Brian B. Ewing: “ When writing, whether it be a short story, a standalone novel, or a series, I tend to envision it in a movie or television format. ”
I’d like to welcome Brian B. Ewing to the BLOG. A self-professed, “dark-humour, word-vomit enthusiast,” Brian is the author of The Reels series of Urban Thriller novels: Oracle, Nomad, and Brimstone. He is also an accomplished short story writer, such as the dark science-fiction tale Obsidian and the urban legends mystery Mutiny. Brian was born in upstate New York but raised in Saratoga Springs until 7, when he moved with his family to Arizona. He still lives in “the Grand Canyon State,” but now with his wife, four kids, and more than a few family dogs at any given time. In this interview, Brian discusses his affection for gritty realism in thriller stories, how the narrative’s tone dictates the level of sex and violence present, and the importance of diversity and inclusivity in contemporary fiction.
My reviews of Brian’s work can be found in earlier blog posts.
Who or what inspired you to start writing, and when did you know it was time to move beyond writing for personal pleasure toward the intimidating world of publishing? How did you handle any nerves or anxiety about showcasing your work to a global audience?
I have always been into movies and TV shows. I remember once, when I was in third or fourth grade, we had an assignment to create a story. Most kids had turned in a page or two, and I turned in something ridiculous, like 12-15 pages. I don’t remember the exact movie, but I do remember the story I wrote essentially was a novelization, and then the second half was what I felt should have happened after those credits rolled. After high school, I took a few college English courses and a creative writing course. Even then, I never went into those courses with the intention of writing professionally. I just enjoyed it.
Most people don’t get writing jobs that pay mortgages right off the bat, so any of those ideas went to the back burner while I tried to build a family life and pay bills. It was in 2019 that I was really itching to create a story that I kept having ideas for. I had many variations for the story and spent months writing away. While I never really knew it was going to be something I would finish and publish, I just wanted to have something for myself that I created and enjoyed at the end of the day. In 2020, when everyone was sent at my work to remote positions at the beginning of the pandemic, it saved me about three hours of commuting a day, so I knew if I were to ever have the opportunity to buckle down and focus on my writing, it was during this period. Over the next five months, I wrote and re-wrote numerous sections of Oracle, which I was really proud of and surprised by the end result once I finished it.
To answer your question about being nervous or anxious about showcasing my work, I probably should have been more nervous about the situation. I didn’t know what direction to go with it regarding what I would do once completed. I worked in an office with an older co-worker who loved books and stories and was retiring. He knew what I had been up to and offered to get his eyes on my work. Then, there was my wife, who, while probably unsure I could even string together an entire story before this, was very supportive then and now. Between my co-worker, my wife, and some high praise from the professor at the time for that creative writing class I had taken, I felt confident and that my support system was intact. It could have sat on my laptop forever once completed and just been mine, and I probably would have been just as happy. But, after discovering people really did enjoy following my characters’ journey, I’m glad I drove a bit harder and pushed myself to publish it.
So far, your published work is distinctly in the Thriller genre. One could even classify your “A Story From The Reels” series as Dark Urban Fantasy if we regard Tom Sisto, your main protagonist, and his preternatural “gift” as a defining factor in expanding its genre classification. Before composing your first novel, did you know you wanted to write a story with classic thriller motifs rather than explicit horror? Was it a conscious endeavour to write “crime fiction” over more “slasher” fare? Using a serial killer as an antagonist, which you often do, has to be a tightrope walk for an author to decide how far to push the envelope. I know you’re a horror fan; we’ve talked often enough about it. Is it hard to find that perfect balance between, say, Bosch and Silence of the Lambs?
To me, explicit horror can be a powerful tool, but if that is the main substance of the story, I can get bored. I love a good thriller, and whether it is more of a whodunit or a character study of opposing sides of the situation, you need to give the characters enough realism and individuality to where anyone reading can sit and go, “Oh yeah, I know someone like them.”
