An Interview with Charles Phipps

33971268I have recently read Phipps’ latest novel, The Tower of Zhaal (you can read my review for that here) and was intrigued by the originality of the Lovecraftian Post Apocalyptic world. As Such I felt inspired to ask the man a few questions about the book.

1) Your bibliography is filled with detective stories and science fiction, so exploring Lovecraftian horror is quite a departure. What inspired you to take on the Elder Gods?

I’ve always been a fan of post-apocalypse stories, Fallout and The Walking Dead especially, but zombie stories felt played out. I decided that the coming apocalypse was a constant theme in the works of H.P. Lovecraft but the monsters never actually succeeded. It seemed a natural fit to examine what the world would be like after they rose from their epoch-long sleep. I also drew from Stephen King’s Dark Tower and The Stand while thinking up how I wanted the world to be.

2) I am not an expert when it comes to Lovecraft, but I recognized a large majority of creatures and references. How much effort did it take to craft a universe with so many connections while maintaining continuity?

Lovecraft never really meant for there to be a coherent narrative to his universe and probably would think codifying his universe missed the point. However, I was a lifelong gamer long before I read his stories so it wasn’t that hard to start mentally classifying them and how they all fit together. I could have also drawn from other Lovecraft scholars like the good folks behind  Call of Cthulhu: The Roleplaying Game but decided to go my own way.

3) Of the creatures I didn’t recognize, were they original creations of yours, or did you dig deep into the Cthulhu mythos?

I created a few new creatures in the story as I figure if I’m going to delve into Lovecraft’s works as deeply as I was, it wouldn’t be fair not to add some of my own spin. In my sequel, The Tower of Zhaal, I create my own Great Old One in the Undying Horror as well as his servants in the Faceless Ones. The Cthulhu Mythos, or Arkham Cycle as Lovecraft called it, is really a grab bag he intended everyone to be able to dip into.

4) I recognized many location names and some of the background characters also seemed familiar. It was hard to place a clear setting in my mind. Where did you imagine this story took place?

Well, the apocalypse has occurred so the environments of the Earth have radically shifted. Despite taking place in New England around the Massachusetts area, the land has become a large radioactive desert with ancient ruins brought up from primordial epochs. It’s the Wild East, if you will, with a supernatural touch. Really, the world is so strange and unusual now, it’s arguable not even entirely Earth anymore. That’s what you get when you expose a mortal planet to the Old One’s dreams.

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The latest volume in Charles Phipps’ successful Supervillainy Saga.

5) You have thrown everything in this book except the kitchen sink (or was that in there too?) Were you worried about over-saturating the book with ideas and diluting the impact of the cosmic horrors?

As mentioned, Stephen King’s The Dark Tower was an influence as well as Lovecraft’s own Dream Cycle. I felt this was very much a road trip where they got to see just how terrifying and unusual the world Post-Rising was. I did try to do my best to make sure the supernatural was never “mundane” despite this being a weird post-apocalypse society, though. Encountering even the least of the monsters wandering the world should be a terrifying experience even if humanity is more jaded than the driven-to-madness by rats in the walls heroes of some of HPL’s stories.

6) You have recently left Ragnarok Publications and joined with Amber Cove and Crossroad Press. Most authors sign exclusively or self-publish. What has led you down the road you have taken?

In fact, I wrote for three years trying to get published by Permuted Press which gave me a somewhat substantial backlog of stories to publish. Some of the stories fit with some publishers while others fit with others. I’ve since terminated my relationship with Ragnarok Publications and am moving my books with them to the other two you mentioned but I’m pleased to say they have a good working relationship. Jim Bernheimer (Amber Cove) actually introduced me to David Wilson (Crossroad Press). Also, my frequent audiobook narrator, Jeffrey Kafer, does work for both.

7) When did you discover Lovecraft’s writings? What did you think of them when you first read them?

I was a teenager and a regular gamer so I knew of HPL from the Call of Cthulhu roleplaying game as well as Call of Cthulhu: Dark Corners of the Earth. I decided my love of horror necessitated me to read his short stories and bought a few anthologies that introduced me to most of them. Honestly, I felt the prose was a bit purple even back then but the stories had a way of sticking with you well beyond works I thought were better.

Like the parasite in Alien, they wrapped themselves around your face and laid eggs in you until you had ideas burst out. I can’t say what my favorite of HPL’s work is but I know every detail of The Shadow Over Innsmouth, The Dunwich Horror, and The Colour from Space. I’m also very fond of some pastiche authors like Brian Lumley’s Titus Crow novels and the Laundry Files by Charles Stross.

8) What is your favorite eldritch being? I am a fan of the Dark Young of Shub-Niggurath, and also Nyarlathotep. It’s fun to say, and “Black Goat of the Woods” and “Crawling Chaos” are such brutally evocative names.

I have to say Cthulhu himself as he remains an iconic monster for good reason. I admit, though, I actually have the crazy theory that Lovecraft created Cthulhu as Squid-Dragon Jesus. Think about it, he’s a dead god who will rise from the grave to end the world and is worshiped by people across the world from every walk of life. People who are eager for his return and believe (rightly or wrongly) they’ll be saved from his wrath. I’m also a huge fan of ghouls and think of them as a much better creature than the Deep Ones.

