Michaelbrent Collings is an internationally bestselling author, produced screenwriter, and Dragon and Bram Stoker Award finalist. Best known for thrillers and horror like his bestselling Stranger series, he is one of the top indie horror authors in the United States; but has also written bestsellers in everything from sci-fi and fantasy to humor to romance (under the pen name Angelica Hart).
Where did you grow up and what was your childhood like? Did you have any particular experiences/stories that shaped your adult life?
I grew up in an environment that was all love and terror. My family had – and still has – a lot of love. My parents adored and sacrificed for each other and for us. That said, there were a lot of mental health issues in the family. I like to say the crazy doesn’t really run in our family, it more gallops through it. So there was love, there was light… but there was also worry and a real fear that someone might walk out the door one day and simply not return.
Honestly, I think that sense of love was the saving grace. Rather than drown us in a storm of mental – and, for that matter, physical – catastrophes, the love served as an anchor that kept us grounded and kept the storms from tossing us wherever they would.
Another big thing for me was reading. My father was a professor of creative writing for three decades and had a home library numbering in the thousands. He arranged them in order of age-appropriateness, brought me into the library, and said, “You can read anything you can reach.”
I quickly discovered the magic of stepladders. Which is how I ended up bringing Stephen King books to school in fourth grade – made for some interesting interactions with the teachers.
What is something you wish you would’ve realized earlier in your life?
That, even when there is no hope for a good future, you can always – always – hope for that hope. Sometimes the darkness in us is so deep that we are incapable of viewing any kind of light on the horizon. In essence, we are blinded to the hopes that keep us going on “regular” bad days. I hope I find love. I hope I find a better job. I hope I find happiness. All those aren’t just out of reach, they are invisible. They are impossible.
So the hope for these things is beyond gone, they are unreachable. But even when the light on the horizon cannot be seen, there is this glimmer: I hope that tomorrow… I will have hope.
It’s a strange mental trick, but it has worked on my own worst days. Like my father, I suffer from major depressive disorder and suicidal tendencies. I’ve also added psychotic breaks and some other fun quirks to the mix, but even in the depths, I’ve managed to find that spark – and it’s a life-saver. Literally.
What are bad recommendations you hear in your profession or area of expertise?
UGH. Where to start? One of the worst things, generally, is people who disdain others’ accomplishments, or who tell new writers what they can or cannot achieve. “You can’t write that fast and have it be any good.” “You can’t be an author and a good parent/spouse/friend.” “You can’t be a screenwriter and an author.” “There’s no way to succeed in this, that, this, that…”
There are definitely good cautionary tales. But too often, “I have found that this is helpful” turns into “It is God’s truth you can never this or that.” And I hear the latter, oddly, coming from people who have not succeeded in their own personal goals and are speaking out of bitterness, rather than the encouragement I would hope everyone would extend to one another. Especially authors – the world needs more good stories, so I will do my best to encourage anything and everything that will bring that to pass.
Tell me about one of the darker periods you’ve experienced in life. How you came out of it and what you learned from it?
See above re the hope of hope. I’ve also found that “success” is a rainbow that you never quite reach. We think, “As soon as [blank], then I’ll have succeeded. Then I’ll be happy.” Then we get the car, or the girl, or the promotion, or whatever, and then it’s, “Well, that actually brought as much trouble as it did good. But when I get to the next level, then I’ll be happy.”
I’ve found that a much better way to go about it is to focus on a concrete goal – not as a step to “success” (whatever that is), but as an end in itself. Then, once the goal is achieved, you can enjoy the achievement for a bit, revel in it for a while… and that will encourage you to set another, greater goal.
What is one thing that you do that you feel has been the biggest contributor to your success so far?
Items one through nine are my wife and family. They are always there for me. They suffer through the emotional whiplash that accompanies an artistic career whose only job security is the last royalty check received, and who, until the ACA was passed, had less medical and dental coverage than the average homeless person. They keep me grounded – whenever I think “I’m important” (usually after a comic con or after I do an Ask Me Anything on my Facebook page or something), they’re there to remind me that the trash needs emptying, the dishes need doing. They are better than me in every way, and I’m humbled and gratified and inspired by that.
Item ten, again, is the kindness factor. I remember my career had hit a serious low point – I had decided the best course was to turn from writing to the glamorous, fast-paced world of pizza delivery and announced my retirement to the five or six people I figured might care.
I immediately got texts and emails from several successful authors that said, literally, “That is not okay. You are not allowed to quit.”
They loved my writing, which was great, and certainly a motivator for them. But I also know that I had connected with those people as human beings. I loved them, in addition to their work, and their feelings were mutual. So when the problems started, I had people step in to help.
What is your morning routine?
The answer to that one is easy: I don’t have one.
Because of my own mental health issues, coupled with some fairly serious physical impairments, I am often up all night. I can either eat and listen to some twelve-year-old kid cuss me out in Dutch because I suck at playing online Call of Duty, or I can go out and work. So I’m often working until two or three or six or seven in the morning. I hit the hay and sleep until ten. Then up again and trying to find some semblance of productivity in the rest of the day. Other days I’ll manage to get to sleep at ten or eleven, then I’m up anywhere from three to seven a.m. (hooray!).
The reality is that some people can have regular schedules, and are able to live regimented lives that allow for the productivity that comes from knowing exactly what today expects and tomorrow promises.
Others really can’t do it. Physically, mentally. For years I tried to do what others did – live that regimented life, that “perfect” life where every moment had its place in my schedule, and nothing happened that was unexpected. But all that did was make me feel bad about my failure to do so. Things got markedly better when I realized I literally wasn’t built in a way that could do that. So I try to go with the flow a bit more, and that works fairly well for me.
