A Conversation with Mike Allen

A Conversation with Mike Allen

Mike Allen author photoDo I really need to sell you on an adventure tale that has a riverboat, zombies, fox-men, music as magic, and epic mayhem? No. I don’t. That story sells itself. But to further your interest in Mike Allen’s first novel, The Black Fire Concerto, have an earful…

Erzelle plays harp on a riverboat full of ghouls…and people who eat ghouls because they think it will make them immortal. Idiots. Her parents were murdered and Erzelle’s being fattened up for feasting on. But Olyssa changes all that. Olyssa becomes the Roland-Yoda-Mother-Master that young Erzelle needs.

The relationship is mutually beneficial. Olyssa and Erzelle play music together that can murder you. If you deserve it. So don’t deserve it, eh? Add in Olyssa’s epic familial quest and you have Mike Allen’s dark fantasy, The Black Fire Concerto.

If you didn’t know of Mike Allen before, GD shame on you. He is the editor of the Clockwork Phoenix anthologies and of the recently webified magazine, Mythic Delirium. He publishes (and writes) mad crazy good poetry and fiction.

Black Gate loves talking to people. Yep. We do.

*waves to all you nice people in the interwebs*

We especially love talking to wild writer poet metalhead types who wear highly visible hats and spend equal time inking their own work as publicizing the work of others.

As such, Black Gate grabbed Mike Allen for a GChat. Yes, a GCHAT! Isn’t technology fabulous? We admit, it’s hard to get steady wi-fi, as Black Gate’s summer headquarters is at Camp Arawak (cheap rent due to some unfortunate murders)…but GChat it was.*

Here is what unfolded.

Patty Templeton of Black Gate: Hi!

Mike Allen: Howdy, Patty-crow!

Let’s dive in! The Black Fire Concerto is a slip of a novel, about 200 pages. It is like a refined dessert that leaves you wanting more. ARE YOU GOING TO GIVE US MORE?!?

I actually have started work on a sequel. There’s no title yet that I’m satisfied with, but I have an opening scene and a number of ideas about things and people my ragtag band will tangle with. And I did leave loose threads to play with in Black Fire Concerto, precisely because I have a plan for that world and my work is not yet done.

Yeah! Good!

Black Fire Concerto book coverI wonder if anyone will notice me tossing out Thomas Ligotti references there, heh.

There will always be someone to catch the super secret nerd shout-outs. Always.

Thank goodness.

Was it a purposeful exertion to write well-rounded female characters or did they flow naturally into your work?

I’m flattered that you feel that way about my heroines.

Well, they are excellent. They are flawed. They have their strengths. They are of varied ages. I like it.

Hopefully, this won’t sound like too much writerly mumbo jumbo. I didn’t come up with Olyssa and Erzelle with any deliberate intention to fill any gaps. There’s been a version of Olyssa in my brain for quite a while – I imagined her as a gunslinger maybe not all that far removed from Stephen King’s Roland in the Dark Tower books.

Whoa. Epic.

Yeah! But she didn’t have a story to move through, she was just this figure I imagined. And then a friend gave me a completely unrelated idea based on a nightmare he’d had, and for some reason that part of me that comes up with story stuff said: hey, let’s make this her story. And as a part of that package, she evolved into a musician.

I see the silhouette of a woman in a duster, but instead of crisscrossed guns, she has an instrument on one side and a gun on the other.

That would definitely fit, although with Olyssa her musical instrument and her weapon of mass destruction meld. Erzelle first appeared as this story I mentioned came together in my head.

Speaking of music and mass destruction, YES! MUSIC AS MAGIC! I dig it.

It seems only natural.

Music is equated with life and death in the The Black Fire Concerto…do you take music equally as serious in real life as you do in your writer life?

Twisted Sister band photo
Twisted Sister

That’s an interesting question. I’m a devout (yet picky) metalhead. In my teen years I was in a band (though weren’t we all.) Curiously, my band probably most closely resembled Beck or Ween, if you can picture that? But my choice of listening through those years was almost always metal. And not hair metal.

Hey, man. There’s nothing wrong with “Cherry Pie“** or “We’re Not Gonna Take It“. Love.


Not all hair metal…but there’s standouts.

I will always have a soft spot for Twisted Sister.


What kind of bands do you think Erzelle would listen to?

