Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Author Interview: Paul West

Here on The Bloody Pen, the entire month of February I've asked Paul West to guest blog. To go with his insights into the publishing world, Science Fiction and Speculative Fiction as a whole, and other things, I asked Paul to sit down for a quick session of Q&A, to which he delightfully agreed.


Here's the full interview:

RC:  Have you always wanted to be a writer, or did you start out on a different path?

PW: I definitely can't say I 'always wanted to be a writer;' the funny thing is that, despite much evidence to the contrary, I didn't even think of myself as particularly creative until well into adulthood! I say 'evidence to the contrary' because as a kid, my two first cousins and I did a lot of stuff that would be deemed creative, even by little-kid standards: we were all unusually good at sketching, drawing and modeling with clay, and we'd sit around for hours with pencils and paper and boxes of plasticine and just create stuff. We made our own comic books, created elaborate sets and made monster movies, cracked ourselves up with silly meandering stories...looking back, we were quite a creative bunch. The thing is, I was also always a geeky, cerebral kid: more than a year younger than the rest of my grade, kind of a brainiac. And when I got to college, I became even more cerebral. First Cause sort of happened by accident, in a manner of speaking.

 RC: What made you want to write First Cause?

PW: When I transferred to NYU, I was glad to be back in New York City; I hadn't properly understood how lucky I was to have such a broad range of exposure to human diversity! I switched my field of study to history/international relations, and began to learn a great deal about both subjects. Having always been a voracious reader, I absorbed a lot. I also cultivated a few friendships and relationships that really expanded my worldview, and as part of my own personal evolution, I got in touch with the fact that part of why I'd become such a bottled-up introvert in high school was because I was actually SUPER emotional. All this stuff influenced me to think a lot about what makes people tick; I began to think speculatively, and came up with the general blueprint for First Cause. It was originally, meant to be a screenplay, actually, but I realized that my writing style was more well suited for a novel. And I also felt like I wasn't quite ready to properly pursue it as a full undertaking...thank goodness I kept the notes! In the late 90s, I kind of rediscovered my creative side in a manner of speaking--specifically in the form of a 'concept album' or lyrics I wrote (mostly during various commutes), which was heavily inspired by Rush, Roger Waters and some non-mainstream hip hop. I dug out the notes I'd drafted for First Cause, and began planning.

RC: Who are some authors that have influenced you and your work?

The thing is, though, my influences were never confined to just books--I also drew on lyricists, movies, tv shows, and a lot of nonfiction. As of when I began First Cause, my influences were mainly the ones I listed above--and, of course, I'd already come to appreciate the genius of early speculative social commentary like Rod Serling's Twilight Zone, as well as some other stuff from the Cold War era. Early Stephen King was something of an influence on my writing, and 1984 by George Orwell will always be a book I think of as timeless. A short story called "The Ones Who Walk Away From Omelas," by Ursula LeGuin, might be my favorite short story of all time, and one of my favorite books is still Howard Zinn's A People's History of the United States. In the time between when I first conceived of First Cause and when I began drafting it more seriously, I became more familiar with writers such as Margaret Atwood and Sinclair Lewis. One time, at a mall in upstate New York, I stumbled onto a book called The Truth Machine, by James Halperin; I haven't read it in a while, but I remember finding aspects of it really compelling...and Blindness, by Jose Saramago, is probably in my top twenty in terms of recent fiction. Of course, some of my favorites--including Oryx & Crake, 28 Days Later, The Blind Assassin, and a few of the aforementioned--don't qualify as influences on First Cause, per se, because First Cause was mainly completed as of when I saw or read them! But I'm always on the lookout for books, movies and music that I think of as transcendent, timeless or panoramically relevant. Yes, I'm aware that was something of a meandering reply :)

Is there any of you in your protagonist?

