It’s tough being the black sheep of the family. But what if your family are a bunch of serial killers who get off on torturing people? Such is the premise of Brother (paperback, digital), the new horror novel by author Ania Ahlborn (Within These Walls, The Bird Eater). Though in talking to her about it, it seems writing a book about being the black sheep in a family of serial killers wasn’t all that tough.
To start, what is Brother about?
Brother is about the Morrows, a family living in the hills of West Virginia, and their youngest son Michael, who never felt like he quite fit in with the clan. And while it’s one thing to be the black sheep of the family, it’s altogether another when that family is run by a ruthless murderess. You can imagine, Michael runs into some troubles when he starts bucking the matriarchal trend.
Was it inspired by something specific, something that really happened?
It’s inspired by my weird fascination with serial killers, extreme rural life, and the fact that people like the Morrows very likely exist somewhere out there in America. For me, it’s a thrilling revulsion, like, “Oh my God, monsters do exist…that’s horrible and awesome.”
Given that you’re from Poland, and now live in Portland, what made you set the book in the Appalachian mountains, as opposed to whatever the Polish or Portland equivalent might be?
People tend to think that authors are directly influenced by where they live. I don’t know where that belief came from, but it’s never been true for me. I was born in Poland, but I moved to the States when I was really young. Poland really plays no part in my writing. I spent most of my life in New Mexico, but I’ve never set a book there because I’ve never felt connected with the desert. Portland shows up in a couple of my books; for instance, the main character of The Bird Eater was from Portland, but moved out to the Ozarks. There’s that extreme rural life thing again. The book I’m writing now is set in Oregon, and Portland is mentioned multiple times, but the characters don’t live in the city. They live in a small middle-of-nowhere town…because of course they do. I’m telling you, I can’t get away from rural life. I have a soft spot for locations that feel removed from civilization, and Appalachia is definitely at the top of that list. It feels stuck in time, and I love that. There’s something distinctly creepy about a place where people have never used a cell phone, or have heard of the Internet but don’t know exactly what it is.
How much research did you do about the Appalachian mountains and the people who live there?
I’ve been to West Virginia, though it was a while ago. I didn’t specifically travel there for research, and that was probably for the better. While there, I saw a man who looked like Abraham Lincoln eating dinner at a buffet — I thought he was in costume…he wasn’t — and I watched shirtless, long-haired dudes in their mud tire-equipped pickup do donuts in the middle of a picnic area while howling out their open windows; all that was missing was the skyward blast of a sawed off shotgun. I loved every second of it. For me, that was enough to understand the primal nature of the place.
Are there any depictions of scary, backwoods families in movies or TV that were a big influence on how you portrayed the one in Brother?
I would be lying if I said I wasn’t influenced by the family from Texas Chainsaw Massacre, but I actually don’t like that movie all that much, so…take that as you will. I do have a favorite scene, though: the dinner scene, where you get a taste of the relationships this family has with one another. That’s what sparked my imagination, and that’s what I wanted to expand on. Serial killers are people too, after all. How do they interact with, say, an overbearing mother or annoying sister? Do they exchange birthday cards? Who does the grocery shopping?
Now, some people may think Brother perpetuates an unfair stereotype of people who live in the Appalachian mountains. When you were writing the book, did this ever occur to you, and if so, how did it impact the book?
Oh, absolutely, but I didn’t become a writer to be politically correct. Regardless of whether people want to believe this or not, stereotypes come from somewhere, and that somewhere always has at least a tiny seed of truth to it.
But, as you mentioned, stereotypes are unfair by nature. Brother definitely relies a few mega-rural stereotypes without apology, but it also pushes against them at the same time. If a stereotype needs to be perpetuated in a narrative to tell a story effectively, it’s my job to not shy away from that. I never, ever write something to purposefully offend someone, but look, I write horror. Horror is, by its very nature, offensive to a lot of people. I mean, really, what kind of a person — a woman, of all things — writes about kids being possessed by demons and crazy killers murdering hitchhikers? A reviewer once called me “demented” and suggested I be institutionalized. Clearly, I offended that person, and I’m sorry…but I’m also not. Good books aren’t cowardly, and they aren’t concerned with being PC. I write good books. If that makes me offensive, bring it on.
But was there anything that you cut from the book because you thought it was too stereotypical? Like did you consider giving the family a still or a history of inbreeding but just realize that was too much?
No. I actually didn’t consider any inbreeding for the Morrows now that I think about it. It just didn’t occur to me. I think that may be due in part to the fact that, when I sat down and started hashing them out, I never once thought “okay, let’s go down the list of backwoods stereotypes and check off the boxes.” The Morrows developed organically. The stereotypes that are there were born of their environment.
In the description of the book that’s on the back cover, it notes that the girl our “hero” meets works at a record store. Is there a reason why that specific detail, where she works, is so important, or am I making too big a deal out of it?
Brother is set in 1981, and when you’re writing a book that’s set in the past, you have to pepper the story with clues for the reader as to when it’s happening. Working at a record store in 1981 was the equivalent of working at a Starbucks now. I think Gallery [the book’s publisher] just tossed that detail in on the back flap because it helps cue the reader in to the fact that this story takes place in the past.
Also, should my buddy Misti Dawn be offended that you named one of the characters Misty Dawn?
She should be honored! Misty Dawn is a great character. Of all the Morrows, she may be the most tragic of figures. Michael loved her the most. Misty is a good girl.
The last time we spoke, you mentioned that you were talking to people about making your then new book, Within These Walls, into a movie, while an earlier novel, Seed, was being made into a film by Amazon. Has there been similar interest in Brother?
As of this writing, we’re shopping around Brother to various studios, but no word yet. These things take time. Hollywood is a sloth in a rhinestoned collar.
Also, what is the status of the Seed and the Within These Walls movies?
Amazon are no longer in the original movie business. They’ve put their focus solely into TV, so we got the rights to Seed back from them. Seeing as to how I get regular inquiries about those rights, however, I doubt it’ll be long before someone snags them up again.
We just sold movie rights to Within These Walls a few days ago, so that’s exciting. But that’s all in baby stages right now. Beyond people being really pumped about the project, I don’t have much news to give as of yet.
If the people making Brother into a movie asked you who should star in it, who would you say and why?
I’ve been a Michael Pitt fan for years. I think he’d make a fantastic Rebel. The murderous Claudine Morrow would be served well by Tilda Swinton. When I was writing Brother, I pictured Misty Dawn as Juliette Lewis, whom I love, but Misty is in her early twenties, so I’m thinking Taissa Famiga.
I don’t know…it’s hard to cast because I’m still stuck in the early aughts. All of my favorite actors are getting older, and I’m not all that familiar with young Hollywood.
Finally, if someone really likes Brother and they want to read another of your books, which would you suggest they read next and why that one?
That’s always a tough question because all of my books are so different from one another. I think I’d recommend Within These Walls. It’s a great story, and if a reader enjoys the exploration of familial relationships in Brother, their interest is probably going to be just as equally piqued by the relationships that constitute a dangerous cult. And, come on, who doesn’t love a good, scary cult? Cults are great. Almost as fun as serial killers. Almost…