How Mr. Denton Spent His Summer Vacation

The Waiting Is the Hardest Part

by Mike Shea

   
St. Martin's Press published acclaimed Austin writer Bradley Denton's three most recent books: Blackburn, Lunatics, and One Day Closer to Death. And the New York-based publisher has rights to the first look at his novel-in-progress. But, despite hopes it would be finished before the fall, it looks like Gordon Van Gelder, the editor who brought Denton to St. Martins in 1992, will have to wait a bit longer. "I'm stalled on it right now," Brad confesses between sips of a terribly oversized caffeinated beverage at Little City Cafe, a stone's throw from the Texas Capitol. "It's not a tragedy - I go through this stage in every book." And that stage would be? "I just feel like it's not happening the way I thought it was going to. I have to do something else." And how does Van Gelder feel about being a bit behind schedule? "I'm accustomed to waiting, but Brad worries about it more than I do. He tends to take about three years on a novel." The summer's scorching and oppressive heat may drive him indoors - Denton admits he's letting the yard of his Manchaca home grow unmolested until the weather breaks - but he's not staring a hole into a blank computer screen. Among his various writing projects, he's wrapping up a short story that includes William S. Burroughs. Burroughs, like Denton, is late of Lawrence, Kansas, which could figure in the telling of the story. (Burroughs is currently late of the world at large, having shuffled off this mortal coil in 1997.) Should we draw any conclusions from the fact that Lawrence was home to one of the 20th century's leading literary, junkie, beatnik homosexual iconoclasts ... and Bradley Denton? "I'm probably the furthest personality type from Burroughs that you could get. But I did see him around town now and then. He was wizened, stoop-shouldered, thin, and neatly dressed. He did not look like the decadent drug addict that we all know. It was hard to picture him in Morocco."

Of course, you can't spend your entire life at a keyboard and everyone has to eat some time. So, every Saturday morning Brad and his wife Barb commune for an habitual (not to say ritual) breakfast with a close-knit group that he considers near-family although by vitrue of friendship rather than blood. A similar circle of growing-up friends populates his 1996 novel Lunatics - a quintessential Austin book. Did his weekly breakfast companies scour the pages trying to identify their literary alter ego? "The people in Lunatics are not based on a particular group of my friends. That's the funny thing, the people we see every week, none of them thought they were in the book. Friendly acquaintances - they thought they were in the book."

Denton's summer will shift into another gear entirely with the convocation of ArmadilloCon 20 on August 28 at the Omni Southpark in Austin. Although he's a perennial participant at the annual science fiction and fantasy literary convention, he'll occupy a much higher profile this year as the Guest of Honor. What sort of lavish gifts and honorariums will this entail? "Well, theyre going to pay all my travel expenses from Manchaca to the Omni," he says, a wry grin creasing his bearded face. "I'll be on several panels and doing a reading. I'll be playing at the dance with my band (Ax Nelson) and they're getting several of my oldest friends in the field to give me the roast treatment on Sunday. Denton won't have a brand new book to plug - his most recent was February when St. Martin's released the short story collection One Day Closer to Death: Eight Stabs at Immortality. But any number of other writers, local and otherwise, should have fresh books to read from and sign including Austinites William Browning Spencer (Irrational Fears) and Bruce Sterling (Distraction due in the fall). The tentative agenda can be found at ArmadilloCons website at http://www.io.com/~llw/dillo.

This won't be Denton's first turn in the spotlight at ArmadilloCon. In 1994, he was DilloCon's Toastmaster and delivered an address titled "The 12-Step Program for Science Fiction Addiction" (Step One: Admit that you are powerless against Science Fiction, and that outside of it, you have no life). And he's no stranger to awards and honors in the field of fiction writing. His novel Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede won the prestigious John W. Campbell Memorial Award in 1992 for Best Science Fiction Novel of the Year. Its worth noting that the runner-up was The Difference Engine, a remarkable and widely acclaimed novel by Bruce Sterling and William Gibson. (Sterling had previously won the award for Islands in the Net.) His third novel, Blackburn, won the 1993 Bram Stoker Award as well as the Prix .38 Calibre, a French literary award that remains a bit of a mystery. He traveled to Lawrence, Kansas to get the Campbell Award - did he fly to Paris to pick up the Prix .38 Calibre? "I didn't even know I was up for it. I went to the mailbox and pulled out this Tyvek envelope that was tinkling, and there's all this shattered glass in the envelope surrounding this award they'd sent me."

