If you ever find yourself the center of attention in a book written by Keven McQueen, chances are your luck has run out. Chances are even better than your luck has run out and no one is here to remember you, or your unlucky circumstance, anymore. That’s where Keven finds most of his stories, reminding the world—with wit, sometimes dry humor, and tons of mood setting creativeness—of the strange way that your life just ended, be it from an axe (The Axman Came from Hell) or during a duel with Republican party founder Cassius Clay (The Kentucky Book of the Dead). He has also written a historical perspective on the oft-forgotten tragedy that was the Louisville Tornado (The Great Louisville Tornado of 1890).
Keven was nice enough to take us serious enough to answer some of our questions, and we thank him for the wonderful answers.
Keven, you’ve written a lot about the dark side of humanity. What is it that draws your attention to that unfortunate part of life?
I’m not exactly sure since I’ve been interested in subjects like murders, ghosts, monsters and cemeteries since early childhood. Since then I’ve discovered that many people feel the same way. Maybe it’s a shared urge to think there is something beyond normal everyday life. But I always had a strong interest in the past too, and somehow I keep finding ways to link topics such as those with more conventional history.
In your new book you focus on the disturbing stories of the California. What made you want to turn to the West Coast? Could you ever see yourself writing about the dark histories of other parts of the world?
It was first intended to be only part of a book that covered all the western states, but then I realized there were so many California stories they could make a book of their own. The book on the rest of the West will probably be out next year. I’d love to write a book of that sort about Europe, and in fact I’ve been saving stories in case the opportunity arises!
When you’re settled on a topic, and studying it, you seem to dig much deeper than a quick Google search. Is digging through centuries old newspapers really that fun?
One thing I’ve always been proud of is that many of the stories in my books can’t be found online or anywhere else. (Also, that they’re all true stories.) Going through decades’ worth of newspapers page by page probably wouldn’t be a frolic for most people, but fortunately I have Asperger’s syndrome and the resulting obsessive single-mindedness makes it kind of fun.
Some of your stories involve ghosts. Have you ever seen one? If not, would you want to?
I’ve never seen one despite having worked for years as a tour guide in an alleged haunted house (White Hall, near Richmond, KY). But I might have heard ghosts there and had other interesting experiences. There are some examples in The Kentucky Book of the Dead. If ghosts really exist I would love to see one, thought I daresay the experience would give me heart palpitations.
You teach literature as well as write. What made you fall in love with the writing arts in the first place?
That’s another answer I’m not sure about. Just as I was always interested in dark subjects, I also always wrote.
You have published well over ten books. What was the process like of publishing your first? Do you have any tips for those working to publish their first work?
The first book was a biography of Cassius Clay, the emancipationist who owned White Hall (see above). After being a tour guide for a while I found many rare articles about him in newspapers, had access to some of his never-published letters, and heard stories about him from relatives. I decided to write a book containing all of this new information. To my surprise, two publishers were interested in it, though it must be said local history is probably easier to get published than most genres. Once that book was in print it led to several others. I don’t really have good advice for people who write fiction since I’ve never been able to write it myself (wish I could—I bet that’s where the real money is!), but they might try writing some work of nonfiction first. I suspect it’s easier to get history published than fiction, and once you publish a few nonfiction works and get a fan base, perhaps it’s easier to get fiction published. I do know of a few writers who have done that.
What do you think of the option of self-publishing?
On one hand, it has resulted in a lot of worthy books being released that may never have seen the light of day otherwise. On the other hand, now that anyone can be an author and there seems to be less editorial oversight, many pretty horrible and badly written books are now on the market. From what I gather there are legitimate self-publishing firms out there but also many con artists, so authors should check out what other writers say online about a particular publisher. Whether you are self-published or conventionally published, gaining a fan base is essential.
What book of yours are you asked the most about?
Each one seems to have its own cult following. Kentucky Book of the Dead used to be the one with content I got the most inquiries about, but now it seems to be Gothic and Strange True Tales of the South. It’s the first book in what I hope will be a series of bizarre true tales from around the USA, divided by region. I call it the American Gothic series.
Have you ever been studying a particularly dark tale that has caused you to lose sleep? Also, what scares one who writes so willingly about the macabre?
So far none of my stories have caused me nightmares, but several readers told me the chapter about the New Orleans Axman in The Axman Came From Hell and Other Southern True Crime Stories gave them bad dreams. One told me she couldn’t finish the chapter and had to skip to the rest of the book. Just last week I spoke to a convention of hand surgeons who were given copies of my three Indiana-based books as a door prize, and two of them said they were up most of the night reading because they figured they would have disturbing dreams if they went to sleep. I always try to strike a balance between humor and horror by describing ghoulish or disturbing events in a humorous way—at least, I hope it’s humorous. As for what scares me personally, the two things that come to mind immediately are tornadoes and driving in large cities. The worst thing of all would be driving in a large city during a tornado.
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