Bill Swears calls himself a service brat. He was born in Great Falls, Montana, lived there for ten months, than averaged less than a year living anywhere until his late teens. He’s lived in England, Iran, Germany, and nine states. Bill flew military helicopters for 22 years, seven in the Army and fifteen in the Coast Guard. He sold his first short story while he was a Coast Guard rescue helicopter pilot, and immediately began writing a book. He finished that manuscript ten years later, after retiring from active duty.
On November 15, 2003, Bill broke his back while ditching a home-built experimental airplane 100 NM out to sea from Maui, Hawaii. He retired from the USCG in 2004, after spinal fusion surgery and rehabilitation. He says that there is an upside to that, because he shows up on Google searches. Although he does show up on Google searches, Dark Phantom suggests that there are better ways to do that and Bill agrees.
Bill met his wife Teri in high school in 1978. They married in 1982, but didn’t get around to having children for 17 more years. They have two kids, 13-year old Alexa and 8-year old Michael, and will celebrate their 30th wedding anniversary in July. Bill claims that they lost track of time.
The Swears family lives in a beat-up old log home on a ridge line in Peter’s Creek, Alaska with a brace of rare breed Eurasier dogs and a pair of cats. Bill earned his MA in English and graduated on Groundhog Day 2010, the year he turned fifty. He works as a technical writer and editor for a little known federal bureau. He has a spanking new webresidence and blog at www.BillSwears.com, and blogs at http://wswears.livejournal.com/.
About the book, Zook Country:
Metamorphic plague has swept the globe over the last five years. Victims become rabid non-sentient zooks, immensely strong and so fast that a normal person can’t see them move. A third of humanity has died, but people are fighting back, balanced on the razor’s edge between survival and apocalypse. Jake Chestnut and Gary Landon, both ex-army, are partners in Seraglio, an independent Kent, Washington based zook hunting firm. Both lost their families to plague and are part of the less than one percent of humanity with the innate ability, ESP, reflexes, and willingness to shoot where the zook will be next that are necessary to combat feral zooks. Zook-hunters are charged with hunting down and killing plague victims. These battle scarred men and women have been on the front line with no reprieve for five years, and the survivors have developed an esprit de corps similar to that of a WWI Aerosquadron.
Killing zooks for a living is tough, but the alternative is worse; eight months after infection, zooks metamorphose into non-corporeal ghasten, who live in collectives, herd zooks, kill with energy discharges, and create rifts in the fabric of reality that have swallowed cities. While working a contract to clear a first of its kind community/safe enclave for the elite, somebody tries to kill Jake, Gary, and their crew. With Gary badly injured, Jake must untangle a web of conspiracy to complete Seraglio’s contract and seek vengeance. What he discovers may lead to civil war.
From Coast Guard rescue helicopter pilot to apocalyptic science-fiction adventure writer. How did that come about?
I was reading science fiction in grade school. A lot of it. I read through all of the science fiction in the city library nearest my house when I was eleven, and in every school library from the time I left fourth grade until I graduated from high school. I couldn’t be forced to study my school-work, but that science fiction stuff my mother so disapproved of? I never really stopped. Before I joined the military I wrote a couple of science fiction short stories – really bad stories, but with a core of humor that my friends (and other people I was able to intimidate into reading my stuff) noticed. So I guess the question is more, “How did a budding young writer end up flying Coast Guard helicopters?” Now that was a long road. I knew I wanted to write, I knew I wanted to be a pilot, and I knew I wanted to be the world’s first independent cargo dirigible captain. But I really wasn’t ready to write in my early twenties, and I banged my head against that, until one day Teri pointed at one of the then popular commercials that said “The Army; the only service that will take you straight from high school to flight school.”
She still claims that she was joking, but nine months later, with an impressive battery of tests behind me, I was swearing into the Army for rotary-wing flight school. I thought initially that I’d like to follow in Dad’s footsteps, join the Air Force and become a jet pilot, but after I’d flown helicopters for a few years I realized that I was just having too much fun to give up the rotary-wing lifestyle. Flying seems like a young man’s career, and I stayed with that for my first career, moving to the Coast Guard when I realized that saving lives fit me better than taking them (training to take them. I’ve never been in combat). So, it seems like I’m breaking into a whole new gig, writing fiction, but really, I’m taking time to do something I’ve always loved. And now, I have a bunch of sea stories that I can weave into my writing!
What was your inspiration for Zook Country and how did you come up with the concept of ‘Zook’.
