Interview with Robert Brockway

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I am pleased to be interviewing Robert Brockway today. Robert Brockway is a Senior Editor and columnist for brockwayHe is the author of two books, the cyberpunk novel RX: A TALE OF ELECTRONEGATIVITY, and the comedic non-fiction essay collection EVERYTHING IS GOING TO KILL EVERYBODY: THE TERRIYINGLY REAL WAYS THE WORLD WANTS YOU DEAD. He lives in Portland, Oregon, with his wife Meagan and their two dogs, Detectives Martin Riggs and Roger Murtaugh. He has been known, on occasion, to have a beard.

Tell us about your novel RX: A TALE OF ELECTRONEGATIVITY!

ROBERT BROCKWAY: RX is a cyberpunk novel about Red, a bio-hacker, chemical beta tester and specialty drug dealer in a futuristic mega-scraper city called the Four Posts. Pharmaceuticals aren’t just tolerated in the Four Posts, they’re practically a necessity. Everybody medicates constantly, to the point that Rx Feeds – nano-assembling custom drug stations – are piped into every household. The hot new drug of choice is Presence, a powerful hallucinogenic gas that simulates time travel, but with none of the consequences. Want to shoot a T. Rex? Fist fight King Henry II? Bring a battle-mech to the Civil War? Dose up on Presence and go for it. Your timeline won’t change in the slightest. Red’s best paying side-job is beta-testing new strains of Presence – hey, somebody has to go back and make sure the dose is taking customers to the right time and place. But he’s just woken up with a hell of a headache and no memory of the last twelve hours, only to find he’s violated his Non-disclosure Agreement – a crime punishable by death in the Four Posts. Now with a pair of incredibly brutal bounty hunters on his trail, Red has to clear his name and figure out what the strange prototype drug is doing to his mind before it literally tears him apart.

VENTRELLA: What sort of research did you do before writing this?

BROCKWAY: Too much. I’m kind of a link hoarder, and though the general framework of Rx is obviously science fiction, much of what appears in it was inspired by real stuff. The Four Posts were inspired by Ponte City, a huge single-skyscraper project in South Africa that, for a time, was considered the most dangerous place in the world. The drugs in Rx (well, excluding the Gas) are more stable, more potent versions of real pharmaceutical developments – drugs that eliminate fear, inspire trust, add IQ points. All real stuff.

VENTRELLA: Why couldn’t you go with your original title?

BROCKWAY: I’m assuming you’re referring to the original title of “Time Fuckers: Fuckers of Time.” RXAre the reasons not self-evident? I was never going with that title. It’s awful. I give myself terrible working titles until the book is finished to keep myself from taking it too seriously, and to stop from worrying about things when it’s not time to worry about them yet.

VENTRELLA: You’ve actually done an annotated version of the book, with footnotes and asides and references listed. Why did you decide to do this?

BROCKWAY: Well, it was all that research and link hoarding. I heavily fictionalized the info in Rx, so I wouldn’t blame anybody for not believing a word of it is remotely possible. But I wanted to show people that the real world has always been, is now, and is about to be much, much crazier than they would ever suspect.

VENTRELLA: How did you publish this?

BROCKWAY: I published Rx as a serial eBook in three installments. I did this partly because I liked serial novels, partly because I was curious how it would do, and partly because I didn’t have a reliable network of Beta-readers. The plan was to self-publish these little episodes and incorporate reader feedback along the way. Then I would take a huge editorial pass on the collected version, and release that as a finished book. Toward that end, I ran free giveaways of the first episode, then included review incentives where any (positive or negative, so long as it’s helpful) review would earn you a free copy of the next episode. In that fashion, you could get the whole series for free, just by leaving reviews on each episode.

VENTRELLA: What is your background and why did you decide to write?

BROCKWAY: I’m not sure how to answer that: I decided to write because I’ve always been writing. I don’t know how not to do it. My background is happening right now, I’m pretty sure. I have in no way ‘made it’ or become some sort of name. I’m still practicing, learning from my myriad mistakes, and trying to get better. I hope I’ll always think of myself like that.

VENTRELLA: Amazon is reporting that e-books are now outselling traditional publications. For beginning authors is this a good thing or a bad thing?

BROCKWAY: I think it’s a great thing! I prefer physical books myself, though I’m definitely a hybrid reader these days. It’s most beneficial to beginning (I’d prefer the term ‘Indie’ as many aren’t really starting out, so much as just now getting seen) authors because, for the most part, your self-published books are just as viable as traditionally published works in these new marketplaces. I see indie books all the time, just browsing around on Amazon or Indiebound. I’m not even looking for them. But if your book hooks me with a good cover, killer title or compelling synopsis – you’ve just made a sale to a person who would otherwise never have even heard of your work. As much as we bemoan the death of book stores (and they shouldn’t die, I love them), we tend to overlook the upside: There’s one less middleman to filter out your work.

VENTRELLA: Hard science fiction seems to be taking a back seat to high fantasy, steampunk, urban fantasy, and other genres these days. Why do you think that is?

BROCKWAY: I think it’s just because we’re segmenting our descriptions of the genre. We used to call all of that stuff ‘science fiction.’ Is my book ‘hard science fiction’? Everything_BrockwaySome people have said so – derogatively, I might add – as though that limits its appeal. Others call it ‘cyberpunk’ – also derogatively (man, I’m sensing a pattern here). If we applied that pattern retroactively then 1984 would be ‘technological dystopian’ and FOUNDATION would be ‘dynastical space opera.’ It’s not: We’re all sci-fi. We’re all brothers and sisters in nerdishness here.

VENTRELLA: What is the biggest mistake made by authors who write SF?

BROCKWAY: Ambition. That’s my biggest mistake, anyway, and I don’t really feel comfortable pointing out the mistakes of authors who are likely far better than me right now. I don’t know if I fully pulled off Rx – it was a hell of a lot to try for as a debut novel. I further complicated matters with an experimental release schedule. I needed to write it, of course, to learn those lessons and improve as a writer — and I think a lot of readers still got some enjoyment out of it. But that will always be the sci-fi writer’s simultaneous curse and blessing: Ambition.

VENTRELLA: Is writing a skill that can be learned or are the best writers born, not made?

BROCKWAY: Both. Natural talent happens in every field. Some people are naturally talented cabinet makers or heating repairmen. You can never fake that, but it doesn’t mean you’re excluded. I’ll never be as effortlessly good as, say, Italo Calvino. But if I work at it, I can still be pretty good someday. For example, Stephen King doesn’t think of himself as naturally talented. I’d actually agree with him. But he works at his craft, constantly, and in the end he’s going to be more influential than a hundred thousand other, naturally talented writers who phoned it in, thought they were above improvement, or never even tried.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read?

BROCKWAY: Anybody. Terrible answer, I know, but it’s all I’ve got these days: I’m finding so many more books thanks to recommendation algorithms or sites like Goodreads that my favorite authors are constantly shifting and evolving. Over the past few months, I’ve been most impressed with Patrick Rothfuss’ work, and I’ve got a working writer’s crush on Chuck Wendig. I don’t know how he’s so prolific while maintaining that kind of quality, but it’s something I respect and strive for.

VENTRELLA: I’ve always enjoyed the articles you’ve written for Cracked with advice for authors. (Examples: here, here, and here) How have these been received?