Erzelle is of course raised on classical – just as I was, more or less. I’m now pondering whether she’d be into metal or hard rock. I imagine her taking a liking to folk rock, but finding it doesn’t scratch all the itches, heh.

Toss out a coupla specific songs or bands you’d put on a mix tape you’d make her.

That’s a fascinating question.

**pauses to think**

Assuming she’s completely unfamiliar with the gamut of music I listen to, and I wanted to sell her on some of it…I think I would stick to the prettier range of my preferred musical library.

Name a few favorites, man!

Deep Purple, “Child in Time

Judas Priest, “Blood Red Skies

Sepultura, “Kaiowas

As you can see, I’m old school.

Pff. Good music is good music.

Rammstein band photo

What I’m certain of is that Erzelle would need to be able to discern a level and intensity of craft that matched the standard she’s used to.

Did you listen to music while you were writing?

I do sometimes, when I’m transcribing, but it’s not as necessary a component as it was when I was younger.

This past year has been the year of Rammstein, FYI.

Music sometimes inspires the imagery in my stories, but that really didn’t happen with The Black Fire Concerto. I know that sounds odd considering how much the book is about music…I think that getting reacquainted with classic music through my day job as an arts reporter played into that more than any particular listening sample.

If you could get any band to score  The Black Fire Concerto…who would it be?

Ooooooh. Well, Rammstein immediately comes to mind. When I hear “Mein Herz Brennt” these days I see scenes from The Black Fire Concerto.

Any art that inspired you?

The inspirations for The Black Fire Concerto come from all over the place. It was written so fast…I would go for long walks and think about where the book needed to go next and once I had a couple miles behind me all the daily junk cluttering my brain would subside and pieces of the story would bubble up.

There’s a painting Anita – my wife – created called “Forest Lord” that definitely influenced one of the recurring motifs.

Do you talk out your works in progress with anyone or is all the work done in self-reflection?

I’m very superstitious about that. Sometimes I’ll share an idea with Anita and let her float suggestions, but generally I do not like to talk about works in progress. I think there’s a number of reasons for that. I don’t want to lose the momentum by talking it out rather than writing it out. I don’t want to invite criticism too early. I want to get the piece to the point where I think it at least looks like what I imagined it would before I let the rest of the world in.

I do sometimes sketch outlines. A couple nights ago I inadvertently stumbled across the first outline I did for what become Part I of  The Black Fire Concerto. That was funny to see…the characters had different names!

Ahh. You are a secret keeper. It is understandable. If I don’t get a certain amount out on the page first, I feel like crap if people get nitpicky with me over it.

Yeah, what you just said, that’s exactly how I am.

So, you have ghouls in in The Black Fire Concerto…do you consider them zombies? If not, how are they different?

They are zombies, basically, but one way that they’re radically different is that they’re magical. Nos4a2 book coverNothing kills them short of burning them. Or cooking them, heh, heh.

In The Black Fire Concerto you don’t, at first, get to see the full threat they pose, because Olyssa has a way with them. She’s the Pied Piper of ghouls.

Do you consider yourself a dark fantasist? A horror writer? What are you, Mike Allen? And do you give a dang about those labels at all?

When asked this question, I tend to say, “I’m a writer. I write science fiction, fantasy, and horror.”

Most of what I do has a strong horror element, I think because I came to be such a voracious reader of horror in my late teens. Before than I was all about fantasy and science fiction about equally.

Have you been on any certain reading kicks lately?

Well, one of the unfortunate consequences of being a reporter by day and an editor and publisher by night is I often end up with little time left over for reading that isn’t somehow business related. I found an opening earlier this month though and I just wolfed down Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, Laird Barron’s The Beautiful Thing That Awaits Us All and Neil Gaiman’s The Ocean at the End of the Lane.

I had a tangent to add to an earlier question of yours.

Yeah. Do it.

I think I’ve been gradually moving toward testing out gal protagonists, but not in a deliberate, methodical way.

I’ve got three short stories that I’ve made available for Kindle. The oldest one, “Stolen Souls,” has what might be the closest I’ll get to a typical macho hero, though of course he’s a bit disturbed. The other two, “She Who Runs” and “Sleepless, Burning Life,” are newer and have female protagonists.

It’s definitely, to the degree it’s at all a conscious impulse, pushing the limits of my own writing. Maybe “pushing the limits” isn’t the right word – I do that in ways other than character invention. More just expanding my range, you know?

