DEAD BOYS COVER
Could you tell the readers a little bit about yourself?
I’ve lived in Chicago for the past decade. If you’ve attended open mic events in the area, you’ve probably seen me. I have over a dozen stories published.
Do you prefer the term Horror, Weird Fiction or Dark Fiction?
It depends on the particular story. When describing my own stories, I’ll tend to use “Horror” over “Weird” or “Dark” simply because “Horror” is the term more generally understood.
The two sides of the genre problem is that readers need standard labels to understand the sort of story they’re getting; but many times the standard labels don’t really give an accurate description of the work. So you’re stuck with either giving a book an inappropriate label or using a new term that most readers won’t understand until they read the book and see what the author was trying to achieve. Try explaining “weird fiction” to someone who’s never heard of H.P. Lovecraft (it’s a bigger demographic than a lot of people seem to think). I know people who still don’t understand the meaning of “steampunk” or “slipstream”.
So I’ll call stories that deal with ghosts “Horror”, even if they’re not always particularly scary.
Who are some of your favourite authors?
Jonathan Carroll, Thomas Ligotti, Kathe Koja, Harlan Ellison, Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K. Dick, Grant Morrison, Neil Gaiman, Christopher Moore and Alan Moore are the first ten names that come to mind.
What are you reading now?
A lot of what I’m reading now is small press stuff being written by people I know. There’s also a lot of innovative stuff being produced independently.
That said, the book currently on my nightstand is On Writing by Stephen King, probably the un-smallest press author out there.
Also, lots of comic books. I just finished Witch Doctor by Brandon Seifert and Lukas Ketner.
How would you describe your writing style?
Probably as a drift between horror and comedy. Dead Boys is a collection of my four earliest published stories, so people who’ve heard me read my recent works might be surprised by how much sadder these early works seem.
The problem with so much horror out there now is that we’re aware of all the tropes. “Realism” tends to be synonymous with “Dark”, so that we have an unending string of serial killer philosophy novels and cultural decay zombie parables. For me, “realism” is the fact that we tend to adjust to even the most horrific situations with alarming ease. That seems to be something that could be both horrifying and humorous.
Here’s a set-up for an example: I’m watching a show about a handsome, down-to-earth serial killer trying to raise a family in Florida. This is a popular show. Millions of people watch it and find the serial killer to be a charming fellow because he only brutally dismembers bad people. Never mind that his interpretation of “bad people” can be a bit elastic.
So why not start interviewing real serial killers on talk shows? Sure, there will be protests at first; but the ratings will go through the roof. And once serial killers get talk show interviews, how long before some executive gets the idea of having a serial killer host a television show? It can be done via video-conferencing from prison. Again, there would be protests, but they’d come to nothing as long as ratings stayed high. And, at that point, how long before serial killers start getting agents? Sure, they can’t keep any of the money themselves; but they can probably hire agents to broker the book/television/film deals. Is a world where serial killers become celebrities, where victims are chosen based on how the public will react, where twisted men have their delusions of grandeur sustained by media attention … is that world horrific or humorous? That’s the sort of middle ground between genres that I like to play with.
Also, I suppose a lot of my stories end up dealing with taboo topics. “Parable of the Lazy Rooster” deals with the religion. “Cold Comfort” has an explicit sex scene. “Wet Dog Perfume” deals with suicide. “Midnight Cappuccino” deals with the even more controversial topic of assisted suicide. A lot of it is disturbing; but if you look at it too long, you start to laugh.
Describe a typical day spent writing. Do you have any unusual writing habits?
The day usually starts with a trip to a coffee shop. I’ll journal for a few pages, maybe read something off my Kindle, then plan out the rest of the day. After that, I’ll handle any editing work that comes to me, do any other work-related stuff, then get to my own writing. I generally don’t start my own writing until I’ve finished with all of the other obligations of my life. For instance, I’m filling out this questionnaire before I start in on my next novella.
No unusual writing habits. I usually have a cup of coffee beside me and one of my hundreds of CDs playing as I write.
What’s your favourite food?
Again, nothing special. Probably burgers and pizza.
Although I’ve always thought I make good lemon pepper chicken.
What’s your favourite album?
