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Brian Reaves

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Review of Stolen Lives

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The Advocate

Brian Reaves Interview

by C.J. Darlington

"If you have a dream, give it to God. If it’s from Him, He’ll make it happen with your obedience. If it’s not His dream for your life, it might not happen—but would you really want it to anyway? He can do more in five seconds with an obedient Christian than you could accomplish in five years on your own."
-- Brian Reaves

Brian Reaves tends to write stories that take place just at the edge of reality and has been compared to Ray Bradbury and Neil Gaiman by Robin Parrish of InFuze Magazine. Eric Wilson, author of Dark To Mortal Eyes, said that Brian's first novel, Portal, was “…everything a good suspense story should be: exciting, unpredictable, with interesting characters, and a thought-provoking concept.”

Brian found a love and passion for reading when he picked up his first Spider-Man comic book at the tender age of 5. The words didn't mean a lot at first, but over the years he was eventually able to take over his dad's job of reading them out loud. After that, imagination took over. Worlds were created and destroyed, heroes lived and died, and villians grew meaner by the day. A love for books was born.

Brian is a computer programmer, musician, husband, and father of two. Poetry was Brian's first attempt at writing. Short stories and articles followed (many of which have been published in various anthologies and magazines), and then novels. It was at the still-tender young age of 33 that he finally completed his first novel and felt confident enough to let someone else read it. The rest is history.

C.J.: Were books a big part of your life growing up? If so, what books would you say influenced you most as a child?

BRIAN: Books have always been a huge part of my life. I think the ones I most enjoyed as a kid were The Time Machine, 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea, and The Invisible Man (that was one spooky book!). I know they’re classics, but anyone who’s ever read them can tell you why they’ve stood the test of time.

The book that spurred me to writing was The Illustrated Man by Ray Bradbury. It’s a short story collection, but each was a step into the surreal, and I finished that book looking at the world in a whole new way. The boundaries of reality no longer applied, and I realized how even “normal” moments can be terrifying in the right context.

When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer? I hear Spider-man comics played a role …

Ha! Yes, it’s true I’m a huge comic book fan. I still collect them to this day and make the weekly trip to the comic shop. I credit comic books with spurring a love of reading for me. I got my first one when I was still too little to read, so my dad would read them to me. Eventually my public education paid off enough for me to make out most of the words and from that point on I was insatiable. Eventually I started playing with the idea of how I’d have changed this story or that one, which led to creating worlds and characters of my own. I played around with short stories a little as a teenager, but it wasn’t until my twenties that I seriously considered writing a novel. I woke up one morning from a really detailed and vivid dream about a man who went back in time to change a decision in his life. When he returned to the present, things had changed in ways he’d never considered. That dream was the foundation for my first independent novel, Portal.

You’re a computer programmer by day. What type of programming do you do, and how did you get involved in the programming industry?

I sort of stumbled into the job, actually. I was working as a restaurant manager in the early 90’s when the company decided to upgrade everything in their office. They needed someone to learn DOS, BASIC and networking, and I volunteered. Having no computer knowledge at all and without even owning a computer of my own, I had two weeks to read up on the subject before actual classes began. Somehow I managed to get through it all without looking like I was clueless.

DOS was powerful for its time. Batch files fascinated me because I was able to control several aspects of what a computer would do within a single file. Eventually Windows came into play and I started messing around with Visual Basic, then with various Web applications. I also started repairing and building computers. The hardware aspect has gotten a lot easier in the past few years, but when I started there was no “Plug and Play”…it was all “plug and pray”. Eventually I moved into detailed networking and network security. I’ve recently added Flash to the roster (my website is done in it).

Stolen Lives by Brian ReavesStolen Lives deals with identity theft. What inspired you to write about this subject?

In 2001, I spent some time online talking to white hat hackers and was fascinated by what they could do. I was talking to one guy in a chat and he said, “Want to see something cool?” Before I could answer, my mouse started moving on its own and he was in control of my system. Fortunately he was a nice guy and it was just for fun, but he had me.

One day I heard about an accident on I-20 in Birmingham (the exact spot of the “scene of the crime” in my novel). It was similar to what happened in the novel, though no one was killed. The police report did show it to be the car’s fault, even though the trucker had turned into their lane and pulled the car under the trailer. I started thinking about it all. What if the family had been killed and the father wanted revenge? What if the father was a computer hacker? What exactly could he do and never be caught? The possibilities played out from there.