And Olyssa is so much fun to write.

There are personal things in The Black Fire Concerto, though they’re probably not obvious to anyone but me – that’s how I tend to roll.

My father often complained about action movies…he wanted to see ruthless, efficient competency, not dithering over what’s right and wrong or hesitating to kill because of a crisis of conscience. So in part I created Olyssa, I think, as a way of tweaking dear old departed dad on the nose…because he would never have accepted a woman in that sort of role.

And yet, here she is.

Hey. You went indie press on this book. Would you ever want to go the large press route? Is there something gained by going indie?

I didn’t do this because of any disdain for the tradition route. The wild thing about The Black Fire Beutiful Thing that Awaits Us All book coverConcerto is that I created it specifically for this experiment with indie publishing that John O’Neill wanted to conduct.

The story behind it would be too long and inside baseball to make good interview fodder, but basically C.S.E. “Queen of Awesome Sorcery” Cooney asked me if I’d be willing to take part in this project. At that point the novelette that became Part I of The Black Fire Concerto was all that existed. I always wanted to do more with those characters, and I wound up seeing this as my chance.

Doing this indie means that the marketing resources available to the Big Traditional Publisher aren’t available us which of course means our biggest challenge is getting the word out.

I’m proud of this book, everybody else involved is really excited about it, people who have read it so far seem to love it, but of course it takes time for word to spread.

One advantage of doing this indie, but doing it through a publisher rather than just doing it myself, is that it’s moved really fast and John O’Neill and his right-hand man John Woolley have been able to do things I might not have been able to do on my own, like recruit that incredible Lauren K. Cannon cover.

ALSO: there’s a number of things about The Black Fire Concerto that would make selling it through the traditional channels difficult. No romance. Extreme violence. Non-traditional heroes. A plot that … though I believe it tells exactly the story it needs to tell … isn’t cookie cutter. Nor padded to fit a commercial length.

So FREEDOM is biggest advantage of going indie, and that’s sure nice.

I love that there isn’t any romance in this.

Not a whiff of it!


Hey. Wrapping up here…What is a tip you’d give noob authors putting out their first book when it comes to promoting a finished product?

For me, nothing’s been more crucial than networking.

I don’t know if my approach can be successfully reproduced by everyone. But what’s served me best in all things has been networking – I may have an advantage in this from having been a small press editor and publisher for so long. You can’t expect people to immediately accept that you’ve coughed up gold because you’ve finished a book.

So you network. You approach bloggers. You approach reviewers. You approach authors, be they friends or people you admire, and ask if they’ll have a look at what you’re doing, maybe for a blurb or a blog post. It’s up to them whether they endorse it…you make no demands, stay polite as possible, and if the person you asked says no, then you say thank you and move on. What I’ve always found though is that people want to help…so long as what you’ve written is something worth sharing.

If it works out, once you’ve taken on that very stressful task of signal boosting yourself, you have something to say beyond “Hey look at me! I’m awesome! No, really!”

Well! Thanks, Mr. Mike Allen for sharing a heckuva lot with us today.

You’re sure welcome, Patty! Thanks for choosing my brain for picking!

Mythic Delirium cover

Hey! Hey! HEY! That isn’t all. You can read Part I of The Black Fire Concerto at Haunted Stars and Part II on Black Gate. Then hit up Mike Allen’s website for a metric heckton of free poetry and fiction. And you would be a sack of woe and ridiculous covered in meh if you didn’t check out Mythic Delirium and his Clockwork Phoenix anthologies.


*Note: Yep. Full disclosure: I know Mike Allen. Met him at ReaderCon about 4 years ago and WOW, what a great dude. He sends me music. I send him art. You should say hello to him at the next con you go to. He’s a fine fella and will probably have some Kraken hidden somewhere.

**This is highly arguable, but it is fun to sing in my car. Sue me.

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Mike Allen

This was a ton of fun! Thanks, Patty-crow!

[…] a wonderful job of promoting my new novel, The Black Fire Concerto. This past Sunday they posted an interview with yours truly conducted by the magnificent Patty Templeton. […]

C.S.E. Cooney

Sorry it took me so GD long to read this, Templeton. It’s awesome. I have mad envy of your irrepressible interviewing skillz. Mike’s great. And thoughtful. I like the way you two talk about music.

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