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!