A Conversation with Thom Stark
Over the past couple of weeks, I've been having a conversation with Thom Stark, author of American Sulla. Today, I'm thrilled to share our conversation with all of you. This is by far one of the most in depth interviews I've featured on this blog--or any blog. Grab a cup of coffee, sit back, and enjoy my conversation with Thom, but first, let's have a look at the blurb for May Day: Book One of American Sulla...
When the unthinkable happens … what happens next?
A nuclear weapon destroys Lower Manhattan. A million people die. Millions more flee from a gigantic, deadly cloud of fallout.
The crisis has only begun.
President William Orwell Steele and his cabinet labor to cope with the aftermath of an unprecedented terrorist attack, while a host of ordinary Americans struggle merely to survive in a world where everything has changed. From the corridors of power to the squalor of refugee camps, from world capitols to the lawless frontiers of Pakistan, from economic collapse to armed rebellion, the impact of the May Day attack swiftly spreads to every aspect of society and every corner of the globe.
May Day: Book One of American Sulla is available for purchase on Amazon.
A Conversation with Thom Stark
Tricia: Can you please tell us a little about yourself and your journey as a writer?
Thom: “Your journey as a writer.” I like that turn of phrase!
It started with my becoming a reader, of course. I was lucky enough to learn to read at the age of six. My mother used Dr. Suess to get me interested. That made learning to read terrifically entertaining, of course. When we ran out of Dr. Suess books, she switched to The Reader’s Digest, which I also enjoyed. I read my first novel about a month after I began learning the alphabet, so the process of me becoming literate went pretty fast.
I made my first attempt at original writing the following summer. It was a very short piece of fiction about three teenage boys racing their rocket cars to the launch pad where they kept their spaceship. Just pure, childish wish-fulfillment. One of the things it taught me, though, is that writing is hard. Plotting, characterization, description, dialogue – all that stuff is difficult.
I submitted my first short story to Analog Science Fiction/Science Fact magazine at the age of 12. The great John W. Campbell was still its editor then. He rejected my story of course – and rightly so, because it was both terrible and terribly unoriginal – but he encouraged me to keep writing.
I did so only sporadically, however. In junior high and high school, I never participated in school newspapers, or the yearbook, and, even when I took a creative writing course in my senior year, I did the absolute minimum of work necessary to get by. Partly that’s because I’m incorrigibly lazy, but mostly it’s because, as I said, writing is hard – and good writing is even harder.
I always assumed I’d be a writer, though. I knew I had talent, but I didn’t feel as though I had much to say, so, from the time I started teaching myself to play guitar at the age of 17 until I was nearly 30 years old, I mostly concentrated on writing songs. Alone and with my writing partner Bob Richey I hold or co-hold probably 60 or so copyrights on original songs. Some of them are pretty good.
In the late 1970’s, one of the members of my gaming circle started writing a novelized account of a role-playing game I was running. I insisted on collaborating with him, and eventually we produced about a draft-and-a-half of a science fiction novel called A Season in Methven. But I wasn’t happy enough with the result to try to get it published, life intervened, and we wound up dropping the project for more than a decade. In the 1990’s I took it back up again as a solo effort, and began publishing it as a serial on my website, but I lost interest in the story once I started writing for actual money.
That happened entirely by accident. I’d been fascinated with the Internet since I got my first dial-up, VT-100 emulation-based account in late 1992. (Back in those days, the kind of peer account we’re all used to today was ridiculously expensive: over $100 a month for 9600-baud access. And the World Wide Web was pretty much exclusively confined to the high-energy particle physics community – in fact, the one graphical browser in the entire world ran only on NeXT machines.) So, at a Christmas party for the San Francisco Netware User Group in 1995, I cornered Susan Breidenbach, then the editor of LAN Times Magazine, and pitched her on the idea of running a regular column about Internet technology and policy, geared towards local area network administrators – the primary audience for her magazine. To give you an idea how naïve I was about how the computer industry trade press worked, I figured that, if she bought the idea, she’d assign one of her staffers to write the actual column. Essentially, I was just trying to do a good deed for my peers in the industry.
To my surprise, Susan responded by saying, “It sounds like it’s worth a try. So, when’s your first column?”