A bit--mostly from an intellectual standpoint. I'd say there are elements of me, and people who've influenced me, strewn throughout the core characters of First Cause: Adam, Angela, Gabe, Bob, Jim, Cyrus--and Adam and I are similar from a cerebral standpoint. But Adam, for example, doesn't have some of the interests I have; he's more just a straightforwardly intellectual student of people. He's not a excitedly into music as I can be, for example, and he's a casual sports fan at best--whereas I LOVE sports. He's also of Caribbean descent, but again, the similarities only go to a point. I'm kind of a hodgepodge of several of the main characters--and some of the main characters represent aspects of people I've been tight with over the years.

What kind of reader do you think would most enjoy your writing style?

So far, the best reactions have been somewhat equally split between male and female--maybe with a slight female leaning, which I don't necessarily find to be instructive. I think fans of Margaret Atwood would like First Cause; I also think it appeals to history buffs, and people who are somewhat contemplative about the human condition. People with eclectic tastes. I don't know if there's a pigeonholed 'target audience', per se; I like to think it can be appreciated by a wide range of readers.

Could you describe your writing process?

I generally do a lot of internal processing and gameplanning; I think about a point of departure and a general idea of the flow of the thing I'm trying to write, and then I wait for intervals where it writes itself. Of course this can vary depending on the sort of writing I'm doing.

RC: Are you a plotter or a pantser?

PW: Definitely more of a plotter; especially in the parts where the story flashes back into the past, it took a lot of planning and mapping to make sure there weren't holes in the timeline or story development. If nothing else, I wanted it to be internally consistent. There were some stretches where I wrote extemporaneously for stretches, but even then, it was after a good chunk of internal processing. I'm definitely a gameplanner.

RC: What has your experience with independent publishing been like?

PW: It's been a lot of work! But so far, I'm feeling all right about it. I think I did a solid job of planning it; now it's just a matter of resources, and continued exposure. As with this interview :)

RC: Any advice for aspiring writers, or those who are looking to get published?

PW: Do your homework! There are a lot of variables, and a lot of luck is involved. But it is possible to get somewhere if you have a decent product. Make sure you write with some conviction, and I believe in having some idea of why you're going into it--whether it's to make a point, make a buck, open eyes or open doors.

RC: Do you have a favorite quote?

PW: I've actually got a document of favorite quotes, that I've been compiling for about 20 years. It's about three pages long; I'm pretty selective. Many of the chapters of First Cause begin with quotes that I chose to fit the section. The first chapter begins with the Helen Keller Quote, "security is mostly a superstition". And one of the later chapters begins with the quote by Martin Luther King, Jr.: "human progress is neither automatic nor inevitable". "The important thing is to never stop questioning" is another favorite, by Albert Einstein.

RC: What's the most recent title you've finished reading?

PW: I'm in the middle of a book about the history of the CIA. Before that, I finished Oryx & Crake near the end of 2011; I LOVED it, and can't wait to get to read even more of Ms. Atwood's work.

RC: Are there any books that you are looking forward to reading in the near future?

PW: My reading list is REALLY long. I've been thinking of picking up Mary Shelley's Frankenstein in the near future, though.

I want to say thanks to Paul for doing this awesome interview. Tune in the next two weeks for the remainder of Paul's Guest Blogs!


Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Guest Blog: The Virtues of Speculation

As the month rolls on, so do we. Continuing his guest presence here on The Bloody Pen, is Paul West's newest blog, titled: The Virtues of Speculation. Here it is:

Because of the proliferation of late-night cable schlock and special effects-driven movies with no internal consistency, science fiction has become associated with action over content, CGI over plot and green slime over suspense. The thing is, science fiction includes some of the most progressive, thoughtful and content-driven fiction of the past century.

Back in the Cold War Era, science fiction writers were among the relative few who challenged the status quo regarding matters of American society, testing prevailing notions of humanity and identity through speculation and allegory. Rod Serling used The Twilight Zone as a vehicle to explore various aspects of American society, from conformity to racism to vanity. Margaret Atwood challenged 'casually held attitudes' (as she ingeniously put it) about gender in A Handmaid's Tale. Philip K. Dick asked us to consider the meaning of humanity with Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep?, and Ursula LeGuin asked us to consider the distribution of suffering in The Ones Who Walk Away from Omelas. The 2004 re-imagining of Battlestar Galactica is an epic, layered drama that capably addresses politics, ethics, religion, ethnicity and loyalty. There are countless examples of science fiction that ask important questions about humanity, identity and society; these themes are explored in what many consider to be the original science fiction novel, Mary Shelley's Frankenstein.

