Surly Questions: Matthew Graybosch

Author of the “gonzo metalhead science fantasy epic” series STARBREAKER, Matthew Graybosch is an author with a day job in a dream. In this week’s Surly Questions, he talks with us about his upcoming projects, digital sharecropping, and the tragic loss of his grenade launcher. His novel Without Bloodshed is out on Amazon now. Thanks for the interview, Matthew!

authorWhen did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I can’t say I ever wanted to be a writer. What happened instead is more complicated, but not necessarily more interesting. I’ll try not to be too emo about my teenage existential crisis.

I was in college studying computer science because I had no clue about what I wanted to do with my life. I had pretty much given up on music, because I realized I’d never do for the viola what Eddie Van Halen did for the guitar. Religious life wasn’t for me, and my nearsightedness and problems with authority precluded a military career. Since I wasn’t trained for a skilled trade, and unwilling to spend my life bagging groceries, I stayed in school.

I was too poor and socially awkward to go out and get laid like all the cool kids were supposedly doing. I didn’t even have a car; I rode a bike to work and took the train to college, which gave me time to OD on genre fiction. After reading a particularly egregious fantasy novel, I decided that even a schmuck like me could do better.

So I set out to prove it. It seemed only natural that a bookworm should try his hand at writing, and it wasn’t like I had anything better to do with my life. Eighteen years later, I’ve got a science fantasy novel called Without Bloodshed on the shelves, a sequel called The Blackened Phoenix in progress, and a serial called Silent Clarion set to start next week. And if you’ve already decided this is too long, just wait. It just gets worse from here.

What, for you, is the most difficult part of being a writer?

Every time I finish writing a scene, I’m stuck with the suspicion that I’ve just dumped a few kilobytes of fresh, steaming crap onto my computer. I can’t be objective about my own work. I assume it’s utter shit, because I want to surpass Moorcock and Zelazny and Heinlein and Dumas and all the other novelists whose work I respect.

As pathetic as this sounds, I need external validation. I need someone else to read what I’ve written and tell me that I haven’t wasted my time despite any imperfections present in the work. Otherwise, I’m liable to waste years rewriting the same material over and over again. I didn’t finish a satisfactory draft of Starbreaker until 2009 because of my perfectionism.

without-bloodshed-final-coverYou describe Starbreaker as being heavily inspired by metal music. What music in particular informs the story, and how?

To start with, I stole the title from a Judas Priest song off the Sin After Sin album. Then there’s the series’ primary antagonist, Imaginos. His initial inspiration was a concept album of the same name by the Blue Oyster Cult. Like his BOC namesake, my Imaginos is an actor in history. He manipulates humanity for his own ends, however, rather than those of Les Invisibles. I also borrowed somewhat from a few of Iced Earth’s songs about their mascot, Set Abominae.

Nor is Imaginos the only character inspired by metal songs. Morgan Stormrider was inspired in part by Judas Priest’s “The Sentinel” (from Defenders of the Faith) and Iron Maiden’s “Flash of the Blade” (from Powerslave), as well as “Breaking the Silence” from Queensryche’s Operation: Mindcrime and “Psychotron” by Megadeth.

Naomi Bradleigh, believe it or not, was inspired by a Deep Purple song called “Knocking At Your Back Door.” Sweet Lucy was a dancer / but none of us would chance her / because she was a samurai.

What makes your book special to you?

I met my wife through Starbreaker. I’m not kidding. The gonzo metalhead science fantasy epic I started writing because I couldn’t get laid in college was how I met my wife.

We met on a Yahoo! forum for aspiring fantasy writers, and I suggested swapping stories. We ended up talking about more than stories, fell in love, and got married in 2004 after a four year long-distance relationship. We’ll have been married ten years as of Halloween 2014.

I laugh at people who complain about “long distance” relationships crossing state lines, because Catherine lived in bloody Australia while I lived on the East Coast of the United States.

What does your typical writing day look like?

I usually don’t get to write until my lunch break. I’ll either duck down to the cafeteria on the first floor of the building where I work and write for an hour, or drive down to a nearby pizzeria where I’m something of a regular. On a good day I’ll belt out at least 500 words.

After work, if I’m not too tired or my brain isn’t too fried from my day job’s demands, I’ll write some more after work and finish the scene I’m currently working on. Either that, or I might write a blog post. If I manage between 1500 and 3000 words a day, it’s been a good day.

silent-clarion-coverYour blog is titled A Day Job and a Dream. Can you tell us a little about both?

I’m a self-taught programmer. I think I’m good at it despite not being one of the obsessive types who would ignore the attentions of a goddess to belt out a few more lines of code. For me, software development isn’t a vocation from God. It’s a skilled trade, and a way to earn a living.

As for the dream, I think you’re already familiar with it. I want Starbreaker to be bigger than the Devil. I want a movie, a Broadway rock opera, manga adaptations, action figures, breakfast cereals, T-shirts, and flamethrowers. Though I think my wife will veto the flamethrower. She took away my grenade launcher soon after we got married, which makes the morning commute far less pleasant.

However, the blog is named after a series of New York Lottery advertisements. They all used the same slogan: “All you need is a dollar and a dream.” No doubt a poor grasp of probability is also useful, but the odds of my getting rich writing sci-fi aren’t that great either.

You recently “re-branded” your blog to tilt it in a more positive direction. Can you tell us more about what inspired that decision?

I was a nice kid until my first day of kindergarten, when I learned about bullying the hard way, and figured out that being nice didn’t pay. I became a heartless, cynical, irreligious asshole as a defense. But while being a vicious bastard is a reasonably successful defense mechanism against other assholes, I take it too far and tend to alienate people. I want to stop doing that. It isn’t good for business, and it might not be good for me personally, either.

I’m not going to say I want friends, because how can you want what you never really had? Nor will I admit to being lonely. However, I don’t want to lose book sales because I pushed people away.

When do you know a book is done?

I know a book is done when not only am I thoroughly sick of it, but so is my wife. Trust me, Ragnarok could come and go, and I could still find aspects of Without Bloodshed that could use improvement.

Maybe I have too many viewpoint characters. Maybe there’s still some wooden dialogue. Maybe I didn’t explain something as well as I could. Maybe I over-explained something else, and left too little to the reader’s imagination. It’s always something, but if I don’t draw a line and say, “Fuck it. I’m done.”, I’ll never move on to the next book.

You seem to have something of a conflicted relationship with social media and marketing yourself. How do you deal with that?

I think social media has made digital sharecroppers of its users. We create terabytes of content annually, but do not retain ownership of our work or profit from it. I deal with it by maintaining my own website and syndicating to corporate-owned social networks like Google+.

Nor am I particularly keen on marketing myself. I’m not particularly good at it. Nor is improvement a straightforward process due to cacophony of conflicting advice aimed at novelists seeing a wider audience. No doubt winning over readers is a process akin to making friends, but I was never much for making friends, either.

Despite my distaste for both social media and marketing myself, I cannot simply let my work speak for itself. Though I would rather it were otherwise, that way lies obscurity.

What’s the best writing advice you ever received?

“Don’t quit your day job.” It’s also the worst writing advice I’ve ever received, but more on that in a minute.

Having a day job allowed me to focus on writing for myself, without any concern whatsoever for marketability. Readers want boy wizards because Harry Potter and the Magical McGuffin is hot? Don’t care. Readers want soulful teenage vampires because Twilight sells like hotcakes? Not my problem, Jack.

I don’t have to chase trends to pay the bills. Instead, I can focus on my craft. With Starbreaker, I can take a shot at starting a new trend.

The downside is that I don’t get to have a “writing day” without cutting into my weekends. Instead, I have to steal what time I can for writing while also spending at least eight hours a day making somebody else richer in exchange for wages. I work at least two full-time jobs. Three, if you count being a halfway-decent husband.

If I had kids instead of cats, I’d be utterly screwed.

Tell us about your next projects.

virgil-at-workI’m juggling two right now. One’s a sequel to Without Bloodshed entitled The Blackened Phoenix. The other is the first of a new series called Before Starbreaker, and is called Silent Clarion.

The Blackened Phoenix is the more complex of the two, and will continue the multithreaded narrative begun in Without Bloodshed. Morgan Stormrider and his friends think they grasp the extent of Imaginos’ crimes and the Phoenix Society’s corruption, and need only seek evidence of the truth. But the truth is far stranger than they believed, and the evidence not so easily found.