BROCKWAY: Mixed. People who don’t write don’t give a damn and feel compelled to tell me so in increasingly obscene ways. People who do write usually thank me. They do decent traffic with high engagement, to borrow some soulless marketing terminology.

VENTRELLA: New authors can make huge mistakes. What big mistake bugs you the most, and how can writers avoid making it?

BROCKWAY: They don’t edit. If you don’t obsessively, freakishly edit your story, then I promise you that you have made huge, gaping unforgivable mistakes, and everybody but you is going to notice and point and laugh. I edit everything. For example, I edited my responses to this interview. If I hadn’t, I wouldn’t have noticed that I used the word ‘obsessively’ three times in the span of two sentences. You would have laughed at me, and I would have had no choice but to kill myself to preserve my family’s honor.

VENTRELLA: Do you attend science fiction conventions?

BROCKWAY: I have attended one convention in my life. Comickaze, in Los Angeles, and I did so because I was ordered to by my employer. It was interesting and fun, but a bit awkward, and probably not representative of the larger scene. I’m kind of a hermit.

VENTRELLA: What are you working on now?

BROCKWAY: I don’t know how to categorize it, really: It’s a novel with elements of mystery, science fiction, horror and magical realism. It’s about a group of punk rockers in New York in the late ‘70s, and a group of aspiring actresses in Los Angeles in the present day. Both are tied together through a mysterious set of disappearances, usually accompanied by a strange caustic sludge, and the impossible sighting of angels.

It’s called “Punks Versus Math”.

I told you I have terrible working titles.

Interview with author A. C. Crispin

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today I’m pleased to be interviewing A.C. Crispin, whose new novel is PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. She’s best known for the novelization of the 1984 V TV series, but also for her bestselling Star Wars novels THE PARADISE SNARE, THE HUTT GAMBIT, and REBEL DAWN — although I first discovered her through her Star Trek novels: YESTERDAY’S SON, TIME FOR YESTERDAY, THE EYES OF THE BEHOLDERS, and SAREK.

Ann, You’ve been able to write novels in some of fandom’s favorite stories. How did you manage that?

A.C. CRISPIN: After I wrote YESTERDAY’S SON and V, publishers with franchises approached my agent when they had projects they thought would be a good match for my skills.

If your readers want to read about how to get an agent, soup to nuts, they should read “Notes on Finding a (Real) Literary Agent” on my website.

VENTRELLA: Do you make proposals or do the studios come to you directly now?

CRISPIN: For original novels I write book proposals. For tie-in work, they pretty much come to me.

VENTRELLA: Let’s discuss THE PRICE OF FREEDOM. How much freedom were you given to develop Jack Sparrow’s background?

CRISPIN: After a considerable amount of back and forth on the part of the Disney studio liaison, during which several detailed outlines were not approved, the studio liaison decided that instead of writing the project I had been originally hired to write (the story of the Isla de Muerta mutiny re: the Aztec gold) I should instead write the story of how Jack Sparrow worked for the EITC and wound up making that bargain with Davy Jones. So I knew where the story had to end up. How I got there was left pretty much up to me.

I did consult with both my editors on the book, the acquiring editor and the editor who completed the project. For example, they both agreed that there should be a “Lady Pirate” as a character, so that’s how Doña Pirata was born. The Legend of Zerzura plotline was my creation, but my editors suggested having talismans as a way to get into the Sacred Labyrinth and reach the treasure. So I then came up with the bracelets.

By the time I finished with my outline, it was over 70 single spaced pages long. Of course, THE PRICE OF FREEDOM is a long novel, some 235,000 words.

VENTRELLA: Did Disney censor any of your ideas or tell you to make major changes?

CRISPIN: My Disney editor (somewhat regretfully, because she really liked them) bowdlerized my hottest sex scene. I’m not sure you’d call that a major change. After all, we are talking Disney, here. (The scene was hot, but not graphic — she felt that it was a bit too hot.)

VENTRELLA: What were your main goals in trying to develop his character?

CRISPIN: To create the character of “Jack becoming” so that people would recognize Jack Sparrow, but also know this wasn’t quite the Jack they see in the films … this was a younger, more vulnerable, more trusting and less cynical Jack. He gets more cynical and “savvy” during the course of the book. He’s not the same Jack at the end as he was at the beginning. Of course that’s the goal of good fiction, right?

VENTRELLA: What adventures in your novel help shape Jack into the character we all know?

CRISPIN: Oh, Jack experiences betrayal, disappointment, fear of imminent death, hatred, and as a result learns to be much more wary and cunning, and to trust almost no one. Readers who want teasers can read the excerpts on my website. There are six there.

VENTRELLA: Do any other characters from the film appear in the novel?

CRISPIN: Edward Teague, Cutler Beckett, Hector Barbossa, Pintel and Ragetti, and a certain squid-faced Captain.

VENTRELLA: Were you given a peek at the script for the most recent film in order to work in some foreshadowing?

CRISPIN: No. I was given the script for “At World’s End” before the film released, but my book was finished before the script for “On Stranger Tides” was written.

VENTRELLA: The most recent movie is loosely based on Tim Powers’ novel ON STRANGER TIDES. Did you use that novel at all for reference?

CRISPIN: I’ve read ON STRANGER TIDES a couple of times, but aside from the fact that it’s an excellent pirate yarn, no.

VENTRELLA: Will there be more books in the series?

CRISPIN: That will be Disney’s call. I imagine they’ll base that decision on how well THE PRICE OF FREEDOM sells.

VENTRELLA: What’s your favorite of the Pirates movies?

CRISPIN: The Curse of the Black Pearl.

VENTRELLA: Do you find using established characters in your media novels to be a limitation?

CRISPIN: Nope. I find it a challenge to have them grow and change in ways so subtle that the studio doesn’t realize I’ve done it.

VENTRELLA: You’ve also written your own series: Starbridge. Tell us about this!

CRISPIN: Funny you should ask about that. There’s a good chance that the seven StarBridge novels will soon be re-released as e-books. There have been quite a few requests for them from readers, over the years. The series is about a school for young people from the Fifteen Known Worlds who come to an asteroid in deep space to learn to be diplomats, planetary advocates (known as “interrelators”) and explorers. The books focus on First Contact, and explore what it would be like in a galactic society.

VENTRELLA: Do you find writing books based on your own work easier?

CRISPIN: Not really. I put my full efforts into both my media tie-ins and my original novels. With the original novels, it’s generally a bit more work, because I have to create the world, the technology, the history, the geography, the society, etc. World-building and universe-building have to be done well if you want to create the illusion of reality –- something that’s essential to writing s.f. and fantasy.

VENTRELLA: We met at Balticon this year. Do you enjoy conventions and do you advise authors to attend them?

CRISPIN: You can learn a lot at conventions, and once you’ve gone pro, you can do a fair amount of networking and business at gatherings such as the Nebulas, Worldcon, etc. I enjoy conventions, still, even after all these years.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about Writer Beware. How did the idea for this come about?

CRISPIN: Back in 1998, Victoria Strauss and I both realized, independently of each other, that writing scams were proliferating on the internet. At some point our investigations brought us into contact with each other, and we decided to do something about it. SFWA gave us its blessing and sponsorship, and that’s how Writer Beware was born.

VENTRELLA: I meet many authors who have gone the vanity press or self publishing route and then wonder why no one takes them seriously. Other than “don’t do that” do you have any specific pieces of advice for these authors?