I started small in researching it. As I considered the usual stuff like computer viruses, I read an article about identity theft and how it was the fastest growing crime in America. When I began studying it, I thought it was some guy in a dark room sneaking into systems with a laptop. The reality is that most social engineers use people to get into systems now, not elaborate network cracks. I could spend an hour trying to find a way into your company’s network, or I could just call one of your lower level employees, act like I was someone from the company’s tech support department (just a little research would get me the names I needed to make this seem real enough), and say I was having a problem with their account and needed them to verify their password and user name. This might not work for every employee, but if the company’s large enough I’ll bet I could find someone who wouldn’t think twice about it. The whole concept fascinated me because it was like a cross between James Bond and Bill Gates. The best social engineer has to be fearless, and a reasonably good actor. While sifting through trash will still yield valuable information, the fastest way inside is through “meatware” (a human being).

As I state in the back of the novel, the situations in the novel are possible with just an action left out here and there so it doesn’t become a “How To” book.

What are the top three things people can do to prevent identity theft?

Invest in a personal shredder. Shred your bills (once they’re paid, of course) and any bank statement info too. And never throw out a credit card application without destroying it first. If you’ve been pre-approved for something, the hard part is already done if someone is out to get you.

Guard your personal information with your life. Just because someone calls claiming to be from your credit card company, it doesn’t mean you need to spill everything. If they’re legit, they’ll be able to give you your personal info. If you have any doubts, err on the side of caution. And any time you get an email from your bank, Ebay, or PayPal saying your account will be deactivated if you don’t click a link, get rid of it. Most of those lead you to pretty legitimate-looking sites where they ask for personal information so they can get into your real accounts.

And protect your credit cards and bank PINs while out shopping. Holding them in your hand while in line may seem to save time, but if someone behind you can get your credit card number, it’s not worth it. When using your debit card, don’t just type in your PIN where everyone can see. Cover the pad with your other hand as you put the numbers in.

Remember, identity theft is something that can damage your life for years. Don’t think “It couldn’t happen to me” and act all cavalier about it. Be careful with your personal info.

Ever had any unusual or embarrassing moments while writing or performing research for your books?

Two things come to mind. All of the computer viruses in the novel are based on real ones, but one was based on a computer virus I had on my own computer. I had to format my hard drive to finally delete it, but I had to give the designer credit: his virus was good. I didn’t want to let the experience (and lost information) go to waste, so I put it into the story.

As I researched social engineering, I decided to see if it really was as simple to get information as it seemed. I needed to be sure a particular tactic in my book would actually work in a real-world setting and I wanted the novel to be as accurate as possible, so I tried it out and started watching the people around me in malls and grocery stories to see just how much information I could get. In less than a week I had ten opportunities to get credit card numbers, driver’s license information, and other personal information. It was an eye-opening experience to see how lax most people are about that sort of thing. And that was just from observing! If I’d been really serious and gone through their trash or mail, who knows what else I could have found?

Is it ever a challenge to share your faith in your stories?

Not really. The challenge comes from making those moments of faith seem real enough to the reader, and not just a “convenient excuse for a prayer scene”. Everyone—including Christians—acts different ways in different situations. What may cause one to hit their knees in prayer might cause another to just sit and worry until it was over. Every character in the book must be unique—even in their walk with Christ. Having every Christian in the story strong in faith and impervious to temptation only robs the novel of believability.

Another consideration is that not every person you witness to will give their life to Christ. If that were the case, Christianity would have won the world decades ago. In real life, you can witness to someone for years and they never change. Christian fiction used to seem like every character in the story had to get saved, but in recent years it’s become more realistic. As I write, I read the story and ask honestly “Was this enough to draw this person to God?” Then I try to follow that character into their own decision.

What was the hardest part about writing Stolen Lives?

That’s an easy one to answer: cutting the fat in the story. My finished draft of the novel was over 140k words. I loved every page and it had some plot twists that came out of nowhere. The conversion of one character and the refusal of another to convert was detailed and added depth to the characters. Rachel’s parents played a much bigger role in things as well. But I had to cut it down for the final draft to 92k. It was like performing surgery on my child, as it were. I lost a lot of favorite scenes, but in the end the story was tightened a lot and the tension ratcheted up several notches. As an added benefit, it gave me a stronger place to go in my follow-up novel. Events in Levi’s past were fully explained in my original draft of the novel, but cut out of the final draft. Now they’ve been moved to the next one, and allow for a powerful crisis of faith in his life.