What habit or behavior that you have pursued for a few years has most improved your life?
Probably that ability – which, like all good things in my life, is something my wife taught me and encouraged me to do – to let myself be sick, or have a mental health day. Don’t get me wrong, I still work an average of fifty to sixty hours a week. But sometimes that’s broken up into three days of an hour a day, followed by three sixteen-hour days. She looks at me some days and says, “You need to watch a movie.” She’ll encourage me to pause. My brain never turns all the way off – a downside to a career that is all about turning everyday life into extraordinary stories – but she gets me to tell it I don’t have to be productive right this instant. I can just sit. Just be.
That’s how I am present with my family. The PCP-addled hamster is still scrambling on its wheel in my back brain; nothing to be done about that. But the front of my brain, the part that is responsible for being here, being now, being me with the ones I love, is attentive. I have my flakes, my failures. My family is used to me standing up abruptly in the middle of a game night and muttering something like “the ghost comes from the garbage disposal” or “of course he’s actually a gay killer whale from outer space” or whatever story inspiration has just hit me. They wait until I find paper and pen and write it down, or grab my phone and email whatever story resolution my subconscious just barfed up to myself. But they know that’ll last a minute, then it’s back to Uno or doing the dishes or all the banal, mundane, beautiful, miraculous things that makeup family life.
What are your strategies for being productive and using your time most efficiently?
1) When I can’t work, I don’t. That goes both for when I physically or mentally haven’t the capacity to work, and for when I’ve blocked out time for my family. Unless I’m gone at a comic con or at a writing symposium or something where I’m physically gone, I spend time every day with all my kids, and with my wife. Even when I’m gone, I phone home every day to speak to them, to pray with them, to joy, and to grieve with them. I love my kids and am lucky enough to be married to the greatest person I’ve ever met, and to have a slumber party with my best friend every night. So that time is precious, and I do my best to treat it as such. There are still bad days, and arguments, and times when my teens have decided that the best way to live life is to be as difficult and surly and emotional as possible. There are times when my younger kids decide that their lives will be ruined if my wife and I don’t allow them to follow us around like tiny moons orbiting a planet – even when the planet has to do a non-team sport, like going to the bathroom. But I wouldn’t trade any of it away.
2) When I can work, I work. My butt goes in the seat, and I stay there until I’ve done what has to be done. I have a huge output for a writer, especially one who handles every aspect of his business. I write the books, I do the marketing, I design covers, and do print layout of every book. I spend two to three hours on fan interaction every day. People ask how I manage to do so much, even with the limitations imposed on me by an uppity brain and body. And my answer is simple: “I work. I don’t cruise the ‘net pointlessly, I avoid rabbit holes or room scrolling. My wife comes into my “office” (a shed in our backyard, which is all that I need) and she’ll see me doing something for work. There’s never a Netflix movie, or me reading “The Top 10 Reasons No One Likes To Work With Tom Cruise (#8 Will Amaze You!)” – unless those are part of the jobs for the day.
3) I take a day off, every week. Sundays are inviolate. I don’t do appearances on those days, I don’t go to the shed for work, I rarely even look at emails or social media. Sometimes stuff goes out from my office – an email or something – but if so, it’s something I automated on Monday through Saturday. Sundays are for family and church and service activities, and that’s it. It provides a huge recharge for the rest of the week, mentally, spiritually, and physically. And without the three of those working together in tandem, it’s my conviction that we can’t ever achieve the heights of our potential, or make the unique, beneficial marks on the world for which we were born.
What book(s) have influenced your life the most? Why?
Hmmm… there are so many (the curse of being an author!). I probably couldn’t even narrow it down to a single one – but there are groups. I read a LOT of religious books. Not just for the wisdom in them, but because whether you believe in them or not, they are cornerstones of literature. The King James Bible, for example, is not just influential, but one of the most beautifully-written books in history.
As far as fiction, my father was literally the world expert on Stephen King for two decades – any wonder that I turned out the way I did? – so King has a soft spot in my heart. Ditto Dean Koontz.
I also devour anything about Lincoln, Churchill, and the Civil War, and World War II. I’m fascinated by those epochs, which were real examples – perhaps the last ones – of some purely “good vs. evil” wars, in which one side was demonstrably, diabolically wrong, and the other side had to rise to the occasion. And Lincoln and Churchill are heroes of mine.
Do you have any quotes you live by or think of often?
I don’t know if it’s a “quote” per se, but I often think to myself: “Remember, you can’t control whether you are the best or the most successful in money or in external success, but you can control whether you are kind.” And I have found that being kind leads to those external successes. When coronavirus really reared its face and threatened not just lives but livelihood, I put all my books on sale for 99 cents. My family and I decided to do it, even though it would mean a royalty cut of sixty to ninety percent per book, to make sure that people could afford to have a few hours of escape, even if they were living on the edge financially. We’ve been on that edge, and one of the worst things is that even if you do manage to find a few minutes to yourself, you’re still tremendously limited in your ability to find relief in the form of escapism or entertainment. So we put our books on sale, figured we could stretch the sale for a few weeks before we simply couldn’t afford to do it any longer.
People responded to the gesture. They told friends not just about the sales, but about an author they’d found who genuinely cared for their well-being, and had put his money where his mouth was, so to speak. Because of that, we brought in enough in additional units that, as of this writing, we’ve had the sales going for ten months, and hope to keep them up until we’ve turned a corner as a country and as a world community.