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Brandon Applegate - Friendly Found Footage Fan

Once I joined the Twitter community and started making friends, one of the first decisions I made was to start collecting books from people I interacted with. I've always been a book lover, but it adds a whole new level when it's one written by someone you know! Then I decided to take it a step further - I wanted as many signed copies as I could get, with a unique twist: I ask that each author includes a bit of writing advice. Serious, funny, what to do, what not to do, whatever floats the boat is fine by me!

It just so happens that Brandon's collection Those We Left Behind: And Other Sacrifices* is the first one I requested, so it'll always have a special spot in my collection!

We both participated in a found footage livestream through Voices of the Mausoleum (see link below), after spending the month of March immersing ourselves in all sorts of movies in this category, and it was a great conversation. I was thrilled he was willing to participate in Ask an Author!

1. So, since everyone watched the found footage livestream we had back in April (watch the video here), and knows it’s one of your favorite sub-genres of horror films, what would you say are a few others that tend to get under your skin? You know, while I do love found footage films, and in my head they’re their own subgenre, I tend not to really think about movies/books/etc. in those terms. It’s pretty easy to get caught up in classifying things and building out my own little internal algorithm for what I’m likely to enjoy versus not and then miss whole big groups of things I would otherwise have enjoyed. Instead, I usually just group things into big overarching chunks like horror, sci-fi, drama, comedy, and the like, recognizing, of course, when those big genres cross over and create new things I haven’t seen before. The reason I like found footage horror movies, though, is because the found footage element acts as a shortcut to creating emotional connection with the characters in the story, which is something all genres and subgenres try to create, but with found footage, it’s almost a cheat. Instead of making me empathize with someone who is clearly a totally different person and using common experience to build a connection, found footage usually drops me directly in the driver’s seat, or at least inside the person who is in the driver’s seat. Instead of actively trying to make me empathize, I’m given very little choice. I’m literally walking a mile in someone else’s shoes, and it makes it easier to feel what they feel. I like any movie or book that makes me feel strongly. To me, that’s the point. It’s hard to scare me or make me cry, but if you can do it, you win. In terms of horror movies that get under my skin, I think I really enjoy ghosts and haunted houses/hospitals/asylums the most, because when they’re done right, ghosts are more about the person experiencing them than the ghosts themselves. In the TV show “The Haunting of Hill House” (one of my absolute favorite modern ghost stories, and yes, I’ll die on that hill), Stephen Crain says, “Ghosts are guilt, ghosts are secrets, ghosts are regrets and failings. But most times, most times a ghost is a wish.” I think that’s true.

2. Is there a sub-genre of horror that you don’t particularly care for? I fully expect some folks to tune out at this point, but I’ve never really been a fan of slashers. It’s difficult for horror to do something for me without the supernatural element (I really don’t know why), and it always feels disappointing when the mask comes off and it’s just Brad from math class with a knife. I guess I want something more, something bigger, and the supernatural to me contains more meaning. Something about slashers to me is very nihilistic. Survival is the whole point. Now there are some slashers that break that mold for me. Nightmare on Elm Street is both a slasher and a ghost story, and I love that series deeply. The Strangers scared the holy hell out of me, and it’s a non-supernatural home invasion slasher. I never really want to get caught not giving something a chance because of genre. I’m also not a big fan of vampires, but I loved Buffy and Midnight Mass, and I expect there are lots of vampire stories out there that would surprise me.

3. Which is more terrifying – being snowed in at an isolated cabin in the mountains, or trapped on a boat in the tropics? Oof, being trapped sucks no matter what. But I think I’d have to go with the boat in the tropics. I mean, if I can’t move the boat and get it to dry land. Both options are pretty equal in terms of lack of resources, etc. But there’s a few reasons being stuck on a boat worries me. First off, I get sea sick. So the prospect of vomiting endlessly is pretty hellish. Second, in terms of threat, I’m much more afraid of what’s in the ocean than what’s in the snow. Much easier to imagine getting eaten by a shark than The Thing. Also, the ocean itself is a threat. It can capsize you, fill your boat, carry you somewhere you don’t want to go. Also, being someone who makes up stories incessantly means that I’m pondering all the ways and reasons I’m wrong right now, but I’m gonna stick with my selection for the moment.