Believe it or not, I started writing about Jake and Gary while I was talking about using voice in dialogue at rec.arts.sf.composition. I threw out a snippet that was very close to the opening you can read today. I liked the characters and started to write, not knowing where they’d go. I got about two chapters in before I began to feel the shape of the novel to come. That’s when I wrote a rough story-arc that I followed for the rest of the draft.
As I originally wrote it, the story was mostly contemporary dark fantasy, with zooks being part of an attack on the human race by evil dragons. A good dragon had found his way to earth as well, and became a major character in my earlier draft. I was picked up by an agent almost immediately, but he convinced me to take out the fey/magical aspects and give it a more down to earth explanation. I miss Thomas the dragon even today, but the novel that came out was much tighter and easily visualized. The agent? He left the publishing industry entirely, though we’re still friends.
I remember when I first started to develop the zooks that I was thinking about vampires, and that I wanted to write a guy version of urban fantasy. At the time I was thinking that I wanted a new monster because I didn’t want to be stuck in somebody else’s pigeonhole, but that I also wanted to borrow from known monster archetypes so that readers wouldn’t be completely alienated. It seemed like burning up in contact with silver and being able to heal almost instantly would be recognizable as monster traits. Becoming non-sentient and apelike came from my prejudices about what happens to rabies victims in the later stages of the disease. After that, I just let the story flow and Ghasten came along as if that’s what is supposed to happen to hyperspeed feral apes.
I came up with the name zook as an integral part of the world I was imagining (and beginning to dream about). At first I didn’t know where the name came from – I finally posted a longer section with RASFC and asked my friends there to comment about zooks, especially the name, which worried me a little. Ric Locke (Temporary Duty: available on Amazon and Barnes and Noble) said that it was clearly a mashup of Zombie and Gook, and that made complete sense to me. Soldiers find ways to dehumanize their enemies so that they can get on with the business of killing them. I don’t really think of zooks as being zombies, but the parallels are obvious, so maybe my hind-brain was already making the connection.
I understand you first self-published the novel before it was picked up by Twilight Times Books. I love success stories like that. Can you share with my readers how that happened?
I’m proud of my writing, but promotionally, I’m a real neophyte. After five full years in one publisher’s recommended pile (I checked in with her every few months and was always reassured that it was in her pile, and that she’d eventually get around to looking at it), while gaining and losing two agents from a rather famous F&SF centric literary agency, I gave up on waiting for the industry to get around to looking at me. I spent some months prepping the book for self-publication, setting up ISBNs, buying cover art, getting a copy/line edit from somebody I trusted, and running the whole book through several members of my writers group. Then I put it up on Amazon Kindle and nothing much happened. Apparently Amazon is releasing so many e-books that their market is glutted with new titles (or, just maybe, I’ve been lost in a sea of voices shouting “Buy me! Buy me!” and if I can get the right attention, some few people will want to face a new monster in their darker nights). While I thought about whether to expand my markets to other e-book providers or join Kindle Select, I sent promotional messages to each of my Facebook friends, and everybody I ever traded e-mail with, asking for reviews. Stephanie Osborne suggested that I friend Lida Quillen and offer the book to Twilight Times Books.
Sending individual messages to each of your Facebook friends is terribly labor intensive, but it netted me a few promises of reviews, and the name of a promising publisher. Here was this small but growing press with authors that I recognized, and here I was, starting to get a really good notion of just how time intensive and pricey it was to promote myself, so the idea really had a shiny glow. I queried Lida, she read the book and liked it, and then suddenly I was barreling down a road I thought was closed to me.
The road has been bumpy, but I went from 2007 to 2012 with the book in a big publishing house but no action at all, then was picked up and published in 11 days. I couldn’t decide whether ecstasy or head-desk was the correct response. I settled on muted excitement with a sense that the other boot would soon drop.
I understand Zook Country wasn’t the original title.
I originally wrote the book under the title Seraglio, because Jake and Gary named their company that, and because it has an uncomfortable resonance with something the bad-guys have done. Nobody at all liked that title, so I was casting around for a better one when my German publisher told me that he’d publish the book only if I renamed it Zookland. I like Zookland quite a lot, but thought that here in the US it came too close to the names Zombieland and Zoolander. In fact, for the longest time, if I Googled Zookland I got the Ben Stiller movie.
Anyway, Zook Country as a term is reminiscent (to me!) of Injun Country, which I hoped would have meaning to some part of the US crowd.
