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INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with William Hertling

Hertling2012_headshot-200x300William Hertling is the author of Avogadro Corp, A.I. Apocalypse, The Last Firewall, The Turing Exception, and the upcoming Kill Process. These near-term science-fiction novels explore the emergence of artificial intelligence (AI), the coexistence of humans and smart machines, and the impact of social reputation, technological unemployment, and other near-future issues. His novels have been called “frighteningly plausible,” “tremendous,” and “must-read.”

Hertling’s Singularity Series novels have been endorsed by and received wide attention from tech luminaries including Harper Reed (CTO for the Obama Campaign), Ben Huh (CEO Cheezburger), and Chris Anderson (CEO 3DRobotics, former Editor-in-Chief Wired).

His first novel for children, The Case of the Wilted Broccoli, was published in 2014.

 Hertling grew up a digital native in the early days of bulletin board systems. His first experiences with net culture occurred when he wired seven phone lines into the back of his Apple IIe and hosted an online chat system.

 A frequent speaker on the future of technology, science fiction, and indie publishing, Hertling has spoken at SXSW Interactive, Defrag, OryCon, University of Colorado, Willamette Writers Conference, and many other conferences.

DC: Will, thanks so very much for doing this interview. Did you start off wanting to become a writer, or did you stumble into it?

WH: I very much stumbled into it, although, in retrospect, there were a few hints ahead of time. In college I helped write and publish a set of computer manuals. I started blogging in 2003, and also wrote a magazine article that year. In 2007 or 2008, I learned about NaNoWriMo, and started a non-fiction book about the business use of social media. I abandoned that project about 35,000 words in, when I realized just how difficult non-fiction writing is.

Then in 2009 or so, I read two books back to back, Accelerando by Charles Stross and The Future is Near by Ray Kurzweil, that set my mind abuzz with thoughts of the technological singularity, the point where AI exceeds human intelligence. I noticed a gap in science fiction novels: some assumed strong AI existed, and others ignored the singularity entirely, but very few deeply explored the point of emergence and its impact on humanity.

I had the idea for Avogadro Corp over lunch one day, and daydreamed about it for six months. I took the month of December off work and wrote the entire first draft.

DC: Your four-novel Singularity Series, which began in 2011 with Avogadro Corp and concluded last year with The Turing Exception, is a deep dive and a wholly fresh perspective on the so-called technological singularity. The books in this series have sold 75,000 copies and racked up over 1,300 reader reviews with a 4.5-star average, putting you in the front ranks of success for a self-published indie author. How did you crack the tough nut of marketing and reaching visibility in a crowded marketplace?

WH: I reached out to friends and family, letting them know by any means possible that I’d published: email, Facebook, and Twitter. For these people, it was not so much selling them on the strength of the book, but conveying the excitement represented by this milestone in my life. Many people want to be supportive, but don’t know what an author needs, so I asked specifically for people to buy the book, tell friends, and post reviews.

Learning from those early experiences, I refined my website, book description, and how I asked for help. Then I reached out to more distant connections and potential influencers (other bloggers, for example). I created business cards, and handed these out at conferences. At this point I was selling 1-3 copies a day, maybe 150 books in total.

One of the most important elements of my marketing was using very finely tuned Facebook ads to reach fans of niche authors I was similar to in writing style and topic. I experimented with variations of text, images, Facebook targets, pricing, and landing pages until I finally hit on a few mixes that sold books at a profit. These ads sold an extra 5-8 copies a day, and I reached about 500 books in total.

Every success involves elements of luck and timing. But just as you can, for example, maximize the likelihood of meeting a movie star by moving to Los Angeles, you can also increase the odds of serendipity. This early phase of marketing, where you’re trying to push out a few copies a day, is mostly about maximizing the chance of acquiring a reader who is also a significant influencer.

In my case, that significant influencer turned out to be Brad Feld, a well known and highly regarded venture capitalist, who happened upon my book and blogged about it, letting a large number of about it. Soon afterwards, I was selling thousands of copies a month.

Since then I’ve continued marketing through newsletters, blogging, speaking at conferences, and experimenting with occasional ads on Bookbub and elsewhere.

DC: This series is high-intensity, core Science Fiction. It’s highly original, packed to bursting with ideas, and cracks along at a ferocious pace. But despite the series’ huge success, very few SF readers know your work, and most of your readers are people working in the tech sector. Why is that?

WH: I tried several marketing approaches that failed, including sending books to newspapers and soliciting reviews from mainstream science fiction reviewers. Both of these suffer from difficult competition because everyone wants to be reviewed there, so the actual chances of getting reviewed are quite low. Even if you do manage the occasional review, readers of the publication are inundated with daily book recommendations, so few purchase any given book.

When Brad Feld wrote about my novel, which led to other venture capitalists, CTOs, and CEOs of tech startups reading and talking about the book, I asked myself what these people had in common. It took a solid month of deep thinking before I realized the common thread was a deep interest in technology, especially where tech in going in the future.

So although my books are science fiction, and even more specifically science fiction about AI, I think of them really as exploring the theme of future technology’s impact on people and culture, whether that is AI or anything else. Once I had this realization, it helped me solidify my marketing. For example, I reached out to Brad Feld and offered him a guest post on my techniques to predict the future. The result, How to Predict the Future1, reached hundreds of thousands of people, and was the number one Google search result for that term for quite a while.

By focusing my marketing around on the themes of my writing, rather than the genre or specific topic, I’m tapping into a very different conduit to reach readers. That my book happens to be science fiction is somewhat besides the point –conceivably I could write about the same themes in a non-fiction book, and my readers would still be interested. In addition, since the influencers in this group aren’t out there recommending books every day of the week like a book review blog does, when they do make a book recommendation, it stands out, and more people buy it.

DC: A year ago, a number of leading figures in the tech and scientific community, including Elon Musk and Stephen Hawking, publicly sounded alarm bells over the rush to develop strong AI, and suggested that we might be building something more dangerous than nuclear weapons. Where do you stand on this?

WH: The potential for danger is definitely there, although Terminator-like doomsday scenarios are at the bottom of my worry list.

At the top of my concerns is that AI becomes increasingly in control of the infrastructure of the planet, such that the impact of a widespread technology failure becomes much more significant. As time goes by, civilization becomes more technology dependent. For example, we can’t maintain the current standard of living for the current population based on 1950s technology, because the older technology is not efficient enough. Project twenty years into the future: if we’re dependent on AI to manage all our infrastructure to maintain a given standard of living for the population, and then we have a catastrophic failure of AI for whatever reason, we’ll be plummeted into darkness – quite literally.

Also worrisome is the scenario where AI becomes vastly more intelligent than us and decides the best way to keep us in check is to manipulate us. We’re already so vulnerable to manipulation by the media. Imagine how much more vulnerable we’d be if every communication is AI-mediated and altered. Look at Facebook’s experiment of how altering what stories were in a person’s feed affected their happiness. Very subtle stuff leads to significant impacts.

At the same time, there is potential for greatness from AI. The promise of nanobots for human health and longevity, custom DNA tweaks, and many other ultra-high-tech promises, including greater resource and energy efficiency leading to a sustainably-managed planet, are much more likely to be developed if we have strong AI here to assist us. So we can’t turn our backs on it either.

The problem is that, unlike nuclear weapons which we’ve succeeded in restricting to governments, strong AI will be accessible to anyone. Even if 99% of AI use is beneficial, it will take only one disgruntled hacker operating in their basement to build a malevolent AI. Look at the recent Microsoft AI chatbot that was unleased, where, within 24 hours, the community had managed to get it to spout racist propaganda supporting Donald Trump and Hitler.

