Tag Archives: interviews

INTERVIEW: William R. Hincy

“Life is the accumulation of scars. Tell the stories.”

William R. Hincy is an L.A. area author whose work has been featured in many of America’s best literary magazines. His short fiction collection Without Expiration (Whiskey Winged Lit, 2019) has been included in Kirkus Review’s Best Indie Short Story Collections of 2020. Without Expiration was also a finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award, and Hincy’s novel But the Ripping Apart (Whisky Winged Lit, 2020) has just been released.

All fine authors, particularly the ones we like to call “literary,” write with deep empathy and insight into the human condition, but that doesn’t mean a thing if our wounds don’t coincide, if a story doesn’t move me. But once in a long while I run across an author whose work not only rings and resonates with insight, wit, empathy, and the rest, but thrills me to the core because their insights directly and indelibly affect me: they laugh at the things I laugh at, bleed from the same places I bleed.

William R. Hincy is such an author. His work shimmers and hums with empathy, wit, and above all a deep acceptance, even love, of our limitations as mere flawed humans.

For a thumbail sketch of Hincy’s work, I’ll simply quote the Kirkus review: “Flawed, despondent characters show a surprising wit and humanity,” the review begins. “Hincy’s taut prose makes the entire collection a quick read but still fills the stories with indelible passages. […]  The book strikes a chord with characters whose defects make them simultaneously believable and with descriptions of moments involving a loved one’s death, either its prolonged aftermath or its inevitability.”

Hincy likes to say that “some people run from their demons; others sit down and have cocktails with theirs.” So let’s get that shaker going and sit with Mr. Hincy and his attendant imps.

 

DC: Bill, thanks for joining me for this interview. Tell me how you came to be a writer.

WRH: You know, I can’t pinpoint one moment, but I can trace back the influences.

As a kid, I remember mostly being alone. My parents both worked, and we transplanted from the western Pennsylvania area to California when I was four, so there wasn’t much family around. I didn’t have many toys, and the desert town I grew up in (Palmdale, shout-out!) was just being developed. So my imagination kept me company as I tromped about in the desert and through empty housing developments. At home, everyday items and the few toys I did have became actors, taking on different roles in the narratives I created to keep myself entertained. I think it was during this time that I learned to use story as the main means for which I understood myself and the world around me.

My parents worked long hours and commuted, so by the time they got home, they ate dinner, watched some TV, and went to bed. But on the weekends my mom would go on and on talking about genealogy and stories about growing up in Appalachia. Genealogical narratives certainly have elements of nonfiction—facts that are beyond dispute or verifiable, like so-and-so were married on this date; George had brown hair; Bill was a sarcastic jackass—but it quickly became apparent to me that they were also colored by point of view biases, misinterpretations, foggy memories, and other tiny fictions that popped up from an epic game of generational telephone.

But rather than dulling my fascination, I found the fictions more stimulating than the facts. I found truth, humanity, substance in those elements that couldn’t be verified. They fostered a love of storytelling that persists to this day. It became clear to me that the narratives we tell ourselves shape our characters, our responses to events and stimuli, our understanding of the world, in almost magical ways. And as I became older and experienced the darker side of life, it was through story that I was able to find the humanity in myself and others even when we did hurtful things.

So being a writer for me is synonymous with becoming an adult, becoming a father and a husband and a friend. It is part and parcel to my journey.

(As a side note, for anyone who knew me in high school, sorry to all of those who had to witness me pretending my pen was a Galaxy-class starship battling the world-killing scourge of three-ring binder. And to the crew of the USS Pen Cap, for your brave sacrifice in the Battle of Sixth Period, you will be remembered.)

 

DC: Some would describe your work as literary, but I’m not a big fan of the literary vs. genre method of categorization. How would you describe your own work?

WRH: At my core, I’m a goofy satirist with a deep empathy for flawed people. To me, it’s in our contradictions, idiosyncrasies and foibles that we find meaning and identity, and it’s also these areas where I find the most humor. But I’m driven by challenges. I’m exhilarated when I’m challenging myself, society, literary forms, philosophies, the contemporary zeitgeist, et al. And I want my reader to be an active participant in the process—I want them to intuit, to connect emotionally, to imagine, to activate the neocortex and thalamus, and ultimately to reflect on themselves and the world. To do this, I think the reader needs to be invested in the work, to do some of the heavy-lifting, so I don’t lead them by the hand, explaining how every nook and cranny looks, why exactly things are the way they are and characters are who they are. I take them to a scene, a moment, a dilemma, and leave them holding the consequences with as little authorial intrusion as possible.

All of this leads to challenging the type of stories told and how they’re told. Story by story, I consider the questions being raised and invent new processes to pose them, and the effect is the general eschewing of literary norms and formulas. Unfortunately, I think “genre” has become synonymous with “formula,” while “literary” encompasses everything else. I don’t personally agree with that notion or like the literary vs. genre dichotomy either. Frankly, I think genre fiction’s formulaic nature tends to result from the big business modus operandi of looking for things that fit into a box they know how to sell. So from acquiring new books to editing to promoting, the goal is to fit everything in a tidy package that’s been proven to have an audience.

The stuff traditional publishers “take a chance on” becomes their “literary” work. It may not fit into the neat formulas they’ve devised for genre, but I’d contend they have formulas just the same, be it theme, characterization, content, etc. Realism and character-focus sometimes get conflated with literary fiction, as well, but historical fiction, murder mysteries, and other genres abound with realism, and work of any color can be character-focused.

None of that is to say that every book produced by trade publishers is formulaic, but compared to indie books, there’s no comparison in risk-taking, boldness and just sloppy, ecstatic wackiness of content and variety. I think because of the lack of formula, character focus and generally realistic plots (though I’ve certainly written surrealist and absurdist works, as well), my works gets labeled literary, but if I were to write fantasy, sci-fi or erotic, the same focus on character and rule of consequences would remain.

 

DC: Why did you settle on the title, Without Expiration?

WRH: The title is derived from one of the fictions, a story entitled “Best If Used By” which was a finalist for the Short Story America Fiction Prize. In it, a grieving mother ruminates on the death of her son and subsequent loss of her marriage as she puts away the groceries. Even though she is now living alone in a new apartment, everything around her acts as a mirror to those painful times, and she pauses, haunted by the expiration date on a box of fruit snacks. With memory and regret and heartache swirling inside her, she finally accepts that there are “those things with no expiration.”

At its heart, the title is speaking to the unresolved. And the unresolved nature is both internal and external. The inner machinations are the same now as they have been at any point in human history—when we lose someone close to us, we never forget the sorrow of that loss, the emptiness, the regret. What has changed is the intensity and relentlessness of the external influences. With the advent of the internet and in particular social media, our actions are recorded and retrievable by the masses in a way that we’ve never dealt with before. The effect is that things we may have been internally resolved—mistakes we’ve grown from; hatred we’ve dispensed with; crimes we’ve been held accountable for—are now remembered in perpetuity or uncovered and used against us with a swiftness and ferocity that we’re not equipped emotionally or intellectually to handle. The collective memory fits us with dunce caps and scarlet letters that stream unimpeded into every corner of the globe upon the quad-staked crucifixes of hashtags.

So how does one live a good life? How do we cope, how do we thrive, how do we forgive and allow for the possibility of redemption? How do we live with ourselves when there is no expiration date on our failures?

 

DC: The subtitle for this collection asks the question, “Are we bad people who sometimes do good things, or good people who do bad things?” Having looked deep into this, are you any closer to an answer?

