Friday 11 January 2013

Guest Author Interview - Jason Phillip Reeser

In today's guest author interview we welcome Jason Phillip Reeser, you can read what he has to say below:

Please introduce yourself, who are you and what do you do?
I’m a nomad who spent the first half of my life traveling all over the United States, sometimes living just in a van, depending on what my parents were doing at the time. Once I settled into a family life of my own in Louisiana, I became a father of five children, supporting them by working in an oil refinery. I’m still there, but my passion has always been about writing. I just always loved to tell stories. My wife is a poet, who used the early years of the Internet to build up a network of friends and contacts, which helped her career grow quite impressively, even as she raised five children. Encouraged by her hard work and success, I kept at my own writing efforts. If I’m not writing, I’m usually reading books, or watching movies, both of which are an essential part of my training. I’ve been told my writing style often reads like scenes from a movie.

What first inspired you to start writing?
I was a voracious reader. We moved a great deal, and friends were few and far between. But I always had a book in my hands. So I suppose it just seemed natural to want to write my own books at some point. My first effort to do so was in middle school, when I sat down with pen and paper and started a science fiction story. Some of my family members found that puzzling, my grandparents heard about it and bought me an old Royal Typewriter that weighed about forty pounds. This was in the early ‘80s, when people were beginning to write on computers or very slick electronic typewriters. Once I had that typewriter, I was hooked. Writing stories was a rush. And pounding on those keys, snapping back that return bar (ding!), yanking out a page full of words—there’s nothing like that feeling.

The science fiction novel was never finished—not a loss—but my love of story-telling was firmly entrenched. I have an old box full of stories that I typed back then. Kid’s stuff that will never see the light of day. But I treasure them, and used to pull them out and read them, look at them, organize them, like a baseball card collector might do with his old Topps collection. It wasn’t until I turned twenty that I started taking it seriously. I had toyed around with being a musician, but that was just a side-line. One day I put down the guitar, and I had no trouble leaving it on the stand. I tried to do that with writing once. But I couldn’t keep away from it. I’m told that’s the way to know if you are a writer or just someone who thinks he’s a writer.

I had the great fortune to meet the author Neil Connelly at one of my wife’s poetry readings at McNeese State University. Over the punchbowl we talked about being writers. He had been published, I had not. I told him I was not sure I should be wasting my time writing since I’d not had anything published at that point. I’ll never forget his response. He said I had to ask myself one question. If someone told me that they could see into the future and they knew that I would never be published—ever—would I still want to write? I knew my answer right away. Heck yeah, I said, I’d still write. It was great advice that kept me going as I received rejection after rejection. Eventually, I finally saw my first story accepted, and I’m ever thankful to Neil for that encouragement through that wilderness. I e-mailed Neil some six years later and asked him if he would blurb my latest book, Cities of the Dead, and he enthusiastically accepted. I’ve been very lucky to know him.

If you could work with any author who would it be? Why?
Wow. That’s tough. I’ve had a story knocking around in my head (even a semi-complete outline on an old 3.5 inch disk somewhere) about a Guns of Navarone type story set in the Pirate infested Caribbean of the late 1700’s/early 1800’s. Now I can’t think of anyone who can write battle scenes better than Bernhard Cornwell. And I just haven’t spent the time necessary to research the period well enough to make it believable. So if you’ve got some really extraordinary connections, and can hook us up, I’d have to say get Bernhard Cornwell on the line. When I discovered his Sharpe’s books about five years ago, I devoured every one of that twenty-plus volume series in about a year. He is pure magic with the pen. Rarely do I read action that just knocks me down. Mr. Cornwell does this just about every time a shot is fired. But the best part of writing with someone like that would be to hear his editing comments. That would be like hacking into the CIA’s computers. A goldmine of information that you could never put a price on. What impresses me about him is his ability to seamlessly integrate historical references into a story, whether it be history itself, or just period details for set dressing. He’s not showing off the fruits of his research. He merely uses what is necessary to make his story believable. He’s a master at this.

