A Few Quick Questions With…Ian Shane

So, I just blathered on about Postgraduate, the great novel by Ian Shane. And now, here’s a little from the Man Himself in response to some questions I had for him. I hope you enjoy. For those keeping score at home, after a few Q&As of one of my theories being validated, I totally whiffed one here. I still liked the answer, just wish I’d asked a better question 🙂

Most authors have dozens of ideas bouncing around their craniums at once — what was it about this idea that made you say, “Yup — this is the one for me.”?
First, in the interest of full disclosure, Postgraduate is semi-autobiographical. For a while, I was running an Internet classic alternative radio station (which has been offline for a couple of years). During this time, I was having a hard time finding a story I wanted to write. There would be ideas here and there, but nothing ever developed into a compelling story. On a whim, I picked up a copy of Old Records Never Die by Eric Spitznagel. It’s a memoir based on Spitznagel’s quest to rebuild his lost record collection. Not copies of the albums he lost, mind you…the actual albums. His musical mid-life crisis inspired me to write about mine.
In the writing of Postgraduate, what was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV”.
I was really amazed at how quickly I wrote the first draft. I have a day job, so the amount of time I have to write is limited. I decided to track my progress on Facebook to keep myself accountable to my friends. The first night, I wrote 1330 words. The next night, I wrote 1557 words. Then it started to become a thing…how many nights can I write more than a thousand words? In the first week, I wrote 10,269 words. I started Postgraduate on October 25, 2017, and I finished the first draft on February 1, 2018. The total was 92,947 words in 97 days. I’ve never had a writing streak like that before, and I am not likely to ever have one like that again.
Danny’s reaction to the news that his favorite record store had closed (and some time ago), was one of my favorite parts of Postgraduate. Is it one of the semi-autobiographical parts of the book? Tell us a little about the store/its closing.
This is very autobiographical. There really was a Cats Record Store in my hometown (Evansville, Indiana). Cats was the place to find stuff from The Smiths or Elvis Costello. It was as I described it in the book…hardwood floors, cedar walls, and a general warm feeling when you walked in. There were two locations, on the east side and north side of town (the north side was the one I went to often). Not too long after I left town, my brother had told me that Cats had closed. I just assumed he meant the one on the east side. A few years later, on a visit to town, I decided to go to the north side and see what they had to offer. When I got there, I was grief-stricken to see the “For Lease” sign on the door. It really felt like a death.

However, showing that Cats had closed also served two subtler purposes. One, I wanted to have something unexpected to happen for Danny. It shatters the frozen-in-time, idealized image of the area around campus he had in his head. Something had to be not quite right, and that’s what I chose to be the missing ingredient.

And, as an aging Gen-Xer, I wanted to have an image of how people get music today, as opposed to how we did it when I was a college student. Hard copies, at least on a digital format, have fallen out of favor with “the kids.” I realize by saying this, I run the risk of sounding like the old guy who complains that a ticket for the moving picture show used to be only a nickel.

Why is it, do you think, that male readers respond so strongly to books about music? (your novels, Hornby’s, etc.)
I think it’s because guys (especially when we’re in our teens and 20s) have a terrible time expressing how we feel. I don’t want to get all “blame it on society,” but we were taught at an early age to not show our emotions—boys don’t cry (you know, kinda like that Cure song), and we have a hard time hashing out what was going on in our heads. It’s a thing of beauty when a songwriter reads our minds and says something more eloquently than we ever could and does it in 4/4 time. It grabs us and shakes us to our cores. In a way, music becomes a part of who we are. That’s the reason we made mixtapes to impress women. We couldn’t find the words to say we liked them and wanted to get to know them better, but Neil Finn could. So, we’d let him and the rest of Crowded House stand proxy for us for four and a half minutes.

When we read a book like High Fidelity or Postgraduate, we relate to using music as a primary coping mechanism (like Rob and Danny respectively) more than we get Heathcliff walking along the moors. While dealing with my last breakup, I listened to “Don’t Look Back in Anger” by Oasis on a continuous loop while drinking a heroic amount of whiskey. I didn’t spit out a two-page soliloquy while standing on my patio and looking at the moon. It’s just how we do it now.

I’d imagine that in a novel like this, it’d be difficult to keep from making Sam (the one that got away) an idealized woman, or Angela (the adulterous ex) into . . . an idealized harlot, I guess. Especially with this being written from Danny’s perspective. How do you walk the line?
I don’t really know if I thought about it too much while I was writing Angela and Sam. I just had a full picture in my mind who these women were…their wonderful qualities and their flaws. I had an idea of what made Danny and Angela work and what didn’t. The same was true with Danny and Sam.
Thanks for your time and willingness to let me badger you with these questions – again, I really enjoyed Postgraduate and truly hope that it finds the audience it deserves.
Advertisements

A Few Quick Questions With…James Bailey

I’ve had some really good Q&A’s this year — which is entirely due to those providing the A’s. Here’s one of the crème de la crème. Now I wrote about James Bailey’s book, The First World Problems of Jason Van Otterloo a week or so ago, but I didn’t have time to read and post about the sequel by today, its release date. So instead, I’ve got this little back-and-forth with the author to celebrate the release of Dispatches from a Tourist Trap. I’ll try to get something written about it by the end of this week, but I know better than to promise anything.

So sit back and enjoy this before you go to buy the book, which should have downloaded to my Kindle this morning. I’m going to go verify that as you read Bailey’s thoughtful and funny contributions below.

