The Dark Side of the Novella:
Interviewing Kealan Patrick Burke
Ink Heist is delighted to follow our recent feature on the novellas of Kealan Patrick Burke with a detailed interview covering many of those stories and other aspects of his writing. If you’re never explored the dark fiction of this fantastic Irish writer, a number of great starting points are mentioned over the next few pages. Many are available as standalone purchases on Amazon or Amazon Kindle Unlimited. Thank you to regular Ink Heist cohort Tony Jones and Kealan Patrick Burke for providing us with this excellent and insightful conversation.
INK HEIST: I always enjoy reading stories about writers so I found Midlisters your tale of a disgruntled horror author to be dark entertainment. Is there much of Kealan Patrick Burke lurking within the protagonist Jason Tennant? (apart from the fact every author wants to sell more copies!)
KEALAN: Most definitely, though maybe not quite as much as people have speculated over the years since it came out. For example, the rivalry in the story is not based on any real-life grudges I hold with anyone (though it’s always been fun hearing people discussing which famous author I have a problem with.) The entertainment business is rough for everyone involved, but worse for those who reach a certain level of success and then stall, or worse, see their popularity dwindle. This story was written to explore the frustration and the bitterness that comes with forever working your ass off for oftentimes little reward. Every creative person I know has endured that, and the insecurity and doubt it fosters can be its own horror story.
INK HEIST: The majority of horror writers usually specialise in long or short fiction, however, you successfully spread your writing equally between novellas, novels and short stories. Is there anything in particular which attracts you to the novella format?
KEALAN: I don’t usually set out with the length of the story in mind. Sometimes a short story morphs into a novel, sometimes a novel works better as a novella. It’s all about the tale and how long you need to tell it. But I do like novellas. I think they’re the ideal length. You have just enough time to develop your characters and to tell your story and then get the fuck out of there before anyone gets bored. The effect is concentrated and thus, more potent.
INK HEIST: I loved ‘Blanky’, the story of a bereaved couple and their dead child’s security blanket. When you started writing this terrific story was it always intended to be a novella, or were you unsure when you started it and just let the story take you where it took you?
KEALAN: More often than not, I let the story go wherever it wants. I’m not much for outlines. I knew Blanky was probably going to be a novella because I wanted the space amid all the supernatural shenanigans to explore the impact of grief and loss on both the self and interpersonal relationships. Because of the nature of the tragedy that informs the story, it was important to me that Blanky not be exploitative, that it have something to say other than just “boo!” That took time to get right.
INK HEIST: In retrospect, do you think you have written many short stories which on another day could have been a much longer piece of fiction? I use Peekers as an example, with a guy who thinks his wife has been replaced, but so much remains unsaid…. Or been tempted to go back and rewrite/elongate an older story?
KEALAN: Readers always demand I expand my shorter stuff, but I don’t feel that compulsion. Every story is as long or as short as it needs to be, and I feel to push it in either direction would do it an injustice. Lots of my stories could be expanded, but should they be? I’d rather the reader fill in the blanks I leave for them. It’s part of what makes this symbiotic relationship so much fun. As for rewriting? Oh yes. I want to rewrite everything I’ve ever written, but if I did, I’d never stop, and the work would never be finished. With writing, you strive for a level of perfection that’s unattainable because the mind and the eye keep changing, so the work never appears the same once you’ve looked away from it.
INK HEIST: I’m guessing you’re the type of author who has lots of different projects ongoing at the same time and of various lengths?
KEALAN: Only in my head, where dozens of ideas are always in various stages of development. On the page, however, I can only work on one thing at a time.
INK HEIST: The ‘Turtle Boy’ series lasted seven novellas written over seven years. Did winning the prestigious Bram Stoker Award play a part in its longevity or did its success dictate more entries in the series?
KEALAN: There are only five books in the series, I believe, unless someone has been adding to them without my knowledge! [dumb mistake from Ink Heist and humble apology!] But to answer your question, I think the award was a factor only in that it amplified the signal and got Richard Chizmar at Cemetery Dance to read the first book, after which he contacted me and asked if I’d be interested in writing another story set in that universe for his novella line. This was a big deal to me, so I jumped at the chance. As the books were all released as limited editions, success played no part at all in the decision to keep writing them. They were popular but didn’t make a whole lot of money. I just decided, midway through The Hides, that I wanted to follow Timmy Quinn into adulthood and see just how much this ability he had was going to cost him. So I did, all the way to the end, in a series that represents almost a decade of my life.
INK HEIST: I have visited your Irish hometown of Dungarvan and have a large number of in-laws living there… This town is the setting for the ‘Turtle Boy’ sequel ‘The Hides’, how hard was it to write about your old home? Was it something you wanted to get out of your system? I am guessing you wanted to do it justice and portray it accurately?