This was not exactly an act of blind faith on Susan’s part. I’d written a guest editorial that fall, and it had drawn more reader mail than all the rest of the year’s guest columns put together. So Susan already knew I could write when she offered me the chance to put my verbiage where my mouth was.
Since I’ve never been one to back away from a challenge, I asked, “When do you want it?”
That column, which debuted in April, 1996, drew such overwhelming positive response that, the very day it was published, Susan called me to congratulate me on my new, regular spot as an associate editor on LAN Times’s masthead.
I spent from then until the beginning of 2002 writing for various computer magazines, ending up with a four-year run in the pages of Boardwatch Magazine. Over time, I branched out into feature stories and reviews, in addition to my regular column. Then the dotcom economy imploded. 80% of all computer trade journals then in publication went out of business – and my market went with them.
Over the next few years I kept my hand in the journalism game by writing occasional articles for local newspapers, but I mostly concentrated on writing an academic reference book I titled Plutarch’s Alexander – The Complete Reference. Then my wife was diagnosed with breast cancer, and my focus changed to being her primary caregiver. Shortly after she made it through surgery, chemo, and radiation, I contracted a condition called adhesive capsulitis that left me physically unable to use a keyboard. It’s an incredibly painful disorder. Even the slightest jolt to my left arm was agonizing. That went on for a year and a half. By the time it finally cleared up, I had lost interest in the Alexander project.
It sounds like you’ve faced some incredible challenges. What was your greatest challenge in writing May Day?
Keeping our financial heads above water while I was writing it. I conducted a couple of fundraising campaigns, first on Kickstarter then on Indiegogo. The Kickstarter campaign failed – with them it’s all or nothing, and my targeted goal turned out to be far too ambitious – but the Indiegogo effort paid off. (It had a much more modest target, but, unlike Kickstarter, it would have paid me at least a portion of the pledges, even if they hadn’t exceeded that amount.) Both of those campaigns distracted me from writing, though, so, what with them and a medical crisis for our American bulldog Wally (he came very close to dying of leptospirosis), it took me a year and a quarter to complete the first draft of May Day. Any outside demand on my attention disrupts my ability to write, and creating and managing fundraising campaigns is enormously distracting. That’s why I don’t listen to music or check social networks while I’m writing. I really can’t work without solitude and the freedom to focus exclusively on my writing.
Once the first draft was finished, I spent two months tightening and polishing the manuscript before I sent it to my editor, Hilary Lauren, author of the excellent Killing Karl. It took nearly two more months for her to edit the book, because she was working full time – and editing for me on a purely volunteer basis, to boot – but I think it was time well-invested. Hilary made a number of suggestions for changes, most of which I adopted. I think her editing greatly improved the readability of my work, especially once she succeeded in arguing me out of having characters from Boston and New York speak in dialect. I also enlisted the help of beta readers. Only one of them – my friend David Strom – gave me any useful feedback, but he pointed out an embarrassing geographical blunder (which I promptly fixed, of course), and I’m grateful to him for that.
How did you come up with the idea for American Sulla?
In late 2011, I began preparing to write quite a different cycle of novels called The Deluge. The initial one is set in 2053, so my first order of business was creating a future history of milestones in global and domestic politics, technological progress, social evolution, economic developments, and so on – all the things that would shape the world that the disaster that occurs in Deluge, the first book, would sweep away.
Among the most important of those were the events that occurred in the administration of President William Orwell Steele, and their impact on domestic and geopolitics from then on. The more I considered the consequences of Steele’s era, the more I came to understand that I simply had to write that story first – mostly because, if I waited until I completed The Deluge cycle, I’d be looking at the year 2020 in my rear-view mirror!
Do you plan to publish Deluge in the future?
Absolutely. Of course, as John Parks, my oldest friend, likes to point out, “If you would hear the gods laugh, you need only announce your plans.” But, yes, I definitely want to write The Deluge cycle. I think those books will be every bit as important as American Sulla.