CRISPIN: I advise them to go to Writer Beware and read our articles about POD, vanity publishing, etc., so they’ll go into self publishing with a clear vision of what it can and can’t do for an author. E-publishing has taken off in the past six months, and it can now be a realistic way (provided the author has the sales numbers) to break into commercial publishing (advance and royalty paying publishing with a major press, that is). This is generally not true for POD and hardcopy “self publishing.” But there are exceptions.

The main problem with “self-publishing” is when authors confuse it with commercial publishing and expect their books to be on the shelves in bookstores nationwide, plus have other unrealistic expectations. It is really not a shortcut into a successful writing career for the vast majority of those who do it. I believe it’s still true that most POD and self published novels still sell fewer than 100 copies.

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

CRISPIN: Here are my top two picks for that:

(1) I’d go back in time and eliminate the Thor Power Tools Supreme Court ruling. That had a terrible effect on a publisher’s ability to keep books in stock. Look it up.

(2) I’d get rid of the Internet for two reasons (A) the internet has given aspiring writers the idea that they’re entitled to be published, no matter how well or poorly they write, and (B) because of the internet, writers are getting scammed at an appalling rate.

VENTRELLA: Who do you like to read for pleasure?

CRISPIN: Terry Pratchett, Elizabeth Peters, Jane Austen, Charles Dickens, Margaret Mahy, Ursula K. LeGuin, George R.R. Martin, Lois McMaster Bujold, Charlotte Bronte, and too many others to name.

VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?

CRISPIN: I do my level best on all my books. I’m pretty proud of PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN: THE PRICE OF FREEDOM, because I had to do so much research. It took me three years to write, and the whole time I was writing it, I was doing research on the historical period and the nautical stuff.

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

CRISPIN: For tie-in work I HAVE to produce detailed outlines, so I’ve gotten used to working that way. I don’t like writing myself into corners, and a good outline usually prevents that.

VENTRELLA: Fantasy has grown tremendously in popularity over the past twenty or thirty years and now outsells science fiction. Why do you think this is? What is it about fantasy that appeals to readers that they can’t get from science fiction?

CRISPIN: I have no idea. Personally, I prefer science fiction, though I read both.

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

CRISPIN: Learn to read and analyze publishing contracts. Agents aren’t perfect, and you really need to be able to read a proposed contract and spot pitfalls.

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

CRISPIN: Here’s my top five list:

1. They spend years writing a Star Wars or other tie-in novel without ever researching whether they can actually submit the thing and have a chance of having it published. (With Star Wars, for example, they won’t even read the book; all Star Wars novels are contracted for in advance.)

2. They look for shortcuts, such as “self publishing” or POD publishing, often with a scammy publisher like PublishAmerica or Strategic, because it’s the easy thing to do.

3. They develop “golden words syndrome” and can’t see any flaws in their writing, and if someone points them out, they get mad. This is death to any aspiration to ever be a pro.

4. They submit first drafts.

5. They want to write fiction, but they don’t read it. I’ve never yet encountered a single writer, in the dozens, maybe hundreds of workshops I’ve taught, who wrote fiction well but wasn’t a reader. In order to write well, especially fiction, you must be an inveterate reader. No exceptions.

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

CRISPIN: Where readers can buy my books. There are links to purchase all my books on my website.

Interview with author Mark L. Van Name

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Today, I am pleased to be interviewing Mark L. Van Name, who I had the pleasure of meeting at the Arisia convention in Boston recently. Mark has worked in the high-tech industry for over thirty years and today runs a technology assessment company in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina. He’s published over a thousand computer-related articles and multiple science fiction stories in a variety of magazines and anthologies.

How important is it that writers of hard SF especially have a background in science?

MARK L. VAN NAME: There are no hard and fast rules about writing, SF or otherwise. The right good, smart writer can pull off just about anything. You can learn so much via research that not having formal training in an area is no excuse for not learning about it. So, I don’t think it’s vital that hard SF writers have a science background.

That said, I do think it’s helpful to have a solid base in any areas you try to cover in depth. Without that base, you better do your research, because otherwise, you’ll make mistakes, and your readers will spot them.

VENTRELLA: Since all of speculative fiction relies on things that are not, do you think a beginning writer should be wary when writing about things of which they have no experience?

VAN NAME: Wary, yes, but afraid to tackle it, no. You just have to respect the material you’re using. If you haven’t been a fire fighter and want to write about them, reading about their work and talking to some would be a very good idea. Making it up entirely based on what you’ve seen on TV, though possibly better than no research at all, is rarely enough for your work to have the verisimilitude it should.

VENTRELLA: Given your background, are you worried about the growing anti-science attitude we are seeing in much of politics these days?

VAN NAME: Definitely, though I have to say that particular concern is lower on my list than many others, including global climate change, the huge levels of hunger and poverty around the world, our national debt, child soldiers, and many other causes. There have always been groups opposed to rationality, and there always will be.

VENTRELLA: How did you break into the field? What was your first sale and how did it come about?

VAN NAME: My first fiction sale of any type was a short story, “Going Back,” to a now-defunct, small-press, feminist SF magazine, Pandora. My first professional (by SFWA guidelines) sale was a short time later, a story, “My Sister, My Self,” that went to Asimov’s but ended up in their original anthology, ISAAC ASIMOV’S TOMORROW’S VOICES. In both cases, the sale went down in the usual way: I mailed them the manuscript, and they bought it. For the first story, the editors asked that I interview some battered women–the protagonist was one–and then do a rewrite based on what I learned. I did, I learned a lot, I rewrote the story, and they bought it. For the Asimov’s piece, I mailed it, and they bought it. Not very exciting, I’m afraid.

VENTRELLA: Did you get an agent?

VAN NAME: Nope. Only after I’d sold the first four novels did I talk to an agent. I’m not at all convinced that agents help beginning writers sell short stories. More to the point, I suspect that few agents you would want to represent you would take you if you were writing only short pieces, and that’s all I was doing for many years.

VENTRELLA: Tell us about the Jon and Lobo series!

VAN NAME: Talking about a multi-novel series is a lot like describing a multi-course meal of experimental cuisine: whether you focus on the individual dishes or the overall meal, you’re bound to miss a lot. I’ll try it a bit from both perspectives.

The overall series is a future history that I tell from the first-person perspective of one man, Jon Moore. I’ve always found history more interesting when it comes directly from the people who were there, so I wanted to chronicle a very important time in humanity’s far future–I’m writing about a time roughly 500 years from now–but limit myself largely to what Jon can see and experience. Of course, he’s a most unusual man, as far as he knows the only nanotech-enhanced human alive, so he naturally ends up in quite a few interesting situations. In the first novel, ONE JUMP AHEAD, he meets and becomes first the owner and then the friend of Lobo, an extraordinarily intelligent assault vehicle that can go anywhere–on land, under water, in the air, or in space. Over the course of the many books the series will take to complete–I’m estimating about eighteen, but that’s just an estimate–the characters and the universe will undergo many significant changes.

On an individual book level, each part of the series is simply a novel that should stand entirely on its own. You can pick up any book in the series and enjoy it. You can read them in any order. If you read them all, however, and further, if you read them in order, then you should have a richer experience. I’ve talked to lots of readers who’ve joined the series several books in, and so far, all of them have been able to enjoy whatever books happened to be their starting points.

VENTRELLA: You like to attend science fiction conventions. Are they really worth it, given the expense?