DC: In your first, amazingly prescient book, begun in 2009, you posit the accidental emergence of strong AI from a language optimization program called ELOPe which was created to improve email. In the last few months, both Google and now FoxType have launched software to help users optimize their email. Given the current state of AI research and the hardware available and under development, do you believe strong, self-bootstrapping AI is a real possibility in, oh, the next decade, or even at all?

WH: I think it’s possible, although not particularly likely in the next ten years. Ray Kurzweil is well-known for his projections of when we’ll see AI which compare the processing power available in computer chips with the power necessary to simulate the complexity of the human brain.

I used his calculations as a starting point, and did my own comparing a wider range of input values. What I found is a variety of scenarios that depend on three key dimensions.

One dimension is complexity of the human brain. At one end of the spectrum is the assumption we can implement intelligence more efficiently than nature, and at the other end of the spectrum, that we can’t understand intelligence at all, but rely on brute force simulation of nerve cells. My perspective is that we’re not going to be more efficient than nature, at least, at first, so we’re looking at the more complex, brute force scenario.

The second dimension is processing power. One end of the processing power spectrum concerns itself with what an individual has available to them in their home, while the other end of the spectrum takes advantage of massive parallel computing power available at organizations with Google-like resources.

Finally, you have the dimension of time, and the increasing processing power available to us as chips get faster. (Aside: For those concerned about the end of Moore’s law, do a quick calculation of the total personal computing power an individual has, rather than that residing in a single processor chip, and you’ll notice the total is still increasing on the same curve it was before. It’s just distributed among more devices now.)

Plotting these three values, and looking at the extremes, we end up with an Avogadro Corp-like scenario around 2015, where all the computing resources of a big company are brought to bear on a single AI, and at the other end, a hobbyist implementing an AI around 2045 on the computing power available to them personally. I wrote an essay for IEEE several years ago about why I think widespread involvement tends to accelerate technological progress2, like it did for recommendation engines with the Netflix Prize, so I’m again biased toward seeing faster AI development when the necessary computing power becomes available to the common person.

In sum, my two biases (believing we are unlikely to be more efficient than nature, and we need widespread involvement) make me think we’ll see the first true, strong general purpose AI sometime after 2030, but certainly by 2045.

DC: Your Singularity Series looks hard at the challenges of having biological humans and transhuman AI sharing a planet. If we arrive at strong AI by building machines that think and explore ideas and refine outcomes in the organic way humans do, using neural net and deep learning approaches as opposed to simple, linear software, do you think it inevitable that AI notions of ethics and morality will range across the spectrum from “good” to “evil”, just like our own? Or are we anthropomorphizing?

WH: If AI has free will and the ability to affect the world, it must embody some concept of ethical behavior. Even no consideration for ethical behavior is a form of ethics.

The trolley problem3 is a classical thought experiment in ethics. Pose the problem to different people, and you get different answers to what is the “right” behavior. There are hundreds of variations on that one problem alone, each representing more nuanced ethical considerations. And that’s an exercise in ethics that doesn’t take into account the messiness of real life.

You can look at the current state of American politics to see that two groups, each behaving ethically according to their own standards, thinks the other group is not merely unethical, but actually evil.

Since we humans have no one definition of ethical behavior, we certainly can’t expect AI to behave according to some absolute scale. Whatever ethics are designed into the AI by their human creators, we can be sure that some people will consider them good and some evil.

On the other hand, over time, AI may converge on a single definition of ethical behavior over time more readily than humans do, because I suspect they are more likely to rely on utilitarianism as a guiding principle.

DC: So, blue pill or red pill?

WH: Oh, red pill definitely. I can’t tolerate the notion of having reality hidden from me. One of the most terrifying scenes I’ve ever read in science fiction was from The Unincorporated Man, in which you get to see what happens when the entire human race takes the blue pill. I still have concerns over what happens when fully realistic, immersive virtual reality is created.

DC: When I was a teen, back in the late sixties and early seventies, it was widely predicted that increasing automation would quickly bring about a “leisure revolution”, and there was a great deal of concern about how people would adapt to working much less and having lots of free time. Of course, nothing remotely like that has happened and we’re all working much harder and seem to have far less leisure time than ever. What went wrong?

WH: As someone who is juggling parenthood, a day job in tech, and writing, it’s a little hard to get perspective on this question. I work hard partly because I must, and partly because I enjoy what I do. Leaving my personal situation aside, I think there are two trends that together create the current environment. One caveat: My answer is probably very US centric.

First, we have the rich taking a larger and larger percentage of the pie. For the majority of people, there’s no option but to work harder and longer because they aren’t getting paid a living wage for the work they’re doing.

Second, we have a higher standard of living including basic expectations that didn’t exist in any form in the sixties and seventies. We didn’t have cable, computers, or Internet, eating out regularly, prepared foods, or even one car per household, let alone person.

The default behavior for most people is to want it all, both materially and experientially, which crowds out any opportunity for true leisure.

On the other hand, I’ve seen people turn their back on our modern, consumer-oriented, entertainment-focused culture and live a much more basic lifestyle, and by doing so, they’re able to work part-time or live off savings. This voluntary simplicity requires a conscious, ongoing choice in a society that encourages consumption. It should be noted that this choice is a privilege of those making at least a reasonable income, although I’ve seen people at all levels of income, including part-time, minimal wage workers, make decisions that prioritize financial independence over more stuff.

In sum, I’d say the majority of people tend to prioritize material acquisitions and buying leisure experiences, like eating out, over actual leisure, like enjoying a home cooked meal with friends. Still, this choice is a privilege afforded to increasingly fewer people because of the ever greater diversion of wealth to the ultra-rich.

DC: As well as having three young children, you work fulltime in the tech industry and are a productive and successful author. What do you do for leisure, Will?

WH: Every writer juggles at least two different roles: the creative side of the house where they write new material, and the business side of the house, which is interrupt and deadline driven. Indie authors spend even more time taking care of the publishing side of things. One of the worst feelings is when I have a precious day free to for creative writing, and I end up burning it all taking care of overdue business tasks.

So doing the actual creative writing is one of the things that feels most like leisure to me, because I get so much enjoyment from it.

I’m also fairly delighted to be able to take a walk while listening to music, whether that’s an urban exploration or a nature hike. I also love connecting with the writing community in Portland in person. We have so many interesting people on all different stages in their writing careers with different objectives. It’s fun to get to know folks and celebrate their victories with them.

Other interests are on temporary hiatus, probably until I’m able to leave my day job. Some of these are live music, RC planes, and more involved video games. I’d also love to play with robotics.

DC: Are you a gamer? If so, which games do you enjoy?

WH: On and off. It depends on where I am in my writing, and how much else I have going on.

My favorite game of the last few years is Kerbal Space Program, which an insanely epic space simulation in which you get to build rockets and explore the solar system. I play in creative mode, set different missions for myself, and have just one rule: No Kerbal left behind. One specific Kerbal that’s my favorite has visited every body in the solar system.

I play with a life support mod that means the Kerbals will die if I don’t replenish their air, food, and water. I found myself playing what amounted to my own version of The Martian when a mission to Eve went awry, and rescue mission after rescue mission failed or led to more problems. Two Kerbals “volunteered” to leave the ship and walk off into the distance so as to leave enough life support supplies for the last Kerbal to live. I post journal entries to an online writing community that read like fan fiction short stories.

 DC: What do you read? Any favourite authors?

WH: Cory Doctorow is my favorite author by far, and there’s no greater delight than getting to read one of his new novels. I read mostly science fiction, although I also have a sweet spot for thrillers like the John Rain novels by Barry Eisler. I reread the classics of 1980s cyberpunk frequently. One of my favorite books of that era that’s often overlooked is Walter Jon Williams’s Hardwired which has left me with visions of armored hovercars for decades.

