Recently, we reviewed “Strings on a shadow puppet”. His author has answered our questions in this interesting interview. You can also read it in Spanish.
When did you know you wanted to become a writer?
I always loved stories, particularly speculative fiction (Science fiction, Fantasy and the like), but I really started writing myself at the age of about twelve. That was when I really discovered Tolkien, who really sparked some imagination in me. I wrote this awful fantasy adventure tale based on the Arthurian legends which I still have floating around in a box somewhere, and I kept writing there after.
Somewhere in University, though, I had to make a choice: Writer or Anthropologist? At that point I decided I’d go down the Anthropology-Archaeology route because I thought it was more likely to provide a paycheck and that I could always write stories on the side. Of course, little did I realize how over-populated the academic profession would become over the following decades, nor how little writing one can do when one is living in tents and motels around the world. So for years I left writing as a hobby that I occasionally dipped into, occasionally helping out a few really talented authors in creating or fleshing out their fantasy worlds.
Then, sometime after I had finished my Doctorate and was in the process of building the Geomatics Department at Oxford Archaeology, I turned more fully back to writing. I did it to relieve stress, to be honest, but what really made me look more seriously at it was the recent success of Alastair Reynolds that made me think: perhaps a serious researcher could also get published.
So, while publishing two academic books and a few really boring articles, I started writing what eventually became “Strings on a Shadow Puppet”. Of course, what I wrote took a lot of work to turn into what I eventually published, and the turning point, really was when I moved to Oregon and joined a wonderful writers group called the Wordos. That is when I turned a book that had some potential into the novel that I eventually published.
Which other authors have influenced you?
Well, Tolkien introduced me to the concept that you could create a totally self-contained world that has internal logic but doesn’t require you to use modern metaphor. Tolkien never refers to things from this world in his books, only things from his own. That had a huge impact on my world building.
Yet the first author I loved, the one who probably had the deepest structural impact on me, was Sir Arthur Conan Doyle and his most famous creation, Sherlock Holmes. As a kid I devoured these and I still remember read-alongs with my parents where we would sit in the living room reading his mysteries in order of publication. The impact of that is pretty clear in my books, I think. Mysteries, intrigue and the like obviously play a big part of my novel, and I really trace it back to him. What is more, he never, or at least he seldom, cheated in his mysteries. All the clues where in his text, he had no hidden information and that’s what I try to do in my books; hide the truth in the words, not in their absence.
Another, probably greater influence on me is John LeCarré. I came across him in my teen years and his dark, morally ambiguous tales of Cold War espionage really caught my imagination. Those were the early to mid 1980’s, and the total gritty realism of his books probably shows through shows through in my work.
Of course my books do not show the real tradecraft of his novels. Not only are they are set in a Sci-Fi Future, but there is not quite as much time spent looking through files and such. Even so, a good deal of my inspiration comes from LeCarré and the grey world that his spy stories set.
None of these guys are Science Fiction writer though, and to that end, I really would be amiss if I didn’t mention Robert Heinlein, Gene Roddenberry or in a sense George Lucas. Heinlein is really the father of Military Science Fiction, and his veiled commentary that is so often overlooked when reading his early works is really quite cunningly placed. Lucas gave me a feel for a gritty future, and Roddenberry… well the original series of Star Trek lies deep in my early memories, and created my view of Sci Fi and to that end, I still love Star Trek in a way that I can’t fully explain.
And, of course, of course, there are the Wordos, the writing group I have been lucky enough to have been a part of for the past few years. Jerry Oltion, Nina Hoffman, and so many others in that group have deeply influenced my style and ability. To that end, I suppose I am part of the legacy of Damien Knight and Kate Wilhelm.
Is there any current writer that you admire?
It may sound a bit funny considering that I am really a genre writer, but I love the work of Carlos Ruiz Zafón. He creates characters that are so appealing that I just don’t want his books to end. Putting down one of his novels is like moving countries and leaving behind friends you will never see again.
Similarly, Umberto Eco is just marvelous. It was his writing that showed me that you could really layer a story in a way that they could be read on different levels. When he is at his best, his writing allows the reader to dip just as deep into those layers as the reader wants. You want an adventure or mystery tale? Read the book on its face level. You want social or spiritual commentary? Delve a bit deeper and you will find symbolism between the words. I can’t say I’ve managed to accomplish that, but its something I strive for.