WRH: I don’t think there is an answer, and if there is, I certainly haven’t found it. The question itself is intentionally double-edged to make a point—we all do bad things. To be clear, most of us aren’t serial predators, tyrants or fortune 500 CEOs, but it’s hard to imagine a life, especially in this day and age, where we haven’t lied, stolen, been callous with another’s feelings, cast aspersions (I think the Twitter platform exists precisely for this), taken more than our fair share, or just damaged another inadvertently. And what about those who have committed true crimes? The teenager from an abusive home who goes on to bully, beat, even murder? The husband or wife that “has it all” but has an affair, destroying two families in the process? The broker whose Ponzi scheme destroys the life savings of thousands? The list of scenarios and misdeeds could go on forever, but the question remains: are we good or bad people?

Implied in the question is the question from the title—do those labels have an expiration date? Because maybe we can agree that a twenty-five-year-old man who gets in a bar fight and kills someone is a bad person in that moment, perhaps during that period of life, but what about twenty years later, thirty, forty? And if we label someone “bad,” can we still recognize that they’re capable of good? Can we forgive or understand the “good” person when they commit offenses? Can we hold the good person accountable for their crimes the same way we do the bad?

That tagline and the title are meant to frame the narratives so that the reader is considering the humanity of the characters in that context. We are all flawed. We suffer and try to figure our way through it, or maybe “with” it is better said, and things get messy and we hurt people. That’s really the bad thing. And it’s crucial to include hurting ourselves in that equation.

In the end, I hope the stories provide a place of reflection and meditation where the question itself is challenged and, perhaps, the concept of labeling people “good” or “bad” is abandoned.

 

DC: These short fictions cover a wide spectrum of experiences and emotions ranging from garden-variety passive aggressiveness to homicidal vengeance, from surrealist satire to the most poignant tragedy. Although you never flinch from exploring the most raw truths, the reader also has a sense of huge humanity and a deep compassion for the human condition. One of your stories, A Study in Discontinuity, digs into the disintegration of a relationship in a painfully incisive way; yet, as in the majority of your work, there’s an underlying sense that redemption is possible. How does that work? Can there be redemption even in a world where our misdeeds have no expiration?

WRH: Wow, I’m not sure there’s enough space on the internet to fully answer that question!

To your point, with the advent of the internet and social media, it has gotten harder and harder for society to allow room for redemption. Even if we have undergone true personal change, our “sins” are stored in posterity or can be uncovered years later, and a major component of redemption is the acceptance back into society. It’s not mandatory, of course, but even our personal redemption can be disrupted when we are pelted by our past wrongdoing again and again.

“A Study in Discontinuity” captures this not through the collaborative memory of the internet, but through the story of a woman who is in a devastating car crash moments after her marriage dissolves. She is left in a persistent vegetative state, but five years later, she awakes. And the pain she feels is as raw as the day of the crash. When her estranged husband wants to put the past behind them, she tells him: “Your past is my present—do you understand that?” But he has had years to move forward, to change. And that’s the dilemma we’re all faced with—dealing with pain we still feel while somehow allowing room for individual growth and change.

All that said, I think that if we don’t believe in redemption, there is literally no hope for humanity. And I do so want to hope, and I believe there’s great reason for hope, even in the darkest of times. There have certainly been notable examples of people being redeemed, and I’d take it further and say that we are all examples of redemption. We’ve all learned from mistakes, failed and tried to do better. Without struggle, we’d know nothing about ourselves, so we have to cling to the possibility of redemption even in the midst of a pandemic, social unrest, and corruption and scandal on a global scale.

And I believe redemption begins with laughter. How many times have you read something, watched something, or experienced firsthand hitting rock bottom and just starting to laugh at the absurdity of it all? Perhaps that’s where the satirist in me reveals itself. So I hope as the reader goes through this anthology, they laugh and cry and are frightened by the characters. If it helps provide an avenue for even just a few people to develop a deeper, more open empathy and understanding of themselves and others, ridding the need for labels and cancellations, then I think we move a little closer to the how of it all.

 

DC: I know that you spent years on some of these fictions. Tell us a little about your writing process. Do you begin with character or idea? And how do you develop a story?

WRH: I usually begin with a challenge. For instance, the idea for “A Study in Discontinuity” stemmed from the following challenge: can you write a compelling, human piece of fiction in the format of a scientific research paper? Similarly, the surrealist religious satire “Amen” originated when I challenged myself to write a story in first person omniscient. Other times I challenge myself to get to the root of the humanity of a character who may not appear likable. And other times, it’s just a flash of inspiration, an almost biological imperative to bring a specific idea into existence.

As far as developing a story, I tend to think of myself more like a sculptor than a writer. Rather than outlining or writing character synopses, I usually write what is sometimes referred to as a “zero” draft. I think of this part of the process as finding my materials, but rather than granite or clay, I’m cobbling together clay and backstory, marble and context, wood and irony, story and shadow and distorted points of view. After I’ve finished the zero draft, I step back, examine what I have, and begin shaping. Sometimes this requires adding material here and there, or it might involve whittling down to the essential core of the thing. For example, the short story “Teeth” began as a 12k word story and was distilled down to a 1k word piece by the time it was published.

Generally after the zero draft, though sometimes before, I step back from the idea and consider what process is needed for that particular work. Changing or adjusting your process is not for the faint of heart: it can be unsettling, scary even, and requires a lot of grit to tough your way through the inevitable self-doubt. But it helps to produce variety and opens you up to possibilities a rigid, constant process is unlikely to unveil. For instance, the novel I’m currently working on (more on that later in this interview) is an epic absurdist satire with a range of POVs. To stimulate distinctness and liveliness between characters, after the zero draft I worked out a full outline of the events, then wrote the next draft one character at a time, charting my way through the story and their development as I went. In the process, I learned that a couple characters I thought were minor were in fact pivotal, and exchanges between characters suddenly took on exciting new meanings. For the final draft, I’m going work through the book front to back to ensure unity and cohesiveness.

A final note, I do almost all of the heavy-lifting—from ideation, story development, momentous sections, and difficult passages—subconsciously. I purposely set my schedule so that I write for a few hours, then go for a bike ride, take a shower, lift weights, or another activity where I’m not actively engaged in language-based thinking and my imagination has free range. I also spend time writing or editing before going to bed, so what I’m engaged with is front and center in my mind while I sleep. Once I feel a piece is too conscious that I have a hard time stepping away from the nuts and bolts, I let it rest and work on another piece.

 

DC: A number of your stories have been published in well-regarded literary magazines including Short Story America, Passages North and the Avalon Literary Review, and received good critical attention. This would have put you in a better position than most authors to land a traditional publishing deal with your collection, yet you chose to go the indie route. What led you to that decision?

WRH: My intention has always been to be a hybrid author, publishing some pieces traditionally and others independently. Theoretically, traditional publication can help with visibility, wider distribution, perhaps get your work in bookstores and libraries. Meanwhile, going indie allows for full creative control and a larger portion of the profits. By going hybrid, I’m aiming to bridge the gaps and, as Hannah Montana would say, “Get the best of both worlds!”

Both have their pluses and minuses to be sure, as I learned the hard way. An earlier version of my novel But the Ripping Apart was traditionally published under a different title roughly seven years ago. And wouldn’t you know it, I hit the unholy trinity of the bad trad publisher experience: ignored and forgotten (judging by other authors I’ve met, this is just their way of doing business); no say on the final packaging (resulting in a hideous cover and goofy author photo… although I guess I can’t blame them on the picture considering the model); and no coherent advertising push. Throw in the lack of copy-editing and ebook, and I ended up requesting out of my contract and spent two years editing, revising, and completely repackaging the novel on my dime. (Disclaimer, I don’t believe this is the common publisher experience by any means.)