Silent Clarion is a prequel to Starbreaker starring a twenty-year-old Naomi Bradleigh. She’s a year into her service as an Adversary, and her first anniversary with her lover John has come to a disastrous end. It’s a good time for a vacation, but she can’t leave well enough alone after learning of unexplained disappearances in a town called Clarion.

Anything else you’d like us to know about you?

I’m actually a big black cat named Virgil. I just hide behind the identity of one of my human slaves, and dictate to him because he has opposable thumbs. In fact, we cats have been using you humans for over five thousand years. Thanks for all the fish, by the way.

Surly Questions: Emmie Mears

Today I’m happy to bring you an interview with Emmie Mears, former fellow Missoulian, outspoken feminist, overall badass, and an author I think we’ll be seeing a lot more of in the future. Emmie just released her first book, and was kind enough to answer some questions about her process, her writing trials, and what it’s like to suddenly become a Big Five author. And when you’re done reading, you can pick up a copy for a song. See what I did there? Thanks, Emmie!

gYokKB26 When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I always just sort of was. I wrote constantly as a kid. Journaled every day, started novels all the time — it never really occurred to me though that that was a career I could have until university though. We were really poor, and for whatever reason, I never made the connection that my favorite authors spun my favorite worlds for a living.

What, for you, is the hardest part about being a writer?

Right now it’s juggling a day job and deadlines. I work long hours and when I come home I’m physically and mentally exhausted to the point where I just want to eat gelato out of the pint and watch Buffy or Supernatural over from the beginning (again). I’m at a stage where I’m trying to find a schedule that works for me in the midst of a lot of upheaval and life change, and I’ve had varying degrees of success with that. It’s kind of a work in progress.


THE MASKED SONGBIRD, at its core, is a story about how strength is not something you’re born with: it’s something you build. I wanted to write a deeply flawed hero who really wasn’t a hero at the beginning, but show that qualities she always possessed (compassion and determination) can be molded into true heroism.

What books or media inspired THE MASKED SONGBIRD?

We pitched it as Bridget Jones meets Spider-Man, and that about covers that. Gwen’s a mess, like Bridget. She’s also picked on, like Peter Parker. Ultimately I wanted her to find her value in herself.

What does your typical writing day look like?

I don’t think I have one at this point. When I’m in the throes of writerly big bang, I’ll wake up, putter around the internet for a while, usually write a few thousand words, and then fizzle back into an internet slug.

How do you juggle the challenges of daily life and writing?

Right now…I don’t. I’m trying really hard to get used to a new home, a new life situation, deadlines, a day job, a commute that grew by about 300%, and myriad other things. As chaotic as it’s been, it’s really the start of something positive, I think.

When do you know a book is done?

That’s a tough one. I almost feel like they’re never done. Even with THE MASKED SONGBIRD hitting shelves, I still feel like it’s not done. It’s an odd feeling, but maybe that’s just the nature of a creative profession: our styles evolve, our voice can change, and publishing often moves so slowly that when something comes out, you wrote it two years ago and are a different writer come pub day.

Eventually, though, if you want anyone to ever see them, you DO have to be able to let go.

What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

Oh, man. I met one of my best friends through WordPress, Kristin McFarland. Three years ago I was just starting out my little author blog and we became friends, but it wasn’t until that winter when my cousin very suddenly and tragically passed away that we became close. She emailed me because she’d experienced a similar loss and understood. Since then we’ve talked almost every day, and she flew out here last October for Capclave. I think it’s safe to say that I wouldn’t be the writer I am without the wonderful, zany, exciting, driven people I’ve been able to connect with on social media. Including you, O Esteemed Host of Mine. 🙂

It seems like you unexpectedly went from just another querying writer to Big Five author. Want to tell us a little bit about that journey?

Yeah, that was weird. LOL. When I finished THE MASKED SONGBIRD, I knew it was going to be a hard sell. Superheroes are tough. Urban fantasy right now is tough. The timeline was tough. It was just sort of stacked against me and my little book. I got so fortunate. My fabulous agent, Jessica Negrón from Talcott-Notch, was an assistant at the time I sent her boss my book. She plucked it out of the slushpile and LOVED it…a few weeks later, I had an R&R from Gina and was getting personalized rejections across the board from agents who loved it, but didn’t think they could sell it.

When Jes got promoted to agent in January of 2013, she begged Gina to be allowed to take me on, and Gina gave her blessing. I became Jes’s first client. We got a lot of requests from editors for the book, but the timeline and content made it tough. It made it to acquisitions two or three times at Big Five publishers, but ultimately garnered passes because the content and timeline were seen as a little too risky. That’s where we got super fortunate again — Mary-Theresa Hussey at Harlequin had the book and was getting ready to help launch Harlequin’s new e-imprint, Harlequin E. Their goal was to be able to publish books that didn’t quite fit into their other imprints, and it ended up being exactly what we needed. They’ve been fantastic, working with us on the timeline and busting butts to get THE MASKED SONGBIRD in reader hands before the referendum against which it’s set. I’ve been really blown away.

Then this spring, the announcement hit that Harper Collins had bought Harlequin, and I got a message from Jes one morning saying I was now a Harper Collins author. It was literally the first thing I saw when I grabbed my phone that morning, which probably didn’t help my ability to comprehend it. Ha. So that happened.

That might be more than “a little bit.” But it’s kind of a long story in general. 🙂

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

It’s actually not even writing related, but it’s a Dolly Parton quote I adore: “Find out who you are and do it on purpose.” It just fits so much about writing. You can’t be the next Jo Rowling. You can’t be the next Stephen King or John Scalzi or Diana Gabaldon. You can just be you, and it takes time and self-engagement to find out who you the writer really is.

Who inspires you?

Many, many people. The writers I’m surrounded with on social media who keep at it day in and day out. People like Eve Ensler who take the pain of the world into themselves and still manage to give out kindness, empathy, and compassion instead of letting it hollow them out into poison and toxicity. People like Maya Angelou whose long lives were not long enough. People like Josh Groban for creating beautiful, moving art and at the same time enjoying absurdity and earthy humor. People like Misha Collins for finding the zany and joyful in the world and using it to offset sadness and poverty. Lots of people.

The Masked Songbird_FC (2)What’s next for you after THE MASKED SONGBIRD?

A nap.

No, seriously. I need one. I’ll be working on the sequel to THE MASKED SONGBIRD this summer and then come my August deadline, probably hibernating for a few days.

Thanks so much for having me, Dan!


Mildly hapless Edinburgh accountant Gwenllian Maule is surviving. She’s got a boyfriend, a rescued pet bird and a flatmate to share rent. Gwen’s biggest challenges: stretching her last twenty quid until payday and not antagonizing her terrifying boss.

Then Gwen mistakenly drinks a mysterious beverage that gives her heightened senses, accelerated healing powers and astonishing strength. All of which come in handy the night she rescues her activist neighbour from a beat-down by political thugs.

Now Gwen must figure out what else the serum has done to her body, who else is interested and how her boss is involved. Finally–and most mysteriously–she must uncover how this whole debacle is connected to the looming referendum on Scottish independence.

Gwen’s hunt for answers will test her superpowers and endanger her family, her friends–even her country.


Emmie Mears was born in Austin, Texas, where the Lone Star state promptly spat her out at the tender age of three months. After a childhood spent mostly in Alaska, Oregon, and Montana, she became a proper vagabond and spent most of her time at university devising ways to leave the country.

Except for an ill-fated space opera she attempted at age nine, most of Emmie’s childhood was spent reading books instead of writing them. Growing up she yearned to see girls in books doing awesome things, and struggled to find stories in her beloved fantasy genre that showed female heroes saving people and hunting things. Mid-way through high school, she decided the best way to see those stories was to write them herself. She now scribbles her way through the fantasy genre, most loving to pen stories about flawed characters and gritty situations lightened with the occasional quirky humor.

Emmie now lives in her eighth US state, still yearning for a return to Scotland. She inhabits a cozy domicile outside DC with two felines who think they’re lions and tigers.

You can order THE MASKED SONGBIRD here! Released in a box set, you get four great paranormal and urban fantasy books for less than $4!

Follow Emmie on Twitter and join her on Facebook!

Surly Questions: J. Birch

J. BirchHey there! Haven’t seen you in awhile! Where have I been? Nevermind! This is not about me! It’s time for another round of Surly Questions, this time with J. Birch, author of Gasher Creek

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was eleven. I had watched the Garfield special “Babes and Bullets” and wondered if I could write my own PI mystery. It was about ten pages long. After that, I was hooked.

Tell us about Gasher Creek.

Here’s the back cover blurb:

Jack Devlin awakes with a shotgun pointed at his face. Sally, a whore, lay dead beside him. Jack remembers nothing of the previous night; could he really have killed her? And if so, why?