Speaking of which, one might note how many of the aforementioned authors are women; this belies the conventional wisdom that science fiction is a male province. I haven't yet even mentioned Ayn Rand, whose epic novels certainly fall into the category of futurism...which leads me to my last point, something that's been addressed by Ms. Atwood herself. While I understand why science fiction was given its name--and while I understand that some science fiction (not only the schlocky stuff) is indeed science and technology driven--I believe a more appropriate, fluid and telling moniker would be 'speculative'. Speculation, about the future of human civilization and the possible outcomes of future developments, is at the heart of most of the best 'science fiction'; in fact, stories like A Handmaid's Tale and Blade Runner are more about the human condition than they are about whatever technological or futuristic development might be the vehicle for their analysis. Speculative fiction is also more ethnically diverse than people tend to assume; writers like Octavia Butler might be among the few recognized african-american authors of the genre, but fans of science fiction include a lot more differently-hued people than conventional wisdom suggests.

Conventional wisdom also fails to recognize how much speculation influences popular culture. There are lots of popular and critically acclaimed books and movies with speculative elements, even though people don't casually think of them as 'sci fi'. The Time Traveler's Wife, despite the fact that 'Time Travel' is in the title, is thought of as more of a romance than anything else. Sliding Doors, the Gwyneth Paltrow film generally known as a love story, is also an alternate-universe tale. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind involves a memory erasing device! As far as I see it, if a major element of the premise involves something that's not considered plausible in everyday life, then it's speculative. If the story centers around a love story, political drama or moral redemption, this only furthers my point: that speculation, even futuristic speculation, is an excellent vehicle for exploring the complexities of the human condition.

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Guest Blog: Why Do I Even Bother?

On the eve of the new year, I promised myself that things would be changing. One of the more major changes being this site. The first month of 2012 has come and gone, and I still haven't done anything with The Bloody Pen. Until today, that is. Enough is enough, I'm going to flip this thing on its head and start making things happen. The first of which is focusing on up and coming authors, or writers who I think have the chops to get published and make a name for themselves. My original plan was to focus on a new writer each month, but since we've already lost January 2012 to the sands of time, we'll ignore that plan. Besides, haven't you heard: February is the new January!

For the last month I've been mulling over who I wanted to feature as the first author of 2012 here on the Bloody Pen. It didn't take long for me to come to a decision. After querying Sci-Fi Guys for a review of his title, I received his book in the mail, and slowly began to devour it. When I had brainstormed for names to feature on The Bloody Pen, every single name that came up was this individual's.

So, without further ado, here's the first featured writer on The Bloody Pen: Paul West, author of the debut novel First Cause.

Paul West was born and raised in New York City; he currently resides in Harlem, where he has lived for much of his life. After graduating from NYU with a B.A. in History, he worked in the education and nonprofit world for many years before switching lanes and working in advertising and then fashion. First Cause was conceived as a screenplay idea in the early 1990s, when West was still an undergraduate; he shelved the project for nearly a decade, and began work again in 1999. Paul West is a sports enthusiast, student of people, lover of music, voracious reader and fervent believer in human possibility.

Febraury will see Paul sharing his opinions, and different aspects on the writing world, genres, and life in general on a weekly basis here at The Bloody Pen. And then somewhere along the way, I'll be doing an interview with Paul as well. But for now, here's Paul's first guest blog, entitled: "Why Do I Even Bother?"