VAN NAME: I have no clue, because hard data on the sales value of cons–or blogs or pretty much any other marketing tool–is almost impossible to get. That said, I don’t go simply to increase sales. I attend cons to be part of the community, to see friends, visit new cities, eat at good restaurants, and so on. You can’t be sure you’ll boost your sales, but you can be sure to see friends and have an entertaining time.

VENTRELLA: What’s the funniest experience you ever had at a convention?

VAN NAME: I’ve done a lot of humor panels at cons, and I’ve done stand-up comedy/spoken-word shows, so that’s a tougher question than you might imagine. Certainly one of the funniest hours I’ve spent was listening to my friend, Lew Shiner, give a talk on humorous mimetic short fiction at a long-ago Disclave at which he was the guest of honor. He delivered the entire thing in very scholarly style, but it was just an excuse to tell a ton of jokes–which he did, brilliantly.

VENTRELLA: What process do you use in order to make believable, realistic characters?

VAN NAME: I don’t see that process as separate from the overall writing process. I sit down to tell a story. The story becomes very real in my head, because I spend a great deal of time living in the world of the story. The story includes people. I get to know those people. Like any other folks, they behave the way they do because of who they are. If I try to make a character do something that she or he simply wouldn’t do, it feels bad, wrong, as wrong as it would feel if a friend suddenly behaved completely out of character. I listen to those feelings. I write the story. The characters behave as they would. That’s about it.

I should probably clarify that I’m not one of those writers who believes his characters are real humans. I know they’re not. I know I control them. I know I could make them do anything I want. I also know, however, that doing so, that violating a character’s identity simply for the sake of a plot, would be bad craft. I don’t want to do that.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing process–-do you outline heavily, for instance?

VAN NAME: I generally outline, but how detailed the outline is varies widely. For a thriller, FATAL CIRCLE, that I’m partway through and hope one day to finish, I had to do some research in key areas and consult with some experts. The result was a very detailed, very long outline–over twenty-six thousand words, a quarter of a typical novel. For CHILDREN NO MORE, I went with an outline of barely three thousand words. I outline to the level I feel necessary before I’m ready to start writing the book, and then I write.

I do some writing work every day. That’s been the key to changing me from someone who sold a story every few years to someone who has multiple novels out. I don’t, though, have a word-count quota. I avoid that sort of goal because it’s so easy to fail at it, and I hate failing. Instead, I have a time requirement: I must devote at least half an hour a day solely to writing work. As long as I’ve done that, I’ve succeeded. Most days, I do more. Most days, I get a fair number of words on the page. Some days, I produce very few. As long as I’ve tried for half an hour minimum, I call it a success.

VENTRELLA: What do you see as the future for printed books? For book stores?

VAN NAME: I love books. I really do. My house is full of them. They’re everywhere. Sadly, I believe the printed book is going to become a minority taste. I’m not sure if the transition will take ten years or fifty, but I believe it’s coming. That said, in the fiction world, books are containers for stories, and ebooks are simply other containers for stories. Similarly, I believe bookstores will continue to exist, but they will evolve, and in time their numbers will shrink. I will hate that, because I love bookstores almost as much as I love books.

I hasten to add that I don’t see any of this as the demise of writers or of people paying for stories. They’ll just pay for those stories in other forms.

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

VAN NAME: Rather mixed. I write a blog, so in a sense I self-publish. I sell all my fiction, however, to traditional publishers. I know that some writers can make a great deal of money self-publishing, but being a publisher is a lot of work, and most of that work is not writing, which is what I most want to do. So, for me, selling to a publisher remains the way I hope to continue to bring my fiction to the market.

I also expect most people who self-publish are unlikely to make a lot of money doing so. The sales and marketing experience that a publisher brings to its job helps make each writer a brand–some obviously much bigger brands than others–and it’s hard to manage that feat on your own. Plus, self-publishers have to be good enough at analyzing their own work to know when it’s of publishable quality. I’ve read some who are indeed good at that job, but I’ve also read many who are not.

Like so many things, if others want to do it, I wish them the best. For the most part, though, it’s not for me, at least not now. I add that last bit because even for those of us who work in the future every day, it’s pretty darn hard to predict.

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

VAN NAME: I agonized over this question for months. In fact, it’s the biggest reason I’ve been so late getting this interview back to you. I really took the challenge seriously, and I found I simply couldn’t come up with a single ultimate dinner party. I won’t let myself cop out completely, though, so I’m going to give you, in no particular order, a few that particularly caught my fancy.

Each on his own, just so I could focus exclusively on him: Homer, Shakespeare, Keats, and my biological father, whom I’ve met only once for a couple of hours.

My mother as a young woman, but with someone standing by to knock me out if I started to give away the future.

Several women I care about deeply, each alone, each as a young girl, just so I could see who they once were.

I could go on and on, but one thing is clear: I’d be greedy, going for one-on-one time rather than organizing a group.

Interview with Janice Gable Bashman

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing Janice Gable Bashman today. Janice is co-author (with Jonathan Maberry) of WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE: VAMPIRE HUNTERS AND OTHER KICK-ASS ENEMIES OF EVIL (Citadel Press, August 2010). She has written for many leading publications, including NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER’S MARKET, WILD RIVER REVIEW, THE WRITER, INDUSTRY TODAY, and FOOD & DRINK QUARTERLY. Janice is a member of the ITW (International Thriller Writers) and the Horror Writer’s Association, as well as a contributing editor of the ITW’s newsletter the BIG THRILL. Her writing won multiple awards at the 2007 Philadelphia Writer’s Conference.

Your book WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is due out shortly. Tell us about the book!

JANICE GABLE BASHMAN: WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE deals with monsters of all kinds (supernatural, fictional, or real) and the people/beings/forces that fight them. It’s a pop culture book for fans of the genre. We interviewed tons of people for the book — FBI profilers, authors, screenwriters, comic writers, actors, directors, producers, criminal experts, psychologists, and others — as well as luminaries like film-maker John Carpenter, author Peter Straub, and the legendary Stan Lee. The book also has over forty illustrations from fantastic artists.

Here’s what some of the experts have to say about the book:

“WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is a fascinating, far-ranging analysis of the nature of evil and those who rise to fight it … in real life, in pop culture, in literature and in legend. A must read for those who want to dive deep into the reasons for why we are fascinated by monsters … and love those who make it their business to take them down.” — Rachel Caine, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author of the Morganville Vampires series, Weather Warden series, and Outcast Season series

“WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is a riveting chronicle of all things that drop fangs in the dead of night. All aficionados MUST have this in their library!” — LA Banks, New York Times best-selling author of the Vampire Huntress Legend series

“Jonathan Maberry and Janice Gable Bashman probe into pop culture’s Heart of Darkness, and what they find is both fascinating and thought-provoking.” — Charlaine Harris, creator of TRUE BLOOD and the Sookie Stackhouse novels

VENTRELLA: How did your writing styles work together?

BASHMAN: Jonathan Maberry and I each wrote individual chapters and reviewed and edited the other’s work. Other chapters were a collaborative effort. Prior to writing anything, we had to decide who was best to write each chapter. Although writing the book was research and interview intensive, we each brought our own skill sets and knowledge of the subject matter to the project; therefore, some chapters were better suited for one of us than the other.

When writing or co-writing a book, voice is important. The challenge with two authors is finding one voice that both authors can write and that fits the tone of the book. At first it takes a bit of trial and error (and writing and rewriting) to get there, but the end result is, if you do your job right, a voice from two writers that sounds like it’s from one.