The three novels of The Deluge cycle will deal with the catastrophic consequences of global warming in much the same way that American Sulla details the world-altering effects of a nuclear terrorist attack on New York. In the world of Deluge, the first book, ubiquitous automation has created global unrest among the legions of unemployed. A summit conference is convened in Brussels – and the events of the novel begin there, as catastrophe intervenes, sparking a desperate, doomed attempt to evacuate much of Western Europe. Deluge with be followed by Rim of Fire, which is set 20 years later, and the final novel, The New World, which begins 40 years after Rim of Fire, will complete the cycle.
The Deluge is based on my conviction that the Greenland and Antarctic icecaps are what used to be known as chaotic systems (the current term is “complex” systems). I’ve been saying for years now that climatologists’ predictions of how long it will take for those systems to collapse are far too optimistic – and literally every new study that sees publication further convinces me I’m right about that. The USGS estimates that, if the Greenland, West Antarctic, and East Antarctic icecaps fully melt, global sea levels will rise by 260 feet or so. The thing is, the USGS estimate does not take into account a phenomenon called “continental rebound”, which I’m convinced will add another hundred feet or so to the water’s rise. (Continental rebound will occur because the weight of all that ice has depressed Greenland and Antarctica into the Earth’s mantle. When the ice overburden is release, both land masses will rise by as much as a mile or more, displacing a huge additional amount of seawater in the process.)
If time allows (my health is poor, and declining, so I might not live that long), I may also release an adjunct, non-fiction book called The Permian Extinction, Global Warming, and You – which you may recognize from a passing mention in May Day as the book that galvanized Artemis Steele into studying paleoecology under its author, Cassandra Cayce. I’m going to wind up writing several chapters of Cayce’s book, regardless, because I’ll use parts of them as quotes, interspersed throughout The Deluge.
Once again, assuming I live that long, I plan to follow The Deluge cycle with a standalone novel called Collision, in which a two-billion-year-old galactically-distributed intelligence (which started its existence as a human being born in the 20th century) acts as a mentor to the newly-digitally-reconstituted personality of Alexander the Great. That entity, Fumu Sutaruku, and the rest of the hybrid digital/organic “human” civilization is facing the incredibly violent disruption that’s about to occur as the M51 Andromeda galaxy and our own Milky Way collide and eventually merge. (That galactic collision actually is going to occur, beginning right around two billion years from now. You can ask any astronomer about it.) I really hope I’ll have time to get around to that one.
By the way, Collision will be part of the same future history timeline as American Sulla and The Deluge cycle.
I read your book and was struck by the incredible amount of research that went into the making of your novel. How much of your time was spent researching the book? Was there any point during your research that you felt you were way out of your element, or is research something you like to do?
To take that last question first, yes, I thoroughly enjoy learning new things, so, for me, research is actually one of the perks of the job. Some of what I had to learn was more interesting than were other subjects, of course, but I regard having to study outside of my comfort zone as good exercise for my brain. I’m a collector of trivia, anyway, so spending a couple of hours tracking down the fact that the porch and steps of the North Portico of the White House are made of gray marble from Tennessee was, in a limited fashion, fun for me.
As for your first question, I estimate I spend three hours, on average, doing research for every hour I spend actually writing. For instance, there’s a scene in May Day that’s set in the VFA-47 ready room aboard the carrier John F. Kennedy. First I had to research aircraft carrier pilot ready rooms in general: how they’re furnished and set up, how many pilots use each room, and so on. Then I had to find out what fighter squadron designators are currently in use by the U.S. Navy. That’s because the F-35 CV Joint Strike Fighter has not yet been deployed – and, in fact, is not even close to combat-ready, yet – and I assumed the Navy would create new designations for F-35 squadrons, once they start being rolled out to its carriers, so the one I chose had to be one that wasn’t already in use. Finally, I had to track down a deck plan for the Gerald R. Ford carrier class – and this was at a time when the superstructure for the “island” of the Ford itself (which is the first carrier of its class) had only recently been welded into its skeleton. That all took probably four or five hours of research – and it’s all “merely” incidental detail. The thing is, though, that incidental detail is important. If people who know the Ford-class carrier’s layout, or are big Navy fighter buffs, or actual Navy pilots read that chapter of the book, I don’t want their real-world experience to conflict with my description of the VFA-47 ready room, because it will throw them out of the story.
