Friday, 18 December 2009

Jeff Carlson - Author Interview

Plague Year
Plague War
Plague Zone


> Pitch the first novel in your series:

It’s a bizarre truth that most writers don’t have any say in the cover art for their books, much less the jacket copy. I’m lucky that the first drafts of both were topnotch for Plague Year. Heck, they even let me add a sentence and a half!

This is exactly the kind of book I’d pick up myself:

The nanotechnology was designed to fight cancer. Instead, it evolved into the machine plague, killing nearly five billion people and changing life on Earth forever. The nanotech has one weakness: it self-destructs at altitudes above ten thousand feet. Those few who've managed to escape the plague struggle to stay alive on the highest mountains, but time is running out. There is famine and war, and the environment is crashing worldwide. Humanity's last hope lies with a top nanotech researcher aboard the International Space Station — and with a small group of survivors in California who risk a daring journey below the death line...
> What are your favorite three books, either in the field or out of it?

If I was trapped on a desert island with only one book to read over and over for the rest of my life, it would be Catch-22. I love a good tragicomedy, and Catch-22 is loaded with great language and intricately laid timelines, character arcs, and drama.

But my favorite three books of all time? Lucifer’s Hammer by Niven and Pournelle, The Long Walk by Stephen King, and The Cider House Rules by John Irving.

I’ve read each of ‘em more than twenty times. For my money, Lucifer’s Hammer is the greatest disaster novel of all time, even surpassing King’s The Stand because in no way does it rely on make-believe or the supernatural. Don’t get me wrong. I worship The Stand and I’ve read it twenty times, too — but Hammer works harder and therefore earns better, if that makes sense.

The Long Walk is the most horrific novel King ever wrote for the same reason. Sure, it’s an alternate history story — the Nazis got the bomb in World War II — but it’s real all the way through and absolutely mesmerizing because of it.

As for The Cider House Rules, this is the kind of story I wish I could write. If you’ve only seen the movie, forget it, go buy the book. I like to think my novels are full of evocative writing and honest human drama, but, wow, Irving can really sock it to you. His other books like The Water Method Man and A Prayer For Owen Meany also capture the happy, wistful, tragic beauty of life, but Cider House is my favorite.

> In the books you’ve written, who is your favorite character and why?

It’s gotta be Cam Najarro, one of the heroes in Plague Year. He’s a survivor, quick and smart, if uneducated. He’s the Everyman in a very bad situation, terribly wounded and yet unwilling to quit.

I like that about him.

> How long did it take you to write Plague Year?

A year and a quarter — but I’m getting faster. I think writing is like any other job or sport. The more you exercise your skills, the stronger you become. At this point, I’m writing close to a book and a half in one year, and I definitely feel like my craftsmanship is improving with each effort.

> Where and when do you write?

I wish I was one of those people who could write anywhere — in line at the post office, hiking, crammed into the back of a Greyhound bus — but, alas, I’m an obsessive-compulsive freak.

I like to write in the same room at the same time of day wearing the same 49ers Hall of Fame t-shirt (I wash it regularly!) drinking from the same USSPOSCO coffee mug with the blinds on the two windows drawn into the same low pattern that allows some natural light but blocks my view of the yard.


Because if I can see too much of the yard, I’ll watch the ground squirrels and the trees and the occasional traffic on our street. A lot of my ritual is about reducing distractions and putting my subconscious at ease. There’s already plenty of noise in my head. What I want is to be able to follow the thread of whatever scene I’m working on, not contemplating the hyper kung fu moves of the squirrels.

> What was the most fun convention you’ve ever attended and why?

That has to be Denvention in August 2008. The con itself was well-organized and great fun, and, even better, my wife Diana and I left our kids at home with grandma, so we were able to sleep in for four mornings in a row. Trust me, I’d fly anywhere for the chance to sleep in for four mornings in a row.

The funny part is that half the time we weren’t even at the con itself. A lot of the pleasure I took from Denvention was the feeling that I’d finally come into my own as a pro. Plague War had just hit stores; a USAF colonel who’s a fan invited us on a VIP tour of the old NORAD complex under Cheyenne Mountain; my German editor was in town and took us out for drinks; an editor from Ace took us out for drinks; we ate with a number of other writers and editors who treated us like equals; and Diana and I drove into the Rockies for a book signing in Leadville, which becomes the U.S. capital in Plague Year, where we were treated like royalty despite visiting civil war and hundreds of thousands of starving refugees upon their small mountain town (in the book, I mean; there wasn’t room for starving refugees in our rental car).

That’s heady stuff for a guy who grew up as a serious bookworm.

> Share an interesting fan story.

The best email I ever received is from a guy who said he liked the first two books so much, he’s planning to stake out his local chain at midnight before the release of Plague Zone… wearing a hazmat suit, of course. How else will we be safe from the nanotech?

I hope the police drag him away screaming. You can’t buy that kind of publicity. :)

> What’s the worst thing about writing?

Solitude. That’s why cons are so great — you get to see real live people.

I’m someone who enjoys his own company. Like I said, there’s a lot of noise in my head and I’m perfectly capable of having conversations with myself. When the writing is going well, I really do hear voices in my head. Ha ha.

But day after day, month after month, sitting alone in a room with your laptop can be wearing. There’s no one for me to hang out with in the break room. Heck, there’s not even a break room. I’m just at home all the time.

> Which do you think is easier to write, fantasy or science fiction?

I’m not touching that one with a ten-foot-long power coupling.

> Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?

Patience and persistence. Breaking in is very tough. One of the best pieces of advice I ever received was from Anne Perry, who told me, “If you want to be a novelist, write short stories.” That may seem counterintuitive, but she’s right.

Breaking into magazines is also tough, but you can write a short story in a couple weeks or a month. With each one, you can try new a voice or style, honing your craft, receiving feedback from editors and maybe even making a few sales. A short story isn’t a three-year commitment like writing your magnum opus what-if-Ishmael-was-the-living-dead novel.

(Whoa, that’s high concept right there! Very marketable. “Call me Zombie.”)

It’s a real challenge to fit an entire story into forty pages, much less a character arc and maybe a B story, too, a subplot, so mastering the short story is like working in crash courses for novel writing.

What’s more, it doesn’t hurt to have professional sales under your belt when you approach agents — and it’s a help to an agent to have your short fiction sales to talk about when the agent approaches editors. Book editors say they can tell the difference between would-be novelists who’ve written short stories and those who haven’t. Those who’ve sold short fiction tend to be crispier in their plots and characterization.

Is that a word? Crispier?

> How many rejection letters did you get before you sold your first story?

A lot. Dozens. I still get them. Rejection is a way of life for any artist. Painting and songs and books and so forth are all very subjective. There are always going to be people who don’t connect with what you’re doing or even loathe it. Heck, there are white supremacists who’ll send you hate mail if some of your main characters have, gasp, brown skin.

The idea is to ignore the lunatics, accept the people who just don’t like what you’ve written, and enjoy the people who do.

> What are you working on now?

A big new stand-alone thriller. I can’t tell you what it’s about except to say that it’s another high concept present-day adventure — new problems, new characters — and I’m having an absolutely fantastic time with it. Right now the book is out of its infant stages but still learning to sing and dance, so I’m playing it close to the vest.

Thank you for having me. I welcome correspondence at, where readers can find free excerpts of my books, contests, videos and more.

Be safe out there!

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