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In the beginning…tell me what made you decide to start writing?
I started writing when I was 6 or 7, not longer after we’d come back to the USA from Germany. There was an assignment to write a poem for my 3rd grade class and, as kids will do, I took it as an opportunity to tell everyone how unhappy I was to have moved to a new neighborhood. Somehow, the poem rhymed. And the meter wasn’t entirely awful.
As far as fiction is concerned, I received a multi-month severance package in 2013 when I was laid off from my software development job. After a few months of hiking and re-education, I got bored, so I decided to sit down and write something. No outline. No real concept of a plot. All I really had was my main character’s name, John Smith, which was at least vaguely funny to me.
That first draft was a mess (as all first drafts are) but enough of my friends and family enjoyed it that I decided to keep going. I liked being able to talk with people about my stories, and the feedback loop as I sent my wife and friends new pages. Seven years, five books (three unpublished), and two novelettes later, here I am!
Are there any authors or artists who influence(d) you?
Glen Cook, who was the first fantasy author I read whose prose was both accessible and poetic.
Keith Parkinson, who once spoke about finding the mundane in the fantastic, and vice versa.
Mark Strand, who looked our class in the eye, and told us all we were too young to be worrying about writing poetry and that we should go out and live life instead.
Lastly, the cover for the Storm in Her Smile is strongly influenced by the work of Thierry de Cordier, whose oceanscapes are this incredible blend of power and mystery and passion.
Tell me about your book.
The stakes are real. The mediation isn’t.
John Smith is San Diego’s least successful private investigator. He’s a community college dropout who lives with his parents. He’s a lover of martial arts movies and beer, not necessarily in that order.
What he isn’t is a mediator. Unfortunately, supernatural forces are preparing for war, and the only person who can maintain the peace—and keep San Diego from tumbling into a hell mouth—is a mediator.
Thanks to a yellow pages ad placed when he was drunk, and the fact that every actual mediator in San Diego has been murdered, John Smith is going to have to fill that role.
And that’s when things really get weird…
How many unpublished and half-finished books do you have?
I have three other ‘finished’ books in the Many Travails of John Smith series which will need some polish before publication, and one quarter-finished book in the Murder of Crows series, which needs to be finished sometime before August if I’m going to be able to release it this fall.
What’s your opinion on the practice of ‘banning’ books?
That’s a tough question. In the abstract, I’m not a fan. I think people should have the right to decide whether or not they want to buy a given book, not a government or some corporation.
At the same time and in regard to new books, a publishing company also has the right to decide not to publish something (either initially or after public uproar has convinced them it would hurt their brand sufficiently). It’s their money, after all!
As far as older books are concerned, I think it’s important to judge them for the era they were written in, and not by today’s standards. What’s seen as acceptable in the 2010-2020s will quite possibly look archaic and possibly even ill-intentioned a few decades from now. When it comes to the old classics, I’m all for some sort of acknowledgement or even warning that they maycontain outdated ideas, language, and beliefs, but I don’t think it serves anyone to pretend that the times in question (or the books written in those times) didn’t happen. History matters, even if just as a measuring stick for where we are now.
Like I said, it’s a tough question to answer. Whatever you do or don’t do, someone will be unhappy.
Tell me about a principal character in your book. What makes them memorable?
Juliette Middleton is one of the vampires assigned to chaperone John prior to the supernatural mediation. After getting kicked out of her House in New York for reasons as-of-yet undetailed, Juliettespent years following punk bands on tour as they crisscrossed the United States, enjoying their music and eating their roadies.
Eventually, she ended up in San Diego, where she became the youngest council member of a brand new vampire House. She’s not the best fighter in the world, and she’s not always the deepest thinker either, but she’s a fount of unending sarcasm who finds John to be the perfect target for pretty much any cutting comment she can think of.
Their ‘frenemy-ship’ becomes one of the cornerstones of the series.
