My date this week is with a man who resides in Virginia, USA, a refugee from what he describes as “incomprehensibly cold” winters in his native Minnesota.
“Most people have no idea what the winters are like in Minnesota. As I point out to my family and friends back in Minnesota, there is a reason I don’t come back. Everything you have heard about Minnesota winters is absolutely true. It is cold, and I mean incomprehensibly. Every year at least one person is found dead by the side of the road frozen because their car broke down and they tried to hike to the next town. This is an ill-advised move as the temps will kill you with alarming speed. Don’t get me wrong, it was beautiful. However, the older I get the more I prefer the more amicable weather of the mid-Atlantic.
When I was 18 years old one of my sergeants in the Army reserves told me about an opportunity to take an active duty tour in Norfolk, Virginia. In between the climate, the trees, and being surrounded by the Chesapeake Bay I was enamored with Virginia. And I have never had to deal with anything like the blizzard of 1991 where we saw over 24 inches of snow at my house in 12 hours. When a snowstorm has its own Wikipedia entry, that is serious snowfall.”
His novels and short stories feature aspects of the occult and paranormal, a passion engendered by childhood reading of books about paranormal investigations.
“I don’t remember one particular author which fostered my interest in the occult and the paranormal, but I definitely remember the books. In particular, I love ghost books. I hated all the books that dealt with the fictional stories of ghosts. I preferred the books written by the 1980s paranormal investigators. Admittedly, some of it was garbage, but my eyes were opened to the possibility that all we see is not all that is out there.
Ultimately, it led me to the standards of Dean Koontz and Stephen King. As much as I like those, I never really lost my interest in the supposedly real life encounters between the living and the dead. I even once read a book on demonology, written from the perspective of someone investigating fact versus fiction and trying to dissect each encounter like a criminal investigator. I wish I could remember the names of the authors so I could go back and find the books today. There are so many wonderful authors out there that do the world of paranormal investigation justice.”
Bryan describes himself as a Christian and is active in his neighborhood Lutheran congregation. Given that some Christians shun the occult, believing it to be associated with devil worship, I wondered how he would respond to such views.
“For me it’s very simple, I believe that evil and good exists and ignoring that is dangerous. There are people who deny the existence of evil but will then turn around and share their belief that all the world is good, in spite of evidence to the contrary. I feel that if you believe that there is good in the world then you have to be willing to accept the other side of the coin too. The topic of the devil is uncomfortable for a lot of Christians. Mention Satan in a room of Christians and you’ll see people squirm.
I do portray heaven, and I think it’s naïve for the living to believe we actually understand what the great beyond is like. In The Dramatic Dead, I portray heaven in the way I think it is. Is this correct? I have no idea. I am certain I will find out someday, but for now I have to be content with my characterization of what heaven looks like.
As far as the occult goes, it is very real and I do believe it is closely associated with Satan. Practices of the occult are innocuous unless you put intention behind it. I believe it is possible to invite evil into your home and when you do, it can have devastating effects on your family. In short, the occult is not something to take lightly.
Not trying to understand the motives and intentions of occult practices is like sticking your head in the sand and hoping the problem will go away. It won’t.
So ignoring it in my fiction does a disservice. In my case, I choose to use the occult and paranormal as a way to put light on the people who stand against such forces.”
There’s a very moving story Bryan has shared on his blog about serving communion in a care home and the importance of meeting mankind’s spiritual needs as well as material ones. I wondered to what extent he thinks writing, along with other creative endeavors, can meet that need.
“Two years ago I met a nice woman who told me that in six months she would be dead. If you’ve never had the experience of being truly dumbstruck, I can describe it to you. My mouth wouldn’t work, my tongue wouldn’t move, and my brain couldn’t think one single thought. I simply had no way to respond to her. How do you respond to that revelation? She told me that buying books at the book show filled her time between now and the day she drew her last breath. Those books made up her steadily narrowing world.