He has questions, but some folks in the town of Gasher Creek don’t want them answered. And after a lynch mob storms the jail, he manages to escape into the vast and empty prairie. Now he has no food, no water, and no horse.

And he’s not alone.

Back in Gasher Creek, Sheriff Tom Tracker is certain Devlin is the murderer. But without a confession, he’ll need evidence. What he finds is unlike anything he’s ever seen before. If Devlin is guilty, he isn’t the simple odd jobs man everyone thinks he is. Instead, he’s something much more calculating and dangerous.

What books or media inspired Gasher Creek?

Gasher Creek was, oddly enough, inspired by the movie “Brokeback Mountain”. At the time, everyone was caught up in labeling it the “gay cowboy movie”, but I saw it as a movie about loneliness and how loneliness can destroy lives. So I decided to write a western about loneliness. As it evolved, it became a book about guilt, and that guilt produced a mystery plotline. GC was also inspired by my love for early Elmore Leonard westerns. Although he’s primarily known today as a crime writer, he wrote some amazing westerns. Ross McDonald and Dashiell Hammett mysteries were also an inspiration. Readers will also spot hints of Clint Eastwood’s “Unforgiven” and David Milch’s “Deadwood” TV series.

Art by Tracy McCusker.
Art by Tracy McCusker.

What does your typical writing day look like?

My typical writing day is two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening. I try to stick to this routine every day, even on holidays.

When do you know a book is done?

When I’m burnt out and I can’t write another word and I wish the horrible thing would just go away, then I do one more draft. And then it’s done.

What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with  other writers through social media?

The opportunity to meet them! None of my friends are novel writers, nor are any of my family members. So, before Twitter, it was like writing in a vacuum. Now, thanks to Twitter, I can communicate with other people who are also crazy.
Social media has also given me a chance to cheer on other writers. Writing is a lonely profession, and often times we are our own cheerleaders (if we cheer at all, and most of us don’t). So Twitter has given me the opportunity to be a voice in the wilderness for other writers. And I enjoy doing it. It’s shocking how little encouragement we give each other. But it makes a huge difference.\

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

“What’s simple is truth.”
This is a quote by Brenda Ueland from her 1938 book “If You Want to Write”. The entire book is a gold mine of great advice, but that one line has always stuck with me. If you tell the truth of what you “see” in any given scene, then you won’t fall into the endless “purple prose” that clogs up so much amateur (and sometimes professional) fiction. Write what you see, and the reader will understand. Write lines like “He looked at her as if his heart were on fire with sapphire wings of passion” and it will only confuse them. And do you really see sapphire wings of passion? Really? Or are you just trying to sound “literary”. Don’t. Write honestly, and you’ll do two things: you’ll avoid cliché, and you won’t give your readers a bunch of sickly sweet drivel. Don’t lie to them, and don’t lie to yourself.

Tell us about your next book.

It’s a two part science fiction series, and that’s all I’ll say about it. For now.

Who inspires you?

For me it’s more of a what than a who. Music and movies have had a huge impact on my writing. Music taught me rhythm, and because of rhythm, I can edit. I tend to cut out what doesn’t fit into the groove of a scene. I’m not sure if this musical approach is common among writers, but it’s what works for me.

Movies taught me the power of “showing” rather than “telling”. So much character motivation can be shown through body language and dialogue, so that’s what I’ve always relied upon. Big blocks of internal narrative have always bored me to tears.

As for writers who’ve inspired me: Elmore Leonard and Roddy Doyle taught me how to write dialogue. JK Rowling and Terry Pratchett taught me about the importance of movement in a scene. Richard Matheson and Michael Crichton showed me that you can make a movie that just happens to be in the form of a book.

Are there any other exciting projects in your future?

I’m hoping to be finished the two-part sci-fi series by May. After that, it’s going to be a smaller romantic comedy, and then a trilogy that will either drive me to the asylum or place me in a permanent spot outside the local liquor store. But I’m excited to work on it.

What are your top five “desert island” books?

1. The Collected Poems of Al Purdy
2. Shoeless Joe – W.P. Kinsella
3. Somewhere in Time – Richard Matheson
4. The Commitments – Roddy Doyle
5. A book on how to get rescued from a desert island
twitter: @jbirchwriter

Surly Questions: Rachel Desilets

Surly Questions is back again with YA author Rachel Desilets. Her recently released novelette, Hipstopia, is available now! Thanks for taking the time, Rachel!

author headshot bw smaller

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I wrote my first short story in 4th grade.  I didn’t understand how dialogue worked, so I ended up with a giant block of text and quotes everywhere.  My mother saw it and (as the English teacher in the family) corrected everything I was doing wrong.  I’ve written a lot of beginnings, never to visit the story again.

In 2011, I decided it was now or never and wrote a novel in a week. During NaNoWriMo, I finished novel number two.  They were both terrible, but the fact is: I finished.  That’s when I knew I could actually do it.  That’s when I started taking myself more seriously as a writer.

Tell us about your debut YA novelette, Hipstopia.

Hipstopia originally started out as a joke through a twitter conversation.  But once I started to think about it, I couldn’t get the characters out of my head.

Hipstopia is the city that formed after the Hipster uprising.  Murphy led the revolution, kicking out everyone who believed in corporate personhood.  It’s told from Jay’s perspective – and he tries to be the perfect hipster, the right-hand man to Murphy.  It’s a coming-of-age story, where Jay makes plenty of realizations about himself, Murphy, and Hipstopia.

You write about Young Adult literature for the Examiner. What is it that drew you to YA, as compared to other genres?

Most young adult books, no matter what genre, tend to focus on relationships.  When I grew up, friendships and relationships taught me who I was.  I love that YA explores these bonds that change us, and I love how young adult forces main characters to find themselves – for better or worse.  This isn’t definitive of all young adult, but it is pertinent in most.

What does your typical writing day look like?

In between projects, my writing days are non-existent.  I have a really hard time getting focused after I self-publish.  When I am actively writing, I set aside time every single day.  I’m very goal oriented, so I usually go by word count, anywhere between 1,000 to 2,000.  Usually if I reach 500 words, the rest comes easy – getting into can be hard.  Sometimes it requires lots and lots of tea.

What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

Actually finishing my first book!  Seriously, G+ and my husband saved my writing life.  Connecting with writers before NaNoWriMo was perfect, because all of us were charged to write more, write faster, and write every day.  It was such a treat to do something so solitary in a writing hangout, taking breaks to chat, before getting back into it.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

To just do it.  My husband was a huge supporter of my writing – he saw me start and abandon projects.  He knew I had a huge problem with finishing what I started, partly because I was scared of failure.  He knew I needed to convince myself I could do it and remove my self-doubts.  I know now that perfection comes with editing, not with the first draft.  If you never finish the first draft, you’ll never finish the book.

18141626Tell us about your other project, The Unanswerable.

The Unanswerable is the first in a conquel series called The UnSeries.  Matthew is trapped in New York City during a mutated ebola outbreak with his wife and son.  They have to try to navigate the city, which has devolved into absolute chaos.  It’s dark with just a sliver of hope.

It’s currently being edited, with the release date to be determined (hopefully this year).

Who inspires you?

I’ve already explained how my husband has been instrumental to my writing life – so I’m going to say other authors.  I read a lot, which has improved my writing and keeps me motivated.  It forces me to come up with new, original ideas.

Are there any other exciting projects in your future?

I have the sequel to Hipstopia (currently untitled) that I have to write, edit, and publish by the end of next year, which is good since I needed a NaNoWriMo project!  I recently finished No Sugar Coating, a young adult magical realism novel, which will be released sometime in the beginning of next year.

What are your top five “desert island” books?

Oh boy… This is almost impossible to choose, but I’ll try.  The Outsiders by S.E. Hinton because it had such an impact on me when I first read it.  This is Not a Test by Courtney Summers because it has all the feelings and zombies.  The Fault in Our Stars by John Green because of the emotions portrayed. The Knife of Never Letting Go by Patrick Ness because he writes a darn good story, even though I would hate not having the sequels with me.
Then, if I was allowed to bring the whole series, it would be a toss up between Birthmarked by Caragh O’Brien for an amazing dystopian/sci-fi series and The Darkest Minds by Alexandra Bracken for intense emotions.  But I don’t think I could bring either of those if I can’t bring the sequels… So I might settle on The Child Thief by Brom for an awesome depiction of evil Peter Pan.
You can find Rachel on Goodreads or at her website,

Surly Questions: Aaron Engler

headshot-1-e1346964344418Witness the triumphant return of Surly Questions! This time around, I’m interviewing Aaron Engler. Engler is the author of the upcoming fantasy novel Wizard and the Rat, currently in final editing. He blogs at, where he has an ongoing sci-fi series, Jovian Shadows, and you can find him on Google+. Thanks for the interview, Aaron! 