9) How would you survive the Cthulhu apocalypse?

I wouldn’t but if I was able to find a Silver Key somewhere, I’d journey to Ulthar and hunker down there in the Dreamlands. Seriously, screw Earth, that place is full of monsters and things which go bump in the night. The Dreamlands might not be much better but it has a few safe places if you know not to hurt a cat.

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Once again, I thank Charles Phipps for taking the time to answer these questions. The Tower of Zhaal is available now on Amazon. For more information on Charles Phipps or any of his books, visit his site on WordPress today. Visit here to read my review of The Tower of Zhaal.

 

Interview with Neal Asher (part two)

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Neal Asher is one of the UK’s top Science Fiction authors. His work is highly imaginative and can be found in stores and on bookshelves all around the world. He is also very open on his Blog and Facebook pages about his ongoing battle with depression and anxiety. I recently had the honor and pleasure of being able to interview him about his battles.

1) You first mentioned depression in a post (from mid 2006 I think) about the lifestyle transition from manual labor to writing. “It’s something people don’t realize about manual workers who move into a sedentary occupation. You’re fit, you have acquired the eating habits to support that level of activity, and you’re used to being out in the sun, sweating. One problem is that the reduction in exercise, and sunshine, can make you more prone to depression.” Were you talking about your depression at this time, or was this comment just about people in general?

Neal: I was talking about me. I had been prone to it all my life but the lack of physical activity, the sedentary occupation, the lack of getting out in the sun, brought it to the fore. I experienced some bouts of it then.

2) Based on my own battle with depression and anxiety, I would conclude that depression has been a constant shadow over you even before you were aware of it. What was the first major trigger-point for when you first started feeling like you were losing the battle and becoming overwhelmed?

Neal: I was overwhelmed once or twice before my wife died and I cannot remember what the triggers were. However I came up out of these episodes off my own back. I didn’t resort to pills – they just passed. Through this I was aware of being prone to it. Two years and seven months ago I was living the kind of life of which people dream. I was a successful writer, happily married and spent half the year on the sunny island of Crete. Then my wife noticed vaginal blood, even though she had been through the menopause. Thereafter ensued a seven-month nightmare while I watched her die horribly of bowel cancer. Three operations, the last resulting in an ileostomy bag, carrying my five stone wife to the toilet, gallons of vomit tipped down the toilet, trying to move her to get her comfortable and seeing her die right at that moment – you get the picture.

Knowing I was prone to depression I had to do something. I found I could not drink – it just made me lower. I walked from the day after the cremation. For maybe a year I did this every day, 7 miles a day after the first month. I lost interest in writing, reading, TV … well, just about everything. I returned to Crete a couple of months after her death and continued walking there, then swimming and kayaking. While I was doing these things I was okay, but the rest of the time I was a mess. This was all to be expected really. I thought I was recovering but in reality I was walking on the edge of a precipice. Relationship problems the ensuing winter pushed me over for a while but I came back from that. The pressure of another relationship, but a good one, tipped me over again this year. My depression wasn’t the black pit of the deeply depressed, but I did end up with anxiety and panic attacks.

Recent reading has brought home to me that thought the death of my wife screwed me up. It was my negative thinking processes that kept me fucked up. I am fighting that now, and winning.

3) I read somewhere that most writers struggle with depression and anxiety (or perhaps it’s that a lot of people struggling turn to writing?) Is the writing process for you something cathartic, or is it more of an escape?

Neal: It can be cathartic but it depends how you write. If you are writing in that internal negative voice all the time I think it tends to exacerbate problems. You are not blowing it out of your system by raging on the page. It’s like the myth of anger, that if you blow up then that relieves the pressure. No, it doesn’t, it just makes you more prone to anger. Conversely, thinking and writing positive stuff helps lift you. As for it being an escape, yes, if you concentrate your mind on other stuff rather than, again, the negative shit, you are escaping. That is not just about writing but about doing anything that takes your concentration away from chewing on your own vitals.

12528008_10153933247373223_558276275_n4) Who/What gave you the courage to talk so openly on your blog about your depression? What have your fans reactions been? Have your friends and family been understanding and supportive? Industry colleagues and associates?

Neal: I talk openly all the time anyway. Even though I am writing the most way out there fiction it’s my contention that one of the best qualities of a writer is truth, honesty. I’m one of those annoying people who will think carefully about my answer to the question, ‘How are you doing?’

My fans have been either positive or silent. It’s brought a lot of them out of the woodwork who have been suffering the same problems. I’ve had many personal messages thanking me for what I’ve written, quite a few saying that I have helped them. This in return helps me. My remaining family are of course supportive, but getting on with their own lives. But as for friends… The problem with coming out of a close inwardly focused marriage is that sometimes you find you don’t have many friends. I have now realised that Caroline and I supported each other and that now she’s gone I don’t have much of a support network. This is something I must endeavour to change.

5) Does blogging about your mental health help? If so, is it the writing itself that is cathartic, or is it the fan response that helps you?

Neal: Blogging about it helps because it helps me see things clearer. This is of course my writing style. When I write a book I don’t know the story or the ending or anything until I’m at the keyboard. It all gradually becomes clear as I write. Cathartic yes, in the sense of me telling myself I will beat this fucking thing. If I sat here writing about my woes and how sorry I feel for myself that would not help at all. Yes, the fan response helps. The support and the suggestions.

