Saturday, 29 June 2013

Interview with Steve Burt

Steve Burt is the author of several award-winning series.

His FreeKs series novels about psychic and paranormal teen detectives--FreeK Camp, FreeK Show, and soon FreeK Out, FreeK Storm, FreeK of Nature, and FreeK Accident--have amassed dozens of awards including 3 Mom's Choice golds, a Moonbeam Children's Book silver, a Next Generation Indie h.m., 3 Beach Book of the Year golds, and 2 New York, 2 Hollywood, 2 London, 2 New England, 2 Paris, 1 San Francisco and 1 Halloween Book Festival awards.

Steve's short story collections (Odd Lot, Even Odder, Oddest Yet, Wicked Odd) have earned him a Bram Stoker Nomination for Young Readers Horror (2003), a Bram Stoker Award (2004), and a Benjamin Franklin Award (2001, silver, Adult Mystery/Suspense)among others. Eight short stories from that Stories to Chill the Heart series have received honorable mentions in Year's Best Fantasy & Horror anthologies.

The inspirational Storyteller of the Heart series (A Christmas Dozen and Unk's Fiddle) garnered numerous book awards, with several stories excerpted for the Chicken Soup for the Soul Series, Family Circle Magazine, and other venues. The short story "Unk's Fiddle" won a Ray Bradbury Creative Writing Prize (one of three the author has earned).

In 2009 Connecticut Magazine profiled the retired Congregational pastor in an article, "The Sinister Minister." Steve regularly sells and autographs his books at arts & crafts shows and offers school author visits via Skype. He and his wife, editor Jolyn Joslin, live in Florida.

His Facebook page is FreeKs Series and his website (with blog page) is Can I get an Amen?


Interview With Steve Burt
By David Kempf

David: Tell us what it’s like to have two seemingly opposite vocations: ordained minister and Bram Stoker Award-winning horror writer.

Steve: It’s a curiosity, that’s for sure, maybe even a delicious irony. Funny thing is, if you substitute banker, plumber, dentist, or some other profession/job for ordained minister, nobody raises an eyebrow. It’s an odd juxtaposition that relies on two stereotypes: minister (Bible-thumping, gentle-Jesus-meek-and-mild) versus horror writer (excessive blood and gore plus senseless violence). But they’re stereotypes, not reality. In my case, I’m a theologian and pastor/professor who grew up loving television shows like Outer Limits and Twilight Zone, comics and magazines like The Haunted Tank (Jeb Stuart’s ghost shadowing a WWII tank crew) and Tales From the Crypt, or movies like The Mummy, Frankenstein, King Kong, and The Body Snatchers. I loved ghost stories around the campfire and couldn’t wait to get my supply of haunted mysteries when the Scholastic Book Club purchases came in. So it’s simple; I write what I enjoy: young adult horror “lite” (low blood, gore, violence factor) and adult mystery/suspense. You may want to note that I was also well-known for church leadership books and a couple of inspirational collections (including A Christmas Dozen, stories excerpted for Chicken Soup for the Soul and Family Circle Magazine). So it’s not like I don’t use my writing gifts in both professions. But to answer your original question, it’s kind of fun to see people’s response when they learn I do both.

David: And what about this nickname “The Sinister Minister?”

Steve: That came about after my book, Oddest Yet,” won the 2004 Bram Stoker Award for Young Readers. (The previous year, 2003, I was a Stoker Nominee/Finalist but lost to J.K. Rowling’s fifth Harry Potter book.) I moved from Connecticut to Vermont to serve the Waitsfield parish; the word got out that this progressive ordained had won what is arguably the horror genre’s most coveted prize. So WCATV, the largest Vermont TV station, sent someone out to interview this curious pastor/author for an evening news feature piece. At the very end of the story, the interviewer jokingly and with a smile said, “The Bram Stoker Award? For being the best at scaring young readers, eh? Well, I guess that makes you The Sinister Minister.” After that people recognized me at arts and crafts shows all around New England where I was selling and autographing my books, and they’d say, “Hey, I saw you on TV; you’re The Sinister Minister.” I eventually took advantage of the notoriety and put it on my brochures and banners with an ominous publicity photo of me.”

David: How do you reconcile your books with what more conservative Christians might consider the occult?