Reading is unfortunately one of those things that’s taken a hit due to the time I spend writing, and probably also due to time spent on the Internet. I read some research a while back that demonstrated we train our mind to a certain length attention span. By doing so much short-form interaction on the web, we’re reinforcing the pattern of paying attention for shorter and shorter periods of time. This makes it really hard to sit down and read a novel.

One of my goals for 2016 is to spend more time reading. I just finished The Handmaid’s Tale by Maragaret Atwood, which is a very powerful, devastating novel. In light of the current Presidential candidates, I found it terrifying to read. Right now I’m reading Flatland.

DC: Tell us a little about The Case of the Wilted Broccoli.

WH: My kids begged me to write something they could read. As a kid, I had a particular fondness for detective novels like The Hardy Boys and Encyclopedia Brown. I especially enjoyed novels in which the kids did everything and adults played only a minor role. So I knew these would all be elements of whatever I would write.

Then, a few years ago, the third element hit me when I was at my first Cory Doctorow appearance. Although adults probably form the bulk of his readers, Cory gears his books towards teen readers as well, and every one of his novels is an education on principles of technology, government, privacy, and power. At the event, there were several young teenagers in attendance, and several asked questions during the Q&A after his talk. It was really moving to see these people who had clearly been affected by his writing.

That made me realize that if I was going to write a novel for kids, I wanted technology to feature prominently in it, and the kids fully empowered as technology creators, not just users. So a subplot woven throughout is around the school science fair, and the kids use their project, a homebuilt drone to help solve a mystery.

DC: And your favourite food or meal is…?

WH: I’m especially fond of izakaya, which is Japanese bar food. I tend to put whatever food or drinks I’m passionate about at the time into my writing. If I happen to revisit an older book I wrote, it’s fun to remember oh yeah, this was when I was having a martini phase, or here’s where I started drinking whiskey.

DC: Although—or perhaps because—you work in tech, some events in your series, especially in book IV, The Turing Exception, suggest strong sympathies, even a yearning, for a simpler, back-to-the-land, communitarian lifestyle. Would you like to live in a simpler world?

WH: Around the turn of the millennium, I had an intense interest in environmentalism, especially the role of individual choice in our lifestyles, which was partly motivated by a series of fantastic discussion courses from the Northwest Earth Institute4. I was mostly vegan for a while, sold my car, reduced the amount of technology around me, and spent a lot of time with people looking for an escape from consumerism. I had several brief but amazing encounters with intentional communities.

Although I’m very attracted to all of that, I also can’t ignore the part of me that’s passionate about technology, the web, and online communities. At first glance, it’s difficult to embrace both perspectives. Many in the voluntary simplicity and intentional community movements want to minimize the role of technology in their lives, while many in the tech community embrace it whole-heartedly without any thought of what makes sense to bring into their lives.

I’d love to figure out the middle ground. I don’t think simplicity has to mean living in a cabin in the woods, although I see the appeal of that. It can mean being selective about what we choose to have in our lives.

Another possible model of embracing both comes from one of my favorite people, Gifford Pinchot III, who is a cofounder of Pinchot University, a sustainable business MBA program. When I first met him I noticed he had no leisure time whatsoever and worked every minute of the day. I asked him how he sustained that pace. His answer was that he worked very hard for ten months a year, and then spent two months a year living off-the-grid on a nature preserve in Canada, chopping wood, hiking, and drumming.

DC: How do we get there from here?

WH: I’m not sure. I have some hints of things I suspect are important.

Everyone needs some exposure to voluntary simplicity or intentional community. Even if they ultimately choose not to live that lifestyle, just being aware of it as an option, and having a vocabulary to be able to talk about it is important. Most people don’t even know that they have, by default, taken the blue pill. They’re in the matrix as defined by popular culture.

We also need to show up to anything we do as our full, authentic selves. Too often we go to work, where we spend the majority of our functional hours with other people, and we only permit ourselves to engage on a very superficial, very safe level. Which means we end up spending most of our lives having very superficial and safe conversations.

But you don’t get any meaningful change or connection at that level. You have to be willing to be vulnerable, to show when you are afraid, to risk crying with someone or hugging them. One of the biggest travesties is the way work culture, by keeping everything “safe,” robs us of the opportunity for deep connection and meaningful engagement. I’d like to see people steal that back. We have to risk being hurt to also experience joy and love.

Tim Ferriss says many people keep themselves busy because they’re afraid of what happens if they suddenly have free time. They’re afraid of asking themselves if their life has meaning, if they know what they want to do with their lives, if they have the quality of relationships they want to have. It’s easier by far to stay busy and avoid those questions, and by all means, avoid making changes, which are scary.

Conversely, the more accustomed we become to addressing those issues, the less we fear them, because we eventually learn that usually things work out okay and we develop better skills for adapting to change. Then, from a place of less fear and greater competency, we can help the people around us go through their own life journeys.

You asked how we get to a life of greater simplicity, and my answer is we should all get to the life we want to live, whether that is simple or not, so long as we have the opportunity to be ourselves, to have meaningful relationships, and to do the important things we want to do in the world. Simplicity is one way to approach that, but it may not be for everyone.

DC: You’ve just completed a new novel, Kill Process, a tech thriller with a female protagonist, due to release in the coming months; I’ve read it, and it totally rocks. Can you talk about it a little to whet readers’ appetites?

WH: Angie Benenati, formerly a teenage computer hacker in the 1980s, is now a data analyst for the world’s largest social media company, Tomo. Struggling to cope with the aftermath of an abusive relationship she escaped five years earlier, she uses her access to everyone’s data to profile domestic abusers and kill the worst of them to free their victims.

This uneasy status quo is disrupted when she realizes that Tomo is, in effect, holding users’ social relationships hostage while systematically violating their privacy and control over their own data. Seeing too many parallels to the world of domestic violence, Angie decides she must eliminate Tomo by creating a new social network that ensures such a one-sided power dynamic can never occur again.

It’s a contemporary thriller with a blend of the startup world and computer hacking exploring themes of data privacy and ownership. The themes I explore stem from my interest in where power resides between people and companies, especially when the companies involved mediate our interpersonal relationships.

DC: Will, thanks so much. You’ve been a great guest and I really appreciate you taking this time with us. Is there anything else you’d like to add?

WH: It’s been a pleasure for me, as well. Thanks so much. For anyone who has enjoyed any of what I’ve said, please check out my books or sign up for my monthly mailing list, especially if you’d like to find out when Kill Process is available.

 

Notes

1 How to Predict the Future

2 Why I think widespread involvement tends to accelerate technological progress (IEEE essay)

3 The trolley problem

4 Northwest Earth Institute

 

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This concludes my Under the Covers interview series. Links to all the Under the Covers interviews are here

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INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Aliette de Bodard

Aliette fullsize-crop

Photo: Lou Abercrombie

Aliette de Bodard lives and works in Paris, where she has a day job as a System Engineer. She studied Computer Science and Applied Mathematics, but moonlights as a writer of speculative fiction. She is the author of the critically acclaimed Obsidian and Blood trilogy of Aztec noir fantasies, as well as numerous short stories, which garnered her two Nebula Awards, a Locus Award and a British Science Fiction Association Award. Recent works include The House of Shattered Wings (Roc/Gollancz), a novel set in a turn-of-the-century Paris devastated by a magical war, and The Citadel of Weeping Pearls (Asimov’s Oct/Nov 2015), a novella set in the same universe as her Vietnamese space opera On a Red Station Drifting. She lives in Paris with her family, in a flat with more computers than warm bodies, and a set of Lovecraftian tentacled plants intent on taking over the place.

DC: Aliette, thanks so much for letting me interview you for Under the Covers. There’s a lot of wonderful, atmospheric darkness in your long fiction, both in the Obsidian and Blood series as well as in your recent novel, The House of Shattered Wings. What’s the attraction of the dark for you?

