Thursday, September 15, 2016

Q & A with Tash

The following is a Q & A that originally appeared on The Bookie Monster blog. It has been reprinted with the permission of the blog's owner, Tash. The original post can be found here.

Q: Hi EXO Books! Thanks for taking part in this Q & A with me!
A: It is my absolute pleasure, Tash.
Q: The Last Day of Captain Lincoln is your debut novella. How did you come up with the premise?
A: I never meant to be a writer. I had just graduated law school when the financial crisis hit at the end of 2008, which took out my high paying new job along with it. This sunk me into a pretty deep funk, unemployed and listless for almost all of 2009. I felt like a massive failure, even though none of it was my fault.
And then, BAM. Life struck again. My grandmother Helen was diagnosed with cancer. Being the oldest grandchild from a close-knit family, this second blow was even worse. This was the first death of someone truly close to me, and it was extremely difficult to watch my strong willed grandmother wither away.  And she fought gallantly, slowly wasting away in the hospital bed installed right in the living room of the house that my grandfather had built with his own hands, surrounded by family. It was tragic and yet beautiful all at once.
I started writing The Last Day of Captain Lincoln at my grandparent’s kitchen table, just a few feet away from my grandmother during her last few days of life. I guess I was trying to put myself into her position, wondering how I would react if the same gruesome deadline were placed on my own life. What became the bones of the story poured out of me. Lincoln’s anguish was my anguish. Lincoln’s search for meaning among religion and art was my search for meaning.
Career prospects improved over time and eventually I got back to being a lawyer–what I earnestly thought I still wanted to be doing with my life. Yet I had been bitten by the bug, as they say. Captain Lincoln remained lodged in my mind. The notebook filled with ideas on my desk became notebooks. The next time unemployment came I hit the ground running, further expanding the story. Then my father died unexpectedly, another massive family tragedy, but also more fuel for what was turning out to be a very emotional little novella. And then my grandfather died, in some ways a spiritual and emotional bookend to everything. I poured all of it into my little book.
Looking back through it all, a gut-wrenching journey that I’d never expected to take, it’s still a bit surreal. I am a writer because of failure. If it wasn’t for both career failure and a tremendous family tragedy at the same time, I wouldn’t be sitting here now, writing these words that you’re reading. But for these hard times, I wouldn’t be the person, and the writer, that I am today. For this reason I consider myself very lucky to have found writing when I did. I don’t take it for granted.  
Q: I mentioned in my review that I felt like the novella was a love letter to Earth. What made you decide to mention the cultural references that you did, especially in regards to the choice of music?
A: Well as I mentioned, Captain Lincoln’s struggles were my own struggles, so many of the songs and poems reflect that (Mozart’s Requiem, Paint It, Black by the Rolling Stones). These were songs I was listening to myself. I was also discovering many of the poems and quotes found in the book during this time.   
In a larger sense, even though the story takes place on a spaceship almost 1,000 years in the future, I wanted it grounded in a reality to which readers today could relate to. Hence many of the cultural references. A book about dealing with great loss, I think it turns out being a love letter to a great many things.
Q: Your novella explores Captain Lincoln battling with his own mortality and I feel like it’s a prevalent theme in the book especially one that I came away with. Was this deliberate and if so did you want the reader to come away with this theme above the others?
A: For sure. I figured out my problem very early on in the writing of this work. Lincoln was dying at the end—that was the main premise upon which everything in the book is based. So right there that took away the ability to have, say, a surprise ending. It also messes up the chance for any really suspenseful plot line, since I knew I wanted Lincoln to go out with grace in the end, no matter what his inner struggle was. What that left me with was what you say, the battle with mortality.
Q: You’ve mentioned that you have further plans to expand on this Universe. Will any of the characters in The Last Day of Captain Lincoln be making an appearance or will you be focusing on past/future generations?
A: I think that my one original thought when it comes to my writing was to create a frame story to tell the thousands-years-long journey of an interstellar spaceship. It’s not even that original, really, since it was a second reading of Isaac Asimov’s Foundation which keyed me on to this approach. In the most basic sense, a frame story is a series of stories which combine together to tell a much larger tale. Think about The Canterbury Tales, or Cloud Atlas as a contemporary (and far more complex) example. Inherent to this story within a story approach is certainly some sort of continuity across plot and/or characters.
So I wouldn’t expect anything more from our dear old Captain, but I can tell you that a young Helen plays a small role in the next novella we’ll put out. Captain Adam (the first captain, mentioned several times) has his own novella, and I have a whole series of novellas following a generation of children on the Ship. And of course the one recurring character in everything is the Ship itself, a sentient consciousness which you’ll learn more about.
Q: I’ve recently completed a University degree in writing and I’m torn between a variety of genres. How did you know you wanted to be a writer, and in particular how did you know you wanted to write specifically science-fiction?
A: Well as I mentioned, I never wanted to be a writer, but once I’d started there was no going back. There is certainly a writing bug. As you’ve probably already experienced yourself, there’s a tremendous therapeutic value in putting pen to paper, pouring it out. It’s a combination of release, as you wrestle with all of the things floating around in your mind, with that cathartic buzz of creation, then wanting to share. And now I can’t stop.
