Interview with NY Times Bestselling Author A. J. Hartley

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing NY Times Bestselling Author A.J. Hartley today! A.J. is the international bestselling author of a dozen novels including the mystery/thrillers such as THE MASK OF ATREUS, young adult fantasies like ACT OF WILL, and children’s fantasies like DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT (which won SIBA’s best YA novel of 2012). Hartley With David Hewson he has written two adaptations of Shakespeare plays as Game of Thrones-esque epic thrillers, the first of which was MACBETH, A NOVEL (audio edition voiced by Alan Cumming), and HAMLET, PRINCE OF DARKNESS. When he’s not writing, A. J. is UNC Charlotte’s Robinson Professor of Shakespeare.

A.J., I just finished reading ACT OF WILL and enjoyed it tremendously! Like my own ARCH ENEMIES, it is a first-person high fantasy story with a punnish title about a cowardly young entertainer with a sarcastic voice who gets thrown into an adventure against his will — so you can see why it appeals to me. (The stories otherwise have nothing in common plot-wise.) What inspired you to write ACT OF WILL?

A.J. HARTLEY: I grew up reading high fantasy—Tolkien, Le Guin, Lewis, and the like — and loved it all, but as my reading tastes expanded, I started to crave fantasy which was rooted in some version of reality and didn’t take itself too seriously. I’m a big fan of Terry Pratchett because I think he proves that fantasy with a comic edge needn’t be “light” and can be as serious as more obviously ponderous works. I like that. I’ve always been a devotee of writing which is fun, outrageously populist, deliberately and self-consciously “genre” but still rich and complex and layered. Like Shakespeare, a master genre writer if ever there was one. ACT OF WILL grew out of many of these impulses: high fantasy with an attitude and a strong sense of character voice, swords and sorcery with a little Salinger thrown in.

VENTRELLA: It seems to have gone through a number of different printings with different publishers. Can you share that story with us?

HARTLEY: From the first time I submitted the manuscript, I ran into the familiar problem of publishers saying something like “we love it, but we don’t know what it is.” In other words, it was considered a hybrid in terms of genre. They didn’t know what shelf to put it on. It took me twenty years to sell it. Literally. By then the market had evolved so that smart-mouth heroes and a pointed absence of dwarves and elves were no longer considered antithetical to fantasy.

Even so, when the book came out from Tor, people weren’t sure how to market it. The original hardback cover (which I actually really liked) didn’t look like a fantasy novel at all, and it certainly didn’t suggest its young adult protagonist. Both novels (ACT OF WILL was followed by WILL POWER) were very well reviewed (the second book made Kirkus Top ten for the year –- and Kirkus are notoriously hard to please!) but they didn’t really sell. ActofWill

When they went into paperback, Tor went with more conventional fantasy style covers, but that didn’t solve the problem. Simply put, people who read them liked them, but not enough people read them. They eventually went out of print and I self-published them with the current, more aggressively YA covers. Interestingly, these covers (stylishly designed by a wonderful designer called Asha Hossain) have really touched a chord with readers and book sellers. They play up the drama of the stories, rather than the slightly tongue in cheek tone, but they fit the books very well indeed.

VENTRELLA: ACT OF WILL takes place in a sort of alternate middle ages, in that there are some things that are definitely relatable to the real medieval world (the way women were treated, men playing female parts in plays, etc.) yet without using any real places (and of course, adding some magic to it). How did you decide what to use and what not to use? In other words, how did you go about developing the world?

HARTLEY: To be honest, Michael, I didn’t. I just made it up as I went along, doing remarkably little of the kind of systematic world building I would do now. The world of the books is an odd mixture of my historical work as a Shakespearean, my travels all over the world (there are moments which — at least to me — evoke India, for example, where I had been right before the final version came into focus), and the voice is clearly modern, without being so contemporary that it would date quickly. What the world contains and doesn’t was determined by the story and the character, particularly the voice of the character.

VENTRELLA: What makes a novel Young Adult? When writing one, how do you change your style (if at all)?

HARTLEY: Most importantly, it’s about the age of the protagonist, and therefore about confronting adulthood in all its aspects. Beyond that, a young adult novel can do anything you might do in an adult novel. YA is defined by the age of the readership rather than by genre, of course, which means that there’s a lot of different kinds of stories within the bracket. Some are virtually indistinguishable from a middle grades novel, while others push the envelope as far as possible in matters of sex, violence, subject matter and vocabulary. So long as you are consistent and clear from the outset as to what you are writing, you can do pretty much what you want. For me, style has less to do with age group as it is to do with the sub genre or style of the story and I never consciously self-censer or simplify.

VENTRELLA: What are your upcoming projects?

HARTLEY: My next publication will be the HAMLET, PRINCE OF DARKNESS (co-written with David Hewson) performed by Richard Armitage (Thorin Oakenshield in the Hobbit movies) which comes out May 20th. I think that will get a lot of attention. hamlet-cover-300x300 After that, I’m not sure. I’m mid stream on a couple of YA projects, but they aren’t done yet.

VENTRELLA: Of which of your fiction books are you most proud and why?

HARTLEY: This will sound like a dodge, but it’s not. I’m always proud of my work when I first finish it and wouldn’t want it published if I wasn’t, so each project tends to have a special place in my head/heart. Each book has something about it I’m proud of. In ACT OF WILL, it’s voice. In WILL POWER it’s about pulling off a socio-political critique of the genre from within.

VENTRELLA: What should someone read first if they want to get to know your work?

HARTLEY: Depends what they like. If they like YA or adult fantasy, ACT OF WILL. For something a little more Harry Potter-esque, I’d recommend DARWEN ARKWRIGHT AND THE PEREGRINE PACT. For historically rooted thrillers, MASK OF ATREUS. For Shakespeare fans, the Macbeth or Hamlet.

VENTRELLA: I see from your CV that you were studying for your doctorate at Boston University around the same time I was graduating from law school and being a public defender there. Maybe we even rode the T together from Brighton. Why did you leave?

HARTLEY: I left after completing my Ph.D and getting my first academic job in Georgia.

VENTRELLA: Much of your work is scholarly. How have you found your styles compare when writing fiction and nonfiction?

HARTLEY: Apples and oranges. There may be a little bleed over in terms of ideas which inform both, but academic writing is an entirely different beast, from writing fiction. Scholarly books are much slower to produce for me, much cagier, much more research-driven and hyper aware of what other people have said. I can do the first draft of a novel in two months. My performance history of Julius Caesar took me almost six years.

VENTRELLA: I’ve always wanted to ask a Shakespeare expert this: Of the hundreds of Shakespeare movies that have been released, which one(s) is/are your favorite(s)? And which just made you scream at how terrible they were?

HARTLEY: I can usually find something of value in most half-way competent films or stagings because I’m looking to be shown something new from a production, not a “correct” interpretation of the play, which I don’t believe exists. We do theatre/film to generate a new art object which grows out of the (necessarily partial) play text, not to somehow broadcast the original in some kind of unmediated way. DarwenArkwrightmedium That’s aid, I do, of course, have preferences. Of recent efforts, I like the Loncraine Richard III with Ian McKellan as an early twentieth century fascist, Branaugh’s Henry V, the Goold Macbeth with Patrick Stewart as a Stalinist tyrant, the filmed stage version of Greg Doran’s Hamlet starring David Tennant, and Joss Whedon’s wonderfully intimate Much Ado.

VENTRELLA: How do you deal with the conspiracy nuts who claim Shakespeare never wrote his plays?

HARTLEY: Impatiently.

VENTRELLA: Shakespeare is often cited by authors who point out that what makes a good story is not originality, but the way the story is told. Do you agree?

HARTLEY: Well, it’s sort of a false binary, isn’t it? Shakespeare didn’t generally originate plots, but the stories have his unmistakable stamp which goes beyond sentence-level utterance. I think he proves that a gifted author can own and refresh a story people thought they knew

VENTRELLA: How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

HARTLEY: Hmmm… I believe that writing is generally a fairly self-selecting process, in that you need to love stories and words and work to be good at it, but I see plenty of writing from people who have been at it a while which isn’t that good, so no, I don’t believe anyone can do it. There’s a lot you can learn—from classes, from studying other people’s work, and from just doing it—and I think that most people can achieve a basic competence in getting a story down coherently. But writing really well, with power and subtlety, with an eye for character and an ear for voice? No. I don’t think that can simply be learned by anyone.

VENTRELLA: Do you think readers want to read about “believable” characters or do they really want characters that are “larger than life” in some way?

HARTLEY: I think that’s a genre question. Most people who read thrillers and fantasy novels want big drama and larger than life characters which take them out of their conventional reality. For people who read realist literary fiction, generally that’s not true. I like something in between the two.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

HARTLEY: I outline briefly and loosely — 10-15 pages that sets up the story, main characters, world, key scenes. The book, however, is in the details. Execution is all. atradus But the outline helps me to start with a clear sense of what the book is going to be so that I don’t wander for fifty pages trying to figure out what the story is, what drives it. You need a special gift for self-denying and brutal editing to write without an outline, I think, and most writers don’t have it. It can take me months, even years, to see what a book needs in terms of cutting. Outlines help get me there faster.

VENTRELLA: Do you find yourself creating a plot first, a character first, or a setting first? What gets your story idea going?

HARTLEY: Varies from book to book. ACT OF WILL, for instance, began with character voice. Plot came later. MASK OF ATREUS began with two intersecting plot ideas. DARWEN began with a way of reinventing the cross-over-into-a-fantasy-world I first encountered in The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe. WILL POWER came from an idea about what I found frustrating about some conventional fantasy…

VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?

HARTLEY: Usually, it means, write what you value, what you want to read, what you care about. Then it means, make sure you know what you need to pull it off.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to avoid “info dumps”?

HARTLEY: Cut them out and then find ways to reveal the information in another way! Unhelpful, I know. I think it helps to think of how movies handle the problem, usually visually.

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?

HARTLEY: I’ve never been a short story writer. I’ve done a few recently, but I think it’s a very different skill from writing novels, and for the most part I don’t they necessarily transfer that helpfully. If you want to be a novelist, write novels.

VENTRELLA: Do you think short stories are harder to write than novels?

For me they are, to do them well as genre fiction. They are, paradoxically, easier to pull off as literary fiction, I think, because they don’t have to have the pesky necessity of plot and event. Most genre short stories read—to me—like unfinished novels or, worse, mere episodes.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you have to people trying to find an agent?

HARTLEY: Write a really good book. Tears-of-the-Jaguar-cover-199x300

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

HARTLEY: Badly. Minimally. Irritably.

VENTRELLA: We’ve met at a few science fiction conventions. Do you find attending these to be a useful activity?

