Now at work on her fifth novel, author A.J. Scudiere writes character-driven thrillers with an edge. Writing for “geeky, intelligent” readers, Ms. Scudiere has a unique vision; her worlds are intricate and interesting. Her most recent book God’s Eye (Griffyn Ink) was released as an audio movie this past spring, and her new novel Phoenix is set to come out in October.
With a background in psychobiology and neurophysiology, she began her professional career as an educator, teaching science. But she finds that teaching and writing novels aren’t too far removed from each other. “I think the two are really similar,” she explained. “Whether the story is Jason is looking for his brother, or this is how electrons move in their sub-shells, it has to be clear. You need to be able to do it succinctly to a certain extent. But it has to be done well.”
I caught up with Ms. Scudiere at last month’s Comic-Con in San Diego, where we talked about her books, audio movies and the writing life.
I had a chance to read a couple of the chapters of your book God’s Eye, as well as look at the audio movie, and I want to get to that, specifically, in a little bit. But I want you to give me your elevator…er…Twitter pitch. What’s your book about in 140 characters or less?
So the elevator pitch on God’s Eye is that Katherine is a malleable character. She’s done what her parents have told her to do, and it works out very well for her. Because she’s malleable. But, she’s targeted by a demon and an angel, who are having the epic battle for her soul. And she has to make a choice. The problem is, she can’t tell which one is which.
So when you say “malleable,” do you mean physically malleable, or just her soul, her emotions?
Emotionally. Other people have told her what to do all of her life. And she doesn’t have any strong decision-making skills about herself. Her family owns a business that she has [now] moved into. They move her around periodically and say, “You’re going to run the business. Therefore, you have to know all the different aspects of the business.” And so without warning, she gets pulled out of her job and moved to another place, but she’s making a ton of money and the spot is guaranteed for her. She’ll eventually be CEO of the company. And why would she argue with that? So when it comes to her life and making choices and deciding what she believes and deciding what she should do with her life, she has no real experience with it.
So she’s on a journey. Sounds like she’s on a [Joseph] Campbell-type journey.
She is. She’s very stationary. And this quest swirls around her and, in part, comes to her.
Okay. So it’s going on within her.
How does she puzzle through it?
She starts off just dealing with it. And in the beginning of the book, one of the goals I had was that I wanted her to be malleable and wanted her to not be a strong character at the start of the book. But she also has to be likable. You have to want to read her story. So initially, animals start appearing and disappearing inside her house. And her first task is just to open herself up to things that are going on that she can’t explain. She’s very good at ignoring what she doesn’t like, because she doesn’t have to deal with it normally in her life. So initially these things happen and they happen more and more and more until she’s forced to deal with them. Once she’s forced to deal with them, she starts reaching out. And as she starts reaching out, she begins to realize that she doesn’t have a life of her own. She has only the life that has been handed to her. And because it was comfortable, she went with it.
And as she goes on her journey, she discovers about herself, obviously.
Yeah. She makes her first real friend from somebody she initially considers to be pushy and overbearing. And she discovers—actually, this is, this is how this happens.
So how did you come up with this idea of this character? Is she part of you?
She must be part of me, because it started as a dream.
Can you elaborate?
Yeah. I woke up one morning, and in my dream I woke up petting my black cat. And as I awoke, I realized I didn’t have a cat. So the cat jumps off the bed, and I ran into the bathroom. Of course in the dream I knew where I worked, what I did, what my family was like, and it wasn’t me. But I was dreaming it, so it must be me in some way. The cat ran around the toilet. I followed it, and it was gone. There’s nowhere it could have gone. And then I woke up. In the dream I knew the cat was a message. I just didn’t know if it was a good message or a bad message, or what I was supposed to do with the message. I had that dream probably seven or eight years. And I held onto it. And I slowly added bits and pieces of the story. And then when I knew how it ended, I started writing it.
So is that your process, to work in your head? And then when you have it altogether…?
I know a lot of writers who tend to write stream of consciousness and just start writing. You can get yourself into a hole that way.
You can. Yes. I don’t map the whole thing out, and I don’t have it on paper. It’s all in my head. But I know the beginning. I usually know three or four points along the way. Major things that have to happen to make the book work. And I know roughly how it’s going to end. I know who’s going to end up where. I don’t always know all the details of how it goes down, or how all the pieces tie up.
There is structure, but also freedom to go down different roads.
Yes. And the path is certainly winding along the way. And I just never, “Oh, I kind of went off over here.” But because I have that next point that I’m writing to, I manage to keep it on track that way. And then as I get to the end and I realize how all the pieces tie together, and all the details I have to include, I start jotting things down. I have a ripped piece of legal paper and a napkin and a post-it note holding the two together, and a series of notes with arrows. And they actually go around to the back of the paper about how, you know, as I decided how things were going to tie up, and specifically how it was going to end as I got closer to the end. I was like, “I have to write this, but first this happens, and then that.” And so I started jotting those things down. It’s the only writing I have from it.