Most authors have dozens of ideas bouncing around their craniums at once — what was it about this idea that made you say, “Yup — this is the one for me.”? What came first, the choice to go for a YA story instead of your adult novels or the story idea?
I have so many Chapter 1’s on my computer it’s not even funny, so, yeah, I have ideas bouncing around all the time. Some of them never get any further than a few notes jotted down on a scrap of paper. The idea for Jason came to me while re-reading The Secret Diary of Adrian Mole, Aged 13 3/4 . I thought it would be fun to try something like that, but more modern. I went with email instead of a diary. I got the image for his parents from my neighbors, who are probably closer to Rob and Janice than most people would want their parents to be. They are prone to fighting, occasionally physically, in their driveway. Any time we see a police car in the neighborhood, we almost expect to see it stop in front of their house. As for Jason, I wanted a likeable (if sometimes mildly self-centered) protagonist. On my last novel, Sorry I Wasn’t What You Needed, I started with the concept of a borderline asshole for the main character. He was definitely selfish, sometimes worse. One of my beta readers tabbed him a sociopath. I did soften him a little after that. I wasn’t quite aiming for sociopath. And I think he grew enough by the end that readers wouldn’t throw stuff at him if they met him on the street. But for First World Problems I wanted someone more likeable, and hopefully Jason comes across as a decent kid.

As for the YA angle, I’m not always even sure what counts as YA. I suspect most YA books are read by adults at least as much or more than they are by teens. Is it the protagonist being young, dealing with teen trials and tribulations, or is it the reader being young? Is Nick Hornby’s Slam a YA book? (One of my favorite Hornby novels, btw.) For me, when I read something that falls under the YA umbrella there’s often a nostalgia factor in there somewhere, and sometimes a “man, I’m glad I don’t have to relive all that again” factor. But when you look back on your life, there’s something about those high school years, as good or bad as they were, that never fades. Most of us will remember life as a 14-18 year old much more distinctly than we will life as a 24-28 year old or 34-38 year old, etc. It’s a formative period. Still, once I finish off the series, I’ll probably go back to writing “adult” books. (Though when you say it like that, it sounds like adult films, which have a seriously different meaning.)

I honestly laughed out loud there. Also, I have to confess — I’ve never read Slam. I bought it when it came out, my wife read and enjoyed it. But the Hardcover is sitting on my shelf. I really need to.

Anyway, why did you choose to go with an Epistolary book? What are the specific challenges that come with it — are there specific benefits?

As mentioned in the first answer, I was riffing off Adrian Mole a little when I started this project. The first couple of drafts were all Jason. I didn’t work in replies from the other characters until later. A friend who read an early draft said it was hard to get a feel for anyone else’s personality as it was. I’m really glad I changed course, because it definitely allowed them each to show more of who they are. Drew, especially, but Gina as well. Want a challenge? How about telling your brain to ignore all the spell-checker issues when writing her responses. While I was editing the rest of the book to make sure the spelling and grammar was correct, I had to keep making hers worse. She was fun to write. I only hope everyone can decipher what she said.
Ugh! I meant to talk about Gina’s grammar and spelling — how could I forget about that? It was so nice to read intentional misspellings and atrocious sentences. I’ve read too much of both lately in theoretially edited works.

Why 2003? Why not something more current — or further back? (Feel free to mock any of my rambling about the time)

You answered this one yourself in your review, almost exactly. I had to freeze it back in a time period when it was still realistic that guys like Jason and Drew wouldn’t have had phones. If I had set this in 2018, everything would have been in texts. That would be horrible. As it is, it still requires a minor suspension of disbelief that they would write in complete sentences, but then again, they’re intellectual fellows. I could have gone a little further back in time, but not much beyond the mid-90s. Earlier than that and email would have been a stretch for the opposite reason.
I’ve often heard that writers, or artists in general, will forget hundreds of positive reviews but always remember the negative — what’s the worst thing that someone’s said about one of your books, and has it altered your approach to future books?
I now have a 1-star review on Amazon for each of my four books. Fortunately, those are the minority. I’m not sure about the “worst,” but I do have a stupidest. A guy gave my first book, The Greatest Show on Dirt, a 1-star review. All he said was, “not about baseball. Its a dumb story about people who work at a baseball stadium,” That’s it. Well, there’s a lot of baseball in the book. Not sure what he was looking for. But here’s the kicker. He’s also the guy who left a one-star review on my second book, Nine Bucks a Pound. For that one he said, “only started it. Not very good.” He posted both reviews on the same day. My question for him would be, if you didn’t like one, why’d you bother with the other? But you can’t respond to reviewers. There’s nothing to gain from it and a lot to lose. You have to just try to tune the negative ones out. Not always easy. Then again, if most of the reviews for a book are 4 or 5 stars, and someone posts a 1 star review, to me that says more about them than it does the author or the book.

And try to find a book on Amazon that everyone liked. My favorite novel of all time, A Confederacy of Dunces, has 221 1-star reviews. That book is brilliant. It’s hilarious, creative, the characters jump off the page. How in the world that all came together in one man’s mind just amazes me. But 221 people hated it enough to rip it on Amazon. When I see people saying “This isn’t funny,” about Ignatius J. Reilly, that tells me all I need to know about them. They have no sense of humor, whatsoever.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
If I thought hard enough about this, I’m sure I could come up with a handful, but the first thing that pops into my head is a book called Dinosaurs and Prime Numbers, by Tom Moran. And while I might wish I had written it, if I’m honest there’s no way I could have. It’s just too zany. It’s about a time traveling detective named Walton Cumberfield, who has to solve the mystery of why an old man broke into his house after Walton beats him to death with a Guinness Book of World Records (2008 edition). It’s a bit silly at times, and if you hate puns you might struggle with it, but it’s clever, creative, and fun. Walton reminded me in some ways of Ignatius J. Reilly (two Confederacy of Dunces references in one Q&A; is that a record?). There was a second book in the series, called A Debt to the Universe, that was enjoyable, but not quite as good.