HARTLEY: I do, and find them useful to a point. They can help you answer real questions about the craft and the business, but their real value is in making you feel part of a community. Writing can be very isolating, and it is good to know other people are in the same boat. And sometimes they can produce connections which are directly useful. BUT, some people treat the discourse around writing as a substitute for writing itself. It’s not. Never will be.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

HARTLEY: It can be a very useful tool for people who already have a fan base, or for people who just want to make their work available but aren’t looking to make a lot of money off it. Some people do make money, of course, but I don’t think they are representative and for many the riches some self-pub promoters tout will never materialize. I also think self-publishing requires a degree of self-promotion most people are not good at, and which takes time away from the development and production of their actual craft: writing. Self-publishing can be a nice extra string to your bow, or a way to find an outlet as you work, but I would still recommend traditional publishing to most writers. Sometimes—not always, of course—but perhaps more often than we usually admit, rejection from publishers is indicative of the fact that the work isn’t ready. Publishing it in any form can do you more harm than good in the long term. I wrote lots of books that were rejected before I had one accepted, and I thank the stars that I didn’t opt to self-publish them. I might not have been able to see it at the time, but I can now. They weren’t ready. They weren’t good enough.

Interview with author Thomas Erb

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: From the snowy confines of Upstate New York, from a place he calls “Hell’s 1/2 Acre,” author/artist Thomas A. Erb brings stories of the unlikely hero: from extreme brutal violence, to touching, gripping interpersonal relationships sure to catch the reader and never let them free. (He wrote that.) 2012-09-29 22.36.48

Thomas, how did you first become interested in writing?

THOMAS ERB: I’ve always been a storyteller. It started visual when I was two and used to draw elaborate battles with army men fighting the Nazis or another vile foe. It then turned to comic books. For most of my young life, all I wanted to do was work for Marvel comics. I would create my own characters and write whole story arcs to accompany all my great illustrations. (pure sarcasm intended.)

Then I got into role-playing games. Yup, that’s right … Dungeons & Dragons, Traveller, Champions, Twilight 2000, Call of Cthulu, you name it, I’ve played it. And, just like for comics, I’d have to create highly detailed character backstories and potential subplots for my DM(s). Although, I never knew if they liked that I did that or not. Oh, as a word of advice … Never piss off a Game Master. Bad idea.

Now, I’ve fallen in love with writing my very own fiction — a love that keeps on growing with each tale I tell.

VENTRELLA: I must admit, my background is similar — I went from creating worlds and stories in D&D to creating them in LARPs to writing my own stories (the characters in my books are so much easier to control than my players).

How much of writing is innate? In other words, do you believe there are just some people who are born storytellers but simply need to learn technique? Or can anyone become a good writer?

ERB: I believe we all have an innate creative talent. Each one of us has something to say and in that yes, we are all storytellers. However, much like my philosophy with the visual and musical arts, I think that innate ability has a limitation. By that I mean, while we all can create, there is a certain level where some folks top off their talent. Some folks are just “born” to be X. Poe/Hemingway/Toklien/King were surely born to the written word. Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Picasso, Rembrandt were put on this earth to give us visual masterpieces. Krupa, Rich, Peart were born to make playing the drums into a sonic art form. Same goes for the rest of us.

Quick life anecdote: While I was born to draw, I never tried hard. It’s always come easy to me. I had friends that would bust their humps and draw for hours and hours and no matter what, they couldn’t draw the same level as I did. (Now, I am saying this with no ego at all. Just an observation.) The same holds true for drumming. I’ve been playing drums since I was 16 and really love jamming. Sure, I’ve been in many bands and jammed with some amazingly talented musicians but I’ve plateaued my drumming talent. I know I will never be a Neil Peart. I wasn’t “born” with that level of ability. Even if I took more lessons and practiced for ten hours a day. It’s just a reality.

So … very long answer I know, but yes, writing talent is human nature but the level of craftsmanship,language, once in a generation storytelling ability does have a cut off. Not everyone can be Stephen King, Tolkien or James Joyce.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about TONES OF HOME!

ERB: My very first novella, TONES OF HOME, was released in June of last year and it’s the most brutal, violent story I’ve ever written. If you dig graphic scenes with tons of blood, machetes and shotguns, rednecks and oh yeah, the Beatles … then this story is right up your jukebox.TONES official Cover

I am currently working on my first novel. (well, the one that I actually want folks to read.) It’s a deep story of loss, troubled relationships, a Nor’easter and a black monster coming to a small lakeside town, seeking revenge. I’m really loving this project and hope to have it in the hands of an agent by Thanksgiving.

VENTRELLA: What should someone read first if they want to get to know your work?

ERB: That’s a really tough one. I feel like I am just now, seeing my true “voice” come to fruition. While I loved writing all the great bloodletting in TONES OF HOME, I don’t think I am a Richard Laymon kind of writer. But, it’s the best work I’ve done thus far. So, Yeah, I’d say check out TONES OF HOME or “Spencer Weaver gets Rebooted.” It’s in a new anthology called FRESH FEAR.

VENTRELLA: How do you make your protagonist a believable character?

ERB: All of my stories seem to be based around an extremely flawed character. Or, as I like to refer to them, the unlikely hero. Usually they have something about them, whether it be a physical or mental determent. I have a weakness for the “loser”. The outcast, the outsider. A fat or skinny kid with asthma. I just identify with that and my thinking is, “hey, if I can feel for this guy/gal, then the readers should as well.” It’s not about having the Chisel-chinned, barrel-chested hero, saving the day. No … that’s the easy way out. It’s more of a challenge to break away from that trope and find a way for this less-than-heroic protagonist to overcome all the huge hurdles that makes up a great compelling story.

All characters must have flaws. Both protagonists and antagonists. (even Darth Vader has a soft side.)

VENTRELLA: Certainly agree with that (as you can tell if you read about the reluctant “hero” of my fantasy books.)

ERB: There are so many basic story ideas out there in the ether and to me, it’s more of how you get there as opposed to reworking old ground. Either way, readers want to escape and I hope I offer a wide mix of rich characters and tales they can sink their hungry teeth into.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily or just jump right in, for instance?

ERB: When I first started writing, I just sat down, opened a cold beer and let the muse of chaos take the wheel. That’s how I wrote my first novel. (a zombie tale that might see the light of day … someday.) But, when I went back to write a second draft, I was overwhelmed. Too many characters. Too many plots and subplots.

So, now, I am working on a happy medium kind of approach. I need to have some kind outline. It’s always loose and organic. Nothing is written in concrete. That would feel too much like a term paper and not an adventure.

I write the basic novel idea is. Usually the characters come to me almost immediately. I then write a very loose outline and then, write the first draft. Get it all down, fast and dirty. Never looking back.

Side note: Dry erase boards and sticky notes are a writer’s best friend.

VENTRELLA: Writers are told to “write what you know.” What does this mean to you?

ERB: This is lame, but I’m going to steal from the master. Stephen King states in his must-read ON WRITING book that we should take that statement as much extensively and inclusively as possible.

While I may not know anything about being a Gunny Sargent in the Royal Space Marines guarding the Princess Allayha, I do know what it’s like to always try to live with the demon of my father being a cruel man whom I could never please. You can use that kind of thing in your fiction.

VENTRELLA: How did you get started? What was your first story or book published?

After on a whim, I spent a year writing a zombie novel, I decided that I really enjoyed this writing thing and I started meeting other writers online. Back then, it was Myspace and through a few message boards. I discovered Brian Keene, (who’s book GHOUL made me want to write seriously) and found out he was attending a con in Ohio. I went and met him and some other folks that changed my life forever.

I began writing short stories and then submitted my short story, “Cutting Class” to the DARK THINGS II anthology edited by Ty Schwamberger (whom I met at the con) and next thing I knew, Bazzinga! I was a published author. mock cover

VENTRELLA: Do you think it is important to start by trying to sell short stories or should a beginning author jump right in with a novel?

ERB: I think each person tackles their writing in their own way. I jumped straight into the novel but I was only doing it for fun. It wasn’t until later that I wanted to do something with this whole writer gig.

With some hindsight, I’d suggest write some short stories first. With shorter works, you really learn how to write tight, lean prose. Plus, it’s far easier (and I use that term loosely) to get published.

VENTRELLA: Do you think short stories are harder to write than novels?

ERB: I think both have their own angels and demons. It also depends on what kind of storyteller you are. If you like deep character development and more than two intricate plots…a novel is best for you. If you really dig fast-paced, gripping tales with a small cast… short stories are for you.
I love writing both. I usually like to write a short story in between other long works. It’s a nice change of pace.

VENTRELLA: How do you promote your work?

ERB: Platform. Publishers are looking to see if you have an effective and active writer’s platform. And to me, that means an engaging, fresh online presence. A blog, Facebook, Twitter, Pintrest, Goodreads account. And many, many more. Too many, in my opinion. It can be a distraction, trying to keep up with updating all your social media sites. (A necessary evil, but still evil.)

I do giveaways, I’ve done podcast interviews, blog talk radio interviews. I go to conventions when the money is right and try to post something funny, new and interesting on the social sites as much as I can manage.

I’m always looking for new ways to get my work out there. It’s an ongoing process.

13. Do you attend conventions or writing conferences? Do you find these to be a useful activity?

I attend as many as time and finances allow. Conventions are one of the biggest reasons I’m here today. I’ve made many, life-long friendships as well as business connections. It’s a must to get you and your words out there. We writers live and create in a room, all alone. You need to get out and meet other like-minded folks who know what you’ve been going through.

Plus, I’ve gotten the blurbs for my books and stories because of the conventions and conferences. Writing and life in general is about relationships.

Get you and your stories out there.

VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing?

ERB: When I first started writing back in 2007, self-publishing was the devil’s work. It was much maligned- rightfully so and very much a joke. But now, in 2014, you are a fool if you don’d consider exploring the self-publishing market. Things are fluid and ever-changing in the publishing world and the once hated and mocked world of self-publishing is now becoming common place.
The secret is to put out work that kicks the crap out of any book that comes out of the big 6, 5, 4, 3, 2, 1 …

VENTRELLA: What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever got?fresh-fear3

ERB: Get the first draft down, fast and dirty. Don’t stop to worry if it’s good. That’s what second and third drafts are for.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting writer that you wish someone had given to you?

ERB: Research the publisher before you sign a contract. Know the business side of things. Royalty rates/payments/editing, etc.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

ERB: Anything from Jonathan Maberry. They guy is a monster and tackles all the genres I love. YA zombies, military thrillers, comic books, you name it. He is my mentor and I use him as my career guidepost.

VENTRELLA: And I couldn’t help but notice he named a character after you in his latest novel…

ERB: Jon was so kind to have his signature cop-turned Department of Military Sciences bad ass Joe Ledger clean my clock in his last Ledger novel, EXTINCTION MACHINE. I think my jaw still pops when I talk.

VENTRELLA: What can we expect next from you?

ERB: I have a retro-zombie novella that is looking for a new home. And I am currently writing a wintry monster novel that I hope to have completed and in the hands of agent by the end of the year.

I am also working on a comic script, a screenplay and a self-publishing project of my short works I hope to have out early in 2015.