AdB: I often say I’m not a horror fan–ironically, it’s not so much because the subject matter bores me, but because I’m very sensitive to it: on horror movie night you’ll find me hiding under the sofa. I think dark is an important thing in life, and I’m particularly struck by how the most innocuous situations can be a source of enormous creepiness. The House of Shattered Wings, in many ways, plays upon a familiar setting–Paris, where I’ve lived all my life–and turns it into a darker, more dangerous place.

DC: I find a very strong element of family and familial or clan relationships in your work. Why is this important to you?

AdB: I guess because family is important to me! There’s a tendency in Science Fiction, which I think comes from the “boys’ adventures” roots of the genre, to see family as a stricture that must be overcome in order to be truly free, or to go off on adventures. Often that becomes rather problematic: I was on a panel a few years ago on motherhood in SF, and most of the ones we could think of died very early within stories, or had already died before the stories started, with the exception of Lois McMaster Bujold’s Cornelia in the Vorkosigan saga, who is just made of awesome.

Whereas for me, family is also a comfort: yes, it comes with strictures, with ties that are harder to cut, but it’s also a comfort, a support network, a link to the past, and many other things besides. And it’s not only the nuclear family, but also the extended ones including aunts, uncles, cousins, grandparents…

DC: You work full-time as a systems engineer, you’re a fairly prolific writer, and you also have husband and a toddler. How do you manage it all? What suffers?

AdB: Currently? My sleep! It’s been rather hard to keep all the balls up in the air: I’d heard that the toddler stage was more difficult, but I hadn’t realised until it happened that toddlers were really a full-time job all on their own. It was fine until he became mobile, at which point all hell broke loose. (grins)  I try to do everything, but I also admit that there are going to be moments when I can’t, and when I need to drop some stuff and apologise for dropping so. With luck, it won’t be the really important, unmissable deadlines…

DC: What do you do for pleasure and relaxation?

AdB: I’m tempted to say “sleep” again! (laughs)  I read a lot, though a lot of this happens on my commute. I also like to cook: I have a “recipes” section on my website, and I enjoy taking things apart to see how they work. My last project was pizza dough, which was rather more involved than I foresaw: it turns out that I wasn’t kneading dough properly, and also that French flour is rather unsuitable for breadmaking purposes, but it took me a long time to work this out!

We also have a long-running tabletop roleplaying game with a bunch of friends, which is set in an SF universe; and we do regular board game sessions too.

DC: Which games do you enjoy?

AdB: I used to play video games fairly heavily, but sadly that didn’t survive the birth of my child. I tried several times to play games on my mobile, but they never seem to last for long. Now I do board games: current favorites are Shadow Hunters, which is a neat secret role/battle game that’s played in teams, and Mansions of Madness, a rather heavy Lovecraft board game that feels, at times, like a compressed roleplaying game where one player is trying to kill/drive mad/etc. all the other ones. I generally like big, fun games with a random element to spice things up, and also cooperative ones–teaming up with friends is a lot of fun.

DC: Your most recent novel, The House of Shattered Wings, was uniformly praised by critics but has brought mixed reviews from fans of your short fiction. The atmosphere is palpable, the focus tight, the characters and their relationships intense. My own guess—and I raved about this book—is that SF readers don’t easily adapt to or can’t appreciate what is essentially a Gothic novel in tone, albeit classifiable today as Dark or Urban Fantasy. Did you know you were taking a chance when you wrote this?

AdB: I’m very much aware that my novels are different from my short fiction, both in tone and in genre focus. I’m also very much aware that The House of Shattered Wings is overflowing with Gothic. Two big influences were 19th-Century French novels, and European-set manga and anime like Full Metal Alchemist, or Black Butler: I was fascinated, among other things, by the idea of taking what are, to me, quintessentially 19th-Century tropes and giving them a 21st-Century twist, overlaying themes of colonialism and post-apocalypse on my Parisian setting. There are common points with, say, the Xuya SF stories, but the shift is large enough that I expected people to blink; on the plus side, I also expected to gain new readers, and that seems to have worked.

I also knew it wasn’t the most commercial novel ever when I wrote it. However, my previous attempt to write commercial, an urban fantasy set in 21st-Century Paris, was such a dismal failure (lack of motivation on my part) I figured I’d at least go back to something fun to dig into, as far as I was concerned, and then see reader reactions, rather than try to engineer “commercial”.

DC: Do you think that publishers have trained SFF readers to expect fast-moving, formulaic novels, rather as Hollywood has done with SF and Fantasy movies?

AdB: For me, the notion of what is a novel, what constitutes a satisfying plot, etc., is something that is very context-specific. Methods of storytelling, for instance, are highly dependent on time period: the idea of a tight third person point of view, one such POV per scene, which has become a sort of golden standard for SFF novels, didn’t make much sense in, say, the 19th Century—where point of view was fluid and omniscient. They’re also highly dependent on place: a novel like Cao Xuequin and Gao E’s Dream of Red Mansions (China) is pretty different, in shape and in plot, from Stendhal’s The Red and the Black, which roughly dates from the same time period.

As to whether that context, in turn, depends on what’s published…I think partly? Some of this is due to social/economical/political considerations: the nostalgic tone of Dream of Red Mansions, for instance, comes from the decline of the Qing dynasty at the time the novel was written; the long, rambling chapters in Victor Hugo’s Les Misérables are here partly because the novel was published as a serial and he had to make wordcount for every episode. And some of it, in turn, is due to what people expect a novel to be—and this comes from published books. But to what extent I don’t know!

DC: What or whom do you enjoy reading?

AdB: Lots of people! In genre, recent stuff I’ve enjoyed has come from Yoon Ha Lee, Tricia Sullivan, Tade Thompson, Ken Liu, Zen Cho, Kari Sperring, Kate Elliott…. I also read a lot of crime novels: I’m still working my way through the Louise Penny Armand Gamache series, which are great psychological mysteries set in Québec. And I have a weakness for historical fiction—I haven’t read a lot of straight historicals lately because I’ve been satisfied with historical fantasy, but I still reread Dorothy Dunnett’s Lymond Chronicles every few years.

DC: I’m intrigued that your short fiction is almost exclusively Science Fiction whereas your novels fall squarely into the Fantasy genre. Can you say why?

AdB: Mostly because the science fiction novel I want to write would require a lot of research and I have no time! I want to write a Xuya mosaic novel; this would require me to brush up on Vietnamese in order to read some books and websites, and I’ve been putting it off for obvious reasons! Also, I find writing fantasy at short lengths really hard: I tend to want to cram a lot of worldbuilding into my stories, and for some reason, this seems to be easier with SF than fantasy.

DC: Many of your short stories, such as Weight of a Blessing, and even your recent novel, revolve around war. Why?

AdB: I’m a child of war. For starters, I wouldn’t be here today if not for war and its aftermath. But, as a result of this, I grew up always very much aware of the costs and consequences—of how bloody and painful and destructive the aftermath always is, often for years and decades after the war ceases; of how conflict impacts people who aren’t necessarily soldiers but are caught in the whirlwind regardless. And I guess a lot of it makes its way into my fiction.

DC: You live in Paris, which has seen two horrific terrorist incidents in the last year. Are you optimistic about the medium-term future and our ability to address the root causes of humanity’s current predicament, or are we looking at decades of turmoil?

AdB: I am not feeling very optimistic currently, I must say…. More and more, I’m wondering if, in Europe at least, we haven’t reached the failure mode of democracy: hard, long-term unpopular decisions need to be made to reform societies, but the politicians who make them are only elected for short periods of time and are therefore unlikely to do things that, short-term, are perceived as having negative impact.

