As part of the series of Peace, Love, and Crime author interviews, today we’re visited by the talented and prolific Michael Bracken. Michael has won two Derringer Awards for his short fiction as well as the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement in short mystery fiction. He is also the editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and several anthologies, including the Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas.
Meet Michael Bracken
CAM: Michael, I’m so glad to have you as my guest today. Clearly, you love short fiction. But you also write novels, write in multiple genres, and edit for others. Peace, Love, and Crime was not the first music-themed anthology you’ve written to.
MB: I’ve written for three other music-themed anthologies, and each of those required me to find inspiration in the songs of a particular artist: Joni Mitchell, Jimmy Buffet, and Billy Joel. Peace, Love, and Crime didn’t limit contributors to a specific artist but to a particular decade, which made the song selection much more difficult. Additionally, I was invited to submit to the other anthologies whereas PLC was an open-call anthology. That meant my story was tossed in the slush pile with everyone else’s stories and it had to catch the editor’s eye.
CAM: “Jimmy’s Jukebox” certainly evokes the feel of your inspiration song, “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” by B.J. Thomas and the Triumphs. Yet it’s not the typical story about a lost love or one that could be. Tell us how you got Jimmy from this song.
MB: I actually had the basic premise for the story before I selected the song. Once I knew my story, I listened to a lot of Sixties music seeking the saddest song I could find. After I selected B.J. Thomas’s cover of Hank Williams’s “I’m So Lonesome I Could Cry,” I returned to my original concept and tweaked it to better fit with the song. So, even though the final version isn’t a “typical” story about lost love, lost love plays an important role in the story.
CAM: Did you play the song, and/or others, while writing?
MB: I often listen to music while I’m writing, but after I selected my story’s inspiration I didn’t listen to it while writing.
CAM: Do you have any advice for others who are writing to a theme?
MB: Try to find a hook that other writers aren’t likely to use. That often means tossing out the first half-dozen ideas because the low-hanging fruit will be snatched by other writers.
CAM: What’s a typical work day for you? And are there any special routines you follow, or a favorite writing shirt or cap you wear when you write?
MB: I don’t know that I have a typical day. I’m a full-time freelance writer/editor with a part-time job as marketing director for a professional orchestra, and my writing/editing projects aren’t limited to fiction. In addition to the advertising and P.R. material I create for the orchestra, I also write non-fiction and advertising copy, edit a weekly gardening newsletter, edit a bi-monthly consumer magazine for gardeners, and edit a quarterly mystery magazine. Most days I work on the paying projects first and the spec work second. Unfortunately, fiction usually falls into the spec work category so I have to squeeze it in between the other work.
I do most of my writing on the computer at the desk in my office, but I’ve thumb-typed stories on my cell phone, drafted stories on legal pads while sitting in the backyard, and kicked around story ideas with my wife, Temple, while on long car trips.
CAM: I can’t imagine thumb-typing stories on my phone, so kudos to you for going that far to get the work done. And, yes, for so many writers the paying gigs or day job must come first and their passion work gets squeezed in as time and scheduling permit.
CAM: Is your writing process different for short stories versus novels? What works for you? What doesn’t?
MB: It’s been several years since I’ve written a novel, so I’m not certain I can really address the differences. I found early success with short stories and quickly learned that—for me—the cost/benefit ratio heavily favored short fiction, so I’ve concentrated on short fiction ever since.
CAM: With more than 1,300 short stories under your belt, where do you get your ideas and inspiration? And how do you keep them all sorted out in your head so you’re not repeating yourself?
MB: Ideas come from everywhere, and all I have to do is capture them as they fly by. I have several hundred stories in progress (in every form from brief notes to complete plots to almost-finished drafts), so even if I never have another idea I can stay busy just finishing what I’ve already started.
CAM: What is your greatest challenge as an author?
MB: The greatest challenge is keeping up with the markets. Publications come and go, and anthologies with brief submission windows often pop up. As I find new opportunities, I check my files to see if I’ve already written something that fits the guidelines and, if not, I have to decide if I want to write something that does.
CAM: You write in multiple genres. How is that different from crime/mystery? How is it the same?
MB: Stories are essentially the same regardless of genre. They all need characters and settings and plots and beginnings, middles, and ends.
CAM: If you could go somewhere to just write, for about a week, where would it be? What would you need to take with you?
MB: I’ve created a writing environment that feels comfortable, so I don’t really need to go anywhere for optimum production. If I was forced to leave here, though, I’d pick somewhere—a cabin in the woods, perhaps—with no distractions, a fridge full of Mountain Dew, and regular meal deliveries.
CAM: Which arena—writing or publishing—has changed most since you began? Any thoughts on how that affects writers today—or advice to help them weather current changes?
MB: Though the tools we use have changed, the process of writing hasn’t changed. It’s still a matter of putting one word after the other.
Publishing, on the other hand, has changed. There are publishing options now that either weren’t available or were much too expensive for the average writer to utilize. Thanks to the Internet and ebooks, we aren’t limited to ink on paper, and the cost of publishing (specifically Print On Demand technology) has dropped so much that it can be a viable option for small presses and for writers interested in self-publishing.
CAM: What’s next for you? What new stories are in the pipeline?
MB: Coming up: Jukes & Tonks (Down & Out Books), co-edited with Gary Phillips; Guns + Tacos, season 4 (Down & Out Books), co-edited with Trey R. Barker; and short stories in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Black Cat Mystery Magazine, Bullets and Other Hurting Things, Close to the Bone, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, The Great Filling Station Holdup, Guns + Tacos (Season 3), Jukes & Tonks, Malice Domestic 16: Mystery Most Diabolical, Mickey Finn: 21st Century Noir Vol. 2, Mystery Tribune, Only the Good Die Young, and Unnerving.
CAM: That quite a list, Michael. It’s been fun chatting with and learning more about you and your writing.
BIO: Michael Bracken is the author of several books, including the private eye novel All White Girls, and more than 1,300 short stories. His crime fiction has appeared in Alfred Hitchcock’s Mystery Magazine, Black Mask, Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Espionage Magazine, The Best American Mystery Stories, and many other publications. A recipient of the Edward D. Hoch Memorial Golden Derringer Award for lifetime achievement, Bracken has won two Derringer Awards and been shortlisted for two others. Additionally, Bracken is editor of Black Cat Mystery Magazine and has edited several anthologies, including the Anthony Award-nominated The Eyes of Texas.
Peace, Love, and Crime: Crime Fiction Inspired by the Songs of the ’60s is available from Untreed Reads or your favorite retailer in paperback or as ebook.
Our next Interview
Join us next Friday for another author interview. Until then, you can pick up your copy at your favorite retailer and start reading.