The novel was also published in Germany. Is it still available there and was it published there in German? Yes it is, yes it was. Zookland was translated to German by my friend Dirk Van Den Boom, and is available in hardback or trade paperback at Atlantis Verlag, or in trade paper or kindle from Amazon.com here in the U.S. – for anybody who speaks German. Really, anybody who speaks German should buy both books and compare them. Yeah, that’s the ticket.
Tell us a bit about your writing process. Are you a morning bird or a night owl? How long does it usually take you to finish a book?
I’m a morning bird by ingrained habit, but a night owl by inclination. Before joining the military, Teri and I thought nothing about watching the sunrise before going to bed. Now, I’m awake between 4:30 and 5:00 am whether I like it or not, and whether I’ve been asleep for three hours or seven. I’m probably most productive in the mornings, and on my days off from work, which is why it was so useful to be able to take this interview at such an early hour here in Alaska.
I’m not an outliner exactly. I usually start with a group of characters and a situation, then write a few chapters and decide who and what I like. Then I write what I call a chapterboard, which is sort of like an outline. I write a brief description of what I think will happen in each of twelve chapters. That description is sometimes a sentence, and sometimes two or three paragraphs about what I have in mind. The length of the description and the length of the chapters have absolutely no relationship, as far as I can tell. In one chapterboard from another book, “Tanos and Carolyn get married” was the description of three long chapters that involved an assassination plot and a vastly overcomplex royal wedding. The twelve chapters I write my chapterboard around have never come out in fact. Zook Country had a twelve chapter board, and came out to 33 chapters and an epilogue. Sometimes my characters disapprove of a planned action and go off to raise their own Cain. I do, generally, get to nudge them back toward my preferred ending.
I don’t know that I have a “usually” when it comes to finishing books. My first book took almost a year to write. Zook Country took less than three months in its original form. Now I have a high demand day job, so things are taking longer.
What is your favorite scene in the book?
Chapter 17, when Jake smells apples and tastes mocha. Anything more would be a spoiler, IMO.
Seriously though, having “favorite” scenes in a book that shivers between dark and light is difficult. I like the moment toward the end when Donna ends up out of bullets with her men dead or dying around her, defending herself with nothing but a stiff silver wire and mad martial arts skills. Donna is way cool and a far better character than I ever deserved to dream up – and like some of the best characters, she wasn’t intended to be there. She created her own space in my head and broke out onto the page without the least regard for my feelings.
At the other extreme, there is a scene when Jake and Gary take down a two year old zook that hurts every time I read it, and that cost me a lot of sleep when I first wrote it. In a way, I guess you could call that a favorite.
What did you find most challenging while working on Zook Country?
During the first draft? Getting to sleep at night. Zook Country came off my fingers almost as quickly as I could type. I woke up ready to write and had itchy keyboarding fingers all day. Of course I had to do other things, like eat, and chase people down in the street to get them to read snippets, so that wasn’t mindlessly easy. But then, I found a couple good first readers, and they kept hounding me for more chapters, so I could focus more on getting the next thing written.
I thought that writing the book would be the hardest part. When I got a call a few weeks later from an agent, I thought my authoring world was made. But when that agent friend asked me to reimagine the book without fey elements? That moment comes in a close second on the challenge scale. I felt so challenged that I wanted to fly to New York and have a loud chest to chest discussion with this fellow I’d never met. Then he arranged for his boss to visit me in Anchorage during BoucherCon 2007, to tell me that I had no idea what I was doing with dragons. I didn’t really believe the agency’s advice until I’d finished and smoothed the sans magic version, and even then I was pretty mad. I was really “challenged” when the agent I’d started with up and left the industry just as I was turning in Zook Opus mark deux. More challenged yet when the boss that hadn’t liked my dragon also turned out not to like my monsters, metamorphic plague, or anything except the characters, which he thought should be in an infantry based space opera out in the Zagravian sector. We dinked around for another two years before realizing that without the first interested agent, the boss was never going to be satisfied with an Earth based adventure.
What’s on the horizon for Bill Swears?
I’ve promised to write Rogue Country, a sequel to Zook Country next. It’s set in the Oregon wine country near the River of the Rogue. I’ve got two other novels in progress. One is a straight up space opera that I’m calling Mutiny on Hellespont, and the other is high fantasy, or maybe swords and sorcery, and an immediate sequel to my first (so far unpublished) book, Split Affinity. The sequel, which is currently at 80K words, will be called Growing Affinity, and is part two of three. I can’t let myself finish it until I’ve fulfilled my promise to Dirk Van Den Boom, who wants to exhaust himself translating the next zook story.
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