Are you a planner? Or do you prefer to dive straight into writing?
Most of my short stories just get started by my typing out a few lines without any forethought. However, the novels I’ve written usually come from an idea. Jury Rig stared out with an idea for a character. I’m a big fan of Dostoyevsky, and he once told a friend that he had this idea of a character that was so pure of heart everyone else would see him as an idiot. From this he wrote his unforgettable novel The Idiot. I thought, wow, I wish I could do that. So I did. I decided I wanted to write about a pirate who had set his heart on finding redemption. That was sort of an odd idea. I meant a real, High Seas Pirate. But what sort of redemption? I decided he wanted society to forgive him. So I decided if a Pirate wants forgiveness, he’d probably seize a ship and force the passengers into jury duty and make them decide his fate by trial. That was a lot of fun, and it took little planning after that.

My first attempts at writing involved little planning, which I sort of took pride in. I felt I had to let the characters do what they wanted. Which seemed kind of Zen or something. But you know, those characters always led me astray. I had to learn to plan, to outline. Not always a formal outline, but I learned to plan at least several chapters ahead. With a Big Picture outline, and preplaned scenes for several chapters at a time, it seems to work really well.

If you could write anyone's biography, whose would it be?
Andre Norton. But it would be impossible to do. Let me explain.

Andre Norton was one of the most creative, prolific writers of Science Fiction/Fantasy that has ever lived. She (yes, Andre Norton was actually Alice Norton, changed her name legally to one of her pen names) has an astonishing range of novels, from Space Travel greats like Plague Ship and Sargasso of Space to her Beastmaster stories as well as her highly acclaimed series "Witch World". What fascinates me about her is the fact that all of these unbelievable stories came out of an unknown, mid-western librarian. So I would love to write a biography of her if we could get a look inside her mind, and figure out where all of this manic creativity came from. So much of the Science Fiction genre is clunky, forced, and just awkward. Norton’s world-creation and tech is so simple, so effortless, it always leaves me in awe. Would her life make an interesting biography? Probably. But what I’d be most interested in would be probing the recesses of her incredible mind. To be able to research her personal papers, the scraps of her writing, her notes. That would be mesmerizing.

What do you enjoy most about writing?
Reading my writing. No kidding! It is fun to pick up something I haven’t seen of mine in a while, and start reading it. I’ll come across a passage that I have no memory writing, and I think—how the heck did I think of writing that? Where did that come from? That’s really cool. (When I started out, I mostly cringed at what I wrote. I’m happy to say that this happens far less than it used to.) I’ve learned that I’m not alone when it comes to being a writer who struggles with his confidence, or his lack thereof. We can be a troubled group. I still read lots of books today. And when I do, and it is someone who is really good, I think—oh man, how can I even begin to think I can write? Why would anyone read something I’ve written when there are so many better writers out there? But then, when these little moments arise where I come across something I’ve written that surprises me, I gain just enough confidence to keep at it. To stick another blank sheet of paper in the old Royal typewriter, slam the return bar into place, and start clunking those keys again. (I haven’t touched a real typewriter in years, but you know what I mean.)

And the least?
Telling people I’m a writer. There are few responses that I enjoy. The simple “that’s nice”, as if I’ve just told them I got a haircut, is a response that’s a little deflating. But if someone makes a big deal out of it, well that’s worse. Then there is that half-smile accompanied by a raising of the forehead—“a writer? Oh, I see.” Which really just means—“yeah, like you’re really a writer. Whatever.” Close friends know. And my family. And they are always very supportive. But I have many co-workers who have no idea I write. Or if they do, they don’t mention it, and I don’t mention it to them. I think some people worry that I’m going to ask them to read it, and then be hurt if they don’t like it. Some of them are probably just worried that I’ll ask them to read a book I’ve written, and they haven’t read a book since High School—the idea of reading any book terrifies them.

As far as the technical aspects of writing that I like the least, I’d have to say that moment when I write the end of a scene and suddenly have no idea what should happen next. Man, that can kill a project. That’s why an outline really helps. Without it, a lull like this can leave a project hanging for weeks. I’ve even had a few early projects that just died like that. I never actually buried them, and the sight of their half-written corpses really irk me. I can’t finish them, but I can’t just delete those files either. I hate finding them in my computer files. They haunt me.

What advice would you give new and aspiring authors?
I wouldn’t! I’m too new at this myself to be so bold. But since you asked, I’ll try. And I’ll assume I’m talking to someone who is very new, and possibly very young.

Much of the advice to writers is good stuff and you need to listen to it. When you are told to write often, you really should. I started a blog simply for the practice of writing. It has really freed up my writing, which used to be a bit awkward during the actual writing process. I could always go back and clean it up, but it was all pretty time-consuming. The more I write, the easier it gets. So write.

