Category: Book Reviews & Interviews (Page 1 of 4)

Interview with Jamie Ferguson, author of Bundle Up!

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Welcome to fellow author Jamie Ferguson!  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. AdamsMegan RutterJason Dias, MJ Bell, and Shannon Lawrence are also available.

1. First, tell us about bundles and other beasts.  Briefly, what are they, who should buy them, and where can you get them?  Optional: what’s your favorite format?

Until I started writing Bundle Up, I’d never realized how confusing the terminology can be. 🙂 I finally switched to using terms like “multi-author project” in the book to make it clear the concepts could apply to different types of projects.

Some people use “bundle” to apply to any collection of stories or books that are packaged together for sale. I’ve found that while this makes logical sense, it tends to confuse people, so I use “bundle” to refer specifically to collections of ebooks that are created using a bundling website. These sites handle splitting royalties among the participants, and may offer the option to donate a percentage of the proceeds to charity.

Other beasts include anthologies, which are collections of stories packaged together into a single book; magazines, which are similar to anthologies, but may include additional content, like essays; and boxed sets, which are collections of books in either print or ebook format. And there are even more permutations—for example, you could create a bundle of audiobooks, or a bundle of bundles of ebooks.

The three main sites where you can purchase ebook bundles are BundleRabbit, StoryBundle, and Humble Bundle. Bundles created via BundleRabbit may also be available for sale on sites like Amazon. Anything that doesn’t qualify as an ebook bundle can be sold at any retail channel that sells books.

I don’t have a favorite format—I feel that there are situations where each format works well. That said, for collections of short stories, I prefer the anthology format to the bundle format. A bundle of short stories is an ebook that contains other ebooks, so the formatting can vary quite a bit between the items in the collection. An anthology is a single book, so the formatting is consistent across all stories in the collection.

 

2. I’ve worked with you on a bunch of different projects (and, in fact, I did edits on Bundle Up!), and I know that you’re super organized, to the point where it’s almost a minor superpower.  Please gimme a story about how you came to appreciate that about yourself. I’m always interested in how people find their minor superpowers 🙂

My organizational superpower has always been there, so I can’t really remember a time when it wasn’t present. My mom says I made lists even as a small child. 🙂 What isn’t apparent to most people is that I’m super organized in giant swaths, but will ignore other areas if they’re not as important to me at the moment.

For example, once a month or two I’ll have built up a pile of papers and books and random things that eventually gets so high it starts to block my monitor, or I won’t have any room left to put my tea. At this point I “clean my desk,” which usually involves sorting through some things, and moving the rest to a pile elsewhere in my jam-packed office. But the colorful spreadsheets I use to track the writing and publishing projects I work on are very detailed and structured.

It’s kind of like synesthesia. I associate letters and numbers with colors, and didn’t realize until I was well into adulthood that most people don’t do this type of thing because this seems so normal to me that I rarely even think about it.

 

3. Your book is featured in the Nano Writing Tools Bundle aimed at writers doing a project for the National Novel Writing Month.  How did you get involved with that bundle, and has it been a positive experience?

I’d been planning on writing Bundle Up! for a long time, but kept putting it off partly because I felt I didn’t have enough experience, and partly because the idea of writing a non-fiction book was a little frightening. In the summer of 2018, Mark Leslie Lefebvre interviewed me about bundles, curation, and collaboration on his Stark Reflections podcast. I mentioned writing my book during the interview—I figured that by committing to the project in a public forum I’d put pressure on myself to finally start on the project—and my plan worked! I told Chuck Heintzelman, the founder of BundleRabbit, that I’d finally started working on the manuscript. He mentioned it to Kevin J. Anderson, the curator of the NaNoWriMo Writing Tools bundle, and Kevin contacted me and extended an invitation—with the obvious caveat that my book would have to be done.

I was super excited about this opportunity. Not only had I started writing my book, I also had the opportunity to be part of the annual NaNoWriMo bundle! Having a super firm deadline meant I had to buckle down and focus, which I did. I’d probably still be poking at the manuscript if I hadn’t had this opportunity.

In addition to all that, it’s not only been a really fun experience to be a part of this collection, I’m also a fan of the charity we’re working with. The Challenger Center for Space Science Education, a non-profit education organization founded by the families of the crew of the space shuttle Challenger, gets a portion of the proceeds from the NaNoWriMo bundle.

 

4. If a writer wanted to get involved in a bundle, what would be the best way to do that? What would make it worth it for an author to organize a bundle of their own?  

Networking is by far the best way to get involved in a bundle or any other kind of multi-author project. It’s not the only way, of course. You can submit a story in response to an anthology call, put your ebook up in BundleRabbit’s Marketplace, etc. But if you connect with other authors, they’ll be more likely to invite you to participate in a project.

There are a lot of things to take into consideration if you’re interested in organizing a collection. Most people just decide to do it and jump right in, which is exactly how I ended up curating my first collection a few years ago. 🙂 But I know several authors who organized one collection and then swore they’d never do it again, and there are several main reasons why. There’s a lot of cat herding involved—as the curator, you need to make sure the authors sign the contract, get their stories/ebooks in on time, give you biographies, and so on. You also need to plan on doing a fair amount of promotion, and/or rely on the authors to help out—but not all authors understand how to do this. One of the most common complaints I hear from curators is that they expected the authors to pitch in more on the marketing side.