When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

As soon as I realized I was too dumb for astrophysics.


I’ve always had a yearning for artistry, but introversion and circumstance conspired to keep me from acting or performance, outside of the occasional high school band outing. I had a social desire to be with the artsy types, the dancers, the poets, the writers, the artists- but I lived in a cowboy town and there wasn’t much of a scene for people my age. I would have made a great goth.


I think that I never really considered writing as a professional career until college, entertaining it as a distant possibility. The stark economics of Montana living quickly drained any sense of hope one has of the future, and those ideas sank with my dreams into the dark pit born from the struggles of getting by day to day. It would be another ten years or so before I actually put ‘pen to paper’ and started seriously writing a long-form novel.


Tell us about your book.

The Wizard and the Rat is a story featuring two people, each lost in their own ways. It is about a father and his regrets about raising a son who turned from him, and how he longs to find atonement in training other young wizards, trying to shape him into what he thought he son should be. It is also about a young man, thrown out by his family and forced to live on the streets, who finds himself alone, ready to give up on himself and the world. The two meet in the gritty streets of the dying city of Haven, and each must help the other overcome their internal losses so they can battle an enemy that threatens everything- a necromancer, trained by the wizard, now become a failure, like everyone the wizard trained before…


You’re a long-time player of tabletop RPGs. How has gaming informed your writing?

All of my novel ideas have come from the RPG worlds I’ve created in the past. The ideas for my fantasy novels first came to being way back in high school, in the old D&D days. They played around in my head and injected themselves in my games as I ran them over the years. Eventually other players added parts of their stories and they became intertwined with the mythos, eventually adding to it.


Eventually, I stopped role-playing entirely, and had no more outlet for my stories to be shared. By then, the world had become as crystallized as it was going to get, and it was time to put it down and share a canonical version with the world at large.


What has been the most (or least) rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

My social media engagement has been fairly limited so far. My story is just about ready for sale, but still needs a couple chapters of editing, so I don’t really have a book I can point at and say, “See! This is what I do!”


I’ve been able to get more of my name out there by entering and winning some writing contests, which is fun and a nice little validation of my skill, and have started reading other independently written work like that of Brooke Johnson  (The Clockwork Giant) and James Calbraith (Shadow of the Black Wings). I won a copy of The Clockwork Giant from a writing contest, and Shadow of the Black Wings was a free promotion. I was especially interested in the latter work, because it’s in the same genre that I write in, and wanted to find out what kind of things people are expecting from self-published work. Hopefully I’ll be able to take part in more communities and discussions once I’m self-published.


What do you like in a character?

For one thing, a character can be great and I might not like him or her. The characters in Steven R Donaldson’s GAP series were impossible for me to like, and that’s part of what kept me from reading much more of the series. They were great characters, but I wanted to have some redeeming quality in them, something heroic, something noble. Characters I like the most have the potential to transcend themselves, to step beyond the borders that are limiting them. A character has to be more than believable, he or she has to be someone I can believe in.


What do you think makes a great story?

There are many ways to tell a great story. What makes a story great, for me, is one that gives you a sense of immersion, one that feels like it’s asking you to be part of the story, part of the world. When you start reading, you enter into the world of the story, like you were watching from inside the spaceship, or on horseback with the mustering army. Or even that you know the characters, you’re friends with them, or family. You know them. These things are very personal, and I don’t think apply to everyone, but that’s what matters to me.


What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

I have read a lot of writing advice. But I’ve never solicited any, because there’s only one piece of advice that matters. Write. If you have a story in you, and you want a book out of it, you have to write it. Even if it’s just a page a day. Find a spot that is yours for half an hour, and write your story. If you never do it, you never really had a book in you. That’s fine, just accept that and move on, don’t dwell and keep saying you’re going to write a novel eventually. In writing, it really is, as Yoda said, “Do or do not. There is no try.”


Are there any other exciting projects in your future?

Writing and editing the second draft of the next book in the Voice of the Dragons series, “The Willow and the Flame” which is about a group of five young adults thrown into a world of magic and political intrigue and how their friendships grow and are tested along the way.


Right now, I’m writing a first draft of a science-fiction story, called “Jovian Shadows” which you can find at my website, I post each chapter as I finish it. Each part is about 1000 words or so, and is up to 32 as of now. I’m having a lot of fun writing it, and I think it’s a good, exciting story. I hope more people will read it and leave a comment or two, I always like seeing and replying to feedback.


What are your top five “desert island” books?

First, I have to confess to being not nearly as well read as I would like, and before my son arrived, destroying almost all my free time, I was reading a lot of non-fiction. That said, there are some books that have influenced me greatly, and expanded my understanding of not only what constitutes storytelling, but my understanding of the world, and of myself.


The most influential book would be The Lord of the Rings. There’s no question that the book is a cornerstone of not only modern fantasy, but of modern myth-building. With its realized languages, in depth history and unique cultures, it’s a completely engrossing experience that never failed to take me away from whatever mundane concerns of this world I had. I read the entire three volumes ten times before I was 14. It made me long for a world where there were real heroes to follow, real men of honesty whose purpose to was forge a just world, facing off against a dark evil so powerful, it’s very essence could corrupt the land itself. It let me imagine I could be at Aragorn’s side in the final battle with Sauron’s legions, or be a member of the Istari, and confer with Gandalf on the fate of the world.


The Lord of the rings also served as an entree into social circles of other fantasy fans and gamers, which led to a long history of connecting with people, some of whom would become friends for the rest of my life.


My science-fiction education began early, but no book in that genre captured my imagination like Dune. Like Lord of the Rings, Dune had a compelling, complex world, and yet had an unambiguous sense of good versus evil locked in an epic conflict. Unlike Lord of the Rings, Dune centered on the story of one boy coming of age and into his unexpected inheritance as a Christ figure, one claimed by a sect he wants nothing to do with. As a young man stuck in a small town, reading about someone my age growing into a powerful leader with the universe hanging on his every move was very appealing.


My father introduced me to sci-fi at a young age, and although I was hesitant at first, the stories of Issac Asimov were the ones that sparked my interest. Something from Foundation, or a collection of stories like I Robot would have to be with me, but I can’t choose off the top of my head. The study of man and machine, and what it means to be human, are themes that are close to my imagination and themes that have informed and influenced sci-fi ever since. And he wrote all of that before the invention of the modern computer.


I mentioned I had read a lot of non-fiction, and the book that had the most impact would probably be A People’s History of the United States by Howard Zinn. History is passed down to us like religion, seemingly set in stone. We learn about the great men and battles that changed the world, but rarely do we hear about the conquered or vanquished. Rarely do we hear from the voices of the losing side, or from those who fought against the status quo.


Writing fantasy, it’s easy to keep in mind the heroes and villains of the time, but what about those whom the villains conquer, or what about those who follow the hero? Do they follow out of a sense of loyalty, or do they have no choice? When you take in to account that history isn’t just leaders and armies, but whole populations of people who might have stood in the way of those leaders, things become complex and messy. And that’s where a whole wealth of stories can come from.


My last book would be a good dictionary. If I have a lot of time by myself with nothing to do on an island (there’s always stuff to do on an island, but never mind that,) I would want to start reading, page by page, learning new words every day. Learning more words opens up more avenues of thought and the capacity to contemplate more nuanced ideas.
Those works would be the only ones I would need to create an infinite catalog of stories and novels. Those would be the ingredients for a witch’s brew of wonderment.


Carl Sagan said it best about writing: “A book is made from a tree. It is an assemblage of flat, flexible parts (still called “leaves”) imprinted with dark pigmented squiggles. One glance at it and you hear the voice of another person, perhaps someone dead for thousands of years. Across the millennia, the author is speaking, clearly and silently, inside your head, directly to you. Writing is perhaps the greatest of human inventions, binding together people, citizens of distant epochs, who never knew one another. Books break the shackles of time ― proof that humans can work magic.”

Surly Questions: Yuvi Zalkow

If you aren’t already watching the brilliant, funny,  videos of soft-spoken and self-deprecating Yuvi Zalkow, you should be. A self-confessed “failed writer,” Yuvi nonetheless keeps turning out content, including his latest novel, A Brilliant Novel in the Works, which is available on Kindle now. Which is a great hook for some cheap, “Who’s on first” type comedy:
“I have a brilliant novel in the works.”
“What’s it called?”
“A Brilliant Novel in the Works. “
“Yeah, but what’s the title?”
Thanks for the great interview, Yuvi!