How do you keep the “edge” in your stories as far as violence/adult situations without going too far?

I try to apply an Alfred Hitchcock touch to the stories. He alluded to violent scenes and adult situations, but didn’t always show them. He let the viewer plug in the missing parts and soon the story became personal to them. Consider the famous shower scene in Psycho. Many people consider that to be a very graphic moment, but the knife is never actually shown stabbing into the victim. I’ve known people who swear it did, but it doesn’t. Their mind fills in the blanks. I try to let the readers do the same thing in my story.

There is a seduction scene in the novel that is alluded to but never shown. The reaction from different characters is noted in the aftermath though, and that’s enough. The reader understands what happened.

As far as violence goes, I tried to keep it from being gratuitous. I want action in the story, and I love a good fight scene as much as anyone, but again I try to keep everything grounded in reality. This wasn’t Mission Impossible or Alias where the only way out of every situation was to fight or die. If there was another way out besides conflict, I chose it…but sometimes I’d put the characters in such a situation that it was the only way.

Portal by Brian ReavesYour Time Slip novels, published before Stolen Lives, featured a character who travels through time. What are your thoughts on speculative fiction in the CBA market? Is it a dead horse, or are its days still coming?

There’s no doubt it’s coming. Writers like Ted Dekker, Eric Wilson, and TL Hines keep pushing the envelope for Christian fiction. The books on the shelves now would have never seen the light of day ten years ago, but the market has grown. I firmly believe it won’t be much longer before you see it explode for us. Most people don’t realize how many writers are currently putting out stories of that nature. There’s a great website called WhereTheMapEnds.com that concentrates primarily on Christian speculative fiction. Jeff Gerke—an incredible author, editor, and the man I like to call “The Champion of Christian Speculative Fiction”—runs the website and it’s exhaustive on the subject.

The publisher who finally takes a chance on it (and does it right) will find a hungry audience of readers ready for stories of that type. I think sometimes we don’t give Christians enough credit. I actually submitted Portal to several publishers, but was told there was no audience for it at the time. They said a Christian time-travel novel wouldn’t work because it would offend too many people. I was told it would be as if I was taking away God’s power to control destiny and putting it in the hands of mortal men. That was never my intention though. I just wanted to tell a fun story. Eventually I published Portal myself and found an audience ready for that type of story. I’ve received lots of emails from Christians who read the story and enjoyed it, but never received one from anyone who was offended by the time travel aspect. Christians aren’t shallow. We can honestly tell the difference between fantasy and reality, and we can suspend our disbelief long enough to enjoy a good story every now and then.

Just wait and see. Someone’s novel will come out and get such a response the publishers will be scrambling to fill the void in their catalog. While The DaVinci Code isn’t speculative fiction by any means, it illustrates the point how one novel can fill a void and send publishers in a frenzy to cash in on it. How many other “secret code in historical works” novels have come out since that one? Dozens, and there were several before it was published (though no one paid attention to them). Once that one hit though, readers became enamored with the concept and bought similar books to get more of it. And you have no idea how many writers talk about the novel they’re working on by saying “It’s like a cross between The DaVinci Code and whatever”. All that to say, the right novel written by the right author will open the door for an entirely new genre for Christian fiction. Once we remove those limits to reality you’ll see what truly exciting storytellers Christians can be.

What would you love to write someday but haven’t yet?

Because of the impact The Illustrated Man had on me, I realize the power of short stories. My goal is to someday publish a short story collection of Ray Bradbury/Twilight Zone type stories with a Christian slant. Editors and publishers say the market isn’t there for it right now, but I’m not giving up the dream. I’ve been working on it for years and have had several stories published in various places with positive responses. Whenever I get a story finished I add it to this collection and wait. It’ll see the light of day sometime, even if I have to publish it myself years down the road. Several of my stories are posted at InFuzeMag.com, if anyone’s interested in seeing what I’m talking about.

Besides your programming and writing, you’re also a musician and can play the guitar, piano, and drums. Have you always been interested in music?

Very much so. I started playing the drums when I was 11 and had the normal dreams of someday being in a band playing in front of thousands. While a fun instrument to play, it’s not the best for a solo career in church. I’d always wanted to play the guitar but never really had the patience to learn.

Then God stepped in again.