 

5. If you had one tip for authors on how to make the impact of the bundles (and anthologies) they’re in more effective, what would it be?  

I’m going to cheat and give two tips, since I consider them both important. 🙂

The first is to figure out what you can do—and are willing to do—to promote the collection, and do it! Ideally, think this through ahead of time so that you can schedule time to write promotional posts, put together marketing images, and so on.

The second is to collaborate on promotion. I’ve found collaboration with other authors to be a huge benefit of multi-author collections. Not only can this help promote the collection, by working on marketing with other authors, you’re also promoting each other.

 

and last but not least, the bonus question:

6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on?  (Hint: the additional promo question.)

Be creative! 🙂

One of the sections in my book is called Think Outside the Boxed Set. It contains examples of less common ways to use story/book collections, like creating a collective of authors who share tasks related to a series of collections. (Examples of this particular approach include the Uncollected Anthology, which I joined in 2018, and Boundary Shock Quarterly, a speculative fiction magazine created by Blaze Ward.) There are always more ways of doing things! Don’t allow yourself to be constrained by what you’ve seen others do—give yourself the freedom to think of new ideas, and try them out!

 

Think Like a Librarian: Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination, by Edogawa Rampo

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

Japanese Tales of Mystery and Imagination by Edogawa Rampo is a collection of short stories set in Japan.  The stories are all written with hats off to Edgar Allen Poe (the author’s name is a pseudonym based on his favorite writer) and his collection Tales of Mystery and Imagination.

To sum up: if a reader likes the grotesque horror and odd mysteries of Edgar Allen Poe, then they will probably like this collection, which is similar.

As an example, the story depicted on the cover above is “The Human Chair.”  A writer sends a manuscript to his favorite (female) author in the form of a letter written directly to her, about an artisan who crafted wonderful chairs and who developed an obsession about becoming part of his own furniture…and so hid himself inside one of his chairs after it was sold to a hotel.  It gets weirder, stranger, and more grotesque from there, although certainly never obscene.

Each story is stranger and more inventive than the last.

I recommend this book for older teens and up.  Readers who enjoy Edgar Allen Poe, The Twilight Zone, or Alfred Hitchcock will find much to delight them here.

“What everyone wants to see,” the crow said, “is someone getting eaten.  Preferably someone who deserves it.”  17 tales of monsters & the macabre.

Interview with Shannon Lawrence, author of Blue Sludge Blues & Other Abominations

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Welcome to fellow author Shannon Lawrence!  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. AdamsMegan Rutter, Jason Dias, and MJ Bell are also available.

1. This collection is made up of short, creepy horror tales, not necessarily splatterpunk but not broodingly gothic, either. What made you decide to write in this particular vein of horror?  It feels both adventurous in the classic pulp adventure sense, and very thick with detail and observation that lead inevitably to creepiness and suspense.

It was never really a decision. These were the stories coming to me, and I wrote them in whatever way spoke to me. It wasn’t until more recently that I started really experimenting with different types of horror, including some quieter horror. However, I do love the classic, blue collar sort of horror, and that’s probably always what I’ll write the most naturally. My first influence in horror was Stephen King, and I feel he’s telling blue collar tales, too. I like straight forward, hopefully identifiable characters, doing normal things that prove to be a mistake in the end. Life is unpredictable, and I hope I reflect that to an extent.

 

2. This collection contains the locally infamous Blue Sludge Blues story that I heard you read part of at an event. Please briefly describe the setup for the story…and the reactions you received at the event.  (I know, I’ve heard the story behind the story before, but it’s a good one and I want you to share it anyway because heee hee hee!)

That was the most fun I’ve had reading a story! When I set out to write Blue Sludge Blues, it was meant to be an experiment in visceral horror. I asked people what words grossed them out or gave them an automatic negative feeling. And then I wrote about one of the most disgusting, uncomfortable places a person can go: a rest stop port-a-potty.

The story features a man moving across the country. He stops at a rest stop, where something waits for him, deep in the blue sludge of the chemical toilet. Something with tentacles. A quick bathroom break becomes a fight for his life.

When I read it at an open mic night, I wanted to see how people would respond. It wasn’t quite finished yet, but the gross details were there already. It was nerve-wracking, because I thought I might offend someone. Instead, there were groans, exclamations, and laughs at all the right places, and it was impossible to read it with a straight face as people sounded off around the room. They were grossed out and horrified, as I’d intended, and it remains my most requested short story.

 

3. How do you decide what kind of ending you end the stories with–from happy to tragic? It sounds like it’s a process, with some endings on some stories garnering some pretty harsh rejections.  What was the worst reaction you’ve ever received, and did you decide it was all about the person rejecting the story, about the ending being wrong for the story, or something of both?