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I was pretty late to the party. It wasn’t until my college years (when I was studying to be a computer engineer) that I realized how badly I wanted to tell stories. I was a bit of an emotional wreck during those years and I was dying to get those feelings out of me and onto the page. Those first stories were way too self-absorbed and melodramatic, but I kept at it. It was another ten years before I got any good at telling stories. Now with 33% less self-absorbed-ness and melodrama!

2. The tagline of your website reads “novelist, failed writer, schmo.” What does “failure” mean to you?

I just got asked that question over lunch recently and I realized that I change the meaning of “failure” on a weekly basis. In one of my Failed Writer videos I try to tackle the subject. That attempt is probably as good as any. But to sum up, my take is that feeling like a failure is a state of mind. And not necessarily a bad state of mind. There is a constructive aspect and a dangerous aspect. The bad part is the way I can carry around a paralyzing feeling of shame. The good part is the attitude that I always have a lot more to learn and I should never pretend like I know what I’m doing. I move between these worlds more than I’d like to admit.

3. What inspired your video series?

I knew I wanted a venue for having a conversation with other creative types. I started out attempting to blog but it just didn’t flow right for me. A week after every blog post, I’d delete the post in disgust. In 2010, I did a video slideshow as part of a lecture when getting my MFA at Antioch University. A few months later I started thinking just how much fun it was to make that video and present it. And so I tried another one. And another one. They got more complex and quirky each time — that goes for both the content and the way the videos were made. I started animating them using my terrible artistic skills. Pretty soon, I realized that a common theme running through my videos were about the crooked writer’s life, and in particular, the ways I’ve slipped up along the way. So I created the I’m a Failed Writer video series using that theme.

4. What equipment do you use to produce the videos?

This could turn into a very long and very geeky answer if I’m not careful. The main screen recording software I use is ScreenFlow ($99) for the Mac. This is a nice, easy way to capture the screen, as well as edit video and audio. I also use my iPhone to film video footage. I have a Blue Yeti USB mic ($99) for audio. And I use other tools, depending on the video. It seems like each video, I try to learn something new. Which explains why it takes me so many damn hours to make these things. I’m constantly stumbling through new tools.

5. Self-deprecation seems to play a big part in your videos. Is this just your sense of humor at work? Is it a way of coping? Both? Neither?

Both. Definitely. It was born out of a deep sense of shame I felt as a child. But at some point (between the ages of 18 and 30?), I learned to intentionally use self-deprecation for humor. Both to cope with a genuine, low self-esteem, but more and more because it is so much fun to watch others get caught off guard by how willing I am to throw all my flaws out on the table for them to look at. My novel is an exploration on how far I can go with that sort of persona.

6. What does your wife really think of your writing and your video series?

Wow. Now that’s a question from someone who has really been watching my videos! Nice. Just last month, when I made my wife review my video Beyond Microsoft Word, she said something along the lines of, “You know, I don’t *really* get that upset with you.” And that was when I realized that I make her out to be a lot more annoyed with me than she is. The wife character in my novel (which is about a writer named Yuvi) is also an unrealistic depiction of my real wife. Don’t get me wrong, she gets annoyed with my many quirks, but not quite like how I portray her in my storytelling… Then again, maybe I’m lying here too 🙂

7. What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media?

I never thought I would join the social media game. And I’m still horrible at Facebook (even though I stupidly have an author page, a book page, and a personal page). I do feel more at home with Twitter: I love its brevity. What is satisfying for me is to see people who really know how to shine on these forms of social media… not just annoying self-promotion, not just stories about their pets, not just complaints after going to the post office, but the right balance of many things. It’s easy to make fun of people who spend eight hours a day on Facebook instead of writing, but I think there’s also an amazing aspect to the virtual communities that form in these social media realms. Having a satisfying banter with smart, funny people on Twitter every few days is a real joy for me.

OK. I haven’t answered your question. I guess I don’t know what is most rewarding. But it’s nice, especially for writers I think, to have this way to connect with others during their lonely and isolating pursuit. You don’t even need to put your pants on. Which is a plus.

Just don’t ask me about Pinterest. I still don’t get it.

8. What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

I honestly don’t know if I made this up or someone actually told it to me but the advice goes like this: “follow the advice that speaks to you and disregard the rest.” It’s sort of a meta-advice piece of advice. But it was helpful for me because there is so much good-sounding advice out there that is actually bad to pay attention to, depending on where you are at in your writing and in your life.

9. Can you give us any hints about your “next big novel”?

Well. I do have a novel in the works. It’s about this Polish Jewish immigrant family who moves to rural Georgia in the 1930s. It’s quite different than novel #1, largely because this one doesn’t play with the novel/memoir boundary. And I actually have to do some (AHHHHH!!!!!) research. I’ve got a completed draft at this point, but I can tell it needs LOTS of work. Much harder and more audacious a project than anything I’ve attempted before. So look for it between 2013 and 2043.

10. Are there any other exciting projects in your future?

My next projects involve working on novel #2 and finding a new angle on the Failed Writer series. Let’s see how well I fail at those two things.

11. What are your top five “desert island” books?

The Razor’s Edge by Somerset Maugham, Herzog by Saul Bellow, Anna Karenina by Leo Tolstoy, Crime and Punishment by Fyodor Dostoyevsky… and Sugarcane Island, by… somebody… It’s a Choose Your Own Adventure story that was my favorite as a kid. I haven’t read it in 30 years so who knows how corny it is now. But it seems like good stranded-on-an-island material.

Oh wait. Scratch that Sugarcane Island crap! What about Philip Roth, Grace Paley, Tobias Wolff, Raymond Carver, Chekhov, Cheryl Strayed, Alice Munro, David Sedaris, John Updike, Malamud, IB Singer, Kafka, Marquez… I NEED MORE TIME! GIVE ME MORE TIME! I can’t decide! Too many choices!!! For the love of God, give me more f!@#$!ing time to choose my desert island books!!!

Are you an author looking for an interview? Know anyone who is? I’m always interested in talking with authors. Email me

Surly Questions: JM Bell

The triumphant return of Surly Questions! When JM Bell isn’t writing hyper-articulate comments on Google+ or blogs, he blogs at Start Your Novel, a rich resource for writing tips and inspiration. He was kind enough to take the time to answer some questions — thanks, JM!

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

At the age of 11 I discovered metaphor and started writing poetry. I wrote poems for more than a decade — a few of them I turned into song lyrics, as I fronted three bands for about seven years. At one point it became clear to me that I wasn’t much of a poet, but writing was pretty much a part of my identity, so I started experimenting with short stories. All of them are trunk stories, deliberately weird and unpublishable. That’s OK, though, they were practice.

When I was little I’d see writers on TV or hear them talk on the radio, and oh, what superb creatures they appeared to be. Learned and old and sage. Who’s that man?, I’d ask my grandmother. That gentleman’s a writer, she’d say. (She was a rich man’s daughter, my grandma. Brought up to be a lady and little else. She gave piano lessons for a living.) And I’d go ooh and ahh with my little mouth.

So I can’t tell you when I realized what I wanted, or whether I made a conscious decision. I started writing before I knew what I was doing.

Why did you start

All these ideas were floating in my head and I didn’t know what to do with them. Couldn’t turn them all into stories. I knew I wanted to blog, but had trouble finding a topic and then it hit me — I should take advantage of my story ideas. They were my unique value proposition, if you’ll pardon my using a marketing term. I was disappointed with most of the writing prompts out there and decided to do something different.

Have you, in fact, started your novel?

Two, rather. The first survived two exploratory drafts and a complete reimagining in terms of genre, but I let it go after I realized it was about an unsolved issue in my life. The second, well, my protagonist was basically Red Sonja in an imaginary Southeast Asia. All of the other characters found her very exotic, and I had a couple of viable antagonists but no plot.

Right now I’m looking into material for a new project – just gathering stuff, really. Not much I can say about it except that I’m going to avoid old mistakes and make new ones. Probably.

Has your translation work informed your writing in any way?

Definitely. When I started out 10 years ago, I had no idea of the challenges some business and legal documents would pose. And I’m not just talking about research — many people in banking and public administration draft memos, reports or articles for the in-house magazine because they’re saddled with the task, not because they enjoy writing.