As for within my own genres: I love the work of Alastair Reynolds, who as I mentioned is a bit of a personal hero to me. After all, he moved from being a professional researcher to being an author and to that end gave me some of the courage it’s taken to throw myself into the actual publishing world.
Of course, there is also the late great Iain M. Banks, whose works really revitalized large canvas Science Fiction, proving that one could write such works in a literary style.
Both of them in particular have done wonders for space opera genre. They have opened it up to more cutting social commentary. Had it not been for them, and their courageous publishers, a huge amount of the best Sci Fi being produced now might now be around.
Of course, Ursula K. Le Guin is also still writing and she is just marvelous. Her work has always been inspirational to me. She writes about people, cultures and ideas in a way that really sparked the anthropologist in me from an early age. Not only are her concepts and imagery strong, but her flow of language is something to be truly admired.
Recently, I have also become quite impressed with my fellow Indie Author, Hugh Howey and his Silo series. Personally, I’ve only read the Wool Omnibus so far, but it was truly inspiring and I am anxious to read the rest in his series.
Oh… there are so many I could fill this whole article with that list. Those are the ones who came immediately to mind.
How do you do your research? Where do you search for inspiration?
My research varies, based upon what I need. For biological sciences I have a huge resource in my wife, who is an MD and has a Doctorate in Biochemistry from Oxford. Physics, astrophysics and the like are a bit of a hobby of mine, albeit on a very amateur level. I loved Stephen Hawking‘s A Brief History of Time (Illustrated edition), which was very very interesting. Of course, for anything really deep I contact one of my colleagues or my friends from my Oxford days.
As for the military and intelligence side of things, I’ve had a few friends in the services who have helped me out with that. Having been an Expat for a long time in numerous countries, one meets a fairly wide range of people, particularly when one is an Archaeologist, but to be honest, much of it comes from having had my father as a father. He was a Historian, but before he became a Professor, he worked for the U.S. State Department. As such he had very interesting insights into the world of international relations, including intelligence work. Indeed, those sorts of topics formed the core of dinner conversations growing up.
Inspiration-wise, there is inspiration most everywhere. Some events like say the tragic incident with the USS Vincennes and Iran Air Flight 655, the present day Colombian conflict or the struggles going on in Africa and the Arab speaking world probably show through in this book.
On a more philosophical level, however, “Strings on a Shadow Puppet” and the rest of The Ripper’s Raiders series really is just a look at concepts of democracy, human rights, and personal security. If you read a lot of modern Science Fiction you would think that the American Way of Life is the natural evolutionary outcome for humanity, but I find even within the US people don’t always mean the same thing when they use that term, or even something more basic, like democracy. Other cultures have even greater range in their definitions.
What is more, in the West as whole we tend to worship individuality above and beyond all else, but not every culture feels that way. Even our own cultures didn’t always feel that way. I thought it would be interesting to examine those concepts, and what better way than doing it in a Science Fiction adventure?
Of course, political and philosophical commentary aside, I am really writing stories about people: character driven stories. To that end, I first find people who interest me and work a story around them.
Why did you begin writing your blog? How did you choose the name?
To be totally truthful, I began my blog (the Archaeologists’ Guide to the Galaxy) as a marketing platform – a way to get my name recognized so I could sell my books. Pretty quickly, however, it took on a life of its own. For whatever reason, it became quite successful, mostly due to good luck, and I now feel a responsibility to my readers to keep it up.
Then, after the birth of my son, it became a really important part of my life all on its own. As anyone who has kids would understand, once my son was born I found I just didn’t have enough time to write stories, not to mention novels. Instead, I put a lot of my creative and intellectual energies into book reviews. That really helped my brain to stop becoming tapioca. From there it sky rocketed, particularly about this time last year when my numbers leapt through the roof.
The site’s name, however, came almost immediately. I have always loved Douglas Adams’ Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy series, particularly the BBC audiodrama that aired in the ’80s. Having spent twenty-five years as a professional archaeologist, I thought it crazy to not use that in distinguishing myself from the crowd, so the title came by itself.
Does your background as an archeologist help you with the books?
Yes, tremendously. First of all, I should probably note that I was a professional archaeologist for twenty-five years before I turned seriously to writing. That’s a long time, and it gave me a real perspective on different cultures, history and human interaction.
