J. Hamlet: Everyone needs a hobby. I chose writing. Not one of the easier ones. I chose it at the tender age of 14, churning out terrible science fiction novels that heaped on the cliches and barely hidden tropes of all space operas. Thankfully, those creations reside in the prison of an old Commodore 64 hard drive and several 3.5″ disks (kids, ask your parents) in a landfill somewhere. And, let me be clear, the world is better for it. Along the way, I kept writing. Through college. Through grad school. Through the beginning of my career, such as it is. I like to believe I picked up skills. I write genre novels that have characters brimming with personal problems, professional problems, and sexuality. Sure, novels that do this exist. I’m not trying to say they don’t, I just think too few of them are out there and I intend to do my personal best to increase their numbers.
Welcome J; and thanks for sitting down with me today. I’m looking forward to learning more about you, so let’s get started!
I’ve attempted to do as much research as possible (prior to this interview), but there isn’t a whole lot of “about you” out there. With that said, why don’t you tell us something about yourself? Like, where did you grow up?
I’m from the Hampton Roads area of Virginia. Many people who pass through there are military families, but mine wasn’t. I actually lived there from birth until college whereas most people only stay there for a few years before they’re transferred elsewhere. At that time, there wasn’t much in the area aside from military bases and Virginia Beach; however things are very different now. There are actual bars! And not just in strip malls! Don’t worry though; there are still plenty of bars in strip malls, if that’s your thing. There are even nice restaurants that aren’t chain restaurants and more than one art house theater. I hardly recognize the place anymore…
I know you started writing (if I may quote you) “terrible science fiction” novels at age fourteen, but what was your childhood like prior to then?
It was on the water, so there was a lot of fishing and seasickness in my childhood. For about eight years, my mother was also a single mother which meant I had to learn how to entertain myself when she dragged me on multi-hour shopping trips.
I was an only child, and a lot of people write about how only children experience solitude rather than loneliness. I think that was very true in my case. I had a lot of time to myself. That’s probably why I still have such an overactive imagination. I would always try to make up new games for my friends to play, which usually just involved overelaborate tweaks to freeze tag or flashlight tag.
I read a lot, like…every novel written by John Bellairs (at the time), Fred Saberhagen’s Swords books, Lord of the Rings, and a lot of Marvel comics. I also did a lot of drawing, a talent I have well, and thoroughly, lost in adulthood.
I was an awkward kid, and sometimes I had a lot of discipline problems at school because I thought drawing comic book and video game characters was much more interesting than math class. The one thing I didn’t do was play D&D, which I actually regret. I also had a handful of like-minded friends who I’d chew things over with as we spent too much time playing aforementioned over-elaborate versions of flashlight tag at night and tons of Nintendo during the day.
What about after the age of 14? What did you do for fun? (Besides penning stories to paper and/or floppies).
I spent a lot of time with music. It started with piano lessons when I was about 12. Then I turned into a band geek and spent quite a bit of time playing the saxophone. I even kept that up throughout college, including my long and still ongoing flirtation with being a bad guitar player. I was even in a few short-lived jazz bands in college that were a lot of fun. I definitely went full into being more of a music nerd back then. I owned mountains of tapes, then mountains of CDs.
I’m still a bit of a music hoarder to this day, but since most of it is digital, it doesn’t cause the astounding amount of clutter that it used to. I was the guy in high school who listened to a bunch of bands no one had heard of, but I knew better than to be the snob. We all know teenagers take their music very seriously, and I was coming into my music fanaticism during peak grunge and then the heyday of Tupac, Biggie, and Wu-Tang. I only tried to drink it all in, the popular and the obscure, and I still try to. It’s hard nowadays, though, with so many sub-genres and the disintegration of radio into something that only plays the same ten songs over and over again. Thank god for something like Spotify. I can be a parasite on my friends and expose myself to everything they’re enjoying. I discover most new music nowadays that way. College was often a drunken haze of arguments about whether the loud frat party music was terrible or genius.
It all started with watching the Star Trek animated series on Nickelodeon of all places. That was probably my first exposure to sci-fi. Then there was Star Wars, naturally, and more Star Trek. I even read a lot of the novels. I was that kind of obsessive. Mix in the Star Wars and all the fantasy books I read and it was always going on in the background of my mind.