I’ve loved time-travel movies and books since I saw Back to the Future when I was 15. I’ve toyed around with some ideas for writing one myself, but I haven’t quite hit on the right storyline yet. Maybe someday.

You care to give the elevator pitch for Book Two of the Trilogy? (and maybe a hint about Book Three, if you can)
Okay, I’m hardly kidding when I say it’s easier to write a book than it is to write a blurb about that book. I’ve finally finished rewriting the one that’s going to go up on Amazon, and you’re asking for an elevator pitch, which to me connotes something even shorter, so I’m going to hack it down slightly here. If you want the fuller version, you can find it up on Amazon (the book is available now for pre-order). Anyway, here’s my elevator pitch version:

Thanks to his parents’ separation, Jason is starting his sophomore year of high school in tiny Icicle Flats, a quaint Bavarian-themed mountain village three hours east of Seattle. This town has barely changed since Janice grew up there, and she’s only going back because she has a new boyfriend, who is also her new boss.

Leaving his friends is hard, but the worst part is leaving Sian, right when things were getting good. In between visits, they exchange a lot of email and phone calls, but long-distance relationships are always challenging, especially for someone like Jason who forever seems to be digging himself into a hole. Fortunately, Drew is just an email away. If only Jason would ever heed his advice.

Jason joins an after-school book club, where he hooks up with a couple of other students who love to push boundaries. Mayhem ensues, involving the school board, the town Christmas parade, and a pirate radio station. Who ever said life in a small novelty town would be dull?

As for Book 3, I haven’t started writing it yet, but I do have some ideas. Jason’s family will expand when Rob gets remarried and a new bundle of joy appears. Fortunately for his little brother, his stepmother is a competent adult, which brings the grand total to one in Jason’s circle. His relationship with Sian will be strained once more when she heads off to Ireland as an exchange student. Jason will learn how to drive. And Rob may see a UFO. For now, I’m envisioning the book covering the summer before his junior year (picking up where Book 2 leaves off) and running through the school year. But there’s a lot TBD at this stage.

Thanks for your time — and thanks for introducing me to Jason Van Otterloo.
And thank you, for your time and the opportunity to reach some new readers.

A Few Quick Questions With…Melissa Simonson

Okay, I’ve already raved about Lingering this morning (I haven’t written it yet, but it’ll be a rave, I know that much). And now we get to follow it up with a Q&A with Melissa Simonson, the author of Lingering and a handful of other things.

I really appreciate her taking the time — particularly because she doesn’t seem to like doing these. I understand that, but enjoyed her answers — I hope you do, too. I tried something new here, I gave her a thumbnail version of one of my working theories and let her respond. That was kind of fun, I think I’ll try that again sometime. I’ll shut up now and get to the good stuff so you can go buy some of her books after reading this.

Do I want to know how close to possible this book is? Actually, never mind, don’t answer this.
I’m probably the wrong person to ask about that. I can barely work Microsoft Word or smartphones so I’m a bit of a Luddite. Every technical thing I’ve so much as touched has broken, so I try to stay away for the most part. Though I don’t think the talk/text part of the Lingering business is too outlandish…
You’ve written a good number of books prior to that, and seem to bounce from genre to genre — is there a common thread to your work? Is there a genre you want to tackle, but haven’t yet?
Yes, I don’t restrict myself to certain genres….I mainly write in the “whatever the hell I want” genre. As for common threads, I really don’t know. I suppose I wander into the dark very easily, and they’ve all got that in common.
Who are some of your major influences? (whether or not you think those influences can be seen in your work — you know they’re there)
I’m such a bad interviewee, I never know how to answer this question. Of course there are authors and books I love, but I’m not sure whether they’ve got anything to do with my own. As far as Lingering influences go–have you ever seen Ex-Machina? Go watch it if you haven’t, but the second I saw that movie I was obsessed, and it was pretty much the source of my inspiration.
I’ve shared with you my half-baked theory — did you plant seeds for people to think that way, or was I just really out to lunch? (I expect the latter) Did you try to wave red herrings in the reader’s face to keep them off their feet? Or another way of asking this is — how do you go about keeping the audience guessing while being honest with them about what’s going on?
Well, if you’re out to lunch with that theory, you’ll be in good company. I’ve heard that from many people, and I can understand why you’d have thought something along those lines, though that idea never struck me when I was writing the book. RE: keeping people guessing, well, I’m afraid I don’t have a good answer for that, either. Half the time I don’t know what’s going to happen until about five minutes before I write it. I rarely outline and tend to go in with a foggy general idea, but that’s it.
I love the Kylie-Ben dynamic. Was Ben’s niece part of the novel from the get-go, or did you find a need for her later on? What on earth possessed you to have the two of them read The Art of War together? (I love it, don’t get me wrong, but that’s an odd choice)
Yes, Kylie was always around. I don’t know why I had them reading The Art of War, it just popped into my head and I ran with it. Is it an odd choice? Maybe. I’d considered striking the whole Kylie/Ben relationship because some people had asked me what the point of them is, but. I’m stubborn.
In my not-so-humble opinion, you need to stop listening to those people. But I digress. . .

What’s next for Melissa Simonson?