VENTRELLA: Do you have any similar books planned?

BASHMAN: WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE is a companion to VAMPIRE UNIVERSE by Jonathan Maberry (2006) and THEY BITE by Jonathan Maberry and David F. Kramer (2009). I’m finishing up a proposal for my next non-fiction book; it’s still under wraps so I can’t share the details at this time. I can say that dozens of key players are already on board for the project and it’s sure to be a fun one.

VENTRELLA: You primarily have written nonfiction. How does that differ from writing fiction?

BASHMAN: Writing fiction and non-fiction differ and yet are the same. By that I mean that both forms of writing have a story to tell. In fiction, the story comes from your imagination (and research); in non-fiction, the story is derived from fact. Whether I’m interviewing an author for the NOVEL & SHORT STORY WRITER’S MARKET or THE BIG THRILL or interviewing a CEO of a major corporation for a trade magazine, the process is the same. I gather my facts and tell a story — the story of the person or organization I’m interviewing.

I’ve received many e-mails from authors and others I’ve interviewed thanking me for giving them such an interesting interview, one where the questions differ from those they’ve been asked so many times before. I make it my business to thoroughly research my subject before I construct an interview and find a way to take that interview to a deeper and more personal level, to get to the heart of the person and talk to them about what really matters.

But, in the end, it’s all about story. Finding the story and crafting it in a way that’s exciting for the reader. That’s my job as a writer whether I’m writing fiction or non-fiction.

VENTRELLA: How did you get started in the business?

BASHMAN: About four years ago, I decided to take a swing at publishing some articles after I became involved with a writing group. I learned to craft a query, sent out a few ideas to some local publications, and sold my first article. In the years prior, I had published my master’s thesis and a few book reviews, so I did have some, albeit minimal, publishing credentials. Once that first article was published, I began sending out more queries to both local and national markets, and the sales began rolling in. I’ve written dozens of interviews and profiles for numerous publications, but I’ve also written features, book reviews, and now a non-fiction book.

VENTRELLA: How do you pitch a nonfiction book or article?

BASHMAN: Pitching a non-fiction book is different than pitching an article, so let’s tackle a book first. To pitch a non-fiction book, the writer must write a non-fiction book proposal. The book proposal contains detailed information about the editorial format, the book contents, the author’s marketing and promotion intentions, who will buy the book, media contacts, and more. A sample chapter or two is also submitted with the book proposal. The author must then pitch the book to an agent, via a query letter, in order to find an agent to represent him in selling the book. Some publishers may accept proposals directly from an author, but most do not. So, unlike fiction, the entire book does not have to be completed before pitching to an agent or editor.

The process of writing a non-fiction book proposal is helpful beyond obtaining a sale. It helps the author flesh out and refine his ideas and really get a good handle on the book. And when it comes time to write, the author is ready to go.

Pitching an article is a different beast. To pitch a non-fiction article the writer must send a query to an editor telling that editor about the proposed article and why it’s a good fit for his publication. This is done prior to writing the article. It does help sometimes, depending on the type of article you wish to write, to have one or two quotes from “experts” in your pitch to support your proposal. For an interview or profile I have not found this necessary, but I would recommend using expert quotes for a feature article. It shows the editor that you not only have the knowledge to write the article but that you also have access to the experts who can support the material.

My experience has shown that once I’ve worked successfully with an editor, it is easier to pitch new ideas to him and have them accepted for publication, as long as the ideas are good, obviously, and fit the publication’s needs. I’ve also had editors contact me on numerous occasions asking if I would be interested in writing a particular piece for their publications. When that happens, it certainly makes life easier because I bypass the query process. If and when that happens, it’s important to remember that it’s okay to turn down an assignment if your schedule will not allow you to complete the piece on time to meet the editor’s deadline. Always, always, always meet your deadlines.

VENTRELLA: Giving a pitch to a fiction editor or agent is a skill few have. How do you manage it? What advice do you have?

BASHMAN: The hook is all important. A query letter must hook the agent or editor in the first sentence just like the first sentence of a book must hook the reader. The writer must give the agent a reason to continue reading the query letter and to request sample chapters. It may seem like a simple thing, especially after writing and editing a manuscript, but it’s not. Crafting a good query letter takes time, but it’s important for the writer to take the time to do it right. How awful would it be for a great manuscript to sit forever in a drawer because an author didn’t take the time to learn how to write a good query and therefore couldn’t get an agent or editor to read the manuscript?

My advice is simple. It takes practice. Write and rewrite your query until it sounds like something that would make you request pages if you were an agent. Run your query past a few colleagues, post it on a writer’s critique board such as Backspace or Absolute Write Water Cooler, or if you’re really brave post it online for either the Query Shark or Evil Editor to critique. But before you even get that far, read through Miss Snark’s blog achieves where you’ll find hundreds of query critiques to study as examples. Publishers Marketplace is also a good resource. Take a look at the deals page and you can easily see how authors/agents have summed-up a book’s hook in one sentence. Find books in your genre and read the back cover copy, see how the wording hooks the readers and find a way to do the same for your book.

The more a writer studies and writes queries the easier it gets, but it takes time and practice. Don’t expect perfection right out of the gate. Work on the query, study your sentence structure, word choices, etc. until you get it right. Put the same hard work into the query that you put into your book. And if you query and don’t receive requests for pages, you either need to rethink/rewrite your query letter or ensure you queried the agents/editors who are interested in your type of book. One or the other wasn’t on target.

VENTRELLA: What advice can you give an aspiring writer?

BASHMAN: Remember that you’re writing because you love to write, because you have something to say that is meaningful. Be persistent. Push through the tough times; they will come. Relish the rewards of your work. And remember that publishing is a business, so try not to take rejection too personally. A rejection may not be a reflection on your work but may simply show that what you wrote is not the right piece for the marketplace at that particular time.

VENTRELLA: What’s the worst thing you have seen writers do that ruin their potential careers?

BASHMAN: I cringe every time I see a writer bash an agent or an editor in a social media setting such as Twitter or Facebook because the agent or editor rejected that writer’s work. Agents and editors receive and respond to hundreds of queries a week and often read them on their own time outside of business hours. They are searching for that next great book to represent, the book they love, and the book they believe readers will love too. They’re in the publishing business because they love books, and believe me, they want to find the next great book just as much as the writer wants to write it.

Rejection is part of the business, and a writer’s response to that rejection should be kept private or shared with a few select friends. It’s okay to feel disappointed, hurt or upset, but publically airing those feelings and lashing out at agent or editor either online or via e-mail is awful. First of all, it’s cruel. It’s done out of anger and feelings of rejection — that the writer’s work isn’t good enough, which may or may not be true. Second, agents and editors know one another, so when a writer bashes an agent or editor, that writer is labeled as trouble based on their online or e-mail rant. The writer may have written a great manuscript, but who wants to work with a difficult author, especially one just starting out in the business?

VENTRELLA: How do you manage promotion for your work? What things do you have planned?

BASHMAN: Promotion takes a lot of time, but it’s a necessary part of business. Today, authors are expected to do most, if not all, of their own promotion. It’s important to have a game plan and follow-through with it. A writer can write a great book, but if no one buys it the book is considered a failure.