Pushing the envelope is a fine line. You can definitely lose those readers who are just chomping for a nice little thriller if you go too graphic or too vulgar. You can also find the people on the other side of that spectrum who wanted more and felt disappointed. The level of how dark you want to go has to match the story’s tone overall, as well as where you’re willing to take your protagonist. At the end of the day, you’re taking a journey with your main characters. In the A Story From the Reels series, I have safeguards in place for Tom Sisto. He has already been through hell and back before we even met him. He has a very dark humour to his outlook on situations, allowing me to take him further at times and let him come out of it on the other side in one piece.
I love that you used the two examples, Bosch and The Silence of the Lambs! I am a huge Michael Connelly fan. His writing is something that definitely influenced me over the years. However, being a realist, that world of realistic police detective storytelling is something that he owns in the industry right now. You can make an effective thriller, but if your goal is to tell a grounded story and give the audience a taste of something that could be 100% genuine, Connelly will probably do it better than you with over thirty years of research, interviewing, background, etc. I wanted to take elements of writing styles I admire and put them in a blender to create a story that resonates with me. In the end, all writing is supposed to really be for yourself, isn’t it?
How do you navigate the placement, context, and degree of sex and violence in your work? Both exist within your novels to varying degrees, but you showcase the violence more viscerally and frequently than the sexual encounters. Is this intentional? Do you feel excessive sex depictions distract from the core story, even altering the feel of the work into the sub-genre of “Erotic Thriller?” Do you worry that sexually charged narratives are taken less seriously than straightforward nail-biters?
It’s not an intentional act on my part, at least consciously. I think, to me, sex can enhance a story or distract a story. I’m not opposed to including more sex if the overall storyline can get driven forward by it. I think there are many great sexually charged narratives out there that are extremely effective, but I don’t know if Sisto has gotten a case that would bring that world into his stories. When writing, whether it be a short story, a standalone novel, or a series, I tend to envision it in a movie or television format. With the Sisto and the Reels series, each book is like a television season. You can have a thread continue throughout the series, but each book should have a beginning, middle, and end and hold a similar tone. That isn’t to say that one day, Tom Sisto won’t get wrapped up in an underground sex crime story.
Working in the Thriller genre, you know that pacing and creating tension are pivotal to the story’s success. We all love the inevitable big “AHA!” moment at the end, but getting there–the thrills and chills–makes or breaks a novel in this genre. How do you go about accomplishing this feat? Do you plot your significant moments of “terror” and “revelation” beforehand and work the tools of suspense around them? Or do you write with a general idea of where you want to go and organically feel the anxiety and anticipation, placing yourself in the positions of writer and reader, working it out as you go along?
I constantly ask myself if I should lock in a particular process when going about these stories, but I honestly haven’t solidified one specific route. I always start a new story on a notepad and pen with just scribbles of ideas and certain scenes I clearly envision. I attempt to use those starting points to figure out what theme I want to have prevalent for the story, then try to get a few bullet points of key events written down before I start. If I can get the ending down as well, fantastic. I have learned that having the ending at the story’s conception can help drive the narrative, but the ending you start with can change by the end once you get into the nitty-gritty of it.
It’s a very common statement to hear the phrase Your hero is only as strong as the villain you pit them against. I agree to an extent. The first story in the Reels series was solely from Sisto’s perspective. You were on a journey with someone learning how to play the game created by a killer. I don’t think that the direction I took was restrictive by any means, but as we all do, we grow and want to further explore. You probably noticed in book two that we’re not just graced with Sisto’s perspective but also the killer’s. I think it’s essential to create three-dimensional characters. Luckily, in a series, you can slowly build out your side characters, which allows you more time to focus on the immediate story and give more page time to the protagonist and antagonist. As the series continues, if you stay diligent in providing your side characters with little bits of personality, by the end, you will have a rich universe of characters.
Another observation I keep in the forefront is that a villain never sees themselves as a villain. Either that or something drove them to those depths, and they relish in the path of destruction, finding their actions justified. If you can write them in a way that you don’t always agree with their choices but can understand them—the investment in the story amplifies.
While a book may hide the villain throughout, some books give you the villain upfront. You still need to have those “AHA!” moments, like you said. This is where you can build around your character’s universe. There are no rules to how you present your story. You can have the unexpected occur, and it doesn’t have to fit any format you have read before. On the other hand, you can go in hard with a trope, but if you make it your own and tweak it slightly, you can still achieve that feeling of excitement and thrill that readers of the genre anticipate. I enjoy testing these limits and styles with each new book.
