There is no mechanical way to get the writing done, no shortcut. The young writer would be a
fool to follow a theory. Teach yourself by your own mistakes; people learn only by error.”
It is rare that I read a book that makes me seriously reflect on a specific period in my life. I don’t mean a book that strikes me as reflective, I read enough literary fiction to often fall into the philosophical musings that comes with the genre. Instead, I mean a book that transports me so totally back to a specific period in my life that it feels almost metaphysical. So far this year I have read two books that did that: Stephen King’s HEARTS IN ATLANTIS and Mike Bockoven’s 2016 novel FANTASTICLAND.
The story of Bockoven’s titular theme park and the cliques that form within its apocalyptic walls reminded me of my own experiences, especially those from my early college years. I found myself wondering who would be who from that particular, inherently cliquey period in my life. I wondered who would have been my own personal Brock Hockney. Bockoven has a brilliant eye for people. The way they talk, behave, and see the world is so fully realized in FANTASTICLAND that, just like King’s HEARTS IN ATLANTIS, I found myself totally invested in the story of the Fantasticland disaster. Realism isn’t important to me, but feeling like the writer cares about his characters is, and Bockoven, more than anything else, cares about understanding his characters.
When I sat down to interview Bockoven, I quickly realized that his eye for nuance isn’t exclusive to fiction. Throughout our talk, he proved an insightful resource on writing, publishing, and telling a good story. Of course, I don’t have to tell you that. You’re here for the interview.
So, without further delay:
In Conversation with Mike Bockoven:
-To start with, tell us a little about yourself. Where you’re from, how you got started as a writer.
My name’s Mike, my first novel was published in 2016, which was FANTASTICLAND…I’d been a journalist for seven years when I first got out of college, that’s what I trained to do, and that industry sort of fell apart in a couple different ways. So, I was marketing director for a museum for a long time, now I work in Public Health, so I’ve bounced around a little bit but writing has always been something I’ve been interested in. I was always a big reader, always a big writer, and the fact that the first novel got published at all, just every single day I wake up and am still kind of shocked that it happened at all, much less a second novel and a third novel coming out soon. So I’m a book guy, horror guy, I love horror movies and all that sort of thing. I always like to tell people that I think I can understand art. If you put a Bergman film in front of me I think I can have a good conversation with you about it, but I’m not going to lie to you that my favorite movie is RETURN OF THE LIVING DEAD, you know? That’s where I come from [laughs]. So, that’s kind of where it started, and yeah, so far the train keeps going. Which is surprising to me every day.
-So tell us a little bit more about how you started in horror. Have you always been a horror fan, or did you come to it later in life? Are you one of the ones, like me ,who read Stephen King way too early?
Yeah, I love that tweet. The idea that every Gen X person read a Stephen King book a little too early, and I think that’s certainly true. I think I read IT at 13, which was maybe a little early for that. I trace it back a little further, when I was about seven years old I was left alone a lot as kids tended to be at that time, and we had like four VHS tapes two of them were the LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS musical and an ALFRED HITCHCOCK PRESENTS compilation, and I remember those really strongly. So much so that…I got a LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS TATTOO.
That’s sort of where I came from in terms of horror. It’s never been…a thing that I haven’t been at least a little interested in, and now in the age of streaming and more choices than you can possibly get to I’ll probably always end up with Shudder first or second on my list, you know?
-You mentioned FANTASTICLAND, and it’s your debut and probably your best known work right now. So, can you talk a little about the inspiration for it?
Totally. FANTASTICLAND came out in 2016, and, just to set the table a little bit, it’s an epistolary novel, which means its interview format…I’ve got a couple kids, my oldest is now in college, my youngest is fifteen, but when I started writing the book we’d just taken them to Disney…I think they were 11 and six at the time, and I remember distinctly looking around the Magic Kingdom and thinking to myself, “What could go wrong here?” The things that could go wrong there are legion [laughs]. That idea was kind of in the back of my head, and I get back to Nebraska where I live and I also do a lot of my thinking while listening to music on a treadmill. I’ll just kind of stare at a wall and try to distract myself from the pain I’m in, and a certain song came on that sort of triggered the idea of pirates running amok. I put that to the theme park, I borrowed, stole, from WORLD WAR Z, and that was kind of the synthesis of it, how it came about. Yeah if I ever meet Max Brooks I think I owe him a steak [laughs], but that was sort of where everything came from. I’m a discovery writer, so I don’t sit down and map the whole thing out, and that was one of the things that got me through and proved to me that I could write a novel in the first place, much less finish one and get it published, was the idea that at some point I was telling myself a story, right? I was trying to figure out how this was going to end, and then of course you have that amazing moment where you go, “Oh it would have been great if I’d gone and set this up,” and you go, “Well wait a second, I can go back and set this up,” and you really start to feel your power as a writer. Yeah I was able to take those ideas and kind of mash them into a great big ball that was that novel, and I put it out there, and it seems to have had legs. I mean it’s seven years old and it’s, well Gail Simone just read it and tweeted about it the other day. And it’s kind of still going, which is much much more than I ever hoped for.