We live, too, in an age of unprecedented information available, which is both a great success and a great failing: knowledge is no longer the province of the elite and can no longer be denied to people. But it is also tempting for everyone to think of themselves as experts, with costly results. See, for instance, the rise of the anti-vaccination movements, fueled partly by people ignoring medical consensus, and partly by the lack of memory–we have had herd immunity for so long that people, by and large, don’t remember what it was to die of polio or whooping cough.

DC: There’s been a lot progress in the field of Deep Learning systems. What’s your stance on AI? Are we going to see anything like self-aware systems anytime soon?

AdB: Algorithms and robotics have both made huge amounts of progress in past years, definitely–watching the explosion of the field has been very satisfying for me personally. Yeah, I’m a geek and I program stuff for a living! (laughs)

I don’t know if we’re going to see self-aware systems soon, though. Part of the issue, for me, is that the definition of “self-aware” is highly specific to us humans. I worked in Computer Vision for a while; and the fascinating thing, for me, was realising that there were a number of tasks that humans found trivial–like pattern recognition–that were extremely hard for computers. Conversely, a number of things we find really hard are easy for computers–like detecting a red balloon in a large, overcrowded swimming pool. This is because of the way they encode and process things, which is very different from our eyes’ and brain’s way of doing things! So for me, an AI would also be very different from us.

It would develop independence and a sort of conscience, but might well be going on a totally different path to us, probably with a notion of “self-awareness” that we wouldn’t even be able to apprehend. It’d genuinely be like talking to something alien, with a totally different base through which to filter reality, and totally different ideas and biases…but kind of totally cool, too.

DC: Do you think a Vingean Singularity, true AI, would be a good or bad thing for humanity?

AdB: Probably an interesting thing, but we would probably end up with something that had little interest in us–which could actually be a good or a bad thing depending on what it gets up to!

DC: You love to cook and also blog about cooking. What do you enjoy about it?

AdB: First off, I love good food, so obviously that’s a huge factor. The other thing is that I enjoy finding out how things work and doing things myself, two very important things when tackling recipes: I’m the kind of cook who always goes “what if” and tends to run live experiments, modifying recipes on the spot, sometimes much to my husband’s sorrow when I have a bit of a heavy hand with the chilies! I find there’s something really satisfying about preparing food: the gratification is instant, at least compared to novels when I have to wait for feedback for weeks and months, whereas with cooking I know within a couple of hours; and it’s also a nice break from my more intellectual activities.

DC: What’s your next writing project?

AdB: I’m currently writing The House of Binding Thorns, a sequel to The House of Shattered Wings which is still set in post-magical war Paris, but focuses on a different part–the House of Hawthorn, for those who’ve read the book. It should be, like its predecessor, standalone, though of course characters from The House of Shattered Wings will be making a comeback. It’s basically more Gothicness, more political and magical intrigues, and a lot more Vietnamese dragons, and it’s slated for a Summer 2017 release.

I’m aware that’s a long way off. For the impatient reader, there are also a number of short stories set in the universe of The House of Shattered Wings: see http://aliettedebodard.com/bibliography/novels/dominion-of-the-fallen/ for more details)

DC: Aliette, thanks so much for taking this time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?

AdB: Buy my books? (laughs) More seriously, my website http://www.aliettedebodard.com has short fiction, articles, and recipes in addition to semi-hemi-regular bloggage, so if any of these happen to be your thing…

 

Did you enjoy this interview with Aliette? Let us know with a comment!

Read my own review of The House of Shattered Wings (vol. I of Dominion of the Fallen)

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with, award-winning , bestselling romantic suspense and thriller author LORETH ANNE WHITE, live right here on Saturday April 2!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here

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INTERVIEW: Under the Covers with Sara Alexi

Sara -smSara Alexi is the bestselling author of the hugely successful Greek Village Series, a collection of stories centered on a small Greek village and its inhabitants.

Sara was born in Oxford, England. She has travelled widely and now splits her time between her home in England and a tiny rural village in the Peloponnese, where she is renovating a ruined stone farmhouse.

Sara began writing later in life. In school, English lessons were a time of confusion, and books indecipherable hieroglyphics. Dyslexia was not well understood then and no support was available.

Despite her dyslexia Sara qualified as a psychotherapist and ran her own practice for years. Her artistic nature was, at that time, confined to painting, and she exhibited widely.

When, during a casual conversation with a client, Sara discovered that Agatha Christie, Jules Verne and Hans Christian Andersen were all dyslexic, her perspective changed: the world of fiction opened to her and she has been a prolific writer ever since.

Each of the sixteen books in the Greek Village Series has hit an Amazon #1 spot. With sales totaling two-thirds of a million copies, this collection of tales provides a keenly observed, compassionate insight into the Greek people and culture, and the human condition in general.

DC: Sara, thanks so much for doing this interview. It’s very kind of you, and I hope our readers will find it fascinating.

You’re a psychotherapist by training. How does that factor into your writing?

SA: It factors not just into my writing but into the way I think now. Everything tends to go through this process of analysis, which I’m sure has really helped the books along because I can’t write about a character without making everything fit that personality, and sometimes I find that the character actually says, “you know, this plot you have planned, this character couldn’t actually do that.” (laughs) “It would be outside of their comfort zone, so let’s guide it in a way that works.”

So I think it’s a strong influence. But also my interest in human beings generally, I think that drives my writing even more strongly, so when I see something I feel is unfair to people, then I have to speak out. The combination of the two is what drives my writing.

DC: With the village as the constant, the anchor for your many characters, your work digs deeply into the nature of love and friendship, into the past and memory, and into the complex web of connections between individuals. Do you think people are essentially good, that there’s more light than darkness in the world?

SA: I absolutely think that people are good. I think all people are good. I think the only time that people are ever bad is if you push enough buttons hard enough that it forces them to do something to protect themselves. Part of the reason why I want to write these books is to make everybody realize that we’re all fantastic. (laughs) Even the ones that look grim, even they’re fantastic!

DC: I know you’re a big fan of both the Brontë sisters and Thomas Hardy. These are writers of dark, often melancholy works, and yet you’re an optimist. I find that intriguing.

SA: I think that Hardy and particularly the Brontë sisters both have real insight into human nature. Wuthering Heights is just a classic example of a woman that can’t decide between her dark and light side, and I think it’s done quite subtly. I’ve read it I don’t know how many times, and the more you read it, the more that subtlety comes through. And I think being able to see into characters like that, that’s what I really enjoy reading. I like Anthony Trollope—he’s another one who has a really god understanding of what makes people tick and why they interact with people the way they do. And he tends to delve into the dark side of human nature.

DC: He also wrote enormously long works.

SA: Yes. He also went into long series. Like The Barchester Chronicles, he took one set place and worked his way out from that. And I honestly think that—like me—he was just indulging himself. (laughs)

DC: You divide your time between Greece and England: which is your true home now? One, both, or neither?

SA: Oh my goodness, that’s so hard! Sometimes when I’m in Greece I miss parts of England; when I’m in England I always miss Greece. It’s a really tricky dilemma that I’m stuck with, I think. I’m just going to have to come to terms with it.

DC: So is it Gin and Tonic or Ouzo on the rocks with a splash?

SA: When in Greece it’s Ouzo not on the rocks…when in England it’s nothing, really. It’s a different atmosphere in England—as you know, you’re British. It’s got that drive, everybody’s going somewhere busily, whereas in Greece it’s much more reflective.

DC: Chance events figure very prominently in your books and storylines. Has chance played a large part in your life?

SA: I don’t think there’s any such thing as an accident. I think that chance is what makes all our lives happen. We all think we’re on a course, we all think we’re going somewhere, and then suddenly something might happen that takes us to another country. You might meet somebody, for example who takes us to a different country. We think we’re guiding our destinies, but I actually think it’s the interactions between people that decide the direction in which we go.