I’ve had to handle stuff that defies understanding, which is great practice for a writer: turning convoluted syntax into something that flows. Language for actual humans, you know? And you learn to be less poetic. One of the reasons I could never make it page 10 of Something Wicked This Way Comes is that the imagery is so profuse and over the top, you lose sight of the story. Too many similes ruin your macaroni.

You pick up a thing or two when you translate internal surveys for large companies. You get a glimpse into the workings of rather complex organizations without actually being there under the same kind of pressure as the employees. When you translate employee feedback for company bosses, that’s when you get to grips with the disconnect between truth and propaganda. There’s a number of corporations out there that would like to become their employees’ new religion.

And there I am as an outside observer and enabler, because I’m helping to convey these corporate gospels, as it were. But the fact is I get this kind of work through agencies, I don’t specifically go out and ask for it. Doing work that is sometimes at odds with my values has made me understand that survival is a complicated game. Lots of gray areas.

What about your photography?

Writing has informed my photography, not the other way around. …I think. What I believe is that all successful photos are narrative. The most enduring ones all tell stories and evoke artistic tradition. Just look at the work Sebastiao Salgado did with children in refugee camps. Those apparently simple portraits have a depth to them, a crushing surfeit of emotion. You don’t have to know much about the children, you will feel moved anyway, because each portrait is a thing of wonder.

Good photography is visual literature, and good literature is photography-in-writing. Writing and photography aren’t so different after all. I like surreal imagery and people-free landscapes, which is why so many of my stabs at fiction have started with weirdos living in the middle of nowhere.

You like to inspire others… do you have any stories about inspiring someone?

Once I met this guy in a bar who’d seen my band play live when he was 14 and apparently we blew him away. He decided to grow his hair long there and then, and start a metal band of his own. Now, the guy told me this at the age of 26 and he still remembered me.

You regularly post features on “what can [X] teach you about writing”… what one  character or author has taught you the most about writing?


No, I’m kidding. Getting to grips with Samuel Beckett ripped my eyes open. His work illustrates all too well the rewards and pitfalls of postmodernism. In terms of sheer daring it would have to be W.S. Burroughs, however. Burroughs managed to shock Beckett at a dinner party when he explained his cut-up technique. Suppose I take your Molloy and a pair of scissors, said Burroughs, and then I cut up the pages into tiny bits, I cut through the pages until I get the text to say what I want it to. Samuel Beckett was flabbergasted.

Beckett, though — respect to the man who can start a novel with

The sun shone, having no alternative, on the nothing new.

Philip K. Dick, Gene Wolfe, Kurt Vonnegut and Ursula LeGuin are definitely influences. Dick knows how to portray people on the verge of total collapse — people about to lose everything, including their sense of self. People dumped into a world that isn’t even cruel but just cruelly absurd. PKD more or less converted to Valentinian Gnosticism late in life, so he deploys his characters in worlds that are ambiguous and deceptive for a reason. Dick taught me to write from a position of doubt.

Now, LeGuin, she writes beautiful human beings and her universe is more or less optimistic. She’s a genius when it comes to introspection; she takes you where the character is at her most honest and vulnerable and you want to keep reading to learn more. I don’t know how else to explain this, but with certain authors, you start to read their books and you feel at home inside the story. That’s what my favorite authors taught me and teach me still, that you should make the reader feel at home.

What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through  social media?

The feeling that we’re an ecosystem. Things are a lot more competitive among photographers, believe you me.

The jokes.

A conversation that starts about Freud turns into a discussion of beards.

What’s not to like? It’s been a wonderful experience so far. My only regret is not starting the blog sooner.

What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

“Receive” may not be the most fitting verb in this case. Ezra Pound says that, if you want to write a novel, you should read one that you admire. Of course Pound meant you should study it and dissect it every which way. He was the kind of writer that doesn’t make concessions and one hell of an editor. There’s a facsimile edition of his work on Eliot’s poem, The Wasteland, and you see the guy wasn’t playing around. He went at it hammer and tongs and turned The Wasteland into a memorable poem. But I digress.

I couldn’t go without mentioning James Scott Bell’s Plot and Structure. It was the second book on craft I picked up and it helped me identify several weaknesses in my writing. There’s a good tip in there: “Maintain the tension in the story up to the last possible moment.”

Are there any exciting projects in your future?

Right now I feel I should hop on a plane, go to Switzerland and check out the Giger museum. No, it’s not a writing project, but something I owe myself, having admired Giger’s work for years.

What are your top five “desert island” books?

In no particular order: The Collected Poems of Hart Crane, The Bodhicaryavatara by Santideva, Carroll’s Through the Looking Glass, some Wordsworth, some Emily Dickinson. If I could add a sixth, it’d be John Donne’s sonnets. A seventh? Kafka’s short stories.

Surly Questions: Cara Michaels

Today’s Surly Questions interview is courtesy of Cara Michaels, #MenageMonday magnate and author of Gaea’s Chosen. Thanks, Cara!

1. When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

I discovered a talent for writing in the middle grades or so, but I didn’t really start to consider a writing career until high school and college. Then I waited another 5-10 years for the idea to settle in and grow… not unlike a parasite. At some point in my mid 20’s, I realized I couldn’t not write.

3. What’s the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

I gave five chapters to an editing friend. He told me quite calmly that the story had potential but it was boring. Then he did me the greatest favor ever and told me WHY it was boring. Passive writing kills the pace of a story. It may seem simple, but we rely very heavily on passive words in everyday conversation, and that carries over into writing. Once I got through the stages of denial and grieving, I picked up the manuscript and realized he’d done nothing but tell me the truth.

4. Who are the most influential authors when it comes to your writing?

Hmm… I don’t actually know. I actually try to avoid reading authors that write in similar genres because I don’t want to end up cloning their work. I’m a big fan of Jim Butcher’s Dresden and Patricia Briggs’ Mercy Thompson series, though.

5. You list yourself as an author of fantasy, horror and science fiction. What brought Gaea’s Chosen to the top of the heap?

Divine providence? LOL. The original run of the story was a full on horror tale titled ‘Prayer for the Dawn.’ I didn’t plan on anyone making it through to the end. The story popped into my head, more or less fully formed, like Athena in Zeus’ skull. All I had to do was sit down and write. As I wrote, I more or less fell in love with the characters and knew I wanted to do more with them, so I completely rewrote the majority of it.

6. You have a daily presence on Twitter, you run the #MenageMonday flash fiction contest, and participate in a lot of other contests. What has been the most rewarding thing about connecting with other writers through social media and contests?

To be perfectly honest, the writers I’ve met through Twitter revitalized me and my writing. Daily contact with folks going through the same day-to-day struggles of managing real life and the imaginary lives we thrive on really boosted my drive to succeed. Add all the little challenges to that, and I find myself writing every day and absolutely loving it. Even when I just want to go to bed, I still steal a few minutes to write.

7. What advice would you give to other writers looking to build a community and a platform for themselves?

This would really depend on what a writer is wanting to accomplish. I see a lot of writers hiding behind anonymous blogger names and Twitter handles. I think for any writer looking to build a platform it’s important to embrace the name and/or concept you want to market.

8. What is “defiantly literate”? Who or what are you defying?

Hahaha. I love the name of my blog. As a proud geek girl, I’ve spent my fair share of time on boards. ‘Defiantly’ is my favorite chronic misspelling of ‘Definitely.’ I laugh every time I see, ‘Oh, I defiantly want to try that!’ or ‘I’m defiantly going there!’ I picture all of these interwebs people saying to hell with convention and marching proudly into the corner store or picking up the latest bestseller.

9. Can you tell us a little about the world of Gaea’s Chosen: The Mayday Directive and the upcoming Event Horizon?

The Gaea’s Chosen series is set a bit over 19K years from now. That gives me a lot of flexibility as far as creating technology, but I do a lot of research to make things believable. No, mankind has not discovered countless alien races. Instead, they’ve evolved due to life in space and scattered across different planets. Since the Gaea crew leaves Earth a little over 200 years from now, much of their tech, specifically the arc blades, travel speed, and potential destinations expands on current devices and knowledge, hopefully just enough to be believable yet still exciting.

The Mayday Directive tells the initial story of the ship Gaea’s Ark and her crew, dubbed by the media of their time as ‘Gaea’s Chosen.’ Essentially the crew wakes from 19K years in stasis to discover a whole lot has gone wrong while they were sleeping, including crewmembers being jettisoned and the ship landing on an already inhabited planet. Event Horizon picks up six months after the ending of Mayday. In this tale, the Gaea crew finds out what happened to at least one of their missing crewmembers. They also discover they’re not alone in their little corner of the universe.