To round out the list of awards, he was given the World Fantasy Award for Best Short Story in 1995, which he did accept in person, although not entirely without incident. "The guy at the World Fantasy Convention who was actually in charge of making the physical awards came up to me and complained bitterly afterward about how tough it was to engrave the plaque." Well, of course he did. The titles he was charged with engraving on the plaque were: The Calvin Coolidge Home for Dead Comedians and The Conflagration Artist.

At this relatively early juncture in his career, Denton is enjoying a respectable measure of commercial and critical success. Van Gelder may be biased, but he asserts, "all three of Brad's books with St. Martin's have done well. I suppose Blackburn would have to be regarded as the biggest critical success, but that's based more on the thickness of the review file than on the contents of the reviews themselves. Blackburn is probably my favorite novel of all the books I've edited."

The inevitable question for a writer with a burgeoning reputation and steadily growing audience is whether Hollywood has come calling to option any of his books with the intent of developing them into camera fodder. "My agent tells me that several production companies have expressed interest (in various novels). But in Los Angeles, expressing interest just means that they don't currently intend to involve you in a driveby shooting. It doesn't mean they're going to buy your book or, god forbid, turn it into a movie."

Waiting for a Bradley Denton novel is a relatively atypical experience because he has shown a penchant to shift styles dramatically from one book to the next. His novels have been variously shelved with the science fiction, horror, and mainstream fiction. Dustjackets have cited both American Psycho and The Big Chill as points of reference. It would be difficult to imagine three novels as different from one another as his three most recent - his name on the spine might be the only characteristic they share. First, there is the sweet science fiction road romp of Buddy Holly Is Alive and Well on Ganymede - a hilarious and pointed satire that drew comparisons to Kurt Vonnegut and his ilk. This was followed by the stark and tragicomic serial-killer diary, Blackburn. Which led to the thematically mature gab and grab fantasy-fest of Lunatics.

This eclectic approach probably results from Denton's conscious effort to provide a different reading experience with each book. "I want to write a different story every time. Some writers tell the same story over and over again with different characters in different settings. And that's not necessarily a bad thing because sometimes it takes a lifetime of work and 20 novels to work out the ideas of one particular kind of story. But I don't want to do that." Does this approach present a problem to his publisher? Van Gelder takes a big-picture approach coming down hard on the side of literary integrity: "I've learned to aproach every work of fiction individually and assess how it works as fiction, so the first thing I'm looking for when I go through a novel is how well it works on its own terms. One of the main reasons I wound up as editor for Blackburn was because I didn't put any particular genre tags on it."

The current theme of Denton's novel-in-progress revolves around the media's awesome power to thrust individuals into fame or infamy. "Assuming it works out," he says with hint of frustration, "it's going to be a novel about emotional dysfunction and domestic terrorism and the mass media. The fact that someone with a TV camera can come in and point a camera at you and do a 30-second segment on the evening news and immediately everyone in the nation - or in the world - thinks this is who you are. The involuntary imagizing of a human being into something else."

Despite the minor roadblock, it's inevitable that the manuscript will make its way into his editor's hands - none of the principals seems overly concerned. "He is," pronounces his wife Barb with a laugh, "a slooow writer." And it seems likely also that the readers who have stayed with him through his quantum leaps in style will also follow him down whatever road he chooses to take them this time out. He has earned his audience's trust by respecting their intelligence and by giving them nothing less than his very best effort each time. The resulting books have been at the very least original and entertaining and, at their best, mesmerizing.

And so Bradley Denton, just past 39 years of age, tolerates the withering summer heat and jiggles the wires that will jumpstart his novel and bring it roaring back to life.