6) I am also trying to write a novel, but find my depression gets in the way of writing. I find myself too easily distracted and overwhelmed by my kids, pets, noises outside; life in general. What advice could you give me or other writers for helping focus ourselves on our writing?

Neal: Get rid of the depression would be the first one. It is what is hampering me at the moment. Beyond that just write. Don’t worry about the quality, concern yourself with the quantity. Everything is adjustable. Write something every day. This aphorism applies: How do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. If you write just one word today you are one word further ahead than you were yesterday.

7) In New Zealand Mental Health resources are stretched thinly, unless you go private. I cannot afford private and have to wait on average six weeks between seeing my counsellor. What is the mental health system like in the UK?

Neal: Pretty much the same. Unless you push for an emergency appointment you don’t get to see a doctor for weeks. Then once you’ve seen the doctor it will take much the same time to get to see a counsellor. I have this second hand from a woman I know who is suffering depression. There’s also the tendency of doctors to stick you straight on pills, which are a sticking plaster.

Everything I have done I did myself. I went to see a doctor on Crete who gave me the pills I had researched on the Internet. I didn’t like their side effects so gave them up and tried meditation. I learned that meditation is just as effective as the pills and have been advancing with that. Because some of the mediations I am using are hypnotic I saw a hypnotherapist in England who put me onto a book called Thrive by Rob Kelly. In this I have learned about stuff like positive visualisation and processing your positives. I’ve also learned about nootropics and how some of them are as good as antidepressants but without the shitty side effects. Phenibut and GABA being two of them. I am learning all the time, trying everything I can.

8) You have been through a lot in the past few years. Who is Neal Asher now, compared to who he used to be?

Neal: Neal Asher now is thinner, tougher and a lot more troubled. He is also finding a lot more compassion for others. He is on a journey of self-discovery that is often extremely painful.

9) It’s coming up two years since your wife passed away. How do you cope with that kind of grief?

Neal: I coped by shutting it out, by shutting down my mind. I think a contributory thing to me stopping writing was that writing involved thinking and I just did not want to do that. I preferred to push my body to a point of collapse to keep my mind numb. It’s a technique, I have learned, of limited duration.

10) Suicidal thoughts or acts are often one of the first images the media conjures up when talking about depression. Have you ever been trapped in such a place of darkness that you have felt this way before? Was it a fleeting experience or was it one that haunted you?

Neal: Yes, I have had suicidal thoughts. I also have the means available to kill myself painlessly and without fuss. I obtained those means for my wife, in case what was happening to her became unbearably agonising. I would have gone to prison but so fucking what? Thankfully they kept her so pumped full of drugs that she was sitting in bed happily chatting to a friend the night before the one she died.

My suicidal thoughts come and go. Within me is the stubborn core that kept me writing for 25 years before I achieved major success. Within me is the bastard who will not give in to this shit. I hope he remains strong.

11) After my breakdown I considered going to church – I knew I wouldn’t believe in anything there, but I was desperate to find some sort of escape, and I envied the people that could sit and pray and pretend everything was alright in their lives. Have you tried turning to any kinds of faith or philosophy to help you through your rough times?

Neal: Not at all. I don’t believe in God or anything supernatural and there is no circumstance that will make me do so. People did wonder if I was getting a bit that way when I started talking about meditation but, even though ‘mindfulness’ comes from Buddhism, it is a way to alter, exercise and reprogram your mind. In fact I have always known that the mind can be altered in similar ways to those in which the body can be altered. I have always said that the mind is a muscle group that needs exercise, while, for example, imagination is one of those muscles.

12) Final question: Motivation is the biggest factor that affects everything else – what advice can you give anyone battling depression who constantly struggles with issues of motivation.

Neal: That’s the bit that is really hard. But I go back to the eating an elephant analogy. Do something, it may be small, but do something. Get the headspace app and do those meditations. 10 minutes in a day, maybe not every day – you may be surprised at the effect. If you write, start writing down positive things about yourself. Try to think positive thoughts. Have positive fantasies – they don’t have to be true. Do something. Get outside and go for a walk. Clean the sink. Have a shave. Do something. As someone once said to me about life: this is it, it is not a rehearsal.

You can learn more about Neal Asher and his works by visiting his blog The Skinner or visiting his website here. You can find his novels at any decent book stores worldwide or order directly from PanMacmillan. You can read my earlier interview with Neal Asher by following this link.

Interview with Beth Webb

a73238_67bb2c14fe8a487bab52073659e48b45After reading Foxdown Wood by Beth Webb I decided to contact her and talk to her about her book. She is a fascinating woman who is an artist, writes books for both adults and young adults and works with an organisation called Books Beyond Wordshelping teens and adults with learning difficulties.

On your website you mention that the house that Cathy moves to in Foxdown Wood was a real house that a friend of yours owned. Are the Foxdown Woods real, or a fictional name for a real woodland?

I find it helps to have a real place in mind when I’m writing. This helps me visualise the action, and it also brings in fresh ideas of what could happen.

