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Messy Business: Author Interview with Kevin Berg (ANTS IN MY BLOOD)

Hi Kevin, you have a new book coming out: Ants in My Blood. When’s the release?

Hi Jason, it’s a collection of eighteen short stories that will be released March 3rd—but readers can already pre-order a copy.

The title suggests body horror: things like contagion, invasion, mutation, or disease. Are the short stories Cronenbergian? While he’s best known for directing the 1986 movie production The Fly, this dude’s spent about forty years tugging at people’s senses.

There’s a bit of everything in my book: something to make everyone smile, I hope—or, as the title suggests, squirm. Like a lot of my writing, most are rooted somewhere in reality—but then they’re fed and exaggerated until they grow into twisted fiction. The title story probably isn’t the most gruesome. The violence and gore may be in your face one moment—then a character suffers and suddenly grabs your heartstrings … as the darkness overwhelms and swallows you the next.

Cronenberg is a master at this. I’ve seen people cringe while watching his films … though they can’t look away. I’ve also witnessed the most heartbreaking moments lead to an explosion of sobs. The warmth of those tears shows me the range of emotion his work can pull someone through. That’s an accomplishment for any artist. I can only hope to achieve that someday. Perhaps this book is a step in the right direction.

Are the stories connected?

No, the stories are unrelated. But I feel they work well together, so they ended up in a collection. There’s a lot of myself in this one, maybe more than usual. And the emotions are really raw.

So like any other healthy human being I dialed it back a bit, and laced it with dark humor. Right?

When you go deep and dark like this, do your family and friends side-eye you? What do you tell them?

2018 was a rough fucking year. Man, I think I almost fucking lost it. Work sucked, bills sucked, money sucked, politics sucked, traffic sucked, health sucked; people in general sucked. Everything sucked.

So I packed up the family and moved to the opposite side of the globe. I quit my job—sold or donated everything that didn’t fit into our allocated suitcases and carry-ons, and just fucking walked away. Probably pissed some friends and family off, but my wife is happy and our daughters love it here.

At least in this part of the world people don’t realize when I’m losing my mind: everyone just smiles. The wife and kids just write it off to the heat, I think. Plus, I keep really busy on the farm, sweating out the demons during the day; reading and writing at night.

But as far as my writing goes? While my Mom read one book, my family in the states doesn’t read my stuff. I consider Mom a win—even though she tells people to “only read the first two parts,” since the third part was too unsettling for her.

That’s intense. Where did you move from, where did you go?

From the snow to the sun, basically. I’d been learning the Muay Thai fighting method in the states for a couple years. So I first visited Thailand—where this type of fighting originated, sometime in late 2009 or early 2010. I wanted to get the whole “kicking tree trunks with my shins” and “punching heavy bags packed with sand experience.” Painful, but whatever it took to make me a better fighter. Something about the immediacy of pain is refreshing anyway.

I stayed a couple months. But when I went back home I couldn’t take it. I got the education visa to learn the language in Thailand, then ended up teaching English in the north-country. That’s where I met my wife—and where our first daughter was born.

But it’s tough having the two sides of the family on opposite sides of the world … I want my girls to know all their relatives, not just their pictures.

So we went to Colorado in 2013—and got stuck there for five years. Our second daughter was born in the states.

Since our Mad Exodous, the four of us have been here almost a year now.

That’s one hell of a move. Glad it’s working out for you. Will your new life in Southeast Asia soften you up?

I’ve thought about that quite a bit. I don’t think it will soften me up. But I am hoping that the two lives work with each other to give my stories a unique style. There’s less to be angry about. But there’s also five thousand years of civilization and culture here to infuse into my writing. In fact, while many tales in this collection were written in Colorado, Ants In My Blood contains stories from the rice paddies here as well—so you can’t hide from pain and loss anywhere.

Is writing and reading the dark stuff a release—a safe way to experience life’s horrors? What drives you to these stories?

I think it is. I’ve always loved reading. But when I started writing a few years ago it was supposed to be for my own benefit. Therapeutic even.

Maybe that’s why my first book Indifference was so angry. By the time I actually wrote it, my shrink was “no longer speaking with me.”

Oh well, it helped me voice some shit that bugged me. There’ s a piece of me in all the characters—and the book illustrates the point that we all need to be more concerned with others—while also telling a violent story.

Since then Daddy Monster was released … but hasn’t received near as many eyes. That story is about when nightmares come home—fears, loss, pain and fucking work—but the importance of family over everything else.

That story came about after my daughter saw a shadow walk across the hall and into a room when I was at work in Colorado. The commute was like an hour or more each way, so I got to listen to plenty of audiobooks. But the job was too far away from my family. Stupid ghosts.

