Interview: Kealan Patrick Burke talks to The Grim Reader.

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Kealan Patrick Burke is a writer needing little in the way of an introduction. But, it is only polite that I tell you a little about the man before you engage in his thoughtfully in-depth answers to my questions.

To his name, Kealan Patrick Burke has written 5 novels, over 100 short stories, compiled 6 collections and has edited 4 acclaimed anthologies. An author whom I hold in the highest regard, Kealan is a fascinating writer, one capable of breathing new life into familiar horror tropes whilst equally likely to terrify you with his own creations. I have interviewed quite a lot of people here now, and I think that this is one of my absolute favourites. We talk about his writing, his past, horror and how he adapted to life away from Ireland. Kealan also designs book covers and we touch on this as well.

Links to his work can be found at the bottom of the page. My thanks to Kealan for taking the time to answer my questions. A riveting read awaits you, dear reader. I hope you enjoy!

TGR: Kealan, thanks a lot for stopping by my humble blog. If we can, let’s turn back the clock to a time when you became a lover of dark fiction. Were your family big readers and what is it about horror fiction in particular that you enjoy?

 

Oh yes, my family, my mother in particular, were big into books. And while my father preferred historical nonfiction, mostly about military conflicts, my mother was a huge Agatha Christie, Stephen King fan. Pilfering these titles in my youth led to me borrowing her library card and reading everything I could get my hands on, most of it horror. I can’t adequately explain why I was drawn to this genre. Maybe it was the lurid cover art, maybe the thrill I felt from reading horror was different than any other genre. All I know is I loved it then and love it now, which is why, even when I stray into other genres, I always seem to come back to it. It’s also the best way I have found to explore my own fears, issues, philosophical questions, angst, etc. Can’t really envision myself being as successful working that stuff out via a romantic comedy (though never say never!)

 

TGR: Your website biography lists a number of jobs you held over the years. No two jobs are in anyway similar it seems. Were you writing still when working these jobs and when did you decide that writing was going to be your number one priority?

 

I wanted writing to be the number one priority almost since I could hold a pen. One of my earliest and most cherished Christmas presents was a typewriter and once I got that, I thought the die had been cast and my talent just needed to catch up. Sadly, real life got in the way of ambition and for years, while working those jobs you mentioned, I barely wrote at all, unless you count ill-formed paragraphs scribbled on bar napkins, or hastily written pages in Notepad whenever the boss was away. The real writing wouldn’t start until I made the choice to pack up and move to the US.

 

TGR: Originally from a small harbour town in southern Ireland, you now live in the US. What drew you to the United States, did you go there alone and how often do you return home?

 

In the midst of the harsh realization that maybe I would never get to become the writer I knew myself to be, a chance encounter with an American tourist in Ireland led to an unexpected opportunity to visit the US. It was never meant to be anything other than a vacation, and as I’d never been to the States before, I jumped at the chance. Ultimately that vacation ended up being permanent relocation, marriage, and a whole new life, which included writing. Even then, however, the writing was a test run. Nobody knew, myself included, if I had the chops to make a living from it. I was given a two-year window to try, and if it didn’t work, I’d go in search of other employment, which was as incredible an offer as it was daunting. But as luck and fate and sheer balls-to-the-wall tenacity had it, it did work, and here we are.

 

But yes, I came here alone (and scared to death), and I don’t get to go back home nearly often enough. That said, I did manage to visit last year for two weeks (after eight years) and it was wonderful. I’m actively trying not to let the gaps between visits get as long as they’ve been in the past. Those trips home are good for my soul (and sanity).

 

TGR: Has American culture impacted on the stories you write? If so, in what way?

 

Of course, much in the same way I think any culture will if you spend enough time immersed in it, and I’ve been here sixteen years now. When I relocated, I abruptly found myself anchored in rural America in the blazing heat of summer surrounded by strangers whose outlook on life in many cases differed greatly from mine. I was also somewhat taken aback by the extraordinary beauty here. I think knowing American culture primarily through the lens of TV and film back in Ireland, I assumed this country was basically New York City, L.A., and wherever the Griswold Family had gone. Even now, having seen probably 85% of the country on various road trips, I’m still astonished by how gorgeous this country is. And the people continue to fascinate me and inform the things I write in ways I can’t always readily identify. Primarily, I would say, the sheer assortment of characters I have met here have had a major impact on my work.

 

TGR: What does a typical day in the life of Kealan Patrick Burke look like?