I hate to say it for this answer, too, but I don’t plan most endings. I’m a complete pantser, sometimes not knowing where I’m going until I’m in the thick of it. I’ve been told I tend to write circular stories, with the ending doing a bit of a callback to something in the beginning, so I’d say the endings are instinctual. I had no idea I was doing that until someone pointed it out. Admittedly, I lean toward more tragic endings or the false happy ending. Likely because those are the types of endings I grew up reading and watching in horror films.

I haven’t had anyone ask for a new ending, but I’ve had issues with details within the story. The one I had the most issues with was for a story called Cravings, about a pregnant couple dealing with some disturbing cravings. Originally, the couple had a dog. At one point, the husband came home to find his pregnant wife gnawing on the dog’s neck. It lived. My first rejection came from an editor who said I should have gone all the way and killed the dog, and he was disappointed I hadn’t done so. I went ahead and changed it to see what would happen. Sure enough, personal rejections came in because I’d harmed a dog (and to be clear, I was not submitting to markets that blatantly forbade harm to animals in their guidelines). They weren’t nasty (in fact, they were complimentary of my writing style), and they said they liked the idea of the story, but they wouldn’t publish it because the dog died. Or, as one woman said, she couldn’t handle “the slow, awful death of the dog.” (It was intentionally not slow and awful—I don’t do animal torture—but it obviously bothered her). I stubbornly went on submitting the two versions of the story to various publications, and it netted me the most personal rejections I’ve ever gotten on one story. They liked the idea and the writing, but that dog (poor Jauncy) was trouble, no matter which direction I went.

Ultimately, I removed the dog entirely and rewrote the story to actually be slightly more extreme on the one hand and more discreet on the other. No harm to an animal was directly depicted.  I was deeply frustrated, and couldn’t decide between the two courses of action, so I figured out a third instead.

I definitely felt it came down to personal preferences for the different editors, not so much this detail being wrong for the story. My critique group was sad to learn I’d changed the story to remove the dog. I’d gotten exactly the reactions from them that I’d intended when they read the original piece, but sometimes it’s best to let it go. With such mixed reactions from editors, the readers were going to have equally mixed reactions.

 

4. You, M.B. Partlow, and I have been reading through several lists of horror novels over the last few years (it feels weird to say that, but it’s been going on for a while, hasn’t it?). Who do you feel that you’ve discovered through those lists that you most relate to, as a writer?  Not necessarily the book you enjoyed the most, although feel free to mention that.  What techniques have you stolen or borrowed?  What have you simply said a big fat “nope” to?

It has been a few years, hasn’t it? That’s hard to process.

The story that struck me the most (so far) was Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale. It gave me a new understanding of horror. I was already familiar with monsters, both human and animal, but this book has varying levels of human monster, and the big ones, the ones that put this dystopian landscape into play, are never seen. We only see the results of their actions. Other than that, they’re faceless. It’s astoundingly well done.

Other than that, I learned a LOT about what makes up horror. In the beginning, there were books I’d read and I had no idea why they’d been classified as horror. But I’d think about it, tear my ideas apart, and eventually expanded my definition of horror. All horror authors should have an epiphany like that one. As it is, I still have people argue with me about The Handmaid’s Tale being horror. People also have trouble understanding that a story can be horror-plus. As in, it can be horror and science fiction. We don’t have to pick one genre. The film Aliens can be both horror and science fiction. In fact, it can be horror, science fiction, military sci-fi, and action/adventure. It can be all those things without diminishing it or changing its meaning to any one person.

Overall, the entire project helped me become bolder and more experimental with my writing. I’m more willing to play because of what I’ve experienced in the books on the list. For the most part, I’ve also stopped saying, “That wasn’t horror,” instead immersing myself in it and picking it apart until I can see why someone else might have defined it as horror.

One of the skills it’s made me work to hone is holding back. Sometimes I rush forward, so excited to get to the big freaky thing. It’s more effective not to do that, and it takes finesse.

My big nope? The nonsensical, bizarro, political weirdness of William S. Burroughs’ Naked Lunch. Too abstract for me.

 

5. Where do you think you’ll go from here with your writing? I know a lot of short story writers end up writing novels, often because it pays more (at least, in theory).  If you were able to make a living at short stories, would you stick with those, or still work your way into novels?

I was actually working on novels first, and I do have a few in the works, but I enjoy my time with short stories so much more that I rarely work on the novels. There’s a roller coaster high-low addiction to short story writing, submitting, and publishing. Instead of one or two novel releases a year, I have a bunch of releases, and the excitement involved in them. Sometimes I’ve got multiple releases at once! Plus, there’s a kinship with the people sharing the tables of contents with me at times, as well as the editors. It’s a fantastic community, and one that’s growing.

Novels move at glacial speeds. Short stories are rapid and exciting. I’ve been published with big names that I’d never share space with in writing any other way.

In short? I’d love to also have novels published, though not for the money so much as the fact that some of my story ideas simply turn out to need a novel’s length to tell, and they want out as much as the short stories do. Well, almost as much. I don’t see myself ever giving up short stories. I’m making the same amount monthly from my collection of short stories that friends with one novel out are making. It’s not a lot…for either of us (bearing in mind I’m speaking only of self-published friends with a single novel out), but we’re running parallel in terms of royalties. And in addition to that one book, I sell short stories throughout the year, which is a meager additional income they’re not bringing in.