I was at a Single’s Retreat in Tennessee watching a guy named Michael John Clement lead worship with an acoustic guitar. There were dozens of Christians together with their hearts raised in worship and song. I remember thinking in that service, “God, I’d love to be able to do something like he’s doing. What a powerful anointing he has.” It wasn’t even a request, as much as just a statement. Six months later, I drove past a music shop and saw a guitar hanging in the window. I decided it was time to learn, so I pulled in and got it. Two weeks after that the worship leader for my church’s youth ministry left and I was asked to fill in for a while. One night I was leading worship with my guitar in front of almost two hundred teenagers, and God just gently spoke to me in the middle of it all and said, “Remember what you said?” I just broke down crying right there as I realized how truly loving God really is toward us His children. I’ve been “filling in” for the past 7 years and love it.

Can you tell us about some of the artists/bands that have influenced your life?

Michael John Clement sparked the desire for worship. King’s X, The Choir, The Violet Burning, and Novella challenged me with their ability to create word pictures with their poetic lyrics.

Do you listen to music when you write? If so, what are some of your favorite bands/artists?

When I write I listen to soundtracks that fit the mood of the scene I’m working on. I listen to E.S. Posthumus and various movie soundtracks (“Road to Perdition”, “Somewhere in Time”, all three of the “Lord of the Rings” movies) for most scenes. Whenever I’m writing a graveside or deathbed scene, I’m listening to “I Grieve” by Peter Gabriel. I save it for just those special occasions. When Robert visits his wife’s grave toward the end of Stolen Lives, that’s the song I heard in my head.

Is it ever a struggle to balance your day job and writing? How do you manage?

It’s definitely a challenge, but anytime there’s a time struggle, my family comes first. My wife is incredibly understanding and supportive, so she understands when I have to shut myself in my office and hammer out a few chapters. But I always make sure my wife and children are the priority. When it’s a choice between writing or family night, it’s not a tough decision. Yes, this may give me some anxious moments when deadlines approach and I have to stay up later to get it done (and I’ve never missed a deadline yet), but I made the decision a long time ago that it would mean nothing to me if my name was on the best-seller list, but my kids didn’t know who I was anymore.

What are two things people might be surprised to know about you?

I’m a black belt in Tae Kwon Do, and an avid amateur magician. I guess that’s why the character of Ian Richardson is such a favorite of mine. Come to a book signing and you might see a few card tricks!

When you’re not writing, what do you enjoy doing?

Reading and spending time with my family. Before I started seriously writing, I used to read two to three novels a week. Now I may get through two in a month. I’m not bothered by it; it just causes me to be a little more selective in what I choose to read.

Three things always found in your refrigerator:

Milk, ice cream, and some flavor of Crystal Light.

Writing is often a sedatary profession. Is there anything you do to beat stress and keep in shape?

I’m not as active as I should be, but I enjoy walking and playing with my dogs. Whenever I’ve hit a wall in writing and I feel the desire to throw my laptop out the window, it’s time to go outside.

You’re next in line at Starbucks. What are you ordering?

Something for my wife (I’m not a big coffee drinker).

What’s currently in your iPod?

Just about anything. I have music, audio books, old time radio shows, and even comedians like Bob Newhart and Bill Cosby. I have over 5,000 songs in it right now.

What’s next for you novel-wise?

I just finished a supernatural thriller featuring Ian Richardson, and I’m currently working on two novels at once. One is particularly exciting to me because it’s a concept that’s never been done in Christian fiction before. I don’t know if I’ll find a publisher brave enough to tackle the project right now, but fans of Christian speculative fiction would love it. As I said, our time is coming!

Anything else you’d like to share with TitleTrakk.com readers?

If you have a dream, give it to God. If it’s from Him, He’ll make it happen with your obedience. If it’s not His dream for your life, it might not happen—but would you really want it to anyway? He can do more in five seconds with an obedient Christian than you could accomplish in five years on your own.

I have a blog that I try to update pretty often. You can also join my newsletter by going here. They’re the first to know about new short stories and contests (yes, I enjoy giving things away). And finally, I love to hear from readers! You can contact me via my website.

C.J. DarlingtonC.J. Darlington is the award-winning authof of Thicker than Blood, Bound by Guilt, and Ties that Bind. She is a regular contributor to Family Fiction Digital Magazine and NovelCrossing.com. A homeschool graduate, she makes her home in Pennsylvania with her family and their menagerie of dogs, a cat, and a paint horse named Sky. Visit her online at her author website. You can also look her up at Twitter and Facebook.