-So, you said you’re a discovery writer, and FANTASTICLAND has so many interweaving pieces. How difficult did you find it to get it all interconnected? How long did it take you to write it?
I’m one of those people who…when I find something that I’m interested in I’ll run at it kind of hard. So, I would say FANTASTICLAND was a four to five month process. Most of my books take between two and five months to write. Then I might sit on my hands for a couple months and wait for inspiration to strike. Which is not a healthy way to do it, I have since learned. People who are really good at this, you know your Stephen Kings, will do it every day. Work on the craft, and I respect that. I wish that were me…I don’t have nearly that level of discipline or I guess dedication to the craft. When I find something that’s cool, that I think is cool, I will run at it and once I get it down, once that 80, 90 thousand words are down it’s just chipping away at it and getting it in the best shape possible. The creative part is always a lot of fun for me, so when you’re going back and finding those interconnected things and going, “Oh well, this would be cool here and this would fit here,” that’s a blast. I love the creative part, and am also deeply resentful of people who are good at the continuity, because it took like three, four drafts…to have it make any sort of sense. I am blessed with three or four just really fantastic beta readers who will say, “What are you even doing here?” and it’s like, I’m not sure [laughs], but we’ll figure it out and then we do and it works out great. I remember I had one beta reader in particular who was kind of helping me along as I went…and doing it that way was awesome because she changed the course of the ending. I had had a different ending in mind and she kind of yelled at me one day like, “You can’t end it like that it’s stupid, what are you doing?” and I went, yeah, we can have a sword fight. And it ended up being a little bit better. Yeah, it’s the sort of thing that takes a long time, but that initial push is my favorite part.
-Can you tell us a little about your general influences? What writers have inspired you, and who do you kind of pull from?.
I do a thing with reading, it’s less so now because I get a lot of requests to read stuff and that’s a lot of what I read now, but back when I was just reading for reading’s sake I’d do a fiction-nonfiction back and forth. So, one book will be fiction, one book will be nonfiction, and you take things from a lot of different places. One of the structures of FANTASTICLAND that I swiped was from Dave Cullen’s book on the Columbine shooting…the way he set it up, it’s a fantastic book, but the idea is that it was told basically in interviews…the end of the incident was the beginning of the book, and then it would bounce around a little bit and has some really brilliant interconnected parts to it. And the ending was just devastating, and I remember thinking, “that is a structure that I really like,” and I took elements of that for FANTASTICLAND.
In terms of people who have influenced me, there are a bunch. There are a bunch of people doing amazing, amazing work right now. My point in talking about that Columbine book was pulling your influences from everywhere would be my advice. Who I really dig on right now is…Joe Lansdale…he's a Texas writer who, man, Landsdale is so much fun. I just finished the third DRIVE IN book, and, man, that guy is out of his mind in the best possible way. You’re talking about existential stuff with this Texas-fried wit and it’s so good…of course I read Stephen King young. I read Clive Barker. Whenever I would read Clive Barker it’s like I distinctly remember having the experience where I’m only getting 60% of this, you know what I mean? It’s like, this guy is doing stuff that I’m not getting yet, and I guess I haven’t read Barker in maybe a decade, I should go back and… see if I’m picking up all the nuances that he was putting down, because he was all over the place in the best possible way…Seth Graham Jones does amazing stuff. Paul Trembley, I know he’s very much in the same camp as I am, I think he’s a science teacher during the day and then writes books at night, and it’s like, man I love that. I don’t know if you know Hailey Piper, I’ve recently gotten into Hailey Piper’s books and am enjoying those. NO GODS FOR DROWNING was really good.
-You do have an upcoming novel, KILLING IT. What can you tell us about it?