So the chance meetings—are they chance? Do we create that chance? I think we absorb much more than we think, and we create events that we don’t even know we’re creating. So you find the people that you need. Therefore are they chance meetings, or have you organized your life slightly so that you’ll meet the person that you need to meet? Or do you in fact take out of the people what you need, and therefore it’s not chance at all. Does that make sense?

DC: Yes, it does. I’m wondering if it varies from individual to individual. I’ve heard a lot of people say that the more open you are to things happening, the more things will happen to you, and the more good things will happen to you.

SA: I think everyone is open without realizing they’re doing it. I think we all just react to what comes into our lives; we all put out what we think we need, but I don’t think we all put out what will get us help in return. A lot of people give out vibes that get them what they don’t need, but it keeps them in the same position that feels comfortable.

DC: And when it comes to acting on what happens…Schopenhaeur said, “Man can do what he wills but he cannot will what he wills.” Do you think we really have free will or do our emotions and desires ultimately rule our decisions?

SA: I haven’t met many people who have such control over their emotions that they can make their own decisions. We think our emotions are under our control but they’re not, so they play a big part in making our decisions for us. I think over time you can drive a path that’ll make you take more and more positive steps…I think all human beings are trying to seek a place where they’re at their happiest and healthiest. Some can do it more quickly than others.

DC: What do you most love about the Greek people?

SA: (laughs) Ah! Where do we start? I think the Greeks are a passionate people, which I admire. They are very—they have two sides to them: a side that is very passionate and very humanitarian, and very loving; and they have a side that is very definitely about their own satisfaction and their own position in life. So they have this kind of dichotomy going on all the time—but it never fights, because what’s happens in the moment is the nicest thin, the thing that counts. And it’s that carpe diem, that seizing the day, they all do it! (laughs) And it gives a lightness to life, a pleasure to life.

DC: Spontaneity, then.

SA: It’s a spontaneity that’s based around really enjoying life; rather than striving for a future event that will make life better, they’re enjoying life in the moment.

DC: I know that you grew up dyslexic in a time where the condition was less well understood than today, and that made reading hard for you for some time. Still, you’re well-read in the literary classics and have written no less than sixteen novels in just five years. You wrote your first book, The Illegal Gardener, in just six weeks. Did you see your dyslexia as a challenge to overcome, and how did you go about that?

SA: Yes, it was rather odd. As if something came along that was bigger than my dyslexia. The dyslexia was very confusing for me. School was just time where I used to look around the class and couldn’t understand why everybody else just wasn’t as puzzled as me. But dyslexic people find coping mechanisms, and you find ways around questions and around things that other people don’t, and it gives you a slightly different view on life: you can look in through the back doors, while other people just look straight on.

But what happened in Greece was suddenly meeting face-to-face with this illegal gardener and seeing that his situation was so much worse than mine. I was in the middle of having to pack up to leave Greece because the economy was bad, and woe is me! I’m leaving my beautiful house! And all the rest of it…and there was this man on his hands and knees pulling up weeds. And I went out just to say, “Do you want a glass of water? Are you all right?” and I got talking to him.

He’d left Pakistan, he had a baby he’d never seen, and he had no notion of when he was ever going to get back there. And I suddenly thought—and this way before the current migrant crisis—I realized this man’s position was totally unknown, nobody was speaking out for them, nobody was doing anything for them. Some days he got paid, others he’d work and the person wouldn’t bother to pay him. It was always a question of whether he had enough to eat, and he had no way of raising the money to go home.

So at that point, my need to give this man a voice became bigger than my dyslexia. And then I just wrote. A lot of it was goobledygook, but going back over it I saw where it didn’t quite make sense; and my first editor is really good at understanding what I’m trying to say and unscrambling it, so he helped a lot. All credit to him.

DC: You had a rental business in Greece which tanked when the Greek economic crisis blew up in 2011 or so. You took to writing novels—something you’d never done before—as a way to make a living, and against all odds succeeded with your very first book, and self-publishing at that. Did you know when you set out just how slim the chances of success were?

SA: (laughs) If I had , I would never have started! I published my first book on my fiftieth birthday, and it just felt like a milestone, an achievement…halfway through, having every intention to live to be a hundred, you see? (laughs) And I thought, if I sell just one book, I would be delighted. But then—unbelievable success with that first book, beyond all hope. Even if I’d had a dream, it wouldn’t have been as big a success as it was. I’ve been tremendously lucky.

DC: You’re also very prolific.

SA: As were talking earlier about whether chance plays a role in our lives…. In Greece, as a woman, and a woman who doesn’t speak very good Greek, I didn’t have a voice, people didn’t listen to me. Neither gender listened to me: the women tended to think I must be rather stupid, and the men would just ignore me. There was even one occasion where I had some builders around and I was explaining to them in Greek what I’d like to have done, and one of them looked at the other and said, in Greek, in front of me, “Who is this?” and the other said, “Just call her the wife,” and walked off and ignored me. And they waited till my husband came home and asked him what I wanted, which was exactly what I said.

So it’s this not having a voice that meant, when I started writing, I had seven years of not having a voice, so it’s just all come out in book form.

DC: You published your first book in the Greek Village series, The Illegal Gardener, in 2012 and have since released fifteen more. As an indie author, you’re also responsible for all the production, marketing, etc. But you still find time to travel, and are very active on social media. How do you manage it all? Are you very disciplined?

SA: I think the word is driven rather than disciplined. Having finally found a way to have a voice, and that I can overcome dyslexia, the rest of it just feels like the right thing to be doing; it fits my nature, my character. Social media is invaluable to me. Exchanging voices with my readers is just incredible, because as you know, writing is such an isolating, solitary process, so if you can online and chat with some of the people who have read your books, you suddenly remember why you’re doing it, that the end result is going to make lots of people happy—it’s amazing motivation, a wonderful thing! And I go back to writing thinking, oh yeah, this person’s going to enjoy this, this person’s going to enjoy that…and I find myself putting things in that I know are going to titillate specific readers. (both laugh)

DC: What do you do for relaxation and diversion?

SA: That’s a good question. I do like thrashing my husband at tavli—Greek backgammon—which I do quite well, and I walk. I really enjoy walking—walking and talking, really—because I walk until I find someone and then I talk to them, and that tends to just fill me up with new ideas, I get interested in their character….so yeah, just pootling about life when I’m not writing.

DC: Your muse is a generous one. Very few adult novel series get into double digits, yet The Greek Village series now numbers sixteen books. In the latest, you’ve brought back Aaman, a much-loved early character, and also introduced a new setting.  Do you see yourself continuing this series, or do you have an end in sight?

SA: I did wonder if the end was in sight, and when I hesitantly made that move to write about England in Saving Septic Cyril, although it’s been well-reviewed—the reviews have been mindblowing; I don’t think it’s received anything less than five stars yet, which is very touching and I’m very grateful to everyone who reviewed it—I definitely got the feeling it all wanted to remain in the village. But the nice thing about that is I really do live in that village, and there really are lots of characters that are fascinating, and I really could write forever about it.

But what I do have a plan for is to write a series about one of the characters in the village. There’s a lady called Stella who owns the local eatery, and I think she might decide that she wants to travel a bit. And I think that she’ll travel to some very interesting places, and of course I’ll have to do some personal research on where she goes! (laughs) So the idea is to go to a country, write a book about her having an adventure in that country, maybe keeping a blog so it feels very real for the readers, and then moving on to another country.

DC: Your book sales total two-thirds of a million, and each of your books has been an Amazon #1 bestseller. I know you’ve been approached by television companies in both Germany and Canada. Are we going to see the  Greek Village Series on TV anytime soon?