Here it is, folks:

So after years of planning, writing, fretting, emailing, scrounging for extra money, event planning and brainstorming, I finally did it—I self-published my novel, my baby so to speak, First Cause. On one hand, I can’t believe I really pulled it off; I wrote a NOVEL, a full length novel, almost a hundred thousand words, with characters and dialogue and a beginning and ending and some ‘action’ and relationships and scenery and all that good stuff. On the other hand, sometimes I wonder why I bothered in the first place; there are SO many books written in any given stretch of time, so many of them good, so many of them bad, and if you spend much time at bookstores or chatting with ‘creative’ people (don’t get me started on whatever the heck that means), you might realize that the quality, passion, integrity or even marketability of a work doesn’t necessarily correlate with whether it gets published, ‘goes viral’, becomes successful, or even makes more than a little bit of money. So part of me asks: why bother?

Well, there really are a few different reasons—some more interesting than others—but really, what I first said some years ago and what still holds true today, is I wrote First Cause because I felt like I had to. It’s as simple as that, really, but then again, what does that MEAN? For argument’s sake, I didn’t HAVE to do anything; nobody held a literal or proverbial gun to my head, I’m not religious so I wasn’t compelled by ‘god’, so to speak, I’m not really driven by a desire to ‘be a writer’ in some lofty, pretentious sort of way, and in fact, for much of the time it felt as much like a job as anything else just to finish the dang thing in a manner that was to my liking. For much of the time during which I wrote First Cause, I didn’t have a personal computer; this meant that my edits & developments were largely manual, and as such, I had to find ways to get computer time so I could add them to my manuscript. All of this involved staying late at work to squeeze in a few minutes of typing; carrying around a floppy disk practically everywhere; carrying around a big frakin’ stack of papers everywhere as well, because in order to edit or add/drop words or ideas, I needed to have my manuscript handy as a reference point; saving, borrowing, or scraping together money so I could afford to purchase computer time at a copy center or buy paper at 10c a sheet at the local library to print when I needed to (not to mention the fact that it was sometimes hard to get sufficient computer time at the library in the first place)…suffice to say, there were times when the whole thing was flat-out tiring, and occasionally even a bit discouraging. So back to the original question, why did I bother? Why did I feel like I ‘had’ to?

The first answer is that I happen to believe, and have been told, that I’m genuinely a good writer. As such, I like the idea of being able to live off my craft, so to speak, to sustain myself doing something that I’m not only good at—but enjoy doing. This relates to the second major reason, which is that while I believe I’m a good writer, I don’t write (or speak, even, despite the fact that I can be quite a chatterbox when prompted) just for the sake of doing so—in other words, I can’t manufacture it (so to speak). So when First Cause came to me as an idea, and I bounced it around and developed it and began to feel strongly about it, it began to strike me as a huge opportunity—to live off my craft, without having to manufacture my writing in a disingenuous or forced manner. And this leads me to the last element, which is one of the main purposes of the novel: I wanted to inspire people to think more, and to care more, and to become more interested in, the human condition. For a long time, my favorite books, movies, and songs have generally been in some way concerned with trying to consider the human condition in general, or more specifically matters of social justice or interpersonal relationships or internal struggle or personal or societal evolution; reading, watching, and listening to these kinds of expression always inspired me differently than most other things, and I have long wanted to come up with a way to make a similar contribution to the world or art, thought and discussion. The thing is, once again, I didn’t want to manufacture it—do it just for the sake of doing it—without it being in a way that felt natural, that I didn’t have to force, that I wouldn’t feel was dishonest or pretentious…and I didn’t want to give the impression that I was overtly copying the style, methods, or even structure of any of the creative or intelligent people whose work I so admired. So again, imagine the feeling of having all these concerns, but wanting to find a way to contribute to the greater creative and intellectual and spiritual good, and then coming up with something that—while certainly flawed and limited in some ways—I could really channel my talent and insights towards, and write in such a way as to hopefully be happy with, even proud of, the outcome, AND moreover to have a chance at making a living based on the strength of this work. And furthermore, drafting it and planning it and beginning to write it and feeling pretty good about it and getting some encouraging feedback about what I’d done thus far.