Like storyboarding; it’s an efficient way of doing it.
I hope so.
So God’s Eye has just come out as an audio movie. What is an audio movie?
An audio movie is a movie without the visuals. So it’s an unabridged copy of the book. It’s the audio book version. But unlike a standard audio book where somebody reads you the book, it’s acted. It has the sound effects. It has a score that’s been written just for my book, which I always find very amazing. But, for example, in God’s Eye, when the demon is in the room with Katherine, you hear the footsteps around. It gave me the chills, and I was laughing at myself when I heard that snippet of the track at first, because I thought, “Oh, my god. That’s creepy. Okay, I wrote this. I know what happens.” But I was still really creeped out by the sound effects and the—
And that’s a sign of something really good when your own writing can surprise you when it’s presented.
And, well, the audio movie director, Stefan Rudnicki with Skyboat is amazing. Stefan Rudnicki with Skyboat Rogue Productions. He has, I’m convinced he has enough Audies, which are the Oscars of the Audio Book World to just lay them randomly around his house as dust weights. You know? I’m sure his next, he’ll be like, “Oh, look, I got another one.” He’s just that good.
I haven’t heard of audio movies before. Is that a new trend or is that something exclusive to Skyboat?
Nobody else has them. So other places are doing similar things. And certainly the old radio dramas are very much that same way that you sit and you listen, but you get the whole thing. You get the conversations happening back and forth, in this case between different actors. So you hear two people talking, and not one person trying to do the different voices. But the concept came about, partly because I had listened to a handful of audio books before my book went to audio. And I realized there were some of them I liked, and a lot of them I didn’t. That the person reading either has to be a voice actor who can do a thousand different voices very, very well. Or the characters become caricatures so that you as the listener can tell which person is talking. And that seemed to remove something for me.
Yeah. No. I actually, I don’t listen to too many audio books, but I’ve been very—I have a favorite actor who did an audio book. And I was curious, because he’s a fantastic actor. And the different voicings that he does, I mean, you believe that when there’s a woman talking, that’s a woman talking. So, but having actors do it, I think that’s great.
It’s amazing. My input was that I just begged that it not be abridged. I understand it’s much more expensive to do it full cast. They’ve got the score written for the book.
Yeah. That’s got to be really expensive.
But I hate abridged versions. I think as a listener, as a reader, you know you’re not getting the whole thing. You feel like pieces are missing. And so they agreed. And so that’s where the audio movie comes in. I think other places have the pieces, but it’s the only one with all of them in place in one spot.
That’s really good. And that’s from Griffyn, Ink?
It’s from Griffyn, Griffyn and Skyboat. And Stefan, who runs Skyboat Rogue had wanted to do more, but discovered he couldn’t because it takes a certain kind of writing style. You have to have a very strict point of view, and it’s helpful if you don’t write a lot of he said/she said. Because, you know, if you hear the characters say it, to have another voice come along and say, “He said.” It would be just as disconcerting.
How many books have you published now?
I finished writing the fourth book, which will come out this fall, in October.
And what’s that called, and what can you tell me about it?
Phoenix is the story of Jason, who’s a firefighter. He was rescued from a fire as a child, and that fire killed his birth mother. He was adopted by a new family, but he doesn’t remember anything before the fire. So he doesn’t remember his first family. At the beginning of the book, he encounters a series of things that happen to him that just upset him. He then goes home to his mom to just try to get some sleep and sort things out. And his mother lets him know things she knows about his life before he was adopted that they never told him.
How interesting. And that’s how the book begins?
And that’s how he starts. He starts following what he thinks is a very short path. And every time he uncovers the next piece, he realizes there are actually three or four more pieces in front of him. And what he discovers is that, you know, the brother that died in the fire, you know, is possibly still out there. And that the fire itself is suspicious. And so he has all of these pieces he has to put together in order to find his brother and figure out what really happened.
I love the title Phoenix, obviously, out of the ashes. Rises as the Phoenix.
And Jason is the Phoenix in the story. So—
…Who finds himself. It’s another, it seems like that’s a theme—personal journeys.
I, for myself, don’t like books where the character doesn’t grow. That, you know, if you’re the same going in as coming out, then in my mind it wasn’t that significant of a happening.
This is your fourth book. Are you working on others?
I’m starting research on the fifth now.
Tell me about it if you can.
