From dark fantasy author Benjamin Kane Ethridge’s interview with “The Sinister Minister”:
Bio blurb: The Rev. Dr. Steve Burt is the author of not one but two award-winning series for adults and teens: the Stories to Chill the Heart weird tales series and the FreeKs mystery/suspense series featuring psychic and paranormal teens. A Congregationalist pastor and a longtime member of the Horror Writers Association, Steve is the only ordained minister to win horror’s top prize, the Bram Stoker Award (2004); he was also a Nominee/Finalist in 2003. In addition to horror and mystery/suspense, he writes church leadership books, inspirational books, devotional material, and has published hundreds of pieces in such venues as Reader’s Digest, Writer’s Digest, Yankee, Family Circle, and the Chicken Soup for the Soul series. He’s the father of writing authority Wendy Burt-Thomas (Writer’s Digest Guide to Query Letters).
1. I hear they call you “the Sinister Minister.” What’s THAT all about? Do people get upset?
I was unintentionally but luckily “branded” during an interview on WCAX TV Channel 3 in Burlington, VT after I won the Bram Stoker Award. Everybody in creation must have been watching that night, because folks started coming up to me at arts & crafts show where I autograph books, saying, “Hey, Sinister Minister. Saw you on TV.” Then in 2009 Connecticut Magazine profiled me in an article of that title, “The Sinister Minister,” which got my face and book covers into about half of all the Connecticut households (the magazine is for sale but comes free to supporters of CT Public TV. Occasionally fundamentalist Christians will give me a hard time at signings, but I just ask if they’ve read my material (No!) and if they’ve read their Bible (Of course!). Then I tell them there’s more blood and guts, demon possession, and rising from the dead in their Bible than they’ll find in my books. Or I simply say, “God told me to write dark fiction.” How do you argue that? I believe writers should write what they’re called to write, or what they like reading or writing. I’ve also written poetry, cartoon captions, a canoeing book, devotional material, church leadership books, and inspirational stories for Chicken Soup for the Soul. Nobody questions a minister writing that “nice” stuff. We need to recognize that there’s always been a connection between theological issues and horror literature (Frankenstein is about Man Playing God, Dracula is about drinking blood and the cost of eternal life). A shorter answer might be: I always liked Twilight Zone, Tales from the Crypt, and mysteries as a kid, so I write those now.
2. How did you get started as a writer? What were your influences?
In second grade the high school newspaper printed a one-paragraph story of mine. My third-grade teacher encouraged rhymed poems and limericks. The fourth-grade teacher read aloud to us that inspired me to write my own. My fifth-grade teacher kept me after school for being a chatterbox; instead of making me clean the erasers or write “I will not talk in class” until my hand fell off, she had me write stories, which she’d critique. I wrote fiction in college, edited the literary magazine and, discouraged there was no money in writing, went into the ministry where I got to write a lot of sermons, articles, and meditations. Most important, I developed a weekly disciple. Eventually I decided to write fiction again even if there was no money in it (since I had my pastoral job as an anchor). From early on I loved Poe, DeMaupassant, Saki, Twain, Keats & Shelley & Wordsworth, Bram Stoker and Mary Shelley. Before I hit my teens I gobbled up Homer, Virgil, and the stories of the Norse gods. The last thirty years I’ve really enjoyed the work of my old seminary neighbor Stephen King, and Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series, James Lee Burke’s Dave Robicheaux series, Robert B. Parker’s Spenser and Jessie Stone books, Tony Hillerman, John Sandford, Sue Grafton, and Thomas Perry.
3. Your short stories fall under horror and mystery, your novels under mystery/thriller/suspense, even under fantasy/paranormal. How would you describe them?
It’s all “dark fiction.” The short stories are Horror Lite, I suppose, some of them in the tradition of the British “weird tales” (Arthur Machen). Some people think I avoid gore because I’m a minister, but that’s not it at all. I’ve always preferred British “cozies” (Agatha Christie) and don’t feel a need to shock the reader with visceral gore. Others do that better than I can. I don’t even go to movies like Texas Chainsaw Massacre or Nightmare on Elm Street. I’m more interested in plots, mysteries, twists, and interesting characters. Besides, although half my audience is adult, most of what I write is for the Teen and Young Adult readers.
4. Your book FreeK Camp picked up 12 awards in 2010-2011. Has that made a difference in some way?
Not so much financially. The difference it made was that what was to have been a single novel has—by reader demand—become the debut book in the FreeKs series. The two Mom’s Choice golds and the Moonbeam Children’s Book Award drew tween and early teen readers; the other awards (London, Paris, San Francisco, NY, New England, Hollywood Festivals) pulled in adult readers. The book worked cross-generationally the way Harry Potter and Hunger Games did.
5. So now the second FreeKs book is out? Paperback, hardcover, ebook?
Yes, it’s called FreeK Show: Where Nothing Is As It Appears, and came out end of May. About half the teens who survived the psychopath in FreeK Camp in 2010 have returned to the camp for psychically gifted kids in rural Maine in 2012; their mentors are the same three former circus sideshow performers as before. This time the crew is tracking a serial killer at the same time he (unknown to them) is stalking them. It’s on Amazon as a paperback and an ebook.
6. What’s the third FreeKs book going to be? And when is it due out?
I’m just starting the planning for FreeK Accident. It’ll likely be a May 2014 release. It’ll be set in Florida this time.