I love having a lot on my plate. Not just saying that as a fat guy. I have many stories and projects inside me and time is of the essence.

Dreamers in Hell

The “Heroes in Hell” anthology series launched in 1986. Dreamers in HellThe theme features the denizens of Hell and how they continue to live their evil lives in the afterworld. This allows for hugely creative stories featuring the famous and infamous.

The series, edited by Janet Morris, has seen some of the biggest names in the genre, including Robert Silverberg (who won a Hugo award for his “Hell” story), C.J. Cherryh, Gregory Benford, David Drake, Robert Asprin, George Alec Effinger, and now, some guy named Michael A. Ventrella.

I remember reading these books way back when. I never thought I’d ever be in them as an author.

My story “Hell, I Must Be Going” is in the latest version. Here are links to the paperback, kindle and Nook versions. This is a huge book with lots of great stories!

Below is a list of the stories you’ll find in this collection. I asked each author to give me a short description of their stories, and the ones who responded are included.

“Barefoot, on Brimstone” by Sara M. Harvey

“In the Shadow of Paradise” by Jason Cordova: The only way to escape Hell is by redemption. But how can a man who is irredeemable escape? Ponce de Leon must answer this question as he struggles to find another way before he is damned forever.

“Face of the Enemy” by Leo Champion: Che Guevara discovers an appreciation for capitalism with the success of a revolution-branded T-shirt factory – but an old victim is plotting revenge.

“Siegfreid’s Blade” by Petra Jorns: Once in hell, Kriemhild finds out that she herself was guilty for Siegfried´s death, her beloved, and this is her own, private hell.

“More Light! Goeth” by Bettina Meister: To his great dismay Goethe, the poet laureate, finds himself in hell instead of heaven. This can not be accepted. After all, he is The Goethe – poet, scientist, master sorcerer. Brace yourself, Goethe, for hell knows every secret of yours!

“Alms for Oblivion” by Janet Morris: The Devil and the Angel of Death conspire to expose the unrepentant damned.

“Fools in Hell” by Janet Morris and Chris Morris: Shakespeare and Marlowe must write a new play to please Satan.

“The Unholy Hole” by Nancy Asire

“Ophie and the Undertaker” by Shebat Legion:  It’s a face off between Ophelia and The Undertaker! Will the rebellious Ophelia still have a face when they are done?

“Hell I Must Be Going” by Michael A. Ventrella: Groucho and Chico Marx cause havoc in the Bureau of Hellish Assignments, but their chaos has a purpose …

“Blood and Ash” by Tom Barczak: Beowulf, Boudica and Joan of Arc find a common bond, and some unexpected help from Lewis Carroll to escape the Gates of Hell.

“Just Dessert” by John Manning:  Joseph Mengele and the other Nazis are forced to do scullery work supervised by the Purple Gang’s Jewish mobsters while Matthew Hopkins and John Stearns attempt to assassinate Satan at the grand reopening of the Hellexandria Memorial Library.

“The Wager” by Deborah Koren

“The ITTT” by Michael H. Hanson: The Institute of Terrified and Tortured Technicians is throwing its annual convention: Sergei Korolev, Father of the Soviet Space Program, is crashing the party.

“Zero Sum Game” by Richard Groller: Nikolai Tesla and Thomas Edison re-fight the “War of the Currents” with disastrous results for New Hell City.

“Essence Helliance” by Yelle Hughes: Where you donate to receive a break. Maybe.

“And the Truth Will Set You Free” by Jack William Finley: Some times the greatest wisdom in life or death is in knowing what questions should never be asked, because sometimes the truth isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

“Stairway to Heaven” by Ed McKeown: Frank Hopkins and the demon Smoke are drawn into Emile Du Chatelet’s plan to escape hell and demand redress in heaven, or failing that, to depose God.

“Head Games” by Bill Snider: Fionn mac Cumhaill learns what happens when two sentient weapons meet; and, he gets to meet Caliban’s Mom … Freud also asks: Got Wood?

“Knocking on Heaven’s Gates” by Larry Atchley, Jr.:  Anton LaVey gets psychotherapy from William James to help him battle with his inner demons, while Guy Fawkes leads the vanguard of an assault on Heaven in an attempt to escape Hell and confront the God who damned him.

“The Knife Edge Bridge” by David L. Burkhead: William Dunlap Simpson, Jim Bridger, and Perseus, Son of Zeus, fall off the Knife Edge Bridge into a terrifying deeper level of Hell.

“Hellexandria the Great” by Sarah Snyder Gray Hulcy: Preparations for the reopening gala of the Hellexandria Memorial Library are racing to a finish… and so are some of the guests.

“Hell Bent” by Janet Morris: Hell’d over, by unpopular demand: the play that proves Christopher Marlowe’s point: ‘Hell is just a frame of mind.’

Submit a story for the next Tales of Fortannis

If you’re reading this blog, you’re either a reader interested in the authors I’ve interviewed or a writer looking for advice.

So here’s to that second group.

The second TALES OF FORTANNIS collection has been released and now it’s time for me to begin work on the third. So I’m looking for stories.BardInHand-510

About the collection: The TALES OF FORTANNIS series is published by Double Dragon and is available in paperback, ebook, kindle, and nook. Double Dragon is perhaps the largest science fiction and fantasy e-book publisher out there, and has been around for about a dozen years. They have a good reputation, pay royalties on time, and make sure the book is available everywhere (Amazon, Barnes and Nobles, all e-book distributors).

Previously unpublished authors are encouraged to submit, but should be aware that we ask for at least two years of exclusivity which can limit your ability to resell or republish the story later. (You can negotiate the exact terms of exclusivity with Double Dragon.) Once your story appears in TALES OF FORTANNIS, it will severely limit its future possibilities, including a future pay rate. Note as well that while the book will be promoted in a number of ways, sales will not be huge. Don’t give up your day job. You should be submitting mostly for the exposure. As a standard warning that applies in all similar cases, you need to decide if publishing your work in e-formats and/or on the web, giving up your First Publishing Right for a token payment, is really what you want to do.

About Fortannis: Fortannis is the fantasy land where my novels ARCH ENEMIES and THE AXES OF EVIL take place. Your story does not have to take place in the same kingdom as my stories, and you can create your own kingdom and characters. It’s a high fantasy world with elves, dwarves, the mysterious biata, gryphons, goblins, and more.

Magic comes from the orderly progression of nature, and mages can learn to tap into that power to do basic spells that manipulate the earth, air, fire or water. Healing magics exist, as they speed up the body’s own healing process and tap into that power. Death magic also exists, because death is part of the orderly path of nature.

There is another source of power, and that is chaos magic, sometimes known as necromancy. This magic runs counter to the orderly progression and is used to harm and to do unnatural things like raise zombies and undead. This kind of magic is much easier to use and thus very tempting to those trying to learn the magical arts. Every spell has its chaotic counterpart which is stronger — you can either heal someone a little or hurt someone a lot. Chaos magic eventually corrupts the land and the mind of the user, and is illegal and frowned upon in decent society.

There are no gods, churches, or religions.

Keep in mind that although these are fantasy stories, you are not limited to telling tales of adventure, with knights fighting dragons and wizards casting powerful spells. The world is merely the setting for the stories. I am looking for a variety of tales, as you can see from the previous books. There is one story about someone trying to steal the recipe for his favorite pie. Another concerns three goblin children spying on the curious humans. A third involves a con artist trying to mislead a nobleman. The theme of the Tales of Fortannis series is the fantasy world, not the type of story. (To get a synopsis of the stories that have run in the previous books, check out the blog posts for A Bard’s Eye View and A Bard in the Hand.)

If you want to submit a story, I first suggest that you read one of my novels or one of the collections. It will help.

Submissions: Submissions are open for short stories of under 10,000 words with no minimum. (A good story should take exactly as many words as needed.) This is an ongoing submission — when I have enough good stories, the next edition will be published. Unpublished authors are encouraged to submit, but will still face the same standards for submissions as the published authors. .

All stories should be double-spaced in rtf format with 12 point Times Roman font. There should be no spacing after the paragraphs. The first page must contain the name of the story, the word count, and your name, address, email, and phone number. Your cover letter should list any previous publications.

Proposals and inquiries must be emailed to michael.ventrella@gmail.com.

A Bard in the Hand

Adventure! Drama! Mystery! Humor! It’s all here in the newest TALES OF FORTANNIS anthology.

A BARD IN THE HAND is the second book in this series, featuring stories set in the world of my novels. BardInHand-510 The ebook version is now available, soon to be followed by the paperback, nook, and kindle versions.

Here are the cover blurbs:

“Magic. Knights. Werewolves. Doppelgangers. Elves. There’s no telling what will pop up in Michael A. Ventrella’s Fortannis fantasy series when he invites other writers to play in his sandbox. No need to wait for any ‘extended editions.’ These stories are good to go now.” – Daniel M. Kimmel, author of the Hugo-nominated JAR JAR BINKS MUST DIE and SHH! IT’S A SECRET.

“A very fun anthology of tales in a world both expected and very different indeed! In A BARD IN THE HAND, Michael Ventrella and others revisit the world of Fortannis and emerge with tales to astound, amuse, and bemuse; here is sword-and-sorcery to stand well next to that of Leiber and Moorcock, and ordinary people swept up into events far larger than they which can still be addressed with some common sense and cleverness. A young woman makes a choice, and faces the consequences of choice and the price of learning, while another duels in darkness for the soul of a child, and an old man recounts an adventure of his youth that kindles a spark in those who listen. A fun book, well worth reading!” – Ryk Spoor, author of PHOENIX RISING and GRAND CENTRAL ARENA.

“Curl up in your favorite chair with your favorite beverage and get ready for adventure, action and derring-do—it’s all here!” – Gail Z Martin, author of ICE FORGED

This edition features the following tales:

“The Mystery of the Black-Bearded Dwarf” by Michael A. Ventrella: Terin and his fellow squires find themselves in dwarven lands, having to solve a murder where everyone has a motive and an alibi. Can they figure out whodunnit and prevent the dwarven clans from going to war?

“Embarrassing Relations” by Bernie Mojzes and Bob Norwicke: After defending Ashbury from an unspeakable horror from beyond time and space, Maris Goselin finds herself with a new assignment: help the Duke avoid spending quality time with a gibbering out-of-town relative. It seems easy, but Maris soon realizes that although the relative may be insane, insanity is relative, and sometimes making a living has life-threatening consequences.

“Knight’s Gambit” by Tera Fulbright: A newly ordained Knight learns that some things really are black and white.

“Curso and the Perilous Purple Pixie Problem” by Roy C. Booth and Brian Woods: Curso and his friends find themselves traveling to a mysterious cave in order to save a pixie who may be more trouble than she’s worth.

“A Hero of Padrin’s Hold” by Mike Strauss: Sometimes a hero does things that are necessary, and sometimes it is best when no one knows.