So my fifth book, which I find funny to say now. I’ve only been able to say that for, like, the past couple of weeks as we’ve gotten Phoenix in print and in hand. It’s done. It’s about a young couple who’s renovating a plantation and as they tear down some of the walls, they find things in the walls. And the brothers, so the couple, his sister is with them. And she is very focused and begins putting some of the machinery together. And they spark a huge controversy with their machine. It’s kind of sci-fi meets the firm. And I’ll leave it at that.
What inspired you to become a fiction author?
I think I write fiction because I love fiction. I’ve been reading since I was very, very young, and I started reading adult novels when I was six, which was not a good life choice. I ran the Amityville Horror when I was six. I was petrified. But I did develop a deep love of suspense novels back at that age. And I started writing when I was eight. You know? It was like, “Hey, I have a pencil, and I have this notebook. What can I possibly do with it?” And I just, I’ve always been kind of in-my-head, and I was really introverted as a child in some ways. And my imagination has always been a bit wild. And I look back at that book that, I read an 80-page novella when I was eight, and it’s terrible. It’s terrible. But I’ve grown as a writer since then. But then later I always figured eventually I would get published, and I didn’t do it. I pursued other things with my life. And then one day I was reading a book. And it was really bad. It was so bad, I literally threw it across the room. And I thought to myself, “Who writes this crap?” And so I went across the room, and I read the name, and I thought, “This person.” And I went, “This got printed. This is published. I may not be brilliant, but I’m better than this. So I can get published, too.” And I sat down and started writing that day. I never finished that book. It was so bad.
Do you have an agent?
I wrote query letters just like everybody else. Got set up to have an agent. I actually got a handful of agents on the line at one point in time. And that’s an interesting story. I got flat-out rejected the first time I sent out my query letter. And then retold one word, and had agents pick up the phone and call me from my query letter.
Do you mind saying what that was?
I signed my letters Alena Joy Scudiere. And I got 100% rejection letters. And if you’ve gotten query letters rejected…
Yeah. Haven’t we all?
It’s, yeah, it’s so demeaning. First off, you pay and you write your own envelope to get rejected. So you pay for your reject. And a lot of times they decide you’re not even worth a full sheet of paper.
Yeah, you get, like, the cut sheet. Or my favorite was, like, the original letter was written on letterhead. And I got a photocopied reject letter that was askew. I mean, it wasn’t photocopied straight.
Or a quarter sheet of paper…
Yeah. They don’t have to fold it up to put it in your envelope. It’s demeaning. And so I went and I sat down in the bookstore. And I said, “You know, what am I doing wrong?” And I looked and I was like, “You know, I’ve done everything. This is my spot on the shelf. You know? I belong in this section. This is what I’m doing that’s new, and this is where it fits with what’s already there. It’s not so crazy out there that nobody will read it.” And I realized what I was doing wrong was I was not a guy. And all the conventional wisdom is, you know, don’t change your name, don’t pander to that. A good agent will pick you up. And if you need a pen name, they’ll work with you later. And so I mistakenly—because I’m not the organized one. My sister is very organized and sent me a spreadsheet. This agent wants this. Send this and this to this agent. Well, I mistakenly went back and redid the same spreadsheet, and sent the same letter with A.J., which I sometimes go as. And I thought, “Well, you know, if that’s what it is, I’ll just sign it this way.” And 20% of them asked for the book, asked for the first three chapters, or picked up the phone and called me and asked if I already had an agent. And that to me is just, like, it’s night and day. And that it was the same agencies that had already rejected me.
It’s really wild. I actually have a reject letter from one of the agencies. They wound up editing Resonance for free. And I went back and said, “Look, I’m ready to sign.” My sister went directly to a publisher. So, and I wound up going right to the publisher. So it’s a crazy story.
You know, everyone’s got one of those.
And they’re all different. They’re all the same, and they’re all different.
So do you have any words to say to people who want to write young people, old people, or whoever wants to endeavor to do this craziness called “writing for a living?”
Yeah. I think first you have to decide who you’re writing for. When I was younger, I wrote for me, because I had a story, and I wanted to put it down. And when I started writing, you know, I realized there’s a difference between just telling my story and writing to get published. When I first wrote Resonance, when I handed it to agents, it was 225,000 words long. And I knew it was going to get edited. And I had made my peace with that because, you know, it needed to be tighter. I understood that. I wanted all these different things for the characters, and I wanted to follow the characters on these side trips, but they weren’t necessary to the story. And so I think you have to have that. You also have to have a line. So there’s a dichotomy there of you being willing to be malleable with your work, and yet having a line that you won’t cross. My first offer for publication was from a publisher who wanted me to get two of the characters together so he could market it as Chicklets. And that was just too far over my line, and I cried. Because it was really hard to get an offer for publication, my first one, and turn it down. You have to stick to it.
God’s Eye is available now in trade paper and in audio movie. Phoenix comes out in October.