A lot of my early writing and drawing were all about imitating those influences; trying to fuse them together. I would invent my own characters and universes, but there were always echoes of these other stories, narratives, worlds, and characters. I also went to a few writing camps when I was an early teenager, and those also helped me hone my interest and abilities. Later, I discovered stuff with a lot more nuance and slippery morality, which is still a subject that interests me to this day, but that early stuff got me hooked through my childhood and then teenage years.
J, in doing my research, I also noticed that you are rather… fond of Immanuel Kant. *smile* How does one bridge the gap from Science Fiction to a man who is, for all intents and purposes, considered to be the central figure of modern philosophy?
Kant was a philosopher who I was obsessed with in college, among others. Hannah Arendt and Michel Foucault were also a huge influence on me. I was a double-major in political theory and econ, and Kant was something that resonated with me. I got into a lot of drunken arguments with some people about him, most of which I had forgotten about until I saw that Russian news story about the people who started shooting at each other over an argument in a bar about Kant. Gave me a lot of flashbacks, definitely.
Kant held, and I’m paraphrasing a lot here, that what we perceive is partially a result of things that our minds impose on the world. What we know, and see, is not the full picture of objective reality. There may be many aspects of the world and the universe that we cannot comprehend or perceive. That is obviously rich territory for both science fiction and/or fantasy, as there may be areas of science or technology beyond our understanding. Or, of course, magic might exist outside our normal perception.
Kant originally intended to stop the endless squabbling among philosophers in trying to “prove” the existence of God as that’s clearly a realm outside human perception, but it had much stronger implications than that. There are things that we understand, that we can predict, but we never quite have the whole picture. Again, that’s a dramatic oversimplification, but it’s an important takeaway from Kant’s philosophy.
Moving from childhood into adulthood, what career path did you choose for yourself outside of the writing arena?
I had a misbegotten urge to take up public service. That started with a college internship I had with the Navy. I studied a lot more in college taking classes in public finance, government, and political philosophy and went to graduate school in public administration. During that time I had an internship with the City of Syracuse and got a close look at the problems the “Rust Belt” in the northeast is facing.
The local officials were fighting a losing war against a city with a shrinking tax base and a shrinking population, but with growing problems in all sorts of areas like crime, abandoned housing, and unemployment. They were dedicated and smart people, but they were facing questions that had no good answers. It was sobering, but when I graduated in 2003 the only things available were public sector jobs at the federal level here in DC. That’s how I ended up in the DC area, and I’ve worked for several different agencies as a fed and as a contractor since then. I’d like to one day work for local government, or write full-time, but both of those are not the easiest situations to pull off.
Let’s talk about your debut novel: Hand of Chaos. What inspired that manuscript?
A few different things… A lot of it was very spur of the moment. I had decided that I would do National Novel Writing Month in 2007 and I had a few different ideas kicking around in my head. I wanted to do a dark fantasy story set in present day for quite a while, and I had a few different scenes and characters in mind, so I decided to just do it. I also had recurring nightmares about zombies in my high-rise apartment building, and that was just a gift from my subconscious. I couldn’t NOT write about that.
One thing Hand of Chaos was very inspired by was the BBC show “Spooks” (“MI-5” here). That show had a lot of things shows like 24 and The Shield did, where the protagonists have to morally compromise themselves in order to stop the greater evil, but the pacing and the characters were so much richer and the villains and antagonists evil, but relatable on some level. Especially interesting in that series was the impact their jobs had on their lives, the fact that they lived in deception and couldn’t have an authentic personal life. That’s obviously something that has influenced me, not in terms of straight-up anti-heroes, but more like people who constantly have to live in a world of moral flexibility where truth and certainty are illusive.
They do good, they do evil, and they have personal problems. They struggle for the right answer and get it wrong sometimes and they accept that “it is what it is” when that happens. I thought it would be interesting to build my heroes out of a worldview like that, one where both pure good and pure evil are the problem. Both can be equally oppressive in certain ways. The Grays, as my characters are referred to by others, seek to balance them. They keep either side from truly winning and try to protect ordinary people from all of these hidden agendas. I took the ideas of demons, angels, and these other mystical forces and sort of have them stand in for terrorists, ideologies, and geopolitics.