SA: I find the whole process absolutely baffling. They’ve both been talking to me for quite a while, one for much longer than the other. and the whole process is completely incomprehensible. I have been told that you have to be extremely patient, that these things do take a while. So my attitude is, if it happens, it’ll be lovely; if it doesn’t, I don’t mind. I get the feeling that at some point it probably will happen, but at what point, I don’t know.

DC: Tell me about your Ghurka1 novel.

SA: Ah! The Ghurka novel that never happened. I’d gone to see a friend of mine who was working as a lawyer out in Nepal, and his job was to process the Ghurkas to see if they had a right to live in England because they’d served in the British army, so he had a very in-depth knowledge of the whole situation with Ghurkas. I met a couple of Ghurkas and heard their tales, and my response was the same I’d had to the illegal gardener, Aaman, the Pakistani; and I really wanted to write their tale.

So when I came back to England, I started making enquiries because what I really needed to do was talk to the Ghurka women…because although Ghurkas are allowed to have more than one wife, they’re only allowed to bring one wife back to England. So right there was this heartbreaking story, because he has to choose not only the wife but also the children—which children does he bring? Do the children of one wife deserve to come to England more than the children of another wife? Are the children of one wife more intelligent and so would benefit more, but he loves another wife?

So this whole complex dynamic was just fascinating. However, the Ghurka ladies are very…private is the word, and not very interested in discussing any much at all. And, due respect to them, it’s their lives and I’m not going to pry where I’m not wanted, so that came to a bit of a halt because I couldn’t really find anybody who’d talk to me about it and I wouldn’t want to make it up—it would have to be something I’d talked to someone about and understood firsthand. So unfortunately, not one that’s happened yet!

DC: Is there anything you can talk about that’s out there on the horizon as a possible?

SA: There’s another idea that I’d love to do, though I don’t know how well it would be received. I’d like to write a series based on people that have reached a crisis point in their lives and had some sort of breakdown, and how each of them managed to recover, and in what way, and what it took to get them to a better place. And that would all be based around a garden. Because I’ve touched on this and visited people in mental asylums —there aren’t many left in England, it’s all “care in the community” now—but back when I began as a psychotherapist I did used to visit people in them; and there were communities in there, and the community had an occupational therapy center, and they had a garden, and each person would find their way of healing themselves. And I thought it would be a beautiful setting: a lovely garden somewhere where people would meet other people and interact and find a way to get to a better place. So I have that in the back of my mind somewhere.

DC: The garden is of course also a great metaphor.

SA: Absolutely. I think that’s why the first book was so well-received, because it contained that metaphor as well as character. Everything grew in that book.

DC: Sara, thanks so very much for spending this time with us. Is there anything you’d like to add?

SA: It all sounds a bit cheesy when you say it like this…but I honestly would like to say that without the readers who write to me and without the people on Facebook talking to me, and all of them supporting me to such a degree…. I can’t begin to tell you how much they support me—they write to me constantly, they encourage me, they write reviews…they’re amazing, absolutely amazing! So really the only thing I’d like to do is say a massive thank you to those people. There’s lots of them now, and I love every one of them!

1 Ghurkas are a Hindu people who took over Nepal in the 18th century. Many became soldiers and fought in the British or Indian army.

LINKS:

Website  http://saraalexi.com

Facebook  http://facebook.com/authorsaraalexi

Sara’s Amazon Author Page  http://amazon.co.uk/Sara-Alexi/e/B008M6D60K

Did you enjoy this interview with Sara? Let us know with a comment!

Don’t miss next week’s Under the Covers interview with multiple award-winning Science Fiction and Fantasy author Aliette de Bodard, live right here on Saturday March 26!

The full UNDER THE COVERS interview calendar is here

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On Writers

PoeIn planning my approach and questions for my upcoming interview series, Under the Covers: Close and Personal with Six Hot Authors, I thought a lot about writers and our place in the world.

Above all else, writers—by which I mean those who complete and publish work with some consistency, not the scribbler who never actually finishes anything—are generally some of the most interesting people you’re likely to meet. They’re invariably intelligent, often painfully so. They read compulsively and omnivorously. They think all the time, typically about things that others don’t. They spend a lot of time looking deep into the human mind and heart, often into the darker corners that most of us shy away from. And though it may not be apparent to most people, writers work hard: the creation of a book from nothing takes monumental effort. It’s like building a house from the ground up. Alone.

This doesn’t make writers better people than others. It certainly doesn’t make them easy people to live with (ask any writer’s partner), although there’s bound to be the occasional exception to the rule. As a class, we’re often shy and introverted; but when talkative, our unrelenting curiosity can prompt us to ask the most personal questions of a complete stranger. Like a doctor, the writer is used to spending time probing people’s insides (in our case, their heads and hearts), and consequently is liable to just ignore convention and social niceties to get to the point.

Writers live in their heads. We spend a lot of time staring at walls. Life circumstances permitting, we’re often unproductive for long periods, then burn like an acetylene torch for a period of weeks or even months. Insomnia is a common thread; doubt and insecurity too. But for all their apparent brittleness, the seasoned writer is a very resilient creature: those that aren’t, break.

The staring at walls can, in my experience, be active or passive. When it’s active, it’s ideation, picture painting, world and character development, plotting, intense thought; when passive (though nothing a working writer does is really passive, it just looks that way), the writer is doing the delicate and intuitive work maintenance work on the connection with their subconscious, keeping the channel dredged and clear so that upwelling material can flow unimpeded into the conscious mind, from which it can be shaped and find its way onto the page.

One of the hardest things for many writers—and in my opinion one of the most important—is to remember to get out and spend time in the world. Quite apart from the need to maintain one’s physical health by walking and exercising, time spent out of doors, walking and looking around and talking to people, recharges and replenishes us, especially when we make a regular time for it; that way it becomes a routine part of our day, a scheduled and welcome break rather than an annoying interruption to our work.

In formulating my questions for the six writers in my Under the Covers project, I considered what was known publicly, who their audience is, and their body of writing. I read some of their work that I hadn’t before, re-read some pieces I had, and looked up some prior interviews they’d done, paying especial attention to the frequently asked questions as well as the missed opportunities and cues. An interview which just recycles bio information or facts you can find in a Wikipedia entry or Amazon author page isn’t much good to anyone. I want to know what makes these writers tick, what made them who they are, what makes them pause and think hard, what makes them laugh, what saddens them.

Whether I succeeded or not you’ll have to judge for yourself. I’ve certainly learned a lot about each of these authors, and am now even more interested in each than I was before. I have enormous respect for each and every one of them. Whether this is your first introduction to these authors or you’re already a hardcore fan, I hope you find reading this series as interesting as I did putting it together.

 

Under the Covers: Close and Personal with Six Hot Authors begins on Saturday March 5.

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UNDER THE COVERS: Close and Personal with Six Hot Authors

AUTHOR INTERVIEW SERIES (March-April 2016)

A series of six weekly, in-depth interviews with six prominent and successful authors working in several distinct categories and genres. As both a reader and writer myself, I find it both fascinating and revealing to get a glimpse into other writers’ thoughts, feelings, and motivations.

What do these six authors have in common? First, they’re all terrific storytellers, which I view as the primary object of good fiction; second, each has attained a high degree of success and visibility in their chosen genre or category, including major awards and bestseller rankings on one or more lists; and third, they are all darned interesting people, with a lot to say.

This interview series digs in to find out what makes these authors tick: how each views the world, how they balance being a successful author with the demands of daily life, what drives their fiction and choice of genre, and how they found their success. In the process, I hope to interest each author’s current fans, as well as introduce them to you, my own readers.

Here are the links to each  Under the Covers interview on this blog.

