Brian Keene’s End of the Road: Confluence

The fog burned off with the sunrise, the new radiator worked fine, doing what radiators are supposed to do, and the storm was now yesterday’s memory. I reached Chattanooga in record time, arriving at noon. I was due to sign at a wonderful independent store called Star Line Books at three that afternoon. With time to kill, I checked into my hotel, and then met up with Eddie Coulter and Gavin Dillinger for drinks and a quick bite.

Eddie is a long-time fan. I’ve known him for close to twenty years. I even killed him in a short story (“The Fall of Rome” from The Rising: Selected Scenes from the End of the World). Gavin is a young writer who has penned some amazing opinion pieces for my favorite comic book news website, The Outhousers. (Disclosure/Disclaimer: I used to write for The Outhousers under a pseudonym, until the former editor spiked one of my stories in what I felt was a politically motivated decision. That being said, I have nothing but love for the full staff, and read the website daily, and support them on Patreon). We talked books and comics for a while. Eddie and I reminisced about Tom and Jesus, and told Gavin he should read them. I declined to mention that Jesus had sent me a cow as some sort of warning. When it was time, we headed over to the store.

Like the vast majority of signings on this tour, the Star Line Books appearance went very well. There was a long line of people, and most of them had brought books from home, as well as picking up copies of Pressure and The Complex in the store. One couple had an adorable baby in a homemade The Rising onesie. Several people brought me bourbon—four bottles in total. In addition to readers, old friends showed up, as well, including Mark Hickerson (who moderates the forum on my website), author Cherie Priest, and Jess Roberts (owner of the Project iRadio podcast network). A good time was had by all. The owner of the store, Star, was very happy with the results. I was, as well. Once again, I found myself reflecting on how successful the tour had been so far. Big turnouts at all but a few stores. Big sales. Enthusiastic response from fans, readers, and attendees. It was hard being away from my loved ones for so long, but the results were apparent. This tour was having a demonstrable impact.

“I don’t know what you’re worried about, Jesus,” I mumbled to myself during a quick bathroom break. “Everything is fine.”

Then I realized there was a man three urinals down from me. He stared straight ahead at the wall, pointedly ignoring the crazy guy in the black and white Hawaiian shirt who talked to himself in public restrooms.

“Hi,” I said, grinning. When he didn’t respond, I went, “Moooooo…”

He hurried out, not even taking the time to wash his hands.

Several of us went out to dinner after the signing. Cherie and I talked publishers, and the craft, and shared apocryphal Warren Ellis stories. We talked about her desire to be thought of occasionally as a horror writer, and my desire to be thought of occasionally as not a horror writer. During dinner, more readers showed up to get their books signed, so I went back over to the store and signed their books and posed for some selfies and thanked them for coming out. Then I returned to the restaurant, bid goodbye to my friends, and retired to my hotel for the evening.

Which was where shit began to hit the fan.

I’d turned on Adult Swim and kicked back on the bed with my laptop, intending to clear through some of the thousands of unanswered emails that had collected in my inbox. I saw one from Jabberwocky Bookshop in Massachusetts, where I was due to sign the following month. The email informed me that they were cancelling my signing because it was Alumni Week at the local college and they needed room in the store for books that would appeal to alumni…or something like that. To be honest, this was back in mid-July, and I’m writing this in late-September and I’m still not sure I understand why the signing was cancelled. All I know is that I had set this signing up early in the year, advertised the store prominently on my website and in promotional materials, included them in paid Facebook advertising, and even listed them on the back of the tour t-shirts—and all of that was now pointless. I’d heard from a number of fans who were looking forward to attending. We could have sold thirty to fifty copies of Pressure without even trying. Not to mention I’d planned an entire leg of the tour around that particular signing, and would now have to scramble and reroute.

“Okay,” I muttered. “Fuck it. This tour has been a success and I’m not going to let one hiccup derail my mindset. Next email.”

The next email was from my editor at St. Martins, the publisher of Pressure, informing me that she and her boss—the two people who had brought me on at the company—were moving on as of tomorrow. In the writing business, this is called being “orphaned”, and it can often be the worst thing that can happen to a writer. Let me explain.

Early on in my career, I didn’t want to be known as just a horror writer. I wanted to write all kinds of things—crime, westerns, literary fiction, political non-fiction. My first novel, The Rising, was an unexpected bestseller, and quickly put me on the literary map. I followed it up with two novels—City of the Dead and Terminal. City of the Dead was another horror novel, a sequel to The Rising. Terminal wasn’t a horror novel. It had supernatural underpinnings, but it wasn’t a horror novel by any means. Instead, it was a crime-noir novel. The editor who bought it had big plans. He brought myself and Tom Piccirilli to the publishing house, gave us both two book deals, and let us write whatever we wanted, genre be damned. He was our advocate. I can’t stress how important that is. Mass-market publishing houses are huge, labyrinthine companies with hundreds—and sometimes thousands—of employees. Writers are a very small cog in their wheels. You need to have an advocate at the publisher. Somebody who will push your book. Somebody who believes in you. Somebody who won’t let you slip through the cracks. If you don’t have this, you and your book are doomed. Which is what happened with Terminal. During the final round of edits on the novel, the editor who had been my advocate left the company. I was orphaned. The new editor was very nice, but told me point blank that she didn’t “get” my stuff, and preferred fantasy instead, and had me revise the novel considerably. Terminal was released with little fanfare and even less advocacy, and it bombed. Had City of the Dead also not been in stores and selling well, my career might have ended right there. Luckily, it didn’t, but for the next twenty years, there have been many beyond our genre who saw me only as “the horror writer who tried to write a more mainstream novel and failed.”

Now, it was happening again. Just like Terminal, Pressure was intentionally written to be a more mainstream novel. Yes, there are horror elements, but again, just like Terminal, it was crafted to appeal to people who don’t like horror—readers of Michael Crichton or Steve Alten, for example. My editor and her superior had both been wonderful advocates for the book. And now, while I was out here on the road, busting my ass and missing time with my sons and my girlfriend and losing my mind talking to dead friends all in an effort to promote the fucking thing, they were leaving. Just like the last time I had tried to reach beyond my genre and go mainstream, I was orphaned. What would happen next? Would I get a new editor who believed in me and the book? Or would I be assigned an editor who didn’t “get” me again?   

I would have to wait to find out…

Sighing, I shut down my email and checked social media. Fans were posting pictures from the signing, talking about what a great time they’d had. I was glad somebody was having fun. A reader posted about how she and her daughter had missed the signing. I told her to meet me in the hotel lobby the next morning, and bring her books along, and I’d be happy to sign them. And even though it felt like the world was coming down around me, I was happy to make that offer.

Readers don’t know what’s going on behind the scenes. They don’t know that you just got orphaned, or that a bookstore just cancelled on you, or that you’re getting messages from your dead friend, or that you miss your loved ones so much that you’re sitting in a hotel room in Chattanooga, Tennessee, after a successful signing and dinner with good friends, crying and getting drunk on the four bottles of bourbon people brought to your signing.

Readers should never know any of that. They should just know that you appreciate them.

I finished the first bottle while I talked to Mary on the phone. She was supportive. She reminded me that I’d survived this once before and I would survive it again. She pointed out that I was “Brian Fucking Keene.” She said that maybe the new editor would be awesome and supportive. She told me she loved me.

I started the second bottle and asked Tom and Jesus what they thought I should do next.

Outside, it began to storm again. On the television, there was a cow…

Brian Keene writes novels, comic books, short fiction, and occasional journalism for money. He is the author of over forty books, including the recently released Pressure and The Complex. The father of two sons, Keene lives in rural Pennsylvania.

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