Being that so many of the stories in WE had been previously published and I had such an unfortunate experience, it was an easy decision to go indie. Furthermore, to be true to the subtitle, A Personal Anthology, I felt I had to have complete creative control to develop an artistic expression unique to me. To do that, it felt imperative that the collection be diverse and unusual and bold. The contemporary trend is for anthologies to have an overarching tone and storytelling style, so it’s unlikely I would’ve been able to package “Amen” with “A Study in Discontinuity” because tonally and narratively they are so different. But for WE to truly be a personal anthology, both works had to be included.

 

DC: Your recently released novel, But the Ripping Apart is a touching, irreverent, tragicomic look at a young father’s battle with his demons and his search for purpose amid crippling self-doubt and a sense of failure. It’s often said that first novels are largely autobiographical: was that the case with this work?

WRH: In some ways, you could say But the Ripping Apart is an account of my early thirties as remembered in a fever dream. Events occur out of sequence, are distorted, heightened; every feeling is intensified; and delirious hallucinations snake in and out of the narrative as impactful and real as any of the actual memories.

The novel’s opening scene is based on a night my wife and I visited a woman she knew that was a hoarder. But as a fiction writer, I wasn’t interested in capturing that night or those events—I was intrigued in the underlying truths behind them, the challenge of crafting a story that captured the humanity of flawed, heartbroken characters as they try to help each other despite their faults. Jack, Erica, Ms. Lyon became vessels for telling that story, rather than representations of real people.

As the novel progressed, the characters developed into unique entities as they responded to the story’s circumstances and situations. And during the editing process, there was little recognizable about any of the scenes or characters. In the end, I saw very little of myself in Jack, except for our shared inclination to patron our demons. But that’s no small similarity. Like Jack, I’ve been shaped by my failures, my limitations, my openness to the taboo.

I was a single dad (a #girldad before it was trendy), and I have a running emotional ledger of all of the times I failed my kids. As a parent, you try to shield your demons from your kids, but can you really? I remember driving home completely hungover to take my first- and second-grade daughters to the Father-Daughter dance. The countless times I snapped at them rather than nurture them. Moments I failed even to be there. My hope is that by reopening those real wounds in the novel, as painful as they were to write and revisit, the reader will contemplate on their interactions with their own demons in a space devoid of judgment or expectation.

 

DC: In your bio – and I’m going to encourage every reader to visit your website, since it’s one of the absolute best writer sites I’ve ever seen – you have a delightful line: “Some people run from their demons; others sit down and have cocktails with theirs.” Would you expand a little on that and how it relates to your fiction?

WRH: I actually wrote that quote for But the Ripping Apart. In the scene, a retired schoolteacher who has spiraled into alcoholism and hoarding is confronted by a young father who is dealing with but not exactly facing his own problems. She recognizes the kinship between them, even if he doesn’t, and says, “My life may seem foul to you now, but you’ll understand…. Some people run from their demons; others sit down and have cocktails with theirs. You and I—we can’t even recognize ourselves without them.”

A prevailing way of thought has been to fear and vanquish our demons. Psychological torment, physiological dependence, and unsavory compulsions are compared to monsters, plagues, demons. But what if “the dark side” isn’t something to vanquish, but something to harness? This is probably an unpopular statement and may make Star Wars fans squeamish, but sometimes igniting our inner turmoil can fuel greatness we wouldn’t otherwise be able to achieve. There is a peculiar insanity, almost immorality, necessary to reach unreasonable peaks. You see it across the spectrum, from sports stars to artists, to corporate moguls to homemakers—sometimes our irrational, dangerous drives can be focused to drive irrational results.

I’ve struggled. I’ve fallen. I’ve failed—I’ve let down the people I love the most when they’ve most needed me. None of that is easy. But it is intensely human. Running from or combating demons does not capture the sum of our experience. There are certainly those of us who indulge them, whether just momentarily, in fits and starts, or as a way of life. So often that indulgence is frowned upon, but I think it’s dangerous and unfulfilling to turn away from any aspect of our humanity, however unsettling, or to assign it to the realm of monsters. I think being understanding and accepting our impulses is a crucial step towards self-awareness, then we have the hard work of learning to live with them.

 

DC: You have a corporate career which only recently became part-time, as well as a large family; on top of that, you homeschool your young son. That’s a lot to juggle and still get writing done: how do you manage your time?

WRH: That is the most common question I get—just, how?

I think the first and most important thing is understanding what your goals are. I’ve always had an abstract idea of what I wanted to accomplish, but I sat down a few years back and committed them to paper. And by goals I don’t mean fantasies—we can fantasize about anything we choose, walking on the moon, selling a Harry Potter-esque hoard of books, appearing on Carson, etc., but I focused on what was most vital to me. At that point, I’d already been published numerous times, but I was by no means treating writing like a career, so this was the first step in that process. And what I learned was that I want to be an important writer. What does that mean, exactly? To me, it means that I connect on an emotional and intellectual level with a reader, and it means that I have to challenge not just literary forms, contemporary zeitgeists, societal biases, et al., but also my readers themselves.

But how do you measure that—how could I ever say I’ve achieved that goal? Well, for one, it means that I expect some mixed reviews. Some people don’t like being challenged, or it simply may not speak to some readers. And that’s okay because I’m not aiming for quantity or popularity, I’m focused on impact. But for it to have an impact, my work has to be read to some capacity, so attaining some visibility and sales is necessary. I just don’t worry if I’m ever widely popular or a best-seller because I don’t equate fame to importance. Importance is connecting with individuals, not appealing to the masses. This also helps determine the stories I want to tell. I’m not trying to catch the coattails of a trend or fit into a neat, acceptable package—I’m trying to tell stories that emotionally resonate, that unsettle, maybe even trouble the reader.

Once I concretely understood my desires and developed ways to measure them, I then planned my schedule. Putting family first was pretty straightforward, and with two adult daughters and one entering high school, the primary focus became on homeschooling my son (which I’ve done even before the pandemic made this a reality for most of the world). Since I’m no longer moving up the corporate ladder and my role is part-time, work is no longer a prime priority. I get my job done in my hours, then focus my time on my writing, with the craft always coming before promotion. I also recognized that my health was critical to ALL of these endeavors, so I made sure to include working out in my schedule.

Because I understand exactly what I want and what success looks like to me, I’m able to ruthlessly prioritize. My daily must-do, can’t-fail activities are homeschooling, working out, and actual writing (because Lord knows there are a ton of writerly activities that could cloud that item). To keep me on track, I make detailed lists of any miscellaneous things that need done, then sprinkle them into my schedule throughout the week (feels so good to check those boxes). I also keep a monthly calendar so I remember to pay bills, take the trash out, clean up after the dogs, etc., but when things start to overflow—and they will—I’m always grounded by what is essential.

It helps to have an amazing, supportive wife. Her tireless work ethic and drive inspire me to put the same dedication into my writing—I never want to fail just because I was outworked.

 

DC: Marketing is often difficult for indie authors, typically because of personality, lack of funding, or both. How do you approach marketing your work?

WRH: Fingers crossed—the same way every writer does!