“The Golden Gifts” by Laurel Anne Hill: Artha, a biata gifted in magic, must outwit a powerful necromancer. Only a few hours to complete this task remain. If Artha succeeds, her brother’s dying daughter will rest in peace forever. Failure, however, will doom Artha and her beloved young niece to the ranks of the undead.

“A Hero is Born” by Davey Beauchamp: A young man finds himself traveling with a mysterious and possibly crazy bard — which leads him meet a group of villains out to awaken a long-asleep powerful creature. If only a hero would arrive …

“The Vacarran Corsair” by Jesse Grabowski: The streets of Dockside were never the safest of places, even in broad daylight, and even for a skilled pirate. This is a place for homeless children, wealthy and ruthless thieves, and corruption. Here, even the heart of a pirate can change. Loss of innocence can sometimes remove thoughts of plunder and loot … sometimes.

“The Chandler’s Tale” by Henry Hart: Pursued by monsters, a boy becomes lost in the elven wood where he learns that some things are worth dying for.

“Beyond the Bitter River” by Jon Cory: After being banished from the kingdom, Sarlon races for the border, pursued by the king’s guards. His only hope lies in a mysterious elven girl who has taught herself how to do magic … poorly.

“Dreamed Tortures” by Mark Mensch: Nigel finds himself in the home of his long lost love, Kayleigh –however not everything is as it seems. All actions have consequences and the people he relieved of their valuable artifact have some type of payment in mind.

Twisted Tails

There is a successful series of anthologies which has as its thread twisted endings and surprises.

Anyone who has read my stories know that this is a perfect fit for me!TT7-510

The series is called TWISTED TAILS and each cover features a dragon since it is published by Double Dragon books. I have a story in the latest edition, just released! My story is called “The Jesus Secret” in which the discovery of a new Dead Sea Scroll provides new facts about Jesus’ life which the Catholic Church wants to keep secret. And, of course, there’s a twist.

The series is edited by J. Richard Jacobs. This volume has as its connecting theme “Irreverence.” He explain it thusly:

Irreverence is not limited to what many people think — something to do with religion, although that can be a large part of it. Nope, it is a big word with broad meaning. Let me give you a few examples of how it is used:

Irreverent is the adjective from which the noun “irreverence” comes.

Its basic meaning is “disrespectful”. Now you have an idea of just how broad it can be. I’ll wager you can think of a lot of ways to be disrespectful. There is a whole world of irreverence in the pot. Our authors gleefully dip their pens into that pot and scribble out their twisted views of this world-or other worlds.

Words that can be used in place of irreverent (synonyms) are: aweless, cheeky, cocky, contemptuous, crusty, derisive, flip, flippant, fresh, iconoclastic, impertinent, impious, impudent, insolent, irreverential, mocking, out-of-line, profane, rude, sacrilegious, sassy, saucy, tongue-in-cheek, ungodly, unhallowed, unholy and so forth. As you can readily see, the majority of the Twisted Tails authors are world class representatives of the word in all its specific meanings; not just a couple.

I have gathered together several cheeky authors whose impiety is well known and asked them to grace these pages with words of insolence for your reading pleasure. As always, there is no genre restriction. Here you’ll find Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, Thrill-a-minute-even Mainstream. The only common element here is Irreverence. The other big deal about the Twisted Tails series that is a must are unexpected endings and sheer quality of writing. Each author brings his/her unique style and voice to the page, but to get to the page the quality of writing demanded in the Twisted Tails series of anthologies had to have been there or it would have been a “no-go”. Just another rejection slip to add to the stack in an author’s dark corner. Have fun while you cringe at their out-of-line talent at twisting irreverent tales and we hope to see you again-should there be a next time. I have it on good authority that there probably will be a next time, so keep a watch for it.

Here’s the Table of Contents:

1. DEAD BABIES by Jay Greenstein

2. THE JESUS SECRET by Michael A. Ventrella

3. LUCKY CHARLIE’S ESCAPE by Margret Treiber

4. BLOOD RED by Dave Kuzminski

5. PERPETUAL STARLIT NIGHTby Michael D. Smith

6. BEYOND THE REALMS OF DEATH by J. Malcolm Stewart

7. DOOMSDAY CLUB by John Klawitter

8. WINNING IS FOR THE LOSER by J. Richard Jacobs

9. SHOCK THERAPY by Sam Bellotto Jr.

10. INTERVENTION by Eugen Bacon

11. IF TIME PERMITS by Joe Occhipinti

12. THE PROBLEM ON P3 by J. Richard Jacobs

13. JUMPING AT SHADOWS by Joe Powers

14. LADIES OF THE FOUNTAIN by Biff Mitchell

15. TWO GUYS MEET IN A BAR by Margret Treiber

16. COLLECTOR by J. Richard Jacobs

It’s available in every format you can imagine (paperback, ebook, kindle, nook…) Check it out! Get your copy today and let me know what you think of my story!

Interview with Author and Editor J. Richard Jacobs

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author J. Richard Jacobs today! jheadshot J. says he is a country boy turned scientist/engineer/naval architect turned author. He writes science fact, science fiction (usually hard), occasionally horror and fantasy. He’s also the editor of the successful “Twisted Tails” series, the most recent of which has just been released and features a story by Yours Truly. His web page is here.

So tell us about the “Twisted Tails” series!

J. RICHARD JACOBS: Well, first and foremost, The “Twisted Tails” series of anthologies is a demanding thing to get into. The reason for that is simple. I look for quality in every sense for these books. It’s a tough nut to crack for many. In one of them I received 480+ submissions—only twelve were included.

Next, they are eclectic. There is a theme for each, but no genre restrictions are set. As long as the story fits the idea of the theme, I don’t care if it’s Science Fiction, Fantasy, Mystery, Horror (the no gore kind), Paranormal or Mainstream. We’ve had a good run through seven books so far and this new one, TWISTED TAILS VII: IRREVERENCE (the eighth book in the series) is no exception.

VENTRELLA: Wait — it’s the eighth collection and it’s called TWISTED TAILS VII?

Is that a twist?

JACOBS: TWISTED TAILS II was released in two volumes and, though there is a complete edition available, TWISTED TAILS VII is actually the eighth book in the series…. Not a twist, just confusing….

Anyway, the stories have no set word count. There is one major element that must be met, and met well. TwistedTales All of them contain a twist ending (Twisted Tails). It may be subtle or a violent yank on the carpet, but it must be a logical and plausible part of the story line. Not many authors can do that.

All of them are aimed at fun and entertainment. Sometimes the fun is a mite on the dark side, but it’s still fun.

VENTRELLA: The “Twisted Tails” covers all feature dragons – because of Double Dragon Publishing, I assume. Do you think this may mislead people into thinking they’re all high fantasy stories?

JACOBS: Deron Douglas of Double Dragon Publishing and I discussed this in the very beginning as I wanted the books to become a part of the Double Dragon trademark, so to speak. We decided then and there that the way to do that would be for all the covers to feature one or more dragons. The first book, TWISTED TAILS: AN ANTHOLOGY TO PLEASE AND DELIGHT, had two dragons on the ground, a result of flying too close and getting their tails entangled. I think everyone who sees these covers will admit that Deron is quite an artist…!

As for people thinking they’re all High Fantasy, I don’t think that is necessarily true. They are listed with the genres indicated and the overleaf and inside flaps spell it out fairly well. The truth is, most of the books have had at least one Fantasy included in the collection.

VENTRELLA: What kinds of stories will we find in the new book?

JACOBS: Oh, my, now there’s a tough question to answer. Would saying that they’re all great be of any value? I guess not. This edition of the series includes examples of all genres. It drools humor and mystery and fantastic panoramas and shadows and sunshine and darkness and….

All of the authors in this one have gone several extra miles to fill the pages with delightful material that I guarantee will entertain.

VENTRELLA: How do you determine themes for the books?

JACOBS: Oh, boy, that’s a biggie. I have to think long and hard on that before I commit to a theme. Though the process is complicated, the reason is simple. I have developed what could be called a stable of authors, bless’em all, who are highly talented wordsmiths and story spinners. Without them there would be no “Twisted Tails.” TT2-510 You, by the way, are one of them. Oh, you knew that, didn’t you? Okay, so I just gave you a plug on your own blog. I’m not ashamed of that and I am proud to present you in this new one.

Anyway, I have to think about what my authors have produced in the past and how they may handle whatever little germ of a thought I have. After considering that carefully, I can then firm up the idea and name a theme. As an example; this next one in the works has as its theme: Para-Abnormal. I’ll let your imagination deal with that.

VENTRELLA: I also edit a short story collection, and it’s not as easy as it looks. What are the major problems you have had with editing?

JACOBS: Authors. There are a lot of writers in this world—there are very few authors. Now, authors are wonderful in all respects except following instruction about things like format. Also, most authors are atrocious spellers and typists. Typos and spelling errors are a large part of the job. Not so much with grammar, though it rears its ugly head on occasion. I am willing to work with any author to almost any level if they have given me a great story. I’ve even ghostwritten a couple of works for authors who have presented a compelling story.

VENTRELLA: How do you deal with telling authors you have rejected their stories?

JACOBS: That’s simple. I’ve been in this business about 57 years and saying, “What the hell is this? Did you take special classes in school to become this stupid, or does it come naturally?” is easy for me. Okay, okay, I’m really not that cold, but close to it. If someone has presented me with something that shows promise, I will tell them. If they have sent me crap, I’ll tell them that, too, but I try to be diplomatic.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake made by authors who submit to you?

JACOBS: Hah! Format. Format. Format, and telling me their work is copyrighted and I’d better not do anything with it other than what has been agreed upon. Arrogant newbies.

VENTRELLA: What advice do you have for authors wanting to write short stories?

JACOBS: Short stories are harder to write than novels. You have few words to work with, yet you need to land on the run with fully developed characters and that ain’t easy. som510 Pacing a short is not an easy thing, either. The best advice I can offer for those who would dare write short is, write until your fingers hurt, the words on the screen look like they’re printed backwards and your legs are so numb that you can’t feel your feet. Then, do it some more. Read other short stories by great authors from the dim past to see how they made it work. Then, write some more. When you think you have it wired, begin submitting your work everywhere and see what happens. Oh, and do develop a really thick skin; this business is brutal.

VENTRELLA: Which of your novels have been most successful in your opinion?

JACOBS: That depends upon how you view success, doesn’t it? If you think about sales, you have missed the point, in my opinion. Sales are nice for the wallet and, perhaps, for the ego, but personal satisfaction in what you’ve done is far more important. I have written nothing I would not love to rewrite. After having rewritten it, I would like to rewrite the rewrite. Never satisfied with my work. It could always be better. Having said that, I think SEEDS OF MEMORY has been the most successful in my way of looking at things. It took ten years of writing, head scratching, rewriting, research, more head scratching, more rewriting, putting up with constant interruptions and free advice before it was finished. I just rewrote it…!

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the “Rain” trilogy.