I’m also playing around with short memoir/creative non-fiction and working on a craft book on short stories, so we’ll see where that takes me.

 

and last but not least, the bonus question:

6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on? (Hint:  the additional promo question.)

Writing short stories has led me to opportunities I wouldn’t have otherwise had. At the same time, I’ve had a lot of the same benefits and opportunities as novelists, such as being picked up to speak at conferences, be a panelist at conventions, do standalone workshops, participate in book signings, etc. Short stories have a natural ebb and flow, like many other aspects of writing, but right now they’re flowing. It’s a great time to try your hand at short stories to see how you do. Short fiction is selling especially well in the speculative fiction realm, so give it a go!

And those opportunities I mentioned? I’ve got a piece coming out September 4 in an anthology with some of the most amazing, up-and-coming women in horror. I’m incredibly excited about it, and there are already rumblings of an award nomination for the book, as well as a review in Publisher’s Weekly. If nothing else, it’s made a stir. Most of the stories are reprints (including mine), but there are also new stories written for the anthology. That book is Fright Into Flight, put out by Word Horde, edited by Amber Fallon.

And I’m in an anthology of novellas and novellettes, due to be released September 15. The Society of Misfit Stories, Volume II can be found here.

A fan of all things fantastical and frightening, Shannon Lawrence writes primarily horror and fantasy. Her stories can be found in several anthologies and magazines, including Space and Time Magazine and Dark Moon Digest, and her short story collection Blue Sludge Blues & Other Abominations is now available. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking through the wilds of Colorado and photographing her magnificent surroundings, where, coincidentally, there’s always a place to hide a body or birth a monster. Find her at www.thewarriormuse.com.

Think Like a Librarian: The Vegetarian, by Han Kang

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

The Vegetarian is a short novel set in contemporary Korea.  Yeong-hye is a housewife who, after a terrible dream, decides to become a vegetarian.  Because her role is so restrictive and other people’s understanding of her humanity so limited by her circumstances, her decision–seemingly so minor–comes to have horrific effects.

Because this is a story about one’s point of view being invalidated, the story is told from other characters’ points of view, in three novelettes.  The first is from her husband’s point of view; he is incredulous that she will not eat meat, and even more incredulous that she won’t start eating meat because he told her to.

The second is from her brother-in-law’s point of view as he turns her into a kind of living art object, only caring about whether she will model for his video art or not.

The third is from her sister’s point of view, as she struggles to decide whether to treat her sister as a person with a will of her own or as an inconvenient bit of living meat after everything else has been stripped for her.

The Vegetarian is one of the world’s perfect book club books; it’s short and easily readable, and it’s almost guaranteed to provoke interesting discussions.  Are the events of the book fully realistic, or do they have any sort of supernatural implication?  Is the book a fairy tale or not?  How should the people closest to Yeong-hye have reacted?  Who was at fault?  Readers’ emotional reactions will also vary greatly; I found the book very Kafkaesque and ironically funny at times (as I do with Kafka).  Other readers have said they found the book tragic and moving.

I recommend this book for adults and older teens; there is no strong language, but shocking situations, including graphic sex and violence, abound.  Readers who are interested in modern-day fairy tales will also find this of great interest; the story reads like a retelling of an old fairy tale that one hasn’t happened to have read yet.  The book should also be of interest to readers who enjoy weird fiction such as Jeff VanderMeer’s Annihilation.  I read this in one sitting, and enjoyed it very much.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

Interview with M.J. Bell, author of Next Time I See You

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Welcome to fellow author M.J. Bell, also author of The Chronicles of the Secret Prince trilogy.  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. AdamsMegan Rutter, and Jason Dias are also available.

1. I know you worked hard on making the time travel as accurate as possible.  Can you tell me (well, the blog readers really, since you’ve already told me) which theory of time travel you picked, why you picked it?

I wanted to write a time travel story for as long as I can remember. But I wanted it to be scientific, not magical, and that was a problem since a normal person, like my main character, Kat, had no way of getting access to a rocket ship to fly close to a black hole or fly at the speed of light, or access to a wormhole or cosmic strings—the only ways time travel is possible, according to the top physicists of the world. And though I could have just made something up, I don’t have a scientific brain and I knew readers are savvy and I didn’t want to disappoint them with some lame excuse of a time machine. But I kept researching, hoping to find a way, and a couple years ago, I found it—an article about a college professor back East who had developed a hypothesis that stated that light could bend the space time continuum into a loop in which a person could then travel forward in time. At that time, he was also in the process of building a real time machine. The minute I read that, I dropped the story I was working on and immediately started writing Next Time I See You. It didn’t really matter if the professor got his time machine to work or not (and as far as I know, to date he still hasn’t), his hypothesis was a solid, scientific base for me to use, and after doing extensive research on quantum physics and talking the subject over with several physicists, Kat’s time machine was born, and I have no doubt that someday the professor will get it to work!

2. Your character goes back in time to assassinate the mass shooter who killed her boyfriend (he wasn’t her fiancé) .  Would you have tried to do what your character did, in a similar situation?  What do you feel like drove her to even try, where so many people would have just gone, “Not possible!”