I have another work-in-progress on my hard drive, so I’ll be working on that just as soon as I get over the recent deaths on The Walking Dead and in between episodes of Game of Thrones. I lead a very exciting life, I’m sure you can tell.
Thanks for your time — and thanks for Lingering. I hope you find a lot of success with it.

A Few Quick Questions With…Ian Patrick

I won’t say that I saved the best for last — but I’ve saved one of the best for last. I’ve reposted my takes on his two gripping thrillers this week and now it’s time to hear from someone you can trust a lot further than DS Sam Batford. Not only is Ian Patrick a heckuva writer, he’s one of the nicest people I’ve interacted with online — always gracious and encouraging to me personally. That generous spirit is evident here, in addition to some of the best responses I’ve ever received to things I’ve asked. This is a great way to wrap up my involvement in Fahrenbruary.

Enough of my blather, on with a few questions for Ian Patrick.

Tell us about your road to publication — was your plan/dream always to become a novelist, or was this a later-in-life desire (“well, I’ve got to do something when I retire . . . “)?
It’s been a journey in excess of twenty years. I never planned to write novels and certainly not crime novels but circumstances, thankfully, led me to do so. I had to retire two years shy of my thirty year service as a detective with the police. About seven years ago it was discovered I had a very rare form of Muscular Dystrophy. It mainly affects my legs but there’s some upper body proximal weakness too. Not ideal when you’re in law enforcement! I know there are officers with disabilities within the police and it’s a fantastic thing that there are, but for me I couldn’t do the desk job side and decided it was time to leave and spend what mobility I have left with my family.

We relocated to Scotland from London and had a house adapted so I can use my wheelchair and also shower! Prior to moving I’d entered a short story competition with No Exit Press and got down to the final three. I figured I could write and the short story became the opening chapter of Rubicon. I submitted my work to Fahrenheit Press as I’d read their criteria, looked at my subject matter and just knew it was a great match. At the same time various agents were liking the writing but it wasn’t for them. Thankfully Chris discovered my submission on the pile when he was taking timeout for the weekend but wanted something to read. He’d read the first three chapters and took a punt on the rest entertaining him while he relaxed. I was a lucky man as he said yes.

Any road to publication isn’t easy, no matter what route you choose to do. It’s a path of: rejections, self doubt, challenge and introspection. However if the will to write is present it won’t leave you. I’m not of the ‘everyone has a book in them’ school of thought because of this feeling. If that were the case there’d be many more books out than there are now.

To write takes dedication, self belief despite the nagging doubt, discipline, tenacity and courage. Whether that’s a novel, blog, essay or diary, you’re putting a part of you out to the world. A world that’s a very harsh judge. Since publication Rubicon has gone on to be optioned by the BBC for a six part TV series that’s currently in development. I have also shared a stage with Val McDermid and Denise Mina at Bloody Scotland. Not bad for a guy who left school at 16 with nothing more than a, ‘good luck,’ wish from the head.

Your novels are so full of of rich and interesting characters, outside of Sam Batford — which character in Rubicon or Stoned Love was the most fun/rewarding to write and why?
Thanks for saying so, that’s an encouraging thing to read. I loved writing Stoner or Zara Stone. She was a wonderfully rich character to write. Full of self doubt yet coming across as confident in her criminal company. When I worked in London you met young women like her who were trapped by violent relationships, poverty and drugs and couldn’t escape the cycle as it was the only thing they knew and had grown up with. Their cycle of life just became the same as it was so tough to break the mold that circumstances and environment continued to create. As a society we can be too quick to judge those less fortunate and apathetic to wanting to instigate any real change. Change must start at an individual level in order for a wider community to see the benefits.
Batford seems to be an inherently unlikable/despicable character — he’s the kind of police officer that other detectives would work to bring down. I want to ask why you’d design someone like him — but instead, let me ask how much of a challenge is it to get into (and stay in) the mind of a character like that? And, how do you approach depicting a character like that in a way that you’ll get readers to want to spend time with him?
This is a very intuitive question. You’ve picked up on a real issue for me when writing about Batford and what he is capable of as a cop and human being. I can’t tell you how he came to be the way he is but that’s how he panned out as soon as I’d finished the first chapter. The protagonist could’ve been anyone but my mind ended up writing the last paragraph of chapter one with me sitting back thinking, “Hello, where the hell did you come from?”

It was as much of a shock to me as I don’t plan any of my work I simply write and see where it takes me. Once he was there I couldn’t go back no matter how I tried to soften his character it just didn’t work (and I did try it) I’m glad it didn’t as I think he’s a complex individual that readers have a love hate relationship with but they don’t despise him and strangely want him to carry on. At least that’s the feedback I’m getting from the reviews I’ve read.

He is tough to be with on a day to day basis though, even though he’s fictional. I was trained to see corruption and vetted to a very high level to make sure I wasn’t susceptible to turning by criminals. So writing about a corrupt man goes against all my core values. This is also what makes him a challenge to write and strike that balance where the reader has some empathy for him. I’m a believer in the principle of loathing a person’s actions rather than the whole person. Maybe that’s what’s coming out in my writing that makes him ‘acceptable’ enough to readers that they’re happy to read more. I guess that’s a question you could answer or throw out for debate, as I’m guessing!

