit. There are a lot of useful forums and good writing communities there. I am working on something, but it’s still in its infancy. I started a website, www.bluedonutbooks.com. There, I’m slowly making a section for other writers to learn about self publishing, editing, writing, and their career options. Mostly it’s just going to be a free database full of useful links. So if anybody wants to check that out, I could certainly use some opinions on what’s missing and what needs work.
Do you have any writer friends you’d like to give a shoutout to?
Guys. You need to read The Heartsmith’s Daughters by Harry Campion. Seriously. It’s on Kindle. It’s cheap. It’s genuinely one of my favorite pieces of fiction. I think I’ve read it ten times. Probably more. It’s well worth checking out.
If you had to give up both snacks and drinks during writing sessions, or music, which would you find more difficult to say goodbye to?
I’d have a worse time giving up snacks and drinks, but it’d help my productivity a lot. If I have food in front of me, I’ll just sit there and eat. I ate an entire bowl of pretzels just answering this question. It’s way too easy of a distraction, but it’d be near impossible to say good-bye to.
It’s sometimes difficult to get into understanding the characters we write. How do you go about it?
I wrote a book for that! Character Development for Badass Writers. It’s available on paperback and Kindle at Amazon. It’s a series of three hundred questions digging into a character’s past, their likes and dislikes, their lifestyle, career, experiences, and so on. I find the best way to understand a character is to spend time with them. Some writers use their first draft as a sort of “getting to know you” with their characters. Whenever I try that, it just adds more complications to the editing process. I like to have a good understanding of who I’m writing about before I tell their story. Ninety percent of what I know about my characters doesn’t even make it into the book, but I find writing goes a lot smoother when I’ve prepared for it. So I’ll go through my book and answer thirty or forty random questions. Through this, I’m not just daydreaming about the character. I’m actively engaging my imagination, putting in time, and getting to know them. Once I have a clear handle of who they are and how they behave in circumstances unrelated to my plot, I have much easier time navigating them through my narrative.
What is your writing process? Do you have one? What is your workspace like?
I like to write outlines, draw sketches, and write little essays about the story. I research themes. I never like to approach a book assuming authority over a subject. There’s always more to learn, even in fantasy. Even when building your own world. The series that Necromantica and The Girl Drank Poison are from, The Vecris, takes place on a world with seven moons. In shaping the world, I spent a lot of time reading up and watching YouTube videos on gravity, astronomy, plate tectonics, ocean currents, and geology. I started this world with a singular Pangea continent, and broke it apart over centuries. It’s actually way too much work for my little action/adventure books, but it’s still good information to have. And it’s fun because even in this fantasy world, there’s a naturalistic sci-fi layer that readers will only pick up on if they read multiple stories.
Mostly I work at a messy desk in my bedroom. It’s actually starting to fall apart. I think it’s about twenty-five years old and has seen better days. I really should replace it, but it’s heavy, solid wood. Taking it apart to get it downstairs and out of my house sounds like such a burden. I really don’t want to take the time. Maybe if you guys buy enough copies of The Girl Drank Poison, I’ll be able to afford a new desk. Then I’ll dismantle this one.
MORE ABOUT YOU
If you couldn’t be an author, what ideal job would you like to do?
I want to work with animals or in nature conservation. I’ve tried for a few opportunities around here. They just haven’t worked out.
Coffee or Tea? Or (exult deep breath) what other drink do you prefer, if you like neither?
I don’t understand the question. Are you telling me there are drinks that aren’t coffee? That’s a good one! Stop being so hilarious!
You can travel to anywhere in the universe. Where would you go, and why?
The horsehead nebula would be gorgeous to travel through. Or I’d love to see a black hole up close. I mean, not super close, but close enough that if one were to take an expendable crew, and their space walking tethers “malfunctioned” so they drifted into the event horizon, I’d get to see what happens. For science.
What superpower would you most like?
Teleportation. I hate driving. I live in Michigan. Our roads are notorious for being either under constant construction or in ruins. Our auto insurance rates are definitely the result of hard lobbying and corrupt politicians. If I could Nightcrawler my way to work every day, it’d be a game changer. No promises I wouldn’t annoy the rest of the world screaming, “BAMF!” every time I teleport. At least for the first three months or so.
What are two of your favorite covers of all time? (Not your own.)
Can I include graphic novels? I have a paperback of The Crow by James O’Barr. I’ve had it since I was fourteen. The book is in terrible shape. I bought a hardcover to read because I’m scared to even take my paperback off the shelf any more. The cover on that is beautiful, haunting, tragic, and really conveys the brutality of the story. A thick, black border with narrow, red lettering. The image is the protagonist, Eric, sitting by an angelic gravestone with his hand sort of shielding his face from it. He’s basically sitting beside death, ignoring it.The statue looks serene while and he’s fierce. If there was a single image to summarize the tale of a man who comes back from the dead for revenge, it’s definitely that cover.
Also, the original cover for Skinny Legs and All by Tom Robbins is pretty cool. Honestly, I’m just blanking and I’ve been thinking of reading that again. It’s a simple image. Practically clipart. It’s a silhouette of a belly dancer, mid-performance, dropping a veil. It’s both elegant and a bit misleading. The Dance of the Seven Veils is a major part of the story, but that image doesn’t come close to expressing the full depth and overall weirdness of the book. The story is in part about a Muslim and Jew who open a greasy spoon diner across the street from the UN. Well, more about a woman on their staff. Another part of the story is about a can of beans, a dirty sock, a painted stick, a dessert spoon, and a conch shell, travelling across the United State, trying to make their way to the promised land for the apocalypse. More recent covers emphasize the inanimate object characters. Commercially, it gives readers a better sense of what to expect. The original cover was a better representation of the story’s meaning.
Share something your readers wouldn’t know about you.
Hmm. Well, I’m a terrible surfer. Just awful. I haven’t put anywhere near enough time into surfing to develop any level of skill. That said, I’ve thoroughly enjoyed the handful of times I’ve managed to stand up on a surfboard.
It’s a very difficult time right now for the world. When quarantine and pandemic comes to an end, what is the first thing you would like to do?
Hmm. I suppose if anybody is up for a real heavy makeout session, that’d be a good way to celebrate. You know, just break through all the social distancing guidelines. Lose ourselves in a torrent of point blank mouth breathing for a while. That could be fun.
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)?
I’m all over social media. Here’s some links: