Shaun’s Rambles 011: Michael R. Underwood (Interviewing the Fans)

What makes Mike Underwood tick? What did he read when he was a kid? What inspired him to become a member of QUEST and invade the Free Worlds of the Noble and Benevolent Multidimensional Imperium?  I try to get to the bottom of some of these questions in an interview with the infamous figure! I hope you enjoy it! Some useful links: Read More

Week of Joy (Day Six): Heart of Fire by J. Damask (A Mini Interview)

J. Damask (a.k.a. Joyce Chng) was kind enough to answer a few questions about her new book, Heart of Fire, which hits digital shelves in September.  The book comes from Masque Books, a digital-only division of Prime Books, a notable small press genre publisher (notable most recently for releasing the absolutely amazing Yoon Ha Lee collection, Conservation of Shadows -- check out the Skiffy and Fanty interview here).  In other words, Heart of Fire is sure to be damned good!  Though you'll have to wait for a little while, you should bookmark this page and remember to buy it in a couple months!

Now for the mini interview:

If you had to describe your novel to someone who doesn't read a lot of genre fiction, how would you describe it?

It is set in Singapore, has a lot of mythological animals and creatures and Singapore food. And oh yes, it has werewolves.

What do you think makes fantasy such a compelling genre for so many readers?

I think it’s compelling, because it allows readers to slip into other worlds. You know, make-believe world. It’s like Narnia!

How would you say Heart of Fire fits in with the rest of your work?  Does it share certain sensibilities or thematic concerns?

It does, come to think of it. I tend to examine tropes of transformation and transfiguration, as well as motifs like family ties and relationships.  To me, the family is central and it does appear in many of my stories.  I often wonder if this is an Asian thing, to feature the family as an important motif/theme.

As a Singaporean author writing in English, what would you say are your greatest challenges in terms of reaching audiences abroad (particularly in other English-speaking parts of the world -- not just "the West," mind you)?

Authenticity?

(Then again, what is authenticity?)

I am Singaporean Chinese. So, I sometimes feel that people would want me to write in Mandarin Chinese (no, I couldn’t – and my last (and only) Mandarin spec fic story was written when I was a kid as a school composition). I think people want to see an “authentic” voice, so to speak.

I think there are no such things as authentic voices.

What one thing that you know now do you wish you'd known when you first started treating writing as a professional endeavor?

That it couldn’t be a full-time job.

That it won’t be easy for people from Southeast Asia?

(Wait, that’s two things…)

And, last, for a silly question:  If you had to choose an animal to write your next book for you, which animal would you choose and why?

A wolf.

Because it’s cool.

(But hey, it doesn’t have opposable thumbs…)

------------------------------------------------------

About the Book:
Jan Xu, wolf and pack leader, faces more dangers when she saves a foreign male wolf in love with one of her ancient enemies, a jiang shi, a Chinese vampire. Throw in a love-struck drake—and Jan finds her situation suddenly precarious, with her reputation and health at stake. How much is a wolf going to take when everything is out of control again and her world thrown into disarray? How is she going to navigate the complexities of Myriad politics while keeping her pack and family intact without losing her mind? The third book of the Jan Xu Adventures will see Jan Xu’s continual fight as pack leader, her clan’s Eye (seer) and mother of three young children. Her mettle, courage and love for her family will be tested to her utmost limits.

Week of Joy (Day Five): Neil Clarke and Upgraded: A Cyborg Anthology (Mini Interview) @kickstarter

Neil Clarke, editor-in-chief at Clarkesworld, is currently running a wonderful Kickstarter campaign for an anthology called Upgraded.  Folks like Yoon Ha Lee, Tobias Buckell, Elizabeth Bear, Caitlin R. Kiernan, and so on will contribute stories to the collection, and there will be an call for submissions to fill the remaining slots.  In short, this anthology will be wicked awesome!  Support the campaign if you can (stretch goals = awesome).

I asked Neil if he would be so kind as to answer a few questions about the anthology, science fiction, and other related topics.  He was kind enough to oblige.  Here is my mini interview with him:

As a long time reader and editor of genre fiction, what would you say continues to inspire you to read the stuff?  What keeps you coming back?

For me, it’s a combination of the ideas and the escape. Science fiction and fantasy have made me think about things like no other genre has. I find that fascinating.

Cyborgs, cybernetics, and other "cyberpunk" elements have been a huge part of science fiction for almost as long as the genre has existed.  Why do you think we are still fascinated by these things today?  Do you imagine that we will live in a fully transhuman world one day?

I don’t know that we’ll see a fully transhuman world for some time, but it doesn’t take much of a stretch to believe that most of us will live to see some heavy-duty advances in cybernetics. While the technology in my device is fairly common, there are some incredible advances being made in brain-machine interfaces that make mine look like a primitive toy.

One of the reasons cyborgs and cybernetics have endured is that they are a believable future that makes an amazing framework for a lot of social issues. Listen to some of the privacy concerns people have about Google Glass. Now, imagine the cybernetic equivalent built into your eyes and completely hidden. It just ramps it up to another level. What kind of privacy do you have with a device that connects to your mind? At what point do you cease to be human? Who will receive the benefits of this new technology? What if this was the only way you could regain your sight? How far are you willing to go?

You suggest on your Kickstarter page that your recent health complications inspired you to put together this anthology, in part because, as you say, you've become cyborg yourself.  Aside from the obvious impact a health issue can have, how would you say your new cyborg nature, however small, has impacted your view of the world (however minutely)?  Has it made you think about fiction in different ways?

I’m a cyborg by necessity, so it is hard to separate the health issues from my new status as a cyborg. The combined effect has given me a new perspective on life. A lot of things that used to bother me seem trivial and unimportant now. It’s a lot easier for me to let go of thing and overall, I think my quality of life has greatly improved. The only cyborg-related change is a newfound respect for magnetic fields... they can damage the box and the box is my friend.

As for fiction, it’s made me realize what an important part of my life it has been. Professionally, it’s pushed me to try to make this a job that pays a living wage. Why shouldn’t we love what we do? I see a future in this.

What are some of your favorite stories featuring cyborgs (in any media form)?

After my defibrillator surgery, I asked friends on Facebook and Twitter to recommend some cyborg stories to help me pass the time. I read a lot of cyberpunk books in college, so I was already familiar with a lot of stories people suggested. I still have a fondness for Neuromancer by William Gibson and Mirrorshades edited by Bruce Sterling.

As for TV, the Borg were always good for an interesting story and I have to give some credit to Neil Gaiman for breathing new life into the Cybermen. It’s about time they learned from the Borg and grew up. Nothing, however, will replace the first cyborg I encountered, The Six Million Dollar Man. Cheezy show, but doesn’t that make them perfect for kids and so much fun?
And now for a silly question:  If you could replace one external part of your body with a cybernetic part (a toe, an arm, nose, etc.), what would you replace and why?

I’m quite happy with what I have, but if I had to, I’d have to go with my hands.  Just think of all the improvements you could get as upgrades: faster typing, nut-cracker, paper airplane folding, speed dial, juggling, paper cuts prevention, chef-style vegetable cutting, not needing hot mitts...

My wife tells me she would object. No deal, I guess.

-----------------------------------------------------

To find out more about Neil, check out his webpage.  You can also find him at Wyrm Publishing and Clarkesworld.

Support Upgraded!

Week of Joy (Day Two): Rainbow Lights by Polenth Blake (A Mini Interview)

The lovely Polenth Blake was kind enough to join me during this Week of Joy to briefly talk about her writing and her collection, Rainbow Lights.
Synopsis:
A deep-sea robot tells stories in every colour, but no shade can describe meeting a giant squid. 
Rainbow Lights is the first collection by science fiction and fantasy author Polenth Blake. Alien scorpions, vampire ice cream sellers and clockwork flies, try to find their place in worlds where being human is optional. These thirty-five stories and poems are a mixture of new pieces and work published in venues like Nature, Strange Horizons and ChiZine.
What first inspired you to write genre fiction?  And why do you think genre fiction is such a potent form for storytelling?

I grew up in a family of geeks, so science fiction and fantasy were my bedtime stories. Reality is
subjective, but realistic fiction often doesn't acknowledge that. It's written as though what's real and what isn't is a concrete division. Speculative fiction has room for playing for those perceptions.

Who are some of your biggest literary influences?

Anne McCaffrey and Isaac Asimov were among the first authors I read. The stories that particularly stood out to me were McCaffrey's brain ship series and Asimov's robot stories. I recognise the problems with the
stories now that I'm older, but the general themes still interest me.

The whimsy of E. Nesbit and Lewis Carroll's work always appealed to me. Whimsical stories are often dismissed as not being serious enough, as though everything in the world is completely serious all the time. In my world, sometimes life is whimsical, and my stories reflect that too.

More recent influences are Nnedi Okorafor and Shweta Narayan. Their stories have a lot of layers, which is something I hope to improve on in my own work.

What is the weirdest story in your collection?  How did you come up with the idea behind it?

It's always hard to judge what's weird to other people, but even my family thought "Incident in Aisle Five" was odd. It's set in a giant supermarket, which the people inside think is the whole world. Their culture revolves around the different departments and the division between shoppers and shelfstackers.

My family doesn't have a car, so I spend a lot of time in the local supermarket. It isn't my whole world, but sometimes it seems like everything revolves around when I have to go shopping next.

I noticed on your website that the title for your book appears to originate from a Word Cloud. Can you talk about how you structured your collection along color lines and how you decided the name?

The word cloud came after the book, but I had noticed a lot of my stories mentioned colour. I'm sensitive to colours, and often differentiate between colours others see as the same shade, so colour is important to me. It meant splitting the stories into colours was remarkably easy, as the divisions were there waiting to be found.

Rainbow Lights comes from the first story in the collection, as the robot has a fascination with the colour of her own lights. As well as tying the colour theme together, rainbows have other symbolism, such as representing diversity. I write about the people around me, and there are all sorts of people around me.

If there is one thing about writing that you wish you'd known when you first started taking it seriously, what would it be?

I did quite a bit of research before I started, so I generally had a good feel for things. What delayed me from starting in the first place was the idea that writers start out with natural talent. I'd always struggled with writing and I'm dyslexic, so I wasn't winning writing contests as a child. I didn't think it'd ever be a career option. So I wish I'd known that being a child prodigy wasn't required.

And lastly, a silly question:  Do you really own pet cockroaches?  If so, why?

After the family cat died, I missed having a pet. I've always loved invertebrates, and when I saw hissing cockroaches, I was taken with them. Hissers are clean, easy to look after, don't bite and don't mind the fact my room is in perpetual darkness.

My current cockroach is Gem, though I plan on getting a few more soon (they're relatively short-lived, so I've taken to keeping my bio in the plural, as numbers change faster than the stories come out). Gem is adventurous and is the only cockroach I've had escape. She travelled across my room, climbed the curtain, and fell off (falling a few meters). She survived all this with only slight damage to one antenna.

Cockroaches are fun.

---------------------------------------------------------

To learn about Polenth Blake and her fiction, head on over to her website!

An Interview w/ Maureen McHugh (Author of After the Apocalypse)


You can check out my review of After the Apocalypse here.

Now for the interview:

First things first:  What initially drew you to writing, and why genre fiction in particular? I was drawn to writing because I loved to read, and when I was reading a story I really really loved, I hated for it to end.  So to find the stuff I really really loved to read, I started thinking about writing it myself. 

It turned out that writing didn’t necessarily lead to making the stuff that I loved to read, because my best writing seems to be about the things I am most uncertain about.  I write to find out what I think.  It turns out that a lot of what I love to read and a lot of what I think about falls best into genre.

A question I often ask myself, and others, is what drives people towards post-apocalyptic (or apocalyptic) fiction.  Your collection is perhaps on the cusp between "a world crumbling" and "a world crumbled."  What do you think accounts for our fascination with catastrophe in its various forms?  What about your fascination?

I think there are a lot of reasons to be drawn to the apocalyptic. We are all headed towards a personal apocalypse in that we are all going to die.  That’s a terrible thing to truly comprehend, and apocalyptic fiction is a way to rehearse our existential dread, so to speak.

There’s the playground fun of destroying everything.  There’s also the idea that if all the clutter was swept away us (insert ideology here) could rebuild it right.  There is often something Utopian about the catastrophic.

For me, there were a couple of stories, particularly “Useless Things” that were ways to explore my own fears.  What if the infrastructure is buckling under the pressures of climate change?  What if the poor are getting poorer?  I have a strong sense that I may not behave well under that kind of stress.  I don’t think of myself as very noble.
Did you always have a sense that these stories, which were published in multiple magazines between 2007 and 2010, were going to revolve around the same theme, or did each story come into existence out of its own individual context?  In other words, were you thinking these stories would deal with a semi-shared world when you wrote them, or was it an accident?

No, not at all.  I realized at some point that there was this metaphorical connection, and then I wrote a story (the title story, “After the Apocalypse”) to reflect that.  But of course, many of the stories are not apocalyptic in the general sense at all.

I don’t really believe in the sudden end of things.  Not that it couldn’t happen.  One big asteroid and there we are.  But at an emotional level I am so much more familiar with the decline of things, the gradual slide into some different state.  So even though I know that the world could end with a bang, my feeling is that most endings are like old age, the gradual loss of options, abilities, and choices.

In an interview/conversation with David Moles at Small Beer Press, you said that "all of my apocalyptic stories are not of the people who become Mad Max, but they’re of the rest of us, you know."  It might be fair to say that the characters found in so much apocalyptic fiction are larger-than-life heroes, villains, or anti-heroes -- people who exceed the realities of their situation in ways that almost seem unrealistic or too-perfectly-designed-for-the-screen.  But you are, as you say, concerned with "the rest of us."  Who are "the rest of us?"  Why write about them and not, say, the other kinds (Mad Max, etc.)?  

I guess because I have never felt that I was going to be able to hold my own in a battle between heroes.  I have always been the person picked second-to-last for the team.  I’m near-sighted.  I like to read.  None of my salient characteristics exactly suggest that I will be great at converting cars into stripped down dune buggies, building stills, lethally defending myself.  I am really well adapted to be what I am—a middle class woman who sits at a desk.

So what happens to me when the apocalypse comes?  There’s a good chance, based on my life experience, that I’ll end up washing the dishes or something.  Right before something eats me.

Another aspect of that conversation I found illuminating was your acknowledgment of your weakness in the field of plot.  Particularly, you mention that many of your stories which have plots are about things getting worse, rather than better.  Do you think your admitted faults as a writer influenced how you approached the stories in this collection?  Or did it evolve organically as you developed your characters?

Most plots involve things getting worse, when you strip them to their barest essence.  Each solution to a problem leads to a worse problem.  I work best when I have a character and I think of an unstable situation—they react, I have a story.  There are writers who are better at situations and the intricate construction of a series of interlocking events that move the characters through ever more complex situations.

Me, I have to resist the impulse to have my characters just think about how bad things might get.

One of the compelling aspects of your collection is the honest exploration of the indifference human beings sometimes show to one another, or to the situations surrounding them.  In the case of After the Apocalypse, each story shows people surviving in a world where civilization has already unraveled, though without the absolute end-of-the-world-ness typified by the genre.  An example of this indifference would be the protagonist of "The Naturalist," who traps his fellow inmates in a kind of makeshift scientific experiment to do with the zombies who inhabit the city-prison.  Could you talk about why you decided to approach this theme, perhaps in particular to "The Naturalist"?

“The Naturalist” is pretty atypical for me.  My son (who is in his mid-twenties) had a vivid dream and told me about it and asked me to write a story based on it.  I don’t usually write about convicts or zombies.  But I grew up in a small blue collar town, and my family is a mix of middle class and working class.  I don’t have anyone like the protagonist in my family but I know a little about the world he comes from.

Zombies, like other predatory creatures, aren’t malicious.  If you take away the demonic aspect what you are left with is a creature trying to survive.  The question becomes, do they deserve to any more or less than we do.  I think my ethical calculus would be different than the main character of “The Naturalist,” but it’s an interesting question.

Incidentally, for whatever reason I really found writing the “The Naturalist” to be a lot of fun.  I don’t necessarily have fun writing a story (although usually at some point there is some fun and some flow if the story is going to work.)  But I could have written about Cahill, the main character, forever.  He was the one character I’ve ever written who it was easy to find in situations where stuff just happened.

Perhaps one of the most disturbing of your stories, however, isn't "The Naturalist," but "After the Apocalypse," which follows a mother and her daughter as they struggle their way to a safer haven through dangerous roads and crumbling cities.  Did you want to show how apocalypse might lead us to break ties between our loved ones?  What might it mean to sever those ties or to see family, in this new landscape, as a chaining mechanism?

Elie Wiesel said (and I’m paraphrasing) that suffering does not ennoble us, it debases us.  There is a persistent sense that if a person perpetrating a wrong is bad, the victim is somehow good.  We talk about how victims learn from their experience, but never how perpetrators learn from their experience.  I was raised Catholic and taught in catechism that suffering is good for the soul, but suffering makes us hurt, frightened, pained.

I’m not saying that we can’t rise above it.  But to expect terrible circumstances to make us better people is to not understand what it is like to be in terrible circumstances.  This is something that frightens me.  So I ended up writing about it.

One of my favorite stories from the collection, "Useless Things," seems to play in a different kind of wasteland:  the intersecting worlds of economic recessions and illegal immigration.  Both are obviously major issues politically, but you've taken us out of that context to put us on the front lines, which is hardly the black and white world our political universe wants us to think.  When you initially wrote "Useless Things" (originally published in 2009), were you trying to respond to that political situation, or was there another impetus behind it (the story clearly deals with many issues and is, in my opinion, one of the best in the collection)?

Although I am married and economically comfortable, and I don’t live in New Mexico, there are ways in which “Useless Things” is an autobiographical story.  Not in terms of the events.  Not one of the events in the story has ever happened to me.  But the feelings of helplessness, the fear of things slipping away, and the sense that fear makes me smaller and meaner, those are all real issues in my life.  I started that story because of a television show I watched about the lifelike dolls, called ‘reborns’, that the narrator of the story makes.  And from there I just explored slowly, finding out where she lived, what the stakes were, and how she felt.  I didn’t chose the political themes in any conscious way, they just arose out of the setting and the story.

Similarly, there are political themes -- dirty bombs and terrorism -- in "The Lost Boy:  A Reporter at Large," the only story that stands out because of its journalistic form.  What was the impetus behind this format and do you think there is something specific to journalism that opens up new ways of seeing things (in this case, questions of identity and terrorism/apocalypse) within fiction?

Actually, I always wanted to write for The New Yorker.  I don’t write the kind of journalism that this story pretends to be.  It’s difficult.  But I got interested in amnesia and did some research and then made up a story to go with it.  The rest—the journalistic form—is just a funny kind of self-indulgence.

There are funny ways that journalism can explain, and that it feels as if it is informing, that I like.

What should folks expect from you in the next year (convention appearances, new stories, etc.)?

I have a full time job writing for a transmedia studio in Los Angeles called Fourth Wall Studios.  It’s great, but it has cut into my writing time a lot.  Basically, after writing forty hours a week for someone else, it’s difficult to write more for myself.  So for now, I’m not working on much.  And I only get two weeks vacation, during which I really don’t want to think or talk about writing, so no conventions this year.  Although I doubt I’ll be able to stand it.

And now for a random, but slightly amusing question:  If the world economy crumbled and you ended up having to live precariously on the fringes of civilization, what would you like to do to make a living if you couldn't be a writer?

I think about this a lot, of course.  But I have no real idea.  Maybe open a boarding house?  Assuming that it’s more like a depression than a true apocalypse.  If the whole thing goes ka-plooey, all I can say is I’m not much of a farmer, or hunter.  My husband, however, is an engineer, so I’d hope that he could help us keep going by making things that did things.  Maybe we’d be scavengers, hunting through the ruined subdivisions for scraps to make machines.

But I’m hoping to never find out.

---------------------------------------------------------------------------

If you'd like to learn more about Maureen McHugh, you can check out her website.  After the Apocalypse is available from Small Beer Press or practically anywhere else that books are sold.

An Interview with Kevin Hearne

Thanks to Kevin Hearne for taking the time to answer my ridiculous questions.  Don't forget to check out my review of Hexed.

Now for the interview:

First things first: what drew you into writing in the first place, and why fantasy in particular? 

I was drawn into writing by One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest by Ken Kesey. Chief's voice is so well done and I wanted to be able to grab somebody the way that book grabbed me. I wound up writing
fantasy mostly because that's what I enjoy reading more than anything else.
Your Iron Druid series draws heavily from Celtic folklore, including figures like the Morrigan and other members of the fae "pantheon." Why did you focus specifically on the Celtic/Irish roots for your main character, Atticus? What is so interesting about Celtic folklore for you (and, perhaps, for us)?

Part of this comes from my loathing for Disney and what they were doing to "fairies." My daughter thought fairies were cute and helpful and delicate and it was driving me nuts. But then I realized it wasn't just Disney -- there were any number of other sources that had strayed quite far from the original Irish roots of the Sidhe. I'm an Irish/English mutt, so the focus on the lore was naturally interesting to me. For others, I'd think the mythology would be interesting in its own right, since the Irish didn't follow the same patterns as others. Most cultures have goddesses of love, not gods, for example, and the Irish god of love, Aenghus Óg, was kind of a dick.

An interesting aspect of your novel is that it places limits on the various religious deities and figures. Gods, we learn, can be killed. Every "faith" has a magic system unique to it, which has weaknesses or strengths in relation to other magic systems. How did this world in which practically every deity that ever "lived" actually exists come to be? 

I asked myself why only the Irish pantheon would still be alive and well in the present day when there were so many other great traditions out there. And what it all came down to was that I couldn't come up with a reason to make the Irish the "one true faith." The great truth is that we all construct our own truths in our efforts to improve ourselves, and besides, it turned out to be much more fun to write with an inclusive view of the world than an exclusive one.

Were you at all concerned that your audience would be too unfamiliar with the various mythologies Hexed plays with? Atticus does, after all, explain a great deal of things, but it's obvious that he can't explain it all. 

No concerns at all. I respect the readers. Fantasy readers in general have some pretty good brains, and if they want to know more about something, they'll go learn. As a reader myself, I love it when I find books that teach me something and spark a little personal investigation.
Would it be fair to assume that you are a dog lover based on Atticus' relationship with Oberon? In a lot of ways, the two characters have an intimate connection that most people wish they had with their pets (and dog-like critters appear frequently in your book). Why do dog-like "things" dominate the cast of Hexed? 

I'm certainly a dog person, but the number of canine characters in this particular book is a coincidence. I didn't have any particular point to make with them. But I can say this series was spawned around the characters of Atticus and Oberon—it was always a story about a man and his dog. All the rest of it came later: those two characters are the core.

One of your main villains, the Bacchants, could be described as the moral antithesis of civilized society. Hexed walks a fine line in regards to their conduct, since a lot of what you describe as their modus operandi is sexual in nature. Were you concerned while writing the Bacchants that you might cross a line for many readers? 

Yeah, I'm not really one who appreciates play-by-play accounts of sexual encounters, because if I wanted that, I could go grab something out of the erotica section. I'm assuming that my readers would similarly appreciate a couple of sentences to paint a broad picture and then just leave it at that.

Hexed does deal with religion(s), and a good deal of emphasis is placed on "dead religions" and Christian faith. Was writing about such things a challenge, especially considering the potential for alienation your religious themes could have? 

Challenging, sure. But completely and utterly fun. By choosing to be inclusive (the Jewish faith, which is very much alive, is also featured prominently), I'm also choosing to be respectful of all those various faiths. Every one is portrayed as puissant and vital to those who believe in them. I don't go around dissing anyone, with the possible exception of Thor. So the only bone of contention I've heard is from people who are offended that I'm treating all religions with respect, as if their religion is the only one that matters. You can imagine how much I care for the opinions of such arrogant people.
All three of your Iron Druid novels came out in quick succession (Hounded in May, Hexed in June, and Hammered in July). What do you think are the benefits and pitfalls of such a quick publishing schedule?

The benefits greatly outweigh the pitfalls. I got plenty of attention and lots of fans who jumped into the series rather than waiting for it to end. In terms of pitfalls, the only downside is that I couldn't keep up with the publicity side of things; I couldn't write enough guest blogs and so on to keep up, and I was exhausted. Still, it was a good exhaustion, because everything I managed to find time to do paid some sort of dividend. And now I have practically no publicity going on, but the books are still doing well on word of mouth—which is the best publicity anyway.

What single piece of writing advice would you give to budding writers out there? What's your magic "secret"? 

Don't give up. If you have stories inside that need to get out, then keep writing them down until you write one the market is ready for. It took me 19 years of trying before I got published. Don't give up.

And, finally, a silly question: if you could hang out with any non-Abrahamic-religious-figure (no Jesus, God, etc.), who would you hang out with and why?

Goibhniu, one of the Tuatha Dé Danann. He brews an ale that keeps you young and healthy. I want to have a beer with THAT guy.

An Interview with Andy Remic

(Note:  This interview was originally meant to be in audio form for The Skiffy and Fanty Show.  Due to technical constraints, Mr. Remic and I decided to conduct the interview in text form.)

The lovely Andy Remic has been so kind as to answer a few questions for my blog.  I've reviewed two of his works (Kell's Legend and Serial Killers Inc.) and loved both of them.  You should definitely give his work a try, or something bad will happen to you.

Here's the interview

You've recently started up Anarchy Books. What is Anarchy Books and how did you come to be a part of it? What's the story?

I'd written a couple of novels which were not of my "genre" (SFF) and, like every other author, have seen the gradual acceleration of digital publishing during the last couple of years following in the footsteps of the digital music world; and I thought, "why the hell not?" I knew some of my books were doing well digitally, and simply decided I'd give it a try as a vehicle for some of my different genre works. Then I discovered other friends/writers wanted to jump onboard as well, hence Anarchy Books! Ultimately, I suppose it's my longterm backup plan for when I've sexually
offended every single publisher I've ever worked with, and they all lock me out of the Big Boys Club and in a dark dungeon filled with chains and torture devices. Kinky, these publishing types, y'know ;-).

Since Anarchy Books is heavily oriented towards ebooks, what do you think the future of publishing is going to look like? Will ebooks take over the publishing industry? Will they peak at 35% like some say? Will print books become collectibles created by places like Subterranean?

I think with platforms like iPad2 and Kindle, the explosion is still happening. Yes, I love to hold a paperback in my bear paws, but if I go to Florida for 3 weeks I can read 15 novels. That's a lot of weight (read extorted dollars) for the US authorities to add to my airport bill. So a digital reader for me is perfect. It's also perfect for proof reading my own works, and the wonderful works of my Anarchy Authors. And I think, as younger audiences grow up with digital devices intrinsic to their lives and learning, it will seem abnormal for them to hold a paper book - gradually, these "relics" will go the way of vinyl. Maybe. (The madness being, I am now collecting vinyl again!!). I truly think one day digital ebook sales will outweigh their print companions. And let's be positive - they're eco friendly, right? Hurrah! And they also give "the little guy" a chance to get work into the public domain.
Your first book released from Anarchy Books is Serial Killers Inc. Can you tell us a little about it? What was the inspiration for the book?

Lots of things came together to create this book. I fancied writing a straight hardcore thriller, just for the hell of it - so wrote it without a contract, whilst still fulfilling my SF contracts. I'd been spending a lot of time in Glasgow and London, and wanted to represent these two great cities in some way (and obviously kill characters on their mean streets). And I wanted to write about a sleazy hedonist - so that I could hurt him. A lot. Finally, I despise serial killers, and despise the fact that people can become famous for doing basic inhuman acts to the innocent. I wanted some omniscient payback. It was a pleasure modifying the history of certain real serial killers in the book; writing how it ought to be, not how it was.

Your fiction doesn't pull any punches. Your characters are sometimes vulgar and have awful experiences (such as in Serial Killers Inc), and your action is often gritty and sometimes surreal in its no-holds-barred approach. What drew you to this kind of storytelling over the more common withdrawn narratives?

When writing, I find good manners boring. I find passive protagonists the most dull people to read. Watching Dr Who back-to-back for all eternity waving his fecky little sonic screwdriver and pumping his bike pump in the TARDIS is my vision of HELL! When I read a book, I want to read about bastards doing bad things to other bastards. I want nasty policemen hunting down villains and making them pay. I want to read about insane soldiers crucifying paedophiles. And only a few writers seem to write what I want to read, so I write some of it myself. Why write this violence and mayhem, I hear you cry whilst sharpening your pitchfork?? Call it a low boredom threshold and an accelerated cynicism of the world.

What do you think is the advantage of this form, if any, and do you think gritty SF/F is making the genre more popular, or do you think it's a niche kind of writing?

I think different readers just like different things. I mean, I absolutely love PKD and yet his work is a world away from mine in terms of aggression and violence. Yes, writers like Joe Abercrombie and Richard Morgan (and me) have dirtied up the fantasy stakes a little bit, and that's cool, but as long as different readers want to buy different styles of book, then people will write them (thank God!). I'm not convinced gritty SFF is making the genre more popular, because there will always be those readers who love the flowing poetic writings of Tolkien, say. I like them myself. I'm thrilled the genres are booming and SF especially has crawled away from its 1950s pit. SF and F deserve to be up there in neon lights getting the Big Awards and earning the Big Bucks.

What is your process for writing the kinds of books you write? (Or, do you hang out with serial killers or take a time machine to olden times to talk to masters of the axe?)

Haha. I write like many others writers. It begins with the seed of an idea or character, some planning and plotting and general note-taking, then long hours of slog at the keyboard. I personally focus on characters first, and then link to an idea for plot I will have had somewhere along the line. I tend to be able to zone out other noises/events now, and can write pretty much anywhere. There's no secret technique. Just lots of hours at the keyboard :-)

You've also written a number of fantasy and science fiction novels, such as your Clockwork Vampire Chronicles from Angry Robot and your Combat-K novels from Solaris. How is writing these genres different from one another for you?

To me, writing a book is writing a book, no matter what genre I'm writing in. I approach it in the same way, it's just my imagination that stretches off in different directions depending on the genre. I did particularly like writing Serial Killers Inc, because I had to use a different discipline keeping it "real world" and that's something I'm not used to.

How do you feel about the state of science fiction literature? Do you think straight SF will become increasingly more niche or do you see a brighter future for the genre?

No, I think SF is riding high at the moment and will continue to do so. I think horror died out a little because people became more cynical, and were no longer afraid of what's Under The Bed. Hell, even if bug-eyed aliens from Mars arrive tomorrow, us SF dudes will be out there writing about the aliens' nightmares and their what ifs. I despair of those people who watch or read SF, and won't acknowledge that it is SF. Look how many blockbuster SF films we've had in recent years - and yet many of those same people will sneer at SF like it's some distant redneck cousin drunk on skunk moonshine. SF needs to shake off the image of nerdy geeks with thick specs and cardigans speaking Klingon - but how to do it, hey? I think my chainsaw and shotgun may point in the right direction... and I think Peggy and Frost are doing a sterling job as well!! Hurrah!
What projects do you have coming up and can you tell us a bit about them?

My third Clockwork Vampire novel VAMPIRE WARLORDS has just been published by Angry Robot Books, and that's just a few weeks after my fourth Combat K novel, CLONEWORLD, published by Solaris Books, and my first straight thriller, SERIAL KILLERS INC emerged from the mental slime. I'm putting the finishing touches to THEME PLANET for Solaris, which is going to be so dark and violent and probing, it makes me shudder even now to think about it - forget black humour, mate. There's not one atom of black humour (or any type of humour) in this damn book! I'm also just about to edit SIM, my next ebook for ANARCHY BOOKS - the story of an insane psycho cyborg, a government killer who finds a sweet liddle puddy cat. When they try and remove his cat (because all animals are illegal) he, erm, breaks down, shall we say! Then it's on to the writing of TOXICITY for Solaris, preparing some fantasy pitches for my agent John Jarrold to punt around, and working with many fine authors and musicians on my own little baby, ANARCHY BOOKS (www.anarchy-books.com), which is just about to publish Vincent Holland-Keen's fabulous Douglas Adam's-style black comedy detective noir, THE OFFICE OF LOST & FOUND. And then I'm making various short films and gearing up for the creating of a horror feature which we'll take to various global film festivals.

So. Not busy at all then!

-------------------------------------------------------

Thanks to Mr. Remic for taking the time to answer the questions.  Check out his website to learn more about his work and pick up his latest book (Serial Killers Inc.) at Anarchy Books.

Interview w/ Darren Shan

I've had the pleasure to interview Darren Shan, whose newest book, The Procession of the Dead, came out on the 4th of June. You can find out more about Mr. Shan and his various books, including the Cirque du Freak and Demonata books, at his website.

Now for the interview:

First, thanks very much for doing this interview. Could you let folks know a bit about who you are? What first inspired you to try your hand at writing (for fun and professionally, if you can disentangle the two)?

I've spent the last ten years writing books for older children and teenagers -- Cirque Du Freak and The Demonata -- but I actually started out writing for adults, and now I have returned to that field with Procession of the Dead, the first of a trilogy. I've always wanted to be a writer, ever since I was 5 or 6 years old. I just love telling stories! I began trying to write books when I was a teenager, completed my first full draft when I was 17, and powered on from there. I began writing full time when I was 23 and got my first cheque a couple of years or so later. I struggled to get off the mark with my adult books initially, but then Cirque Du Freak came along by accident -- I didn't plan to write children's books for a living; I just wanted to try it for fun! Fifteen million book sales later, I've never looked back!
Who are some of the books/writers who have most influenced you? Likewise, who are some of your favorite authors/books from the last ten years?

Stephen King's been my biggest single influence, but I like to read widely and have been directly inspired by all sorts of writers, from Mark Twain and Frances Hodgson Burnett, to Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut, to Jonathan Carroll and James Ellroy, and many, many more. From the last ten or so years, His Dark Materials by Philip Pullman has impressed me the most. I also loved Neil Gaiman's The Graveyard Book.

Your bio indicates that you are a huge movie and comic fan. Which movies and comics do you find yourself going back to over and over and what draws you to them?

With movies, all sorts, but some of the ones which I watch religiously every few years or so are everything by Sergio Leone, 2001: A Space Odyssey, Being There (the Peter Sellers film), The Chocolate War, Pulp Fiction, the Star Wars movies, the Godfather films, The Searchers... As for comics, The Watchmen is absolutely amazing and my favourite single work of any medium. V For Vendetta, Miracleman, The Killing Joke, The Dark Knight Returns, Love & Rockets, Cerebus, The Sandman, Bone.

What does your writing space look like? Are you the messy desk type, or the old cushy chair with the patches type? Pen and paper, old typewriter, or computer?

I write on a PC, and I like organised chaos! My office is fairly tidy, and my books are stacked meticulously on their shelves, but there are always bits of paper everywhere, books on the floor waiting to be sorted through and shelved (my books are published in almost 40 countries, so I get lots of foreign editions in the post every month!), CDs of photos waiting to be uploaded to my site, and so on. It's all fine as long as nobody comes in to disturb it!

Do you develop your novels, whether in The City Trilogy or your previous series, with the idea of a series in mind, or do they sort of take a life of their own after the first book? What for you is the most difficult aspect of writing a series of books?

No, all of my three series to date started out as stand-alone story ideas. With Cirque Du Freak I knew there would be room to do some sequels if I felt like it, but I didn't have a long series planned. With Lord Loss and Procession of the Dead I never dreamt that either would be the first book of a series. But after I'd written them, I came up with ideas for stories that tied in with them and took things from there.
Procession of the Dead reminds me a lot of Gangs of New York and some of the work by Brian Evenson (along with other 1920s-30s-styled books/movies). What was the inspiration for this particular novel? How did it develop in your head? And why blind Incan priests who seem to be invisible to everyone else?

It actually started life when I was watching Barton Fink! I wanted to write a quirky, funny book about an insurance agent and his wacky mentor. But as I played around with ideas it quickly became something more sinister and involved. I wrote the first draft back in the early 90s. Other influences would have been the Godfather movies, Once Upon A Time In America, the old gangster movies that I've always loved (the ones with Jimmy Cangey, George Raft, Bogie, etc), the books of Jonathan Carroll. The Incan angle came after I'd pieced together most of the main story. I was looking for a good title for the book, and I remembered reading an Incan calendar some months earlier. When I went back to it, I liked what I found and chose the names for the chapter headings. Then, as I worked on the book and subsequent drafts, the Incans just sort of grew and became more integral.

Your books have a particularly dark fantasy slant to them, and Procession of the Dead certainly seems to play even more with the dark, odd, and bizarre. What draws you to the dark and the bizarre and what do you think it is that intrigues us, as readers, about such things?

I think it has to do with our fear of death. We're aware that we have limited time on this planet, and I think most people like to believe that death won't be the end of us, that we'll live on somehow, some way. Any sort of fantasy helps us cling to the idea that there's more to life than this one short burst of it. Even if it's a horror story, I think people would rather believe in a world of monsters and dark magic than a world of plain, brutal reality when we live for a while, die, and the universe moves on quite nicely without us. Fantastical explorations, whether they take the form of religious books or horror novels, are crucial to keeping most of us sane and on the right track. In a world of darkness, there's a chance that a force of supreme good exists and that we are being judged. In a world of bland reality, why should we obey laws, respect the rights of other people, toe the line? If anyone ever proves that there are no gods or ghosts or any other supernatural beings, I think we're going to find ourselves in a whole heap of trouble! In the meantime, let's dream big and believe whatever the hell we want to and play with all the dark, morbid, other-worldly stories that our fevered minds can conjure up -- it's fun and it's good for us!

Do you keep maps of your world(s), such as the City in Procession of the Dead, or do the places you play with in your writing exist as vivid dreams in your mind?

The only time I've ever drawn a map was when I wrote The Thin Executioner, which is an out-and-out fantasy novel set on a make-believe world. Otherwise I keep my stories in this realm, although I do often play around with geography -- I don't feel like I have to completely obey the laws of reality, and places like The City are a mix of various towns, cities and villages which I have visited or imagined over the years.

Being a bestselling author, you have undoubtedly dealt with modern innovations in distributing stories, such as ebooks and so on. Do you think we will live in a mostly paperless world, with physical books becoming more like collector's items than the preferred medium?

I definitely think hard copy books are on the way out -- digital books just offer too many advantages. It's like DVD versus video, CD versus tapes -- there's only ever going to be one outright winner! However, I think it will take time for books to go completely digital. People like me, who grew up on books, have an emotional attachment to them that's hard to break -- that's why many people ridicule the very idea of reading from a screen, because to them it's an insult to even suggest that they might ever abandon their beloved paperbacks. But as computers become more commonplace in schools, and as more and more children are taught to read by looking at a screen, they will grow up without that emotional attachment, and they will opt for the more advanced digital world over the very 20th century world that we have come from. The revolution will truly begin with the young, but it's a revolution I look forward to -- it will make access to books far easier and more widespread than it could ever otherwise be, and I think it will lead to even more people reading.
What other projects do you have coming up besides The City Trilogy? Can you tell us a bit about them?

In August I release my one-off book, The Thin Executioner. Then in October I start a four book series called The Saga Of Larten Crepsley, about one of the characters from my vampire series.

What unusual piece of advice would you give to any aspiring writers out there?

Don't think too hard! Writer's block only happens when you think too much about a story. It's like riding a bike -- don't stand there looking at the damn thing and trying to analyse everything that must be done in order to operate it -- just jump the hell on and see where the ride takes you!
Random Question: If you could bring to life any dark fantasy creature you've either invented, written about, or read about, which creature would it be and why?

This world would be a very interesting place with the chess-playing Lord Loss from my Demonata series, an eight-armed demon master with a hole where his heart should be, filled with dozens of tiny, writhing snakes, and a desperate yearning to experience human sorrows in all their forms and flavours. Oprah would love him!

---------------------------------------------------

And that's it, folks! Thanks again to Mr. Shan for his time and patience. Now go get a copy of Procession of the Dead!

Interview w/ Susan Beth Pfeffer

I've interviewed Susan two times before, which you can see here and here. Thanks again to Susan for taking the time out of her day to answer my questions once more, this time about her most recent novel, This World We Live In (my review can be found here). Here goes:

This World We Live In marks the third novel in your post-apocalyptic Earth series for young adults. What was it like finally returning to some of your previous characters?

When I was first working out the idea for a third book, I was a little nervous about returning to Miranda and, in particular, her diary. A lot had changed in my life since I'd written Life As We Knew It, and I didn't know if I could slip back into her mind. I wasn't concerned about Alex from The Dead and the Gone, since there was a gap of several months between the end of d&g (which ends before New Year's) and the start of This World We Live In (which starts late April). But a month or less would have passed between LAWKI and TWWLI, and I was concerned that Miranda hadn't changed, but I had.

But once I began writing, Miranda came right back to me. I had Matt make a major life change, which affected how he behaved and made things more fun for me. I created two new characters and there was less focus on Mom.
Was merging casts for this novel particularly difficult? What was most challenging for you?

The trickiest part was that time gap. I knew from the time I wrote The Dead and the Gone that if there was a third book, Miranda and Alex would meet. But I had to figure out where Alex and Julie were during the winter and, of course, how to get Miranda and Alex at the same place at the same time.

For a while, I assumed Miranda was no longer in her house and she and Alex would meet on the road somewhere. But Alex had a minimum of a three month head start on the road, so I could never get that to work.

It was an enormous relief to me when I figured out how to have Alex show up in Pennsylvania, rather than Miranda showing up in Ohio or Indiana (or Texas or anyplace). As soon as I worked that out, the rest of the book was fairly easy to work out.

I knew that I wanted the book to end with something big and bad, but I went through some different variations of big and bad before I was satisfied. But that's just part of the process.
One of the interesting things about This World We Live In is that it is both a science fiction survival story and a story about the interaction between family members, all within the epistolary format (which you have used since the start of the series). This seems to be a very difficult way to develop relationships among new characters, and yet you manage to do just that through the journal entries of the main character. Can you talk about how you managed to do this? Did the epistolary format hinder you as a writer, perhaps forcing you to plan your narrative in more detail than you have had to do for your other novels?

I loved writing Life As We Knew It, and a lot of what I loved about it was the diary format. Diary books are so easy. You're limited to just what your main character sees. You don't have to worry about fancy writing (which I'm incapable of, but it's nice to have an excuse not to try). It really feels like the diary keeper is doing all the work for you; she's dictating and I'm just writing it down.

The Dead and the Gone was harder because it was third person. I considered doing This World We Live In in third person, but decided against that. If Miranda was going to be the viewpoint character, then it was back to her diary I needed to go.

This World We Live In was a very tricky book to work out, because it was a sequel to two different books, and there were going to be people who read it without having read Life As We Knew It or The Dead and the Gone (there are actually some people who haven't read either book, and I was aware of that possibility as well). I had to let readers know just enough, but not too much, since I assumed people who'd read one of the two books might go back and read the other one.

I don't think I've ever thought through a book as much as I did TWWLI. It took lots and lots of brain cells.
Cats make a prominent appearance in your post-apocalyptic novels, and also on your blog. What's the deal? Why cats? (You pulled my heartstrings with the death of the family cat in this series, by the way.)

When I was growing up, I wanted to have a dog, but my parents wouldn't let me. I didn't push to get a cat, but they probably would have said no to that as well.

As soon as I had my first apartment, when I was in college, I got a kitten, and I've had a cat or cats pretty much ever since. I went for a few months a couple of years ago, after my two cats had died, and I was uncertain if I wanted to take on another pet. But the desire for a cat overwhelmed me, and I adopted a little black and white I named Scooter.

Scooter is a lunatic, but there was no way of predicting that when I looked at his darling kitten face.

I spent this weekend listening to the Listening Library audiobook version of This World We Live In (Emily Bauer, who was also the reader for Life As We Knew It does a brilliant job). I found all the stuff about the family cat difficult to listen to, since it brought back memories of the cats I lost two years ago.
Are there plans for any more novels in this post-apocalyptic world?

I have no plans for another such book, and I don't think my publisher is interested in one. I think we're all pleased where I ended things.

What are you currently working on and what can we expect to see from you in the near future?

I've been working on a book called Blood Wounds. At least that's its working title, and no one has told me they want the title changed. It's a YA novel, and it goes back to what I think of as my basic theme, that of a family whose life is changed by one extraordinary event. This time it's officially realistic fiction.

I'm waiting to hear from my editor about rewrites. It's scheduled to come out in the fall of 2011.

Now for a random Question: If the world was ending and you could save one piece of art (fine art, like painting or drawing), which piece would you save and why?

That is a great random question. My immediate response was a painting I don't even know the name of. It's a giant Matisse painting of women dancing in a circle that used to be the first thing you'd see when you went to the Museum of Modern Art.

I think if there could only be one painting to represent humanity, it'd be good if it were something joyous and musical.

Thanks again to Susan for her time. If you enjoyed the interview, please check out her books. All three are fantastic!