For those of you unfamiliar with the name Brian Keene…what the hell are you reading this interview for? Seriously, the man made a huge name for himself with the publication of his first novel, the zombie epic The Rising. For me, this was one of those books that everyone was talking about, and for once it actually lived up to the hype. The traditional zombie apocalypse story with some incredibly fresh new elements and great characters made it a fantastic debut.
Recently there’s been a lot of talk about its upcoming sequel, City of the Dead (pre-order it here), as well as a video game and movie adaptation of The Rising, so I thought it would be a great time to chat with Brian and see just where he came from and get a better idea of where he’s going.
Johnny Butane: So we’ll start from when we first met you; how did you get your first novel published?
Brian Keene: I started writing for publication in 1997, and sold The Rising to Delirium Books in early 2003. Leisure picked up the paperback rights later that year. There wasn’t really a trick, or some magic incantation that helped me sell it. Writing may be an art, but publishing is a business, and an author has to approach it as such. If you’re writing with publication in mind, then you’re part of the business, and you need to approach it like a career, even if you’re working in a cubicle somewhere, and writing stories in your spare time on the weekend.
How do you sell a novel? Hard work and patience. And maybe a little bit of luck–though I’m not convinced of that last one.
JB: I’ve read the three Shivers collections from Cemetery Dance and I notice you’ve contributed to a few of them (forgive me, I can’t remember which ones…), plus Kelly Laymon’s tale of author debauchery implies you’ve been hanging out with that crew for while now. Was this all as a result of The Rising, or had you know them all for a while?
BK: No, we’ve all been hanging out for a while now. Back in 1997/1998, there was a website called Horrornet. It doesn’t exist anymore, but at the time, it was THE place for horror fiction on the web. A lot of folks hung out there: Richard Laymon (along with Kelly), Ray Garton, Edward Lee, Douglas Clegg, John Pelan, Tom Piccirilli, and newbies like myself, James Newman, Brian Freeman, Tim Lebbon, Mike Laimo (all of whom are no longer newbies), and many other fine folks—too many to mention here. Those were good times, and the friendships that were established there have long outlived the actual website.
The horror fiction genre itself is a small one. Sooner or later, you meet everybody in it.
JB: What happened to the site? Is there any place comparable out there now?
BK: Matt Schwartz, who went on to found Shocklines, which is sort of the Amazon.com for horror fiction, ran the site. When he moved on, it died. There were two more incarnations, but they never quite captured the magic of the original. These days, there’s a plethora of sites focusing on horror fiction: Really Scary.com, Horror Web, Horror World, the Shocklines message boards, dozens of others.
But Horrornet was the original–and there hasn’t been anything quite like it since. It was a magical, historic moment while it lasted.
JB: In the interview you did with Cemetery Dance you made mention that you had never planned for a sequel to The Rising. At what point did you change your mind?
BK: When I looked at my bank account and realized I needed money. (laughs) No, in all seriousness, I didn’t consider a sequel until the fan outcry got really loud. Understand, I thought it was plainly clear that Danny was a zombie, Jim shot Danny and then himself, and that Martin and Frankie were pretty much screwed. I thought readers would appreciate the “lady or the tiger” ending. John Carpenter used it well in his remake of The Thing and I wanted to do the same thing.
But I blew it. And I know I blew it. The Rising was a first novel, full of first novel mistakes, but none bigger than that ending.
Thus–a sequel. If only to give the fans closure… City of the Dead is the longest ending in literary history. (laughs)
JB: So you never wrote an alternate ending or anything like that, you had just planned to leave it as is and let the fans figure it out? I guess that shows how in touch you are with the fanbase if you agreed to continue the story just to make us happy!
BK: I wrote an original ending, but that got scrapped during the final draft. It showed Danny as a zombie, but left Frankie and Martin’s fates still up in the air, as well as the issue of Jim’s resolution (now that his son was revealed to be one of the undead). The original, or “alternate”, is up on my website for folks to read, if they are interested.
But yeah, if the readers ask for it, I do it. After all, they are my employer. They are the ones plunking down their money for the books, and it’s my job to entertain them, to get them through their commute or study hall. They support me. I’m very grateful for that, and appreciative, and I try to give them what they want.
JB: So what’s City of the Dead going to be like?
BK: City of the Dead is faster, more violent, and grimmer than The Rising. It ups the stakes and the odds immediately, and doesn’t slow down until the last page. Or, at least, that’s what I was going for. So far, those that have read it seem to agree.
JB: Sounds pretty intense, will the same characters be returning?