It also gave me a long term view of humanity, helping me realize that cultures change constantly and that despite what people tend to think, technological developments tend to come in leaps and starts. In science fiction we often project technological changes as coming in an ever increasing flow, but with no real change in our political or philosophical view points. That’s just not how it happens on a long term level.
If you ask me, technology changes in spurts and we are going through one now that started with the Industrial Revolution. I suspect those changes will slow down eventually and we will go through a long fallow period, though I would not even begin to predict when that would be.
Culturally, however, most Science Fiction seems to predict a move towards a pan-galactic America where everyone speaks English. While there are clear present day analogies in the world I created, I tried not to make those assumptions. As a result, while democracy is definitely a political option in my world, it is not the only one, nor even the dominant one.
Furthermore, my archaeological past gives me inspiration for different cultures. I look at existing or previously existing cultures and change them for my own purposes. Tweak them a bit for future human civilizations, a lot for alien cultures.
More than that, however, I’d say the greatest impact that archaeology has on my writing is the experience of living with a small group of highly skilled people in isolated conditions for extended periods. I suppose that’s really what my stories are about, not so much the social and political commentary but personal relationships between individuals living in extreme circumstances.
I know that you did underwater archeology, does it help you to clear your mind and concentrate in whatever you want to achieve?
I think any archaeology does that. There is a certain Zen to doing archaeology, particularly when you’re doing initial surveys. Those, particularly the ones done in North America, consist of excavating for weeks and often finding nothing. I once calculated that I had excavated about a cubic kilometer of sterile dirt… that is holes with nothing in them. Of course, I’ve also excavated some of the best sites imaginable, Mexican Pyramids, ‘Celtic’ chariot burials, Iroquois sites set at the base of the legendary birthplace of the Seneca nation; wonderful sites. Those helped my archaeological career, but it was the miles and miles of nothing that helped my writing. Spending days finding NCM (no cultural material), letting my imagination run in the background while keeping focused on the task at hand.
Are social networks important for you relationships with other authors and with your readers?
Yes. Today social networks are important for everything. For writing they are key to getting known as an author. My own blog site has had a lot to do with getting me known by some fairly large named writers in the field, but the most important factor for blogs, facebook, twitter and the like is getting my name and work out there, and the most important of these are blog sites like yours.
Want people to know about my books? Get people to read them and write about them. Far better than any adverts. In this day of modern tech, where any idiot can self-publish, Book review bloggers are the gatekeepers. They do the job that editors used to do (and still do, to be fair), particularly with self-published books.
Why did you decide to autopublish yourself?
I was torn about it, to be honest. I’d sent the novel to a couple of the big houses and found that its mix of genres was a bit of a worry for them. I was planning on going on down the list like most people, but then several of the big time authors I knew, those already signed with people like TOR, ACE or BAEN, suggested that I do the ‘Indie’ thing (that is Independent Publishing – the ‘hip’ name in English for self publishers). These authors noted the success rates people were having and the reservation that many of the traditional publishing houses had towards publishing ‘genre bending’ works (I’m not really sure that’s what my novel is, but it is what they called it so…). So, I followed their advice and… well here I am.
What can you tell us about Wordos?
The Wordos is an amazing writing group in Eugene Oregon (USA) that I was lucky enough to join while I was revising my novel. It focuses on Speculative Fiction (science fiction, fantasy, horror and the like), particularly in short form, and has produced a number of award winning writers. It follows very strict guideline in the reviewing process and there are a large number of very well respected and relatively big name authors who attend in order to share their insights and experience with the rest of us. People like Jerry Oltion, Nina Hoffman, Jay Lake and the like are all members who attend or have attended on a regular basis.
The real strength of the group, however, is not in the big name or award winning authors, but in the format that the group follows. After all, most of the members are not award winners, but new writers, and sometimes it’s their views that add the most to a story.
The Wordos meet every week and members sign up to submit stories for review. Everyone gets a chance and indeed, everyone has to submit at least two stories to three stories to even be allowed to be full members of the group. Of course, before one is allowed to submit, one must first listen to a review of a story you read, then comment on other peoples stories for two weeks. Only then can you submit two stories (preferably one right after another). Once done, if you still have the stomach to return, you are accepted as a member of the group (regardless of how good your stories are). The format that we follow is based on the Clarion school of critique, and does not allow for personal comment or comparison to other tales. Writers are not allowed to comment, question or justify during the review process, but can ask for clarifying questions at the end.