For WANTED UNDEAD OR ALIVE, we’ll be posting expanded interviews on our websites with some of the people we interviewed for the book, we’ll reach out to readers through social media, we’ll attend upcoming comic, horror, and other events, we’ll participate in speaking engagements at local libraries and other organizations, we’ll attend book fairs, hold book signings, and a whole slew of other things to get our book out there and to bring it to the attention of readers.

VENTRELLA: How important is it for a writer to post on Twitter and Facebook and keep a blog? And what can a writer do to make his or her blog different and noticeable?

BASHMAN: It’s extremely important for a writer to connect with as many potential readers as possible. The internet has given authors a powerful arsenal of tools to connect with readers through social media, blogs, Yahoo! groups, websites, etc., and authors need to recognize those opportunities and use them. I recently spoke about building your buzz to drive up sales at the Backspace Writers Conference, and I’ll be speaking about it again to the Brandywine Valley Writers Group in September. I embrace these social media and online opportunities and have found them instrumental in helping propel my writing career forward. I’m on Twitter , Facebook, LibraryThing, Shelfari, LinkedIn, and a bunch of Yahoo! groups. I also follow and comment on numerous blogs and post to my own blog, usually about the writing business.

In order for a writer to make his blog noticeable, the writer must provide content that is engaging and relevant to the blog readers. In order to achieve that, the writer must identify his blog audience—who are they and why they are there. Also, what does the writer want to talk about? How can the writer make that interesting for his readers? If the writer’s target audience is other writers, for example, how can a blog post on writing draw in potential readers, agents, editors, etc.? Find ways to target new audiences while maintaining the readers you already have? Study those blogs you admire and see what they are doing and how they are doing it. Learn by example. Then try your twist on it and see if it works. If it doesn’t draw the response you desire, tweak your approach and try again. There’s no sure-fire formula for success. Just do what you do and do your best.

VENTRELLA: What projects do you have upcoming?

BASHMAN: In addition to the upcoming non-fiction book project I mentioned earlier, I continue to write for various publications. I’ll also be shopping a young adult novel shortly.

Me and Janice

Interview with author Dennis Tafoya

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing author Dennis Tafoya today, whose latest novel THE WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK has just been released. His first novel, DOPE THIEF, was published by Minotaur Books in 2009. His short story “Above the Imperial” will appear in Philadelphia Noir, coming from Akashic Books in November as part of their award-winning City Noir series. He is a member of the Mystery Writers of America, the International Thriller Writers, and the Liars Club, a Philadelphia-area writers group. He lives in Bucks County, Pennsylvania.

Dennis, let’s begin by talking about how you first got started. What got you interested in being a writer?

DENNIS TAFOYA: Writing is something I’ve always done. When I was nine I wrote a story about a monster with my friend Keith Parker. We thought it was pretty good, but looking back I have to admit it was basically a rip-off of an episode of the TV show, One Step Beyond. I associate my love of writing with a love of reading, and my early stuff was very much influenced by the science fiction and horror authors I loved when I was young, like Ray Bradbury and Robert Bloch and Harlan Ellison. I would still like to write something in a paranormal or horror vein, and I still think those authors are amazing.

VENTRELLA: Do you think starting authors should concentrate on perfecting short stories first? Do you feel the skills needed for novels is different?

TAFOYA: That’s a really interesting question, and I’ve never thought about short story writing as a prerequisite for the aspiring novelist. I know people who are very comfortable in the long form who really don’t like writing short stories, and short story writers who really struggle with the requirements of the novel. I think the best novel chapters are frequently short stories in themselves, though, and trying to master the short story can teach the writer a ton about tight control on the elements of story.

I love writing short stories — I’ve got a bunch of them out or coming out in the next few months, and I’m really proud that I’ve got a story in upcoming Philadelphia Noir from Akashic Books. I did write shorts before I tried a novel, I think to show myself that I could write a complete story. It’s also a lot easier to find a home for a short story because of the explosion of story sites on the web. I frequently advise my aspiring writer friends to take advantage of those sites, both to get work out there and get reactions, and as a way to meet people who are writing in your genre, too.

Actually, my only creative writing teacher was a poet, and I think writing poetry is an excellent path to writing fiction. Writing good poetry requires a brutal discipline, and it kind of distills the tension that should be present in all good writing to a very fine point. Poetry teaches an awareness of rhythm and word choice, too. I think making demands on ourselves as writers is the only way to get better at what we do.

VENTRELLA: Why did you decide to be a “crime writer”? What sort of background do you bring to the genre?

TAFOYA: Oh, not much other than a deep interest in crime. The threads that inform my work are literary fiction and true crime, I think. I have a few relatives with a little Damon Runyon quality to thier lives, but mostly the characters in my novels and stories are out of my imagination, applied to what I’ve read and heard about criminals and the criminal life. I’ve been lucky to know police officers and prosecutors and defense lawyers, and I’ve gotten some amazing things out of those associations, but I’m pretty boring and middle class personally. I think that’s a little disappointing to people who meet me, and I was thinking I should get some tattoos or something to sell the image a little more.

VENTRELLA: What kind of research do you do when preparing a story?

TAFOYA: I’m a fiend for research. I want to get the details right, and I want to write about those worlds as well as I can. I did a ton of research for both DOPE THIEF and WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK. I read, go to the library and spend thousands of hours on the internet trying to learn the things I want to know.

The cool thing is that research itself can generate new story ideas and take me in directions I wouldn’t have thought to move. Reading about crime in Philly for WOLVES OF FAIRMOUNT PARK, I stumbled on stories about ‘hoppers,’ kids who ride freight trains and live in squats in the city. So I added a couple of hopper characters to the novel, and the stuff I’ve learned is tucked away in my brain in case I want to spend more time developing characters or stories that involve that world.

VENTRELLA: Do you like being called “hard boiled”? What the heck does that mean, anyway?

TAFOYA: I’m not entirely sure. I guess it’s fiction with a gritty edge. I don’t mind the label, but I hope it doesn’t keep people away who might enjoy the books but who think my work might be too intense. My stories are character-driven, and while the stories do involve violence and drug use, I really want to arouse the interest and sympathy of the reader, not shock or alienate anyone. I write about people who struggle in the margins, who live compromised lives but who are still smart and aware and want more from life than their roles would suggest. I hope people recognize themselves, at least a little, in characters like Orlando in WOLVES or Ray in DOPE THIEF.

VENTRELLA: How did you interest a publisher in your first novel?

TAFOYA: I was extraordinarily lucky. Basically, a very nice woman from California, a writer and producer named Cori Stern, took an interest in my work and started me toward publication. She introduced me to her manager, Brooke Ehrlich, who agreed to represent me. Brooke found me an amazing literary agent, Alex Glass of Trident Media, who sold the book to Minotaur. It was all so painless I feel guilty when I hear other writers tell me about trying for years to find representation and get their work in front of editors. Like Blanche Dubois, I depended on the kindness of strangers, but it went much better for me than for Blanche.

VENTRELLA: THE DOPE THIEF was released first in hardcover. Why was that decision made? Do you think it was the right decision?

TAFOYA: It’s been Minotaur’s decision to release both books in harcover. I’m still a little worried that, times being what they are that people will balk at the price, but I have to trust that my publishers know what they’re doing. I think there is more interest and attention aimed at hardcovers, but there is that price issue, too. It’s a tremendous vote of confidence from Minotaur and my editor, but I feel a huge responsibility for it all to go well.