Aside from all that pretentious talk, I also wanted to write a fantasy novel where the magic was something deeply unnatural and disturbing. I wanted the moments of magic use to be surreal and unsettling, even when the protagonists use it. Sometimes the way magic is treated in fantasy is frustrating to me, so I wanted to do it the way I wanted to see it.
J, what were your favorite aspects of writing Hand of Chaos?
Aside from the adrenaline-fueled experience of churning out the first 50K during NaNoWriMo, I took to reading some weird things for inspiration. Things like medieval witch-hunter handbooks (malleus mallificarum), the Goetia with its demon-drawings by Aleister Crowley, lots of folklore, apocrypha, and Gnostic bibles. That gave me a lot of interesting alternative viewpoints and historical perspectives on Christianity that I could use to shape out this world.
I adapted it to the modern context and tried to understand how these concepts and ideas could fit in with not only a contemporary setting but to the world of espionage and counter-terrorism. Solving those puzzles and finding the interesting pieces to put together was fun and a challenge. There’s also watching the characters come to life. They popped in “Hand of Chaos,” feeding off each other and growing better than I expected. It’s exhilarating when you have a “cast” that gels together like that.
What were your least favorite aspects?
Editing. I’ve gotten a lot better at it over time, but it was tough with this one. One of the early pieces of feedback I got from a lot of my beta readers was that they wanted more explanation and description. In subsequent drafts I took that way too far and ended up with these exposition dumps all over the place. My manuscript went from the original, hefty length of 130K to a 190K word monster. Obviously that was unreadable, so I ultimately decided to eviscerate it. I got it down to around 115K at the end, which was like cutting a Great Gatsby and then some out of my novel.
It was painful, and I lost a lot of interesting “flavor” moments and dialogue between the characters, as well as a lot of stuff shaping out the main villain, but in the end the manuscript became a lot more focused and most appreciate the slim version more than the bloated one. It was a difficult and painful process to cut so much, though. It’s a painstaking process for any author to put so much of their own writing in the trash. It did make me more economical as a writer overall, though. The fact that I can actually write flash fiction, which is something that I thought myself incapable of before, is a good measure of that.
So, Hand of Chaos has been published, and you have moved on to Scarred Earth, a Tumblr novel where you share new content weekly. What started this compilation? Is this a story that will ever come out in book format, or do you prefer it to remain on Tumblr and forever free to all?
It began with NaNoWriMo! Sorry, it’s a recurring theme. I find it important to me as a writer. It forces me to get bolder and take more risks in my writing, and usually the leftovers from it help me develop something better either in subsequent drafts or repurpose into something else. That’s sort of what happened with “Scarred Earth.” I had a problem with writing chapters and scenes that were far too long. I didn’t let the negative space, the hidden transcript between the text, speak for itself.
Scarred Earth was a challenge I undertook to write extremely short chapters. I had long had a lot of ideas and had written some manuscripts and stories for a fictional universe that involved an alien invasion and the aftermath of that, and Scarred Earth was when I finally decided to tell that story. The multitude of perspectives and characters lets me examine things from a lot of different angles and even in forms that don’t match traditional fictional narratives.
As far as whether I will put it out in book format, I’m not sure. If anything, I would probably release it in e-book format and maybe put some extra chapters and material in to justify releasing it separately, but I certainly don’t ever plan to take the Tumblr version down; barring significant changes in the platform. A lot of writers put free stories up to promote their work and get things out to readers and I’ve decided Scarred Earth was a great method for that, especially as it is a novel and an anthology wrapped in one.
Last question… What’s your plan/vision from here? Any political satire books to write/share? *chuckle*
Political reality satirizes itself nowadays. That said, I am moving forward with the sequel to Hand of Chaos. I’ve written most of the first draft and it does have a lot more acidic things to say about politics, as does a lot of Scarred Earth. A lot of my experience has made me pretty cynical, but it’s been a long transformation. In my past I actually did things like lit dropping and political canvassing, but it’s tough to look at the landscape nowadays and think happy thoughts. If anything, I do tend to have faith in people, but not so much in institutions. Certainly not so much of our civilization’s leadership, either.Powered by Sidelines