This works very well and builds a very good working relationship that limits the kind of personal issues that I’ve seen arise in other groups. Their website (www.wordos.com) actually has a really good list of useful information.
Have you ever been contacted by some Spanish publisher to translate your books?
No, but I am more than open to such contact, or even working a deal with a good independent translator. I always thought that this book in particular would do quite well in the Spanish speaking market, both Spain and Latin America. After all, much of the book was inspired by the present day political and military conflicts in South America, as well as those in Ireland, Africa and Asia.
Can you explain us why did you choose to delay the release of “Strings on a Shadow Puppet”?
Ah. Yes. That is a very sad story.
I was all set to release my book just before Christmas this past year when there was absolute tragedy that occurred in the small town of Sandy Hook, Connecticut. A twenty year old man walked into an elementary school and started shooting. A short time later twenty-eight people were dead, not to mention the shooter himself: twenty-one of the dead were children. They were first graders so they would have been between the ages of six and seven.
Now, as you know, the opening scene of my book includes the recording of a bomb going off in a school. At the time I wrote it, I thought it might be a bit over-the-top, the worst thing I could imagine. As it turned out, it was just a bit too close to reality.
Releasing a story with that opening at that time would have been disrespectful for anyone, but as it turns out, I actually have a personal tie to Sandy Hook. About twelve years ago, that is where I proposed to my wife. It was where my engagement party was held. Hell, my own niece used to go to that school.
Even if I had not had any personal ties to the town, it would have been in poor taste to release my book right after that event. So, I held off for about two months. Even that seemed too soon, but I suspect it will always seem that way to me.
I think it was a great idea holding a contest to decide which will be the cover of your book, are you going to do it again?
I must admit I am somewhat torn about this. I had such great success the last time that I am tempted to just stick with Kevin Klakouski, the winner of the competition. He is tremendously talented and skilled, and a joy to collaborate with. Kevin brings his own vision to a project, but he is not anchored to it. He is more interested in producing a work of quality that will do what is needed than in just creating his own artistic vision. Mind you, his own art, that is the art that is inspired wholly by himself and not by other people’s books or projects, is pretty remarkable just on its own. Perhaps that is why he is able to put his ego to the side and produce what others need.
Even so, the contest clearly worked and produced what fellow author Jacob Boyd described as “Crazy Good cover art.” More to the point, perhaps, I love the idea of giving international exposure to new artists. Indeed, it was really interesting to be exposed to all the new visions and ideas presented to me in the contest. Going through that again would be a real joy. We’ll have to see. The next book is probably a year out, so lots of time to decide.
What can you tell us about your new projects? Is the Encyclopedia Sophynensis going to exist?
At present I am working on “The Traitor’s Gambit”, a sequel of sorts to my first novel. It continues the tale of some of the main characters, exploring in detail some of their motivations and moving their personal tales forward. Of course, “Strings on a Shadow Puppet” was written to stand alone and comes to its own conclusion, so the sequel builds on that, answering some of the issues left unaddressed at the end of that book, while raising new ones.
Funny enough, there are fairly well developed drafts of books three and four that are just sitting waiting for me to turn back to. Yet, before that, I need to write book two because, well, while editing “Strings on a Shadow Puppet” I needed to leave out some character development in order to increase tension (I really can’t go into that without spoiling the end of book one, but I’m sure you know what I mean). Now, I need to close those character arcs before I can go on to where the third book starts.
So, once I publish “The Traitor’s Gambit”, there should be a much shorter turn around for the following books. Yet, as I said from the outset, each book comes to an end in the same manner that “Strings on a Shadow Puppet” does. No cliff hangers for six or seven years the way that some authors do. At least… that’s what I say now.
As for the Encyclopedia Sophynensis, it already exists, but in a draft form. I’ve written it as a bit of a continuity bible; a reference book to ensure that I don’t change things from one book to another. Putting it together as a volume for publication, however, is another thing all together. It would take a lot of effort that I would rather spend on writing the stories it describes.
When the series is done, or at least further along, I may well put it out as a fun little guide-to-the-side, as it were. For now, however, I think I will just keep focusing on the novels. Even so, I do intend to put a bit of a glossary in future books and the second edition of “Strings on a Shadow Puppet” to address some of the more military and world specific terms I use.
Thanks again to TL for his kindness. What are you waiting to read his book?
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