Steve: I don’t try to reconcile anything or please them at all; I write what I write. The same ones who are quick to damn Rowling’s Harry Potter will sometimes cop the same attitude with me about my books at arts and crafts show signings (again, basing their “knowledge” and opinions on the two overblown stereotypes (minister and horror writer). I’ll ask, “Have you read any of my stuff?” And, of course, they’ll say no (even thought they’ve already judged it and me). So I respond, “But you’ve read your Bible, right?” Of course, they say. “Well, guess what?” I answer. “If you want to have people avoid books with blood and gore, demons, people being raised from the dead, illicit sex, betrayals, torture, and backstabbing behavior, you’d better put our Bible at the top of the list. You won’t find that stuff in my books.”

David: How did your congregation feel about the type of books you’ve written?

Steve: In 2009, Connecticut Magazine did a centerpiece feature on me, “The Sinister Minister.” They interviewed members of my congregation at First Congregational Church of Lyme and found my parishioners all had copies of my books and loved giving them as gifts. They were quite proud to have as their pastor the famous Sinister Minister, the only ordained minister to ever win the Bram Stoker Award for Young Readers. One lady, Doad Jewett, who just turned 100 in April 2013 (still sharp as a tack) asked if she could attend the movie screening with me and my wife when FreeK Camp (she oved the novel) hits the silver screen. I told her it could take years, that I didn’t even have an option for it even though it won a Hollywood Book Festival Award for Teens. She said, “That’s okay, I’ll wait. But try and get them to hurry up.”

David: Is it true you were the first self-published author to win the Bram Stoker Award?

Steve: I don’t think so. The first ordained minister, yes. Maybe the first self-published author to win one in the Young Readers category. But it’s possible. In 2004 it was my Oddest Yet and books by three authors from big traditional publishing houses: Dean Koontz, Clive Barker (co-winner for Abarat), and Jeff Marriote. In 2003 it was pretty much like that, too, with my Even Odder, plus books by J.K. Rowling, Neil Gaiman, and Robert San Souci. If you’re asking, is the deck stacked against self-pubbers, the answer is: Probably. But there’s a sliver of hope, I guess, and more now than in the early days of the award. (I regularly recommend self-published works of quality in several Stoker categories. Quality is quality, to my way of thinking.)

David: How many awards have you won?

Steve: I don’t know how many over the years. We keep them in a file rather than on the walls. My wife tells me that FreeK Show (2012) has seven (including the Halloween Book Festival Award, a Mom’s Choice gold, and the New York and Beach Book Festival awards). Its predecessor in the FreeKs series, FreeK Camp: Psychic Teens in a Paranormal Thriller, won twelve including a Moonbeam Children’s Book Award, a Mom’s Choice, and London and New England Book Festival Best Young Adult prizes, among others. Odd Lot (Benjamin Franklin adult mystery silver), Even Odder (Stoker Nominee), Oddest Yet (Stoker Winner), and Wicked Odd (Ippy) did well, too.

Besides the Stoker, I’d have to say I’m the most proud of the three Ray Bradbury creative writing prizes I got early in my career for short fiction and poetry. None of the prizes or awards affected my income or sales, but the recognition is nice. In fact, what kept me coming back in the early going was having eight stories receive Honorable Mentions from Ellen Datlow in various annual editions of Year’s Best Fantasy and Horoor anthologies. The stories didn’t get in, but just getting noticed motivated me to keep at it. (Thanks, Ellen.)

David: What made you decide to start Burt Creations to publish your books?

Steve: I had a half dozen books out, several with traditional publishers. One of them took three years from completion to publication, another took two. The publishers created awful covers and changed the titles, then didn’t market well. Both books did okay in spite of my complaints. So early on, control of product became important to me. Then came a time when I self-published my inspirational book, A Christmas Dozen: From the Christmas Story Pastor, and sold thousands of copies around my home in Connecticut—in four months—partly because I read the short holiday stories aloud on the radio, in senior centers, and in churches.

My agent sent the book and its success story to the five major New York publishers, where the five editorial (read: content quality) loved it and passed it along with glowing comments. In all five publishing houses, though, the marketing departments said, “We have no idea how we’d get it out of bookstores, given there are 25,000 competing holiday books out there.” So all five, despite the quality and the track record, rejected it. They were pitching to bookstores and had no idea what an audience and market for the book might look like; I knew my audience (because I had already gone to where they were) and also knew my market (church folks at readings, senior citizens seeking pick-me-up stocking stuffers—none of whom were in bookstores). If I knew my audience and my market, who needed the big, traditional publishing houses if they weren’t going to come with their advertising/marketing budgets?