That’s a good question, and one I’m not sure I can give a definite answer to! While losing a loved one would be horrific, and losing them in a mass shooting would triple that horror, I don’t know that I would have the guts to go through a time machine and face a killer. But I could see myself hiring someone else to do it for me! Haha…

And I don’t know that my character, Kat, would have gone through with it either if she had been able to process her grief in a normal way and been in her right mind. But she wasn’t. She went to a very dark place after the shooting and the dementors had swooped in, circling overhead and sucking her life out. At the point she discovered the time machine, she had lost just about everything and didn’t feel like she had anything left to lose.

3. All right, what other time travel books/movies/shows do you actually like?  Or do they all just drive you nuts?

Well, who doesn’t love the Back to the Future movies? I also enjoyed the first three Outlander books and the TV series, but not so much because of the time travel aspect—because of the history and Gabaldon’s writing. But to be truthful, a lot of time travel books and shows drive me nuts! I can’t help but pick out the inconsistencies, and it always drives me crazy when a person from our time goes back hundreds of years and is able to fit right in. I think that’s why I always wanted to write a time travel. I was going to make my character have a hard time and fumble everything, because realistically, I think that’s how it would happen. A person from this time, who is used to technology and all the conveniences we have today, would not have a clue as to how to deal without. But then, as it turned out, Kat only went back in time sixteen months, so she didn’t have to deal with a different time period. Although, there were still plenty of hurdles for her to get over!

4. As you know, I got waaaay too involved with the main character and was very upset that she was being put through the wringer in the beginning of the book.  How did you add so much tension?

I’m sorry I put you through that, but I wanted readers to be inside Kat’s head, and as I mentioned earlier, that wasn’t a pleasant place to be. But it made for great tension and that was necessary to the story. I also wanted readers to understand she wasn’t a bad person. She was just very broken and with good reason. And she needed to be backed into a corner and desperate enough to make the decision to kill the POS. Otherwise, there wouldn’t have been any story to tell!

5. What are you planning for your next project?  As in, how do you follow a book like this?!?

Ha! One of my favorite TED talks is by Elizabeth Gilbert, author of Eat, Pray, Love. She starts out talking about how after the success of that book, people would come up to her, pat her on the arm, and look at her with sympathy and say, “Wow, how are you ever going to top that?” I’m not anyway close to being on Gilbert’s level, but I kind of feel the same way – what am I going to do now to top this! I loved Kat’s story and it is hard to move away from it, but I still have that urban fantasy that I put aside to write Next Time I See You. I’m getting back to it, researching facts and logistics and I’m sure in another month or so, I’ll be completely involved with it. The title of it will be Three.

and last but not least, the bonus question:

6. Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on?  (Hint:  the additional promo question.)

The experience Kat had in meeting the blue-eyed stranger (a.k.a Blue-eyes) was actually taken from a personal experience. It was long, LONG ago, but I still remember it as if it was yesterday. A friend and I were taking our daughters to their first concert, and due to the size of the event, we had to park quite a distance from the stadium. Fortunately, they had shuttles set up to transport us. When we got on the shuttle, all seats were taken and we had to stand in the center aisle. I turned and looked behind me and straight into the most mesmerizing blue eyes I have ever seen. I have never to this day seen eyes that color, and just like Kat, I instantly felt queasy and started shaking all over. It was the most intense déjà vu experience I’ve ever had. My friend and no one else around me seemed to be affected the same way I was, but I swear, I could have sat and stared into those eyes for the rest the night. All I did, though, was throw a few glances his way, as many as I felt I could get away with, because he was a stranger and I didn’t want to be caught staring. The shuttle ride was way too short and before I knew it, we were off the bus and going our separate ways. Those eyes have haunted me ever since and I’ve always regretted not knowing his story, and never thought I would find it out. But then he appeared again in this book, and Kat, being a lot braver than I, was able to uncover the answer for both of us. It’s there in Next Time I See You, if any of you are interested in knowing it too!

M.J. Bell is an award-winning author (Gold in the Mom’s Choice Awards) of the Teen/YA Fantasy trilogy, Chronicles of the Secret Prince, and the science/fantasy, Next Time I See You.

Having escaped the mosquito-infested land of Iowa where she grew up, and the scorpion-infested land of Arizona where she was transplanted for way too long, she now lives happily ever after in Colorado, spreading magic wherever she can as a full-time writer, full-time babysitter, full-time cheerleader, full-time cook/housekeeper, and full-time taxi cab driver.

 

Interview with Jason Dias, author of Life on Mars

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Welcome to fellow author Jason Dias, author of Sanguine Vengeance, The Worst of Us, Endpoint of Sentience, and more.  Previous interviews with Richard BambergRob ChanskyP.R. Adams, and Megan Rutter are also available.

1. Your book starts out with a character, Jaye, who feels she isn’t human because she was, among other things, born on Mars.  What made you head that direction for this book?  Did you related to her experiences personally, or do they reflect what you’re seeing out in the world?

