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Interview with James Bottino, Author of The Canker Death

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James Bottino earned a BS in English Education from Illinois State University and taught high school English in a suburb of Chicago for many years. He studied creative writing in graduate school at Northern Illinois University. The Canker Death is his first novel.

Tell us a bit about yourself.

I am a self-admitted computer geek and a creative writing teacher rolled into one. I earned a BS in English Education from Illinois State University and taught high school English in a suburb of Chicago for many years. After teaching all day, I studied creative writing in graduate school at Northern Illinois University. All the while, though, in the deep corners of the night, when no one was looking, I led a double life hacking and building computers and networks. Eventually, unbeknownst to me, word of my activities leaked out, and employment offers started coming in. In the end, I switched my hobby with my profession and became a senior computer / networking administrator for a scientific research laboratory.

Just six months into this position, however, tragedy struck when, at the age of 31, I was diagnosed with cancer. Given ten to one odds of living out the year and knowing that my infant daughter would never remember me if I died, I began the fight of my life, enduring massive doses of chemotherapy that killed the cancer but nearly killed me as well. After years of struggle, I survived, but only after enduring systemic nerve damage from the treatments that left me permanently photophobic, phonophobic and with frequent difficulty in using my hands. These events focused my efforts and helped me to prevail in my dual goals: being a father to my daughter and completing my first novel, The Canker Death. I currently live in a suburb of Chicago, with my wife, daughter, two Australian cattle dogs and far, far too many books and abstruse computers.

What made you first decide to become a writer?

For as long as I can remember, I’ve always wanted to be a writer, and the fact of the matter is that I’m always writing. At almost any free moment, I am composing / creating some sort of story or scene or character or plot in my head. I honestly do not remember any time in my life when I was not this way. I find that some of the ideas I think about I end up dropping pretty quickly as being “too out there and not feasible,” but most others I latch onto for one reason or another. These ideas continue to grow and mature until I have a chance to write things down, once it’s all been sorted in my mind. This is how it usually happens.

Sometimes, though, I get some inspiration that makes me stop in the midst of whatever I’m doing to write down the idea. I’ll be in the middle of a long bike ride and suddenly something occurs to me and I have to pull off the path and frantically scribble my thoughts on a notepad. Or, sometimes, I’ll awaken from a dream and know the answer to some plot point or theme or character or whatever. Then too, I’m immediately up and writing.

As for how long I’ve been writing, I guess it’s been since about the age of 13 or so; that’s probably the first time I ever wrote out some scene I’d been kicking around. I was 15 when I first showed anyone what I’d written (a girl I liked), and it wasn’t until I was eighteen that I ever submitted anything for publication. The work I submitted was a comedic short story titled “Beauty, eh?” which was extraordinarily silly, and was published in a local magazine. After my battle with cancer, though, is when I decided to take writing seriously and to dedicate myself to the long hard hours it takes to write anything, really, but most especially novels.

Can you tell us about your latest book?

It’s an adventure story about a reclusive, cynical computer geek who finds that one of his own servers has been cracked late one night and gets far more than he bargained for when he decides to track down the perpetrator. What his search uncovers thrusts him, unaware, into a mad shifting between worlds, time, and alien minds. From the start the story was inspired by a real hacker who managed to crack into one of my servers, and from there the story evolved into something that is an unusual cross between a Heinlein/McCaffrey sort of adventure coupled with a flavor of Melville and Dante. As a former creative writing teacher and a current computer/networking professional, my tastes in literature spans this spectrum and more. What The Canker Death became is the novel I always wanted to read but couldn’t find.

What inspired you to write it?

There were a number of inspirations for my debut novel, The Canker Death. On the factual plane, the inspiration came from the fact that an FTP server I was running on one of the old Unix systems in my basement got hacked. I have a collection of unusual computers that run esoteric operating systems. Where most people’s computer knowledge ends is where mine begins. This fact alone gave me the idea for a main character who was based quite a bit on various facets of people I know – computer geeks, that is. But, I didn’t want to write a novel that was only tailored for sci-fi lovers. I wanted to write something that was accessible to everyone, so I worked hard to make sure that the technical stuff was accurate and true, but that understanding it in any detail was not at all required for enjoying the novel.