Oh yeah, I don’t mind going into it…You remember how people will compare FANTASTICLAND, just in plot, to LORD OF THE FLIES? People say, “Oh it’s LORD OF THE FLIES and BATTLE ROYAL,” and, eh, I don’t know if I’m nearly that literary or that I’m trying to be nearly that lofty. I might be trying to just make you go, “ew,” you know? That sort of thing. I’m more in the genre space, I guess is the way to put it. If you take that in mind, the easiest way to describe what’s going on in KILLING IT is THE SHINING in a comedy club…please don’t compare me to the best of Stephen King, [laughs] it’s not quite there. But the basic gist is there’s a comedy club that was built in kind of a bad space. A space where a lot of bad things happened. There’s an influence there, a supernatural presence, that influences the owner. The owner kind of goes crazy up top and does some violent things. All the comics who had performed that night are in the green room, which happens to be in the basement where the WIFI doesn’t run and phone calls don’t work…so they’re stuck in the basement, the crazy guy’s up top and game on. That’s the concept for it, and the thing that was fun about it, I try to, when I come at a novel, say okay, what’s the interesting thing that I’m going to try to do here, right? With FANTASTICLAND it was the epistolary stuff, with this one all the characters, in between the chapters, get their stand up sets, and I love stand up. I’m not good at it, I’ve performed stand up maybe twice in my life, which is probably two times too many [laughs], and it was fun to go and try to come up with a comedy set in somebody’s voice and then go back to them in the midst of a fighting for your life sort of situation. So that was the fun part. It was a good time, and I was able to tie the last stand up bit into something that I thought was really cool, so that was the thing that got me excited about it. So yeah, that’s the novel, my shorthand too is that if you’re a fan of stand up comedy and severe eye trauma you’ll have some fun.
-So, I want to pause the questions that I sent you. Answer as much of this as you feel comfortable with, but I’ve been listening to Sunyi Dean and Scott Drakeford’s podcast THE PUBLISHING RODEO that’s all about different aspects of the publishing industry, so can you talk a little bit about what your publishing journey was? Because you’re not necessarily on this cycle that a lot of newer authors get on, where they release their first book and then they’re trying to get the second book out a year later, building towards this almost immediate expectation of going full time. So could you talk a little about your journey?
The thing I tell new authors is that if you get a novel on your laptop to where you can print out and hold it, you’re already in the upper 3%, because so many people say they can write. So if you can hold something physical, congratulations you did something fantastic. I mean you really hit a home run, just the fact that you got something you can hold, right? I was okay with that being the end goal. I just wanted to have a couple books on the bookshelf with my name on them and I didn’t care if I had to self-publish them. But I got some good feedback on FANTASTICLAND and decided to go through the query process. The query process, where you get a literary agent, is intentionally awful and soul crushing, right? It sucks, it’s no fun, I am glad I never have to do it again, at least I hope I never have to do it again [laughs], because it is intentionally meant to take someone who is hopeful and take all that hope away piece by piece by piece. The thing that I tell people is that…I got a rejection letter the day FANTASTICLAND came out. Which is great, you know? Like, I think I still have that rejection letter here somewhere. It’s like, yeah okay, go ahead and reject me [laughs], but that book came out, got a decent run, and of course at that point my brain is like, “I can write whatever I want, I’m a genius,” you know? I got a little full of myself, and put out a second novel that could’ve used a couple more drafts, a couple more ideas. My editor ended up leaving [the publisher] in the middle of it due to a lay off thing. So, my second book didn’t do as well. Which is fine, it happens. I like that book and I’m glad that I wrote it. There’s some good stuff in there, but it didn’t get the edit it needed…So I just kind of kept writing, and [I finished] KILLING IT before the pandemic, and it’s just coming out. Took a while to get it sold. Which is fine, and I’ve just come to accept that with this industry there is some talent involved, but you’ve got to be lucky. The right person’s got to see your thing at the right time, and god that sucks for some talented people, because there are people who work harder than me who are more talented than I am, and I’m on my third book and they might not get their first and that sucks. Luck plays a part in it, and I’ve just been extraordinarily lucky is the truth of the matter, and I get some people who will write a book and say, “Can you help me?” I can tell you what I did, and I can give you that bitter little pill and I can read your book and say you’re great and say you got to hold this that’s better than 97% of people who want to write a book, but to get to your third novel, I think there’s just luck involved. That sucks, but it’s what I’ve found.
-Absolutely, and a lot of things, and this is from the outside from someone who’s published a handful of short stories and is in the editing process of a manuscript, but what I’ve found is that the right editor has to be to be in the right mood on the right day in the right sort of environment with the right book. I mean it just can be a series of happenstances that leads to a book getting published.