I’m alienated in a lot of ways. We didn’t have autism when I was a kid; I found out about it quite recently. In the 70s I wasn’t autistic, I was just weird. That weirdness alienated me. It didn’t help to be bi-national – British and American. When we lived over there, I was too American for Brits; over here, I was always too British for Americans. So because of a) weird and b) nationality, I was always friends with the outcast groups and otherwise an outsider.

It wasn’t until graduate school that I was allowed to join the grown-up table of life. And, as a psychologist, there is finally value in the outsider perspective. I get to make the implicit explicit in ways that are socially valuable.

Jaye is an attempt to integrate the past life as outsider into the present life as a real boy. Writing her not only describes but creates some of my experience. I wouldn’t say doing this work was fun; I cried the whole time I wrote this book. Both times – I wrote it twice! But the experience was too valuable not to share.

2. I noticed that you did a lot of hard science fiction in this book–a fair amount of research and math.  What were a couple of the more interesting topics that you had to research?

The old adage for writers is to “write what you know.” I tend to ascribe to that philosophy, but also make it a point to know a lot of stuff. I remember being an unconsciously know-it-all ten-year-old boy aggravating my mother. She said, “You know something about everything, don’t you?” And it wasn’t until decades later I figured out that wasn’t a compliment.

I did very little specific research for this book. I read a few news articles to bring myself up to date on Mars; our planetary knowledge always grows. But I worked in Space Command in the 90s, so I already came equipped with some basic knowledge of orbital mechanics, rocketry, space travel and so on. I worked twenty years in developmental disabilities and have a doctorate in psychology as well as my personal experiences of difference. I’m personally concerned about climate change and interested in intelligence real and artificial. Someone else might have had to do significant reading and integration to write this story but it by and large came naturally to me because I write what I know, but I know a lot of stuff.

Remember Friday, the Robert Heinlein character? God, that story was hardly a feminist epic, but some of it resonated with me as a young man. At one point, the super-assassin and sometime space traveler, Friday, gets assigned a desk. It’s a research desk; her job is an early form of “ask me anything.” Customers ask questions, she dives data to find answers. Her boss wants her to naturally learn a big underlying principle of her fictional universe, arriving at her own conclusions by knowing a bunch of diverse topics. This has accidentally been my life, from being a librarian to a space systems operator to food service and retail, developmental disabilities, psychiatry and psychology.

3.  For what it’s worth, do you feel that it’s reasonable to put humans on Mars?  Do you think we “should,” whether it’s reasonable or not?  Where should we head with our space program, in your opinion?

The barriers to life on Mars are significant. Even the soil is toxic. No amount of terraforming can create an atmosphere because there isn’t enough gravity or a molten metal core to create a magnetic field to deflect solar particles. Not impossible, but a huge challenge with a lot of one-way tickets involved.

The question wouldn’t be so much could we or even should we as why would you want to?

Lately, I see interest in Martian colonies as the desire for an escape hatch. And stories about such colonies are very popular at this moment in history. The thing is, it isn’t a viable escape hatch by any realistic measure, and thinking of it in those terms distracts from very real Earthly problems: climate change, environmental degradation (especially affecting ocean life), geopolitics including the decline of democracy at home and abroad.

I’m generally a pessimist about space travel. Too costly, too slow, and ultimately not much point. My Martian colony was established not as an escape hatch at all but as the appearance of one: to give people small hope in the last days of of a viable Earth. As long as they thought they could win a ticket off-planet, there was some continuing reason to go on. This is why the colony is under-resourced at the time we drop in to visit. It was never really meant to succeed.

Going to Mars is probably a thing we need to do – to study it, to gain our space-legs (as Heinlein would say), to prove to ourselves that we have courage and fortitude. But thinking of our human future has to focus on our one and only home, the place where we keep all our stuff.

 4. Your book has a very philosophical bent, but in what struck me as a very rebellious sort of way, which reminded me of books like The Master and Margarita and Roadside Picnic, as well as Stanislaw Lem.  Can you tell me where you were coming from on a philosophical level, and whether you feel you achieved your aims in that respect?

I remember again being a child, a young man this time. It was a humanities class and I must have been 15. The subject was future careers, and I asked if there were any money in philosophy. Everybody laughed and I didn’t understand why. Luckily, they thought I was kidding. But I’ve always wanted to make my living thinking through complex human problems. At first, as a writer – I idolized Asimov and King and Clarke. Later, as a psychologist. When I discovered existential psychology, this little corner of psychology was balm for wounds I didn’t know I had.

In academia, we spend too much time writing for journals with narrow scope. I’m have a few publications aimed at humanistic and existential practitioners. That’s fine, but it’s a lot of work to swap stories with people who already agree with me. I’m a lazy man at heart, and if I have a choice between writing in APA style and being punched in the face, I have to ask “how hard?”

My fiction is definitely a way of getting out the intellectual and emotional treasures I’ve discovered in existential psychology and sharing them with people in an accessible, hands-on way. More like a discovery center where you can touch everything, play with it, see how it works, and definitely less like an old museum with everything dimly lit and under UV protective glass.