It inspired me. It caused me to think outside of my own little narrative and think about the greater context fiction represents. These are not just words and paper. These are characters in stories that fill people’s worlds. As authors it is our role to present these worlds to our audience in a way that helps them fill a need. Books are not simply a thing we sell, they are a service for so many people. At the end of every novel, someone closes the book and will breathe a sigh of relief for some hole in their life that has been filled. My words did that. If you ask me, that is truly what I get in return as an author, knowledge that I made someone’s life better.
Material needs are easy to fulfill. All you need to do is go down to the local second-hand store and see shelves practically toppling over with perfectly good items that people cast off. For example, I never buy brand-new computers. There are plenty of people in the world who buy computers and then trade them in two years later. I never buy a new car. There is no need because I know someone out there has traded in a perfectly good vehicle. But I digress, I only wanted to highlight the overly materialistic society we live in and people striving to fill a hole in themselves which can never be filled by stuff. Which brings us to the spiritual.
I firmly believe that too much of our time is spent on cell phones, computers, and other electronic devices. People increasingly buy these things as a means to connect with the world. Television sells the idea that all we need is the next new phone, update our social media page, and click ‘like’ to attain a sense of peace.
A sense of peace is only truly attainable by talking and communicating with other people face to face.
The example you provided is only one way that I give back to my community. I am also active in the local scout troop, and also help coach the high school novel writing club.
It doesn’t take a spiritual person to make a contribution in the world. It only takes a person with a heart and a little bit of time to make a difference in the world. In the end, you will find your contribution, no matter how small, returns a deeper satisfaction.”
All four of Bryan’s published books to date have at their core a tortured spirit returning from the past to haunt a community. He openly claims that his intention is to make his readers “feel vulnerable, scared, and uneasy.” Such books are undoubtedly very popular, as are movies of the same genre. I wanted to know what need in us he believes their consumption satisfies, and is it healthy? His reply, in his ‘Bryan The Writer’ persona, is characteristically unapologetic:
“Speaking in a deep demonic voice, ‘Your question amuses me, little mortal.’ Bryan the Writer laughs to himself.
I had this question recently in a panel discussion at a conference. It’s a great question, and I think I answered that I felt it is a basic human instinct to fear. We love books, movies and haunted houses because it feeds our basic need to feel fear in a controlled environment. In a movie you know you can always walk out, in a book you know you can always put it down, in a haunted house you know there is going to be an end.
Let’s face it, most of the time life is tedious. We go to work, pay our bills, take our kids to soccer games, scouts, and other events seemingly with little risk. The next day we rinse and repeat. That is why we love scaring ourselves. It helps dip into a base fear that normally we don’t get to indulge in. So yes I do think the consumption of horror satisfies a base need we have as humans.
When I was in school, I studied a bit of psychology. What I learned was that if we deny our base selves for long enough, it will come back to haunt us. It’s not healthy to ignore who we are as human beings. So, indulging in our need to be scared once in a while, in a controlled manner, is not only healthy, but really fun!
Can too much be bad? Absolutely, but that’s true of anything.”
Turning to less controversial matters I asked Bryan about his research.
“One of these days I fully expect the FBI to show up at my house and knock on the door. They’re going to asked to speak to me and the conversation will go something like this. ‘Good afternoon Mr. Nowak, I’m from the FBI. We got some curious alerts about your Google browsing. We would like to speak to you about them. And please, whatever you do, keep your hands where we can see them.’
I have a shelf of research material at my disposal, but I think the thing that I end up researching the most is forensics. All writers know that if you get one small detail wrong there is definitely going to be one fan out there who laser locks on that detail and sends you hate mail. Fortunately, I’ve done my homework well enough that this hasn’t happened to me yet. That’s not to say it won’t ever happen.
I split up my research in three ways. The first period of research is before I even start writing. I want to know everything about the central theme I am trying to use. For example, in Crimson Tassels, I did a lot of research into the amount of damage an ax head can do to a human body. In the book, Riapoke there is a part where the conservation officer does a specific test on the teenager to confirm or deny the accusation that he had raped a girl. That test that I use in the book is a real test. I had to look up how the test was administered and how quickly the results could come back. In that work, forensics took up most of my research time.