That’s something that frequently bothers me about TV shows and movies – poor research that violates my willing suspension of disbelief. One of my pet peeves is the TV trope of “the town sheriff”. There is NO such thing. Sheriff is a county-level position. Period. The thing is, in some large cities – Los Angeles being a prime example – the city and the county occupy the same territory, so there’s a Sheriff of Los Angeles County, in addition to the Los Angeles Chief of Police. Scriptwriters who are too lazy to make the distinction tend to also make other factual blunders (treating strong encryption as being so trivial an obstacle that any hacker with a laptop and two minutes to spare can break it is a perennial) that ruin their stories for me.
I don’t want that to happen to my readers. I want to keep them reading, so getting the details right – or, at least, as right as possible without me having physical access to places like the USS Gerald R. Ford, or CIA headquarters, or the family quarters in the White House – is crucial.
As an author it’s very difficult not to insert your personal views when writing a novel. I would imagine it’s even more difficult when you’re writing a novel that touches on politics. Did you try to keep your political views from bleeding through?
Yes and no.
I like to call myself a radical centrist. (A centrist is one who believes that the solutions that offer the greatest good to the greatest number are most often found in the political center of the debate. A radical centrist is one who believes that the public discourse would be best served if the shrillest, most self-righteous voices on both political extremes were stood up against a wall and shot.) Here in Chillicothe, where 63% of the votes in the 2008 presidential election went to the McCain/Palin ticket, I’m considered a communist. Back in the San Francisco Bay area, I was accused of being a fascist. So I think my self-characterization as a political centrist is pretty much right on the money. More importantly, I’m a dedicated poltical pragmatist. As Otto von Bismarck observed, “politics is the art of the possible.” Waving your arms around and spouting off about sticking to your ideals makes for entertaining theater – but, in the real world, compromise and horse-trading are essential and unavoidable strategies for producing practical, legislative solutions to pressing societial problems. The world is a complex place – and steadily becoming moreso. Simple-minded sloganeering is, at best, counterproductive. And, politically speaking, it’s practically a guarantee of poor public policy.
I’ll be honest—May Day scared me. Though I’m not a doomsday survivalist, I don’t think the premise of American Sulla is farfetched. What is the likelihood that something like that could happen? How prepared are we for such an event?
I think it’s very likely to happen. You’ll recall that, immediately following the Russian Federation’s annexation of the Crimea, President Obama remarked “I continue to be much more concerned, when it comes to our security, with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.” I think it’s fair to say that he’s a lot more informed about the risk than you or I, so I’d say the possibility is very real, indeed.
As a country, I don’t think we’re at all prepared for such an event. FEMA does have plans for the kind of refugee camps I describe in May Day, but, as far as rescue and recovery, coping with the economic fallout, and dealing with the long-term consequences of nuclear pollution making large swaths of our most densely-populated urban areas uninhabitable, we’ve got bupkis.
May Day is very much a worst-case scenario, of course. A ground-level nuclear blast would be very dirty, but not nearly as bad as the skyscraper-contained, aerial explosion in my book. The effect of Tropical Storm Beth, which keeps the fallout cloud pushed against the northeast coastline is far different than what would happen absent such a storm front. Without it, most of the fallout plume would stream out over the Atlantic Ocean. If you look at satellite pictures of the smoke from the collapse of the World Trade Center towers following the 9/11 attack, you can see how the cloud would most likely disperse under more typical weather conditions. The thing is, in the case of a given civil disaster, the smart thing to do is to assume the worst-case scenario will occur, and plan accordingly. Otherwise, you’re just begging for a demonstration of Finagle’s Law.
For me, one of the most frightening aspects of May Day is the impact on our government once martial law is declared. Can you talk about President Steele and how his expanded power affects him?
Well, that, of course, is central to the big “reveal” as the novel progresses. Without giving too much away in advance, I think it’s fair to say that, in general, Lord Acton’s observation, “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely. Great men are almost always bad men,” will play a significant part in Steele’s character arc.
On the other hand, I think it’s important to keep in mind that the most obvious plotlines are often not the most interesting ones. Characters change – at least, the ones that survive do. That’s definitely true of the characters in American Sulla. All of them.
In this brave new publishing world where it seems everyone wants to be an author, do you have any advice for new and aspiring writers?