Is there a genre that you particularly enjoy reading, but could never write? Or are you primarily a mystery/suspense/thriller reader?
I enjoy the works of Philip K Dick. I think he was a genius of his time and his writing still resonates today. I couldn’t write science fiction though as my mind isn’t creative in that way. I read widely across genres as you know from Jo Platt’s Rom-Com! It’s vital, as a writer, that I read widely as there’s some incredible writing out there. Just take a look at any Fahrenheit book and you’ll see that. I do love the writing of Ed McBain, Chuck Palahniuk, Cormac McCarthy, Saira Viola, Mike Grothaus, Jane Issac, Derek Farrell, Tony Cox, Seth Lynch, Paul Brazil and Jo Perry, to name a few. They all bring a unique voice to their work.
I’ve often heard that writers, or artists in general, will forget hundreds of positive reviews but always remember the negative — what’s the worst thing that someone’s said about one of your books, and has it altered your approach to future books?
Rubicon isn’t my first novel. My first novel was read by someone I know, who’s an editor and author who absolutely slated it. I mean, there was no shit sandwich, it was a brutal destruction that could’ve maimed a writer, other than me, to the point where they wouldn’t write again. I’m not made like that though and twenty-four hours later I was writing Rubicon the short story.

Here’s the thing.. I haven’t had a negative review in two years of publication! Don’t tell anyone, though! If I’m honest I don’t think I’d be the type of person to dwell on it. After all there’s plenty of books I haven’t got on with but that doesn’t mean the writing’s crap. It just means it wasn’t the book for me. That’s the beauty of words, in that everyone’s different.

This one’s not about you directly, but what is it about Fahrenheit Press that seems to generate the devotion and team spirit that it does (or at least appears to)? I don’t know that I’ve seen as many authors from the same publisher talk about/read each other’s books — or talk about the publisher — as much as you guys seem to. Is it simply contractual obligation, or is there more?
Definitely not contractual obligation! If it were I wouldn’t have signed as I don’t worship anyone! What you have with Fahrenheit is an indie record label vibe within publishing. So a core group of people will buy what the label produces as they know they don’t produce shit. From that word of mouth spreads and others join in. I’ve found crime writers, in particular, to be a friendly and supportive group of people. The type of people that can hang out together and have fun. You’re right, not every publishing house has a vibe like Fahrenheit. Orenda books is the only other that springs to mind but is totally different. Fahrenheit is unique in what they have created.

For me, what Chris has done is create a publishing house BUT let the readers and authors create the brand. Now that’s not easy for a man who likes to be in control. He’s expressed his core concept and beliefs and put that clearly on his website, much to the chagrin of some, but they wouldn’t be Fahrenheit people in the first place. Punk doesn’t mean aggression, hard, ruthless or conceited. Punk means freedom of expression, liberation, heart and voice. Everything Fahrenheit is becoming. What other publisher has Fahrenhista equivalents getting together to talk books from their publishing house? This isn’t me making it up, just ask Chris.

Thanks for your time — and thanks for the Batford novels, I can’t wait for #3 and hope you find continued success with them.
I’d like to take this opportunity to thank you for all the support you’ve given me and the thoughtful and open minded reviews you’ve written. Without good people like yourself indie presses wouldn’t exist. We can write as much as we want but it’s down to people like you to get the word out.

Finally you the reader. If you’ve got this far you’ve given up your precious time to find out a little bit more about what I think. But it’s just my opinion and you must feel free to take or leave as you wish. In a world of billions to have your time to listen is a very rare privilege. One I don’t take for granted. Many thanks for all your support.

A Few (more) Quick Questions With…Duncan MacMaster

So, a couple of days ago, I re-ran the first batch of answers that MacMaster was kind enough to give. He f̶o̶o̶l̶i̶s̶h̶l̶y̶ generously agreed to answer some more questions for Fahrenbruary, which enabled me to focus more on the Kirby Baxter books. Hope you enjoy his answers as much as I did. There is gold below, folks (maybe a little dross, too, but mostly gold)

Tell us about your background and road to publication.
Small town 80s kid, film school survivor, who spent an awfully long time doing crappy jobs and collecting rejection letter horror stories. I had written A Mint-Conditioned Corpse quite some time before it was published. Quite a few years in fact, and it was rejected by dozens of agents and publishers over those years. One publisher had said they liked it, but another book set at a comic convention hadn’t done well, so they were rejecting mine, even though it was a different genre.

For a long time it gathered digital dust in my computer’s files. Then I encountered Chris McVeigh and Fahrenheit Press on twitter. They started following me before I submitted to them, and then they participated in an open call on twitter for book pitches. I pitched them Mint, they and another publisher expressed interest. I sent a copy to both, and about a week later Chris emailed me, telling me that he was halfway through, and asked if I had any plans for a sequel. I said yes, and a day or so later he finished reading Mint and invited me to join the Fahrenheit family. Since then I’ve published two Kirby Baxter mysteries, Mint, and Video Killed the Radio Star, and a stand-alone thriller called Hack, all with Fahrenheit.

I’ve made no secret that I’ve become a giant Kirby Baxter fan — it took a whole 8% of the first book to make me one — where did Kirby come from?
Thanks for enjoying Baxter and his gang. As for his origins, it was mostly from frustration. I have a notebook in a box somewhere that contains a very rough outline for what was then called “Drawn To Death,” and it is a wildly different story. That version was more of a broad farce. In this version my lead character was a “comic book guy” stereotype. An overweight, obnoxious, socially awkward, all-together unpleasant character.

I looked it over, and it annoyed me. Because it was all just lame exaggerated situations and jokes built around that negative “comic book guy” stereotype. I didn’t want to build a book around negatives like that.

I then decided to start all over again from scratch. (Something I do quite often with projects) I decided to show that there’s more positives to geek culture than that guy you see on The Simpsons.

So I created Kirby Baxter.

