Friday 7 May 2010

J. A. Pitts - Author Interview

Novel: Black Blade Blues

What's the premise of Black Blade Blues?

This book is about understanding the world for the way it is, even when it's a surprise. We spend so much of our lives wishing things were different, that we were different, that we often miss the beauty of the world around us. Be who you are. Embrace yourself, don't measure your worth on the opinion of others, and never pretend something is what it just isn't.

Blacksmithing's an unusual career. How did Sarah get into it?

It more or less found her, honestly. Interesting back story that I'll write some day. She went to college, got a degree in English and was trying to figure out what to do with her life. Her father wanted her to come home, get married and have kids. She went to a Renaissance Faire and met a weapon-smith and she fell in love with the craft. The smith suggested she try farrier school as a

way into the trade. She decided to go on a whim, as much to spite her father and not return home as anything. Along the way, she fell in love with the craft.

What are your favourite three books?

Tough call. I'm still in love with the Lord of the Rings, but that's the foundation for my love of reading. I read a lot of series. If I had to only pick up new books in a series right now, I would go with Patricia Briggs' Mercy books, Carrie Vaughn's Kitty books, and S. M. Stirling's The Protector War series. I'm a sucker for urban fantasy and post-apocalypse stories.

If I had to pick three books that impacted me the most growing up, I'd have to start with Runaway Robot, by Lester Del Ray. This book introduced me to science fiction and drove me to seek out more. John Carter of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs, both for the swashbuckling adventure, and because my grandmother loved them before me. And finally, I'd have to choose Hamlet, by Bill Shakespeare. My senior English teacher would be surprised to learn how big an impact the Bard had on this boy from the wilds of rural Kentucky. I have not regretted one second of Shakespeare's beautiful language and story.

What made you want to be a writer?

Story. I've been a voracious reader from way back. I remember getting my first library card when I was five, and convincing the librarian that I should be allowed to check out more than the limit of 2 for a kid my age. I checked out seventeen books, and had them all read by the time I got back the next week. I just love story, all kinds, and I learned early that I was a story teller. It's a gift. Going from oral telling, to writing is not a very big step in my mind. Besides, I wanted to share all the cool things that I thought up.

If you could, would you change places with any of your characters?

I tend to be pretty rough on my characters. I'd be afraid, I think, to live in their shoes. Sarah is a winner, tough and strong willed, but she suffers more than I ever want to. Maybe I'd like to be one of the rabbits in “Chasing Peter”. It’s a story of a derelict generation ship and the menagerie of critters that have evolved to explore the confined wasteland after all the humans have died out. It's a fun story, with AIs and adventure. That might be fun.

I love my life. I wouldn't mind being thinner and younger, but overall, battling zombies, mutants, aliens and/or robots -- like I have in some of my short stories -- is not my cup of tea. Being hunted by giants, trolls, witches and dragons like in my novels doesn't appeal to me very much, either. Oh, but the adventure. There is something appealing about that. So, maybe, if only for a little while.

If you could live in your fantasy world, would you?

Absolutely. In a heartbeat. I'd love to find out that there really were dragons out there. Or that goblins and elves lived in the between places. I'm all about having adventure, but like a good hobbit, I'd prefer to be home for dinner.

Would you live in somebody else’s?

Same answer. I have a lot of worlds I'd love to explore. Can you imagine taking holiday in the Shire with the hobbits? Taking long walks through the countryside, eating all the great food. Or visiting the elves? Can you just hear the singing?

Don't forget the adventure... battling orcs in the wild lands? Always knowing the right thing.

Or maybe getting to go to Hogwart's school, living in an alternate world of magic? Who wouldn't love that?

And space travel. Oh, man. Travelling between stars. The possibilities are overwhelming. Where do I sign up?

What was the first novel (published or unpublished) that you wrote and how long did it take to write it?

Redneck Elves -- currently unpublished. It took me about a year and a half to write it. I got bogged down part way through and had to set it aside. Finally, I broke it back out and spent a summer pounding out the words. It was a very exciting time. I proved I could write a novel. That experience alone is worth every second of work.

What was the hardest scene for you to write?

There's a scene in Black Blade Blues where my main character puts herself in a pretty stupid position. It is a critical scene to the book, but it was difficult to gauge the level and intensity to show just how bad a place she was in, without offending the reader's sensibility. Luckily I have an excellent editor and an equally excellent agent who both gave me tips on softening it enough to still be powerful, and not lose the reader.