Like many writers, I often put marketing on the backburner. Going back to ruthless prioritization, I set specific writing goals that must be done before going onto social media, writing on blog content, or working on promotions. But I do want to get my work out there, and because I’ve been historically so busy with my family and corporate job, I don’t have much of a platform or marketing experience. Even my day job as a Quality Director for a medical device company isn’t about selling—it’s about keeping products safe and effective and ensuring compliance with federal and international laws.

So I’m using Without Expiration and But the Ripping Apart as experiments. WE was released in November 2019, when COVID-19 was still just a blip on the news radar, which allowed for a bit of guerrilla marketing. A group of about fifty of us staged the #WithoutExpiration Exhibition, a mock protest in which the protesters held signs announcing fictional transgressions. Poster boards proclaiming “Cheated on my taxes,” “Neglected my dog,” and “Was careless with a heart,” streamed through old town Pasadena, CA, along with chanting and good-natured revelry. So much of the anthology centers around questioning the notion of moral authority, so the protest fit right in and got a fair amount of media coverage.

I’ve been lucky enough to do some readings and speak at colleges, which I love doing because you get to connect with people in-person, which I still think is the best way to build a community around your work. It also gives me a chance to exercise my acting chops, which is always great fun (in my younger days, I performed in quite a few community theatre plays until I could no longer accommodate the night rehearsals with being a single dad).

Of course, with the pandemic none of these options were available when But the Ripping Apart was released in March, so I’ve focused on the digital end. I’ve never enjoyed spending time on social media, and I quickly found the clickbait aspects less than satisfying, so I’ve focused on looking for sincere, thought-provoking exchanges, and less on the volume of followers. I had the notion of writing original content for Twitter and Instagram. I even produced two living obituaries earlier in the year, which were mainly satirical and focused on accepting and even laughing in the face of death, but when COVID hit in all its gory I couldn’t wrap my brain around it any longer. The problem with original content was that my standards for content and refusal to use formulas make it hard to churn out quickly, and it took too much time away from my WIP.

Being that I’m still working part-time, I don’t need to turn a profit on either book, so I’m reinvesting anything I earn to learning about the business, trying to build a presence around content-creation. It’s interesting, though, because as a “non-genre” writer, there aren’t many support services I’ve found in the indie community. So I’m really out in the Wild West, which is a fascinating learning experience, if a bit lonely. At least I can karaoke campfire songs!

 

DC: I know you’re currently at work on a large, even a landmark, novel. What can you tell us about it?

WRH: I’m currently working on a no-holds-barred, nothing’s sacred, completely irreverent satire entitled Pirates of Appalachia. There’s geopolitical intrigue, true love, hostile takeovers, sharkittens, esports, mermaids, prophecy, and some shockingly potent rum!

Pirates is set in North America about a decade after a series of events collectively referred to as the “Trumpocalypse.” Central to these was the War of Four Domains, a cyberwar pitting Amazon, Apple, Facebook, and Google against each other and the federal government. Widespread internet outages ensue, packages aren’t delivered, latte foam art goes unposted, and no one can GPS their way home from work. It’s truly the dark ages! In the aftermath, parts of the United States and Canada are sold off to foreign countries, mega-corporations, and celebrities (giving new meaning to Oprah Winfrey’s OWN network). Other areas form city-states, and vast expanses of the continent become “unincorporated areas,” where self-ruling settlements, homesteaders and social justice warlords struggle for survival.

The grandest city-state of them all is the Independent City of Pittsburgh, which has swallowed up most of what was formerly western Pennsylvania. As the novel begins, the city is in the midst of the gubernatorial election to select a new “guber,” the city’s top elected official. Adam Patterson of the Twitter Party, formerly a Father in the Church of the Everlasting Wander, is having a health crisis and a crisis of faith heading into the final debate with Michael Hawk, the savage, charismatic candidate for the Heel Party who moonlights as an esports star. At stake are how to allocate the tax payout, the retirement age for government employees, and what to do about the war with the Xioddarm being waged a world away by citizens patronizing the DroneStrike arcade. But after Patterson receives a vision during the debate, he goes off-script and references the “forbidden hashtag,” turning election season upside-down.

Meanwhile, in unincorporated West Virginia, Kohl and Keet search for the fabled treasure of the pirates of Appalachia in hopes of becoming rich and impressing the women they love. In their quest, both are transformed in surreal, fabulous way, but when they return, they learn that Kohl’s betrothed, her home, and everything she owns has been taken to Pittsburgh. The city is metastasizing, consuming more and more of the hills daily. Fueled by legends of their father’s taking to the rivers and looting the countryside, Kohl and Keet set sail with an ever-growing band of eccentric buccaneers and a vengeful ghost to sack the Independent City of Pittsburgh once and for all.

The past and present, cyber and RL, technological and magical are on a collision course—there’s no better time for a drink!

 

DC: Bill, thank you so much for spending time with us, it’s been absolutely fascinating. Is there anything you’d like to add?

WRH: First off, thanks so much for having me here for this interview. I’m a great admirer of your work, both your editing and your writing. Sutherland’s Rules, Black Easter and Aegean Dream truly touched me, and I think about them routinely. I hope selfishly, and for the world at large, there is more on the way!

It hasn’t been announced yet, but Without Expiration is now available as an audiobook. Narrated by the supremely talented Darren Eliker, the audiobook accentuates the anthology and helps unpack the dense stories and uncover new layers of emotional resonance. Being that Without Expiration is a short read (about 150 pages), I encourage everyone to read the book and then listen to the audiobook—it’ll take you about as long as you’d spend on an average-sized novel, and I think you’ll find more connections to the work at the end of it.

For free fiction, more about the author, cinematic book trailers, living obituaries, the working prologue of Pirates of Appalachia, and more, visit  WilliamRHincy.com

To order/Buy:

Without Expiration: A Personal Anthology (print and ebook)

Without Expiration: A Personal Anthology (audiobook)

But the Ripping Apart (print and ebook)

 

(Full disclosure: Bill Hincy is a personal friend and I am also his editor.)

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INTERVIEW: Katy Nicholas: “As the World Falls Down”

RELEASED ON JANUARY 15th, 2020, just before COVID-19 slammed into our world, Katy Nicholas’s excellent debut novel, As the World Falls Down, about a worldwide pandemic that kills the vast majority of humanity, is one of the best novels I’ve read in the past few years.

Just a few chapters into it, I found myself thinking, where did this author come from? Though I’d never encountered her work before, Katy writes with all the assurance of a longtime professional, and her novel, while vastly different in every way other than theme, is right up there with modern plague classics like David R. Palmer’s Emergence and King’s The Stand. As the World Falls Down also differs in that it’s the first volume in a planned series, Cities in Dust, though it works as a standalone novel. I would argue also that this isn’t just a Science Fiction novel, but a crossover novel which the non-genre reader will also find accessible and enjoyable.

My curiosity thus piqued, I contacted Katy, and the following interview is the result.

DC: Katy, I’m so glad to interview you. As a writer and editor used to reading debut novels and work from new authors, it’s very clear to me that you’ve been writing for at least a decade. As the World Falls Down is absolutely seamless, one of the most refreshing, thoughtful, and best-planned novels I’ve come across in a long time. I abandon a great many books because they’re simply too formulaic or fail to make me care, but your novel surprised and delighted me at every turn. Tell us a little about your development process as a writer.

