Author Interview — James Slater

Imagine discovering a fellow fiction writer at the place where you work. You find someone who, like you, works a day job in your building but authors books on the side. That happened to me recently, and I just had to interview him.

James Slater works at the Washington Navy Yard. He authored the short stories Tuck, Bishop Takes Night, and Ten Bucks, each published in book form. Most recently, he’s written a science fiction novel, Claustrom, the first book in a planned trilogy.

Let’s get to the interview:

Poseidon’s Scribe: Who are some of your influences? What are a few of your favorite books?

James Slater: When I was in 3rd grade, my family moved out of the city to a 4-acre property in the country in Western Washington state. It was a beautiful place, but both to my benefit and my disappointment, we had no TV signal there. I filled my spare time with reading and music, and the talents I developed as a result have served me throughout my life.

I guess I’ve always been drawn to mystery and adventure. Treasure Island; 20,000 Leagues under the Sea; and Tom Sawyer/Huckleberry Finn were all books I read more than once. When I was in elementary school, I read all the Hardy Boys books the library had on the shelf. Oh, and can’t forget to mention Sherlock Holmes and Agatha Christie. I was quite intrigued by The Murder of Roger Ackroyd. Now, I didn’t read that one again, and I won’t spoil it, but once you understand the twist, the novelty is gone. I was quite enamored with Catch 22. More recently, The Patrick O’Brian Master and Commander series and Lee Child’s Reacher books became obsessions.

P.S.: How did you come to love science fiction?

J.S.: If I remember correctly, my first science-fiction-esqe books were the Chronicles of Narnia. The fantasy of other worlds and other dimensions tickled something inside my mind. Then I read Isaac Asimov’s Foundation Trilogy. And I couldn’t put it down. I think that’s the series that hooked me. I began to scan the library shelves for sci-fi authors and read everything they had to offer. I pretty much always had a book with me. The amazing possibilities of space travel fascinated me. We’d put a man on the moon, and I was sure amazing breakthroughs were just around the corner.

P.S.:    What are the easiest, and the most difficult, aspects of writing for you?

J.S.: The easiest thing to do for me is just to write. On the days that I’ve decided to write, I always set a goal of writing 500 words, and once I start, I’ve never not achieved that goal. Often I double and triple that in a day. Now, the most difficult thing is closely related. And that’s getting started. It’s like a train. Once I’ve stopped, it really takes me tremendous energy to get started again. I struggle to budge that train, and usually my activities at work and home have an impact. I only have a finite amount of mental energy, and if I’m writing appraisals or if we’re in the market for a new home (both turned out to be giant energy sinks), my writing batteries can’t come up with the power to move that train an inch. But once I start and rediscover my writing muses, it’s like the story takes on its own life–and me with it. I’m more like a transcriptionist, struggling to keep up with the storyline.

P.S.:    Please describe your novel, Claustrom. What inspired you to write it?

J.S.: Sure. I like to call it a science fiction adventure. It’s set at the dawn of the third millennium and tells the story of three people, an accountant a security specialist and an heir to a mining fortune, who catch a ride back to Earth from a new high-tech construction project, New Manhattan. They run into some trouble and have to put down on the hostile surface of the prison planet, Claustrom. Each of them has talents and secrets, but only by working together, pooling their knowledge and talents, can they hope to make it home. I took the name from its Latin origins meaning a gate or an enclosure (think of a church’s Cloister) and modified it incidentally as might happen over time, like words that evolve over the centuries. In the end, I liked the subtle suggestion within the name of both a “claw” and a “storm.”

P.S.:    I understand Claustrom is Book 1 of an intended trilogy. When can your readers expect to see the second book?

J.S.: I’m about 80 percent done now with book two. I had intended this one to be a novella, a short prequel project started last November that would fill in some of the backstory of our Claustrom characters. It was supposed to be done by the end of November, but at the end of the month, the train was rolling. I couldn’t stop it, so I went with it. Turns out, it will be a full novel, so I’m shooting for its release in early 2018. So much for the Trilogy, eh? Moving on now to embrace the Tetralogy. I’ve outlined the better part of book three, the sequel to Claustrom, which will introduce the final book in the series. I’ve not outlined that yet and only have a rough idea of how that will play out, but I’m really looking forward to getting started on book three. The current working title is Midway.

P.S.: Where do you get the ideas for your stories?