4. What kind of collaboration would be a dream project for you? Who would be involved, and what would you be working on? That’s a tough question because I’ll admit, I’m a little bit afraid of artistic collaboration. There are some collaborations that have been proposed to me that I would love to participate in, but I don’t really know how to get started or what to expect from myself and others. I’m a heavy introvert, so it’s kind of a lot to figure out and I always feel awkward about it. I guess, if I was going to participate in a collaboration, it would have to be one where we were totally transparent with each other about our expectations and what we wanted to get out of it because otherwise I feel like I’d have no idea what I was doing. I think my favorite collaborations that I’ve done, though, are with a group of writer friends where we’ve done an “exquisite corpse” story. Someone would get us started, write a beginning and go until they got tired, then the next person would pick up where they left off, and we’d just write in order until the story is done. I did one of these with four other writers once and it was an absolute blast. I also did one with just one other writer and that was fun too, but we never finished. Both times it helped to shake me out of a slump I was in because something about the imposition of rules and structure in a sort of game format felt very freeing. Anything goes. Very “yes, and.”

5. What are some of your earliest memories of your love of horror? I have loved horror for as long as I can remember. Seriously. I don’t really remember being younger than about five years old. I think my literal earliest memory that’s actually mine and not just a story I’ve heard from my parents is this one: when I was a kid, my parents really didn’t put a lot of restrictions around what I watched. I’ve never asked them about it, but that was their choice, I guess. But when I was five years old, I saw A Nightmare on Elm Street, and the memory that’s stuck with me all these years is sitting on our couch in the living room of our house (it actually used to be the garage before the house burned and was remodeled, but when we fixed it up, we turned it into the living room) and I was wearing my plastic Ghostbusters Proton Pack with the little noise-maker trigger, and I’d blast Freddy with it every time he came on screen. For years and years, I thought my mom was the horror fan, and she really was, but looking back on it now, my dad was, too. I remember Pumpkinhead was one of his favorite movies, and I also remember watching all kinds of trashy horror movies on the weekends when we’d get home late from the country music show my dad used to run and watch “Up All Night” on USA. So I get it from both sides. But mom was the reader. She and I had that in common. So when I’d blown through all the Goosebumps and such, I started stealing her grown-up horror books like Stephen King, etc. Mostly King, but there were some others mixed in. I wish I had read more Clive Barker when I was young, but I’m working on catching up now.

6. What advice would you give someone who is just starting to write? There’s lots, but very little of it is about writing. That part’s got to come from inside you, and nobody can tell you how to do it. That’s kind of the point. But I can talk about a few things that have been important to me. First, embrace criticism, but know when and how to push back. This is a hard balance to find. All thoughtful criticism is a gift. If you get a personalized rejection, that’s a favor. If a beta reader tears your story to shreds, that’s a blessing. They are doing their level best to help you get better at your craft. But with that said, you don’t have to always listen to them, because most critique is opinion-based. Maybe they’ve made suggestions you vehemently disagree with. That’s fine. Thank them for the gift they’ve given you and just quietly don’t incorporate the feedback. Literally nobody says you have to. Second, get good at dealing with rejection. I was bad at it at first. Every rejection would make me want to give up or question my commitment. But now I understand what rejection is. It’s an opinion. And one person’s opinion at that. Every story in my collection was rejected multiple times. Many of them never found homes outside of my book. That’s okay. I kept trying, dressed them up, got them out there, and a lot of people have told me they like them. And more importantly I love those stories, and I believe in them. When you focus on what matters to you, the rejections hurt less. More practically, if your story gets rejected, take a minute to spruce it up again and send it back out. Same day if you can. Don’t dawdle on it. It changes rejection into hope, and the story will be more likely to eventually find a home. Lastly, and this is something a friend taught me, have fun. If you’re not having fun, there’s really no reason to do this. Nobody asked you to. You have no obligations unless it’s how you make your living and there’s contracts involved. So just have fun. Be weird. Find your writer family, and together just enjoy the hell out of making up words and letting other people read them. Angst never got anyone anywhere.