KN: Believe it or not, before As the World Falls Down, the last thing I wrote was back in 2008.  In high school, I wrote daily. I had no interest in school. I remember writing stories in my economics class. After I left school, I got a job, had a family, and I didn’t really have time to write. So, there was a ten-year gap before I picked it up again. I wrote half a fantasy story about a girl who could bring the dead back to life. Again, life happened, and I didn’t write anything more for another ten years. The first draft of As The World Falls Down was basically me learning to write again, if I’m honest. It was 40,000 words. I then scrapped it and started again. I must’ve written about 200,000 words in four months. Oh to be that focused again. I began writing the sequel straight away, but I scrapped that as well, and started again. I’m currently editing it, so hopefully it’ll be out in 2021.

DC: I can’t imagine what it must have been like to release a book about a worldwide pandemic in January and have one explode in reality the very next month. What was that like for you?

KN: It was very surreal. I mean, I’d spent half of 2018 immersed in this book about a pandemic. Turns out I was right about a few things.

DC: What sparked the idea for As the World Falls Down?

KN: I had a dream. That’s so cliché, isn’t it? I have very strange dreams. In about April of 2018, I dreamed about the scene in the book where Halley finds Nate on the couch in his cabin. I had no idea what the rest of the story was about. I finished the book in September 2018. Then, I edited it, with more re-writes. I began to query agents and publishers, but my queries were dire. Then I sent five pages to The Wild Rose Press, and they requested the first three chapters, then the full MS. I signed with them in March 2019.

DC: Without giving too much away, the novel opens mainstream and slowly reveals a widening paranormal/science-fictional theme. As a writer and editor, I can clearly see the work is very tightly structured and meticulously planned. And yet your story is solidly character-driven and suffers none of the rigid, mechanical feel of intricately plotted novels. Can you tell us a bit about your specific writing process, and how you approached constructing this work?

KN: My process is chaotic. I spend a lot of time talking to myself and wandering around acting out the scenes. Then I scribble down notes. Usually I don’t make a proper chapter plan until I’ve written half the book. I feel like I go into the ring with every story and fight each round until I’ve figured everything out.

DC: Your character work is superb. Halley and Nate, your protagonists, are exceptionally well-drawn and even the novel’s minor characters are round and well-developed. Do characters come to you, as it were, living and breathing with a backstory to tell, or do you put a lot of conscious thought into their development?

KN: It’s more unconscious thought. I can’t even begin to explain how my brain works. I love to read and be so swept up in a story that I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve not found a book like that in a really long time. I wanted As the World Falls Down to be that book. Even if I was the only person who ever read it. I also think I worked through a lot of my own personal trauma in this book. There’s a piece of me in every character— Halley more than most. None of the characters have the moral high ground either. Well, maybe Halley does. I explore that more in book two. I like moral ambiguity. I like flawed people who make terrible decisions for the right reasons.

DC: Your novel has a very satisfying roundness and texture. Nested mysteries and a sense of growing strangeness shading toward horror are interwoven with gentle notes of domesticity, of love for the pastoral beauty of the English countryside. And the love affair between your protagonists is, like so much else, exquisitely well-handled and developed, something not a great many SF authors manage. Do you read romance and other genres beyond SFF?

KN: I don’t really read romance. I usually read horror or fantasy. It’s the movies and tv shows that I watched in my youth that probably shaped my mind in terms of what makes a good romance. Princess Leia and Han Solo, Buffy and Angel, Robin Hood and Maid Marian. I like the idea of star-crossed lovers, even if it doesn’t end well.

DC: Though your actual writing style is transparent, refreshing, and entirely yours, I’m wondering where your literary roots lie. Are there any authors you feel influenced you, especially in terms of genre or thematic concerns?

KN: In my early twenties I think I read every fantasy author on the shelves of waterstones. I also love Alice Hoffman. She writes stories about ghosts, and magic, and mermaids, but it’s never really about the supernatural, its about the characters and their relationships.  

DC: As the World Falls Down is traditionally published by The Wild Rose Press in New York State. Getting a publishing deal is notoriously hard for new authors today. How did you go about finding your publisher, and had you considered going indie if you weren’t able to?

KN: I queried forty publishers and agents, using query tracker for the most part. I think TWRP were query number 30 or something. I blundered my way into the whole process— no idea what I was doing. I began querying in September/October and got signed in the following March. It was all rather miraculous to be honest.

I definitely considered self-publishing because I refused to let this book die. Some authors shelve their books. I can’t imagine putting your soul into something and then saying ‘oh well, I couldn’t get an agent so I’ll just forget about this novel and write something else.’ The more someone tells me I can’t do something, the more I’ll fight to succeed. 

DC: I know you’re active in the UK SF and comic convention scene. Tell us a little about your involvement and how you came to love the genres.

KN: My first ever sci fi convention was Destination Star Trek London. I only went because Scott Bakula was there. I was an obsessed Quantum Leap fan. I still am. I made friends online in the forums and we met up at the event. Since then, I’ve done many cons and made amazing friends. We try and meet up as often as possible but we’re all missing each other terribly this year. Covid 19 has put a stop to our antics.

DC: Of course, I’m very much looking forward to the next volume in the Cities in Dust series. Do you have a release date yet, or is this still open? And are you working on anything else in the meantime?

KN: The sequel had to be cut in half as it was such a long book. I’m almost done with it. I imagine it will be released in spring 2021.

DC: I know you live in southeast England. Apart from writing, what else do you enjoy doing?

KN: Being a mum and a carer takes up a lot of my time. I live near the beach which is great. I walk a lot. I find inspiration everywhere. I love people watching. I’m slightly obsessed with interior design. Whenever I can, I head down to Cornwall or Dorset.


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

KN: Thank you for reading. Thank you for your support.

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William Hertling’s New Technothriller “Kill Switch” – Where Social Media, Freedom, Privacy, and BDSM Collide

William Hertling is the author of the award-winning novels Avogadro Corp, A.I. Apocalypse, The Last Firewall, and The Turing Exception. These near-term science-fiction novels explore the emergence of artificial intelligence, coexistence of humans and smart machines, and the impact of social reputation, technological unemployment, and other near-future issues. His last novel, Kill Process, is a technothriller about data ownership, privacy, and trust. Hertling’s novels have been called “frighteningly plausible,” “tremendous,” and “must read.” His newest thriller, Kill Switch, the sequel to Kill Process, has just been published.

I first encountered Will’s work back in 2009 when Avogadro Corp, then a novella, surfaced in my slushpile. I’d just founded Panverse Publishing and was accepting submissions for my first Science Fiction novella anthology, Panverse One. The premise — the spontaneous emergence of strong AI (aka “Technological Singularity”) from software intended to read and optimize replies to emails — was clever and convincing, and also very prescient if we look at what Google started doing some years later. But the author’s writing was rudimentary, entirely lacking in the sort of setting detail that brings fiction to life.

I was piqued enough by the idea that instead of a form rejection, I sent Will a brief email telling him that I loved the idea but the story lacked any sense of place, and felt it was taking place in a white room. I also suggested he consider expanding it into a novel.

Will not only took notice of my suggestions, but enrolled in an eight-week writing workshop to improve his craft. Three months and many revisions later, Avogadro Corp was a full-length novel.

In the years since, Will and I have become good friends, and I’m honored to work and consult with him as his developmental and copy editor. The ambitious novella I rejected has evolved into a quadrilogy, with books sold nudging the 100,000 mark, a breathtaking achievement for any author, let alone an indie, and William Hertling has become one of the best authors in the tech thriller genre. His just-released work, Kill Switch, is a tour-de-force which takes the reader on a thrilling, unexpected, and unique ride.

DC: Will, welcome, and thanks for letting me interview you.