J.S.: Hmmm. Interesting question. First, I guess I have a pretty vivid imagination. I love to entertain the fantasy of the impossible. Or, at least, the impossible as compared to what we currently perceive as reality. See what I did there? What if I were independently wealthy? What if aliens did land on Earth? What if the Earth is a rest stop on some galactic highway? Second, as I go through my day and the half of my brain that’s filling in plot holes and coming up with twists is aware and looking for new ideas. Here’s an example. One of my co-workers is from Texas, and he was telling a story about wild cougars. So my brain asks, night there not be a giant cat-like creature on a distant planet? Why not? And maybe it has a hunger–you know, for people. So I wrote it in. But check it out. That’s not the end of the story. I go to a writer’s conference, and I’m talking to author Reed Farrell Coleman, a guy who knows a thing or two about rough crime neighborhoods. So he tells me about a crime organization in New York that used a big caged cat as part of their attitude adjustment strategy for those who owed them money. Now, the book was already done by this time, so I’d already envisioned and completed that type of a similar scene. Guess it just goes to show you. Just because you made it up, doesn’t mean that someone hasn’t thought of it–or tried it before. Lots of science fiction has already become reality.

P.S.: In what way is your fiction different from that of other authors in your genre?

J.S.: I think the thing I love most about good stories, especially mysteries, is that there’s always something hidden. The parts almost make sense for a logical assessment of what has happened, but the protagonist, for some reason, doesn’t believe it. Sometimes it’s even just a single element. At the point where the secret is unveiled, the story and the stakes shift. Doyle and Christie were masters of this. Nothing makes sense until the end, and then it all falls into place. So, in addition to being an adventure, I like to have a puzzle to for the protagonist to solve. I love to read Lee Child because his protagonist, as smart and as powerful as he is, usually jumps to the wrong conclusion until he puts it all together for the finale. If the reader has figured it out by the end of the first act, the author has cheated everyone, including himself.

P.S.:    Both you and Poseidon’s Scribe have day jobs at the Washington Navy Yard, and write fiction during your commute to and from work. What are the advantages and disadvantages of that writing process?

J.S.: I think the real advantage is that it gives me an hour or two each day without interruption to read, write, edit and plan. And when I’m on, it works really well. I finished my first book in seven months this way. I guess the real disadvantage is that with other personal, family and career projects and thoughts and emotions, I can easily either get distracted or exhausted. At the end of a day, and I’m on my way home, I may look at my laptop and think that I really want to log some words, but my creative fuel is already spent. Now, I know if I can get past the first few minutes, the writing will reach out and engulf me, but some days I need to read or to listen. Other days, I put on headphones and turn nothing on. Silence, like sleep, is a great rejuvenator for me. Then I’m looking for inspiration and creating energy, not depleting it.

P.S.: On your website, you mention that the Washington Navy Yard shooting in September 2013 influenced you toward becoming a published author. Please expand on the connection between that event and that decision.

J.S.: I think I always wanted to become an author. It was just that my vision of an author was someone who made a living by writing books and had nothing else to do. Now I do a good amount of writing in my current position and had always used the excuse that I’d written so much that I was too tired of writing to write. Looking back, I think that was probably my own code for, “I don’t know how.” I mean, I joked about putting people in my book when they’d do something odd or spectacular. Then the shooting. It affected a lot of people in a lot of different ways. For me, it brought me face-to-face with my own mortality. I realized that if I waited until I retired to start writing a book, I might never finish it. So I started reading. I read like a fiend for a year. Fiction and non-fiction. Some sci-fi; some mystery; some literature. In sci-fi, I wanted to see what I was up against. Amazon now gives you that sneak peak? So I started walking through the latest and greatest contributions to science fiction. The more I read, the more my confidence grew. Clearly there were greats to contend with. John Scalzi. James A. Corey–who is actually two authors–and Ernest Cline. I loved Ready Player One. Oh, and Andy Weir with The Martian. But on the whole, the genre was littered with trash. In my opinion anyway. And I could tell by reading the first chapter. So I realized, suddenly, that not only did I have the desire to write a book, I had limited time, and my talent was, at the very least, on par with other, more established writers in the genre. I think that realization made it possible.

Poseidon’s Scribe: What advice can you offer aspiring fiction writers?

James Slater: I think there are two things. To me, an aspiring fiction writer is someone with both writing talent and a vision. My assessment is that there are many folks out there who would sell the dream of becoming a writer and would do so through selling books about becoming an author. For those, I recommend an approach with a skeptical eye. If it seems too good to be true, it probably is. Lots of people can sell books. Few can write them.

That said, I think writers should dedicate a good bit of time to reading. If you don’t have time to read, you certainly don’t have time to write.

Second, follow the rules. Novels follow a really standard structure. Following this structure will help bound the project and serve as the first step in breaking the project down into manageable bites.