VENTRELLA: Let’s talk about characters. The best and most memorable are flawed in some way yet believable. What sort of process do you take when developing your characters? How do you make sure they don’t turn cliche?

TAFOYA: Trying to avoid cliche is one of my major preoccupations, in my characters, in the plot and in the prose itself. My aim is to write something readers haven’t seen before, but that delivers a satisfying experience and engages them emotionally. It’s a lot to try to accomplish, but I think I’m a better writer for at least moving in those directions.

I’m really only interested in characters who are deeply compromised. Maybe because I see myself that way, maybe because people who are self-contained, capable and sort of unassailable are cyphers to me. I don’t know many people like that in real life, either. Good writing is about tension, and I think that tension between the way we live and the way we want to live is what generates story in a really interesting and organic way.

VENTRELLA: Also difficult is making unsavory characters appealing to a reader. What do you find works best?

TAFOYA: I think some degree of self-knowledge is the key. My characters are drug addicts and criminals, but their awareness of themselves and the gap between what they want for themselves and the lives they lead is something we can all identify with. In DOPE THIEF, the main character is trying to figure out where things went wrong for him and whether he can get to a better life that’s about connection and engagement with his own best impulses. You don’t have to be a criminal to feel that way.

VENTRELLA: What is your writing style? Do you outline heavily, jump right in, start at the end…?

TAFOYA: I outline very briefly and generally, a couple of pages. I find so much in the writing that I don’t want to limit myself. The story will demand it’s own level of planning, too. WOLVES was a mystery, and there are logistical issues that need to be worked out with a little precision when you’re working on that kind of project, but I always find new characters or new ideas, so my sense of the story remains pretty fluid. I do have an image or scene that I’m writing toward, usually, a kind of state I want things to be in at the end. That’s pretty important for me.

VENTRELLA: WOLVES was bought by your publisher based on a one sentence synposis, about a heroin addict trying to solve a mystery. Did that provide a challenge? Are you pleased with the result?

TAFOYA: I don’t know what I was thinking promising to write a mystery. I have so much respect for writers who can deliver those on a regular basis! I’m really glad I did it, and I’m pleased that the book is getting good reviews, but it was a real challenge. It stretched me in new ways, and not just because of the requirements of the mystery form. I knew I was going to have to plan much more extensively, create red herrings and keep control of the way information is revealed, but I was also working for the first time with multiple viewpoints and a much larger palette. It was pretty ambitious, and I can’t tell you how relieved I am that the book is getting good reactions.

VENTRELLA: WOLVES also deals with the seedy underbelly of Philadelphia. What is it about Philly that makes it unique to your stories? Could your fiction work in any other place?

TAFOYA: I was asked that in another interview recently, and I’ve been thinking about how Philadelphia and its characters might be unique. I’ve spent a lot of time in New York and Washington and some other places and I can say people in each of those places really seem different to me. I recently set a short story in Vegas that dealt with characters from the west, and I think the speech patterns, the way people engage one another, reflect a slower pace and sometimes a little more recalcitrance than the people I know here. My friends and relatives from Philly talk fast and loud and share different kinds of information. We’re on display in a way that a guy from rural Nevada might not be.

Another thing I think is interesting is that here in Philly we’re more rooted to the place we live. In my family we used to joke about that, about our relatives who thought they needed a passport to leave South Philly. We’re defined by neighborhoods, by where we grew up and where our families live. Our accents are very specific and we’re very conscious of class and income. My relatives from Oregon Avenue regarded the Main Line as a different planet.

VENTRELLA: Can we expect your third novel to do the same?

TAFOYA: I’m working (very slowly) on a new novel dealing with little criminals from South Jersey. It’s an excuse to do a ton more research, of course, and to spend time in the area getting to know the places and reading local papers, eating in the diners. Research like that is always fun and it always yields really interesting stuff, some of which might actually make it into the book.

VENTRELLA: And finally, what advice would you give the aspiring writer that isn’t obvious (“write better”)?

TAFOYA: Find other writers. I meet people who have been working alone on novels for years, hoping to finish that novel or screenplay, or endlessly refining work they’ve already done. Meeting other people who are doing the same thing you are will help you gain confidence, it will get you help and advice, and it will hopefully let you get reactions from people who are engaged in the same work. Your friends and family might be really supportive, but they’re rarely able to help you get better at your craft or help you find ways to get your work in front of readers or agents or editors. Your best bet is to meet other writers. I think you’ll find, like I have, that writers are extemely generous and supportive. Nearly all of the great things that have happened to me have been because other writers went out of their way to help me or give me advice.


Interview with Nebula Award Winning Author James Morrow

MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: Years ago, a friend pushed the World Fantasy Award-winning novel TOWING JEHOVAH on me, and it sounded fascinating. Being a typical writer/reader, I always have dozens of books on my “Have to Read and Will Get Around to Some Day” pile. James Morrow_PhotoCredit Didier LeclercAtelier N89JEHOVAH jumped to the top of the list after I had the pleasure of meeting James Morrow at Worldcon in Montreal a few months ago as we both patiently waited in line for substandard Canadian coffee. It was as good as had been recommended (the book, not the coffee), and now I have the two sequels next in line on my “Have to Read” pile.

James Morrow is a graduate of Harvard and the University of Pennsylvania (not necessarily in that order) and has won acclaim for a variety of fantastic novels which weave together religion, politics, and philosophy. A Nebula-award winner, Morrow continues to challenge and entertain. His web page is here.

James, thanks for taking the time! It is obvious that much of your work concerns religion, from the Godhead Trilogy to ONLY BEGOTTEN DAUGHTER. What do you find in this subject that makes it so desirable?

JAMES MORROW: Every day, I wake up and I say to myself, “How extraordinary! Here I am, James Morrow, thrown into a world in which the vast majority of bipedal beings believe in benign supernatural intervention, and I don’t buy one bit of it! What’s going on here? Why am I totally at odds with most of my fellow thinking primates? How could such a large majority of humans, many of them brighter and better traveled than I, subscribe to a world-picture that is manifestly not the case? How can they imagine that the Bible enjoys a divine origin, when so much of it bespeaks our pettiest impulses? How can they not see the bankruptcy of the benevolent-God hypothesis? Why will they not face the probability that all deities are human inventions?

This paradoxical state of affairs variously confounds, amuses, saddens, frustrates, and infuriates me — but mostly it gives me the energy to create my stories and novels. I’ve been accused of writing primarily out of anger, but I believe I’m more bewildered than bitter. My bedrock perplexity seems to make for compelling fictive thought experiments, or so my more sympathetic readers tell me. towingEvidently God put me here to argue against His existence.

VENTRELLA: Have you faced any censorship or protests because of these works?

MORROW: No serious protests. Occasionally I’ll receive an e-mail from a Christian conservative who, having blundered into my website, is concerned about the status of my salvation. Normally this correspondent will prescribe a verse or two from Saint Paul, but sometimes he’ll glibly inform me that I’m going to Hell.

VENTRELLA: Are you disappointed?

You’ve actually struck a nerve here, Michael. Like all novelists, I’m a bit of a narcissist: I think my readership should be significantly larger. So, yes, I am indeed disappointed that Ralph Reed or the Vatican has not yet come gunning for me.

VENTRELLA: What was interesting to me after reading TOWING JEHOVAH was that the truth of the matter was just accepted; the novel does not disavow the Christian God nor does it satirize Him, but it certainly looks at Him in a new way. Had earlier versions and drafts taken a different approach?