I named Kirby Baxter in honour of Jack Kirby, and the Baxter Building from the Fantastic Four. I made him thin, geeky, charming, but in a slightly awkward way. Then I decided that he would need complete freedom of travel, so I made him accidentally rich. Then I realized that he needed some brawn to accompany his brain, as well as allies he could talk to, so I created Gustav, Molly, and then his pal Mitch. I also realized that it’s not easy for an amateur to butt in on a criminal investigation, so I made up Baxter’s status as a part-time “special consultant” for Interpol, which gives him some privileges, as well as many responsibilities.

The only thing I kept from that original outline was the setting of a comic convention, and “Dick Wilco” as the name of a reclusive comics legend who mentored Baxter.

Mitch is a very fun character (and I hope to see him again soon, hint, hint) — but I can easily see where he’d become “too much” and step over the line from “amusing comic relief” to “annoying secondary character” — how do you approach that kind of character? How do you keep him from becoming annoying?
Mitch acts as the Id to Baxter who is a very rational and sober character. Mitch blurts out the things Baxter will never say, make the mistakes Baxter would never make, and it’s a serious risk for someone like Mitch to go from being comic relief to a real pain in the butt.

One way to avoid that is to limit his appearances. Mitch is mentioned, but does not appear in Video Killed the Radio Star, but his role as the id of the story is taken up by a new character named Shelley Flugen. She’s a celebrity gossip blogger, and latches herself onto Baxter’s team in hopes of landing a big scoop.

While Shelley played a similar role to Mitch in her relationship with Baxter, she’s a very different person from Mitch. Where Mitch sees himself as a trickster, Shelley sees herself as a journalist and an investigator in her own right. Which leads to different situations and a totally different kind of comic relief.

Mitch will return, but it’s best to keep him in controlled doses.

I’ve often heard that writers, or artists in general, will forget hundreds of positive reviews but always remember the negative — what’s the worst thing that someone’s said about one of your books, and has it altered your approach to future books?
I’m not trying to brag, but I don’t really get many bad reviews. The worst thing that was said, was that someone described my book as “wordy.” Which is odd, because I tend to be pretty ruthless when it comes to cutting out needless words.

I try to avoid that sort of trollish negativity, because it’s just not worth it to let them run your life. If they don’t like you, or your work, they’re not your audience.

Last time, you said something about “a more experimental project examining male archetypes in crime fiction and the concept of the unreliable narrator.” Can you update us on that? Is there anything else your readers should be watching for?
My project about male archetypes and unreliable narrators is on the back burner right now, because when you write what I call a “puzzle box” story with multiple narrators, all contradicting each other, either by ignorance, or design, it can overwhelm you, and in this case another project jumped out and tackled me with incredible immediacy.

Right now I’m putting together a potential third Baxter novel that was inspired by recent documentaries that caused a lot of buzz on social media. This material is so ripe for satire, and for homicide. It was just too perfect for Baxter to pass up, and I have to act fast to capture that immediacy, that freshness. Strike while the iron is hot, so to speak.

As this Q&A is inspired by Fahrenbruary, I figure I should give you another opportunity to say something nice about your publisher and the culture around it. Or heck, go full punk and say something horrible about them.
The most horrible thing I could say about Fahrenheit is that not enough people buy Fahrenheit books. Seriously, they are a publisher who has something for everyone, the sort of diversity and variety you just won’t find with most of the big publishers.

Get out there and buy Fahrenheit books. Not just mine, but they’re a good way to start, but check out the whole catalogue. You will find something to love.

Was that punk enough for you?

Thanks for your time, Mr. MacMaster — and thanks for the great reads, I can’t wait to see what you have in store.

Fahrenbruary Repost: A Few Quick Questions With…Duncan MacMaster

Not only did the good people at Fahrenheit Press provide me with Duncan MacMaster’s Hack (which I just posted about), I got an interview with Mr. MacMaster as well! As usual, this is short and sweet, he’s got better things to do than come up with clever answers for me, y’know? Seriously, loved his answers. Give this a read and then scurry out to buy his book.

Would you like to give the elevator pitch for Hack? (for that matter, if you want to throw one in for A Mint Condition Corpse, that’d be fine, too)
The elevator pitch for Hack would be: A desperate man is hired to ghostwrite the autobiography of a washed up TV star with scandal in his past and murder in his future.

The pitch for A Mint Condition Corpse would be: A semi-retired artist’s trip to his favourite comic book convention is spoiled by murder, and only he can solve it.

Do you have experience as a Ghost Writer? Is Hack your way working out some demons? Or does it have a much more benign genesis?
I never specifically worked as a ghostwriter. I did do things like selling jokes to comedians (no one you ever heard of) so I know a bit about doing something that someone else gets credit for.

There is a certain amount of exorcism in the genesis of Hack. By the time I got to writing it I had spent a very long time getting metaphorically kicked in the head by the writing business. The joke market had dried up, and I spent years enduring rejections that ranged from the incoherent to the callous, and some career setbacks that were downright ridiculous.

As you could guess, those experiences left some demons that needed to be exorcised, and Jake Mooney, the hack writer of the title, did it for me. Jake’s had a life defined by setbacks and it’s made him bitter, cynical, and lonely. He sees being a credited author as a step towards some redemption as a writer, and solving the crimes as an attempt at redeeming himself as a human being.

Of course none of this was conscious while I was writing it. While putting down that first draft all I could think about was the plot, the characters and making sure everything made sense. I didn’t discover what I had done with Jake’s and my own hunger for redemption and validation until working on later drafts.

It was different with my first crime novel A Mint Condition Corpse. That started with a conscious decision to make Kirby Baxter, card-carrying comics geek, the Sherlockian hero instead of the comedy relief sidekick, and to use him as a vehicle to combine mystery with a satire of pop culture and the people who run it. Hack, has a lot more of my id running amok in it.