Kill Process, the first book of this duology, was a thrilling exploration of corporate abuse of freedom and privacy. Your new novel, Kill Switch, is a compelling thriller which centers on the same broad themes of privacy and freedom but makes them deeply personal. Igloo, the main protagonist of Kill Switch, is a lesbian who practices consensual kink and BDSM with her partner, and together they decide to open their relationship to include others, a practice known as polyamory. This novel draws strong and clear parallels between Igloo’s chosen lifestyle and the far more visible issues of data privacy and an open internet. What prompted you to explore the connections between these seemingly separate worlds?

WH: I’ve always been interested in the exploration of power, especially manipulative power. This was true starting from my very first novel, Avogadro Corp, about a super-intelligent AI manipulating people by modifying their communications. And it’s been a theme of every book since, including Kill Process, which dealt with domestic abuse. One of the things that’s fascinating about the BDSM community is that they have made a practice of studying and practicing power exchange in a way that most of us encounter only rarely, and even then without conscious awareness of what is happening. I wanted to be able to tap into that collective wisdom.

At the same time, the BDSM community and polyamory community (and there is some overlap between those two) have been greatly stigmatized. As a result, all of the issues around privacy and identity and data ownership are far more keenly felt by these people than ordinary people. People can and do lose their jobs, family, and friends over exposure. It’s hard to imagine greater sensitivity to privacy. In my research, I frequently saw people taking extreme steps, akin to what Igloo and Angie do for operational security, to maintain the security and confidentiality of their own personal data.

DC: There’s a strong sense in this novel that the practice of consensual BDSM is still, for many people, a misunderstood and closeted lifestyle. Given the huge mainstream success of E.L. James’s Fifty Shades of Grey a full seven years ago, why do you think this is still the case?

WH: There are a few reasons. First, the LGBTQ community has been pushing for acceptance in many forms for a long time, but the movement around coming out, to help reduce isolation and increase LGBTQ visibility and pride dates back to the 1980s. That’s thirty plus years of work on acceptance, and there’s still a gap compared to heteronormative standards. Seven years to make inroads into BDSM acceptance is a small blip by comparison.

Also consider the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders (commonly known as DSM), Homosexuality was removed as a disorder in 1987. By comparison, BDSM wasn’t removed from the DSM until 2013. That means that up until this decade, the majority of mental health professionals were still treating BDSM as a mental health issue.

Secondly, Fifty Shades and similar material is focused primarily in titillating the reader. At best, it might help people bond over the fantasy of BDSM, but it does nothing to promote the acceptance or normalization of real-life BDSM practices.

Thirdly, even with the long struggle of the LGBTQ community for acceptance, homosexual romantic love still looks essentially like love: people often couple up, they marry, they eat breakfast together, they kiss, they make love, they walk the dog together. They do all the normal things that any couple does. I think this is part of the reason why children don’t think twice about homosexual couples. I don’t mean to take away from the uniqueness of an LGBTQ experience — I’m sure there are many nuances that are different — but the basic relationship framework is more or less the same as what you’d find in a heterosexual relationship.

By comparison, a BDSM relationship is very different and especially looks very different from the outside. Bondage, dominance and submission, sadomasochism, the rituals of BDSM — these are not found in most romantic relationships. From the outside, the naive observer might confuse what they’re seeing with some form of abuse. The road to destigmatization of kink requires much more education.

DC: That’s something I found fascinating about your novel. The BDSM relationships portrayed in Kill Switch are loving, nurturing, and playful. This is very different to the widespread image of BDSM as a brutal and perverse practice, a perception which I believe began with De Sade, was reinforced by the sensational 1960s book The Velvet Underground, and lingers today even after the success of Fifty Shades. Where’s the truth here?

WH: Relationships of all kinds, not just kinky ones, come in a broad spectrum, ranging healthy to unhealthy. At one end of the spectrum, people in a relationship enhance each other’s lives, encouraging them to flourish, and to be healthier and happier than they could be on their own. This is loving and nurturing. At the other end of the spectrum, people in a relationship can do real mental and physical harm to each other. This is brutal and perverse.

BDSM relationships are no different. BDSM itself does not make a relationship healthy or not. It’s the mental and emotional health and skills of the people who are in the relationship that dictate the health of the relationship.

Healthy BDSM relationships are characterized by a great deal of communication, including especially the identification of each person’s needs and the explicit goal of meeting each person’s needs directly or by setting up the underlying conditions to allow them to meet their needs themselves.

In particular, BDSM relationships are very playful. In fact, kinky people call the very essence of what they do playing. (To be clear, people who take a 24/7 or lifestyle approach to BDSM also do activities that fall outside the realm of play, but even these folks also have designated playtime.) How many non-kinky folks specifically make play a core part of their relationship?

DC: I know this book took you over two years to write. Reconciling such apparently disparate plot elements as privacy, a free internet, and sexual lifestyle choices — which you succeed in doing brilliantly, by the way — must have been difficult, even for an author with five previous novels under his belt. Were there times when you thought you couldn’t pull off it off? Any aha! moments you’d like to share?

WH: Oy. I’m still not sure I pulled it off. I see the connections between all the themes, but I worry about whether others will. With this book, more than any other, I still felt like there was so much more to say. For example, I wanted to convey the intersectionality of what it means to be poly and kinky and queer and a woman working in tech, but I didn’t manage to capture that on the page. And I have never felt like a greater imposter than when trying to write a scene with two women having sex. Keeping the balance between tech and relationships and kink was also a juggling act. In order to keep the book from growing without bound, I had to focus the tech a little more narrowly then I usually do. I kept the core elements of the primary tech plotline (creating a new distributed, secure Internet architecture), but I had to keep the secondary tech plot aspects (such as hacking and surveillance technology) lighter than usual to make room for additional topics.

DC: Today, privacy and a free Internet seem to be lost causes. With an entire generation with little expectation of privacy or the sense of personal freedoms which anyone over, perhaps, thirty-five grew up with now coming to maturity, do you think we have any hope of ever regaining either?

WH: Let me answer with a little anecdote.

Recently I had a really rough week. I’d broken up with my primary partner a month earlier, and was still grieving. I was home sick with a really bad cold, and because I was sick, I’d had to cancel a number of fun activities I had planned. I spent the better part of two days in bed fighting off this cold and feeling miserable.

I spent a good portion of that time chatting online and texting with a number of good friends all throughout the two days.

In the evening of the second day, a friend came by to borrow something. We spent less than an hour talking together in person. We didn’t discuss anything substantial — we just chatted about everything and nothing.

When he left, I felt much happier than when he arrived — in fact, much happier than I’d felt anytime during the previous two days. At that moment, I realized that forty-five minutes talking to someone in person had done far more for my emotional well-being than hours and hours of chatting with people online.

It was a very visceral reminder that social media and online communication is not improving our lives. We all know this. We all feel this. Real life, in-person interactions is what we’re evolved for. That’s what we need emotionally and physically.

The purpose of online tools should not become how we interact with each other, but they should instead be the minimal tools we need for planning and creating the real-life, in-person shared experiences that actually bring us true joy and happiness.

This anecdote makes me think about the Great Horse Manure Crisis, in which it was predicted that due to population growth, New York City would be buried under horse manure. They didn’t anticipate (and couldn’t have) that the invention of the automobile would challenge all of their assumptions.