In Nomad: A Story From The Reels, you seamlessly and cleverly incorporate LGBTQ characters into the novel without the need for their sexuality or self-identity to be justified. They exist and have a purpose within the narrative sans overwrought emotional baggage they must work through before entering the story’s crux. Regarding the topic of queer content in your work, what prompted you to consider using LGBTQ characters and to do so in a way that is, in my opinion, creatively unexpected and defies stereotypes?
People in the LGBTQ community exist. Not putting someone from that community into our work would eventually be more off-putting to the story than including them, right? Without giving anything away, the inclusion was simply expanding and building the universe that Sisto surrounds himself in. I’m glad you enjoyed the added character and appreciated the approach to their introduction and execution of the story. You may have read in the series a moment where Sisto is giving Detective Bell a hard time for being an old man, or maybe one where he’s making a dumb comment to one of the gay characters stereotyping what society typecast them as, or another moment associating a redhead to the killer doll Chucky, things like that. You would also notice, I hope, that none of those situations are malicious. I never go into a character and desire to offend people; I don’t think too hard about including or excluding things from these books. Eventually, EVERYONE will be included, and no one will be off limits to Sisto’s observations or comments, nor should they be. If you don’t want to exclude anybody, you must include them at some point, right?
The character of tech whiz and urban “cool girl” Ama Navarro [last name a nod to Dave Navarro? :)] is Indigenous, the child of a Spanish-European father and a mother of Sioux-Indian descent. As the “The Reels” series progresses, you further delve into Ama and her maternal grandmother’s culture, especially the spiritual side. These women become a pivotal support network for Sisto, even using aspects of their cultural beliefs and practices to provide insight into his “gift” and its purpose. What advice would you give a writer attempting to navigate the potentially tricky path of respectfully broadening cultural diversity in their work?
First and foremost, we are fiction writers. Unless you’re trying to get knowledge of a particular group of people out there to the world, take some key facts from your research and sprinkle them in with your own thoughts to drive the story. The story is the end-all, be-all. If you find a fact interesting, add it to the story if it makes sense. If you add it to the story just to have flare, that is when you have done the character and the culture a disservice. Like you said, and you nailed it, by the way, this element was brought into the storyline to help Sisto learn a little more about himself and allow him to lick his wounds when he falls throughout the course of the story.
Bottom line, if you include diversity, use it. Don’t state it and then let it fall by the wayside. However you end up using it is up to you, but there’s a very real term that my daughters like to use, and it is FOMO: (the) fear of missing out. Everyone wants to be included, and we live in a world where we are so integrated at this point that it does not make sense to not put those situations or characters into your story and use them to colour the world you’re presenting. As far as Ama’s last name goes, Navarro was one of the names I found when researching common Spanish surnames and could have subconsciously stood out to me because of Dave Navarro, but it wasn’t an intentional homage to the man.
I can’t talk enough about how much I love the covers for all three novels in your “The Reels” series. They’re simply dynamic, especially the use of colour. My attraction to the artistic quality of the covers caught my eye, leading me to purchase Oracle. How important is the cover selection process to you, and did you have a hand in creating yours? Do you think a cover defines a book, inhibiting or enhancing its appeal to potential readers?
I was VERY lucky to find the artist that did my covers. When the idea of writing this story got closer to actually being published, I saw many free cover creators. I knew I wanted to have a theme in my series and a uniqueness that would stand out on the bookshelves. I spent days searching sites and found a designer with some work in his portfolio that I was drawn to. There were some thriller book covers I thought had a similar look to what I was going for, and I reached out. They were very responsive, took my ideas (I had many), and created a few variations. I definitely put them through the wringer on the first book, having them completely change the look and feel a few times until I felt like that’s the cover—and that is Sisto and his story. Then, the designer knew I wanted to carry a similar look to the first for the second and third books so they could identifiably be associated with the same series.
I think covers have become less defining for books in general, but as I’ve stated, I grew up with a love for movies and television. When I write or even read my stories, I envision them in my head, and I very much wanted to have a movie poster feel for the covers as we went through that process.