In a way this is intentional, a goal. In another way, “existential psychologist” isn’t just a job you can do; it’s an identity. I had to remake myself as a human to do this. So the philosophy isn’t only something a know but who I am as a person, and the best way to share it isn’t to talk about it but to embody it. I am grateful to a whole host of kindly teachers and mentors, some of whom are now dear friends, for being with me through this work.

It’s for sure an act of rebellion to write stories in this mode. Putting “literary” on the cover is the kiss of death for a modern novel. I ended up doing everything myself because this work is not at all commercial. It’s for a particular kind of reader: one willing to think, grasp for meanings, and to share in my sadness.

It still makes me cry to read it, so I would say it is a success in that limited fashion: it’s authentic. It isn’t modified to fit a market. It’s me. Beyond that, I couldn’t say.

5.  Where do you plan to go in the next book in this series?  Without giving away too many spoilers, por favor… I struggled to imagine that the first book could get resolved, so it’s been boggling my mind.  “Where do you even GO from here?”

Not planning a series here. I’m flattered that people keep asking: it means that someone has really identified with the characters and immersed in the world such that they aren’t ready to leave it. That is gratifying and I’m extremely pleased. For me, too, Jaye’s little world holds enough attraction that I do have the tickles of ideas for more stories.

There is a prequel already: What Hope Wrought visits the last days of the Earth Jaye’s father conspires to leave. Some of the characters in Finding Life on Mars also inhabit this dying world in at least minor ways. That story, too, focuses on a character struggling with the notion of being human.

The last page of FLOM does offer a direction for future inquiry. I’d invite folks to read that last page again. If another book emerges in this universe, it will explore that final event, and be related to the problems of the dying Earth in WHW: synthetic life, artificial intelligence.

Finally, there is a crossover story linking What Hope Wrought to Finding Life on Mars. “The Endpoint of Sentience,” the titular story in a collection of shorts, visits some of the logic and tragedy of the final intelligent decisions of Merlin’s inhuman offspring left behind on Earth.

and last but not least, the bonus question:

6.  Is there any note that you’d like to leave your readers on?  (Hint:  the additional promo question.)

If you like this meditative, broody style of writing, Finding Life on Mars is far from my only work. I write across genres, always reflecting though on basic existential truths. For Love of Their Children does this work in a high fantasy setting, additionally throwing diversity into a genre that lately is much too Euro-centric and hyper-masculine. The Worst of Us is a supernatural thriller that, underneath the horror-story pacing and terse thriller structure is a meditation on guilt.

But before rushing off to fill the empty space we all find inside us when we finish reading a novel, I’d love if readers took some time to consult themselves about this story. Did you cry? Did you identify with a character? Was there any emotional content beyond entertainment? Discomfort? It would be lovely to sit with whatever came up in the course of reading this thing, and I’d love to hear about it.

 

Jason Dias is a doctor of clinical psychology with fifteen years of experience working with developmentally disabled adults, four with people in severe states at the psychiatric hospital, and nine doing international psychology. He is co-founder of the Zhi Mian Institute for International Existential Psychology, an organization helping Chinese psychotherapists to acquire counseling skills and develop professional infrastructure.

Additionally, Jason writes. His credits include web journals and articles for The New Existentialists and A New Domain, two book chapters about existential psychology, a book of poetry and several novels and anthologies. He worries that academic writers spend too much time writing for journals only read by people who already agree with them and tries to get big ideas out in other formats.

Jason lives in Colorado Springs with his wife and son and keeps mostly to himself.

Think Like a Librarian: The Stanley Parable, by Davey Wreden and William Pugh

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

By Source (WP:NFCC#4), Fair use, Link

The Stanley Parable is a video game, not a book.  I had planned to stick to reviewing books and graphic novels for this series, but The Stanley Parable was such a storyteller’s story that I couldn’t resist.

Dear gamers:  I know you know about this game already.  This review isn’t for you 🙂

Some stories don’t tell “a story” in and of itself so much as they are about stories, in general.  The Stanley Parable is a game about stories and how we use them to view our lives, and how stories are used to control our lives.  It questions the nature of storytelling itself, as a kind of funhouse mirror that both distorts and reveals.

The setup is this:  A man named Stanley is working in his office when he realizes that something mysterious has happened.  He’s perfectly happy at his job, and yet…now that this mysterious thing has happened, he has a few questions.  It is your job, as the player, to help him ask them, even though he literally doesn’t have a voice.  Meanwhile, a narrator narrates Stanley’s every move, more or less (often less) accurately, in a “Stephen Fry as the Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy” voice.

The Stanley Parable, to me, hits the same buttons as a Douglas Adams book.  By turns funny and darkly satirical, this is the kind of story that one might expect the Guide to have under an expanded entry for “Earth.”

I recommend it for mature middle-school students and up, and for adults who enjoyed Douglas Adams.  Gamers have probably already played this simple, not-terribly-difficult game, but if you find one who hasn’t, it’s almost a sure winner.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

Think Like A Librarian: Invisible Man, by Ralph Ellison

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view. Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

I’m just going to say it.  Sometimes works of pure genius don’t get noticed by white people, because they’re written by and about people of color, and white people are trained to go, “Fiction by people of color isn’t meant for me.”

