Eliot Baker is a professor of communications at a college in rural Finland, where he is raising a family and also running a small translating business. He worked as a research assistant, science writer, and reporter in Massachusetts, where he went to school, first at the Harvard Extension School and then at Boston University where he received his Master’s of Science Journalism. He played volleyball at Pitzer College, in Claremont, CA, where he got his B.A.in World Literature. The Last Ancient is his debut novel, which he wrote in a snowy cabin in Finland in between lighting the wood-burning sauna and ice-hole-fishing. He sings in a heavy metal band, and it is awesome.
Congratulations on the release of your latest book, The Last Ancient. When did you start writing and what got you into mixing genres like thriller, mystery, and fantasy?
Thanks so much! I actually started writing in the womb. I tapped out a Morse code story against my mom’s uterus about a little boy who wanted more in life than umbilical apple juice and tuna fish sandwiches (this was before we knew the dangers of mercury in tuna, of course). But I didn’t pick up a pen start writing stories again until I learned to write, and once I got that whole remedial literacy thing down, I began writing short stories at age seven. Then I wrote a bunch more in high school, then nothing but essays in college, then wrote a novel right out of college that was neglected by publishers but loved by me. I still heart you, unpublished first manuscript, even if nobody else does. But I didn’t become a professional writer until my late twenties when I went to grad school for science journalism. My background made genre-mashing the only choice for my fiction. With a mother who was a science fiction author and brothers who are epic sci-fi/fantasy geeks, I have always been drawn to magic and creatures and space. And I have read Stephen King since age thirteen, so horror and dark fantasy always appealed to me. But the mystery aspect of The Last Ancient surprised even myself. It bubbled out of my journalism work. As stories develop, particularly crime and investigative stuff, they have mysterious aspects to them that I’d have to guess at and play hunches on sources to uncover. I learned to fit pieces. It’s wildly rewarding when the pieces click, both in non-fiction and in mystery novels.
What was your inspiration for The Last Ancient?
A single sentence. Before I get there, some background is in order. The Last Ancient started off as something darker than the final product. Some people very close to me were having their lives ripped apart by addiction, and I began writing a dark fantasy parable about that downward spiral. Then I basically went down a creative rabbit hole myself, found some incredible stuff, recorded it, and realized the story I needed to tell was a much different and much more personal tale. I’d just quit my job as a reporter on Nantucket and moved to Finland to raise a family with my Finnish wife. I was struggling with feeling like a man between two worlds, living in one and nostalgic for the other. Staring out my office window at the pale winter sunlight, I suddenly thought back to our former home on the island. I got homesick. I recalled one of my first field assignments as a reporter where I’d shadowed a deer hunter at sunrise, and how amidst a chorus of shotgun blasts the red island sun rose over the cold, windswept island. I remembered seeing truckloads of dead deer at the weigh-in station, and some illegally butchered carcasses discarded on pristine trails and beaches. Looking back down at my laptop, out of nowhere, I typed, “Shotguns crow across Nantucket.” The Finnish sunlight outside just seemed to turn golden. A gateway to this darkly fantastic Nantucket opened. It was a pivotal moment.
Who is your target audience?
People who love fast-paced, intelligent, sexy, great books? Sorry, that was lame. Anyhow, while The Last Ancient does have a little something for everyone, genre-mash that it is, there are a few parts not for the squeamish (particularly the first page), so I think thriller, dark urban fantasy, and horror fans have the easiest time travelling to the Nantucket of The Last Ancient. Although I’ve been surprised at how a few grandmas and grandpas got really into it, particularly the spiritual/historical/mythology aspects. And women readers have reacted as well to it as male readers, which is a huge vindication that I’ve actually learned something about strong female characters and relationships after thirteen years of marriage.