What is the best and worst advice you’ve ever received regarding writing or publishing? Furthermore, drawing from your own experiences and your “learned lessons,” what advice would you give other writers looking to tackle the Thriller genre or just writing in general?
You will get a ton of “Nos” when shopping for literary agents or publishers for your book. You may get feedback, you may get nothing. The biggest piece of advice I can give is to just keep pushing and don’t give up. If you have a story that you feel is worth spending the time to write, and you want it out for yourself, then do it. If you’re only interested in publishing to get rich, I highly recommend you re-assess why you’re writing. There are many faster ways to get a quick buck.
One really good piece of feedback I got when submitting was from one literary agent who took the time to reply. She stated professionally what she liked and what she wanted more of, which was helpful criticism. She recommended a book—which I bought; I LOVE to look at it throughout my writing process. The book is called The Emotion Thesaurus. I’m not nearly as verbose in my vocabulary as some writers. That book definitely has been a good resource during the second and third drafts of my stories.
What book on the nightstand or in your eReader are you currently devouring?
I currently have two books I’m reading. I do a lot of driving, so while on the road, I’ve been listening to the newest Lincoln Lawyer series audiobook by Michael Connelly called Resurrection Walk. It’s the seventh book in the series, and over time Connelly has blended his universe of characters together, so while it is a Mickey Haller book, we do get some time with Harry Bosch from the Bosch series as well. The writing is more grounded than I could ever duplicate, but it’s done with such finesse that the story is enthralling from start to finish, as are most of his books.
The second book I’m reading at home is a physical copy of Stephen King: On Writing. It was a birthday gift from my mom a few months back, and it’s been a fun read. King is another icon in the industry, but this inclusion of his more personal side is fascinating to me. Before this, I had just finished King’s latest novel, Holly. Observing the love he has for this particular protagonist, starting way back as a side character in Mr. Mercedes and growing into the woman she’s become, has been fantastic. I look forward to the next story involving her.
What does the future hold for author Brian B. Ewing? Do you see an eventual end to “The Reels” series, retiring Tom Sisto, or are you still brimming with exciting storylines for him? Do you have plans to crossover into writing other genres, like Horror or Sci-Fi? Is there a Dark Urban Romance somewhere inside you?
I love many of the cousin genres that our friend, the thriller, dips its toes in. Currently, we do have a fourth Reels book moving forward. This one will be Sisto’s most in-depth and personal story yet and will use elements built into his universe throughout the series. What I love about these characters is that we get to follow them on their journeys with each new book. Most of them tend to grow and learn from events they experience in the previous books. It’s art imitating life in that way. The person you are at thirty is not the same person you were at eighteen. While I could and may continue to write stories for Tom Sisto throughout my life, I will try to let him rest a little after this one.
I had the time last year to create a fun short story, which I put out free on Wattpad.com. It was called Obsidian and follows a new lead character named Davis Russell. This story has more of a dark science-fiction underline to it. I grew up watching horror and sci-fi movies with my cousins, courtesy of my Aunt, a spectacular woman who broke down the sometimes visually disturbing aspects of movies. She explained them to us so we could continue to, say, enjoy the rest of the film after an alien disembowels somebody, ha! Being my first real dive into more sci-fi ground, I learned a lot, but it still has the feel and pace of a thriller.
There’s a third project I have a very, very rough outline of that I’m excited to focus on after the new fourth Reels book. I don’t want to dive too deep into the story as I’m still writing down concepts and bullet points for it, but I do have an ending envisioned already, so it’s just about building around that idea. I can say it will have a few different points of view, one of a detective and another of a man in prison. There’s more than meets the eye in both of their situations.
Thank you, Brian, for discussing your work and writing process with me and exhibiting such passion for the Thriller Genre. As someone who writes in the Queer Thriller Genre, it’s exciting to see another author’s approach to writing dark suspense stories. I eagerly await the fourth installment of The Reels series, and I, and I hope those reading this, will be sure to watch out for future additions to your Wattpad.
Brian’s work can be purchased online at Amazon, Barnes & Noble and Powell’s City of Books. Read his short stories on wattpad.