Indie, or traditionally published – and why?
Indie! I spent quite a while querying lit agents for both series, and made it as far as full-requests on both Investigation, Mediation, Vindication and See These Bonesonly to eventually get rejections 3-8 months later. With See These Bones, I even found an agent who believed in the book. Unfortunately, she didn’t think she could sell it, both because it was too long (130k words instead of 100k) and because I didn’t have the sort of brand and following that would make me a sure bet for one of the big 5 presses.
That conversation convinced me to go the indie route. If I have to build my brand/following myself anyway, I might as well be getting all the benefit from doing so, right? Now that I’ve released two books and two novelettes, I wouldn’t ever think of going back. I enjoy the freedom of being able to make my own choices, and being able to move at a much faster pace.
It’s said that to write well, you need to read a lot. What do you think?
It definitely helps. I’m sure there are people so uniquely talented that simply by learning the language, they’re able to turn around and create something masterful, but for the rest of us, reading is a great way to see and understand what works and what doesn’t, informing the choices and style we’ll pursue in our own work.
That said, I don’t do much in the way of careful analysis or studyanymore, at least when it comes to fiction. Most of my learning is done passively as I read, because the truth is, I enjoy books and words. I’d rather lose myself in a story than consciously look for techniques I can copy.
Tell me what you feel the worst, and the best, aspects of being an author are, and why.
The best aspect of being a writer, to me, is the creative rush when you get deep into the weeds and are cranking out page after page. Finishing a 10+ hour burst of writing madness is kind of like taking a weekend-long martial arts seminar… by the end of it, your brain feels like it’s floating, and you have this sense that for a brief moment, you were acting as a conduit for ideas and knowledge, the effects of which won’t be understood for some time. That’s pretty cool.
I think most authors agree that the worst part of our job is marketing! It’s especially true for indie authors, who are doing everything themselves. I know I’d much rather be writing than looking at ad campaigns, putting together promotional tweets, arranging advance reviews, and all of the other things that are so necessary to make a book a success. But that’s part of the gig… I just wish I was better at it!
Are you a plotter, or a pantser? What do you think of the opposite approach?
I’m a hybrid. I create outlines for each book, so that I know what needs to happen, when, and why, but I leave them loose, with most of the connective tissue undetailed. That allows me freedom to explore tangents or expand in unexpected directions without completely wrecking the whole structure. It also keeps me from feeling like I’m just filling in the blanks or painting by numbers.
If I was a pure plotter, I’d probably produce books a lot faster… but I’m not sure I’d enjoy writing them nearly as much.
Do you hide any secrets in your books that only a few people will find?
Sort of! I like to plant seeds for future events that will often go unnoticed by readers. On a second read, when they already know what’s coming, they see those seeds and realize I’d been dropping hints all along.
In The Murder of Crows series, I also have one throwaway comment that will be repeated in the sequel for an eventual payoff in book 3. It’s super minor but I’m still excited about it. I keep waiting for someone to notice it in See These Bonesand alert me to what seems to be an error (but is, in fact, intentional), but so far, nobody has.
Tell me about one favourite hobby or pastime that isn’t writing or reading.
For a while, it was martial arts, specifically Bujinkan, although my wife was always better at it than I was. Then both my knees decided they’d had enough, and that was the end of that!
These days, I like to go out for walks when I can and my body feels up to it. When that’s not possible, I’ll listen to music outside in the shade.
What are you writing at the moment?
I’m making hurried, last-minute revisions to Investigation, Mediation, Vindication—I just got the author proof and always want to do another edit pass when I see the words in print—before its May 19th release. I’m also trying to plow ahead with Red Right Hand, the sequel to See These Bones.
What’s your opinion on the belief that indie books are badly edited and lower quality than traditionally published?
I think that, like most overly broad statements, it needs qualification.
