Michael Bunker‘s biography only grants the reader a momentary glimpse of a truly innovative and unique mind. He has been grinding out an amazing list of stories which include dystopian sci-fi, the WICK series, The Silo Archipelago, The Last Pilgrims, and the Amish/Sci-Fi novella Pennsylvania. His latest short, the excellent REDOUBT, is part of FROM THE INDIE SIDE and is a bit of a prequel to some of his longer form fiction. It is also an excellent example of short fiction done well.
I sat down and talked with Michael about REDOUBT, the FROM THE INDIE PROJECT and his writing. I have a feeling you’re going to enjoy his thoughtful answers as well as his formative storytelling.
MT An anthology takes a lot of outside editorial effort. Finding all the authors, ensuring that all the different works make it into the collection on time and with requisite polish, and then there are the on going business aspect of publishing and imprint that must be managed. It is a difficult proposition for traditional publishers to undertake. How were these things managed by a bunch of independents spread all the way around the Earth? Were there hurdles along the way?
MB Susan May has written a wonderful article for Suspense Magazine that outlines how the whole thing came together. But basically it was a serendipitous conflagration of events and how I ended up involved I’ll probably never really know. From my perspective, it came as a total surprise, because – you have to understand – things have changed a lot for me since I first was invited into the project. When my friend Jason Gurley first asked me if I’d be interested, I was probably by far the most unknown author of the twelve. At least that is the way I saw it. I jumped at the opportunity to be connected to these other eleven authors, and I’d do it again. But my overall footprint in the Sci-Fi world was almost non-existent when this first came together. Since then, I’ve become slightly better known, but I’m still awed to be mentioned in the same breath with any of these other professionals. As for hurdles, I was surprised that there weren’t any that I knew about, because out of all the authors in the world, we ended up with 12 that worked really well together, and who were all willing to sacrifice, if necessary, to make this thing happen.
MT Tell us about how you became involved in the FROM THE INDIE SIDE project?
MB I was contacted by my friend Jason Gurley. He’d been approached to write a short story for the project, and I was fired up for him. Secretly, I might have been a tad envious, but I really think that Jason is a great author and I want good things to happen for him, so my excitement for him squashed the envious part. So then Jason said that they might be looking for a few more Indies and asked if I would mind if he mentioned my name to them. He said that I’d already been discussed, and he was pretty sure they’d be glad to have me, but he wanted to clear it with me first. I jumped all over the opportunity. To be included in this anthology was – and is – a great honor for me.
MT After FROM THE INDIE SIDE would you consider future anthology projects?
MB Absolutely. I’d love to do more of them. I’ve tried to make myself more valuable to the big guns involved with FROM THE INDIE SIDE by working my reader base and turning out a bunch of reviews. Hopefully if anyone else out there is doing one they’ll ask, because I’m all for them. I wrote a little piece on my blog about what I think about short stories and anthologies, because I’m a huge supporter of the form, and I always have been.
MT Your contribution REDOUBT parallels the world you’ve developed in your novels WICK and THE LAST PILGRIMS in that it takes place at the beginning of an American collapse shared by those books and is the result of a series of attacks. Something that is unclear and never really answered in the short story is the question of who the aggressors are. Can you provide a little background about the conflict?
MB Yes. I wrote THE LAST PILGRIMS first, and it takes place 20 years after a worldwide collapse, the root of which I only hint about in that book. The next novel was the WICK Omnibus which details the events of that collapse. In that book I started with some events that were really happening in the world. Economic problems, the sharp and acrimonious political divide in America, and then I added two very real natural disasters: Hurricane Sandy, followed by a Nor’easter that strikes the New York area leading up to the presidential election. The fictional part comes in when my protagonist in WICK, lost in the snowstorm in the Catskill reserve, stumbles into a prison that turns out to be part of an actual top-secret town that turns out to be a Russianized village that is a privatized spy school – utilized to turn out authentically Russian intelligence operatives that can be sent into Russia to spy for America. That part is based on some real events and locations that happened during the Cold War.
