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Thrills, Chills, and General Silliness (with Weldon Burge)

Interview with Michael Bailey, Bram Stoker Award Winner

Michael Bailey is a multli-award-winning author, editor, and publisher of incredible speculative fiction. He recently won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Anthology for The Library of the Dead. His nonlinear horror novel, Palindrome Hannah, was a finalist for the Independent Publisher Awards. His follow-up novel, Phoenix Rose, was listed for the National Best Book Awards for horror fiction, was a finalist for the International Book Awards, and received the Kirkus Star, awarded to books of remarkable merit. Scales and Petals, his short story and poetry collection, won the International Book Award for short fiction, as well as the USA Book News “Best Books” Award. His short fiction and poetry can be found in anthologies and magazines around the world, including the US, UK, Australia, Sweden, and South Africa.

Michael has published a number of anthologies (including Pellucid Lunacy, Qualia Nous, The Library of the Dead, and the Chiral Mad series) and has just released Chiral Mad 3, published by his own imprint, Written Backwards, at Dark Regions Press. He is currently the Managing Science Fiction Editor at Dark Regions. Michael took some time off from his busy schedule to talk with us.

Chiral Mad 3 was just released, and you must be ecstatic. An introduction by Chuck Palahniuk, illustrations by Glenn Chadbourne, stories and poetry by incredible writers (Ramsey Campbell, Stephen King, Jack Ketchum, Mort Castle, Gary Braunbeck, Gene O’Neill, and 15 others). Wow! This is your most ambitious project to date. Can you share with us some of your process when pulling together such an impressive anthology?

I’m not even sure where to begin. I knew there would be a third Chiral Mad someday (I was hounded for it immediately upon release of the second volume). I knew if it were to exist, the book would have a specific story by King: “The Last Rung on the Ladder,” so I guess it all started with Steve. Apparently he digs my anthologies, or at least I hope he does, since he’s found his way into three of my books. “The Jaunt” appeared in Qualia Nous last year (a literary blend of science fiction and horror), and “I Am the Doorway” will appear later this year in You, Human, my first science fiction anthology with Dark Regions Press.

I designed the cover for Chiral Mad 3 and on a whim decided the entire book should be chiral in structure, with an odd amount of stories and an even amount of symmetrically-placed poetry. I reached out to a handful of writers I wanted in the book (for both fiction and poetry). Before I knew it, I had a dozen stories and a dozen poems; every single one of them spectacular. Chaos quickly took over.

I had so much fun working with gak illustrating The Library of the Dead and Luke Spooner illustrating Gene O’Neill’s novella At the Lazy K, that I started thinking about having the third volume of chiral madness illustrated, and knew the illustrations would be in vibrant black and white. By this time, I had the King story, so on another whim, I reached out to an artist known for illustrating much of King’s work over the years: Glenn Chadbourne. I sent him “Last Rung” and he sent back five new illustrations in a matter of days, and agreed to ink at least one for each piece of fiction, which eventually totaled 21 stories. Eventually we added illustrations for all 20 poems as well.

Unlike the past two volumes, CM3 was loosely “invite only,” which it had to be to remain controllable. One-by-one, I found stories to fit the mold for the book I’d created in my head, and one-by-one they fell into place. The introduction was the last piece of the puzzle. I aimed high, and somehow snagged Palahniuk’s attention after he read a proof copy of the entire book (with low-res illustrations and a few typos at the time). I’ll have the opportunity to thank him in person this winter, since we’re both guests of honor at The Stanley Hotel Writers Retreat in Colorado, the hotel that inspired King’s novel The Shining.

Anyway, Chiral Mad 3 is absolutely insane! It’s a beautiful book. I’m not sure there’s anything I could ever do to top such an ambitious anthology. People are already asking if there will be a fourth volume.

Your own fiction tends toward SF/horror—also considered by many as speculative. You’re now the Managing Editor of Science Fiction at Dark Regions Press. I’m just curious—how has your editing at Dark Region informed your own writing? What have you learned from editing and working with other writers that has enhanced your own work?

Truth be told, I have only written/published three stories I consider SF/horror: “Bootstrap/The Binds of Lasolastica” and “Fireman/Primal Tongue” from the Zippered Flesh anthologies, and a story I wrote specifically for Thomas F. Monteleone while binge-writing one weekend called “Time is a Face on the Water,” which is more literary than SF/horror, and will appear in Borderlands 6 (the series that first got me interested anthologies). I have a fourth SF/horror story on hiatus called “Gave” that will have some sort of / “Other Title” in its title, which I will finish for Zippered Flesh 3 if a third volume comes to fruition.

We’re planning a ZF3, probably next year.

I consider the rest of my work speculative fiction, most of it nonlinear in structure. Some call my stuff literary horror, or lit/spec. I just write down what comes out of me. And, yes, that part of me is evolving.