At the risk of seeming immodest, yes I do:
First and foremost, you must read. Read every day – and don’t confine your reading to one particular genre. Read histories, biographies, classic novels, trashy beach fiction, mythology, philosophy, poetry, instruction manuals. As Robert Heinlein put it: “words in a line.” If you have nothing else available (and, if not, why not?), read the ingredients list and recommended use instructions on the back of your toothpaste tube. The more widely you read, the more you’ll come to understand the difference between good writing and bad writing. That distinction is really important. Knowing bad writing when you read it will help you to keep from adding to the world’s already-overabundant supply of terrible prose. Reading constantly will help you to absorb the fundamental mechanics of the craft: grammar, syntax, usage, punctuation. It should also help you to gain an understanding of the basic tools of storytelling: themes, conflicts, characterization and plotting. If you pay very close attention, it may even teach you how to handle dialogue, which is harder to master than you might think.
I totally agree. It always amazes me when authors tell me they’re too busy to read, or that they don’t enjoy reading.
Secondly, you must write. Write every day – and, for pity’s sake, forget that tired, old bromide, “write what you know.” Unless you’re an experienced world traveler, or you’ve lived a long, full life, you probably don’t know much. Sorry, but that’s the truth. So, write about what interests you, instead. And don’t be afraid of research – it’s key to making your writing believable. The great novelist James A. Michener wrote more than 40 books in his long career. Most of them were family sagas: stories that spanned generations, set against the sweep of history in a particular place. Once he became rich and famous, he could afford to employ teams of research assistants to help him get his arms around details of historical events, personages, and locations that helped make his fiction come alive – and kept his titles atop the bestseller list, novel after novel. But before he became rich and famous, he and his wife did all that research themselves.
Malcolm Gladwell’s 10,000-hour rule (it takes 10,000 hours of practice to master any moderately-difficult skill) is only half-true. 10,000 hours of repeating the same mistakes won’t make you a great writer. The ability to be objective is crucial to making progress at your craft – and seeking constantly to improve your writing is critical. That goal can be elusive. You’ll hit plateaus as you go along: stretches of time where your writing just refuses to get any better. You can’t let that discourage you. Read books on writing, like Damon Knight’s classic Creating Short Fiction, or J. Michael Straczyski’s The Complete Book of Scriptwriting. Read style guides, like Strunk and White’s The Elements of Style. And read the work of great writers, while you’re at it, because they’ll demonstrate how those guidelines get put to practical use. If you can get a job as a stringer for your local newspaper – you know, the one that publishes stories about local high schools sports teams and big vegetables – do that. It’ll force you to write about a variety of topics, and your editor will force you to write readably.
Speaking of which, once you have the basics down, get feedback on your work – the more the better. Submitting stories to magazines is great for that, but you need a hide like a rhinoceros, because you’re going to get rejected. A lot. I mean a whole lot. You’re also going to get criticized by your peers. If you can’t take that, you don’t have what it takes to be a writer, believe me. Even once you start getting published regularly, critics are going to rake your poor, sensitive feelings over blazing coals on a daily basis.
Okay, I’m hanging my head in shame after reading this piece of advice. I don’t want to tell you how long it’s been since I’ve written anything. In fact, it’s been so long I can scarcely consider myself a writer.
That’s okay. Shit happens, after all.
However, back on the topic of advice to aspiring writers: please don’t, under any circumstances, write about teenage vampire romances, zombies, or adolescent wizards. It’s been done. To death. Try not to add to the Mount Everest of bad vampire porn – write something that’s uniquely yours, instead.
Here’s some more bad news: it’s getting harder and harder to find a traditional publisher that will even look at your manuscript. It’s also just as difficult to get a literary agent to take you on. The publishing world is in the middle of a major paradigm shift, from ink on dead trees to digital publication on tablets and smartphones, and it’s making the trads as jumpy as a colony of rabbits in a lion’s den. Unless you’re already famous, they simply don’t want to hear from you. It’s also getting progressively less possible to get published in magazines, because the extended recession has sucked away both their subscribers and advertisers – and it’s a truism of the publishing industry that articles and stories in magazines exist to keep the ads apart. Fewer ads mean fewer pages, and consequently less room for your writing.