Through this bizarre landscape, we learn of a plot by hardliners in both America and Russia to destroy America and Russia as they are in the modern age. This leads to an EMP attack over America – carried out by corporate interests serving these hardliners – and eventually a full scale nuclear exchange. Through all of this, my goal has been to show real people and how they deal with one another, and not so much to focus on huge events and the show that is going on. WICK, THE LAST PIGLRIMS, and REDOUBT are essentially Russian style stories. They focus more on people, the real-world consequences of philosophies, and human interactions, with action only serving to move the story along.
MT Three of your main characters have a military background (SOF and SAS) and are currently survivalist militia members waiting for a collapse. Have you served previously? Are there other experiences that you draw on to create these characters?
MB I have not served in the military, although I was raised in a military family and as a student of history and human nature have spent a good part of my life studying the subject. I also, in my younger days, spent a lot of time around militia types and have many friends in lots of different political/social camps – including militia members, and people who are hostile to anything paramilitary. The main background of THE LAST PILGRIMS, and therefore REDOUBT though was that TLP was written as a direct modernization of the story of the Ancient Waldenses. A religious community that lived in the Alps for centuries despite numerous genocidal attempts to destroy them as a people. So my military characters are almost all directly drawn from real life individuals in history who lived with and protected the Waldenses.
MT Near the end of REDOUBT there is an exchange between Phillip and Geoffrey in which the Taos artists says, “I don’t have any [politics] left. Except this place. This place is my politics.” Considering where and how he lives before the attacks, I found this sentiment a lot more believable than his earlier characterization. Why was it important to you or the story to make this Taos based artist a “socialist/communist” in the first place?
MB I wanted to have these wildly different characters who came from very different backgrounds. Goffrey Byrd who is the artist, is based on several real life people who I’ve known and befriended who have self-identified as socialists or communists, when in fact, once pressed really only adopted those labels as a way to be different and to shock some people while ingratiating themselves with others. So I modeled Goffrey after some real artists. My parents have a rental home in Angel Fire, New Mexico, only miles from the location I describe in the book, and I’ve spent a lot of time in Taos talking to people and drinking coffee. So many beatniks and hipsters and society dropouts who hang out in Taos identify themselves as socialists and communists, but I found that when I really got to know them, they had almost no political foundation at all. They were just like me, in fact. They just wanted to live life and be left alone. That was their real politics.
MT Was REDOUBT something you had sitting a drawer or did you write it for the anthology?
MB Busted! I wrote REDOUBT originally as an Epilogue for WICK. Something that would lead into a third novel (or series) that would tie WICK and THE LAST PILGRIMS together. It was quite a bit longer, and it really ended with a cliffhanger. When I talked to Brian Spangler and others about a story for the anthology, I was encouraged to use the story if it would introduce a whole new audience to my other works. So at first I submitted the longer REDOUBT story for FROM THE INDIE SIDE. After thinking about it awhile, I realized that first – I shouldn’t end an anthology story with a cliffhanger, and also I didn’t want to introduce a whole bunch of ancillary conflicts that are not resolved in the story. So, I ended up pulling the submission and re-writing REDOUBT so that it became a shorter story, and one that had an ending that said what I wanted it to say, without it angering people by leaving the story with a cliffhanger. In the original story, there was a lot more about what was going on in Taos, which becomes “New Rome” in THE LAST PILGRIMS novel.
MT You live and work on a farm, take care of a family, and, without a doubt, you are a prolific writer. I often wonder how much time you put in on a day-to-day basis and where that time comes from given your other obligations and responsibilities.
MB I have a wonderful family, including four children – three of whom are either adults or teenagers. I’ve reached an age where my wife and family are really able to handle most of the farm requirements, which allows me to write full time. I work at writing just like it is a full-time job. I am at my desk usually at 7:30 in the morning, and I work straight through until I’m done. Sometimes that is 5 p.m., sometimes it goes on until midnight. I have a goal I try to hit every day, and I try to work until I’ve reached my goal.
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.
MB Well, I don’t think anyone has figured out the ins and outs of discoverability. There is a natural Catch-22 there, and I’ve talked about this in some of my blog posts. If ever the “way” is figured out and broadcast, everyone would do it, and it would instantaneously cease to work.