The Last Day of Captain Lincoln was the very first thing I’d ever written on my own volition—writing coming from just me alone, because I wanted to—but I can’t say that I ever made a conscious decision to write science fiction. It just came out that way. But thinking about it now, the reason seems simple enough: I am a writer because I’ve always been a reader, and I’ve always enjoyed science fiction most of all. I am also a scientist too, with an undergraduate and master’s degree in Biology (before I was a lawyer), so maybe I’m the wrong person to ask.
Q: In your novella, Captain Lincoln and seven others are part of the Zeta Alpha generation. If you could choose seven other people to journey through space with (they can be people you know, authors, musicians, living or dead etc) who would you choose and why?
A: Tash, you are killing me! This is a great question which I’ve been agonizing over for days now. So, I cheated! Even though I am positive that my spaceship could easily facilitate communication between anyone who’s ever lived on this planet, I am going to limit myself to English speaking people only–thereby eliminating some potential stalwart picks like Buddha and Jesus and Helen of Troy. I also thought hard about including my father, who died suddenly, and who I feel like I still have a lot to say to, but I decided against this route in the spirit of creativity. The last restriction I put on myself, true to form of the Ship, is 4 boys and 4 girls. So, without further ado, here are my shipmates:
1. My wife–I married this smart, wonderful, beautiful woman for good reason!
2. Paul McCartney and 3. John Lennon: Reunited, and it feels so good… I am a massive Beatles fan, so I couldn’t resist. To my mind, Paul McCartney is an absolute genius when it comes to melody. Combined with the lyrical and almost existential genius of John Lennon, the two lads from Liverpool will ensure not only a melodious ride as we travel Across the Universe, but a rollicking fun one as well.
4. Lucille Ball: I thought hard about bringing along Lady Gaga, appealing to my super fan wife, but screw it—it’s my ship. I’ve been watching I Love Lucy since I was a kid. This is going to be one fun ass ride!
5. Julia Child: We all have to eat of course, so why not bring one of the most influential chefs along with us and eat like kings and queens? I also love to cook myself, so it would be an amazing experience learning side-by-side, chopping vegetables next to one of the best. Not only that, but Julia Child was an all-around bad ass! Born in 1912, this woman was a college athlete in the 1930’s, a spy in WWII, and a world traveler, all long before she ever got on TV.
6. Kurt Vonnegut: My favorite writer. To me it’s his combination of wit and wisdom with intent that makes him so impactful. He was an observer of the human condition, a bit of a moral philosopher, and a poet. And like so many great writers, he led such a rich life outside of writing; from his experiences in the War which permeated almost all of his work, to a life mostly dedicated to other people. Another person from whom I would learn tremendously.
7.  Hedy Lamarr: This last one was tough, but coming down to a ship with a bunch of flaky artist and writer types, I figured we’d need someone who could actually fix something, need be! Ms. Lamarr was not only a talented and beautiful actress, she was also a brilliant inventor too. She’d be a tremendous asset to our motley crew.
Honorable mentions (women): Amelia Earhart, Ursula Le Guin (my sci-fi grandmother), Sally Ride, Mae West, Billy Holiday, Nina Simone, Hannah Arendt, Susan B Anthony.
Honorable mentions (men): Carl Sagan, Martin Luther King Jr., Albert Einstein, Abraham Lincoln, Thomas Paine, George Orwell, Isaac Asimov.
Q: There is a point in the book where Captain Lincoln sees Lady Liberty submerged, and the metal from the Brooklyn Bridge has been salvaged. Both of these images reminded me of disaster movies and novels. Would you ever consider writing a post-apocalyptic science-fiction novella/novel?
A: NO! Well, never say never I guess, but personally I am so done with all of this post-apocalypse stuff everywhere you look. It’s easy to see where it all comes from, whether it’s The Hunger Games or Divergent or every friggen zombie movie–there is a growing darkness in this world, mostly fostered through greed and fear, which most of us can feel. The one positive message I see from dystopian literature seems to be the rising up part–the “I (or we) won’t take this shit anymore” revolutions–and there is certainly value to that.
But to me, the vast weight of post-apocalyptic literature and movies are so disappointing because it’s all the same. In virtually every case it’s the breakdown of civil society with the predictable result: because shit hit the fan, it’s okay to be assholes to one another. I’m not interested in that at all. It’s not only been so overdone at this point, but in my opinion the primary message that the vast weight of post-apocalyptic storytelling is giving people is unacceptable. Contrary to what some may think, dystopia is not inevitable. And no matter what happens, no matter how dark it gets, we cannot lose our humanity, our regard for one another as fellow human beings. Darkness doesn’t defeat darkness. Only light can win.  
And this is in complete recognition that many if not most of the real heavy hitters of science fiction have a strong dystopian bent, from 1984 to Brave New World to Fahrenheit 451, and more. It’s just that for me, as a writer living here on planet Earth in 2016 AD with all the problems I see around us, I just don’t want to go there. I want to stay more on the protopian side of things, as a counterbalance to the descending darkness. For as depressing as things can seem, we mustn’t lose hope that we can make the world a better place, that things can be turned around by clear perception and conscious intent.
I collect quotes, if you couldn’t already tell in my writing. I think that this one says it pretty well:

Because I remember, I despair.

But because I remember, I have a duty to reject despair.  

Elie Weisel
Nobel Lecture, 11 December 1986 AD
Oslo, Norway, Earth

Q: If you don’t mind carrying on the tradition of one of the final questions of my Q & A, could you tell me what you’re currently reading?
A: I tend to switch off between fiction and nonfiction, roughly 2:1. Right now I am reading a nonfiction book called Homicide by David Simon. It was a gift from someone because of a shared love of Simon’s amazing TV show The Wire, and not something I’d typically read. I’m enjoying it though, despite the general grisliness of the content. The book was a precursor to the show, so it’s interesting for me as a writer to see how some of the true life characters and situations eventually made their way into show, how they changed, etc.
I’m also reading some fiction on the side–mostly to cheer myself up. I prefer short fiction over anything else (I write mostly short fiction too), and so I picked up The Best American Short Stories of 1963 at a flea market for a couple of bucks. Alas! Nothing good so far, though the collection isn’t without its lessons.
First of all, it reiterates how subjective short fiction especially can be (an important lesson, since I have a short story which I think is great but that has been rejected from a few of the sci-fi mags). It’s also instructive as a window into the times. I find most of the stories inside not only extremely straightforward, but generally nostalgic for times past (there’s quite a lot of “cowboy” stories in there, ie). This makes sense, as 1962-63 was obviously just a little before the tumultuous times that were about to start. It’s very interesting to me as a writer to see how fiction seems to change with the times. In “good” times, peaceful times, our stories tend to be far more linear; more straightforward in both plot and meaning. In darker, more complex and ambiguous times–like we’re living in today–our stories tend to change to reflect that complexity and that ambiguity. It’s important as creative writers to understand this point.
Q: Thank you for answering my questions, EXO Books!
A: Again–my absolute pleasure. Thanks for the opportunity, Tash.

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