 

Chaos. I have never met anyone less organized. But on an ideal/got-my-shit-together day, I get up, drink three cups of coffee (don’t even look at me sideways or make sounds until this ritual has concluded), feed/walk/play with the dog, check email and the various social media accounts, then get to work, either writing or designing covers, or a mixture of both. Then, dinner, TV shows or a movie, then bed at a ridiculous hour and reading for an even greater amount of ridiculous hours just to guarantee I wake up feeling as if three coffees isn’t enough and I’m not sure where I left my face. On a bad day, I procrastinate endlessly and then hate myself for the wasted time and question my worth as a human being. On those days, I wish I had a phone booth so I could sit in it and read the phone book while weeping and gesticulating widely at imaginary enemies.

 

TGR: You have achieved a great deal with your writing. You have edited a number of anthologies, written over 100 short stories, numerous novels and in 2004 you were awarded a Bram Stoker award for ‘The Turtle Boy’. What is it that keeps you going, keeps you motivated to write?

 

Need, pure and simple. I’m never happier than when I’m writing and the words are flowing like a torrent and you just know you’ve tapped into that oft-elusive sweet spot, the Nirvana of Unregulated Narcissism where every single word just seems like absolute magic and you can do no wrong, when the world to which you’ve appointed yourself God is actually a habitable and tolerable one and things are going JUST GREAT!!!!!

 

Of course, later you read back over it and question why you’re even alive or have fingers, but in that moment, it’s like sex. When it’s good, you get lost in it and feel like it’s a spiritual experience. When it’s not, you wonder what the point of it all was and now you feel kinda dirty and the shower’s broken and you don’t have enough for an Uber.

 

A simpler answer is just that I always wanted to do this, felt a passion for it unlike anything I’ve experienced since. It has consumed me as long as I can remember, and without it, I’d probably be tracing plans for world domination on a dusty bar window with my one good foot.

 

So, I have to do this. I don’t know who or what I’d be if I couldn’t.

 

Probably a mime.

 

And trying to figure out why I’m here at all, where I’m going, or what I am, is all the inspiration I need. We write to explore the maddeningly unobtainable truths of our existence, and that’s reason enough.

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TGR: Horror fiction continues to grow and expand. It is a genre unlike any other in that it never seems to run out of ideas and people are still finding new ways to develop the familiar tropes that exist. There are many sub-genres that exist and although we don’t see many horror sections in book stores anymore, there is still a demand for it. What sort of shape do you think horror fiction is in in 2017?

 

I think horror is in as good a shape as I’ve ever seen it, with no end in sight anytime soon. I remember not ten years ago we talked wistfully about the Golden Age of Horror, those halcyon days in the late 70s and throughout the 80s when publishers couldn’t get enough of horror. Honestly, despite dramatic changes (some good, some not) in the technology, I think we’re looking better than we’ve been in a long time. Publishers are again clambering for horror (even if they don’t always call it that); writers are being ballsier than ever, pushing boundaries, breaking down walls, and where once you were forbidden from writing ideas that were done to death during the horror boom, now you’re celebrated for reinvigorating it, or it’s embraced as nostalgia. We’re finding new ways to do things. The advent of self-publishing, once a derided avenue of approach, has introduced us to myriad voices we might not otherwise have heard, and has given veteran writers a new lease on life. And lastly, because horror thrives in times of great global uncertainty, anxious writers are writing the fuck out of our anxieties, and a lot of that output is really, really great. Sure, there’s a goodly amount of crap out there, but then, that’s always been the case. Just ask Ted Sturgeon. But we’re seeing books now by virtually unknown writers that will be remembered as classics for future generations. I won’t name names, because I’d be here all day, but I can’t remember a time since that Golden Age where I’ve had so much trouble keeping up with all the amazing horror writers that are out there. And I love it.

 

TGR: Away from your written work you also do cover design at Elderlemon Design. Tell us a bit about what you can offer authors and other parties interested in your artwork.

 

I do everything from digital/paperback/audio covers to posters and standalone art. While I love vintage art (such as book covers from the Golden Age mentioned above) and 70s inspired movie posters, I am always open to concepts that push my abilities. To date, I have done covers for a host of genre stalwarts and newcomers alike, and just completed my 300th cover, which is crazy to me. But the best way to see if what I do is up your alley is to visit the gallery at my website www.elderlemondesign.com and have a look at what’s there. You can contact me through the site too, and I usually respond pretty quickly, unless I’ve died, in which case, the site will be updated with sigils and spells and other methods through which I can be reached, though I would prefer nothing interrupt my pursuit of Veronica Lake.

Check out some of these book covers!

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TGR: Let’s talk about some of your more recent written work. I loved your story inside ‘Garden of Fiends’. It got the anthology off to a very strong start. Can you tell us a little about this one in particular?