JACOBS: We recently had a meteor come down in Russia. People saw the videos. In short order, they will forget what they have seen and return to an all-is-well-in-the-world life of complacency. The first two books of the Rain Trilogy, STORM CLOUD RISING and MAELSTORM, are aimed at shaking that complacency by the lapels—hard. The third one, still not completed, is more of an adventure dealing with what the world is like after the rain—the hard rain.

VENTRELLA: What makes your fiction unique? In other words, what is it about your stories that makes them stand out against all the other similar stories out there?

JACOBS: Hmm. Well…they’re not similar. At least I hope they’re not. xeno-version3_03 I bring a lot to the table in terms of knowledge of subject and experience in researching things. Believe it or not, you need to know how to look for things. Merely Googling is not the answer and accepting what you find on your first or fifteenth try without cross-referencing is a waste. In my Science Fiction I’m quite at home with details most of the time. I also have many friends who are experts in their fields who have saved me much embarrassment at times. I can tell you this; my work is complex because I know life is complex. I have had many high-powered mentors in the past (no name dropping here) who have seen me through my infancy and I really hope I have done well with what they taught me.

VENTRELLA: What is it about science fiction that attracts you?

JACOBS: Horizons beyond an arm’s length and an infinite playing field for conjecture and speculation. I also like to play with science (real science) and make things work. None of the worlds I create are impossible or improbable, though they may appear to be so sometimes.

VENTRELLA: Science Fiction doesn’t seem to be selling as much as fantasy these days, including urban fantasy and all the varieties. Why do you think that is?

JACOBS: I have no idea. Science Fiction has never been one of the mainstays of the written word. It has had a better following in the past, that’s true, but why it has hit a little slump is a mystery. I look forward to that changing. We’re getting a lot of imaginative authors in the field these days and I’m sure the Phoenix shall rise again.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written nonfiction (including something in INSIDE SCOOP which also features me!). What is different about writing nonfiction?

JACOBS: The difference is that it is not fiction.

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?

JACOBS: Aside from the new one for the Twisted Tails series, TWISTED TAILS VIII, I have three anthologies I’m considering that will not be an unending series. All will be based in pulp fiction style. One will be Science Fiction, another in Mystery, and the final will be on Heroes (super-hero stuff with a twist). StormCloudRising-510 I am working on another novel, MT PROMISE, and am desperately trying to complete the third book in the Rain Trilogy.

VENTRELLA: What’s your biggest pet peeve about the writing business?

JACOBS: Small checks….

VENTRELLA: I’ve blogged a lot about self-publishing. What’s your take?

JACOBS: Frankly, I don’t like self-publishing. I know there is a bundle of good stuff written and self-published, but the majority is not worth the electrons and/or paper used to put it on the market. Self-publishing still has a stigma hanging on it (with good reason) that makes me not want to read anything offered. I am aware I’m missing a plethora of good, engaging and imaginative works that are well-written, but I’m avoiding an immense amount of disappointment and saving my bucks in the process.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

JACOBS: Everyone. No, I’m not kidding. I am selective in the things I’ll pick up, but I read across the board. All genres. Short. Medium. Long. Even Michener behemoths. My favorites remain Asimov, Sturgeon, Brin, Clarke, Brown, Dick, Shakespeare (really), Poe, Hemingway and so on. Those folks knew how to do it and do it right.

To order TWISTED TAILS, click on the “books” link above. As of this posting, the only versions available are the kindle and e-book versions. The paperback and the nook versions should be available shortly.

Interview with Author Myke Cole

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Myke Cole, who constantly upstages me whenever we’re on a panel together at a convention. Headshots of Myke ColeAs a secu­rity con­tractor, gov­ern­ment civilian and mil­i­tary officer, Myke’s career has run the gamut from Coun­tert­er­rorism to Cyber War­fare to Fed­eral Law Enforce­ment. Thank goodness for fantasy.

Myke, let’s start with the big news about your latest book FORTRESS FRONTIER. Give us a hint of what it’s about.

MYKE COLE: FORTRESS FRONTIER is the second book in my SHADOW OPS military fantasy series. It tells the story of a military bureaucrat suddenly forced to take command of a combat outpost against hopeless odds. The book explores the question we all ask ourselves: how would I stand up in a crisis? What would I do if I were truly tested?

Oscar Britton, the main character in CONTROL POINT (SHADOW OPS #1) is a character in FORTRESS FRONTIER, but not the protagonist. I always intended to use a ensemble cast in this series, and FORTRESS FRONTIER is the first step in that direction.

VENTRELLA: How are you promoting it?

COLE: The same way I promoted CONTROL POINT: I’m carpet bombing the Internet with guest blog posts, interviews, giveaway contests and excerpts. I just put out a book trailer. I’m getting out to cons as much as I can. I just got back from Confusion, and I’ll be hitting Boskone and Lunacon in the next two months.

But the biggest thing I’m doing? Not being a dick. I don’t bear-bait or take polarizing stances in public. I don’t tear other people down. I respond to my fans when they email or @ me. I have adhesive backed bookplates that I can sign and send to people if they want an autographed copy of my work, but don’t want to pay the high price of shipping a book back and forth. I generally try to be accessible, available and kind to people, whether they’re industry pros, personal friends or fans I’ve never met before. That’s rarer than you’d think, and it goes a long way.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Shadow Ops series.

COLE: Peter V. Brett described it best when he called it “Blackhawk Down meets the X-Men.” It’s as honest a look I can provide into how the US military would deal with the existence of magic. It deals with some tough issues like the conflict between liberty and security in a free society, but it’s also crammed full of giant explosions and helicopter gunships squaring off against rocs. Win-win, if you ask me.

VENTRELLA: Do you have a set series in mind? In other words, do you have a plan for a specific number of books in the series?

COLE: I’m under contract for 6 books right now. BREACH ZONE will complete the arc of this particular story, but the other 3 will also be SHADOW OPS books. ShadowOps_FortressFrontier_US_Final1Books 4 and 5 will be prequels, taking place in the early days of the Great Reawakening before CONTROL POINT. Book 6 will follow an ancillary character from FORTRESS FRONTIER on his own adventure.

After that, I’ll take a look at the state of publishing and book selling, see how fans are reacting to my work, and decide where to go next.

VENTRELLA: I have to admit that “military fantasy” is a genre with which I am unfamiliar. Was that a hard sell to agents and editors?

COLE: I only ever tried to sell it to one agent – Joshua Bilmes. He has been a dear friend for over a decade now, and from our first conversation, I knew he was the only person in the world I wanted to represent me. He rejected 3 novels from me over 7 years before finally agreeing to represent CONTROL POINT, and a lot of people suggested I try other agents. But I never did. It was going to be Joshua, or it was never going to be.

Editors were a different story. They did balk at a blending of two genres that appeal to disparate audiences. When CONTROL POINT went out to market, it garnered rejection after rejection, many with comments like, “the story seems unsure of its voice.” I had almost given up hope when Anne Sowards made the offer.

VENTRELLA: How did you obtain Joshua Bilmes?

COLE: How did I “obtain” him? That makes it sound like I have him trussed up in my desk drawer. I knew of Joshua by doing research on who was representing authors I admired. I then deliberately sought him out at a SFWA party at Philcon in 2003. Fortunately, we hit it off amazingly, stayed up talking until 3 AM, and have been close friends ever since. As I said earlier, Joshua rejected 3 novels over 7 years from me. All that time we were visiting one another (I lived in DC at the time), exchanging phone calls and emails. The friendship was always separate from our business relationship.

But, ultimately, how did I “obtain” him? I wrote a good book and sent it to him. That’s the only way anyone ever gets an agent. There is no end run.

VENTRELLA: It appears that you started off, like me, writing mostly nonfiction. Do you feel that the skills learned in writing nonfiction are comparable to writing fiction?

COLE: In the bones, sure. Good nonfiction requires solid prose styling and feel for rhythm, the beats of your sentences. You have to be interesting and construct a narrative in essays just as much as in fiction.

The real difference for me is in Law-Enforcement/Military/Intelligence writing (reports, orders, plans, analysis, etc) that is a totally different animal.

VENTRELLA: What was your first published piece of fiction and how did you get that published?

COLE: Let’s talk about the first piece of fiction I had professionally published. That would be “Blood and Horses,” a military SF short that took 3rd in the Writers of the Future contest and was published in Vol. XIX. wotf191I did it the old fashioned way, I entered a story every quarter, without fail, for 5 years.

Now, it was a great experience and there’s no doubt that it launched my career. I learned a ton out in LA, developed some critical contacts, and got the shot in the arm I needed to keep going. Unfortunately, I later learned that the contest is not firewalled from the Church of Scientology, and there are personal and financial ties there. I certainly won’t judge the beliefs of the church (or of any faith), but there’s enough reporting of physical/financial abuse tied to them that I am now very uncomfortable with having participated. There’s nothing I can do about it now, other than caution new writers who are considering getting involved.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about writing. Are you someone who outlines heavily or are you a “pantser”?

COLE: I am an uber outliner. I frequently have outlines as long as 50-100 pages before I write a lick of prose. I also submit my outlines for feedback before beginning prose. This way, I don’t wind up with a problem later in the manuscript that forces me to throw out 30,000 words at the 11th hour. Oh, wait. That happens all the time anyway. *sigh*

VENTRELLA: Do you start with an idea, a setting, or a character?

COLE: In the case of the SHADOW OPS series, I started with an idea: “How would the US military handle magic?”

VENTRELLA: What sort of research do you do when building a character (or a setting or plotline, for that matter)?

I use the Internet almost exclusively. It’s rare I can’t find intimate details on almost any topic (I had to research heavy crane operations for BREACH ZONE). When I hit walls on Wikipedia, I turn to friends and sometimes acquaintances and fans I know through social media.

When all else fails, I make it up. These are fantasy novels.

VENTRELLA: What techniques do you use to make your hero someone with whom the reader can relate?

COLE: The irony here is that the technique I used arguably failed. I made Oscar Britton, the protagonist of CONTROL POINT as human as possible. He’s wavering, indecisive, terrified of the decisions that face him. I feel confident that is an accurate portrayal of how a person of his background (bad family, no sense of rootedness) would handle the situation he finds himself in, but it’s also the most consistent criticism of the novel. In the end, I don’t think readers want real characters. They want dramatic, inspiring characters that feel real. There’s a big difference there.

VENTRELLA: What do you do to establish a believable fantasy world? In other words, how can you introduce the fantasy elements into the story and make them real without relying on info dumps?

COLE: I cheated. I use epigraphs at the top of each chapter that allow me to engage in as much exposition as I want without getting accused of info dumping. I mask it all in the form of quotes, newsclips, etc, but the truth is that it’s all just stuff I needed the reader to know and couldn’t think of any other way to get it to them.

VENTRELLA: When going through second and third drafts, what do you look for? What is your main goal?

COLE: First off, 2nd and 3rd drafts are hors d’oeuvres. CONTROL POINT went through 14 drafts. ShadowOpsCoverFORTRESS FRONTIER had 9. BREACH ZONE is currently on its 7th. And what is my main goal? To make the book awesome.