Third. Write. Follow your structure. Express your style. Don’t stop. Even if it’s just a few sentences or some ideas, keep the effort going. Do it on a regular basis. It will ebb and flow. That’s a normal part of the process. You’ll get distracted. You’ll get off track. You’ll get blocked. Join a writer’s group. Expect criticism and welcome it. It’s a different point of view. Value it, but don’t let it cripple you.

I guess the final piece of advice is not to psych yourself out. Writers often bump into great barriers of self-doubt. There’s a lot of trash out there passing as literature. But if you want to be a writer, you have to write and you have to publish. If you’re struggling to make your book perfect, think of yourself not as an author, but as a perfectionist. Writers write, so think up a great story. Write it. Publish it. Then do it again.

 

Thanks, James. Great answers, and I hope to see you around the building.

Interested readers don’t have to go to the Washington Navy Yard to learn more about James. Check out his website and his Facebook page.

Poseidon’s Scribe

When and Where to Find Me at Chessiecon

You say you’ll be in the Baltimore, MD area during Thanksgiving weekend and you’re up for some SciFi excitement? Lucky you; you can meet lil’ ol’ me, Poseidon’s Scribe, at Chessiecon, a great science fiction convention running from November 24-26 at the Radisson North Baltimore Hotel.

  • On Friday at 3:00, I’ll moderate a panel titled “Is it Easier to Teach an English Major Science, or Teach a Science Major English?” about combating the fears people have about writing science fiction. I’ll be joined by panelists Michelle Markey Butler, Leslie Roy Carter, Nicole Jamison, and Valerie Mikles.
  • At 10:00 on Saturday, I’ll serve as a panelist for “Join the Mod Squad: Enhance Your Moderation Skills,” about how to serve as a moderator for panels at cons. The moderator will be Carl Cipra, and other panelists will be Don Sakers, Heather Rose Jones, and Annalee Flower Horne.
  • Saturday at 8:00 pm, I’ll participate in an Author Meet & Greet where we can chat; I’ll answer your questions and sign books. I’ll be there with other authors J.L. Gribble, Martin Wilsey, Steve Kozeniewski, Michelle D. Sonnier, and Andrew Hiller.
  • Finishing out the weekend, on Sunday at 11:15, I’ll read an excerpt from my science fiction artificial intelligence story “The Cats of Nerio-3” which appears in the anthology In a Cat’s Eye.

Go ahead—try to imagine a better weekend. I knew you couldn’t. I’ll see you at Chessiecon. In addition to super panels, workshops, art, and music, you can even meet—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Is Life Too Short for Re-Reading?

Do you read the same book multiple times? If so, why, and what does that say about you?

With Dr. Carl Sagan’s help, I’ve made the point before that the human lifespan is too short to read all books ever written. You can’t hope to read a tiny sliver of a percentage of them all. Therefore, time spent re-reading a book is time not spent enjoying a book you’ve never read.

Re-reading a book is different from ordering the same meal at a restaurant or re-watching a favorite TV show or movie. Reading a book is a significant investment in time—many hours or days—repeating something you’ve already done.

At this point, you might ask, defensively, “So what? Since I can’t read them all, why not re-read a few I enjoy? And since it will take a few days, why not spend that time doing something I know I’ll like?”

Fair points. Also, I must say, you avid re-readers are in good company. Here are the thoughts of some famous authors on this topic:

  • “Each time you re-read you see or learn something new.” Ernest Hemingway
  • “There’s nothing wrong with reading a book you love over and over. When you do, the words get inside you, become a part of you, in a way that words in a book you’ve read only once can’t.” Gail Carson Levine
  • “No book is really worth reading at the age of ten which is not equally – and often far more – worth reading at the age of fifty and beyond.” C.S. Lewis
  • “An unliterary man may be defined as one who reads books once only. . . . We do not enjoy a story fully at the first reading.” C.S. Lewis
  • “No book is worth reading that isn’t worth re-reading.” Susan Sontag
  • “If one cannot enjoy reading a book over and over again, there is no use in reading it at all.” Oscar Wilde

Reddit has an interesting discussion of this topic. Commenters cited several different reasons to re-read. Some just found it comforting. A few re-read a favorite book during the same month every year, and associated that time of year with that book.

Over at Melissa’s Book World, Melissa says she falls in love with favorite books and their characters. If forced to choose between never starting a new book again or never re-reading a book again, she’d choose never to start a new one, since she couldn’t bear to part with her favorites.

Sara Jonsson came up with 10 good reasons that we re-read, including some interesting rationales like “the movie adaptation is coming out,” and “you have a test on that book tomorrow.”