KEALAN: It wasn’t hard at all. I was excited to populate my hometown with ghosts and monsters and all manner of sinister things. The research was a lot of fun too. I worked with the town’s historian, Eddie Cantwell, to replicate it for the story as it was in my childhood days. That was an amazing experience. Eddie worked in the leather factory that’s so pivotal to the story, as did my father, and all the horrors of working there are based on their accounts. Perhaps the most amazing part of it all though, was hearing over the years that people visited the town armed with the book as a kind of macabre travel guide. That’s so great.
INK HEIST: Ireland obviously has a great tradition of amazing writers, both horror and in wider literature, many of which often wear their Irish colours proudly on their sleeves. Your fiction does not come across that way at all. Is there any reason? Of course, there is no reason why you should celebrate your Irishness…
KEALAN: I have always written stories set in the land in which I live. I respond best and am influenced most by what’s around me. When I lived in Ireland, I wrote stories set in Ireland; now that I live in the US, I write stories set here. They’re just more authentic to me that way. I am very proud to be Irish, and I love the country despite its many problems, but I don’t feel the need to inject any patriotism into my fiction, or to set my stories there. I think if you’re looking for Irishness in my work, it’s in the themes and my approach to them.
INK HEIST: It’s often said short stories can have horrible endings, but editors prefer happier or positive endings in novels. Where does the novella fit into this philosophy? I’m thinking of the bleak endings in ‘Seldom Seen in August’, ‘Underneath’ or ‘Jack and Jill’. Surely you’re taking the dark short story ending philosophy into the novella also? Any thoughts?
KEALAN: I would agree with that. I like bleak endings. After all, life has the bleakest ending of all. All this chaos and then we fucking croak. Why then, should fiction be any different? For a reprieve from the gloom? For some escape? Don’t read horror if you’re looking for sunshine. Read romance, or a travel guide to the Maldives (though that’s doomed too.) My fiction tends to be cynical and pessimistic, because I am. I struggle with happy endings because I rarely believe my characters deserve them, and when they do, it has twice the emotional impact to ruin them anyway. I’ve messed myself up, brought myself to tears because I liked a character and wanted them to prevail and just couldn’t do it because it didn’t fit the story. Life is fucking harsh, man, for all of us. Pretending it isn’t, even in a work of fiction, is dishonest.
INK HEIST: ‘Sour Candy’ was another of my favourite novellas. I don’t want to spoil the story for any future readers except by saying it may well put you off kids for life. What inspired this particular story and how did it evolve on paper?
KEALAN: The screaming kid in Walmart was real, and so was the harried-looking mother. We’ve all seen them, encountered them: the kid who goes nuts and the mother who is at her wit’s end. It was a deafening siren-like shriek that had people wincing and staring. I left because it made me feel guilty to be gawking, just as Phil does in the book. Afterward, relieved that the kid was not my problem, I wondered what I would do if he was, if he was waiting for me when I got home, claiming to be my son. I would know the truth, of course, but how could I convince anybody if the child had altered my reality to accommodate him? Once that question hit, I was off to the races and the story pretty much wrote itself.
INK HEIST: Do you keep up to date with what is going on in the current world of horror? What sort of stuff are you reading at the moment?
KEALAN: I try to, yes, though in recent years I’ve broadened my tastes, so that I don’t read horror nearly as much as I used to. Now I read everything from dramas and plays to westerns and nonfiction and everything in between. I think it’s a good idea for writers to read everything, not just books from the genres in which they work. But what horror I have read recently only reinforces my belief that the genre is in a really great place right now. You’ll have the perennial naysayers who claim different, of course, but the way I see it is: if you’re excited to read or watch horror, then it’s an exciting time for horror. I particularly like the emphasis on diversity. Like many a pasty privileged white guy, I was completely oblivious to the lack of diversity in my reading, an error in judgment I won’t make again. My reading, my thinking, and indeed my own writing, has been greatly enriched by the simple act of opening the window to listen to voices other than my own.
INK HEIST: I read somewhere you always wanted to write horror. What were you reading as a thirteen-year-old?
KEALAN: Pet Sematary. I snuck it out of my mother’s room, hid under the covers with a flashlight, and it changed my life. The scene in which Louis is coming back through the woods in the dark after burying Gage and there’s an enormous something crashing through the trees nearby, thrilled and terrified me. I was astonished and exhilarated. I felt a thrum in my chest, a sudden desire to do for others what that book was doing for me. Until then I didn’t know a story could have that effect on a person, and I wanted to do it. I wanted to write the kinds of stories that would make people feel things. I’d already been a scribbler, scratching out malformed stories untied to genre. Pet Sematary sold me on horror, and that was all she wrote.
INK HEIST: Kealan Patrick Burke thank you very much for joining us. Shane Douglas Keene, Rich Duncan and I would like to thank you for answering our questions so thoroughly. We’re all huge fans and are delighted to feature you on the site.
If you missed our novella feature on Kealan Patrick Burke check out our most recent articles, all the novellas mentioned above are included in the feature. There is a lot of exceptionally dark fiction well worth explore. Just don’t expect any happy endings!
Interview conducted by Tony Jones
I appreciate the art of short story writing. Thanks for the fascinating interview.