You’ve done a little in other genres, but your publications seem to be predominately in the Crime/Mystery genre. What is it about the genre that brings you back? Is there a genre you particularly enjoy, but don’t think you could write?
I’ve dabbled in science fiction, fantasy, and even horror, and I do plan to do more in those genres in the future, but mystery/crime does seem to have a grip on me. Probably because it deals with people who are at the extremes of their emotions, and also because it’s a genre that’s is still a wide open field when it comes to narrative possibilities.

I always credit my narrative style to SCTV. It was a sketch comedy show I watched as a child that parodied television and movies, and it taught me that popular culture is loaded with tropes and cliches that create expectations in the audience. If you know them and understand them, then you can use them to manipulate expectations to misdirect, surprise, amuse, and hopefully amaze the audience.

When I started reading crime fiction in my teens I began to see the patterns inherent in the genre, and started seeing how they could be manipulated to create something new and entertaining.

As for a genre I enjoy, but don’t think I could write….well, I’m not sure. I’m sure readers would tell me if I really screwed up. My bet would be on straight up horror without any sort of mystery to solve inside it.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
Don Winslow’s The Power of the Dog, a relatively slim volume that contains an epic inside. It sets a high standard that I hope to come close to some day. For the most part I tend to avoid reading fiction while I’m writing. I have a bad habit of inadvertently imitating whoever I’m reading. I wrote some truly dreadful pastiches while I was on a Lovecraft reading binge in my early twenties. All sorts of gooey overwrought eldritch nonsense.
This one’s not about you directly, but what is it about Fahrenheit Press that seems to generate the devotion and team spirit that it does (or at least appears to)? I don’t know that I’ve seen as many authors from the same publisher talk about/read each other’s books — or talk about the publisher — as much as you guys seem to. Is it simply contractual obligation, or is there more?
There’s no contractual obligation for camaraderie at Fahrenheit Press, or the House of Love, as our fearless leader likes to call it.

I can sum it up this way: Joining Fahrenheit is like joining a punk band in the mid-70s.

We don’t know what the future holds, or what we will achieve in the end. All we do know is that we are a band of misfits who are all doing what we love, we’re breaking rules and conventions that some thought were inviolate, and that we are all in this wild ride together.

Fahrenheit has been the best experience I’ve ever had in publishing, and I’m sure my fellow authors will agree with me on that.

What’s next for Duncan MacMaster?
I just finished the first draft of a sequel to A Mint Condition Corpse, called Video Killed The Radio Star, and the brutal editing/rewrite process awaits me. I’m also developing a more experimental project examining male archetypes in crime fiction and the concept of the unreliable narrator. I am even outlining a potential sequel to Hack called Hacked, where Jake goes Hollywood. I’m hoping to complete all these projects and make them worthy of publication as soon as possible.

What happens after that, is anyone’s guess.

Thank you for having me on your blog.

Thanks for your time — I really appreciate it, and hope that the Hack‘s release is successful (as it deserves).

A Few Quick Questions With…Sarah Chorn

So I just posted my thoughts about Seraphina’s Lament and now we get to hear from the author herself, Sarah Chorn. By the way, if you haven’t checked out her blog, Bookworm Blues, you should fix that. But before you do, read this. Chorn knocks it out of the park here.

I don’t know how to ask about Seraphina’s Lament short of handing you a dozen and a half spoiler-ific questions. And, boy howdy, do I have questions. Still, I hope you don’t mind if I don’t touch on the book too much – would you care to start things off with an elevator pitch?
I pretty much fail at elevator pitches. Here goes nothing. Seraphina’s Lament tells the story of a group of people trying to survive in spite of the fact that the world is dying, magic is changing, there’s widespread famine, and the government sucks. They are all tragically flawed and completely unready to face what is happening to them. Basically, I take a handful of the most unprepared, wrong-for-the-job people I could possibly dream up, and just push them and push them and push them until they break and then… things get interesting.
For what it’s worth, I think that’s a pretty good pitch.

While you talk on your site about a long-standing desire to be a writer, this is your first novel after years of reviewing and editing. Was it just a matter of coming up with the “right” story, or was there something that made you decide it was time for you to give it a shot? How do you think years of reviewing shaped your novel?

I think it’s a combination of a lot of things. First, I’ve written novels before, but they are all terrible. I mean, T-E-R-R-I-B-L-E. This isn’t really my first book, it’s just the first one I think is ready to see the light of day. The rest will live on eternally in some dark corner of my hard drive.

It was also a matter of coming up with the right story. All the elements were there, but it took me a really, really long time to figure out how they all worked together, and build the world (this took an absolutely insane amount of research) and characters. Once I had that all sorted, the book really just burst out of me.

I think editing and reviewing has been essential to my writing process. I’ve been reviewing for about ten years now, and editing for almost three. Editing and reviewing has taught me how stories are told, how sentences flow, how to use words, add details, build a world, keep a story moving and so much more. People talk a lot about how to write a novel, and I don’t think there is any one answer. We all do it differently. I can say, my book never would have been written, at least not the way it was, if it wasn’t for all that reading and picking-apart of books I’ve done over so many years. Knowing how words work, and how stories are shaped, was crucial to my writing.

I don’t want to ask “where do you get your ideas?” But combining a magic-filled fantasy world and a Stalin-esque character? How do you get to that? It’s brilliant, by the way, I can’t shut up about it.
Oh, I do so love my tortured Stalin-esque character. I had great fun writing him.

