Tuesday, March 21, 2017

John C. Bruening's Pretty Ambitious Target

Meet John C. Bruening!

What are the books that made you want to be a writer? What are the reasons they "got" you like they did?

I’m not sure if I can cite specific books as turning points, but I can point to certain authors who held my interest for many books over the course of many years:

I started reading Robert B. Parker’s “Spenser” series right after college (about 30 years ago). When he was at the top of his game (his first 15 books, give or take), he was a master. But even afterward, when his plotting may not have been as solid, his dialogue was still extremely clever. I was really drawn to that. I traced that thread backward to Raymond Chandler, who was one of Parker’s primary influences, and found more of the same.

Ed McBain’s 87th Precinct novels also made a big impression on me. McBain (aka Evan Hunter, aka Salvatore Lombino) took the tedious grind of police detective work – the interviewing of witnesses, the long hours of chasing leads that often went nowhere – and somehow made it all interesting. With the help of the colorful cast of characters he created for the Eight-Seven, McBain did a great job of taking readers inside the day-to-day experience of street-level detective work and law enforcement.

I also read a lot of Edgar Rice Burroughs stories – about half of his Tarzan novels, and the entire John Carter of Mars series – starting in grade school and all the way into my early thirties. As far as I know, Burroughs had little or no formal training in fiction writing. And yet by sheer instinct, he figured out what worked in terms of plotting, character development, pacing, etc., and he delivered it consistently. Most of his stories come down to one man pitted against ridiculous odds, with his chances for survival and success depending almost entirely on his ability to use his brains and his will (and probably some muscle) to their fullest capacity.

Finally, I have to mention Lester Dent, the author of most of the Doc Savage pulp stories of the 1930s and ‘40s. Dent was writing at a time when technology was really becoming a powerful force for the betterment of humanity – but also a potentially deadly weapon in the wrong hands. It was a time when the world teetered on a precipice between advancement and annihilation, and Dent’s Doc Savage stories capture some of the precariousness of the era in an entertaining way.

What is your writing Kryptonite?

Nothing can lock me up like a blank screen, a ticking clock and no raw materials. I better have something in my head and ready to type before the I/O button even gets pushed and laptop starts booting up. If I don’t, I get anxious, and then I get discouraged, and then I start asking myself why I’m even doing this in the first place. It’d be great if the inspiration were to magically hit me every time I sat down in front of the computer, but that’s not how it works for me. Ideas come to me in the least convenient places: in the shower, in the car on my way to the day job, out in the yard when I’m pushing the lawn mower. All of these are times and places where a notebook and a pen just aren’t practical. So I do my best to hold ideas in my head just long enough to get to the nearest dinner napkin, Post-It Note pad, half-torn electric bill envelope, etc. That way, I have some scrap of an idea to work with when it’s time to start writing. If I sit down to write with a head devoid of ideas and expect something to come at me from nowhere, I’m setting myself up for disappointment.

How do your writer friends help you become a better writer? Or do they not?

There are a couple people who have been enormously helpful over the years, each in different ways.

Fellow Clevelander Richard Montanari (SHUTTER MAN, THE DOLLMAKER) has been writing crime/suspense novels for more than two decades. His books have been translated into about a dozen languages, he’s a best seller in the UK, and The New York Times listed his SHUTTER MAN as one of the 10 best crime novels of 2016. Richard and I have been friends since the late 1980s, and for all of his success – and all the demands that come with that success – he’s always found time to give advice and share war stories about the publishing business. I’ve shown him some writing samples along the way, and he’s always been supportive. Uncomfortably honest at times, but always supportive. I am eternally grateful to him.


 Jim Beard is founder and editor of Flinch Books. He launched Flinch in 2013 and brought me on board as a full partner about a year later. Jim’s a Toledo native, and I think we met somewhere around 2010, one of the first years after PulpCon morphed into Pulpfest and moved its annual convention to Columbus (although it’s relocating to Pittsburgh as of this summer). My novel, THE MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN: HOUR OF DARKNESS, was still taking shape when I became part of Flinch, and he lit the fire under me to get it finished in time for a 2016 release. It was a challenging deadline, but it was what I needed. Jim and I are pretty close in age, so we grew up with the same pop culture touchstones and influences. He’s been a great sounding board for ideas, and he has likewise trusted my judgment and input about writing projects he’s worked on. I think we’re both always pleasantly surprised to discover that we’re on the same wavelength about Flinch-related decisions. Partnering with him and being connected to his energy and enthusiasm has proven to be a big boost for my writing.

What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?