The second and third instances of research take place during the editing process. I do occasionally come across things that make me wonder, ‘I wonder if this will really work?’ It is usually at that stage that I dig into those little nit-picky items here and there that I’m pretty sure I’ll get questions on. In The Dramatic Dead, I tried to be as theologically sound as I could with my depiction of heaven. That meant I needed to do a little research on the way different religions view the afterlife. I really wanted to paint it is a place beyond human comprehension. But in order to do that in a way that humans could actually comprehend, I had to take some poetic license. Thankfully nobody is been back from the afterlife to tell me I’m wrong!
And yes, I love the research. Every time I learn more and more!”
My next question was about his favorite authors
“This is an easy question, and the answer will be somewhat surprising. Without a doubt that is SciFi icon Douglas Adams. Growing up I loved Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy. I probably read that book 5 times and I own the unabridged trilogy (which is actually 5 books). I would ask him where he came up with the concept of the infinite probability drive, used to drive the spaceship the Heart of Gold. I am a closet science-fiction geek.
I grew up reading a ton of Dean Koontz books and I have been told my writing style is reflective of that. I love the work of Eric Lahti, who wrote The Henchmen series. He has a way of telling stories I admire.”
Like many writers who choose the route of publishing independently of a traditional publisher, Bryan likes the control the process gives him:
“[Going indie] was a deliberate decision on my part. Every day it seems more and more small to middle size publishers go out of business, or I hear horror stories of authors trying to get back the rights, or an unfortunate cover chosen for a book that the author didn’t like. It seems like a maelstrom of chaos right now and I am content to just do my thing.
Admittedly, I still have a lot to learn as an author. I think any author, no matter how long they’ve been writing, will say that. As an indie, I retain control over the entire process. It also means that I get to learn the entire process as well. I am every part of the process. Granted, I still contract out editing and cover art, but the hiring decisions are mine. I think it is really helped me grow.
Naturally, if a major publisher walked up to me tomorrow and offered me a contract I likely wouldn’t turn it down. Or if an agent came to me and said they wanted to represent me, I wouldn’t turn them down either. However, I’m content to just be Bryan the Writer for now. There may come a time when I move into the traditional publishing realm and that decision will be made at that point in the future. I think of every yesterday as a precious memory, today is a wonderful gift, and tomorrow is an opportunity to be seized.”
Asked about his writing practice it turns out that Bryan is a morning person:
“I feel more creative in the mornings versus the afternoons. So, if I can, I prefer to write in the mornings. However, life gets in the way and I begrudgingly write in the evening. Right now, I have a writing desk in the corner of the room. It isn’t anything special. It is nothing more than a table with wheels I bought at Ikea. The main thing I need is dark classical music. Thanks to the plethora of online music sources, that is not a problem. I don’t think it necessarily makes much of a difference where you write as long as you put your butt in the chair and tickle those keys. However, with three kids in the house my high-end noise-cancelling headphones are essential.”
When I end with my usual request for Bryan to reveal something surprising, he talks with pride about his origins.
“I say I’m from Minnesota, but most people don’t know that I am half Hoosier. There’s a lake in Indiana, Koontz Lake, where substantial portion of my relatives live. I think in terms of property value, my family makes up the largest percentage of ownership. It’s a very small town, and a fairly small lake. My family has been on that lake since the 60s and it’s a tradition that continues on till this day. About once a year, we make our way back to the ancestral homelands, to bathe in the water that fed so much of my childhood imagination. As a matter fact, Lake Oleander, from Riapoke, is based very much off Koontz Lake. One of the characters even muses about his grandfather’s stories of the monster living in the lake, and that’s a story my own grandfather told me. We refer to it as the Koontz Lake Muck Monster. So, I’m proud to say that I’m half Hoosier. Indiana was instrumental in my upbringing.”
Koontz Lake – what a way to finish a date with a man who models himself on Dean Koontz! I hope you enjoyed Bryan’s responses as much as I did. Go check out his website and his books. You’ll find him on Facebook too.