Let’s come back to your question about privacy and a free Internet feeling like a lost cause. If our assumption is that our current trends in technology continue unabated, then yes, maybe privacy and a free Internet are gone. But what if the role of technology in our lives is dramatically different in ten or fifteen years? What if, like the horse manure crisis, we’re worrying about things that will be completely changed in the near future? Perhaps privacy and a free Internet will be meaningful again.

DC: As a professional programmer, Web strategist, and futurist, you’re uniquely qualified to consider the future of the Internet and the way it’s reshaped, and continues to transform, our society, thinking, and behaviour. Privacy and freedom issues aside, those of us old enough to remember the golden days of the Internet, back in the early to mid ’90s, hate that it’s become something largely indistinguishable from television. Today, the only thing resembling the freedom from advertising, tracking, and lack of corporate dominance of that early Internet is the darknet. But most users, even if they’ve heard of it, either don’t know how to access it or see it — with some justification — as a seedy underworld of illegal drug markets and hackers to be avoided. Is it time for a third net to be created? Is that even a possibility?

WH: One of the great inspirations for both Kill Process and Kill Switch is IndieWeb, the movement toward a more independent and self-owned internet. It’s a people-focused alternative to the corporate-owned web. IndieWeb is a collection of people, processes, and tools, all working together to give people control of their online presence, and the ownership of their own personal data. The darkweb is interesting from a privacy and security perspective, and it is a way to get free of the current mass government surveillance. But over the long run, I think it’s IndieWeb that is the more relevant option. Tapestry, the social network I describe in both books, is essentially what the IndieWeb would look like over the long run if it was created and funded by a truly benevolent corporate entity. But the actual IndieWeb is in many ways even more interesting because it’s being created by a loose coalition of individuals without any single leader or benevolent dictator. Anyone who wants to contribute can. Like most open source projects, they can benefit from developers, designers, writers, social media influencers. They’re building this third web right now.

That being said, IndieWeb talks about there being four generations of potential users. The first generation consists of developers, because it’s technically challenging to install and use the IndieWeb tools. The second generation consists of journalists and bloggers — people who have a considerable stakeholding in their online presence, and who are willing to invest the time and energy to benefit from IndieWeb. The third generation are people who currently run their own websites and blogs on their own personal domains. These are people who are invested enough to make those kinds of technical decisions and investments. And it’s not until we get to the fourth generation of IndieWeb users that we get to the vast bulk of people out there: users of social media like Facebook and Twitter and Instagram.

IndieWeb is currently focused on gen 1 and gen 2 users. It won’t be until the tools mature enough to be accessible to the average social media user that we’ll see IndieWeb make a serious dent in the web as we know it. My hope is that we’ll see a 10x growth in investment in IndieWeb over the next year or two. That would give it the attention, investment, and progress that it needs.

DC: Do you have any new novels planned or underway?

WH: Not yet. Most of the time when I finish a novel I have no idea what I’m going to write about next. At first that would send me into a panic. Now I’ve learned to worry less and trust more that something will come to me. I like to take a couple of months off to be creative in some other domain entirely, and then come back to writing with fresh enthusiasm.

One possible idea I might explore would be imagining what a post-social-media world might look like. One where we use technology to plan and create real-life experiences, not substitute for them.

DC: Will, thanks so very much for this fascinating discussion. I wish you every success with Kill Switch. Like Kill Process, I believe this is an important, perhaps critically important, novel that every thinking person should read. Everyone go out and buy it!

Amazon US: https://www.amazon.com/Kill-Switch-Chain-Book-ebook/dp/B07JLL5CP9

Amazon UK: https://www.amazon.co.uk/Kill-Switch-Chain-Book-ebook/dp/B07JLL5CP9

Amazon Author Page: https://www.amazon.com/William-Hertling/e/B006J8EIY6

Website: http://www.williamhertling.com/

 

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The Devil’s Workshop: an interview with author Donnally Miller

When Donnally Miller hired me to copyedit his 400-page Fantasy novel, The Devil’s Workshop, he was partly looking for a reality check. The work had, like far too many terrific books these days, been passed over by scores of agents who would rather go with the standard safe, formulaic garbage. Nothing new there.

Now, freelance editors get a lot of commissions from new writers, and consequently one’s expectations are rather low. But just a few chapters into the edit of this novel, I realized what I was reading was no standard first novel but a polished, utterly compelling work of fiction. Curious, I sent Donn an email asking how long he’d been writing, and he replied, “thirty-five years”.

So what’s it about? Donnally describes his book as

A tragic love triangle set against the background of a ripping pirate yarn.

In a sea tale filled with witches, werewolves, pirates and Indians, there are many scenes of wit and whimsy, and many more of romance and dark intrigue. The main characters, Katie and Tom, have drunk a love potion and are fated for one another, but they have parted, just as a slave rebellion and an Indian war roil the waters and transform the landscape. They will search for one another through many hazards and perils.

And this is just the moment that Crazy Dog and his pirates have chosen to enter the mouth of Cutthroat Bay in search of the giant emerald that is the eye of Maddibimbo the monkey god.

The Devil’s Workshop is a delicious, sprawling, thought-provoking epic Fantasy so well-crafted I can only compare it the work of giants like Fritz Leiber, Gene Wolfe, and Ken Liu. The worldbuilding, character work, and dialogue are on a par with anything that’s ever won the World Fantasy Award. The novel is also replete with profound, humorous, and tragic insights into the nature of love, good and evil, society, power, and human nature.

This was, in short, a book I passionately felt had to be published. I advised Donnally to go indie, and the book is now finally out in the world. I strongly advise that you read it.

Now let’s hear from Donn.

 

DC: Donnally, thanks so much for letting me interview you. I know that you’ve been writing for over three decades now. Tell me a little about your trajectory.

DM: I’ve actually been writing sporadically on and off ever since I was in high school.  My first love was drama.  My mother used to stage abridged versions of Shakespeare’s plays in our backyard when I was growing up.  In college, I spent most of my time at the college theater, working on student productions.  When I got out of college I moved to New York with the intention of becoming an actor.  I also started writing plays at that time.  Acting never worked out, and I eventually had to get a real job, but I never stopped writing plays, I even got a couple of them produced Off Off Broadway, but could never get anything accepted anywhere else.  After many years I thought I’d try fiction, so I turned one of my plays into a novella and tried sending that off, but then again got nowhere.  At that time my wife was working in admissions at a local prep school.  A young man who was helping with their IT saw my wife reading a mystery in her office one day and asked if she’d be interested in reading a story he wrote.  So she read it and brought it home for me to read.  Anyway, she told this young man I was also a writer and he asked if I’d like to join a critique group he was in.  I said sure, why not?  And I started meeting with this critique group which would get together every month at the meetings of the New Jersey Horror Writer’s Association.  So I started trying to write the sort of stories they were writing, and when I wrote some that I thought were pretty good I tried sending them out.  Of course, none of them were ever accepted.  At some point I realized that nothing I wrote was ever going to get accepted anywhere so I thought what the heck, why not try a novel?  I was in my sixties then and I’d never written a novel before, but I was well read; I knew the effect literature could have on a reader and I also knew that nobody making a living writing commercial fiction was having that effect on me, so I thought I’d write the sort of book I liked.  And I did, and it was The Devil’s Workshop.

DC: Donnally, this is a complex, sprawling, epic work. How long did it take you to write?

DM: It took me two years to write, and then six months to revise.

DC: The Devil’s Workshop seems very strongly character-driven. Tell me a little about your process. Did you plot in detail, or just give the characters free rein?

