I’ve been writing fiction since I was in sixth grade, when I wrote a short Silmarillion fanfic telling how the Valar created the halflings. (And now let us pause to appreciate the colossal nerdiness on display in that sentence.) Since then I’ve written dozens of short stories, but only one novel: Blood Family, published in September 2016. Part of what I had to do in the course of writing that book was to figure out how to write a novel—or, more precisely, how I write a novel.
For my short stories, the ideas seemed to come from everywhere and nowhere: a dream, a snatch of conversation, a phrase in an essay, a newspaper headline. When I sat down to write the novel that became Blood Family, I initially started with a similar approach. I knew I wanted my first novel to say something about family, because I’d tried many times before to write about what it was like growing up in a highly dysfunctional family with Southern Gothic tendencies. Unfortunately, none of those attempts came out right, perhaps because they were all personal essays. For my novel I decided to try using fiction to express what my childhood and adolescence had taught me about family.
I also wanted to debunk the popular notion that “every parent out there is just doing the best they can.” Oh, really? When Josef Fritzl held his daughter Elisabeth captive in a basement in Austria for 24 years, raping her the entire time and impregnating her with seven of his children, he was just doing the best he could? When Brice McMillan tied his 13-year-old son to a tree for 18 hours in the summertime in North Carolina, causing the boy to die of dehydration and heat stroke, he was just doing the best he could too? No. They weren’t. They could have done better. There are countless examples from history and the news—and a few from my own family—demonstrating that not every parent out there is just doing the best they can. I wanted to tell a story from the point of view of an adult who had grown up in a family where the adults did not always have the children’s best interests at heart.
If I’d been writing a short story, the conceptualization phase probably would have stopped there, but this was a novel, and I was on a different mission. Most of my short stories have been situated squarely in the mainstream literary realist tradition, with a few adventurous ones sliding sideways into what literary theorist Tzetvan Todorov would call “the fantastic,” which he positions between “the uncanny” (it looks like it might be supernatural, but it isn’t) and “the marvelous” (it’s definitely supernatural). In fantastic stories, the question of the supernatural is raised without being resolved one way or the other, and I liked that—but not for a good reason. I liked the fantastic because it allowed me to dabble in the shallows of the supernatural without diving in and committing to it. “To commit is to be in danger,” James Baldwin said, and I was afraid of that danger. I was afraid of writing openly supernatural stories that the literary elite might look down upon. So I equivocated, writing stories about eerie occurrences that might or might not have a rational explantion.
My novel constituted a decisive break with that practice because, frankly, I was tired of fucking around. I knew the only way I could sustain my enthusiasm and dedication through an entire novel was to write something I really cared about and enjoyed, and for me, that means stories of the other world: ghosts and demons and myths and legends and gods and monsters and magic; cults, covens, religions; spells that really work; portals that really go somewhere. And when I surveyed that rich vein of story ideas, it seemed to me that ghosts, and the unquiet dead in general, would be very useful in telling a story about a family whose parents have visited their sins upon their descendants. You see this kind of thing a lot in Gothic fiction: houses that are reputed to be haunted, for instance, symbolizing the influence of the past upon the present. In my novel, I decided to see what kind of mileage I could get out of making a haunted house actually be haunted, even as I sought to deploy the resonant themes, the psychologically rich characters, and the carefully crafted sentences of mainstream literary fiction.
In short, Blood Family represents the coupling of a theme you might expect to see in a mainstream literary novel (how unhealthy families mangle their descendants) with a story element from genre fiction (the unquiet dead). The entire novel flows from that dyad. I’ve used a similar dyadic structure to develop the basic idea for my next novel, which I’ve already begun working on. I believe this simple structure is a key that can unlock more novels than I could ever possibly write—but I’m going to do my damndest to get as many of them down as I can before I join the ranks of the unquiet dead myself.
Bio: Brent Winter is a writer and editor in Carrboro, North Carolina. Blood Family is his debut novel. To learn more about Blood Family, including where to buy it, visit Brent’s author site. He’s currently at work on a novel that, although not a sequel to Blood Family, is set in the same universe—one where downtown Atlanta hides a strange little neighborhood called D Street that you can’t find on your own; someone who’s already been there has to take you first.