So when it came time to collect my previously published horror stories (I kept the rights with every magazine, never selling All Rights), I didn’t bother sending the collections to my agent (or other agents) nor to editors at publishing houses. I simply continued with the name I had chosen for the business entity that did my self-published Christmas book: Burt Creations. And I’ve been at it ever since. I sell mainly on my own at readings and arts & crafts shows or through and Follett Library Resources.

So I’m not in bookstores and I’ve got limited distribution, but I’m okay with that. I employ a top-notch California book designer and a former Hanna Barbera copywriter (back cover material) and a strong editing team, with a goal of publishing only high quality books that will match the production values of the big houses.

My publishing house also creates ebooks for each title. Because my minister’s paycheck funds the operation and there is no significant profit (actually, it’s a loss), I can’t take on others writers’ works. It’s hard enough to foot the bill for a Sinister Minister’s books.

David: How many books have you published?

Steve: FreeK Show is the sixteenth, with FreeK Out due in May 2014. The last eight starting in 2000 are my fiction works and are all under the Burt Creations imprint. The previous eight starting in 1975 are nonfiction, with several out of print.

David: Have you ever written any adult horror?

Steve: The hardcore stuff? No. The FreeKs series is like Harry Potter and Hunger Games in that it’s classified as “crossover” fiction, appealing to young adults and adults (my wife says ages 9-99). The FreeKs series is really paranormal mystery/suspense, but they tend to slide into the Stoker horror recommendations sheets because they have ghosts, levitation, telekinesis, and other elements normally in the horror genre. The Stories to Chill the Heart series (Odd Lot, Even Odder, Oddest Yet, Wicked Odd) has a lot of adult stories that first appeared in magazines like All Hallows, Black Petals, Tales of the Unanticipated, and a few dozen other small-press organs in the 1990s. When I collected them together for Odd Lot, we first listed it as adult horror; but so many school teachers told me the stories were great for read-aloud (and appropriate for grades 5-12) that we changed the classification to Young Adult Dark Fiction and did so for the entire series. I guess I was writing “crossover” short stories back then and didn’t realize it. Even today I call it “horror lite” (certainly not splatterpunk).

David: Name some of your favorite horror books.

Steve: Edgar Allan Poe’s collections, Jaws, The Exorcist, Rick (Robert B.) MaCammon’s works, Stephen King’s Skeleton Crew and Night Shift and works by his Stoker-winning son Joe Hill, Dean Koontz’s Odd Thomas series, Neil Gaiman’s The Graveyard Book, J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter books, Ray Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and works by my Horror Writers Association colleagues Joe McKinney, Peter Struab, and the late Rick Hautala. And though it might be a genre stretch, I’d include the Dave Robicheaux novels of James Lee Burke and the Lucas Davenport novels of John Sandford, all of which combine mystery and horror.

David: Name some of your favorite horror movies.

Steve: Some are serious horror and some are fun horror. Serious: Jaws, The Exorcist, Frankenstein (Karloff), The Mummy (Lugosi) Sixth Sense (Willis), Psycho, The Body Snatchers, Night of the Living Dead, 28 Days, The Birds, Alien. Fun: Zombieland and Shaun of the Dead.

David: What’s your latest project?

Steve: I’m just starting the third FreeKs book, tentatively titled FreeK Out. That’ll be followed by FreeK Accident and FreeK Storm.

David: Anything else you want to tell us about yourself and your work?

Steve: I just retired after almost 35 years as a minister and have in the last 2 months moved to Florida. Lately I’ve been visiting Cassadga, Florida, to research it as a setting for the next book, FreeK Out. Cassadaga, an 1890s Spiritualist campground-turned village, is known as “the medium capital of the world.: Almost every house in the tiny village has a shingle out advertising psychic readings. Little known fact: I am the father of the well-known author, editor, and writing expert, Wendy Burt-Thomas (Ask Wendy, Query Queen blog), and books from McGraw Hill, Adams Publishing, and Writer’s Digest Books).

David: Any advice?

Steve: There are plenty of excellent stories and novels out there that don’t get to the big-time. That’s largely the luck of the draw, and you only have limited control over that. Work to produce a quality product, whether it’s a short story, a novel, or a self-published book. And, of course, the old saw: don’t quit your day job—at least not yet. Success isn’t in the money or the accolades or the reviews (though those are not to be sneezed at), but comes from discovering that story and its characters then sharing with the world in whatever way you can manage—then go back to the keyboard for the next project.