It’s a subconscious thing.  Which means you can go, “I don’t take a writer’s race into consideration,” and still end up reading no or very little fiction written by people of color.

Which is a shame.

 

Invisible Man is a book set in the 1940s, about a young black man who learns to embrace the Catch-22 setup of his existence.  It’s a funny book, with the main character being thrown from one ridiculous Kafkaesque situation to another, until finally he comes to realize that his trials have given him a unique superpower:  to be unseen by the people around him in an almost literal fashion.

The book isn’t just darkly funny, but is written with the ear of a jazz musician:

I am invisible, understand, simply because people refuse to see me. Like the bodiless heads you see sometimes in circus sideshows, it is as though I have been surrounded by mirrors of hard, distorting glass. When they approach me they see only my surroundings, themselves or figments of their imagination, indeed, everything and anything except me.

I recommend it for people who are fans of Beat writers like Kerouac, Ginsberg, or Ferlinghetti.  Poetry fans looking for fiction may enjoy the layers of subtle language.  And for those who love the dark humor of Kafka, Catch-22, or The Manchurian Candidate may find this book just as biting and cynical.  Older, more mature teens may enjoy this as well.

But to let the book speak for itself:

Life is to be lived, not controlled; and humanity is won by continuing to play in face of certain defeat.

A wonderful book.

Thoughtful book recommendations – prose off the beaten path – one terrible pun per month – no questions asked.  Wonderland Press Newsletter.

Think Like a Librarian – The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie, by Muriel Spark

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

The Prime of Miss Jean Brodie is a short novel set in the period between WWI and WWII, in Edinburgh.  Miss Jean Brodie is a teacher at a girls’ middle school who has particular notions about how to teach girls how to become women.  One of her students reminisces upon her past under Miss Brodie.

At first, Miss Brodie’s ideas seem quite sensible:  girls should be taught how to be independent, how to think for themselves.  Maybe there’s something more important than memorizing facts and learning how to shut up and sit down.  She picks out the six most interesting, special girls to take under her wing.  They become “the Brodie set.”

Then the little things start to stack up.  Miss Brodie does not want the girls to think for themselves; she wants them to agree with her.  She monopolizes their time so they can’t become friends with anyone else.  She tests them constantly, trying to find out which ones she can trust.

And, in the end, she is betrayed.

This book was written in 1961.  After WWII, that is.  And a strong current running underneath the events of the book is fascism:  how it happens, how people get sucked in, how they come to lose their identities, and how it all collapses.

I recommend this book for anyone who wants to know how Hitler operated; just ask Miss Brodie.  It’s a great book for mature early teens (13+) and older students especially, I would think.  Anyone reading The Hunger Games and wondering how something like that gets started might be up for a good conversation about this book.  I would also recommend it for teens interested in horror – is this horror or not?  What does a horror story look like, when it comes from the bad guys’ point of view?

Look.  You just want like one stupid pun per month in your inbox.  I understand.  Sign up for the Wonderland Press newsletter and I’ll send you one, along with (my) book news and reviews.  Mystery, horror, history, and just plain weird.  It’s cool.

 

 

Think Like A Librarian – Her Body and Other Parties, by Carmen Maria Machado

I’m trying to look at books the way a librarian might, in order to help get me better at thinking from a reader’s point of view.  Here are the other posts in the series.

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Her Body and Other Parties is a collection of short stories that centers around the horrific in a kind of fairy-tale way.  (I recently talked about the relationship between horror and fairy tales here.)  The writing is clear, elegant, and readable.  “Once upon a time, there was a woman who…” is the main format of the stories, although I don’t recall the phrase “once upon a time” actually being used.

The stories do not stay with the usual territory of “once upon a time, there was a woman who stepped out of bounds in the deep, dark woods and got what was coming to her, only to be rescued at the last minute,” or “once upon a time, there was a woman whose home was more of a danger than she thought, and she got out at the last minute with the help of a prince.”

I think it’s fair to say that this book covers territory even further out of bounds than the normal run of fairy tales.  “Once upon a time, there was a woman who liked sex, and…”

The women in these stories have to deal with the consequences of their own desires, in a way that goes beyond a mere caution not to have them in the first place.  They don’t always walk away from that reckoning, and they never walk away unchanged, although sometimes they do end up with someone who feels right.

I would especially recommend this collection for women, queer, and non-binary readers who are exploring their sexuality at any age, and who don’t want to be lectured.  I would also recommend this for male readers who are feminists or who are exploring the issue, or who have a broad range of tastes in the horror genre.  This book would make an excellent book club book as well–there are a thousand and one discussions to be had about this book among readers of horror, but also romance and crime stories.

I should give a caution about one particular story in the book, “Especially Heinous.”  The structure is of an alternate Law & Order SVU TV episode guide, and really does include 272 episode descriptions of same.  The plotlines build and interweave with each other, becoming increasingly strange, yet meaningful.  The first few pages are necessarily not as rewarding as the rest of the story.  In other words, stick with it; it becomes something truly memorable.

Looking for more book recommendations?  I always include more in the Wonderland Press newsletter.  Sign up here.

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