Sadly, there’s a wheat field where the wood should be. I used my friend’s house and his village (roughly) then ‘dropped’ a wood in the middle. But, I was visiting one day, walked to the end of the garden, and I blinked… The wood had gone! It was so real in my head, I’d forgotten it was make-believe! The name ‘Foxdown’ was a place near my own home, it just seemed like a really good name for the story.

The sub-plot about developers wanting to clear the forest, the children going through changes to their family dynamics and of course them going through adolescence – at first it seems like a story about change, and then the theme kind of twists so that it becomes one of revising old customs and remembering old ways and previous lives and preservation of the woods. Obviously conservation of culture and nature are important to you?

What a great question!

I intended the magical fantasy world to be an allegory to help the children in the book cope with all the change you described so well. Sort of like looking in a mirror to understand change and loss better. I find old customs and stories are excellent ways of looking at human psychology (I’m with Jung on this). Things do change, and children feel helpless and alone. I wanted the book to help my readers look for stories in their own lives to help them cope.

I guess the conservation theme is about how to look after the things that you can keep, while letting go of the things you can’t. And yes, conservation is very important to me. We’ve got one world (that we know of!) – let’s look after it.

Some of your references I had to search on Google to understand what cultural references  were being made. It seems that Gaelic mythology and cultural history play a large part in your work. What can you tell me about the mythos of Foxdown Wood?

Ah, sorry, I didn’t mean to be obscure! Woods were very important to our ancestors in every culture, and perhaps this is ‘coming round’ again as we begin to realise that trees are the earth’s ‘lungs’ and deforestation will ultimately both suffocate and drown us (with changed rainfall patterns and melting ice caps).

Hence, (back to Jung, again) storytellers take these images and make stories about them to get these rather heavy ideas across in a friendly, accessible way, but still carries a big ‘Important’ label.

So, let’s look at a few specifics, eg, the ‘Rogation prayers’ are still used in the Church on England in rural districts. Parishioners walk the bounds of the parish, ostensibly to bless the seeds and the land for the coming year, but it’s also a time when children are shown the borders of ‘their’ land, beyond which they MUST NOT GO. This refers to mediaeval England, when people were not allowed beyond their parish boundaries.

I suspect the idea of boundaries is fairly deep rooted in pagan thinking, asking the gods’ blessing on ‘your’ patch of land, and sending the demons away beyond your borders.

‘Guardians’ link in with this. They very ancient ideas, sort of demi-gods who protect their ‘patch’, also expressed as guardian angels in later western culture and religion. Consider ‘patron saints’. Other than that, I don’t think I was consciously linking into a particular mythos, but as I grew up reading myths and legends for fun, they could be so deeply ingrained that it they just tumble out without me noticing.

I am very fascinated by parallel universes, which I play with a bit in Foxdown Wood. But is that mythology explaining reality again?

In my ‘Star Dancer’ quadrilogy for YA and adults, I consciously link into Celtic mythology in a BIG way, but that was historical fantasy, so I made a conscious effort to get it right.

How much of this story was your own childhood, or was it the childhood of your children?

Not at all really. However, when I was a child, I used to dream this sort of adventure all the time. So… perhaps the answer is ‘yes, my childhood’? Please read my answer to the next question too.

Young adult fiction often relies heavily upon tropes of angst, familial dysfunction and isolation. These themes are present in the book but, thankfully, they actually function as drivers of plot and character, as opposed to just background exposition like many authors fall guilty of. What were your intentions with the problems these children had to cope with outside of the main plot?

Ah, this is a strange one. As you’ll have gathered, I see stories as vital ways of helping children and YA to cope with life, by creating allegories – always with hope at the end, because that’s the way I am. So, when I write, I often have something I’ve seen happening as a starting point. Sometimes the story comes first, then I realise what it’s ‘about’ as I start playing with the idea.

Foxdown Wood began with my friend’s rather tumbledown house, and the name ‘Foxdown.’ Then as I wrote, my husband left me, and my son’s best friend’s father died. We weren’t quite the families in the book…. But it was weird, uncanny and very disconcerting.

I wonder if I subliminally knew what was happening, and was telling myself a story to find a way through. Interesting, I’d not thought about that before.

Your most popular series are the Fleabag Trilogy and the Star Dancer Quadrilogy – tell me more about these works.

Fire Maiden lowThe Fleabag books are a trilogy for children aged 8-10 (ish) with a three legged talking cat with ‘cattitude’, a kitchen girl, a thief and a lady knight in shining armour who’s a snob and can’t stand cats. They were first published about the same time as Foxdown Wood, and have just been revised and re-launched with illustrations. Book three, Fleabag and the Ring’s End should be out later this year.

It’s probably easiest to point you to my web page where you can read the opening chapters for free. And here’s a recent review of book 2, Fleabag and the Fire Cat.

I have read the opening chapters to Star Dancer (which I quite enjoyed) and see that it is over 300 pages long. What was the target demographic of this series?

The Star Dancer series is for YA and adults. It’s a dark historical fantasy about the Roman invasion of Britain from the British point of view. I have druid friends who loaned me books and spent hours explaining how druids thought and worked their magic. So, it’s a mixture of history (mostly Tacitus), archaeology – I went to every almost site where the action takes place to get the ‘feel’ of the setting. I also thought about the characters psychology, studying how sympathetic magic works.