Plotting, without question. Everyone’s process varies, but I need to have at least a rough story framework in place before the serious writing gets under way. That can be challenging enough when everyone and everything in the story is on the up and up, but I generally try to weave in some measure of mystery along with the action, adventure, drama and occasional humor. That means there are likely to be certain characters and/or circumstances that are not who or what they appear to be, which just makes it that much harder to construct a plot that’s airtight and consistent. Much of writing is about explaining, but mystery, by its very definition, requires that something remain unknown or unclear for as long as possible. So in a sense, I’m revealing and concealing at the same time. It is, by far, the hardest part of the writing process for me.

What does literary success look like to you?

Well, I would never complain about having a bestseller or two (or more) on my resume, but that’s a pretty ambitious target. And the truth is, bestsellers are often (not always, but often) the result of very good marketing as much good writing. Those who self-publish usually don’t have the resources to launch and maintain the kind of marketing campaign that creates broad mainstream awareness. So having said all that, if I can build a modest but consistent audience that A) is willing to spend the money and the time to read my latest book, and B) derives enough of a sense of entertainment and enjoyment when they get to the end of it that they want to go out and repeat the process with the next book, then I’d consider myself a success. It remains to be seen whether I could actually make a living writing fiction. People who have been at it far longer than me aren’t there yet. But if I could, then anything beyond that would just be icing on the cake.

Tell us a bit about your latest work.

My short story, “The Warrior and the Stone,” is one of six tales appearing in RESTLESS: AN ANTHOLOGY OF MUMMY HORROR, published by Flinch Books in January 2017. The protagonist is Jake Bennett, a Cold War-era historian, archaeologist and soldier of fortune in search of a precious stone hidden in the mountains between China and Tibet. An ancient legend from the 7th century claims the stone is powerful, but neither Bennett nor his adversaries understand the magnitude of that power until it’s unleashed.

In addition to contributing a story to RESTLESS, I also co-edited the anthology with Jim Beard. The other writers in the lineup are Barry Reese, Teel James Glenn, Nancy Hansen, Duane Spurlock and Sam Gafford. We invited each of them to tell a mummy tale, but we tasked them with setting their stories in various locations around the world. Ancient Egypt is in the mix, but so are South America, Russia, China and other exotic locales.

Do you want each book to stand on its own, or are you trying to build a body of work with connections between each book?

Yes and yes. At this writing, I’m plotting the second MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN novel, which takes place about a year and a half after the first one. It definitely builds on some loose ends that were intentionally left unresolved at the end of the first story, but generally speaking, it will stand on its own. The reader would probably have a better sense of context by reading the first book first, but he or she could get something out of the second book regardless. Right now, I envision the MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN story arc to span four or five books, with a thread of continuity that runs through all of them and ties them all together.

Further out, there’s the possibility of another series that could have some tangential connection to the MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN saga. A secondary character introduced in the pages of a MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN novel might spin off into an entirely different series of his or her own, but that’s far-off and big-picture thinking. The book I’m working on right now is my primary focus.

Along those same lines, I think there’s more that could be done with a character like Jake Bennett, the protagonist of “The Warrior and the Stone.” If circumstances allow, he may show up in other adventures in other Flinch anthologies, or maybe he’ll warrant a self-contained collection of his own stories at some point. Again, that’s far enough down the road that the details are still pretty sketchy.

Any other projects you would like to plug?

Well, I’ve already mentioned THE MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN a couple times. The first book in the series, HOUR OF DARKNESS, was my debut novel, published in July 2016. It’s a Depression-era crime story of Jack Hunter, an assistant district attorney who protects his city by night with the help of a high-tech mask (or at least a 1930s version of high tech) that heightens his reflexes and his senses. His target is a sociopathic crime boss named Nicholas Diamond (aka Nicky Dynamite), who killed Hunter’s father – a police officer – fourteen years earlier in a late-night shootout. I’ve described the story to others as a cross between Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables (1987) and The Green Hornet. Ron Fortier at Airship 27 called it “a Republic serial set to prose,” which was pretty much the vibe I was going for.

As I mentioned earlier, the next MIDNIGHT GUARDIAN book is in the works and scheduled for release in the second half of 2018. The story arc of the overall series is working its way through the late 1930s and eventually toward World War II.

There are other projects in the pipeline that I can’t really talk about because they’re fairly early in the planning stages. Suffice it to say that Flinch Books is developing another anthology with publication scheduled for some time in the latter half of 2017. We’re planning to announce the theme and the lineup of writers for that project at Pulpfest this summer.

Stay tuned.