You see what I mean? After all of the above, once I’d gotten myself to a certain point, there was just no way I could let myself give up on it. I HAD to finish it; I HAD to do my best; I HAD to pursue it. Fortunately, I received a ton of support from a ton of people along the way—moral support, financial support, creative support, and plain old love and genuine respect. Every hug, every pat on the back, every encouraging email, every email or phone call that said ‘hey, I love it!’ or ‘hey, I love it but maybe you should think about this/change this/add this/answer this’, every bit of help editing…every bit of all of it helped keep me afloat when I doubted my odds, my stamina, my resolve, even at some brief intervals my talent. In the end, I couldn’t give up on all of that any more than I could give up on the story, or myself, or my ambitions, or my desire to find a way to provoke even a small bit of extra critical or empathetic thought in my friends, readers, or anyone else.

So then, once again, I HAD to write it.

As for anyone else who’s considering writing as a pursuit, I offer this modest bit of advice: first of all, ask yourself, seriously, why you want to do it. Then consider your resources, your reference points, what you want to say, and whom you can rely on for support (again, that support can come in the form of a few lent dollars, a friend in the publishing industry, a patient set of eyes and ears, or a well timed hug; they all might factor in at some point). Consider what you want to say, why you want to say it, how you want to say it, and I think it’s imperative that you really be thorough in questioning and challenging yourself in this regard (and most others, but I digress—somewhat). And remember one thing: there are no guarantees, the publishing business is not any more fair or just than the world at large is, and you must be prepared—emotionally, psychologically, financially, and circumstantially—for the possibility that your dream of ‘being a writer’ might not come to fruition. But at the same time, if you’ve done all of the above, and can honestly say that you’ve approached the matter with a clear mind, a good heart, a sound gameplan, a fair amount of patience, and some sense of integrity and sincerity and conscientiousness—then if only for all of those reasons, you should never feel silly or foolish or misguided for putting all of that good and potentially extraordinary energy toward creativity and trying to inspire people. You just might take off, and be a bright shining star on many others’ horizons. And if not, at least you can take solace in the fact that you gave it a good shot—and if you’ve done so, in good conscience, you’ll always have something to be proud of. You never know who might be inspired by just your effort, desire and conscientiousness—even if your words only reach a few.

The only shot that never goes in is the one you don’t take, and if you honestly commit yourself to your best effort and intentions, then it works or it doesn’t, but you’ll at least have something in which to take pride.

So that’s why I bother, and that’s why, maybe, so should you.

Thursday, January 5, 2012

2012: My Year in Books

For the last several years I've tried to make a point of reading 100 books in a year. Last year I only managed read around 67 titles. Not a large number, but a little over half of my year-end goal. It was a big dent, but I, for whatever reason, didn't get around to reading all of the titles I had picked up of my own volition, or had been gifted for consideration for review for Sci-Fi Guys. Therefore, I'm going to make up for it as much as possible in 2012. Although I say that now, I can't promise that I'll get to all of them in the new year.

I can promise, however, that come hell or high water, I'm going to read 100 titles in 2012. But, I said that in 2011, and only managed a meager 67 titles read. I also said the same thing in 2011, but only got around to 75 titles. Yes, the latter was a few inches closer than 2010's list, but not close enough. Hell, it wasn't even close enough for a cigar; there was no 100, or click over to 101.

When that happens, I promise you there'll be a picture of me with a big ol' fat stogie, but until then, no cigar.

So, I've decided to devote The Bloody Pen to several things this year. In addition to reading 100 novels a year, I plan on reading a short story a day for a full year. (The short story collections will count towards the 100 novels a year). And, finally, interviewing new authors, specifically the ones who haven't managed to find a publisher yet. But, the latter two will come later. Until then, keep your eyes on a new tap to pop up within the next day or so, and a second tab to follow soon after. These will both be updated lists that will track my reading throughout the year.

And hopefully, if there's time, I'll post quick reviews of both novels and stories here, when the time permits. And whatever titles fall into the Sci-Fi Guys category will get a full treatment, and a cross post here.

This place is gunna be hoppin'; and hopefully turn into a real blog!