Okay, confession time. I’ve been putting off writing this post because these are the two guys whose work I knew the best going into the Scares That Care Weekend in Williamsburg, Virginia, and it’s really difficult for me to set aside Fan Jonathan from Professional Writer Jonathan.
Then again, maybe I don’t have to.
Yeah, I probably embarrassed Bryan Smith and Tom Monteleone with my last blog post, but I meant every word I said, and I’m not very good at pretending to be something I’m not. I tried to be cool when I sat there signing books with Bryan Smith, but I kept thinking to myself, “This guy is one of the best writers working today. You’re sharing a table with him. This is happening.” When I talked to Tom Monteleone, I felt a similar rush of excitement and disbelief.
Basically, I have a hard time pretending I’m unexcited by interacting with people who helped mold me as a writer and who’ve given me untold hours of reading pleasure. Which means I wasn’t sure how to act around Jack Ketchum and Brian Keene. I think I did okay. I mean, neither of them took out a restraining order against me, so there’s that. And neither threw a drink in my face or ran screaming from my presence. So…how did they act?
Let’s take Jack and Brian in turn.
(*I’ve decided to call Jack Ketchum/Dallas Mayr by his real name at certain points in this post because, well, that’s how I think of him. I mean, I think of him as both Jack Ketchum and Dallas Mayr, so I’ll be using both names. Just to confuse you.)
Jack Ketchum is one of my primary influences as a writer. Stephen King calls him “the scariest man in America,” and I can’t disagree. In my humble opinion, he has written four classic novels (The Girl Next Door, Off Season, Red, and The Woman) and a whole lot of other outstanding novels and short stories. I wrote this post about Ketchum’s fiction a couple years ago and mean to write another one about his work soon. The title of that long ago post was “The Ketchum Blade,” so named because of how deeply his fiction cuts. I dare you to read The Girl Next Door and not be emotionally moved. Whether that emotion is outrage or sorrow or despair or something else, you will feel something when you read that book. More likely, you’ll feel a number of emotions, which shows how astute and versatile Ketchum is.
But what of the man?
Dallas Mayr, I’m happy to report, is extremely kind, intelligent, and…well, classy. You ever hear someone say “(Insert name) has It“? Well, that applies to Dallas Mayr. Most people couldn’t live up to the legend of Jack Ketchum. Cary Grant, for instance, never could live up to people’s expectations of him off-screen. But Dallas Mayr/Jack Ketchum does. Yet there’s absolutely no affectation to worry about with him, no elitism. He treats everyone with warmth and wit, and though I was deeply afraid of meeting him (you know, a guy doesn’t want to make a fool of himself in front of one of his heroes), his personality soon put me at ease, and I got to spend several wonderful moments just talking to him.
Did you know, by the way, that he was once Henry Miller’s literary agent? Half of you are gasping in shock, while the other half are frowning at your monitors. To the former group I say, “Yes, he actually knew and learned from one of the literary giants of the twentieth century.” To the other half I say, stop reading this blog post and pick up Tropic of Cancer. Now.
Anyway, hanging out with Jack Ketchum/Dallas Mayr was one of the biggest thrills I’ve experienced since becoming a writer, and I can’t wait for the next opportunity to talk to him again.
So what about Brian Keene?
I’ll just be honest. Brian’s public persona—at least as I’ve always viewed him—is that of a rebel, a fiery and outspoken debunker of lies, and a fiercely talented author.
After meeting him, I can say it’s all true. He doesn’t suffer idiots, he doesn’t do things the way the system dictates one should do them, and he is indeed fiercely talented.
But one of the highlights of my summer was seeing another side of him. And by the way, if you want to cling to the above persona as his only persona, I suggest you stop reading now.
Here’s the thing you might not know about Brian Keene: He has a huge heart.
He might not like my saying that, and like Jack/Dallas, he’ll probably be embarrassed by this blog post, but I think it’s important for people to know the human beings behind the words. And the human being behind The Rising, behind Levi Stoltzfus, behind too many incredible books to mention in this meager space, is one for whom I have an incredible amount of respect.
Samuel Johnson once said, “The true measure of a man is how he treats someone who can do him absolutely no good.”
Let’s be honest here. My writing career (hopefully) is in its early stages. I’m proud of what I’ve done so far, but I am far from a household name, and there are a great many more readers who haven’t heard of me than those who have. I do what I can for my favorite authors—I recommend their work to anyone who will listen, and I blog about their stuff here—but really, it’s highly unlikely that I’ll be able to bring more wealth or fame to a guy like Brian Keene. He has written books that have sold more than half a million copies (!), and along with 28 Days Later and The Walking Dead comics, he was the guy who started the zombie phenomenon that continues to dominate popular culture. More importantly, his work continues to get better because he is devoted to his craft, he continues to read actively, and he has the discipline and the drive to always strive to improve himself.
So why would someone like this take the time to a) add me as a celebrity guest at an incredible charity convention, b) treat me like I’m someone special from the moment I walked into the Doubletree Hotel in Williamsburg to the moment we parted on Sunday afternoon, and c) invite me to every meal and allow me to spend time with him, his girlfriend, her son, and several other of his friends?
I’ll tell you why. It’s because Brian has a sincerely kind heart, and he remembers what it was like to know no one.
But I think what I appreciate most about Brian is how sincere and real he is. There isn’t one ounce of artifice with him. He did give me advice about writing, but mainly what he talked about was the importance of family. Speaking of family, one of my favorite memories of the convention was the moment when he dashed into the celebrity room mock-screaming because he was being chased by two newly-painted little girls who turned out to be my daughters.
And lest you think we spent the weekend in hushed conversation as he earnestly divulged the secrets of writing success, I should also mention he has a fantastic sense of humor and shared stories that made me laugh and gape, sometimes simultaneously.
So after writing nearly fourteen hundred words about two of my favorite writers, I’ll leave you with this thought: If ever I achieve a tenth of what these fine writers and men have achieved, I’ll remember my first Scares That Care convention. I’ll remember that everyone has to start somewhere, and that those who have the ability to make a newbie feel accepted and valued should do so in every way they can.
So thank you, Dallas and Brian. You made me feel like more than a fellow writer. You made me feel like I belonged.