7. Can you tell me why there’s a capital K in the word FreeKs?
It’s explained in the first book, FreeK Camp. The camp is actually Free Camp, but on the side of the van some midnight graffiti artist has used a red marker to add the blood-red capital K. There’s also a mystical “third eye” below the camp’s name, which made sense for a camp for paranormal kids.
8. What types of psychic and paranormal gifts do these teens have?
Depends which book you’re in. In FreeK Camp there are a twin brother and sister who manifest remote vision and remote hearing. Another girl communicates with the dead. There’s a spoonbender, a precognitive dreamer, an empath (my spell-checker keeps changing it to empathy), a boy whose gifts is telekinesis, and a girl who nows hings from touching objects. In FreeK Show a boy discovers he can travel out of body; another has hunches. When I do school visits, kids in the classrooms love to talk about these things. Half my talk is usually about the book and half about psychic and paranormal things.
9. Can you talk about your writing process a bit?
I use the discovery process rather than an outline. I bring a few characters together and wait for the universe to drop a problem on them (like an appearance by a ghost or maybe finding a dead body in the woods). After that the characters, based on their gifts and personalities and value systems) will interact in their own way to solve the mystery. In FreeK Camp we got to a point where four teens were shackled to a granite grave marker and pushed out into the lake in a rowboat after the villain shot a hole in the bottom of the boat. That’s when my wife and I had to leave for a week of continuing education. She read the chapter and wanted to know how they could possibly escape. I was honest: I hadn’t a clue. I’d have to wait until I got home to see what they did. And I really didn’t know!
10. Ever deal with writer’s block?
Only once. After Odd Lot won the Benjamin Franklin silver for Best Mystery/Suspense Book in 2001, I felt the pressure to beat that with my next collection. So I wrote and rewrote the first lines, first paragraphs, and first pages of the opening story for Even Odder. Writer’s block! Dead end! Problem was that I was in pursuit of perfection (or at least something to top the previous book). After a month of frustration, my writing-authority/editor/daughter Wendy Burt-Thomas (Writer’s Digest Guide to Writing Query Letters) advised me to free myself up by shifting from the write/edit side of the brain to the storytelling side. I got a mini-cassette tape recorder with headset mouthpiece and from scratch orally created a story every day while on an hour’s walk with my dog. At the end of 43 days I had 43 stories (some very bad). But I transcribed the best 15 to word processing, edited on-screen, and published Even Odder (a runner-up to J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter for the 2003 Bram Stoker Award for Young Readers). I didn’t write the book, I told it.
11. Do you have any funny stories?
In 2004 Oddest Yet was up for the Stoker against Dean Koontz, Jeff Marriotte, and Clive Barker. The Stoker banquet was to be in Burbank, California, and I lived in Connecticut. I was certain that an unknown, self-published back-country minister didn’t have a prayer against those three. Besides, when I attended the Stokers in NYC the previous year in NYC (for Even Odder), the field had been thrashed by J.K. Rowling’s fifth Potter book. So I skipped Burbank, saving airfare and hotels, arguing that I really had to preach in my church the next morning. My agent from nearby L.A. attended on my behalf so she could schmooze and capitalize on photo ops with the big and upcoming names. Around 2 a.m. my time she phoned and woke me up, saying I’d won the Stoker. I was still pretty much asleep, muttered “Shit,” and went back to bed. The Stoker Committee UPS’d me my oh-so-lovely Stoker trophy the next week (a haunted mansion modeled after Poe’s House of Usher) which I placed above the fireplace. Then, after two weeks of bowing down to that golden calf every night, I noticed the little door in front opened. It had Clive Barker’s name inscribed there for Abarat. He’d walked off the Burbank Hilton stage with my Stoker! So the Stoker Committee and UPS had to mediate a hostage exchange. Barker was gracious and the mistake was righted. After I told my daughter, she said, “Dad, you should have kept Clive Barker’s. It’s worth a lot more than your own on Ebay.” Kids are here to keep us humble, right?
12. What advice do you have for new writers? What books do you recommend for fiction writers?
Read, read, read—for enjoyment and to learn. Write, write, write anything you can–sermons, newsletter articles, jokes, anecdotes, devotional material, poems, cartoon captions, recipes, anything—but especially stories short and long. Write what you like. Submit stuff. Publish even if sometimes there’s no money but only a contributor’s copy. My first horror stories went for no-pay and low-pay, but I gave away only one-time rights, then later collected them into Odd Lot (almost all reprints of mag stories) that won awards and eventually made a lot of money. That’s contrary to most advice columnists who are selling nonfiction and advise you not to ever let it go unless you get paid for it. I also say, read and learn from writing-related magazines and books. Learn from rejections (I had a thousand before an acceptance) and submit again and again. Publish your own stuff if you have to, but make sure you know three things: 1. your audience (for me it’s largely teens and young adults); 2. your market (parents and grandparents and teachers); and how you can get it to the buyers (I sell in arts & crafts shows where my market vacations with my audience. As my old neighbor Stephen King said: writer’s write, wannabes wannabe. There are two absolute essential non-fiction primers every fiction writer should read: Gary Provost’s Make Your Words Work and Dwight Swain’s Techniques of the Selling Writer.
FreeK Show is available for $16.95 (paperback) or $9.99 (Kindle):