BK: Pretty much. Frankie, Martin and Jim are all back for another turn–at least, at the beginning. (evil laughter). And of course, Ob is back, along with a bigger, mightier zombie army. And there are some new characters too. Lots of people die, but I’m not saying who.
JB: So since we’re on the subject, what can you tell us about the movie?
BK: Can’t say much–I’ve taken a vow of silence. (laughs). The first draft of the screenplay has been completed. People are talking to other people. Some names have been attached, but I honestly can’t tell you who. I’d love to, and believe me, there are times when I want to shout it out loud, but contractually, I can’t. However, if things continue at this pace, everything will be revealed, possibly by Spring 2006. As for the video game, again, things are progressing well. Currently, they are writing something called a “bible”. Not sure what that is, but apparently, every video game has one.
And now the same companies that optioned The Rising have optioned City of the Dead for both as well.
JB: Can you reveal who said company is? Are you writing the script for either game or movie?
BK: Can’t reveal them yet. It’s all part of this giant marketing plan they’ve cooked up, and they seem to know what they’re doing.
I’m not writing the script. I’d love to, but right now, I just don’t have the time to spare. I did the script for the comic book adaptation, and had a blast with it. Screenwriting is something I’d like to tackle, but not right now.
That being said, the screenplay is incredibly faithful to the book. I think it will please both the fans and the moviegoer who has never read the book.
JB: Well, it sure sounds good…if not frustratingly vague, but I know how it is with such things. Better to wait until it’s all signed before anything more is said. I know the fans of the book are dying (pun intended) for this to happen, and from the sounds of it things are moving along nicely. A year sure is along time to wait though!
BK: Oh, everything is signed. Money exchanged hands. The check didn’t bounce. (laughs). But yeah, confidentiality agreements can be a real bitch.
JB: Nice! Do you have a wish list of actors for the roles yet?
BK: When I wrote the book, I pictured Gary Sinise as Jim, but since then, I’ve thought Vin Diesel would be perfect, especially after watching him cut his dramatic chops. Morgan Freeman or Ken Foree would both be great as Rev. Martin. Dennis Hopper or Christopher Walken would make a nasty renegade Colonel. Brad Douriff is a natural for the voice of Ob. The only one I’m not sure about is Frankie.
JB: Wow, that’s quite a list, do you think you’re going to have the kind of budget that can afford names that big? Foree in another zombie movie would be wonderful…
BK: Well, that’s just my wish list. If it stays true to Hollywood form, they’ll cast Hillary Duff and the kid from “Malcom In The Middle”. Maybe Jack Black can play the zombie bunny…
JB: You have two new books on the horizon beside City of the Dead, namely Terminal and the fantastically-titled Earthworm Gods. Tell us a bit about those…
BK: Terminal is, in my humble opinion, the absolute best thing I’ve ever written. It’s a horror novel, but it’s about as far away from The Rising that you can get. It’s a mix of dark crime and the supernatural. Basic premise: a bank robber with terminal cancer is forced to take hostages when the heist goes bad. One of the captives is a young boy whose touch can heal.
I’m very proud of Terminal, but I’m also a little worried about how the book will be received. Like I said, there’s no zombies or post-apocalyptic settings. Lots of violence, but despite that, it’s a much quieter novel. I’m hoping readers will enjoy it as much as The Rising and City of the Dead.
Earthworm Gods is based on a short novella I wrote several years ago (with the same title). It’s a return to the post-apocalyptic setting, but again, there are no zombies. Think Tremors meets Waterworld, and you’ll have a good feel for what the novel’s about. Giant, man-eating earthworms, and flooded cities, and even the return of something that may very well be ol’ Cthulhu himself. It will be out in hardcover this summer, and paperback in early 2006.
JB: So what’s next?
BK: Well, after the two aforementioned books, the comic book adaptation of The Rising is out this summer. I’ll be hitting the road from June to early-October, doing signings, readings, and drinkings across the country. In between, I’m working on three new novels, some novellas, and a collection of short stories based in the world of The Rising. I’m pretty busy, and I bitch about it from time to time, but in truth, I’m grateful. I’m lucky enough to be doing this for a living, and giving something back to the genre that I’ve loved all of my life. Not a bad gig. Not bad at all.
From the sounds of it the name of Brian Keene is going to be on a lot of horror fans’ lips for quite a while, and I’m sure he’d have it no other way. It’s great to see an author who completely embraces his love for both the genre and its fans, of which he still is one. Make sure you check out Brian’s official site right here, and get your ass over to Evilshop to pre-order City of the Dead, which hits paperback this May courtesy of the great folks at Leisure Books, and Terminal, coming around the same time from Spectra.
Discuss Brian Keene’s work in our forums!