DM: As a reader I can tell the difference between a character who’s been closely observed and inhabited, and one that’s being jerked around to fit the requirements of the plot.  So yes, absolutely, for me it all starts with the characters.  I had no idea of the plot when I began the book.  I don’t care much about plot and I certainly never read a book for the plot.  In fact, till I started researching what agents were looking for, it never occurred to me that anybody would read a novel for the plot.  I’ve seen infants of one or two years, when they get Christmas presents they often get more enjoyment from the box than they do from the gift.  That’s basically how I feel about people that read a book for the plot.  Of course you’re going to ask how can I then avoid plot holes?  But you’ll find that if the characters are acting entirely naturally it is absolutely impossible for plot holes to happen because everything will be motivated by what the characters want.  It’s only artificial plots that have plot holes.

DC: Your dialogue is exceptional, and it absolutely crackles throughout this entire work. How did you get so good at it?

DM: As I said, my first attempts at writing were plays, and I wrote nothing but plays for many years, so I worked hard on dialogue.  Dialogue is the best tool there is for revealing character.  I also had the experience of seeing a couple of my plays produced, and of hearing good actors give readings of my works, even if I had to pay the actors to do it.  There’s nothing that teaches you to write dialog like hearing it acted out.

DC: I know that your father actually compiled dictionaries1. Tell me a little about that, and whether you feel that influenced your interest in fiction and writing.

DM: My father, George A. Miller, was one of the founders of the so-called cognitive revolution, and was the first person to create an online dictionary.  So I grew up around ideas about cognition and linguistics, and was familiar with Chomskyan linguistics from an early age (along with Shakespeare from my mother’s side).  A lot of the ideas that went into The Devil’s Workshop stem from that, particularly the idea that God is language.  When my father passed away, I had the pleasure of finding some of his early writings that he’d preserved from his college days, and one of them was an uncompleted novel that I’d never known anything about, but that must have meant a lot to him since he held onto it all his life.

DC: What first got you interested in Fantasy?

DM: I think that’s the wrong question.  The real question is why wouldn’t anyone be interested in fantasy?  I know what I was interested in when I was a boy, and I’ve seen my own boys grow up, and I believe that the first stories all people are interested in are fairy tales, fantasy, horror and science fiction.  Many people eventually move on and their tastes change.  Mine never really did.  There was a time in my late teens and early twenties when I started taking myself seriously and decided I should read something different, but even as I grew to love great literature I realized that much of what I loved about it was what Tolkien called an ‘arresting strangeness.’  So my love of fantasy goes hand in hand with my love of all reading.  What I’m not interested in is commercial fiction, including virtually all the fantasy being written today, but that’s because it’s dreck, not because it’s fantasy.

DC: The world in your novel, The Devil’s Workshop, is rich and complex, with a strong Alternate History feel. Did you intentionally craft it as an AH story?

DM: I was drawn to the Caribbean around 1700 because it was such an exotic environment, with pirates, Indians and slaves and I felt it had been underutilized in fantasy, unlike the typical medieval setting.  However, I didn’t want to do research to make it true to the real Caribbean.  I felt the Caribbean of my imagination was sufficient.  So I made up the world of the Coast.  This world clearly has had a classical period like the one in our world (there are references to the Bible and Socrates and so forth), so the idea was that in a world very similar to our own, when Columbus crossed the Atlantic, instead of discovering the New World that he actually discovered, he discovered this fantastical land instead.

DC: The book has a lot of strong philosophical elements and countless, very resonant insights into people. Your character work is remarkable. But I happily had no sense of a writer with an agenda which is, sadly, all too often the case with modern SFF novels. In fact, I’ve spoken to many authors who believe it’s their duty to imbue their fiction with social and political messages. What’s your feeling on this? Should fiction preach or entertain? Or can it do both?

DM: I’m glad you didn’t have that sense.  I would like the reader to be unable to spot the author intruding at any point.  Of course I’m intruding all over the place, but I don’t want to be caught in the act.  As to what fiction should do, I have no clue.  Writers should do whatever they’re interested in doing, but only if they’re able to do it.  You only sense writers with an agenda when they’re clumsy about it.  If they’re good at it, you just take it all in.  Did Orwell have an agenda when he wrote 1984?  You bet.

DC: Who are your favourite authors?

DM: In general, the writers who have taught me what writing is are Cervantes, Swift, Sterne, Fielding, Melville, Tolstoy and Dostoyevsky.  In the SFF field, Lord Dunsany, R. A. Lafferty, Jack Vance and James Branch Cabell.

DC: I know you’re a great fan of eighteenth century literature. What is it about the period and prose style that so appeals to you?

DM: Three books I discovered in my teens and valued highly were Bunyan’s Pilgrim’s Progress, Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe and Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels.  Of course they’re very different books, but one characteristic of eighteenth century literature is what I would call a devastating lucidity.  The authors of that period had a way of observing the world clearly and describing what they saw with elegance and precision.  For instance, try reading David Hume’s Treatise of Human Nature.  If anyone is better at making the most complex, abstract ideas appear simple and understandable, I’m not aware of it. I find the writers of the Enlightenment can bring the world into focus for me, while most writers of today seem more interested in obscuring what they say.  Also, when you’ve been mocked by Swift or Voltaire you have been well and truly mocked.

DC: There’s also a very strong metaphysical element to this work, as the title implies, and supernatural forces have a lot of agency in this novel. Can you talk a bit about that?

DM: As a writer, I try to use words to make the reader feel and understand things that can’t be expressed in words.  I wanted to make the reader feel that the first principles of things, including such concepts as being, substance, essence, time, space, cause, identity, etc. are linked to forces or causes that transcend the powers or the ordinary course of nature.  Any attempt to explain this linkage can only end in failure, but maybe it can be experienced in a story.  I tried to tell a story that would leave readers feeling they live in a universe that is terrifying and inexplicable and at the same time give them a good laugh.

DC: Now The Devil’s Workshop is complete, do you have any future novels planned? Would you return to this world or do something completely different?

DM: No, I don’t.  All the time I was writing this novel I felt inspired, and I’d love to feel that again.  I have started something new.  I’ve written a dynamite first chapter, but I’m having trouble coming up with chapter two.  I’m sure it’ll come to me.  It has nothing to do with the Coast.  I have no plans to return to that world.

DC: Donnally, thanks so much for your time, and I wish you every possible success with this novel. Is there anything you’d like to add?

DM: There’s always something I’d like to add, but I never know what it is till later.  I guess I’d just like to say I hope everybody enjoys the book.

 

The Devil’s Workshop is available here at Amazon in both print and Kindle format. Just do it. 🙂

To learn more about Donnally Miller, The Devil’s Workshop, and the genesis of this novel, visit https://www.donnallymiller.com/

Notes

1 Donnally Miller’s father’s remarkable online dictionary project can be found at https://wordnet.princeton.edu/  To input a word and utilize the database, just type it into the search box at http://wordnetweb.princeton.edu/perl/webwn or click the link in the lefthand sidebar of the site.

 

 

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Filed under Books and Writers, interviews, Writing

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

IN-DEPTH AUTHOR INTERVIEW SERIES

Here are the links to each of my Under the Covers interviews; enjoy!

Sara Alexi (Literary Fiction)

Aliette de Bodard (Science Fiction/Fantasy)

William Hertling (Science Fiction/Thriller)

Ken Liu (Science Fiction/Fantasy)

Mandy M. Roth (Paranormal Romance)

Loreth Ann White (Romantic Suspense/Thriller)

Under the Covers is a series of six weekly, in-depth interviews I conducted in March and April 2016 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.

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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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