Yeah, I think you’re absolutely right. If one tumbler goes and then another tumbler goes and then another, then the lock opens…Survivor’s guilt is the wrong term, but I feel guilty because there are better people working harder than me who haven’t had my success, and of course then I went out and like my second book “Oh I can throw anything at it!” and since FANTASTICLAND worked they were like, yeah, we’ll take whatever you got. And it was the first thing I got, and you know, I was rightfully humbled by that and if other people can learn from what I did, figure out who you are, figure out your voice…learn from my mistakes, and figure out what you like and stick to it and see if you can build yourself a name.
-One thing I’d like to get your opinion on is the expectation of realism in horror. A lot of the criticisms for FANTASTICLAND I’ve seen are talking about the story seeming unbelievable. I don’t necessarily agree with that, but it is also a horror/thriller novel, so could you talk a little about how important realism was to you when you were writing?
Yeah, totally. To address FANTASTICLAND specifically, then I’ll get at your bigger question, that is a totally valid complaint, the fact that things happened real quick. I mean, I tried to set up the idea that there were multiple elements that fed into it. You know, there was fear and uncertainty, and then an inciting moment that led people to think that violence was on the table, you know, around every corner, but A: I might not have done that perfectly and B: If you don’t buy it you don’t buy it. That’s just fine. I think I might have a slightly darker take on human nature than a lot of people. I think honest to god that there are a lot of people who, if they knew the consequences were removed, would take great joy in hurting people. I think they’re living next door to you, I think they’re right around the corner, I think the second they know they can get away with it there will be a lot of bad things happening. Which is why I think that strengthening society is a good idea in general, but, that being said, that’s FANTASTICLAND, so if you didn’t buy that you have my total blessing to not buy that, you know? [laughs] That’s cool, but in terms of realism, one of the biggest horror influences I’ve had recently…[is] the movie THE GREEN ROOM. I love that, and the reason I love that movie is because the violence is brutal and consequential. Those two things in particular, and that’s what I try to do in all the horror stuff that I write…I don’t want to draw a negative example but the last SCREAM movie had someone stabbed 20 times and then walks out like it was nothing. Like it was a bee sting. I like my violence brutal and consequential, and so in the next novel I’ve got a couple of bits where I’m like, yeah that worked out really well, and I like it when people are fighting against exhaustion and pain and fear and all those things. That classic Stephen King quote that I’m going to butcher where it’s like, “Introduce someone to people they like and then let the monsters out,” and I really like realism in that sense, and I hope FANTASTICLAND, and I haven’t heard this as a criticism, I hope that people felt that violence in FANTASTICLAND. Like when, earlier on, not a spoiler but there’s a bit where a guy's hand gets cut off, and then the rest of the novel is people dealing with it, right? I really like that in horror, and I remember taking that from GREEN ROOM and just saying they did that really well. That guy got stabbed and he felt that for the rest of the movie, you know?
-For whatever it’s worth, I am the exact age of the characters of FANTASTICLAND. I am the age they would be now. In 2016 I was around the same age as Hockney. It 100% feels realistic to me having been in early college at that time.
Oh man, yeah [laughs] I’m glad I’m a little further up man you know? I’m 45 right now, so I’m glad I got to watch from afar.
-Talking about craft a little more, what is your editing process? Because you said you’re a discovery writer which typically means more editing, and you mentioned three or four drafts. Do you do extensive edits or do you kind of chip away at it reading over and over? Do you involve a lot of other readers?
Chipping away is the best way to describe it. By the time I’ve submitted a book to my agent it’s probably on draft three or four. I have a very good, solid group of beta readers that are just basically friends and acquaintances of mine, and the thing that’s cool is that I stumbled into a group that is exactly what I need. I’ve got someone in there who is encouraging and who will push me to finish stuff. I’ve got someone in there who will tell me flat out if something doesn’t work. I’ve got a librarian friend who is just merciless. Every time I get an edit back from him I’m like, okay, let’s do this, and it’s so valuable but it’s so painful [laughs]. He’s gonna come at it with knives out and just ready to be merciless about the things that don’t work, and so I’ve been able to cultivate that and they know how much the stuff that they do is just invaluable to helping me out. Once that’s in place, once I’ve submitted it to them and it’s in a place that’s pretty good, then I submit it to my agent…sometimes I submit it to my agent before I get it to that point [laughs]. I’ve got one right now that’s got major third act problems that I really like, but I need to rewrite it. I lost the thread about 7/8ths into the book. I need to go back and write like a third of it, but that’s discovery writing for you. Sometimes it’ll take you in weird directions…Just multiple drafts, multiple times reading it, and then really good friends that I trust to help me and tear it apart and know that I still love them at the end of the day [laughs].