10. You seem to have a lot of projects in what you call the “Red Pen Death Trials.” How merciless are these trials, and what are we going to see from Cara Michaels in the future?

No word is sacred. Except maybe sacred. 😉 I’m ruthless when it comes to editing and do not hesitate to cull the word herd. My 2012 schedule is packed with stories to write, edit, and publish, including a couple of ancestor stories (tentative titles Safer Waters and If a Tree Falls) for Gaea’s commander, Gemma Bryant.

11. How do you feel about the success of #WIP500 since its inception? What, if anything, has it taught you?

Yeah, I totally did not see #WIP500 taking off like it did. When I started it, I hoped to get 15 or 20 people wrangled into my brand of madness. Now there are over 80 people working hard to, if not make the goal, at least keep writing regularly. I think the network building is important to a lot of folks. Some writers are solitary, but I think a fair number of us are pretty damn social. Having companions on the same journey makes it seem less arduous, I think.

12. What inspires you?

Music. Overheard conversations. Storystorming with my offspring (though that inevitably ends up with killer robots or boy wizards… sometimes both). Mostly music, though. The right music and lyrics can help evoke a specific emotion for me, which is great.

Surly Questions: Chantal Boudreau

This week’s Surly Questions are courtesy of Chantal Boudreau, an author and illustrator of dark fantasy and horror. When you’re done reading, make sure to visit her website at Writers Own Words. Thanks for the interview, Chantal!

1. When did you know you wanted to write?

I was four – there was a children’s television show called The Pencil Box that would take stories written by kids and turn them into full scene tales on their show (sets, props, dialogue, costumes, etc.) I was too young to write a coherent story, but I knew I wanted to create something for this show. Sadly, by the time I manage to write something decent, the show had been canceled.

2. You write mostly horror and dark fantasy. What do you find so alluring about the darkness?

It’s cathartic. Most creative people are hyper-sensitive to the troubles of the world and writing about dark things lets you flush them from your system. It also allows you to turn things around so that the hero or heroine vanquishes those dark things in the end, if that’s what you want. There’s often some element of hope to the endings of my stories, especially the novels. Less often with the horror stories.

3. What’s your favorite thing about writing? Least favorite?

My favourite thing about writing is getting lost in a scene. It happens more often with action or battle scenes, or one of those really moving portions of a plot where you get completely immersed in a character. The thing I like least is the editing. Picking apart the technical elements of the story, and forcing yourself to pay careful attention and to avoid getting lost in the plot again, can be pure drudgery.

4. You seem to have excerpts of your work up on Scribd. Has that helped increase your exposure at all?

I believe it has. I have people who read my excerpts and who have taken an interest in my work, giving me feedback, who might never have sampled my work otherwise. It’s hard to translate that into specific numbers, but every little bit helps.

5. In a recent blog post, you talk about why authors shouldn’t respond to negative reviews. Do you feel the same way about positive reviews?

A “thank you” never hurts, but I try not to say more than that. Reviews are subjective and while a good one is appreciated, you shouldn’t go on about it. It may express that person’s opinion, but it doesn’t necessarily reflect how the book will be received in general. You don’t want to come across as gushing or egotistical either.

6. You also relate an anecdote about a reader taking you to task for writing a male protagonist in one of your books. Do you think male readers are intimidated by female writers writing male POVs?

I don’t think that individual was intimidated, as much as he felt that there aren’t enough good female role-models in books and therefore that it is specifically the responsibility of female authors to present that type of female protagonist, since we have a better understanding of what girls or women have to deal with on a daily basis. I got the sense he had a bone to pick with characters like Harry Potter and felt that Rowling had failed her gender by offering up a boy wizard as her protagonist. He was taking out his frustration on me because I happen to have a young male protagonist as well, in Fervor. I don’t usually have male readers questioning the gender of my protagonists. It usually comes from female readers. I don’t, however, feel like I have to have a woman as the focal character of my stories. I like to follow whatever inspiration strikes and I have a fairly even ratio of males to females.

7. You draw in addition to writing — how have the two disciplines influenced each other?

A few of my drawings have inspired stories, like the first in my Masters & Renegades series, Magic University. More often, if I’m struggling a little with a story, I find I can solidify my thoughts by sketching them out. I’ll do that if I find myself stuck. It’s also a good way of attracting attention to an excerpt. If you have a striking drawing accompanying your writing, it can hook an observer’s curiosity and they’ll give it a read.

8. If you had to pick one passion over the other, which would it be? Or could you choose at all?

Oh, I’d definitely pick the writing. I find them both somewhat therapeutic but I “love” writing while I only “like” drawing. I feel that it’s much more difficult to achieve what I’m striving for when I’m drawing. I can usually capture what I’ve envisioned in writing with more ease.

9. Who are the most influential authors and illustrators in your life?

I’ve read so many books it is really difficult to pick only a few authors. I grew up on Anne McCaffery, Tanith Lee, Mervyn Peake and Roald Dahl, adding Theodore Sturgeon, Guy Gavriel Kay, Tad Williams and Frederic Brown to the mix as I went. Lately I’ve been reading Robert J. Sawyer and some great lesser known authors like Ren Garcia and Arlene Radasky, as well as a fabulous variety of horror writers. Illustrators that have influenced me include Darrell K. Sweet, the Brothers Hildebrandt, Michael Whelan, Boris Vallejo and Julie Bell, and lately, Carol Phillips, Eve Ventrue, Shawn Conn and Fantasio. There are so many great artists out there who put my efforts to shame.

10. What are you working on now?

I’m working on an experiment – a paranormal thriller called Intangible involving a young man who discovers that he has the ability to astral project. This discovery leads him to the victim of an abduction, a little girl who looks to him for rescue. But the protagonist can’t make use of his talent on his own and is forced to pair up with a homeless medium. She is the only person whom he can trust will believe him and help him, even though she can’t convince others regarding the situation either. It’s quite different from the many other novels and short stories I have written. I like to play with new concepts and stretch my boundaries from time to time.

11. What songs are in your writing soundtrack (if any)?

I have playlists for every novel I’ve written, most of them stretching 3 to 4 CDs in length. Alternative rock is my music of choice although I have eclectic tastes and I went pretty old and mellow for what I’m working on now. My usual listening preferences range from things like Linkin Park, 30 Seconds to Mars, Finger Eleven and Evanescence, to artists who are a little more obscure, like Bif Naked, Megan McCauley and Sarah Slean.

12. What’s the single best piece of writing advice you’ve ever received?

“Don’t be fluffy.” I have a tendency to over-describe things that have little importance to the story if I don’t purposefully rein that in. I heed that advice carefully, and while my writing may end up a little sparse in description as a result, I stay true to the stories and characters, which aren’t bogged down by unnecessary detail. Having a little flavour is good, but when it drowns out everything else, you have a problem.

13. And now, the clichéd question: your top five “desert island” books?

I had no idea that was a cliched question. I guess in a way that depends on your definition. Lord of the Flies is my absolute favourite pick for this, hands down, both set on a desert island and a book I’d want to have with me. Godbody by Theodore Sturgeon is a must and I’d want to have Arlene Radasky’s The Fox and Ren Garcia’s The Hazards of the Old Ones. The last one would be a tie between a classic, Jane Eyre, and a moving and dark novel called The Gargoyle.


Surly Questions: Tracy McCusker

Writer, poet, artist, journal fetishist, freelance cat detective. Tracy McCusker is all but one of these things. She is also the author of Letters from Nowhere. Thanks for the great interview, Tracy!

 1. When did you know you wanted to write?

When I was in third grade, the teacher ran a contest for a couple lollipops and a good behavior star. Whoever could write a single scene with the most adjectives would win. They had to be different adjectives. I actually didn’t care about the lollipops. This was the grade after I’d been in timeout nearly every week for obstinate behavior. That good behavior star burned. I wanted to prove to this new teacher that yes, I was a good student–not the terror that Ms. Hata described.
On the day of the contest, every student was expected to stand up, say the number of adjectives they used, then read their passage. We all stood up in turn. Most people used five, six, or eight. The girl who wore nothing but overalls was pretty smug that she’d used sixteen. Then it was my turn. Sixty-six for a cozy little cottage scene. The kids bugged out as I read my very purple prose. I was pretty sure, then, that I wanted to be a writer. Because writers could make other people bug the fuck out.

2. Why poetry?

Because at 11 years old, I didn’t have the squirrel-brain patience to write those epic fantasy novels about stranded airline passengers on their bizarre pseudo-reality island. Novels got me nowhere fast. I’d plunk the keyboard in frustration. I could tell what I was writing was shitty. But why? And how could I change that?

