I’m forty-five, and I live in the Atlanta suburbs with my wife and our largish pack of rescue dogs. My day job is computer programmer. When I’m not writing I like to cook and do woodwork, I think because it’s a nice change of pace to work with my hands. My main recreation is movies. I’m one of the dwindling minority of people who likes to go out to a theater—I love the dogs, but sometimes it’s nice to get away.
Sierra: When did you first start writing and when did you finish your first book?
I started writing semi-seriously when I was maybe eleven or twelve. I got my first rejection slip a couple of weeks after Reagan got shot (April-ish 1981) from, I think, Asimov’s. Well…that is to say, I thought it was a serious effort. I imagine that whoever was doing the slush pile the day the short story from twelve-year-old me came in may have had a different opinion.
I finished writing my first novel in the spring of 1994. Mount Char was my fourth novel, but the first one I ever got published. For you aspiring writers out there, I’ve heard from several industry sources that it usually takes a couple trunk novels to get the hang of it.
Sierra: Tell us a little bit about your first book or the first book in the series.
The Library at Mount Char is a blend of genres. It’s set in the modern world—I heard someone describe it as ‘suburban fantasy,’ which I like. There’s some mystery, a lot of fantasy, some horror. When the story opens the librarians of what is for all intents and purposes a magic library are trying to figure out what happened to their adopted father, who may or may not be God. Father has been known to disappear, but this time he’s been gone for several months. Possibly he’s off on business or perhaps this is some sort of test. But it’s been long enough that they’re also starting to worry that he might be dead.
Sierra: How did you choose the genre you write in?
It just seems to be the way my imagination works. My first (unpublished) novel was a straight crime thriller, kind of in the same ballpark as Richard Stark or David Mamet. But I noticed while I was writing it that I kept wanting to throw in fantasy elements, to have the scheming partner come back from the dead or something. For the next book I didn’t fight it.
Sierra: What was your favorite chapter (or part) to write?
My favorite chapter was probably the big showdown between the hero and the main antagonist. By the time I got to that point, I was thoroughly caught up in the story. It was all I could think about. I was burning vacation days at work, waking up at three a.m., just totally obsessed. That chapter in particular was probably the peak. When I was working on it, it felt like the floor had dropped out from under me. Writing isn’t always easy, but when it’s going well there is absolutely nothing better.
Sierra: Is anything in your book based on real life experiences or purely all imagination?
I’ll be a bit vague here to avoid huge spoilers, but there’s a section in the book where a guy goes out for a jog and gets attacked by some dogs. That part actually happened to me.
In 1993 I was living in a neighborhood in north Georgia that bordered on a pretty significant stretch of woods. In that area there were a lot of stray dogs who had been dumped by their owners. They had gone feral, and joined up into a pack. They’d raid the trash cans at night, and kill deer.
One day me and my non-feral dog were out jogging. We went down a stretch of road I wasn’t familiar with, and it turned out to be undeveloped lots. Apparently the feral pack thought of this as their turf. They took offense. About half a dozen of them came charging after me and my dog. They were big dogs, most of them, and they seemed quite sincerely irritated. It turned out they were just trying to run us off, but there was about fifteen seconds there where I seriously thought I was going to get mauled to death in a completely normal suburb, almost within sight of my house. It was surreal.
Later, after I changed my shorts, I thought “you should use that in something.”
Sierra: Is there any particular author or book that influenced you in any way either growing up or as an adult?
Oh, wow, there were tons. It’s probably not coincidence that I decided I wanted to be a writer right after I read Salem’s Lot. (If you haven’t read it, the main character is a writer.) I read a lot of Heinlein growing up, so I absorbed a respect for engineering and math kind of by osmosis. I doubt I would have become a computer programmer without Heinlein.
In terms of the craft of writing, I spent a lot of time reverse engineering Pat Conroy books to see what made them tick. No one does bad guys better than Thomas Harris—I know Hannibal is his most famous, but Francis Dolarhyde, the guy from Red Dragon, was an absolute masterpiece as well. I read a lot of Joe Haldeman, John Varley, anything by Neil Gaiman or Stephen King.
Sierra: Do you ever experience writers block?
I can pretty much always get something on the page, but I go in knowing that most of what I write will be thrown away, that it’s a means to an end. More often than not I’ll rewrite a chapter from scratch two or three times before I ever start revising. Sometimes that’s for mechanical reasons, because I’m trying out a new point of view character or changing the events, but I also do it when a book is starting to come together. I think you should have a picture of the whole thing in your mind when you’re working on a part, and in the early stages I often do not have that. It’s a lot of duplicated effort, but no one said this was going to be easy.
In the early stages, just to get rolling, my rule of thumb is to write whatever I’m in the mood for that day, and not spend too much time trying to force something that doesn’t want to come. Whether or not that something will ever show up in the final product is very much an open question. But I’m not often completely blocked.
Sierra: Is there an author that you would really like to meet?
Stephen King is my childhood hero, but I think he’s probably the childhood hero of half the writers my age. It’s occurred to me that probably the best way to show my appreciation for the man would be to leave him in peace.
Joe Haldeman is another biggie. I get all fanboy every time his name comes up. Every now and then he’ll do internet Q&As. Twice now he’s answered a question of mine. Also, about two months ago I was at a writer’s conference where I ran into a fishing buddy of his.
Sierra: Will you have a new book coming out soon? If so, can you tell us about it?
I’m working on one now that’s also a fantasy set in the modern world. It’s centered around a school shooting, and structured as sort of a detective story. Something happened twenty years ago, it’s not completely clear what, but it’s starting to have far reaching repercussions.
Sierra: If you could go back and do it all over again, is there any aspect of your first novel or getting it published that you would change?
A couple of internet reviewers have mentioned that the first couple chapters of the book are tough to follow. I think there might have been a little bit too much weird a little bit too quick. My editor mentioned that as well. That’s a tough balance for me to strike. I think a lot of the tension in the work comes from me, the writer, not giving away information before I must, but at the same time you don’t want to be too confusing.
Sierra: Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
Do as much as you can to educate yourself about the industry and the craft. I will buy and read any “How to Write” book that I see. Some are obviously better than others, but I always find something in every one that made it worth the purchase price. Attend workshops. Participate in critique groups.
Also, if you want to be traditionally published, it is very important to learn how the industry works. Even if you’re business savvy, you need to read up on publishing. It has lots and lots of little quirks. Some of them are historical, some of them are due to the vast number of aspiring writers trying to break in. There’s a right way and a wrong way to approach an agent.
Another one I don’t see mentioned often enough is that publishing is a weirdly small world. Word gets around. Definitely keep that in mind if you’re feeling grumpy at a conference or when blogging.
Sierra: Is there anything you would like to say to your readers and fans?
Honestly, the main thing is that I am extremely pleased and more than a little surprised to have readers and fans. Thanks to anybody who’s taken the time to try it!