I do a weird thing when I can feel a story brewing in the back of my brain. I head to the library and check out just about every historical nonfiction book on the shelves that I haven’t read yet. About two years ago, this happened to be a bunch of books on Russia, the Romanov dynasty, Stalin, Lenin, and the Holodomor. Well, something in this mélange of books completely unlocked whatever was stewing in the back of my brain. Suddenly, these elements to this story I wanted to tell but couldn’t figure out just sorted themselves out.

Specifically, the Holodomor. It’s a tragic, horrible genocide that took place from 1932-1933 in Ukraine that I knew literally nothing about until I started reading books about it. In the process of reading these books, I came to the idea that sometimes events are so big, so powerful, so dramatic that they become characters in and of themselves, and so two characters in the book were born, both of whom represent the Holodomor. One, the physical aspect of it – the starvation and wasting away, and the other represented the more soulful aspect—a sort of loss of spirit and heart due to tragedy.

Eyad, my Stalin-esque dude wasn’t actually in my first draft. In fact, my first draft of this book was really dialed down on the communism and all these elements of the book. He never had a perspective. I think, if I remember right, I had some lord in a castle who never really had a face or even a name. Then, when I was getting ready to do my rewrite, I saw a tweet that said something along the lines of, why are all the fantasy worlds set in these medieval countries with kings? Where’s the communism? Where’s the industrialization? I read that tweet and I realized that communism was the entire aspect that was missing from this story, and I really, really needed to have someone driving the government. And you know, there aren’t many fantasy books featuring communist government systems so why not give it a go?

Insert my Stalin. Now, I humanized my dude a bit, and I took some liberties, but I really wanted to bring him to life, to show his perspective. Villains very rarely realize they are villains. Stalin was a horrible person, but he thought he was doing the right thing, and man, trying to bring that to life in Eyad was hard. There’s a scene in the book where he’s talking about grain requisition quotas and it just about killed me to write that because I’d read about it. Stalin had to know what he was doing, but he did it anyway, and in the process, he damned millions and millions of people who didn’t deserve it.

It took a ton of research to write all of this. I’ve got a series of books on Stalin on my bookshelf that clock in at a grand total of 6,000 pages, and that’s only a fraction of what I’ve read on him. Probably equally as much about communism in Russia. There aren’t as many books about the Holodomor, because the research is fairly new and it is, unfortunately, not an acknowledged tragedy to most of the world, but I read every bit I could get my hands on, and talked to some people who either survived it, or had relatives that did.

The magic itself came about because I’m personally fascinated by the idea of elemental magic, but not the kind where you point and fire shoots out of your finger. Man has been controlling fire for as long as we’ve existed. I’m fascinated in the idea of, what happens when fire controls man?

When it came to writing Seraphina’s Lament what was the biggest surprise about the writing itself? Either, “I can’t believe X is so easy!” or “If I had known Y was going to be so hard, I’d have skipped this and watched more TV!”
I was really amazed by how much research I had to do into the Holodomor, communism, and Stalin in order to write this book. I use barely a fraction of what I learned, but once I got started writing, I realized that in order to put so many things in context, I had to understand what happened before. I had to know about the things that laid the groundwork for this particular situation. For example, you can’t understand Stalin without understanding Lenin (and life in Georgia). You can’t understand Lenin until you understand elements of WWI, and Tsar Nicholas. You can’t understand Nicholas until you understand the two Tsars before him (at least). And then I had to understand how all of this impacted the average person living in this area of the world, so I ended up falling down all these really wild rabbit holes about village life in Russia, and turn-of-the-century Russian culture.

I had to do this with Ukraine, as well. In order to understand the Holodomor, you’ve got to understand the politics in Ukraine, into the relationship between the Ukrainian people, and the Russian people (which goes back well over a thousand years and is really, really interesting). I had to learn about how Ukraine is the breadbasket of that region (and the gateway to the West), with fertile soil and lush crops, and how the insertion of Stalin’s obsession with modernization fundamentally impacted life, cultures, and traditions. I had to read about land owners, and village life, and so much more.

All of these things mixed together to give me a ton of context that I could use to hopefully give events in my world a bit more grounded, well-rounded look to them.

What’s the one (or two) book/movie/show in the last 5 years that made you say, “I wish I’d written that.”?
I have a toddler and a seven-year-old. The past five years of my life has been filled mostly with Paw Patrol and Peppa Pig.

This is going to be a boring answer, but there are a lot of authors I admire and learn from, but I’m glad they’ve written the books they wrote because those books just need to exist, and I probably couldn’t have done it half as well as they did.

Lastly, I (mostly) jokingly told your publicist that I’d read the book because it was probably the best way to get that cover image out of my mind. That’s one of the most striking covers I can remember – did you have any input on that, or did your designer just hit you with it? I don’t know how to ask something coherent about it, so let me just say – what would you like to say about the cover
Pen Astridge is the bomb. Seriously. I sent her the first few chapters of my book (which I ended up rewriting in edits). She asked for some inspiration, if I had any, and I basically drew a blank. I told her something along the lines of, “basically everyone dies and it’s really dark so just death this sucker up.” I think I attached a picture of a dead tree and some skulls, too. I mean, I impressively suck at that sort of thing. Somehow, Pen took all that total crap and then handed me this book cover.

I say it in my acknowledgments, but I’ll say it here, too. Everyone should hire her. Pen is the absolute best in the business, and I am beyond lucky to have her create my cover. It was better anything I could ever imagine and exactly what the book needed.

Thanks for your time, I hope you nothing but success with Seraphina’s Lament and I hope the work on volume 2 is going well.