At the time, I couldn’t. So I sulked for a few weeks. Then started up my first poetry archive and began to make tiny poem-objects. It just stuck from there. I admired their brevity, their musicality. Hungered for their incisive wisdom. Even as I was a wordy bastard myself. Now that I (maybe) have the patience to tackle large projects, I am caught by the starkness of good poetry. It leaves me breathless.

3. Do you have a #1 favorite poem of all time?

How about three number one favorite poems?

Piers Plowman, by William Langland. It’s an allegorical dream poem from the 14th century about Conscience, Will the dreamer, and a cast of thousands trying to make the perfect society. And failing three times. It is crazy, all-over-the-place, the very anti-definition of a poem that’s in control of its own allegorical meaning. This poem was Langland’s life work. It’s the only thing he wrote, and he revised it up until his death. I love reading someone’s Life Work. You can feel the stakes it had for them.

Sunday Morning, by Wallace Stevens. It’s powerful meditation on divinity and the Christian imagination. The poem moves through metaphysical questions/complaints like water, each building a new spiritual dimension on the last. It has one of the most moving final stanzas I’ve read on a poem anywhere. I think everyone should read this.

Jim McMichael’s “Celery.” It is completely unlike the other two poems. It’s a simple thing, inspired by the clarity of haiku. You should read this one too. It’s short. Go ahead, I’ll wait.

4. Who are the most influential poets and authors in your life?

The ones who formed my tastes & style: Marie de France, Ezra Pound (his stubborn/snippiness as an editor), William Carlos Williams, William Maxwell. Off and on the Romantics and the Victorians are inspiring: Wordsworth, Tennyson and Rilke. A book called “Japanese Death Poems.” If I could be an old poet, I would like to be Pablo Neruda. He was so prolific in his final years. So clear of eye, and quick in verse.
Then there are the little-i influences, whose work fascinates me. The unnamed poets of the 12th & 13th century who are ridiculous, quirky, accomplished, and moving. Their namelessness is itself is a kind of mystique to me. Writers today have to build brands–but what about the writers who wrote and were never known, except by their work?

5. I know you’ve done prose in the past — any plans to return to it?


5.5. You’re being difficult, aren’t you?

Yeah. I intend to return to prose for my next project, but It will be more of an occult reference/humor piece–not a novel. I don’t know if I’ll return to novels. Right now everything moving that I want to say can be done in the poetry format. My imagination tends to dream up small things that can be settled in the space of 20-50 lines. If a big idea announces itself, I may just come back to novels after all.

6. You draw in addition to writing — how have the two disciplines influenced each other?

Oh they are two amorous disciplines indeed. Now I can’t even talk about one without mentioning the other. My anecdotes about drafting a poem or a short story end with at least one, “well, you see, there’s a thumbnail stage, and a rough phase…then a clean line stage. THEN you–”

I used to be a one-drafter. Do everything in one fell swoop. But drawing broke me of that habit. It helped me see that you can create something big, complicated, and beautiful from very small objects like the 30-second thumbnail. In fact, if you want to create the right big, complicated object, you need to start with those quick thumbnails. Otherwise you’re 1500 words into an epic poem, and you realize that the Roman Empire told from a stick’s perspective might not be the grandiose & literary undertaking you originally thought it was at 2 am.

7. What’s the hardest part about being an artist?

The single hardest thing (aside from affording the costs of supplies) is that people expect art to be something easy to pick up (is there a web tutorial where I can learn drawing?) or something super-hard (oh my god, you can DRAW?! It’s like you walk on the moon without breathing apparatus!). In honesty, it is neither; like any craft, it takes a lot of dedicated time.

I carry around a small chip on my shoulder because I didn’t start early. I was inclined towards things like layout, typography, line and color at an early age, but I let all of that go in favor writing. I didn’t start to take art seriously until 2006, less than a year away from graduating from university with an English degree.

Now I feel like I am always playing catch-up. I can see the long road stretching out behind me–I can see my improvement from those very first unwieldy stick figures. But I can also see the long road ahead. There’s a cult of youth in the illustration/graphic design industry. So I get a bit flustered at industry magazines when the next superstar of 18 TOTALLY BLOWS AWAY EVERYTHING ELSE. Eeeh, industry hype I suppose is always a bit demoralizing.

8. Who are the most inspirational people in your life when it comes to writing / poetry / art?

Well, there’s this tumblr feed…maybe you’ve heard of it. I derive inspiration from the pictures, blog posts, titles, and poems that are shared with me. Something shared means my friends liked it enough (or were proud of it) to say, “hey, come look at this!” There are a few artists I follow daily: Skottie Young, Android Jones.

Then there are the people who are equivalent to a gut-punch of strong coffee. I can’t drink coffee thanks to a caffeine intolerance. So when my energy flags during the day, I have an inspiration ritual instead.

When I feel the mid-day burn, I think of my overly-productive, energetic friends new & old. Martin Francisco and Alejandro Komai. Martin is one of the best designers I’ve known. He could create anything from basically anything else. Whenever I’m stuck, or having a down day, I think of what he’d do. His inspiring creations (a prop-quality lightsaber handle) from wire, super-glue, paint and a bit of shaped plastic. And then, I just make something. Doesn’t have to look good. I know I’ll have time to shape it later. Alejandro is one of those can-do-anything-he-sets-his-mind-to people; his energy is super-infectious. When my writing projects start to burn me out, I imagine having a conversation with Alejandro. I give him excuses for not working on my project, and I see the faint head-tilt of disapproval that betrays his own thoughts.

Within minutes, I’m back on my feet, striving for that level of super-productivity.

9. What’s the meaning behind Letters from Nowhere?

Letters From Nowhere just seemed to fit as a title. William Morris’ News from Nowhere was always one of my favorite book titles. A nowhere that’s still a somewhere, even if only in your mind. The poems in LFN are a several series of poems that I wrote over the past ten years. One set from when I was heart-sick, traveling in England, trying to shake a long-time crush in favor of working partnership. Another from when I was living with my then-fiancé in Irvine, dreaming of a quiet domestic life after college that never materialized.

When I wrote these poems, I would imagine myself reading them to their addressee. Because I couldn’t express these feelings in person. I make jokes to deflect tension, use bombast and hyperbole with glee when I’m lighthearted. Being understated doesn’t come naturally. These poems are about holding back the words bubbling up from a little place, to people who may never read the letters meant for them.

10. Tell us about your upcoming book of poetry.

The upcoming book is a 180-degree shift from Letters. It’s a series of blackout poems cut out of the text of the Communist Manifesto. As non-personal as poetry can get. Yet I felt a great connection to Engels–his sighs over Marx’s death. There was a great friendship here, brought together by sympathy and a desire to make a utopia. Using just the words from the Manifesto (and some words carved from letters in a line), I try to chart different currents in the text, from horror at machinery’s toll on man, to the revolutionary spirit of working men. Also, there’s some sort-of-erotic-for-Victorians poetry thrown into the mix. Because isn’t everything ultimately about making–whether it is production of machines or people? The manuscript is nearly complete; I expect it to be out by the end of February.

11. So, your insane journal fetish. Why?

Why doesn’t everyone share this fetish? Uh, okay, I don’t have a good explanation for it. It’s more than just journals; it’s the writing paraphernalia. I am terribly fond of journals, writing pads, and pens. I do 70% of my writing longhand. Since I exhaust a journal before I exhaust a pen, I collect far more of the former. I also illustrate my journals. The current theory is that I should have been a 13th century monk.

12. In your opinion, how important is a measure of insanity to creativity?

Insanity goes very poorly with creativity. When you’re to the raving mad stage (who hasn’t had hysterical fits that stretch on for hours? High five!), you don’t get a lot of writing or thinking done. Same with the catatonia. There’s a happy middle, which I’ll call eccentricity, and that’s where ideas mash together in brilliant ways.

Still, if you haven’t been broken in some way in your life, how can you write about broken people? Nearly all of human creative output has been about broken people striving to be less broken, more complete. The Adventures Of Mr. Sane Jobbed With Good Benefits And No Marital Discord is an awfully dull series.

13. And now, the clichéd question: your top five “desert island” books?

1. Harmonium by Wallace Stevens
2. The Sea and the Bells, Pablo Neruda
3. The Poems of the Gawain Poet (Sir Gawain & the Green Knight, Pearl)
4. A 500-page journal
5. Red hardcover Lord of the Rings hollowed out to hold pens, ink & converters