In Star Dancer, book 1, the co-protagonist, Griff, has learning disabilities, yet is more of a ‘man’ than many of the male characters. In every sense he’s the hero of the hour. I’m a great believer in diversity within books. I don’t know much about gender, so I write about disability and learning disability. Without different people, life would be colourless and empty, and stories would be lies.

I also had the help of a Crime Scene investigator who helped me work out how to solve a crime committed by magic (Fire dreamer, Book 2). Foe Wave Hunter, (3) I went to Anglesey where the Romans slaughtered the druids in a massacre in CE / AD 60, I investigated Celtic bog bodies, followed the footsteps of Boudicca the warrior queen who almost ousted the Romans ion CE/AD 61. (Stone Keeper, book 4).

I also really studied the Celtic myths and hero legends. It was exhausting!

In total, it’s 333,460 words! Again, you can read the opening chapters here: http://www.bethwebb.co.uk/#!blank/d1pr0

As time has gone on your books seem to be targeted at an aging demographic – was this just the natural evolution of your writing, or were you writing for the same audience, but one that was growing older with you?

I think at first, my stories were growing up with my children, but now they are adults, I’ve gone back to writing for younger children. Sadly, my current publisher doesn’t do kiddie books. I’ve got dragons and monsters, ancient myths and silly mice, all waiting for a nice, friendly publisher!

I’ve also written some adult short stories, but never tried publishing them. Basically, I just love writing stories – for any age group.

01The final book in the Star Dancer Quadrilogy was Stone Keeper, published in 2013. You do a lot of talks and workshops and classes – do you still write?

Oh yes. I took time off to help my elderly parents between 2008 – 13, but now they’ve died, I’ve got three books ready to go. After Fleabag and the Ring Fire (for ages 8-10) later this year, I’ll be taking a new direction with ‘Skin and Bone’ a YA crime thriller, about a 15 year old girl who’s psychic and sees crimes before they happen, and her 17 year old cousin Joe, who helps her solve them. It’s a sort of cross between X files and CSI for teens, with accurate forensics!


Tell me more about Books Beyond Words and your involvement.

This is a brilliant project for teens and adults with learning difficulties. http://booksbeyondwords.co.uk/

About 26 years ago, I was visiting a friend who was a psychiatrist working with people with learning problems. A client who’s always been calm and friendly, has suddenly become angry and destructive. His carers wanted my friend to ‘give him something to keep him quiet.’ Instead, my friend started asking questions; she discovered that this young man’s father visited him every week without fail. But the father had died, and no one had tried to explain to the young man why his father had stopped coming. They thought he wouldn’t understand. So – he was trying to tell people he was scared and worried in the only way he could – by making a noise.

My psychiatrist friend was looking through children’s books about death – but they were all allegories about butterflies, or kittens dying. She said she needed an artist who could draw exactly what she needed.

I said, ‘I can do that.’

For my drawings, I used mime and body language to show meaning. I also employed idioms, and emotionally-keyed colours, eg, ‘I feel in the pink,’ I feel blue’ ‘I’m under a cloud’ etc. I also used the sort of symbols you see in marvel comics – big ‘POW-ZAP’ stars etc.

It worked, we found we could communicate entirely without words. It’s a bit Western culture- specific, but we’re working on that.

What inspired you to become involved with books for those with learning disabilities?

I started with being desperate for money, then I found I could do something that made people’s faces light up as they understood what was going on.

There’s nothing to beat that in all the world!

Beth Webb

www.bethwebb.co.uk

My books are available from http://www.marchhamilton.com/

Please share or reblog this review if you enjoyed it.

An Interview with Neal Asher

blogger-image-122741601I have recently had the honor and pleasure of interviewing Neal Asher, one of the UK’s top Science Fiction authors. His works are gritty and violent and (the vast majority) of his works set in the distant future are often labeled as post-cyberpunk due to the themes in his stories. His work is highly imaginative and can be found in stores and on bookshelves all around the world.

1) Will the Yellow Tower series ever be published? The synopses sound great and the readers report is positive. Does the Neal Asher brand suffer from type-classing, or does the UK market have an overabundance of fantasy novels at the moment which is holding these back?

Neal: I don’t know if it will ever be published. My problem is that now I could get the thing published easily. If Macmillan did not want to take it on there are other big publishers that would definitely take a long hard look at it, and there are smaller publishers who would take it without a second thought just to have something with my name on it to sell. I have to be careful. I am not satisfied with it at all. It is about the first thing I wrote, the fantasy that took me up the first stretch of the learning curve. It is also something I wrote 2 million published words ago and I have learned a great deal since then. If I published it as it stands readers would grab it expecting the kind of stuff I’m writing now, but find something simply not very good. The only way it will ever be published is if I have the time and inclination to sit down and rewrite it completely. I don’t at the moment. I prefer writing my next science fiction book.

2) What is the book you are most proud of? Is there a book you could wish you had written different?

Neal: I am proud of them all for different reasons and in different ways. I love The Skinner because it was one I took the most pleasure in writing and it is the one most well received, and I’m proud of that. I’m proud of the raw start that was Gridlinked, and how I developed the story in the ensuing books. I’m proud of Cowl and how I dealt with time travel. I’m proud of The Departure because of the risk I took there. It is difficult to say … I think it is probably Brass Man. I had the pleasure in writing it that I had with The Skinner but it was hard enjoyable work to do what I wanted to do, and set the course of the rest of the series. But ask me this question in a few weeks and I will probably have changed my mind.