VENTRELLA: All writers basically write what they would like to read. So what do you like to read? Who are your favorite authors?

COLE: Totally disagree. Plenty of writers try to strike out and do something new, and others write what they think will sell. I certainly won’t pass judgment on either decision, but that’s not what I do.

My favorite authors? There isn’t room to list them all, but here’s a few: Peter V. Brett, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, George R. R. Martin, Richard K. Morgan, Naomi Novik, China Mieville, James Clavell, Bernard Cornwell, Jack Campbell, Mark Lawrence. Believe me, I could go on.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give an aspiring author that you wish someone had given you?

Stop writing short stories. There’s like 3 people in the entire world who read short stories for pleasure. Everyone else is an aspiring writer looking for the magic key. You want to be a novelist so write novels. If you write a dynamite novel, nobody is going to care that you didn’t have a story published in F&SF or Realms of Fantasy. They’re going to buy and publish your novel because it’s awesome. Stop wasting time and learn your craft.

VENTRELLA: With the publishing industry in constant change, do you think the small press has become more acceptable, prominent, and/or desirable for beginning writers?

COLE: No.

VENTRELLA: Do you ever advise self-publishing?

Yes. I think that self-publishing is a perfectly viable way to go about bringing your work to market. The trick is making sure that you actually have work that’s good enough to bring to market and you’re just an unrecognized genius, vice doing an end-run around the bald fact that your work just isn’t there yet.

I absolutely cannot judge my own work. I need an expert to give it the nod. Self-publishing also requires a lot of project management skills. You have to be your own art director, and you have to supervise the copy-editor and the proof reader. You have to get ISBNs, you have to convert and format your text. You have to get it uploaded and figure out a good price point.

That’s a shit ton of work. I’d far rather give a professional a percentage of my profits and let them deal with all that crap.

VENTRELLA: What other projects are you working on?

COLE: After that big speech I just made about short stories and self-publishing, I’ve just completed a novelette set in the SHADOW OPS universe. It’s a piece of backstory for BREACH ZONE told from the goblin point of view. I briefly considered sending it out to short story markets, but was turned off by the market policies (no simultaneous submissions). So, now I’m toying with the idea of self-publishing it, or using my literary agency’s eBook program (for which they charge the standard fee of 15%).

14

Interview with author Ryk E. Spoor

MICHEAL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Ryk E. Spoor today!

Ryk, like many genre writers (including myself), you read science fiction from a young age and then got into gaming. What is it about role-playing games that encourages people to become writers?

RYK SPOOR: Well, on both sides of the game – GM or player – the game itself is telling a story. It may be a very simple story, especially for beginning players or people just in it for a beer-and-pretzels amusement, but a story about how these people go out, confront problems, solve the problems, and achieve their goals. So pretty much by its very nature, RPGs make you into a storyteller … which certainly encourages you to start writing down the stories that affected you most. It’s all downhill from there.

On the GM’s side, of course, it’s even more so. You’re the person who constructs, or at the least controls and directs, the entire world. You know what the villains are doing and why, you have to figure out how they deal with things when your players do something you don’t expect (and they always do something you don’t expect), and so on. That’s pretty much what a writer does – invent a world and tell us the stories in that world. For some writers, there’s even the equivalent of those annoying plot-busting PCs; some writers find their characters taking off on their own.

So honestly, I think the fact is that the very essence of a well-run RPG is storytelling, and anyone who does that a lot will have stories they want to tell.

VENTRELLA: On a previous blog post, I wrote how important it is to make connections if you want to get ahead in the world, with publishing being no exception. Your story is a bit unusual in that regard. How did you go from being a fan/troll to a published author?

SPOOR: Heh. The short version is that I insulted the right person at the right time. I could give you the long, long version, but since this is a written (and presumably to be webbed) interview, let me just point you here; the key part starts with the sentence, “Then one day, I got into an online argument with Eric Flint”, which is a little less than halfway down that page.

VENTRELLA: Had you ever submitted any stories for publication before that?

SPOOR: I actually had submitted a short story when I was 11 to a magazine (I no longer know even which one). It was some years later that I started submitting the Jason Wood stories that eventually became DIGITAL KNIGHT. All of the rejections for those stories read the same way: “This was a great story, everyone in the office loved it, but it’s way too long for magazine publication.” Of course, as individual stories, the Jason Wood stories are also far too short to be novels; they’re novelette or novella length works, which has for years been pretty much the worst length to try to publish.

The three stories which formed the core of DIGITAL KNIGHT – “Gone in a Flash”, “Photo Finish”, and “Viewed in a Harsh Light” – were eventually collected by me and put up for electronic purchase as “Morgantown: The Jason Wood Files” at hyperbooks.com; this was long before the e-book explosion happened, of course, since they were up for several years before Baen ended up publishing me.

VENTRELLA: Who were your favorite authors when you were growing up and what was it about them that appealed to you?

SPOOR: There were a lot of them. When I was very young, the most influential was L. Frank Baum, author of the Oz books. I loved Oz – the world, the people, and the subtly macabre and more complex-than-I-appreciated universe. Laura Ingalls Wilder’s “Little House” books were very strong influences because they were a glimpse into what it was like to grow up in a world that was this one …yet not the one I knew.

My dad had quite an SF library that I went through as I got older, but it was my 6th grade teacher, Mr. Dickinson, who introduced me to E. E. “Doc” Smith’s Lensman series by lending me a battered, somewhat cigarette-scorched copy of Second-Stage Lensmen. Doc became my single biggest influence for years; he defined “sensawunda” to me, and I in fact wrote GRAND CENTRAL ARENA specifically as a salute to him.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process? Do you outline heavily, for instance?

SPOOR: Depends on the book, to a great extent. I have to outline when I’m working with a co-author, like Eric Flint; we discuss the general idea, then I work up an outline, he kicks holes in it, I fix it, we agree on the outline, and then I go to work.

For my own work, it still depends somewhat on which books. In DIGITAL KNIGHT, all of Jason’s major adventures were “outlined” in a single concept: the “trick” or “twist” that he uses to take down the supernatural opponent du jour. Knowing that, the only other thing I had to do was figure out who my main character was; the rest started writing itself.

For PHOENIX RISING, I’d plotted the basic outline of Kyri’s adventures out partly during my gaming time, as Kyri was originally an RPG character. But a lot of her adventures simply fell out of the fact that I know the world so well that by now I can just write it.

With GRAND CENTRAL ARENA I had to first construct the universe; some of that I discussed in my appearance in John Scalzi’s The Big Idea; I actually did write out an outline for it, so I could pitch it to Baen, but once I had the outline I started writing. In many ways the finished product doesn’t look all that much like the outline.

But if I know what I’m writing, my process is basically just to sit down, put on my earphones, and write. I average about 1200 words per hour once I get moving, and I don’t rewrite or edit for the most part; I can’t see flaws in my own writing unless I wait something like five years, so I depend on my beta-readers and my editors to tell me when I’ve screwed up.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about PHOENIX RISING.

SPOOR: Oh, I could talk about that all day. PHOENIX RISING is the first volume in the Balanced Sword trilogy, although since I don’t yet have a contract for the other two volumes I have done my best to give it some kind of closure on its own. The basic story focuses on Kyri Vantage, who loses first her parents and then, later, her brother to unknown forces despite what everyone had thought were strong protections against evil; when she discovers just who and what was behind this, she is forced to become a living representative of a desperate, weakened god in order to bring justice to her home and eventually, she hopes, discover and destroy the true source of this evil; the events, of course, have a far greater impact and importance than Kyri recognizes at first. Other threads in the book follow the other two main characters, Tobimar Silverun and Poplock Duckweed, as they first meet each other and then eventually catch up with Kyri at a crucial moment.

This is a terribly important book to me. I wrote the first draft of Kyri’s story in 1992, and I’ve wanted to tell her story ever since; more, this is the first appearance of my fantasy world of Zarathan, which I created back in 1978 and have been building ever since. Zarathan was mentioned, very briefly, in DIGITAL KNIGHT, but there was no real vision of what it WAS in that book.

PHOENIX RISING is also quite complicated; there are threads of plot seen which are part of other stories – for instance, one character who plays a significant role for a part of the book is actually a main character in the projected Spirit Warriors trilogy, and there’s another couple of characters we see a few times who are major players in my other projected trilogy Godswar; basically the problems sweeping the world in PHOENIX RISING are so huge and complex that no one group of heroes can deal with them all; you need at least three separate groups. For the reader, I hope such things give them the feeling of a larger, more real universe, one in which there are a million stories outside of the story we’re following.

Zarathan itself is my main fantasy RPG world (to refer back to your earlier question), and I’ve been running games in it for well over 30 years now, building it, rebuilding it, and coming to a deeper understanding of the universe every day.

VENTRELLA: If I am not mistaken, you have created a universe with both fantasy and science fiction elements for your stories. How have you made the twain meet?

SPOOR: Essentially, the rule to me is that normal physics holds sway unless something changes those rules explicitly. Magic does so, some psionic capabilities do, but that means that science works just fine; it’s just a subset of the laws of nature rather than the whole thing.

It’s really not hard to combine them; as Dave Hargrave, writer of the Arduin Grimoire series of RPG supplements, put it, where’s the alien with the ray gun going to stand out more: on the streets of our cities, or in the fantasy RPG city with the fireball-flinging wizard, magic-sword wielding barbarian, and the dragon flying overhead?

The only trick, so to speak, is to have clear rules as to how the various powers behave and interact. Technology, psionics, and magic all have various advantages and disadvantages in my universe and play off each other in various ways and situations.

Really powerful magic, though, is restricted to Zarathan itself, at least until after a certain event happens, but while I’ve written one story set after that event, overall that’ll be a while before I get there.

VENTRELLA: There seems to be a trend away from science fiction, toward fantasy, steampunk, and “urban fantasy” these days. To what do you attribute that change?

SPOOR: There’s several factors. The “low-hanging fruit” in SF was all taken years ago, and general knowledge of the way science works – and doesn’t work – disseminated more and more through the population, making some of the old-school approaches no longer viable. You can’t have your characters just tinker up a spacedrive in the basement and cruise around the solar system in a homemade rocket and expect anyone to take you seriously any more.

The big news in science has also gotten, on average, a lot less immediately accessible. This is part of the overall progression of knowledge; back in the late 1800s to very early 1900s, it was still possible for one person to be “A Scientist” – someone who was an expert in more than one of the general disciplines of physics, chemistry, biology, etc. Nowadays, it’s hard to be an expert in a splinter branch of any of them. Back then, the average (reading) layman could probably grasp in general terms most, if not all, of the key problems and ideas being explored by scientists of the day; today, many of the concepts, especially in physics, require that you understand some very esoteric concepts before you even grasp the question, let alone the answer.