MORROW: I’m glad you found that novel to be relatively nonpolemical. Preaching is the death of fiction. When I embarked on the thought experiment that became TOWING JEHOVAH, I wasn’t sure where I was going, and I was pleased to be surprised by many of the scenes that emerged from my pen. A literal pen: that particular novel was initially written in longhand.

At the start of the project, I didn’t realize TOWING JEHOVAH would give me a chance to satirize my own worldview in the form of the Central Park West Enlightenment League. Nor did I foresee the weirdly reverent tone of the inverse-Eucharist scene, in which the starving supertanker crew survives a famine by eating God’s deconsecrated flesh. And Neil Weisinger’s search for the En sof is also supposed to be taken at face value. I guess you could call TOWING JEHOVAH a novel by an atheist who’s trying to empathize — up to a point — with people of faith.

VENTRELLA: In TOWING JEHOVAH, a message is that “enlightenment” isn’t always truthful. The church wants to hide the truth in its own interest. The atheists, represented by the Central Park West Enlightenment League, also want to hide the truth for their own interest. Deceit is not something to be admired on either side, but in the sequels, the consequences of the truth are severe. Do you believe that it is sometimes better to not know the truth?

MORROW: As an equal opportunity satirist, I wanted to suggest that any group that would style itself the Central Park West Enlightenment League might very well — at the end of the day and faced with an apocalyptic challenge — decline to embrace a body of data that contradicted its worldview.18281941 When you’re in the business of fashioning sardonic comedies, nothing is sacred, not even atheism. My sympathies lie almost entirely with my secular brethren, but in a crisis I suspect that most of us would behave as mere feeble and fallible humans, not as courageous avatars of the truth.

Truth is a sticky commodity. The physical sciences long ago figured out that they can get by perfectly well without making grandiose truth claims (merely predictions based on theories), but philosophy and religion and the arts don’t have that option. Like the Ibsen of THE WILD DUCK and the O’Neill of THE ICEMAN COMETH, I can certainly imagine situations where the truth proved fundamentally destructive, and I was indeed playing with that idea in the Godhead Trilogy — though I ultimately come down on the side of truth-telling, as I also did in my novella CITY OF TRUTH.

Offhand, I can think of no greater sin than to consciously lie to a child, which is why I’m impatient with many conservative Christians, whose God is evidently so feeble that He can be sustained only through falsehoods systematically advanced on His behalf — falsehoods about the alleged evangelical foundations of the American republic, falsehoods about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, falsehoods about the blatant anti-Semitism of the Gospels, falsehoods about priestly sexual misconduct, and so on. As the saying goes, you can have your own opinions, but you can’t have your own facts.

VENTRELLA: Was the series planned in advance or did you decide to write the sequels after the first was completed?

MORROW: Based on some preliminary TOWING JEHOVAH chapters and an outline, I managed to convince Harcourt Brace to sign up for the whole trilogy. Needless to day, all three finished manuscripts departed radically from my original plan. BLAMELESS IN ABADDON was initially titled TERRA INCOGNITA, and the outline was more concerned with the trip through God’s brain, with the Trial of the Millennium functioning merely as a denouement. My first sketch for THE ETERNAL FOOTMAN had the characters searching for the Holy Grail. Eventually their quest leads them to a divine bedpan, an idea I rejected as sophomoric even by my standards.

VENTRELLA: What sort of research do you do for your novels, especially when discussing areas in which you may not be trained?

MORROW: For better or worse, the advent of Google has made the task of research 100 percent easier than in days gone by. I say “or worse” because I believe there was something vaguely romantic and even heroic about the novelist’s quest for the sort of quirky facts and period details that can bring a scene to life. But today these gritty particulars are available at the stroke of a key. It feels like cheating.

I like to say, “First I write the novel, then I do the research.” That remark is not entirely facetious. In the case of my novel-in-progress, an epic about the coming of the Darwinian worldview, I’ve already written scenes set at Darwin’s estate and on the Galapagos archipelago. I intend to visit both sites before putting the book to bed: in my experience such on-the-ground investigations can enrich a novel immeasurably — and yet the present drafts are not entirely lacking in credibility, and I could probably get away with simply claiming I’d done the primary research.

VENTRELLA: How did your education affect your writing? (As an aside, do you miss Boston? I went there for law school and loved it…)
MORROW: Boston is a terrific city, commensurate in my affections with New York, Paris, and London. My days at the Harvard Graduate School of Education particularly paid off in my recent novel called THE PHILOSOPHER’S APPRENTICE, in which a philosophy student is hired to implant a conscience in an adolescent clone. When I was at Harvard, everyone was excited about Lawrence Kohlberg’s profile of children’s moral development. I ended up keying Londa Sabacthani’s education to the famous Kohlbergian dilemmas.

VENTRELLA: Do you tend to think of the story first, or a concept that will lead to a story? It seems that much of your work involves interesting questions of religion and philosophy that lead to a “what if?” scenario…

MORROW: Although most novelists, myself included, want to reach the reader at an emotional level, I believe that fiction writing is primarily an intellectual process. When a scene isn’t working, the problem is not that you’re failing to channel some cosmic Muse from a transcendent plane of reality — the problem is that you’re not thinking hard enough.

I couldn’t imagine beginning a novel or short story without an audacious premise in mind. Many writers evidently work in a completely different fashion. They’re happy to start with a memorable character, a vivid setting, a personal theme, or an intriguing initial situation, with the overarching concept emerging only during the composition process.

VENTRELLA: What do you know now about the publishing industry that you wish you had known when you first started out?

MORROW: My career was launched in a fashion that I took to be ideal: hardcover publication by a major New York house — to wit, the edition of THE WINE OF VIOLENCE that issued from Holt, Rinehart and Winston in 1981. I gradually came to realize that such an achievement, while not an occasion for sneezes, is by no means synonymous with having a career. I had not found the Holy Grail after all.

It took me awhile to figure this out, but unless the publisher is really behind you, with a fired-up sales force, a serious publicity budget, and a viable marketing strategy, any given novel is likely to die a dog’s death at the box office.hiroshima Not until TOWING JEHOVAH, my fifth book, did I actually enjoy the services of an in-house publicist.

VENTRELLA: What projects are you currently working on? Give us a teaser!

MORROW: I just finished a short story called “The Vampires of Paradox.” It will appear in IS ANYBODY OUT THERE?, a forthcoming anthology about the Fermi Paradox, edited by Nick Gevers and Marty Halpern. Now I’m free to return to the Darwin project, which I believe will be my best book yet — though I must admit I adopt that attitude towards all my novels: otherwise I would never finish them!

VENTRELLA: What sort of advice would you give an aspiring writer that you wish someone had given you?

MORROW: Try to figure out a way to make fiction writing its own reward. You can’t count on the marketplace or the publishing industry to validate your efforts — but you can learn to take satisfaction in a well-turned phrase, a witty description, a remarkable character, or a puissant idea.

VENTRELLA: What are you most proud of? What would you like to be remembered for?

MORROW: I hope that my posthumous biographer will pay particular attention to BLAMELESS IN ABADDON and THE LAST WITCHFINDER. In those two novels I believe I came fairly close to realizing my artistic ideal — that is, fiction in which the dance of ideas is at once complex and entertaining. Among my shorter efforts, I like to think that people will be reading SHAMBLING TOWARDS HIROSHIMA long after I’ve gone to live with Jesus.


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