3) The publishing industry is at a crossroads with digital and paper-based publications; Do you think the accessibility of self-publishing will dilute talent by allowing anyone to publish, or do you think it will foster a movement of growth and inspiration?

Neal: Yes, with the ease of self-publishing a lot of crap will be out there, but a lot of talent that gets ignored by the publishing industry has a chance to get noticed. What will happen, as time goes on, is that new filtering mechanisms will come into play. A publisher pays money out to put a hard copy on the shelf of a book shop and this is a guarantor of some degree of quality. That is not available in the electronic world. People will rely on reviews, rankings on places like Amazon, trusted websites, and their own discernment if they are able to read a few pages.

4) Your novels are full of highly complicated plots, creatures, characters and technology – How do you organize all your ideas and how do you maintain continuity? Are there visual elements in your planning stages, like brainstorms or maps etc?

Neal: Heh, if there was an easy explanation for that then everyone would to it. My brain is a chaos of ideas and images when I write a book and somehow it gets organised throughout the writing process. Anyway, it’s the nature of the human brain to organise stuff and look for patterns and that’s what I do – usually after I’ve first written a bunch of stuff. I do of course check for continuity errors by reading preceding books again and/or running searches through them. I do occasionally sketch out diagrams like the ship the Sable Keech or the space station Argus in The Departure.

12570973_10153933248568223_483142410_n5) I often find myself getting bogged down in the context of the story, getting lost behind so many good ideas that are irrelevant to what I’m writing. How do you avoid getting lost in your inspiration?

Neal: I’m writing as a reader so if something is meandering along for too long it is time for people to speak or, alternatively, try to kill each other. Story is all, so if I have a good idea but it is or becomes irrelevant to the story I cut it out. It can always be used elsewhere. However, I do sometimes waffle on a bit too much about something that fascinates me and that’s where a good editor comes in to tell me to cut it out, to get to the point.

6) How much of yourself do you put into your characters and worlds?

Neal: It comes from me and is therefore everything of myself. If I am writing a psychopath then I will of course ask myself how I would behave if I were that person. How would I behave if I was made of metal, loaded with weapons and shaped like a scorpion? It is all from within. If I am describing an alien world or environment then I am writing about the stuff that interests me. You will, for example, see a lot about parasites and mycology in my books, which have been long time interests of mine.

7) How many times does one of your manuscripts get edited (on average) before the publisher is satisfied enough to put it into print?

Neal: Beside my own editing, and there is a lot of that, it can go through two or three stages with the publisher. The editor goes over it, may pass it on to another editor to go over, and then the copy editor goes over it for detail and house style. I then also have a look at the final version and can make more changes if I wish. I don’t. by then I’m bored out of my skull by it.

8) I believe, based on your comment on your own blog, that I am owed an explanation of Gabbleducks? I don’t know how you came up with the idea, or were able to execute it so well, but it was simultaneously one of the strangest, quirkiest and most terrifying things I had read. Congratulations. Just what on earth (or, rather – what off earth) inspired these creatures?

Neal: I believe I’ve been asked this question before and thought about it before. My parents called me a gabbleduck when I was young because I would not shut up talking nonsense. I then recollect early on in junior school, in an art class, making a papier mache model. It looked a bit like a duck, but a sinister misshapen one. Somehow, out of that lot, arose the creatures you see on the planet Masada.

9) New Zealand is, geographically, similar in size to the UK but we only have just over 4 million population. It is almost a cultural sin to not ask a foreigner about NZ so I find myself obligated to ask: Have you ever been to New Zealand? What are your opinions of NZ (real or imagined)?

Neal: My deceased wife had relatives over there and we went for a visit once. Lovely countryside that reminded me of Scotland, but a stretched out version with seemingly more open space. It was a great looking place, but it’s an awful long way to go to see what appeared to be little different from parts of the UK. Then again, I was there a month so there is no way I could see all it has to offer. I was also there when the weather wasn’t great. Particular recollections for me? The high points? I enjoyed the hot springs of Hanmer, and I loved a lengthy meal of New Zealand mussels, bread and white wine!

Are you familiar with any NZ films or books?

Neal: Not particularly, but then how often is any distinction made? Is Lord of the Rings a New Zealand film?

10) What do you foresee for yourself for 2016? What predictions do you make for the world for 2016?

Neal: My life is up in the air at the moment and what shape it will land in over the next year I have no idea. I’m moving from my current location in the UK to a place called Hastings because I want to try out living in a town, which I’ve never done before. Yet, I have a place on the island of Crete and may, because of a romantic interest, end up just staying there. Meanwhile I will endeavour to write more Polity books. Who knows? Perhaps I should ask someone who writes about the future… Oops.

As for the world of 2016. One summer I took my last look at BBC news before I left England for Crete and didn’t read a news story or look at one on the TV for 7 months. When I got back to England and turned on the TV it was as if I had never gone away. For 2016 I predict: same shit, different year.

11) The Wikipedia entry on you has very little information, despite your biographical details being on your site. One thing that isn’t mentioned is your family. Do you have any children?