-One more side-tracked question. Back to FANTASTICLAND, I’d be remiss if I didn’t ask this, there is a rumor that there was at one point a planned spin-off about the Warthogs. Is there any merit to that?
There is. I posted that on social media once, because I was excited about where it was going, and it might have been a bit premature. The basic gist is, again to set the table, there’s some strange masked figures in FANTASTICLAND roaming around, doing some terrible stuff. I’ve got an idea mapped out in my head, and actually, to be honest, I’ve written a couple different things that were FANTASTICLAND adjacent. One of them that I kind of liked, but my beta readers didn’t was a different Hurricane Sadie story.Same hurricane, different story, different characters, different place, and that might come to fruition someday. There’s some good stuff in there, but overall it’s a bit sweaty so I need to figure out how to make it a little bit more organic [laughs], but I have been trying for years. I know the story, and I know where it’s going to go, and I haven't been able to quite get at it in terms of how it relates to everything else. So, like most writers, I’ve got way too many ideas. I’ve got a drawer full. I could write four direct sequels to FANTASTICLAND with the ideas I have, but I don’t know that any of them would A: work and B:’ve got a story that makes sense in my head, but is it better than what you have in your head right now? Maybe not. Probably not. More specifically, definitely not [laughs]. So, it might, I’m coming to the conclusion that it would be an exercise in letting your audience down if I just went and told the story that I think it could be, but that being said, there’s been a little bit of interest in filming FANTASTICLAND. I’m not going to go too much into that, but there’s been a little bit of interest in that, and so I can see a world where FANTASTICLAND becomes a filmed property and then someone pins me down and says, “okay what’s the story,” and then we’ll see what happens. So, it’s not outside the realm of possibility. I’ve talked way around that, sorry [laughs].
-No, that’s great. I just knew that if I went back to my writing group not having asked they might have kicked me out [laughs]. So, the last big question is, and you’ve touched a little bit on this, but what kind of advice for writers who are currently trying to break in?
Okay first off, if you are writing, good. Keep doing that. You didn’t sit down and start writing because you didn’t want to. You started writing because you were inspired, because you wanted to, because you might have something you need to get out there, and I cannot encourage you enough to get it out there. Even if it’s just a book with your name on it sitting on your shelf that six other people have read, great! Fantastic! You are ahead of 97% of other people who think they have a book in them. It’s a big deal to hold that manuscript. That is an achievement. So, after that, in the querying trenches, first off, you have all my sympathy in the world. It is a shitty thing to have to do, and it’s gotten more complicated over time. If I have two bits of advice about the query process, because I’ve walked one or two people through it, it’s read the submission guidelines and then read the submission guidelines [laughs]. I know a couple agents who basically that’s the way they operate. They’ll put something arcane or just something in the guidelines. It’s like the “no brown MnMs” for Van Halen, and the reason they did that is that they wanted to know if you’re reading the guide, right? So, follow the submission guidelines, because they’ll take it and they’ll put you, no matter how good you are, they’ll put you in a pile off to the side if you don’t follow the guidelines. That’s the number one and number two and number three thing that you need to do to give yourself the best chance. Do what you love, write what you love, write it with passion, write it with gusto, write it with all the power that you can muster and then pray to the gods for good luck, because I wish I had better news that it wasn’t luck, but there you go. I am one lucky guy, that I get to talk to people like you, that I get to be part of the horror community, that I get to have people write and say I love your book every day. It’s one of the things that just keeps me upright and punching straight ahead. It’s so cool when people get to read your book, and I wish that for everybody, and I don’t know that everybody will get there, but I’m not special at all, so take your shot.
Conclusions: A Pirate Never Quits
“Do what you love, write what you love, write it with passion, write it with gusto, write it with all the power that you can muster and then pray to the gods for good luck,” are perhaps some of the most important words I’ve heard in my fledgling career as a writer. Bockoven’s publishing journey, like so many others, shows that there is really no way to make things go your way as a writer, so it’s best to just write what you love and do it for the art.
When I interviewed Harlan Guthrie of MALEVOLENT some months back, he pointed out that perhaps the most important thing a writer can do is to stay humble and focus on the story. Bockoven echoed that same sentiment. Writing is something personal, and querying is, by intentional design, impersonal and exhausting. So maybe it’s better if you just focus on the art. Write with gusto.
If that’s what gave Bockoven FANTASTICLAND, hey, it’s good enough for me.
Thanks so much to Mike Bockoven for taking the time to talk to us.
You can find Mike at: