As part of Sci-Fi November Lolita of the Netherlands has an author interview up with your’s truly. She’s asked me some fun questions about writing short and long form and there’s a lively discussion going on in the comments section.
So fun times, I’m hoping to expend the conversation into the area of bicycle infrastructure and cycling for utility. Come chime in.
Ladies and gentlemen, today I give you what may be the last in my series of author interviews for FROM THE INDIE SIDE. Let me say, before we get to the introduction, that this has been a lot of fun for me. An eye opening experience, but alas all good things must come to an end. Currently, I don’t have any more scheduled interviews. If you’re reading this and thinking “Hey, what about my story?” don’t fret. I would very much like to speak with you. Drop me a line and we’ll make it happen.
Now, on to the introduction. Today we’ll be talking with author, journalist and Mom Melanie Hearse. Check out her website, she has a journalistic bibliography a mile and a half long. Interestingly, however, her contribution to FROM THE INDIE SIDE, THE GREATER GOOD, was a first step into the world of fiction. It’s an interesting mashup of Mother’s Day and Tales from the Dark Side and I’m sure you’ll enjoy it too.
Mel, who lives and works in Australia, has a novel on the way and has since produced several short stories. I had the opportunity to sit down with her and ask a few questions. I hope you enjoy her answers as much as I did.
Not only has author Susan May written a very compelling contribution to the FROM THE INDIE SIDE anthology this collection is largely her brain child. The story of how this came to be is told well in this interview of Suspense Magazine and it too is compelling, much because it underscores the idea that all a writer needs is one part good idea, one part determination, and one part words in a manuscript to find success in publishing.
Susan May is a mom and a author who has turned out some excellent writing. I got the opportunity to talk shop with her recently and if you’re looking for some excellent advice than I recommend that you read on.
MT THE WAR VETERAN was a difficult story for me to read. Your descriptions of Jack Baker’s life long guilt and PTSD induced anxiety, while not the same as my experience, provoked me in a way I found simultaneously uncomfortable and familiar. Excellent writing from start to finish. Even while I suspected what you might be doing with the story I felt compelled to read on, knowing that there must be some resolution, wondering how Baker would end. All the while feeling some kinship with this survivor of a different conflict. What about the horrors of war and the example from Salinger compelled you to write this story? Without giving too much away, was there an idea, beyond the carnage of battle, that you wanted to explore with this piece?
SM Thank you for your wonderful compliment. I guess Jack Baker puts paid to the idea that writers cannibalize their our own experiences. I’m a mom in Perth, Western Australia and I’ve no experience of war except what I’ve seen in films and read in books. I’m a long way from being an octogenarian, too. So Jack’s about as far from my experience as you can get.
While watching the Salinger documentary I was simply struck by something said by one of Salinger’s war buddies. He talked of still seeing armaments explode in his living room and bedroom fifty years after he experienced them. He didn’t preface it with “visions” or “imagined,” he saw these things as if they were real. I couldn’t stop imagining how terrible the original event must be to create that.
I don’t plot my stories, so all I had was that image. The battle scene, Jack’s guilt, all came from Jack. In fact, the scene on Omaha Beach came as a surprise to me. When I realized Jack was taking me there, I was forced to do some research. So I listened to recordings of surviving soldiers and read transcripts. What I wanted to explore was the aftermath, not the battle. What happened on that beach to create Jack’s guilt was all Jack behaving instinctively as a character. I wanted him to be a hero because that’s what happens in the movies, right? But he couldn’t be. He was just a normal person faced with an extraordinary situation.
MT Michael Bunker has mentioned that you were the originator and primary orchestrator of the FROM THE INDIE SIDE project. Bringing together this many independents authors must have been a challenge at times. Were there low points, when you thought the project might not ever make it to press, that you were able to overcome? Were there learning experiences that you might share with writers who might be interested in following your lead?
SM I’m an eternal optimist, so I never thought we wouldn’t get the book published. What I didn’t realize at the onset was what a huge job it was to manage an anthology project, especially with three of us conferring with each other.
I’m twelve hours in time difference from David Gatewood and Brian Spangler who live on the east coast of the USA, and that was the thing that was most challenging. A few times I’d wake up to a dozen emails, in which I was copied in, of them discussing something that I missed because I was asleep.
When it came to bringing together the authors, that was easy. Hugh Howey had enthusiastically agreed to participate back in May 2013 after I interviewed him and reviewed WOOL for Suspense Magazine. He was the first author. I knew with him on board we’d be turning writers away. Brian wrangled a few of other authors and then some of them suggested others, and I had already a few I’d rounded up, so the group assembled pretty quickly.
My advice if you are crazy enough to want to manage an anthology to publication, is to set up a plan first that includes everything you need to decide on like price, costs, launch date, even how you want the chapters laid out—what side you want the numbers, etc., and then work back from there. Allow time before the launch for things to go wrong. We spent a week on formatting problems that sneaked in from a glitch in some coding that we hadn’t factored in.
I calculate I spent at least seventy to hundred hours on this. To me that’s a book I could have written that I will never get to write. So be certain that it’s worth it to you. It’s a great exercise in building your brand and connections and possibly there is a small amount of money in there. Of course, you are splitting it between thirteen people so there’s not a lot.
My other advice is to be firm on quality. You need to ensure the stories are good, put in a proviso to your offer that it’s only an invite to participate, not a given. We were just lucky. It was thrilling reading the stories as they came in. By the time we had Peter Cawdron’s in as the last story, we knew we had something special in our hands.
MT Beyond them all being speculative fiction and short stories the tales in FROM THE INDIE SIDE don’t seem to share much in common. They are not all set in the same place or time and they don’t have any common reference or theme. Was this freedom a conscious decision?
SM We’re indies and this book was to show the quality of work we indies are capable of, so the only limitation we had was that there was a limit of 10,000 words. Then Peter Cawdron and I ignored that. So there you go, indies can’t help but break rules. So freedom was in our blood before we even started. All the authors, except Sara Foster and Mel Hearse (who’d never written any fiction before—crazy, talented writer that she is) were already writing in the speculative fiction genre, so we knew they would all fit together but be varied enough to offer something for everyone.
MT Have you thought about organizing additional anthologies in the future? Is there anything in the works currently?
SM Absolutely it’s going to happen again. I love the opportunity of meeting and working with other authors. And I love the short story form, and I believe it is enjoying a resurgence with eBook publishing. I want to contribute to that. Watch this space for later in the year.
MT I share your belief that “when it comes to writing you know what needs doing; you just need to make yourself do it,” but I disagree that the first steps are not the most daunting. Rejection, regardless of its source, is a cruel instructor and obscurity is perhaps the most merciless judge. What advice can you offer writers, especially independents, who find themselves wallowed deep down on the best seller’s lists?
SM I stick by my original comment with reference to me, but that is my opinion and probably due to my life experience and personality. We all come to this business with different experience, lifestyles, skill, and expectations. So what I find difficult or easy will be different to you or another writer. When I first hopped back into writing seriously in 2010, I began by writing a lot of short stories and entering them in competitions. That is a quick way to accumulate rejections, but the positive is you build a body of work as you learn to handle the ego bashing. That first eighteen months I cried a lot—a lot, but slowly I started placing in competitions and eventually having stories published in anthologies. It built my confidence. The whole time I kept writing novels. I’ve got 1000 pages of two novels on a thumb drive—work that will probably never be published. Since then I’ve written a lot and when I jumped into indie publishing mid-2013 I’ve keep up a constant pace.
My advice is to keep writing and do it for the love. You must get better if you keep at it. It’s a natural progression like building muscles. Now with self-publishing you can build a body of work quickly. Put up your short stories, your novellas, essays and books. It’s all buying an extra ticket in the lottery of success and another product in your book store.
I love writing. It is part of my day now and if I miss a day, I feel itchy. If you can get to the point where you don’t have to tell yourself to do it, where the call of writing is the master, then I think you are on your way. Eventually, I believe, the walls of the dam must burst from the weight of your passion. So obstacles and wallowing seem to disappear.
MT In the Forward to FROM THE INDIE SIDE Hugh Howey makes a very compelling case for being an independent author. He writes, “Just think about how many other adventures await, how many unknown authors are out there, fully independent, bending the rules while creating something extraordinary and new.” As an independent author myself I’m convinced and the success of FROM THE INDIE SIDE is compelling and enviable. But there remains a lot of fuzziness between “I have a manuscript” and the publish button which results in plenty of amateur and unpolished books. In an ideal world, what might indies do to help each other plan and polish their work more completely?
SM I’m not big on workshopping my work. I don’t really believe in working with other indies on that level. I don’t have beta readers except for my husband, who is brilliant on pointing out pacing issues and confusing sentences. The minute I have to explain something to him, I know I’m going to have to rewrite that passage. He’s my average reader.
Then my next step is sending it off to my editor. Finding an editor with whom you work well and who is also available when you need them is a challenge. If you have niggling doubts about your editor’s work or even whether you are the right fit personality-wise listen to your gut. It’s been a search to find my current editor. I’ve tried a few, but the one I have now works really well with me, they don’t cost a fortune, and I’m learning from them as well.
So that’s my system and from that I believe I put out stories that are as polished and as entertaining as any traditional press. I review books directly for all the big publishers and, believe me, a lot of their releases definitely need more work. Everyone is trying to rush their work out there, including them. I believe you should do the best you can, use an editor, run it by a person or a few people you trust, and then put it out there and forget it. Don’t keep fiddling with improving it. That typo that you think you missed isn’t going to make a lot of difference to sales or fans. So in a nutshell, keep going and you will work out your own system and pace and if that includes other indie authors—great. If it doesn’t, then that’s okay as well.
Indies can help each other by sharing blog posts like what you are doing, Matthew, and highlighting other great authors they’ve read—spreading the word. So many authors write to me asking can I review their book, but the first thing an author should do is build a relationship and help other authors. Eventually, the goodwill will come back to you.
MT Do believe that there are any specific or unique challenges for Australian independent authors that citizens of other countries might not encounter?
SM Well Australians are lucky because we start the day before almost anyone else in the world. The only problem with that is that the biggest English speaking markets don’t wake up until our day is almost over and they are on the other side of the planet. In saying that, what a boon ePublishing has been for us because we can sell to anyone in the world.
The USA is the biggest English speaking market, so I write in American vernacular and have an American editor so they can pick up any Australian words that slip in. We think we speak the same language, but not quite. Certainly we spell many things differently. My spell checker is set to US, so even my emails are in American because I can’t be bothered changing the auto-correct. My friends must think I can’t spell.
As I mentioned earlier, if you’re collaborating, the time difference can get annoying in a slight way. It’s very expensive to ship from CreateSpace to here as well. The postage and time wait is a killer.
But these are minor niggles, and as everybody knows Australia is one of the best countries in the world in which to live, so I’m not going to complain about the tyranny of distance. There’s so much amazing talent coming out of Australia that clearly whatever challenges there are, the Aussie contingent has pushed through.
MT Is there anything you would like to say to your readers before we sign off?
SM I would like to thank you, Matthew, for having me on and being such a great supporter of FROM THE INDIE SIDE. I’m humbled. To the readers: I thank you for using your precious time to read anything that I write or another professional indie writes. I always know that readers have a choice how they spend their time, and reading is only one choice.
If readers take the time to read my book, that is just wonderful, and I hope that I repay them by ensuring they enjoy their time with my work. I write what I call commercial “everyman” fiction that most people should be able to get into quickly and enjoy an escape, with a satisfying ending. Changing people’s view on life or putting in some deep and meaningful message on purpose is not my thing.
In my mind, I’m welcoming readers to a great little party, providing some well-prepared food, introducing them to some fascinating people, and doing my best to ensure they have a good time. If I’ve done my job right, they’ll hopefully want to visit with me again. That is my only goal. My books won’t win any literary awards, but my goal is to win readers. They’re more important in my world.
I very much enjoyed Peter Cawdron‘s contribution to FROM THE INDIE SIDE, and I say this while acknowledging that the story did not immediately pull me in. Yet, after a page or two I could not put the story down. The first time I read it, I set out to read a couple of pages and crash for the night; I had just run a good collection of miles. I was beat, but I couldn’t. THE MAN WHO REMEMBERED TODAY that good. Honestly, it made me want to hear this anthology as an audio collection similar to METAtropolis.
I really enjoyed Peter’s story and I also enjoyed working with him to create this interview. Dig in, you will too. And when you’re done, go pick up a copy. These stories are that good, you’ll lose sleep.
MT I really enjoyed THE MAN WHO REMEMBERED TODAY. Kareem became a hero because of circumstance not because of amazing prodigy. It was equal parts crime story and temporal switch, and while I never really understood what was happening to our hero’s memory, I didn’t have to suspend my disbelief to be convinced. Where did you find the inspiration for this compelling short?
PC Yeah, that’s the nice thing about short stories, not every detail needs to be supplied, some can be left for the reader to ponder. In this case, why Kareem remembers the future is never explained, but the implication is that he’s wrapped up in the fate of his brother.
Racial profiling is a big deal in our society, and not just for law enforcement. We make all sorts of judgement about people based on appearance without an iota of reason behind our conclusions. Often, these attitudes are subconscious and we don’t realize we’re pigeonholing people based on their race, their gender, etc. And that got me thinking about how awful it would be for someone to be caught up in a dragnet. I liked the quandary the story posed — that Kareem has knowledge of future events, is entirely innocent, but is powerless to get anyone to believe him.
MT The ending to THE MAN WHO REMEMBERED TODAY made me think that this might be the first installation in a series. Do you have plans to develop Kareem and Deb? If so what can you tell us about them.
PC I’m tempted. It really depends on how much readers warm to the story. If there’s interest in a sequel, I’d love to write one and so deliberately left the ending open for that reason. And besides, stories have ends, but life goes on. I wanted to show that our glimpse into their day was just one chapter of the larger story that is their lives.
MT How did you become involved in the FROM THE INDIE SIDE project?
PC I was a late substitute, the guy called off the bench at the last minute. Jason Gurley reached out to me and asked me if I had any stories lying around that might suit an anthology. I didn’t, so I started hammering the keyboard. I’m glad he asked or this story would never have seen the light of day.
MT THE MAN WHO REMEMBERED TODAY seems like a bit of genre departure for you, compared to your bibliography. It is less classic science fiction and more speculative. Are you branching out?
PC Good writers challenge themselves. When choosing a story, I look for something that is both interesting to me from an exploratory perspective and technically challenging in one way or another. My latest novel, FEEDBACK was written largely because the storyline is so audacious I wanted to see if I could actually pull it off. I think I did, but I guess you’ll have to check the reader reviews to see if they agree. When it came to THE MAN WHO REMEMBERED TODAY, it was the challenge of not taking the easy path. I wanted to avoid the tried and tested scifi I love and dabble. Oh, and I loved the title. It’s anachronistic throwback to the pulp stories of the 50s, which hooked me right into the project.
MT I am very interested in the tools and processes other writers use to create their works. In THE MAN WHO REMEMBERS TODAY you have a impressive collection of action scenes. These are notoriously difficult scenes to write, especially with detail and clarity and you pulled them off well. How do you treat scenes like this? Do you use any special tools or techniques when writing action?
PC Normally, I’d do a mind map of a story, but with this story I couldn’t help but dive right in. When editing, though, I listen to my stories read back to me by the computer. By involving two senses while revising (sight and sound) I find I can get a good feel for the rhythm of a story.
MT In the afterword to your story you talk about the value of short fiction. And about how it has inspired some excellent movie productions. I usually dislike most film productions based on a novel length books, finding that the screen writers, directors, and editors necessarily need to chop up a perfectly good story in order to cram it into a watchable movie length. It occurs to me that short form may actually lend itself to this sort of transformation much better. Do you think this is true? If so, explain why, for instance, short fiction like Philip K Dick’s THE MINORITY REPORT makes a better film.
PC Novels establish character by peering inside the mind of a protagonist, which is something no movie can ever do. As much as I love watching a good movie, even with all their special effects they can never achieve the level of immersion you find in a novel. If stories are an iceberg, then the movie is all you see above the waterline, while the book is everything in the depths below. I think short stories and novellas work better as movies precisely because they’re a closer match. Like movies, they don’t have time to establish character familiarity and rely on interactions to reveal subtleties.
MT Was THE MAN WHO REMEMBERS TODAY something you had sitting in a drawer or did you write if specifically for the FROM THE INDIE SIDE anthology.
PC It was a vague what-if idea in the back of my mind that would have never been written outside of an anthology. Having written it, though, I’m now more interested in the short story format. Ideas are easy, execution is hard. The nice thing about a short story is the execution of the idea is that little bit easier. I look at what Jason Gurley has done with his short stories THE CARETAKER and THE DARK AGE and I’m inspired to write more in this manner. Being part of FROM THE INDIE SIDE has shown me that high-quality short stories are every bit as important as full length novels.
MT In the Forward to FROM THE INDIE SIDE Hugh Howey makes a very compelling case for being an independent author. He writes, “Just think about how many other adventures await, how many unknown authors are out there, fully independent, bending the rules while creating something extraordinary and new.” As an independent author myself I’m convinced, but I want to know if you would offer Indies advice about what they can do to reach those readers? You seemed to have figured out the ins and outs of discoverability.
PC Oh, I don’t know that I’ve been discovered just yet. Indie writing is tough. You’ve got to be incredibly patient. It’s a slow, long hill to climb, but writers are not in competition with each other. We’re in competition with Candy Crush and Facebook, reality television and movies. I smile whenever someone says they couldn’t put a book down because it means reading was more important to them than a dozen other distractions. Reading is chicken soup for the soul.
How does an upcoming author get discovered? By respecting the reader. Books are cheap. Even at fifty bucks a copy, a book’s financial cost is pittance. The real cost is the reader’s time. I try to never lose sight of that.
Writing a novel is relatively easy if you stick with it. Getting someone to read your novel, that’s the challenge. The only way to get read by a broad variety of people is by showing the utmost respect for your readers, by refining and revising, and that’s something I’ve found takes time and growth in maturity. With half a dozen books to my name, I feel like I’m only just learning to write.
It takes time and exposure to grow as a writer so get something out there. Polish your work. Get involved in writing workshops. Refine, revise and edit. Personally, I’m growing from one paragraph to the next.
MT Does music influence you while you write? You’ve got a list of favorites on your web site and I’m wondering if you crank up U2 or Dire Straits when you sit down and bang out the next chapter.
PC I write to all sorts of music, from Norah Jones to David Bowie, John Mayer to INXS and, as you note, U2 and Dire Straits. I don’t know that it influences what I write, but I deeply appreciate music with a heartfelt message. Chasing pirates by Norah Jones, as an example, is a song about a book she was reading that kept her up all night. I’d love to know the title of that book, and would like to imagine my writing can be just as inspiring.
MT I take it you have a day job. A commute. You have a family that requires your attention too. The standard twenty-first century responsibility package. How do you make time for writing? Does your writing space reflect this?
PC Yes, I work for a company that conducts performance tests of computer applications. I have a 45 minute commute each way, and I’m torn between Twitter, Facebook and reading books while on the bus. I’m a reader wrestling with the same demands and distractions as everyone else. Reality TV was the best thing that ever happened to my writing career, driving me away from the television. Once the kids are in bed, I’ll try to get in anywhere from 60-90 minutes writing. My wife is very long-suffering in this regard, as she knows how much I enjoy getting lost in a fictional universe.
Thank you for your interest in my writing and all the best in your writing career.
First, the good news. This weekend I received a letter from the DetCon1 Programming folks and I quickly shot off a reply. I’m headed, once again, to Detroit, Michigan for a summer convention.
I don’t know what it is about that part of the world, but man you “Yoopers” sure have a thing for SFF. I’m not complaining. Not even a little bit. In fact, I’m sort of ecstatic to visit Michigan in the middle of the summer. I’ll get to hang out with the mucky-mucks for a couple of days. Meet new friends and share with colleagues. I’m currently planning on driving so if you’re interested you’ll get to experience my overlander first hand.
Yesterday I nailed down my reservation at the hotel, and there is even the possibility that my beautiful and talented wife might join me on this excursion into intense geekery. And for that I am even more excited than I have the words to express. I might have to bump up the reservation and get a room with a view.
In other news I have lined up a couple more author interviews for FROM THE INDIE SIDE. Be excited, you’re going to get buckets of new author blood really soon. Peter Cawdron is due this upcoming Friday. Followed by Ernie Lindsey, Susan May, and Mel Hearse.
In the mean time, if you’re looking for something to read you won’t be disappointed with this anthology. The diversity of voices and tales means that you can pick and chose what you’d rather read based on your mood in the moment. And, even though it is thicker than a Chilton’s Auto Repair manual, it won’t break your budget at $4.99 (kindle price).
While you’re supporting independent authors you should give me a try. I’ve just put out a short story of my own which is turning into something of a series. ON THE LEFT FOOT: A TALE OF THE LONG EARTH is only $0.99 on Amazon and it will transport you from that dull, slightly musty bus seat into an otherworldly back country filled with the rich scents of waking pine trees and fresh trout.
Also, last weekend I added another couple of thousand words to the next in the “sports in space” series UP SLOPE. It is on target for spring release and I’m pretty happy with how the story is coming along. You don’t need to read the first in the series to understand the story, but if you gave THE BIG RED BUCKLE a gander you would not be disappointed.
Next up, this morning I was browsing through your many, many Facebook posts when I came across a real gem from Jacqueline Carey, who is a formidable presence in the the world of wordsmiths to say the least, and she has something really poignant to say about our professional organization.
I don’t mean to imply that the blame for all that ails SFWA lies with its most senior members. I’m sure it doesn’t, but I can only speak to what I’ve observed, which is that there’s an undeniable generational push-back against changing mores that’s a significant part of the problem. I don’t want SFWA to lose its identity or its sense of history, but if it’s going to remain relevant, it needs to adapt. Honor the past, but celebrate the present and look toward the future, too.
I can thank my wife Tess for getting me hooked on Carey’s Kusiel series, late night readings from Kushiel’s Dart were something of a treat back in the early days of our relationship. It is sexy stuff, but with careful and complete construction, deep plots that make it difficult to sleep (even though you have work in the morning).
At ConFusion I had only the briefest of encounters with Carey, but her opinion, and the action (or inaction) she is willing to undertake in order to achieve a clear and unmistakable expression, is admirable. And she has done a wonderful job of laying out all the things SFWA might be missing its maddening rush to cling to BS and drama.
I mean… seriously? The publishing industry is undergoing seismic changes, changes that affect every single author in (and out of) the genre. E-book pricing and royalty rates, the antitrust lawsuit, DRM, the rise of indie publishing, Amazon’s slow-burning bid for a monopoly, dwindling brick-and-mortar stores, the commodification of fan fiction, promotion in the age of social networking, the Google Books lawsuit, the consolidation of the Big Six into the Big Five, etc. There’s a lot to talk about! And yet when it comes to SFWA, it seems all the oxygen in the room was—and still is—being sucked up by a discussion that has no business taking place in this day and age.
When I first started to accumulate rejection letters one of my primary motivations to be a writer was SFWA membership. I wanted to be included in the group and run along side others doing the same thing. In my past life as an engineer I belonged to a variety of professional organizations, and for the most part, this was a useful and even necessary requirement for inclusion within the network of people working in the field. They kept me appraised of the major currents in my industry and helped me make good decisions that ultimately made me a better engineer.
The realization that SFWA membership might be beyond my reach, even with the growing collection of SFF bearing my name, gave me pause. I started to ask myself, “What could I get out of this relationship if I take the time to jump through their hoops?” The answer that I reached basically amounted to not much that I couldn’t find on my own. I’ve got KBoards, Goodreads, and conventions for community, inspiration, and to keep me appraised of what is and isn’t happening in the writing world. The organization’s Writer Beware blog tends to be far behind the 8-ball when it comes to breaking news and new predatory practices that harm creatives, and its contributors spend at least half their time tooting their own horn. The organization has become, in many respects, just a breading ground for drama and discontent.
So, with that in mind, I’m going to extend some kudos to Jacqueline Carey, I think she is doing a good thing and I hope the best for her and wish her luck. Yes, she has lost her nomination privileges for the Nebula, but her opinions are already well respected. I’d happily read anything she recommended, her cogent and considered opinion has lot more weight than an award.
And finally, I wanted to take a moment to pass along the announcement that Michael J. Sullivan‘s next book is available for pre-order. And if you order now, you’ll get a pile of extras and bonus stuff … early. This is a series I’ve had on my W2R list for a while and Mr. Sullivan is an excellent dude.
So, I will round out today’s news and announcements with one more place for you to spend your hard earned dough on books. Click on through to this announcement for all the details and goodies.
Talented illustrator and amazing author, Jason Gurley has had an excellent premier year. He opened the anthology FROM THE INDIE SIDE with an excellent piece THE WINTER LANDS that I thoroughly enjoyed. It took me back to late nights, sitting in front of a tiny black and white Zenith watching Tales from the Dark Side and I, for one, would love to see the Winter Lands become something much larger.
Jason and I sat down and exchanged some ideas and I got his take on a lot, everything from the genesis of THE WINTER LANDS to where his writing career might be headed. I hope you enjoy the interview, and when you’re done, go pick up a copy of FROM THE INDIE SIDE.
MT THE WINTER LANDS seems like a wonderful introduction to The Winter Lands. Sort of the Old Man’s introduction to the Wardrobe. Do you have any plans to expand on this tale?
JG Thanks! I didn’t know that it would end up being the story that opens the book. Susan May, David Gatewood and Brian Spangler — who are responsible for making this book happen — made that choice, and I confess it feels a bit like an honor. I’ve published several short stories recently, and I’ve begun hearing from readers who really want to see the worlds continue. I don’t ever like to say never, but “The Winter Lands” feels as if it’s said everything that it needed to say.
MT I really liked that THE WINTER LANDS was the story of a story teller telling a story. (Read that again if you haven’t already read THE WINTER LANDS). It was the literary equivalent of a Tales from the Dark Side all on its own. It felt like the icy equivalent to Zelazny’s walking in shadow with the potential for a little Gulliver’s Travels mixed in. What influenced you when you wrote this short? How did you create the portal to THE WINTER LANDS?
JG THE WINTER LANDS wasn’t actually the story I planned on contributing to the anthology. I had a couple of stories in mind, both of which began their lives as short comic scripts. One of them, “The Caretaker”, has since been written and published. I banged away at the other — which, for lack of a better title, has always been called “My Father Who Travels Through Time” — for weeks, and was never really happy with how it was going. There’s a great story there, and one I’ll probably finish this year or next — my wife may have actually solved it for me, but that’s another story altogether — but it wasn’t quite clicking this time.
THE WINTER LANDS just started with an image, like most of my stories do. I can’t say what that image is — to do so would spoil the story — but for those who have read it, it’s the big finish of the story. For me, almost all of my stories start with an image or a question. The Man Who Ended the World began that way, with an image of a man alone in a bunker, watching the apocalypse happen on TV. I have a dozen or more voice memos saved on my iPhone — I usually get story ideas when I’m driving, so I dictate notes to myself for later. Most of those stories are unwritten, and might always be, but they’re compelling ideas. I hate to let them vanish without at least acknowledging that they happened, whether I ever actually do anything with them or not.
Some of my ideas are atrocious, and should never be explored further.
MT I know, from interviewing Michael Bunker, that you brought him into the group. How did you become involved with FROM THE INDIE SIDE project?
JG Well, that would be Brian Spangler’s doing. He approached me after he and Susan and David had already put the project together, and had signed on a bunch of authors. I think — but am not positive — that I was originally the last addition to the group. I’m still surprised that anybody thinks of me for these things, so of course I said I’d contribute a story. I can’t remember whose idea it was that I would design the cover. Might have been Brian’s, might have been mine.
In any case, soon after I joined, one or two authors had to bow out of the project. I suggested the creators talk to Michael Bunker and Peter Cawdron, and before I knew it, they were on-board and done with their stories. (In fact, I think Michael and Peter finished theirs before I even finished mine. Indies are fast.)
MT I know from reading your posts on KBoards that you’ve had a pretty good first year. Congratulations! To what do you attribute your successes in self-publishing?
JG Thanks! I don’t know what I expected at the beginning of 2013, but the year was much more interesting than anything I could have imagined. For me the measure of success isn’t all about the numbers, but about the connections I’ve gotten to make with readers and other authors. I’ve been incredibly fortunate this year to discover that not only did a few people want to read my books, they also liked them enough to tell their friends about them. They’ve shown up on Facebook and Twitter to tell me what they think of the books, they’ve emailed me and told me some very personal things about how my work has made them feel. It’s so surprising that anybody at all cares what I’m writing, and I’m grateful for every last person who gives my work a shot.
Along the way, I’ve also gotten to meet some truly inspiring authors, most of them independent authors like me. These are people who work day jobs, write in their stolen free time, publish books, then go do it again. They set the bar pretty high for people like me. They make me better at all of this. (Which isn’t to say that I don’t have a long way to go. I have so far to go.)
MT What are you doing differently or planning on changing during your second year? And how do you expect these changes will help you with as you publish more?
JG Oh, I’m not changing anything. I mean, I don’t think I’ve really thought about it quite like that. All I want to do is keep telling stories, and I’ll do that as quickly or as slowly as I am able to. I have an extraordinarily satisfying career as a designer, and in my spare time — usually after my little girl has gone to bed, after we’ve built Lego towers or banged out off-key tunes on her little green piano — I get to make up stories. Life’s pretty good already. I’m extraordinarily fortunate. I don’t know what sort of changes I could possibly make.
MT I am very interested in how other authors manage their creative process. Take us through the creation of THE WINTER LANDS. Where and when do you write? Do you have a planning process you use when you write a story or is it more ad lib? Are there any unusual tools in your tool box or critical things you must have at hand to write?
JG I write in stolen moments. That wasn’t always the case. For years I’ve worked on a novel called Eleanor, and for most of those years everything had to be just right: silence, the right lighting, etc. I was very picky. But I was a kid, and now I have a kid, and my wife and I have a house full of pets, and neighbors who put their trash out at two a.m., and we live not that far from a major road, so there are traffic sounds all day, or sirens — in short, all of the kind of distractions that would have made it hard for me to write when I was younger. But this is my life now, and writing is only a small part of that, and so I write when I can. Usually that’s at eleven p.m., or for fifteen minutes before I go to work. Now and then I’ll have a stretch of hours, and I’ll produce a huge amount of work — but I’ve gotten good at making enormous progress in small snatches of time. Give me fifteen minutes and I’ll get a thousand words down.
THE WINTER LANDS wasn’t planned at all. I do outline sometimes, but I didn’t in this case. I just let the story tell itself, and it turned out kind of slow and patient and weird, and that was the best part. I had no idea what was coming next, other than that image I was working towards at the end.
MT I’ve read and enjoyed your personal stories concerning literary agents. I can understand the idea and appeal of getting made by a big ink house — having someone else to do some of the plentiful leg work would be nice all on its own — but you seem to be doing okay right now and, if anything, your star is on the rise. Yet you wrote “[That] email nearly ruined my evening. It immediately made me doubt ELEANOR and all of the years I’ve spent on her. I thought: Maybe I should put ELEANOR in a drawer, and do something else. I commiserated with other authors, who said all the right things, and I ignored them, and moped.” Why do you think this sort of rejection cuts so deeply? Why do we, as writers, want representation or endorsement from an institution that we clearly don’t need?
JG Dean Wesley Smith has a wonderful series of articles that he’s collected into a book. They’re called “Killing the Sacred Cows of Publishing”, and I wish that I’d read them before I talked with that agent recently. They’re a remarkable bit of perspective about how dramatically the publishing world is changing, and really underscore one wonderful truth: These days, writers don’t really need anybody to help them publish. They can just publish.
I can’t speak for anybody else, but I can tell you that for as long as I can remember I’ve been in love with the romanticized nature of being an author. I think this comes from movies, or from reading afterwords by authors who describe the glorious route to publication as a hard-fought battle, but one with immense reward waiting just beyond the gates. I think I had this illusion for years about publishing that was very perverse — it celebrated the author, not the book; it celebrated notoriety, not writing. I had this idea of rooftop cocktail parties to celebrate book launches, or lecture tours to packed auditoriums — things like that. And I can’t speak for anyone else, like I said, but for me, that sort of dream was not only completely inaccurate, but completely impossible. I am a massive introvert. If someone threw a rooftop cocktail party to celebrate my book, I’d probably want to hide in a corner, then sneak out early and go home and watch a movie or something. For me to do any of these things, I have to mentally prepare myself, then do them, then take hours and hours for myself to recover from having done them. Being that kind of author would turn me into a wreck in a heartbeat.
But this past year has taught me so much about publishing. For all of the years that I’ve been writing, I craved the status of being a published author. I wanted an agent. I wanted an editor I could have a beer with. I wanted to be part of the in-crowd of the publishing world. What’s missing from all of that?
And I’d rather have a wonderful relationship with my readers than with an agent any day.
MT You are a fan of apocalypse fiction. What about these survival stories keeps you coming back for more? Is there a specific kind of sub-genre that you enjoy more than others, for instance zombie fiction, and why? Is there a critical component, or universal thread that you think runs through the best examples of this kind of fiction?
As I get older, I wonder if the reason that I’m drawn to these kinds of stories is that I’m as introverted as I am. When I was a kid, you might find me playing with my friends… but it was just as common to find me climbing a tree in our front yard with a book, or sitting on our rooftop, reading. I’ve always liked being alone. So when I discovered books that told stories about the rest of the planet just… disappearing, I was enthralled. I read all of the books like that I could get my hands on. Earth Abides. Alas, Babylon. The Stand.
One of my very favorite short stories is called “The Silent Towns”, and it’s part of Ray Bradbury’s The Martian Chronicles, which I try to read a couple of times a year. (My own Movement books are a sort of homage to Bradbury’s.) Like most of the stories in the book, “The Silent Towns” takes place on Mars, once mankind has moved in and set up cities and highways and made the planet its own. One day war breaks out on Earth, and everybody on Mars flies back to the homeworld. But a man named Walter Gripp stays, and the story of his daily routines was marvelous to me. He goes into a deli and makes a sandwich and pays for it, though nobody is there to notice. He’s all alone, and loves it. And one day a phone in a nearby house rings, and he discovers that while he’s the last man on Mars, he isn’t the only human on Mars. There’s a woman named Genevieve Selsior somewhere on the planet. The story of how Walter and Genevieve meet, and then the story of how Walter ends up alone again — and that wonderful final image of him just sitting in the middle of a highway on a folding lawn chair — is a near-perfect encapsulation of what I love about these kinds of tales.
But the current spate of apocalypse stories that you see in theaters has done very little for me. I get bored by stories that involve zombies and mutants and vampires and children who become ’the one’ and so forth. I’ve been looking for the perfect apocalypse story for years, one that captures the sheer loneliness of it all, without needing to inject the traditional dramatic structure of villains and hero’s journeys and such. And I think I found them, finally, a few years ago. Cormac McCarthy’s THE ROAD left me breathless. It was exactly the book I’d always been looking for.
And then, oddly enough, the perfect apocalypse movie came along, too. It wasn’t the film adaptation The Road, though. It was Wall-E. And not the whole movie — just the first twenty minutes or so, which play out in almost reverent silence while this little robot trundles through a world that is lifeless and marked with memories. I think I was the only person in the theatre watching those twenty minutes with damp eyes. It was exactly what I had always wanted to see.
Now that I think about it, though, I might have seen the perfect movie about loneliness years and years earlier, without even knowing it. The Black Stallion, Carroll Ballard and Francis Ford Coppola’s adaptation, captured that same overpowering quietude from the moment the boy lands on a desert island. Eventually both Wall-E and The Black Stallion become rich with dialogue and action, but for those brief chapters, they are everything that I love about last-man stories.
MT I see you went to Wizard World in Portland. Do you have plans to do any more conventions in 2014? If so, where are you headed? What do you get from conventions? Why are they important to you?
JG Oh, man, was that fun. I’ve actually never done anything like that at all, and I would love to do it again. A friend of mine here in the northwest, the author Erik Wecks, had organized a few science-fiction/speculative fiction book panels at Wizard World, and invited me and other local authors to be a part of them. I’d spoken in front of crowds before, but this was my first time to talk to people about writing, about stories. One reader in the audience actually recognized me and my work, which was earth-shatteringly amazingly cool. I got to meet new readers and sign a few books. It was just fun.
I don’t have anything like this scheduled for the rest of the year, but if the opportunity arose to do it again, I would in a heartbeat.
MT Is there anything you would like to say to your readers before we sign off?
JG Thank you! So many of you risk your hard-earned money and precious time on independent authors like me, and I can’t tell you how much that means to me. I hope to keep telling stories that you all enjoy!