7. Do you have any tricks that work for you, when you’re suffering from writer’s block? Doing those exquisite corpse stories has shaken me out of it a couple times, but outside of that there’s really only one thing that has worked consistently. When I can’t write, I read. It sounds so cliché, I know, but words fuel more words, and the more I love what I’m reading, the more inspired I am to sit down and do the work. After I read “Bunny” by Mona Awad, which is an absolutely incredible book by the way, I sat down and blew through five-thousand words in a few days. And if you’re in that state of not being able to write and you’re reading to get out of it, DNF books like crazy until you find the one that lifts you up and sets you on fire. Struggling through a difficult, mediocre, or just badly-timed read will dig you further into the dirt. There’s a time and place for that kind of read, but it’s not when you’re already all stopped up.

8. What’s your idea of a perfect movie night? I love a very weird movie. The weirder the better. I do like to be able to follow a story, but outside of that, go nuts. My wife doesn’t really like horror all that much, but she and I do match up when it comes to very weird movies, so I guess my perfect movie night is popcorn, mixed drinks, Stacey and I on the couch watching something really, truly bizarre, picking it apart and laughing with each other, with the kids sound asleep in the next room. Yeah, that feels happy. I do love to watch horror, though, and I recently discovered that a friend of mine, someone I’ve known for years, loves horror movies, too. We never discussed it with each other before Covid! But now we get together once or twice a week, and we’ve built this list of movies—there’s over 130 of them now—that we either haven’t seen or want to watch together. We use an online picker wheel and spin it to see which ones we’re going to watch. We’ve seen some stuff neither of us would ever have picked this way like The VelociPastor (which was awesome!) and Sharks of the Corn (which was… not). Most recently we revisited Pumpkinhead which was a blast from the past for me. But yeah, beers, a zoom dial-in and an Amazon watch party have been awesome of late as well.

9. Are there any particular resources that have been really valuable to you, especially on your self-publishing journey? That’s a big question because there are a lot of resources. I didn’t always know I wanted to self-publish. And I don’t think I want to be exclusively self-published, even though there’s a lot to love about doing it that way. Honestly, I only self-published my book because I wanted something to point to when other writers asked what I’d written. I wasn’t having a ton of luck with the submission grind, so I only had maybe one or two stories out there. The Twitter horror community was very helpful, and continues to be so. I got a ton of information just from asking. When I first decided to publish my book, I reached out to someone I looked up to who had experience in the field, and that person gave me a boatload of great information that I used to build the base of what I intended to do. Then I looked for a cover artist (found one on fiverr), an editor, built a website which was easy because I work in tech for a living, asked for blurbs, and just asked a lot of people a lot of questions. Come to think of it, that’s probably the most important thing in self-publishing. People in the indie (or even not-so-indie) horror book world are generally pretty nice. Don’t ever be afraid to reach out (through the most professional channel possible, default to email) and ask for the help you’re hoping for. Ask your heroes. Ask your idols. You may get some no’s. You definitely will, in fact. But sometimes people will surprise you. That’s why the anthology I’m working on editing has writers like Gabino Iglesias, Hailey Piper, Laurel Hightower, Gemma Files, and Wendy N. Wagner in it, and a foreword by Laird Barron. I just asked.

10. As an author, what do you think are some of the most helpful things readers can do to help spread the word about work they love? Reviews, for sure. When you read a book, especially if you love it, leave as detailed a review as you can muster on every platform you’ve got. Goodreads and Amazon are great. But even if you don’t love the book, you should still review it. Your negative review could be someone else’s positive review. They are incredibly helpful, not only in helping people choose the book, but also in helping places like Amazon prioritize the book in the algorithm. Tweet about the book to your friends, post about it on Facebook, blog about it, suggest it to your friends and family, request it at your local bookstore or library. The list goes on and on, but most indie and self-published writers that I know count on word of mouth.

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