Additionally, as I was getting started, I made a number of decisions about where the book was going to go. I had been a high school English teacher for about a decade, and, while my main area of expertise was the teaching of writing, specifically creative writing, I whole-heartedly enjoyed reading and teaching the classics: Melville, Shakespeare, Hemingway and the like. I loved how classic authors could take an often simple story and layer it with allegory so that everything represented not only itself, but an entire higher plane of story that was comprised of allusions, themes, and symbols. So, I knew I wanted to write something that echoed back to those writers, something that I knew would take years and years to create.

Coupled with this, though, was my love of fun, fantastical literature. Fast-paced stories with cool ideas really grab my attention and hold it. I can usually read two or three such books to one classic novel. Often times, these fast-paced page-turners have nothing more to offer than a quick escape from reality. They’re just entertaining stories. So, the challenge of taking these two somewhat opposing styles of writing and blending them together was what really inspired me. When I combined a main character I felt I knew well with the goal of writing a novel that combined these disparate genres, and then added all that to the beginnings of a plot I had stewing wherein a computer hacker, himself, gets hacked, I knew I had all the pieces I needed.

What is one thing you hope readers will take away from this book?

First and foremost, I hope people enjoy reading The Canker Death. I worked very hard to blend a number of genres into one book, but, in the end, I wanted to write something that was simultaneously entertaining and thought-provoking. If the take away is that there is more than one possible explanation for the nature of existence, then I’m happy if my book helped someone to start thinking so. If some literature buff picks up on the underlying allegory that binds the whole thing together, great, so long as they enjoyed the ride. But if, in the end, the only thing to be gleaned is that this was a page-turning mystery/adventure that kept readers entertained, then I’m just as happy.

Where can readers purchase a copy of your book?

Amazon.com, Barnes and Noble, iTunes Store, Smashwords and Diesel.

If you could meet any writer (living or dead) who would it be?

I would have to say I’d like to meet Samuel Clemens, aka Mark Twain, probably when he is old. I’m hard pressed to think of anything I’ve read by him that I didn’t like. He can be both acerbic and sentimental at the same time. I know a bit about his life, and I can see why he’d become pessimistic, but he typically couches his criticism in humor. If there is any one characteristic to which any artist should aspire it is this: Clemens often manages to see things not as they seem, but as they truly are. If I could sit down to dinner with him, I’d be curious how much or how little he would resemble his writing. I wonder if he would be as sharp-witted and sharp-tongued in person as he is in his writing. I have every expectation that he would be.

What is one fact about yourself you wish to share with our readers?

I am not a threat to homeland security! Yes, I know I dress like Ted Kaczynski, but I’m actually a nice guy; ask anyone. Seriously, though, I do need to wear glacier glasses and a baseball cap indoors and out. I suffered optic nerve damage, among other things, from massive doses of chemotherapy. So, if you ever meet me, remember, I’m not just trying to look cool, and I’m probably awake even though you can’t always tell. And, though I agree that it would be totally cool if I had x-ray vision or if laser beams could shoot out of my eye sockets whenever I lifted up my glasses, sadly, neither is true. Though I can say this, if you ever organize a game of flashlight tag on some moonless night, you totally want me on your team.

What is up next for you?

I don’t want to say that I’m the sort who does something once and then moves on to something else – because it’s not true, most of the time – but I know that, in addition to future novels targeted at adults, I want to write young adult and children’s literature too. To that end, the novel on which I’m currently working is targeting the young adult market. It’s no coincidence that my daughter is entering the target age for the book I’m writing. I have to have an ideal reader in mind as I write, that one person who I really want to love the story. For The Canker Death, that ideal reader was my wife. For my next book, as yet untitled, my ideal reader is my daughter.

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