Fantasy is not easier to write, really, but it’s easier to make graspable because the complexity of the rules governing the world aren’t going to be more complex than the writer wants them to be. Plus, in most cases, the fantasies assume they take place on Earth or a very Earthlike world, so the reader is expected to “fill in” lots of detail all by him or herself. From a writer’s point of view, it’s also safer. No one’s going to go to Tolkien or Brooks, or me, for that matter, and tell us that our magical worlds don’t work the way we think they do. But writers of hard SF? Yeah, we’ll have people telling us when we get it wrong. Stridently, in some cases. The fact is that even if you do a lot of research, you’ll have to stop the research somewhere and get to writing … and it’s an ironclad guarantee that you stopped just before getting to some key fact that a particular group of fans consider critical.

That doesn’t mean that you can’t have similar screwups in fantasy, but those are all going to be the kind of screwups you can get in ANY story: failure of internal consistency.

I also think it’s a change in optimism that happened over the last several decades. During the late 1800s through the 1950s, science was romantic, awesome, and wondrous. It was going to solve all our problems. We were going to create new species of plants that would grow food anywhere, make space colonies on the moon and turn Mars into a second Earth. We were going to analyze the workings of the brain and abolish mental illness; we were going to cure cancer and solve the mysteries of the universe.

But science doesn’t actually work that way, and as it ran into the fact that some problems are very resistant to solution (commercial fusion and true artificial intelligence, still 20 years away and have been all my life!), the general public began to also see some of the consequences of misuse of technology (pollution, etc.) and associate this WITH technology. The shiny glow of hope faded and the chrome-plated future got tarnished. But shining worlds of high fantasy can’t be rendered hopeless by the same process … and one can also, of course, apply the same overlay of grimness and edginess to fantasy as one can to SF, so the net result is much more fantasy and less clear SF.

(of course, we’ll note that this assumes that there’s a clear division between SF and fantasy, which isn’t the case)

VENTRELLA: Creating new worlds is fun but also difficult in that there is the need to explain the world without massive info dumps. How do you do it?

SPOOR: I’m not sure I’ve mastered it yet. Sometimes I feel like I do nothing in the beginning of a new book but try to dump the info into the readers’ head.

The main techniques that I use are the tried-and-true methods of either (A) having the characters discuss key information as part of a normal conversation – usually with one character who has some reason not to know the key info, so they’re not “As you know, Bob …” type discussions, or (B) having the information emerge from the events of the story.

This latter technique is one that is best used for pieces of information which will actually become vital sometime later in the story – Jane’s doing X, which happens to cause Y to happen, leading her to realize (along with the reader) that Z is one of the characteristics of the world. Twenty chapters later, Jane realizes that applying Z will get her out of the situation she’s in. This allows the reader to follow along and maybe guess what Jane’s going to do with this new-found knowledge. I did this in Grand Central Arena to plant all the clues for how Ariane would be able to defeat Amas-Garao in the final Challenge.

VENTRELLA: I’ve recently realized that all my stories have the everyday person who is stuck in a situation and must overcome great odds through bravery and intellect – the reluctant hero who has no extraordinary skills. Have you find any connecting threads for your protagonists?

SPOOR: I like my heroes Heroic and my villans Villanous, for the most part. I don’t usually have reluctant heroes, although inexperienced and sometimes clueless heroes, that’s fine. As I tend to write my stories (just as I run my RPGs) at a high power level, they all tend to be at the least very highly competent and at the most quite superhuman in order to survive the threats they’re up against.

All of my characters – heroes and villains – tend to be smart. That doesn’t mean they don’t make mistakes or misjudge things, but that they try not to do obviously stupid actions. The really smart ones often think many steps ahead. I want to see smart heroes VS smart villains

Most of my characters tend to be fairly modest, often underestimating their own abilities. The few arrogant ones (like A.J. Baker) usually get smacked down fairly regularly.

High Melodrama is my preference in writing, and most of my characters share that preference in their behavior. I have to rein in that tendency when writing hard SF like Boundary, of course.

VENTRELLA: How do you get inside the minds of your characters to make sure they all don’t talk and act alike?

SPOOR: Heh. Sometimes I don’t think they do. I actually don’t have a … technique per se. I just get to know who they are and then I know what they’d say, and how they’d say it. I couldn’t tell you why, but I know when something is right and when it isn’t, so I write it the way that sounds right.

VENTRELLA: Ryk, we met while on a panel together at Albacon some years ago. How important is it to attend conventions to promote yourself?

SPOOR: I honestly can’t say; I can’t afford to go to many at all, so if it’s important, I’m in deep doo-doo. Aside from Albacon, I used to go to Genericon; other than that I was at I-Con once, the World Fantasy Convention when it was up in Saratoga, and Worldcon when it was in Boston, but I haven’t done much promoting. I’m terrible at promoting, actually. I hate it; I’d rather spend my time writing, unless the promotion’s something fun and flashy in and of itself.

VENTRELLA: What bugs you most about the publishing industry and what would you change about it if you could?

SPOOR: I’ve had generally good experiences with publishing, so I have minimal criticisms, aside from saying that the publishers who are clinging to DRM are gonna shoot themselves in the foot. About the only thing that’s annoying is long delays in reaction times, but alas, there’s so much slush and so hard to get people to read it, so there’s not likely to be much change there.

I think publishers need to look at reaching out to the self-publishing industry and offering professional services such as editing in an organized sense. This might be one thing that can keep them alive in the changing landscape of publication.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

There’s so many names. The old classics like RAH, Heinlein, etc., still work. Terry Brooks usually gives a good entertaining read. My preference is for worlds that are overall brighter than this one, or whose heroes at least shine brightly, so a lot of current writers tend to skirt the edge of that threshold, like Harry Connolly and Charles Stross.

Lately I’ve been reading a lot of manga, especially Naruto and Fullmetal Alchemist – some of the best stories I’ve ever read, actually.

Out of genre, some of my favorite comfort reads are Nero Wolfe novels or the adventure classics like Scaramouche, the Count of Monte-Cristo, Scarlet Pimpernel, etc.

Honestly, however, I’ve had a lot less time to read since I became an author. I probably read more stuff to my kids than I do to myself.

VENTRELLA: What advice would you give to a starting author that you wish someone had given you?

Heh. I never learned from advice, so I’m terrible at giving it. Only two things, really; they’re pieces of advice someone did tell me eventually, but not when I started writing:

1) Never make it easy on your characters.

2) Don’t let anyone tell you there’s one particular way to write; “There are nine-and-sixty ways to compose tribal lays, and every single one of them is right.” That said, writing takes work, it’s not magic.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see aspiring authors make?

SPOOR: Again, two, I think.

1) Thinking they have some precious, original idea that someone will steal. No, you don’t. Any idea you have, someone else already had. Probably five or ten someones. And they did it at least twenty years and maybe as many as two thousand years before you think they could possibly have done it. No one’s trying to steal your ideas. Especially other writers; we have more ideas already than we know what to do with.

2) Not reading. Especially in the genre. This would partially alleviate #1, because you’d be seeing all the other ideas. Unfortunately, a lot of new authors appear to be coming in mostly from non-print media. You really should read quite a bit of the older stuff, then the newer stuff, before you try to drop into the business, otherwise you’ll think you’re onto a new twist on an idea when it’s actually a twist we’ve seen a hundred times. I averaged a book a day from the time I was 7 or so until I was probably in my mid to late 20s. I don’t expect everyone to hit that level, but reading a bunch of the foundational classics of the genre is awfully important to ground you in this business.

VENTRELLA: What question do you wish interviewers would ask you that they never do?

SPOOR: “Would you like this check for a million dollars?”

Honestly, while all interviews skip over one question or another, all of them together seem to have hit all the questions I’d expect someone to ask. Maybe, in a few years or ten, I’ll have had enough interviews to notice something missing!

Ryk and me on a panel together at Albacon 2010

Interview with Bram Stoker Award-winning author John Shirley

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I am pleased to be interviewing John Shirley.

John Shirley is the author of numerous novels, story collections, screenplays (“THE CROW”), teleplays and articles. A futurologist and social critic, John was a featured speaker at TED-x in Brussels in 2011. His novels include EVERYTHING IS BROKEN, The “A Song Called Youth” cyberpunk trilogy (omnibus released in 2012), BLEAK HISTORY, DEMONS, CITY COME A-WALKIN’ and THE OTHER END. His short story collection BLACK BUTTERFLIES won the Bram Stoker Award, and was chosen by Publisher’s Weekly as one of the best books of the year. His new story collection is IN EXTREMIS: THE MOST EXTREME SHORT STORIES OF JOHN SHIRLEY. His stories have been included in three Year’s Best anthologies. He is also a songwriter (eg, for Blue Oyster Cult), and a singer. Black October records will soon be releasing a compilation of selected songs, BROKEN MIRROR GLASS: Recordings by John Shirley, 1978-2011. The authorized website is here.

John, since this is an election year, let’s start off with politics. You’ve certainly not shied away from politics, on your blog and on Facebook. Do you worry that this may alienate potential readers?

JOHN SHIRLEY: For me, I can’t worry about that and be a self respecting person.

VENTRELLA: Your novels EVERYTHING IS BROKEN and THE OTHER END are all about politics. What inspired you to write them?

SHIRLEY: I wouldn’t agree they’re all about politics. EVERYTHING IS BROKEN, however, is a political allegory as well as being a noir novel, a coming of age novel, a disaster novel (as opposed to a disastrous novel!), a suspense novel, and it’s set a bit in the future. So it’s got science fiction going on too. The trick of course is for all this to blend seamlessly. But good recipes can have a number of strong ingredients.

EVERYTHING IS BROKEN is a kind of LORD OF THE FLIES for the 21st century, perhaps. Its political center has to do with the value of community, of government itself (at its best); it shows what happens to a small coastal community, hit by a disaster, when its been stripped of its resources, its preparation, by Libertarians and Tea Party types and Privatizers. And it has ticked off some of those people. But there’s always plenty of support from the other side of the fence. It’s doing rather well. Lots of people are concerned about throwing the baby away with the bathwater—a sense of community being the baby in this case.

THE OTHER END was inspired by a desire to take the apocalypse away from the Christian right and give it to progressive people, if they want it. Why should the Christian Right define Judgment Day? And what would you do if you could create your own Judgement Day? And yes there are political overtones to much of it…It’s a fantasy about a Judgment Day that doesn’t come, exactly, from anyone’s usual idea of God…and that looks for real, social justice.

VENTRELLA: What’s the best reaction you’ve received from these political books?

SHIRLEY: Recommendations. Good reviews. Eg, “That staple of cautionary science fiction, the near future, becomes especially ‘near’ in this disaster novel from one of fantastic fiction’s most hard-hitting talents–EVERYTHING IS BROKEN emerges as a violent, vivid, viscerally upsetting and wholly unflinching nightmare of a novel, which profoundly illustrates the very point of having a civilization in the first place, and the risks we undertake by dismantling infrastructure in the name of short term savings. It’s not just a compelling read, but an important one–GRADE A.”—SciFi Magazine

VENTRELLA: Are you optimistic about the future or do you worry that the crazies on the right will cause more harm before things change?