The title story for this new collection actually came after our big move back to Thailand. This place is paradise to many, including bugs. Some poisonous, some just painful. Like fire ants.

When we first moved back, it’s like they forgot we weren’t tourists, our blood packed with greasy fast food and sugary sodas—we were walking buffets.

Maybe being away five years was too long.

The mosquitoes and ants were everywhere and constant. Waking up in the morning was always a comparison of swollen bites. Who got more?

Once they’d drained all the hamburgers and breakfast burritos from my veins, and my daughters stopped waddling around like puffy pineapples, the bugs seemed to back off some. The ants are still here—but now they walk around us to get the sweet blood that just hopped of the tour bus down the street.

But seriously, each of the stories in the collection has a backstory—inspiration found in infected ant bites—or the bubbling skin burned under the sun while at the farm. So some of these story orgins are included in the book’s Afterword. A small bonus for the readers.

Do you now feel like a “local”?

The village is tucked up north near the border with Laos—and is actually called the Land of Smiles. Southeast Asia is a lot warmer than Colorado’s Rockies. But the rice fields offer the same kind of quiet you expect during winter in the Rockies. It’s peaceful here. Calm.

We live the life of locals. But I will always be an outsider, a permanent tourist. At least I don’t wear sun hats and fucking fanny packs, man. I guess socks with sandals is really a thing, too. A bunch of people stomp through here like that, but at least they’ve left home—if only for a few days.

The villagers knew me and my family already, since most of them are my wife’s relatives—and have I told you how much ass my daughters kick? They’re dual citizen superstars and I’m the goofy guy that’s always clutching my Kindle: the dad with the dumb jokes only my older daughter will laugh at.

I’m not religious at all. But their faith doesn’t concern me. The women are appreciated, the children show respect. The atmosphere here is also better for my blood pressure, I think. Although the spicy food still fucks with my gut sometimes.

But really it’s all about respect, you know? Local is just a mindset. I don’t go yelling at people that don’t speak English in hopes that they might actually understand if I say it louder. I learned their language instead.

That’s so cool, Kevin. What’s your writing approach? Do you typically pants away—or do you plan a book like a military campaign?

I’ve tried both. Indifference was pantsing it, though I had the general plot in my head. But I outlined and planned Daddy Monster thoroughly before I began. For shorts, it varies. But if I know where the story is going before I begin, it feels easier to get there. Doesn’t mean a story won’t change along the way though, so I use a combination of the two.

Let’s imagine your book is linked with another in a movie double-bill. Which book would you pair with?

That’s a good question. It’s difficult to decide whose coattails to stain—but let’s definitely go big or go home.

I think a double-bill would require some kind of collaboration, like an anthology does. I’ve been in a couple with some of my favorite indie writers, and it was fun working with them and getting my name in print next to theirs.

For the new book, I would love to end up opening for Ryu Murakami or something by Chuck Palahniuk, because of their influence on my writing—and then it’s like the blurry picture with a celebrity framed on the wall of my home office that I don’t have. I could pretend I know them. Maybe Quentin Tarantino or Takashi Miike would make a screenplay—and that would be the highlight of my writing days. All the way, right?

Ah, dreams.

But I’m not that delusional. As an indie writer I already know that what I write is for myself, and maybe a select few.

Did you write Ants in My Blood in monkly silence? To music gently wafting in the background? Or did the walls of your house almost crumble as you blasted tunes at ear-splitting levels?

Usually the writing happens in the quiet now, once everyone has gone to sleep … less distractions. I can let my mind go where it needs to for a story.

There are a few exceptions, but that’s usually the best time for me. Editing and formatting is where the music came in this time. While fixing the book up to look and read pretty, the darkness was filled with a lot of Glass Animals. The “How to Be a Human Being” album in particular got a lot of play time on my iPod—Pork Soda flooding my brain—and leaking from my ears into the quiet. Man I dig that album.

I’ll have to get involved, Kevin. Can’t wait to read Ants in My Blood. Any last thoughts?

Love to hear you’ll be taking a look. And thanks for the opportunity to talk about it.

For anyone who’s interested, Ants In My Blood is on sale for pre-order—only 99c/99p until its release on March 3rd. So I hope readers will grab a copy before it goes live and save themselves some money.

Want to connect with Keven? He's active as hell on Goodreads, or you can visit him on Facebook.

Jason Beech lives in New Jersey, but it’s Sheffield, England, which forged him. He writes crime fiction, sometimes horror and supernatural, and loves a bit of Ellroy, Leonard, Banks, Sansom, Brazill, Nixon, Pluck, Hinkson, and other good stuff. You can find his work at Amazon, iBooks, Kobo, Barnes & Noble, and other digital retailers. And you can visit him on Facebook (where he manages Messy Business), as well as on his blog.