Brian Francis Slattery

Flying, Under the Radar

Beneath a smoky sky in Hamden, a Disney-like scene played out in writer Brian Francis Slattery’s small backyard, with squat little sparrows, bushy-tailed squirrels and a sleek, pretty blue jay politely sharing a feeder.

Slattery’s novels, on the other hand, are more like Grimms’ fairy tales: Their magic is cut with darkness, and the good guys can lose. He writes like Muhammad Ali fought, floating before he stings, with a marvelous power to connect the gargantuan and the intimate. He whirls you up with potent, unconventional language that holds you and, once gone, leaves you wishing it had held you a while longer.

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Probably best known around town as the arts editor of the New Haven Independent, Slattery’s fiction career precedes him mostly in the sense that it’s his and it’s happened. It began in earnest with the release of Spaceman Blues: A Love Song (2007), a blend of magical realism, mystery and science fiction he hand-wrote as a twenty-something grad student commuting to and from Columbia University. The follow-up, published in 2008, was Liberation: Being the Adventures of the Slick Six After the Collapse of the United States of America, a post-apocalyptic fever dream melding the nation’s past and future sins and redemptions, which Amazon editors picked as their top sci-fi book of the year. His third novel, Lost Everything (2012), a tale of two river-riders in an America broken down by climate change and human nature, won an even better best-of-the-year honor: the Philip K. Dick Award, one of science fiction’s most prestigious prizes. Next up was The Family Hightower (2014), a thriller about a man trying to escape a punishment he didn’t earn, which, among other things, draws uncomfortable comparisons between legalized capitalism and organized crime. His most recent published fiction appears in Bookburners, an ongoing multi-author serial tracking the adventures of a secret Vatican society formed to fight paranormal malcontents.

But Slattery’s career as a novelist doesn’t precede him, in the sense that, while doing everything else he does—including performing prolifically with his band, Dr. Caterwaul’s Cadre of Clairvoyant Claptraps—he tends to bury that lede. Chatting occasionally over the past few years, he didn’t once even hint at his novel-writing. It was only a chance spotting of his name among history’s winners of the PKD Award that clued me in, leading in turn to his website, where the “fiction” section gets third billing after “editing” and “nonfiction” and doesn’t even link to points of purchase.

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It jibes with an exchange Slattery remembers having with his soon-to-be literary agent circa 2003, when he was shopping the second draft of Spaceman Blues. He’d just gotten a handshake deal with Tor, the big sci-fi publishing house, and needed someone to help negotiate the finer points of the agreement. Several prospective agents said they’d “make a star,” thinking it would win Slattery’s favor.

They were wrong. “I didn’t want to try to shoot the moon,” Slattery says. “I liked what I had going on. I saw my day job as being pretty important to fueling the fiction—if I didn’t have a job, what was gonna get me out of the house? What was I gonna write about?” He went instead with the agent who said, “Look, I want what you want. If you want to try to have this big, fat literary career, we’ll try to do that. If you just want to publish books, then that’s what we’ll do.” Laughing, he recalls his reply to the more modest of those suggestions: “That sounds perfect.”

The career of his wife, Stephanie, a doctor who was doing her residency at Yale around that time, compelled their move from New York City to New Haven. Later, as the residency was finishing up and the two were deciding where to go next, they made a list of the things they wanted their home to be like—“We want good restaurants. We want a good music scene. We want to be close to a major city” but not in it all the time, Slattery remembers—and realized they were already there.

Nearly 15 years later, they have a son, Leo, who’s 10 years old, and, overlooking that Disney scene, an airy back porch containing Slattery’s favorite writing spot: a white desk facing back towards wide blue clapboard. Bathed in natural light and sounds, it’s a peaceful place for writing about friends staring down the barrel of the apocalypse, or a secret society fighting demonic evils, or whatever splendid calamities Slattery might quietly type up next.

Brian Francis Slattery
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Written and photographed by Dan Mims.

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