March 5: Mandy M. Roth (Paranormal Romance)

March 12: Ken Liu (Science Fiction/Fantasy)

March 19: Sara Alexi (Literary Fiction)

March 26: Aliette de Bodard (Science Fiction/Fantasy)

April 2: Loreth Ann White (Romantic Suspense/Thriller)

April 9: William Hertling (Science Fiction/Thriller)

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Filed under interviews

Ten Interview Questions for The Next Big Thing

I’m a day late with my post this week; so without further ado, and since author friend Juliette Wade tagged me for this, here we go:

1. What is the title of your book?

SUTHERLAND’S RULES.

2. Where did the idea come from for the book?

The core idea, a variant on the ‘old debt/unfinished business from the past’ theme, had been knocking around in my head for a long while. At some point it collided with speculation on the greying of the 1960s hippie/flower power generation—of which I’m one—and the three decades-long tragedy of Afghanistan, and a book was born.

3. What genre does your book fall under?

It’s pretty much a mainstream ‘buddy caper’/thriller with elements of the police procedural, a dash of high tech, and just a shimmer of the fantastic around the edges.

4. Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie rendition? 

Gosh, that’s hard. I’ll throw out a few options in case some of them are too booked up. 

Hugh Laurie, Jeremy Irons, or Ralph Fiennes would all be just perfect as Billy Sutherland. For his buddy Christian, I’d have to go with Robert de Niro, or possibly Robin Williams. For Carol, Christian’s wife,  Jennifer Connelly, Nicole Kidman, or Gwyneth Paltrow, though they’d all need to put on a few years.

5. What is a one-sentence synopsis of the book?

Two old friends set off on an insanely dangerous and ill-advised last hurrah which will probably cost them both their freedom, and very likely their lives.

6. Will your book be self-published or represented by an agency?

It’ll be indie published—which is different to self-published—through my own small press, Panverse Publishing, as one of six Panverse titles planned for 2013. Sutherland’s Rules is currently scheduled for release on January 29th.

7. How long did it take you to write the first draft of the manuscript? 

I spent about a month spinning my wheels—let’s call it outlining to be kind—then banged the first draft out in four months.

8. What other books would you compare this story to in your genre? 

I don’t think there’s anything quite like this one. The early Saint books by Leslie Charteris may have some similarities, but I think this one’s a full custom job.

9. Who or what inspired you to write this book?

My subconscious made me do it.

10. What else about your book might pique the reader’s interest? 

This is a book about freedom (both societal and individual), honour, loyalty, and mortality. I like to think of it as an intelligent thriller; my beta readers say it’s also a page-turner. The characters are both quirky and older than is typical for the genre, and they don’t stay still for long as events move from New York to London, Afghanistan, and Holland. There’s action and humour as well as some serious questioning of where we’re headed as a society.

Include the link of who tagged you and this explanation for the people you have tagged.

My friend and colleague Juliette Wade tagged my on her own fine blog. In turn, I deem that the  fickle finger of fate shall now point squarely at Emily Sandoval, T.L. Morganfield, Bonnie Randall, and Janice Hardy, all of who I know to be in the process of committing novel.

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Filed under Books and Writers, Writing

On Finding Diamonds

When an editor or agent says that one of their greatest joys is finding a story in the slushpile that stops their pencil tapping or makes them miss their train home, it’s easy for the struggling, oft-rejected writer to doubt their sincerity. After all, these people are so hardened to sending out rejection slips and dashing a young writer’s hopes that it’s hard to imagine them being joyful about anything.

Nothing could be further from the truth.

In the three years and almost 500 novellas I looked over in the process of combining the three Panverse anthologies, I discovered there were few things as exciting as finding a story that sucked me in and held me. This was especially true when the writer was an unknown: the opportunity of introducing a strong new talent to readers is both a huge joy and a great responsibility. As a writer myself, I know only too well what hopes and aspirations go into every submission.

One of the very first stories I received for Panverse One was from a young woman in Perth, Western Australia. Titled Blue Night, Silver Dawn, Joanna Fay’s  36k-word novella was a dark fantasy; the writing was fluid and lyrical, the character work powerful, the world dizzying. And despite having some issues, this story, saturated with love and hate, blood and betrayal, hope and despair, horror and beauty, gripped me and wouldn’t let go. I knew it wasn’t quite a Panverse story, but it was so powerful, so rich in both passion and terror, that I wanted to do whatever I could to encourage this young talent and help her find her way into print. I sent her a critique.

To her credit, Joanna did more than take my critique, she ran a marathon with it. Over the next couple of years, I was privileged to read more of her work and watch, amazed, as the story grew and blossomed. Blue Night, Silver Dawn became Daughter of Hope, the first novel in what has turned into the Siaris quartet, and has just been released by fast-growing small press, Musa Publishing.

Here’s a short interview with Joanna:

All this, and a gorgeous cover, too!

DC: When you first sent me Blue Night, Silver Dawn, had you written/envisaged the quartet yet or was it really just a novella?

JF: Behind Blue Night, Silver Dawn I already had a large, cumbersome mass of writing that I had envisaged as a single novel. At a critiquing retreat with my writing group, WA Egoboo, in late 2009, the unanimous verdict was that the ‘single novel’ was definitely a trilogy. Blue Night, Silver Dawn had started out as a short story about a character who I knew as a survivor in the world of Siaris, in a time-frame about fifty years before the opening of the trilogy. Once I asked this character, Revetia, what her childhood was like, she was so eager to talk that the story turned into a 40,000 word novella in the space of a few weeks.

When the call came out for novellas for your first Panverse anthology, I had no idea that what I would get back was a kind ‘no’—with great encouragement, a laundry list of issues to address, and the suggestion that with a secondary subplot the novella could go up to novel length!

The story gained another whole angle and much more complexity as more members of Revetia’s extended family got involved than I had ever dreamed of. I started consciously linking it at that point to the later novels, The Siaris Quartet took shape, and the novella turned into Daughter of Hope. Not exactly a ‘plan’, but it has probably worked because I knew the world very well.

DC: Siaris is a world of breathtaking complexity, complete with its own creation story and a history stretching over great swaths of time. When did you start building this world?

JF: Siaris first started appearing in my dreams (that I can remember) at eight years old. I started drawing its people and landscapes from around twelve, and the first stories were written during my teens. By my late twenties, I had amassed some three thousand pages of ‘dramatized history’, most of which got thrown out in a moment of ‘clearing the decks’. Six years ago, I came across the last few hundred pages in an old packing box and wondered whether this world and its characters might appeal to anyone besides me. It’s quite a strange, vulnerable feeling putting out there what was essentially a personal world, and also a total delight, as readers and fellow writers have responded to it with enthusiasm (and criticism, but that has its place too).

The last three years have been a period of intensive focus, learning the craft of writing to an audience without losing the integral aesthetic of Siaris or the authenticity of the stories and characters. I am now halfway through a first draft of the final book in the quartet, and have also written (and had published) several short stories set in a future time-frame…that have sprouted visions of sequel novels. So I may not be leaving this world anytime soon.

DC: Beyond Daughter of Hope, has Musa contracted the whole quartet? At what intervals (time between release)?

JF: I have just signed a contract for the second novel in the quartet, Traitor’s Game. It is scheduled for release on February 8, 2013, through their speculative fiction imprint, Urania. I’ll be very happy if the novels continue to be published at seven-eight month intervals.

Friends, I really can’t recommend this writer highly enough. Joanna has won a number of prestigious awards for her poetry and received an honourable mention from Ellen Datlow for her 2011 story, Black Heart. If you enjoy Dark Fantasy in any form, read Joanna Fay.

Joanna’s website is here, and Daughter of hope is available in eBook at $4.99 from Musa Publishing (summary and excerpt here), Amazon, and Barnes & Noble

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