Neal: I married late in life and neither Caroline or I wanted children.

12) If your life story was being told as a big-budget film, who would portray you best? I see Michael Cane doing a bang-up job.

Neal: Hell I don’t know. I often get asked who should play characters in my books if they ever get turned into films. I cannot answer because I don’t really know who is who in the acting world.

13) Have you seen The Force Awakens? Ignoring the fan response and the critics, what was your opinion of the story in the film?

Neal: Not seen it yet. I may slope off down the cinema sometime soon or get it on DVD. Other concerns occupy my time too intensively at the moment.

You can learn more about Neal Asher and his works by visiting his blog The Skinner or visiting his website here. You can find his novels at any decent book stores worldwide or order directly from PanMacmillan. You can read the second part of my interview with Neal Asher on my blog about depression here.

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Mortal Gods (part two) – An interview with Jonathan Fast.

jonathan-fast-portraitI have recently read and reviewed Mortal Gods which I thoroughly enjoyed. I was also intrigued by the book and how it dealt with a lot of modern themes: racism, religious intolerance, consumerism, celebrity deification, terrorism and political corruption. I was so intrigued how a novel this unique from the 70’s could still hold up against modern scientific knowledge. To quell my intrigue, I recently had the pleasure to interview Professor Jonathan Fast about Mortal Gods and to discuss some of the elements within this book.

In my correspondence with Jonathan Fast I found him very polite and most accommodating. He was very open and willing to talk candidly about his book and himself, and I got the impression that here is a man that, even though he no longer writes fiction, the stars and planets still spin within him. I have provided the interview (below) in full, with only some minor editing:

What are your favorite elements in Mortal Gods?

You have to remember that I wrote this book about 40 years ago and my recollections of it are a little fuzzy. I remember falling in love with the alien, and the fact that she was happy to eat the flowers he gave her, two cultures (or biologies) incidentally coinciding to his dating advantage. I remember liking the idea of the Lifestylers because it seemed like something new in a field where every sort of strange culture had been already been created by the previous generation of science fiction writers. This was before Cyberpunk. It still seems like a good metaphor for pop stars. At the time I liked the idea of many of the politicians being “already dead” but now it seems kind of adolescent.

Do you read your own fiction once it’s published? Do you have any desire to re-visit the worlds and characters you’ve created, or is it cathartic to be done with them once completed and published?

I never read my novels after they are finished. On a couple of occasions, I have tried. The beginnings are always strong but then I come to something that makes me cringe and I put them aside

What aspects were you the unhappiest about with your book? What changes would you make now if you decided to re-write it?

The one thing I remember disliking was Nick’s mentor telling him that he was listening to Wagner’s Twilight of the Gods. So heavy-handed! I’m sure the book had a number of other weaknesses but that’s the one the one that sticks in my mind.

These days it’s easy to search for information on the internet. Did you have much consultation with specialists or educators to flesh out the science of your world?

I read a great non-fiction book about DNA by Robert Silverberg (?) and that inspired many of the ideas in Mortal Gods. Then I was extremely lucky to run into a friend of a friend who was getting her doctorate at Rockefeller University in genetics. She read through the manuscript and liked it. It’s funny because now that I write “scholarly” non-fiction, I spend years (literally) researching my books and read (literally) hundreds of articles. My latest book, Beyond Bullying: Breaking the Cycle of Bullying, Shame & Violence, (Oxford University Press, 2015) has over 300 citations.

What was the initial reaction from publishers to your manuscript? Was there much (if any) rejection before being published?

It was immediately accepted by New American Library which immediately sold hardcover rights, so I was pretty happy. Its predecessor, The Secrets of Synchronicity, had a dozen rejections and never appeared in hardcover.

You are an Associate Professor at Yeshiva University – do your colleagues or students talk to you about your science fiction books? Do you have any fans that track you down to share their thoughts on your books?

The daughter of one of my colleagues was a huge fan of my novelization of the Disney film, Newsies. Other than that, none of my colleagues has ever mentioned any of my work in any context that I can recall. It’s as though my life before social work, my nine novels, never existed. However: I learned a few years ago that the gossip was that I had written the original book for Newsies, which is now a hit Broadway musical, and that I was fabulously rich on account of it. This did not help my popularity.

According to the Bibliography on Wikipedia your latest book, Beyond Bullying, is your 11th publication. Is this accurate? Have you written anything that you never got published for any reason?

I think I wrote six or seven novels that were never published because they were TERRIBLE! The less said about them, the better. I consider them the cost of my apprenticeship as a fiction writer.

In Mortal Gods, one of the over-arching themes is xenoracism. Was this story about the Black-American rights movements of the 60’s and their ‘entering society’ for the first time? Was Hali a metaphor, or was she a parody of society’s ‘perfect woman’ – exotic, lithe, plays hard to get, gifts Nick with sexual pleasure, and then leaves with no obligations or repercussions?

I was going out with a black women a year or two earlier and she was clearly the model for Hali. She was from Hawaii, pursuing her PhD in psychology at NYU. It was the first time I had ever been intimate with a black person, or a native Hawaiian.  She referred to herself as a Hapa-Hauli which is Hawaiian for half-white. I moved to California and she went back to Hawaii. It seemed like another planet.  Hali = Hauli! The unconscious is a remarkable thing! I don’t think I was aware of this while I was writing the book; it certainly would have interfered with the writing of it.