 

I was actually afraid I was going to have to bow out of the anthology because, while the addiction theme was the selling point for me, I couldn’t find a subject, or substance to be exact, that excited me enough to want to pursue it at length. But as so often happens, it was only when I quit trying that the idea popped into my head almost fully formed. I can recall nights in which I overindulged and woke up in a strange place in an absolute panic. I was disorientated, alone, and couldn’t find my way home. This was invariably back in the days before cell phones and Uber, so wherever I ended up, well, there I was, and I was pretty much stuck there. I remember weeping as I walked dark roads or silent neighborhoods in the cold, desperately trying to remember what had happened to me, to no avail, and all with a low voice chastising my idiocy and the possibility of an unaddressed problem. To date, I still don’t know how or why I ended up where I was. Could have been kidnapped, abducted by aliens, launched from a canon, or, most likely, annoyed whomever was driving me home and got thrown out in the middle of nowhere. Point is, in those moments I was lost and hurting, frequently suicidal (if only as an immediate escape), and terrified to the core of my being. Since those days, I still haven’t experienced anything close to how that felt, so I wrote about an alcoholic whose blackouts take an even worse turn than my own.

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TGR: I’m really looking forward to ‘Tales from the Lost Citadel’. Unfortunately, I missed the Kickstarter for it but I will certainly be picking up a copy when it hits the shelves. There are some great writers on board with this one! You have a story in there called ‘Down Here with Us’. Can you tell us about this story and what the theme of the anthology is?

 

I’m never happier than when I’m invited to anthologies in which the theme or genre is outside my comfort zone. It requires me to stretch myself and that can only be beneficial to a writer in constant need of improvement. In this case, while there’s a genre trope involved in the form of the undead, the world in which they exist is fantasy, complete with dwarves, elves, magic and monsters, etc., and the book primarily focuses on the races struggling to survive in the last fortress left, a place called The Redoubt, even while the dead and other creatures amass beyond the walls. I’ve never strayed even remotely close to working within the hard fantasy realm (and, depending on how you read my story, I might still not have), and certainly never within the boundaries of a shared world. So, everything about it appealed to me. My story is about a dwarf, embittered by indentured servitude and haunted by the ghosts of glories past, who sets out to rescue his fool brother from something in the unsafe world outside the walls of their sanctuary, and about what he learns about himself along the way. There are monsters, of course. Nasty ones.

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TGR: You also have a story in the ‘Cut Corners’ collection from Sinister Grin Press alongside Bryan Smith and Ray Garton! It’s about a girl hooked to her cell phone! Sounds very typical of today’s youth! They never seem to be separated from their phones!

 

I’ve had ample time to get used to it, and yet I’m still appalled whenever I go to a restaurant and see a bunch of teens clustered around a table, all with their phones raised like a shield in front of their faces. And where once I just thought it rude, the subsequent realization that they were talking to each other, only left me completely baffled and sad at the state of things. That said, I also get how it can sometimes be a buffer against insecurity and a source of solace, much like the viewfinder of a camera. But still, it irks me. Thus, it was inevitable, because I never do anything the straightforward way, that I would someday write a story in which not looking at your phone could be fatal.

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TGR: What else do you have in store for us for the rest of 2017 and beyond? Any longer works….like ‘Kin 2’ *winks and smiles*

 

At this stage, Kin 2 seems to be trapped in the perpetual Land of Half-Written Things, and I honestly don’t know when it’ll get out. We’ll see. In the meantime, there is the issue of the current novel-in-progress, which is about art, artists, madness, and an old house, and is so ridiculously unnerving to me at every turn, it might cost me my sanity to finish it. It’s not a pleasant book to write, but that only goads me to write it even more.

 

There are, as always, other things I can’t yet talk about, but I’m hoping in the coming months to have some cool announcements, or hints of cool announcements, or vaguebooked hints about hints of cool announcements…or nothing at all. My control over such things is extremely limited and frequently frustrating, but I’ve also found that whenever I jump the gun on cool news, it invariably falls apart and I look like a dumbass. So, read from that what you will.

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TGR: Kealan, it’s been an absolute pleasure having you here. I know you’re busy and I truly appreciate your time. Thanks. Where can readers stalk find you on the world-wide web?

 

Thanks for having me, Adrian. This was fun! The seven remaining readers not put off by my inane rantification up above can find me here:

 

FB: https://www.facebook.com/kealan.burke/

Twitter: @kealanburke

Instagram: @kealanpatrick

Or my blog: https://kealanpatrick.wordpress.com/

Check out Kealan’s work at Amazon here.

Don’t you think he would be a great James Bond?!

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