The barrier for entry is low for indie books, so there are a lot of them, and it’s true that many are badly written and never passed through an editor’s hands. So yeah, the averages might skew downward, from pure numbers alone. At the same time, I’ve read some fabulous indie books that were polished to an inch of their lives and equal to anything in the upper echelon of traditionally published fiction.
On the other side of things, I’ve noticed more and more typos in recent traditionally published books. I think we’ve also all read books where we wondered how exactly the author managed to convince one of the big 5 presses to publish it. Sometimes, traditional publishing just means you already have a name or know a guy, and is no indicator as to actual quality.
My rule for both is to check the writing sample, if one is available. Generally, that’s all it takes to see if there are any issues with grammar, spelling, or style. As for plot and character… well, those require a deeper read so there’s not much you can do unless you have reviewers you trust. I’ve read a few books where the author’s voice was fantastic, the characters were likeable, the editing was excellent (from a pure copy perspective)… and then the plot laid an egg 75% of the way through.
What can you do? Writing is hard!
What is your favourite genre to write, and why?
Science Fiction, Fantasy, speculative fiction, and whatever else they are calling it these days. I like being able to put my own twist on reality. My world-building on the page can be fairlylight, as I write in first person, and lean heavily on the unreliability (and often willful blindness) of my narrators, but I still spend quite a bit of time figuring out details that may never be directly divulged. That process of first creating the puzzle and then slowly piecing it together definitely satisfies a creative need.
Also, it’s just fun to play with expectations and to be able to throw in something completely off the wall (like a vegetable demigod!) if I feel like it.
If you could, would you live in the world you’ve created? Why / why not?
Nope! See These Bones’ world is a post-apocalyptic charnel house, where having superpowers is one of the few paths to a good life… and even then, only if it’s the right power and you’re born in or can escape to the Free States.
Investigation, Mediation, Vindication, being an urban fantasy, is just a slightly skewed version of our world, but I don’t think I’d want to live in a world of chupacabras, crab assassins, goblins, or vampires… especially with humans being the bottom rung on the power ladder.
If you could go back to the start of your writing career, what is the one piece of advice you’d give yourself?
Revise your story until it’s perfect. Than revise it again. I don’t regret the years I spent querying agents because I used those years to edit and to write new books, but I would have had an easier road if I’d spent more time upfront on revisions instead of charging on to subsequent books in the series.
Do you listen to music when you write, and if so, what do you like?
I would love to have absolute silence when I’m writing… which is, of course, an impossibility. (I’d wear noise canceling headphones, but they’d distract me too.) I live in a new community and it has been a construction area for the last year and will likely remain one for the next year, so I’m learning to shut out noise as best I can. Even so… no music!
What was one of the most surprising things you learned in creating your books?
I did a lot of research on San Diego for Investigation, Mediation, Vindication and its sequels and was surprised just how violent the town’s history was. From the 1979 Cleveland Elementary School shooting that became the subject of the Boomtown Rats’ I Don’t Like Mondays to the 1980s McDonald’s massacre in San Ysidro, to the time someone stole a tank (!!) and drove it down the freeway… It definitely made me see the city with new eyes.
Tell me three unique things about you.
In the mid-90s, as a college student in Baltimore, I attended a party in Kansas that was being held for players of a Norwegian-based MUD (the text-based precursors to MMORPGs). There, I met the woman I’d been trading emails with, a grad student from UCLA, and promptly fell in love. A little over two years later, we were married, and 23 years further down the line, we remain very happily so. At that time, meeting someone online was actually considered weird!
My dad was an officer in the US Army, so I spent a number of years overseas as a child/teenager, in Garmisch-Partenkirchen, Germany and Madrid, Spain. I loved both cities.
Thanks to a dedicated bar space and an incredibly indulgent wife, I have roughly 75 different whiskies. My goal is to eventually have at least one bottle of every Octomore release. We just discovered online whisky auctions, so financial doom is nigh.
Chris, thank you for participating in Galaxy of Authors!