But there is also a lot of bad advice out there. The one line that drives me crazy is “write about what you know”, which seems so antithetical to me as a writer. Writers want to create! If Andre Norton had written about what she knew, she would have had to write about librarians. So I would tell young writers to not be afraid to write about whatever excites you. Whatever interests you. If you need technical knowledge, that can always be researched. But find something you love and then write about it. And remember, you can always make stuff up.

What are you working on at the moment?
Since I am self-publishing, I have several books in several stages. Right now, I’m actually writing a horror/mystery novel involving one of those big, early Nineteenth-Century health spas, the kind of place people visited to ”take the waters”. The story follows three friends who discover one of these abandoned resorts. It’s wonderfully creepy, in disrepair, its former elegance tattered and disheveled. To their amazement, the interior walls of the hallways of this hotel are covered in handwriting, with as many as eight distinctly different writing styles. Most of it is gibberish, but within this gibberish there is a story. One of madness. More disturbingly is the discovery that the story is still being written.

At the same time, I’m editing a non-fiction book about a trip my wife and I made to Paris earlier this year. That’s been a really fun project.

The next focus for me will be polishing and publishing (summer of 2013) the second book in a Science Fiction/Noir Trilogy that started with my novel The Lazaretto. This is really my passion. It is a world that I want so much to share with everyone. Set in a system of colony worlds in the future, a quarantine zone has been set up on a moon such that no one may travel from one planet to another without first spending forty days in quarantine on this Lazaretto. If you are found to have any pathogen during that time you will never be allowed to leave the Lazaretto. It’s a world that only government bureaucracy could create. A world of despair, corruption, and a populace that shuns physical contact. Into this world steps a Private Investigator, Gregor Lepov, and he soon discovers just how dark and cold the Lazaretto can be. Yes, the book is Science Fiction, but the city is more like San Francisco in the Film Noir era. Future tech is not prominent in the series. The first book follows Lepov’s search for a missing person, which collides with two police Detectives' search for a vicious killer. The second book involves a thirty-year-old murder and the planned theft of a priceless work of art. It’s a trilogy full of shadows, madmen, femme fatales, good guys, rainy nights, ladies in distress, and the overriding desire to find a way out of a hopeless world. In other words, lots of fun.

Tell us about your latest work and how we can find out more.
Cities of the Dead is my latest work, which came out just before Halloween. It’s a short story collection with each of the thirteen stories set in the famed above-ground cemeteries of New Orleans. This has been such a great project to work on. I am a cemetery nut. I’ve always enjoyed walking the paths of the death, reading headstones, wondering who was under all that dirt. When I moved to Louisiana, I discovered the wonderful world of these New Orleans cemeteries. Mark Twain first coined the phrase “cities of the dead”, noting that the tombs looked like little houses. The fact that the dead are buried above ground because if they are buried below ground they come back up is fantastic. I mean, the dead actually refuse to be buried! That really had me thinking. So after a walk through Lafayette Cemetery Number One, in the Garden District, I had an idea. I wanted to write a series of stories that were set entirely in these cemeteries. Some of them are ghost stories, but not all of them. One story follows a grave robber who develops a sudden and bizarre desire to gaze upon the faces of the dead. Another story details how a man has devised a method to bring his lover back to life. There’s even a humorous story about the Pirate Jean Lafitte which is more like a Tim Burton Claymation movie than a serious ghost story. One of my favorites in the collection is one about an artillery regiment of dead Confederate soldiers who are tormented by their Colonel’s desire to train them relentlessly, forcing them to improve their skills with their stone cannons.

As with all of my books, it is available in print as well as a Kindle edition. You can find information on Cities of the Dead at Saint James Infirmary Books, my publishing company. (Just type it all together— You can also just go straight to Amazon. This book is also available down in the French Quarter in New Orleans in many of the stores there. We were able to get it on the shelves in the prestigious Faulkner House Bookstore on Pirates Alley, as well as New Orleans’ signature bookstore The Garden District Book Shop, which is right across the street from Lafayette Number One. I hope everyone who likes a good ghost story gives it a try. I haven’t heard of one unhappy reader yet.

Thanks to Jason for sharing his thoughts with us, on Tuesday Devorah Fox takes her place on the hot seat.

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