Discoverability is like Atlantis, or the Fountain of Youth. Maybe it is out there, but I don’t know where. I’m not sure anyone knows how it works or where they are. All we can do is increase the likelihood that IF someone finds us, they like us and want more of what we write.
There are three concrete things Indies can do to help themselves.
- Write and publish. Build a backlist. It is possible for someone to have a hit book with their first title (and with nothing else out there,) but it is very, very unlikely. Too many authors go all-in to try to make their first novel a hit, without realizing that statistically your first novel sucks, and realistically – if there is nothing else out there for readers to buy, then they might be unwilling to take a shot on a debut title AND think that it is representative of what the author will continue to produce. There are some great debut titles, and some turn in to hits (people win the lottery) – it just isn’t likely to happen to you or anyone you know. The answer is to work hard, and publish a lot.
- Get better. Since in every field of endeavor people tend to improve as they practice and work at their chosen field, your next books is most likely going to be better than this one. Especially if you are studying to make your writing improve. So keep writing AND improve your skill at writing.
- Be Nice. Say “yes” to opportunities, be a good member of the community, and try to help others. All the marketing and promotion stuff – to me – is secondary. It is an afterthought after these three things. That way when the time to be “discovered” happens, you’ve increased the probability that what the discoverer finds, is worthwhile and can ignite into something much larger. There tends to be streams or paths of least resistance, which readers follow to find the things they might want to read. You usually cannot force your way into that stream. You have to grow into being a part of what people are looking for. Sometimes Indies get frustrated because there is no “Easy” button, or some system they can use that is guaranteed to work. And answers like mine only increase that frustration – but that is just because I don’t know how to be found, break out, or be successful at this. I’m still trying to figure it out myself. All I know is that when I publish more, improve, and be nice, better things start happening for me.
MT I believe science fiction today is trending toward the dystopian. Many new stories are more survival epic than space opera. You write a great deal about what happens after the end of everything as we know it. Do you agree that this trend exists, and if so why?
MB I agree that it exists. Absolutely. I’m just against dystopia or post-apocalypticism being lumped in with Sci-Fi. I am not a Sci-Fi writer (Ok, with Amish/Sci-Fi I am, but still…). It is by accident of historical genre manipulation by companies that sell and categorize books that I am a sci-fi writer. I think there can be dystopianism or PA in Sci-Fi, but for the most part realistic dystopian and PA titles should not be considered Sci-Fi.
They are only considered Sci-Fi because there is world building, and usually it takes place in the future, and sometimes that imagined reality involves some technology that isn’t currently widespread.
Now, to answer your question. Why? Why is dystopianism popular today, and why is Sci-Fi really trending more dystopian? I think it is because we live in a world that is very troubling right now. There have always been pessimists, but I don’t think they’ve ever outnumbered the optimists. Not even close to doing so, probably. I think those numbers are probably growing closer together today. You know, I am a great pessimist, but I think I write optimistic fiction. Whereas someone like my friend Hugh Howey, who is a great and evangelistic optimist, seems to me to write more pessimistic fiction. If that strange scenario is what is really happening, then maybe more Sci-Fi writers today are actually very optimistic about the future of the world! It’s just that I’m not. Because I’m a pessimist (mostly).
MT I am very interested in the tools other authors use to create their works. Give us a rundown of what your writing space looks like. What are the tools you keep in your tool box? Are you a “planner” or a “pantser”? Is there anything you’re unhappy with or is there a feature request that you have for a particular tool?
MB I have a great work space. I have an almost 600 square foot office that is a separate building on my property. It is almost solely used as my work space. I have a huge library in my office, and I have a really ideal environment for creating. I live off-grid, so my office is powered by alternative energy sources (solar power and a backup generator). Ideally, I’d like to increase the amount of power I have available (for printers and perhaps some larger monitors) but I’m really happy with my space. I think I have all the tools I need, since I rely on some really talented people to do a lot of the graphic and formatting work.
MT Is there anything else you would like to say to our readers before we sign off?
MB I’m just glad to be asked to do this, and I appreciate the opportunity!