The scene is significantly better than I first wrote it. I'll leave it to your readers to figure out which one it is.

For me, the hardest scenes are the most powerful, as long as I don't pull back. If I start a scene that is hard and cut it short, or give it a light touch, I'll feel it. I know I'm close to something very important and frequently highly emotional. That's a sure sign of something good. I let myself walk away from those scenes if I have to, but always go back to them and try and do them justice.

If you still have one, what’s your day job?

I'm a computer consultant. I'm counting the days until I can be a full-time writer.

What is your university degree in and does it help with your writing?

BA in English with an emphasis on Creative Writing and a Masters in Library and Information Science. They are good degrees, but as a writer, I wish I'd taken more history. There is a significant portion of my writing degree I've had to unlearn to be able to write the kinds of stories I love. That took a while to parse out. Honestly, the instructors were great, it's all about what you are ready to learn at the time. That's why I'm a believer in being a life-long-learner.

When and where do you write?

I can write most anywhere, but usually I write in my office. Most of my first novel was written at the dining room table. It's a very cool table. We bought it unfinished and my wife wood burned it in Celtic motifs, stained it and finished it. It's a place of joy and very good energy. I can write in coffee shops, malls, anywhere. I may need to put on my headphones to get a soundtrack running and help block out the world, but I'm flexible. Black Blade Blues, and the first sequel, Honeyed Words, was written in my office.

As for when, any time I can. I write in the cracks. Mornings, afternoons, nights. I have a wife, 2 kids, a career, I do Tae Kwon Do, and I'm studying to be an outdoor specialist with the Girl Scouts. Mostly I write between 8 - 10 pm.

What’s the best/worst thing about writing?

Best thing about writing is having written. I love when I finish a project and can sit back and relish being finished. The worst, for me, is the second draft. It's that moment when you realize you can say and do anything, literally, anything that comes to mind, and yet, you want it to be the best thing that could happen in the story. It's frustrating having so many possibilities sometimes. When I got questions from my editor, that was easy.

What is something you didn’t know about the publishing industry before you had your first book published?

How long things take. My time from first phone call to published book is faster than average. There are books published quicker than mine was, but on overage, the length of time to get everything done is astounding to me. And the funny thing is, I can't see where you could cut out time. Each stage is so critical to the overall process, that to scrimp anywhere would hurt the final product. I feel very lucky to have the help and support of some spectacular people -- they've been forthcoming on why things take the time they take. It's all logical. Just surprising.

Do you have any advice for hopeful authors?

Write. Write. Read and Write more. Oh, and submit your work. You are not the best judge if your story is good enough to sell. Make it as good as you can, and send it out to an editor who will pay you money. Money flows to the writer, never, ever the other way around.

Any tips against writers block?

Find a soundtrack. I can put on Pink Floyd's Dark Side of the Moon and my writer brain flips on like a switch. It's something I've trained over the years, but it works for me. Also, I've started outlining my novels and I find that a HUGE help for avoiding the "muddle in the middle" I've gotten in the past. With both Black Blade Blues and Honeyed Words, I didn't get stuck at all as long as I followed the outline.

How do you discipline yourself to write?

With a leather strap. No, I just had to make it a priority in my life. I played Everquest for almost five years, loved it. It gave me story. One day, I realized if I put the time I was using for television and online gaming into my writing, I could really do something with it, instead of just putzing around. I started selling almost immediately.

Really, just set a daily word count to reach for. A friend of mine writes something like 200 words a day, every day. 250 is a page. One page a day is a novel a year. It comes down to setting achievable, short-term goals.

How many rejection letters did you get for your first novel or story?

My first novel has had only one rejection. Black Blade Blues had none. I've sold short stories with as many as twenty rejections. It's all about persistence and tenacity. Keep writing, keep sending, relish the rejects. They show you that you are working the process. I have one story, “F*cking Napalm Bastards” which got rejected over and over again. Editors told me I'd never sell the story with that title. I listened to them for a while, changed the title and kept racking up rejects. Finally, after a workshop where folks read some of our work blind (no idea who in the group wrote them) I found out many people loved the story. I put the original title back on and sent it back out. I've sold that story twice now. Never give up, never lose hope.

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