Palindrome Hannah was dark, Phoenix Rose was even darker, as well as both short fiction and poetry collections: Scales and Petals, and Inkblots and Blood Spots (illustrated beautifully by Daniele Serra), and Psychotropic Dragon (a meta-novel I’m currently co-authoring with someone I cannot yet name) is the darkest thing I’ve ever written. It’s a novelette wrapped around a novella wrapped around a short novel, and has three illustrators involved, one for each narrative (some of the artists mentioned earlier). Jack Ketchum blurbed it as “addictive, scary, and at times, mind-blowing.” So that tells you something. But I’m changing. I’ve been working on that book for over 10 years now, and my writing hit some sort of dark-lit crescendo with that book. I’m changed as a writer because of Psychotropic Dragon, and now that it’s out of my head, I feel lighter. I took a spontaneous trip to Oahu just to get away from that book, as if running from it. My work has always focused on finding beauty in dark places, but the part of me I discovered in Hawaii after finishing that book flipped on some sort of light switch, and now I’m finding all sorts of beautiful things around me that I never knew were there before.

Those who read my story in Borderlands 6 will learn what I’ve become. I’m not even sure if I can (or want to) write “horror” anymore. Even my reading habits have become more selective. I’m writing a fourth novel now called Seen in Distant Stars, which is more mainstream than anything else. But that’s just my writing. Has my editing at Dark Regions Press informed my own writing? No, at least not yet. My transmogrification happened before I joined DRP. But the stories I’ve chosen to work with at Written Backwards (now an imprint of the aforementioned) have definitely impacted my writing. If you read any of my anthologies from beginning to end, you will notice that each anthology tells a different part of me.

Every writer I work with has found a place in my heart, and I have fallen in love with their words. Their stories make me weep, make me cry, make me laugh, make me squirm. They tug at me from all directions, toy with my emotions, and make me realize that I’m not alone in this world. These writers are a part of me now, which is why I often seek them out for my books, although sometimes it’s the other way around. Each of their stories/“chapters” in my anthologies reveal a different part of me I want to express.

If anything, each of my books is an eclose, from a different cocoon, and Chiral Mad 3 is the latest unfolding of my wings, a way of saying “Look what I’ve become now!” Working with such an eclectic group of writers, and editing these anthologies, has shaped my writing habits more than my writing style. I write more delicately now, more concisely. I edit along the way, which is a much slower process, but in the end it seems more efficient and makes my editors’ lives easier.

Your story, “Primal Tongue,” was included in the Smart Rhino anthology Zippered Flesh 2, and was nominated for a Bram Stoker Award. Many of your projects have received awards and high recognition. Besides obvious ego-boosting, what have all the kudos done to help you further your career?

Unless a book has a foil sticker noting a National Book Award, Man Booker Prize, or Pulitzer, awards don’t do much other than let you know your peers are thinking well of you. “Primal Tongue” was my first official Bram Stoker Award nomination for short fiction, Qualia Nous was my first for editing an anthology, and this year The Library of the Dead won the award. Perhaps Chiral Mad 3, perhaps the next book, or the next story I write. John Palisano (“The Geminis”) was nominated for short fiction from Chiral Mad 2, and Gary A. Braunbeck (“The Great Pity”) won for long fiction; both Rena Mason (“Ruminations”) and Usman T. Malik (“The Vaporization Enthalpy of a Peculiar Pakistani Family”) won the Stoker last year for their short fiction in Qualia Nous (Malik also nominated for a Nebula for his story, covering both horror and science fiction); Norman Partridge (“Special Collections”) is up for his long fiction/introduction from The Library of the Dead.

I’m happy about all of that. But it’s just an award. Don’t get me wrong … winning a Stoker (even being nominated) is an accomplishment. Horror writers are a small group of people, in the grand scheme of writerly things, but to have fellow horror writers—the people you work with and perhaps look up to—nominate your work, move it from long-list to short-list (aka The Ballot), and either vote for your work or for another of your peers you admire in your category (among all other considered works published that year), is something incredible, something in which you should take great pride. Will it further your career? Probably not. It won’t hurt it, though. Who won the Stoker in 2013 for novel, first novel, YA, nonfiction, fiction collection, poetry collection, long fiction, short fiction? How about 2014? How about last year? Do you remember? Were you even paying attention?

Horror has the Stoker. Mystery has the Edgar. Science fiction and fantasy have the Nebula and the Hugo. There are a lot of awards out there for a lot of books. There are a lot of books. And there are many awards for the indie scene. I’ve won quite a few medals, placards, and foil stickers to put on books, and pieces of paper to frame and hang on walls: the Indie Awards, Independent Publisher Book Awards, International Book Awards, the IndieFabs. One of my favorite accomplishments was finally winning the Benjamin Franklin Award after so many years of submitting books. It’s one of my favorite trophies. But that’s all it is, really—a trophy, and it sits on the shelf collecting dust with the others.

What I take greater pride in are the books I create, the stories I publish (whether my own or others’ within my anthologies). Those are the real trophies, the real awards. I may have sold a few more copies of Qualia Nous because of accolades, or I may sell a few more copies of The Library of the Dead this year, but the books are what matters. The award won’t be on any other shelf but mine, but the book, the story … How many other shelves out there are willing to hold them?

If you could go back in time and start over, what would you do differently?

I would have started earlier.

Thanks for the great interview, Michael! Check out his bio page to see his range of books on Amazon ... and buy a book or two! You can also check out his Written Backwards blog for more info.

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