Hard to say. It might well be “Hormonally Yours” by Shakespear’s Sister. But then that ignores how big a fan I am of Alice Cooper, Ani Difranco, Blue Oyster Cult, The Cocteau Twins, David Bowie, Lita Ford, Laurie Anderson, Joan Jett, Lou Reed, Meat Loaf, Nirvana, PJ Harvey, Miles Davis, Roky Erickson, The Ramones, The Velvet Underground, Sarah McLachlan, The Stooges, Led Zeppelin, Lydia Lunch, The Indigo Girls, Dar Williams, The Lords of Acid, The Bangles, The Cramps, Hole and Kirsty MacColl.
I listen to different music as I write different stories. And a lot of times, it feels like whatever album is helping me get into the right creative mind-set is my favorite album at that moment.
What’s the most important lesson you have learned about writing?
That piece of crap story that got finished is always going to be better than the utterly brilliant story that never got started.
Fame and fortune, or respect?
A harder choice than it might seem. I suppose I’m curious why it’s an either/or situation. Many of us get none of these things.
If someone has the perseverance to write a complete story, no matter how derivative or badly structured, that gets my respect. If that someone then reads that piece to a crowd, whether strangers or friends, that gets my respect. If that someone then submits the work to a publisher or decides to personally publish the piece, that gets my respect. My respect wouldn’t depend on how famous or wealthy a writer becomes; but I’d hope I wouldn’t begrudge someone’s success either.
The question seems to imply that fame and fortune somehow requires the loss of respect. If it came down to Fame, Fortune or Respect, it will probably piss off a lot of people to hear that I’d choose Fortune. At some point, you do this work because it’s important to you; not because it will make other people like you. And Fortune would give me the time to do more writing, even if some people thought what I was writing was crap.
Now, if by respect you meant self-respect; then yes, self-respect trumps fame and fortune. It has to, no matter what line of work you enter.
What piece of your own work are you most proud of?
It’s hard to say. Basically, it’s like picking which one of my stories is my favorite, a task made more difficult by the fact that many of my favorite pieces are ones that have never been published anywhere.
But then, pride isn’t always about which stories I think are best. Even though Dead Boys contains some of my earliest work, I’m proud of the fact that I managed to self-publish it. I wrote a series of reviews on the Red Sonja comic book series that got published on Black Gate. That series ran every Tuesday for thirty weeks (including a review published on Christmas Day) and I’m proud of never missing a deadline on it. I’ve stood up in rooms full of strangers and read stories about religion, sex, abortion, suicide and any number of other controversial topics and I’m rather proud of that (even when there were walk-outs).
Can you tell us about your last book, and can you tell us about what you are working on next?
The last book is also my first book. Dead Boys collects four of my earliest published stories. “Parable of the Lazy Rooster” is about a mother who can’t deal with the death of her son and the priest who offers a different kind of solution to her dilemma. “Cold Comfort” is about a prostitute hired by a priest for a very special kind of service. “Wet Dog Perfume” is about a suicidal man meeting a crazy woman in a dog park. “Midnight Cappuccino” is an argument on the morality of assisted suicide between representatives of the living and the dead.
I’m currently working on several novellas and short story collections that I’ll begin self-publishing next year. I’m going to take the lessons I’ve learned from publishing Dead Boys and use them to improve both the stories and the publication process for future books. So let me know what you think of the first book. Even bad reviews will help me improve future books, so it’s all appreciated.
Michael Penkas has lived in Chicago since 2004 and is a regular participant at the Bad Grammar (Chicago) reading series, the Gumbo Fiction Salon (Chicago) and the Tamale Hut Cafe (North Riverside) reading series. When not writing, he's worked as a software editor, research librarian and desktop publisher. He currently works as the website editor for Black Gate.
They're not hard to find, if you know where to look. In the back of a pub after happy hour. In a dorm room between semesters. In a dog park after sunset. In a hospice room on Christmas Eve. Dead boys.
Michael Penkas brings you four stories about the dead who refuse to leave and the living who refuse to let them go.
Parable of the Lazy Rooster - A priest offers consolation and the most exotic drink on Earth.
Cold Comfort - A prostitute visits the scene of a tragedy in order to render her own brand of absolution.
Wet Dog Perfume - A lonely man mourns the death of one friend as he makes another.
Midnight Cappuccino - Christmas Eve brings together a family separated by more than miles.
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