SHIRLEY: If you mean the near future, the great worry, for me, is the Citizen’s United decision by SCOTUS, empowering billionaires and giant corporations and amoral people like the Koch Brothers to freely propagandize, to distort the President’s record, to spread the falsehood that Reaganomics, Tea Party economics, and so on, actually works to improve the economy. Actual economists dispute that fallacy. But people are buying into it. And as the Super PACs unleash more and more propaganda, politicians become more afraid of taking a stand, afraid of someone mounting a super PAC against them—and Congress becomes even more dominated by money, at the expense of ethics. If you mean the farther future—at this link is a transcript of the speech I gave to TEDx in Brussels last November, on why I’m “optimistic because everything will be terrible.”

VENTRELLA: Some of the threat of the tea partiers and their like is their anti-science position. What do you think causes that mindset?

SHIRLEY: They feel more comfortable with ignorance. It’s a sort of numb buffer around them so they don’t have to face life as it is. But also they’re being manipulated. Big Oil is opposed to accepting science on global warming, and they manipulate these people to mistrust science.

VENTRELLA: Have politics always influenced your writing? In other words, do you find yourself visiting political themes in your work?

SHIRLEY: A fair amount—and if it’s not that, I’m reaching for something meaningful, in some respect. Existential meaning matters too. Spiritual meaning. Philosophical meaning. And the human condition. I admire writers who dramatize the realities of the human condition. But it’s great when someone can combine some controlled degree of didacticism with entertainment—sometimes they have a major social impact. I’m thinking of the novel UNCLE TOM’S CABIN, the works of Charles Dickens, Upton Sinclair, and Steinbeck. Kurt Vonnegut novel’s, too, affected people deeply, he had a lot of social resonance; so did the novel CATCH-22 by Heller.

VENTRELLA: What themes have you found yourself revisiting, even if subconsciously?

SHIRLEY: The struggle with addiction—in the past, I had to carry on a bare knuckle fight with it. Fortunately I won. . .My observation that people suppress their empathy, their compassion, all too easily; that they barricade themselves away from it. That dehumanization is sadly all too human…And issues of the necessary balance between too much government and too little. I’m not in favor of too much; but on a planet with 7 billion people, we cannot have too little. Environmental issues also crop up in my work—my novel DEMONS combines most of those concerns in one work of allegorical horror.

VENTRELLA: Do you think that science fiction and fantasy help to provide a better media in which to make points about current issues?

SHIRLEY: They’re ideally suited for it. Look at 1984, or BRAVE NEW WORLD, or Atwood’s anti-fascist science fiction, or Vonnegut’s social statements in SLAUGHTERHOUSE FIVE. Philip K. Dick warned about mind controlling media and new tech that might be misused that way, in a lot of his books. Then there was John Brunner’s work, like THE SHEEP LOOK UP. You can model different kinds of societies, dystopian and utopian and everything between, in science fiction, like creating a literary computer model.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done so many different genres—what leads you to try so many new things? Does the story come first or the setting?

SHIRLEY: Sometimes it’s the marketplace, but it’s also a creative restlessness. I don’t like to be pigeonholed. It’s also freshening, energizing, to move onto another genre. It’s like traveling in a country you haven’t been to before—it’s stimulating.

VENTRELLA: You’re quite prolific: What keeps you going?

SHIRLEY: Partly necessity—I don’t have a day job. I do have quite a lot to say, a lot of stories to tell. I simply feel better when I’m productive, too. It’s what I am; I’m a writer to the bones. I’m not good at much else. Can’t fix a car.

VENTRELLA: You’ve done quite a few novelizations and tie-ins, such as BATMAN: DEAD WHITE, PREDATOR: FOREVER MIDNIGHT and DOOM. What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing already in someone else’s world?

SHIRLEY: I did those things mostly for money—the most successful one was the Bioshock novel, BIOSHOCK: RAPTURE–but it’s also because they’re in arenas I enjoy. I do love Batman, was glad to play in that sandbox. They gave me a fair amount of latitude and it varies from editor to editor. The Bioshock game people were very hands on and that was difficult. One disadvantage is, one might have to revise more than one is really being paid for. But I always manage—in some cases, the project changes while you’re writing it. They’ve sent you a movie script, but at the last moment it was changed; you were supposed to write about this game but the second one just came out and they want you to do that too … And I prefer to adapt rather than argue.

In the case of Bioshock I knew the videogame world I was writing about pretty well and had enjoyed it so that helped. I enjoyed the Predator films and it was fun to write that book but one issue that comes up is, some fans are very possessive about the franchise they love. Some fans of the Predator comic book thought I ought to have followed its internal rules, its canon—but I didn’t read the comics, wasn’t required to. I just started with the movies and launched from there. I never contradict the underlying source material I’m using…but I do get to be creative within it, and that can be a bit of a buzz.

VENTRELLA: You’ve written scripts for movies and television–have you been pleased with the results?

SHIRLEY: It’s mixed. I wrote “The Crow,” with David Schow—couldn’t be pleased when Brandon Lee was killed in the course of the production. There are always issues of struggling with producer notes, and so on. As for television, it’s very much committee writing, and it’s hard for someone like me to learn that…but I did learn. I just wrote a recent television pilot, which we’re now shopping around, but I can’t talk about it except the name: Intruder Town.

VENTRELLA: Which do you think has been most successful?

SHIRLEY: I’ve had more television scripts that came out close to what I wanted, than in movies. The most recent movie I wrote was a low budget horror film. I was not happy about it. Can’t say more about that.

The Deep Space Nine episode I wrote came out nicely, thanks to Ira Behr, the producer. But it can be very frustrating and one can’t be too identified with the writing. You have to separate yourself from it more than if you’re writing a novel or a short story. . .

VENTRELLA: How much changed between your script and what is seen on the screen?

SHIRLEY: It’s the exception if there aren’t a lot of changes. There are always exceptions—Woody Allen’s films are auteur work, he’s the director, producer, writer, they naturally come out close to what he envisioned. Clint Eastwood, I think, once he has a good script, stays with it—eg the script for Unforgiven. But mostly it’s like your script has to run across no man’s land, with bullets flying…it’s lucky to get across it intact.

VENTRELLA: Do you find novels easier to write than short stories?

SHIRLEY: Short stories are finished faster of course, but that aside, there are things one can do in novels one can’t do in short stories. As long as you have a really strong sense of pacing, and don’t drop all the balls you’re juggling, you can get into more facets of character, more ideas, than in a short story. A short story is like a knock out punch; a novel is a whole long fight with many rounds and lots of footwork.

VENTRELLA: Which is your favorite?

SHIRLEY: Apples and oranges really…

VENTRELLA: Who is your favorite character?

SHIRLEY: From my work? Maybe Rickenharp from A SONG CALLED YOUTH—the cyberpunk trilogy is out now, as an omnibus, freshened up, updated, re edited, from Prime Books, and Rickenharp is perhaps the realest character…because he’s most like me. I’ve been a rock singer, he’s the leader of a rock band, I’m a lyricist and so is he (I wrote his lyrics, sometimes quoted briefly in the novels). He has drug issues and other issues—so do I. There’s a “street minister” character in my horror novel Wetbones I identify with a lot too, as he’s found a spiritual way out of addiction…

VENTRELLA: What would you ask that character if you could meet him or her?

SHIRLEY: Rickenharp? I’d ask him if he’d go to the recording studio with me, play some guitar, write some songs. And I’d ask him if he was self sacrificial—or self destructive.

VENTRELLA: And what do you think he or she would answer?

SHIRLEY: He’d say how much you pay me to the first question and laugh and say two sides of the same coin for the second.

VENTRELLA: Writers who are trying to make a name get hammered with lots of advice: The importance of a strong opening, admonitions about “writing what you know,” warnings to have “tension on every page” – what advice do you think is commonly given that really should be ignored?

SHIRLEY: Almost any of it can be ignored (apart from advice to be grammatic and literate and write in good sentences) if it’s irrelevant to what you’re doing. I have had to learn to write “more sympathetic” likable characters, but there are also times when I don’t need them to be sympathetic or likable. Ultimately one writes what works. Probably most people would have advised Anne Rice not to write a vampire character so sympathetically, in Interview with the Vampire, before it was published—but they’d be wrong! The book worked like gangbusters, breaking a rule. If you have the talent, the voice, the insight, make your own rules. If you’re not sure, follow the rules.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake you see starting writers make?

SHIRLEY: Nowadays it’s thinking they don’t need to be well read, they don’t need to know the difference between you’re and your, they don’t need to read outside their favorite genres—any half way decent writer had better read widely.

VENTRELLA: I’ve been surprised to find many writers who are also musicians (myself included) – why do you suppose that is?

SHIRLEY: I don’t know for sure. Jack Vance plays banjo. You really never know…But you know there’s a musicality in good sentences; there are good sentences in music…it’s all art, too…

I was always in rock bands. Like Sado-Nation—you can see me on youtube if you search for Sado-Nation with John Shirley there, performing with them in 1979 when I was quite young. So it’s always been a second track for me; and there are a lot of musical references in my books, and I listen to loud music, often, when writing and no it doesn’t distract me.

VENTRELLA: Who do you listen to? Who are your favorites?

SHIRLEY: I’m an old time Blue Oyster Cult guy, and in the late 90s I started writing lyrics for them (other lyricists for them include Patti Smith and Michael Moorcock), have written 18 songs they’ve recorded so I’m pretty partial to those. Mostly those are on their albums Heaven Forbid and Curse of the Hidden Mirror. I was in punk bands, and was a big fan of the Sex Pistols and the Clash and the Ramones. I am also a fan of psychedelic music, like Jimi Hendrix, Blue Cheer, or Roky Erickson. I like the Stones, the Beatles. Frank Zappa, Captain Beefheart. I’m a big Iggy and the Stooges guy too. Outside of rock I get into John Coltrane, certain classical composers like Stravinsky.

VENTRELLA: How did your collaboration with Blue Oyster Cult come about?

SHIRLEY: Mutual friends knew they were looking for a lyricist. Plus my first novel was named after one of their songs, TRANSMANIACON, and they were aware of it.

VENTRELLA: With a time machine and a universal translator, who would you invite to your ultimate dinner party?

SHIRLEY: CS Lewis, Tolkien, because I love the way those guys talk, Ambrose Bierce because I admire him and I want to ask what the hell happened to him, Edgar Allan Poe, same thing, Cyrano De Bergerac, Yeshua of Nazareth (a Gnostic teacher now called “Jesus”), Gotama Buddha, GI Gurdjieff, Ouspensky, Mark Twain, Marcus Aurelius, Pythagoras…

And I would sit Wyatt Earp right next to me…I’m pretty into the Wild West and have written a novel about Earp, that I am going to send out when I get around to revising it…

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