But it fascinates me how differently reviewers have categorized The Last Ancient. In my Kirkus, Foreword, and Midwest Book Reviews, The Last Ancient was called a thriller, mystery, and horror novel, respectively. Which is so cool. That’s what I wanted: a genre mash that succeeded in all its genres. Although I would not call it a horror novel. The connotations there are of gore and relentless fear, and that’s not my book’s mood at all. It’s suspense mostly.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Tons and tons and more kilotons. I have a background in science and an interest in ancient history, mythology, and politics/economics, but the web I weaved here took months of hard research to pull off. The conspiracy involved ancient coins and the symbolism of their depicted gods and goddesses. And alchemy is such a rich historical and philosophical field, with many current-day practitioners — I found myself working like crazy to get my research in order, lest I incur the wrath of modern day alchemists. On top of that, I had to make sure to know my guns as the tale involves arms dealers, and to get my dates correct for pivotal historical events. I treated this fiction like an article that would be edited and peer-reviewed.
How do you keep your narrative exciting?
One word: tension. In every scene, I introduce tension, be it in the form of a mysterious character, or an unraveling secret, a slow-burning fuse, something lurking in the shadows. I ratchet up that tension by making it unclear how any event will unfold; the reader should always worry the wrong person will walk in, that the wrong thing will be said, that the car won’t start when the zombies burst out of the tomb. I also like ending each chapter with a cliff-hanger, an open question as to what will happen next. It’s important to do this fluidly, without seeming contrived, and I think I managed to pull it off after much effort.
How do you define success?
By the amount of brain chemicals released upon each wrung of the publication ladder. At this stage of my career, the non-emotional success comes by inches, largely in the form of reviews and, I’m honored to say, awards. First, it’s the glowing praise from beta readers. Then a book contract(!), followed by glowing praise from Champagne Book Group editors. Then it’s glowing amateur reviews from strangers. Then the glowing reviews from Kirkus, Foreword, Midwest Book Review. Then the Novel of the Year Award from my publisher. I’m not rich from The Last Ancient, but I do feel extremely successful.
What advice would you give to aspiring writers whose spouses or partners don’t support their dreams of becoming an author
Oh man, that would be tough. Withhold food and sex until you’re supported? Find a new spouse? All joking aside, I know that’s an all-too-common problem and I can actually sympathize indirectly with that. My wife has always known me as a writer with a dream of becoming an author, but she’s never understood my fascination with sci-fi/fantasy/horror stuff. It makes her uncomfortable to see how strange and dark my imagination can be. But I made her understand that to reject my writing aspirations is to reject me, and she completely got it. She’s my biggest supporter now. If your significant other is telling you to just grow up, or that you’re not good enough, or some other nonsense, then you’ve got to find a way to get through to them. Don’t roll over. They need to understand that writing is a part of you, and necessary for your happiness and sanity. I’ve heard one best-selling, prize-winning author talk about how she basically wrote her way out of an abusive marriage. Her husband was an overall jerk, and criticized her writing all the time, even after she became successful in every sense of the word. She left him. In some cases, extreme cases, maybe that person just isn’t healthy for you. But usually, the person just doesn’t get it and, if he or she loves you, will eventually figure it out. Especially if you withhold food and sex.
What is your advice for aspiring authors?
Go for it. Just do it. If there’s a little voice or a raging demon inside of you begging you to write something, I say, embrace your demon. It knows its stuff. Wonderful stuff. Writing makes you a better person. It sublimates your inner world into something awesome. And once you do get published, all that struggle and illness turns inside out. It’s a rush like nothing else. You’ll stand forever changed, crying to the heavens: “I. Am. Author!” There’s power and glory in that. So first, fall in love with the process of writing. And then set about the practical stuff. Don’t let the size of the mountain keep you from trying to summit it. If Frodo did that, we’d all be speaking Orc. If you’re reading this interview, you’re going to refine your fundamentals and learn the elements of fiction. I won’t get all pedantic about that here, because structurally, an author needs passion to achieve the requisite 10,000 hours of mastering her craft. Once you’ve begun honing your talents, you can start looking into all the practical downers of querying and marketing, criticism and rejection, and the drudgery of re-drafting and editing. But really, writing is the work of kings. Have fun when you can, have sleep when you can’t, and have Prozac when you must![amazon template=iframe image&asin=B00H1ZBH8Q]