I’ve noticed the experience of reading a paper or electronic book visually is different from listening to an audiobook. It still counts as re-reading, but the experience is different.

From my research, it appears the prime reason to re-read is the comfort it brings, the familiarity of the known. However, it’s not completely familiar. It’s like trying to go back to your childhood home again, or trying to dip your toe in the same river. You can’t. The experience is different. The book hasn’t changed, but you have.

In subsequent readings, you know what will happen. You won’t have that same sense of wonder, that same eagerness for the action to advance. You have time to relish the clever foreshadowing, the subtle ways the author set things up for the climax, the techniques the author used to draw you in to loving the main character. You couldn’t have noticed these things the first time.

The difference is most stark when decades separate the initial reading from the re-reading. You’ve likely forgotten a lot, so re-reading may repeat some of the joy of a first read. Also, you’ve matured significantly; your interests and outlook have changed. You might dislike a book you once enjoyed, and say you’ve outgrown it. Or you may enjoy other aspects, less concerned with plot and setting, and more with characters, style, and theme.

I’d say reading is important, even vital. If you feel the need to re-read on occasion to sustain your love for the reading experience, then go ahead and re-read, especially books by—

Poseidon’s Scribe

Be Positive about Negative Capability

As part of our shared journey through the realm of fiction writing, let’s explore a few rooms within a stately mansion belonging to the English romantic poet, John Keats. In particular, what did he mean by the term negative capability, and how does it relate to creative writing?

photo By William Hilton – National Portrait Gallery: NPG 194

Nearly two centuries ago, on December 21, 1817, Keats wrote a letter to his brothers where he mentioned negative capability:

“…at once it struck me what quality went to form a Man of Achievement, especially in Literature, and which Shakespeare possessed so enormously—I mean Negative Capability, that is, when a man is capable of being in uncertainties, mysteries, doubts, without any irritable reaching after fact and reason—Coleridge, for instance, would let go by a fine isolated verisimilitude caught from the Penetralium of mystery, from being incapable of remaining content with half-knowledge. This pursued through volumes would perhaps take us no further than this, that with a great poet the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration.”

That may be confusing, but here’s what I think he means—If you want to be a great writer, be willing to:

  • delve into the essence of your characters (or objects, like a Grecian Urn),
  • shed your preconceived world-view,
  • abandon any search for meaning or the urge to fit things into a logical structure, and
  • accept any mysteries and ambiguities you find without trying to resolve them.

Keats praises Shakespeare for the Bard’s ability to show us his characters, through their speech and actions, as they would be, without the author’s heavy hand fitting everything into a coherent whole. Keats criticizes Samuel Coleridge for starting with a philosophical vision and fashioning poetic characters to illustrate that vision.

Why did Keats call this approach ‘negative capability?’ The Wikipedia entry offers an electrical explanation. However, I believe Keats was saying that a true poet should negate her own capability (to make judgements; detect patterns; deduce from, or induce to, general principles) and instead immerse herself in the object of study and absorb all that is there, with all its contradictions and inconsistencies.

For those of you still stuck on the word ‘Penetralium’ in Keats’ letter, let me digress a moment. The word refers to a building’s innermost part, like a temple’s sanctuary. By extension, it can mean the secret inner essence of a person—the soul. Keats thought in terms of rooms of the mind, as illustrated by a letter he wrote, which is cited in the Wikipedia article: “I compare human life to a large Mansion of Many Apartments…”

For another description of negative capability, see this video with author Julie Burstein, especially from 1:00 to 1:25. Also, check out this post at Keats’ Kingdom, and this one by Dr. Philip Irving Mitchell of Dallas Baptist University.

As for me, I take a nuanced view of negative capability, as it regards creative writing. I agree writers should empathize with their characters, to know them as directly as possible. That keeps all the characters from seeming to be slight variations of the author. I also concur writers should embrace “uncertainties, mysteries, doubts.” The worldview of any character and even the universe of the story itself don’t have to fit neatly together in every detail. The writer should approach the characters and story with an open mind, allowing things to develop as they would in their world, not necessarily in step with the worldview of the writer.

But where Keats asserts “the sense of Beauty overcomes every other consideration, or rather obliterates all consideration,” I suggest this applies to the story as a whole, not just one character. Characters are not works of art for a writer to portray, however empathetically, in isolation. They are part of a greater whole, the story, and that whole—with its plot, themes, style, setting, and characters—is the thing the writer must strive to optimize for reader enjoyment.

I hope you liked our visit to this mansion of John Keats’ mind. It’s time to continue with the rest of the tour, led by your literary tour guide—

Poseidon’s Scribe