Another common theme is Hero-worship, or perhaps exaggeration of worth (of the self, and of others.) The Lifestylers are an eerie prediction of modern society’s cults of hero worship and celebrity deification. The Lifestylers don’t seem to discriminate whom they give gifts to, and their gifts seem to be without limitation; most importantly there is no expected cost or consequence for these gifts. Who or what was the inspiration for the Lifestylers?

I don’t remember anything about them giving gifts to their followers without consequences, but I like it. From my current POV it sounds like “swag” for everyone. What could be sweeter? In Star Trek there is no money as I understand it. No currency. An economy free of poverty and want. So I guess if it’s in Star Trek it must be possible.

Gratification and reward without cost is another over-arching theme. It is played out in various sex scenes – each one varied and often imaginative. Every sex scene involved some element of discomfort and non-consent (whether physical or mental/emotional,) and in the one truly consensual coupling between Nick and Hali, we have Althea kidnapped and watching, so there is still an unwilling element present. Was this a deliberate statement about human sexuality, or a statement on the human need for gratification and fulfillment, irrespective of the cost?

His relationship with Althea was decadent, and his relationship with Hali was authentic. I remember the part where she takes a bite out of his ear during their climax. I read that somewhere and I liked it so much I borrowed it–but I forgot to give it back.

The end of the book was bitter sweet – Hali doing the right thing by her people, and sacrificing her love. Is this representative of the social criticisms of inter-racial relationships at the time? Or was this the books way of redeeming humanity’s culture of gratification and excess without cost – when something meaningful is finally discovered, and had to be earned (not instantly gifted from the gods) and then is taken away at the end so that the only true ‘reward’ is internalized.

The ending just felt right. He needed to get his heart broken, and she needed to get home and back to her job as whatever-it-was she did for (a) living.

The Alta-Tyberian’s genetic deformities were described as being a form of mongolism. Why was this chosen as their downfall? Why not something more exotic, or dramatic? Was this a response to social attitudes towards the handicapped during the 70’s?

Remember that DNA was not yet in the public discourse in the 1970s. I may have chosen it because it was something I thought the public would know about.

This book is heavily layered with race-relation issues. It holds up against the decades because today, instead of race we have ideological/ intolerance,  and discrimination of status. It seems that as soon as we could accept race we had to find some other aspect of each other to be intolerant of. Even the politics in the story are still relevant. The ‘us or them’ attitude in the story reminded me straight away of Bush Jr and the ‘age of terrorism’. If this book was written today, Nick would be a terrorist.

Are you surprised that unlike a lot of semi-vintage science fiction, your book has weathered and remained relevant?

Very, very rarely, but it does happen. I have mixed feeling about the old out-print copies of my SF (all my fiction is out-of-print) that get resold on Amazon for 20 cents. But that’s capitalism for you.

Your questions are very, very kind in that they assume a degree of literary self-consciousness that was way beyond what I had at the time. Most of Mortal Gods just felt right. When I wrote it, I still didn’t have a publisher for Secrets of Synchronicity, (or the six or seven terrible novels I had written prior to it). In other words, I had not yet published a book-length work. I was determined to write a science fiction work that would get published. What was on my mind was what do people look for in good SF (back in 1978)? The answers were exploration of emerging fields of science, a good love story, a mystery and some Swiftian social commentary.

Mortal Gods seems to use shame a lot as a driver of plot and character development. Was this a social commentary at the time, or was this your own personal interest peeking out, and the segue into your current career in Psychology and Social Sciences?

My new book, Beyond Bullying, is non-fiction and draws on evidence from anthropology, sociology, psychology and history to support the argument that shame is the “master emotion.” The great literature of the 19th century is all shame motivated. Shame is the engine that propels the plot.

On the website for your book, Beyond Bullying, you describe shame as ‘the feeling we have when our membership in a group is at risk.’ Also you suggest that ‘bullying happens when a bully intentionally uses the power of shame to hurt us. The best way to deal with this is to recognize bullying for what it is: weaponized shame, and manage it as we would any other kind of shame.’ These ideas are quite clearly represented in the way the characters motivate themselves and respond to others in your book. Were these ideas around bullying already developing at the time, or did these ideas come later in life?

I had no clue about this 40 years ago. If my characters were propelled by shame, it was because, during the writing of that book, I brushed up against the Muse–however briefly and lightly.

Mortal Gods is a classic that remains modern, not so much for the thought put into the book, but for the heart and soul put into it. Like any decent work of fiction, if the author lacks passion this is conveyed in the writing, and thus  tarnishes the reader’s experience. This book does not lack passion; I shared a genuine interest in seeing the characters resolve their conflicts, and shared in their heartbreaks and their triumphs.

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Jonathan Fast (born April 13, 1948) is an author of eight fiction books, has worked as a screenwriter for various companies, has won awards for scripts he has written for educational films, and has written numerous articles in the field of Social Work. He has written two major books on Social issues: Ceremonial Violence, and Beyond Bullying: Breaking the Cycle of Bullying, Shame & Violence, (Oxford University Press, 2015). 

He currently works as Associate Professor at the Wurzweiler School Of Social Work, New York.

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