Finally, please consider not becoming a writer. The late, great Theodore Sturgeon promulgated what has come to be known as Sturgeon’s Law: “90% of everything is utter crap.” I’m sorry to have to tell you this, but Sturgeon was being generous. The real figure is closer to 99%.
The fundamental problem is, as any Amazon Kindle customer who buys lots of ebooks already knows, the barriers to digital self-publication are so low that the amount of utter crap on the market is no longer limited to what traditional publishers are willing to pay to have printed. Any sub-literate wannabe can publish his or her book via the Kindle Direct program. And they do, in gibbering hordes. That makes it especially tough for writers who actually know what they’re doing, and who take the time and make the effort to do it well, because their voices get lost in the deafening clamor of talentless hacks trying to make readers pay attention to their unreadable, teenage-vampire-zombie-wizard romances.
Please don’t be one of them.
I don’t think there’s anything wrong with writing zombie romance or vampire porn, if that’s what you truly want to write. But if you’re only writing it to jump on the latest trend, don’t expect to make money at it. And, if you’re only reason for wanting to write is to make money, you’re probably in the wrong business.
I agree that you should write about whatever gets your creative juices flowing – and there are some decent zombie romances and vampire porn lurking among the vast mass of dross in those genres.
I also agree that, if the only reason you want to write is to become rich and famous, you’re likely not to be very good at it – but there are significant exceptions to that, too.
The late, great Robert A. Heinlein, widely (and deservedly) considered the dean of 20th Century science fiction, began writing after he was involuntarily discharged from the Navy, because he had contracted tuberculosis. (This was in the 1930’s, before penicillin had been discovered, and tuberculosis was then an incurable, highly-contagious disease, absolutely incompatible with a career as a Navy line officer.) While he was recuperating in a sanitorium, he spotted an ad for a writing contest. With nothing better to do, and time on his hands, he wrote a short story he called “Ordeal in Space” about a fomer spaceman with vertigo who crawls out on a high-rise ledge to rescue a frightened cat. As a lifetime, voracious reader, he ran across an article that talked about rates-per-word for various magazines, and realized that he could make more money selling his story to a magazine than winning the writing contest that sparked his maiden effort – and he knew his story was good enough that one editor or another would definitely buy it. So he submitted it for publication. The Saturday Evening Post sent him his first rejecton letter, but Town & Country Magazine accepted it, and that started him on his career as a professional writer. In his posthumously-published collection of letters, Grumbles from the Grave, he tells his agent that he chose to write professionally, even though he would have preferred a career as a construction engineer, because it was a source of income that was available to an invalid, and the other wasn’t.
Having said that, it’s worth noting that, elsewhere in Grumbles, a much older Heinlein confesses that he can’t stand to go more than 3 days without writing something – and, if he has to abstain for a week, nothing short of a novel-length work will scratch the itch.
To touch on what you said about the difficulty of finding a literary agent, did you query agents or publishers, or was self-publishing your first choice?
I did, indeed, query literary agents. One very famous one in particular. And I was quite persistent about it. Sadly, she never even did me the courtesy of responding to my queries.
I always intended to keep the digital publication rights for myself, though. The royalty rates the majors pay for digital are pure thievery, and I’m just as capable of properly formatting a book as they are – so why, exactly, would I let them keep the lion’s share of the profits?
But I’d sure like to find an agent who would effectively represent me for publication on dead trees, while that’s still a viable format. I really think May Day could and should be a bestseller. There’s still plenty of time for that, though – I’m in this for the long haul, and, once I finish War – Book Two of American Sulla, I’m going to go looking for a TV miniseries deal for the first two parts of the novel. I think I’ll get one, too.
I agree. May Day has the makings of a best-seller. I can see it as a movie, and unfortunately, it's difficult (if not impossible) to get a movie deal without an agent. Back to some of the challenges you've faced... What has been the most challenging aspect of publishing your book?
Promotion, promotion, promotion.
I thought I had a foolproof plan in offering my Kickstarter and Indiegogo sponsors a 100% refund on their purchase price for the ebook version in exchange for posting a review on Amazon. (I didn’t specify it had to be a positive review, btw – and I’d’ve paid up for even a one-star review.) Unfortunately, exactly one of them posted a review … and he declined my offer to reimburse him for his purchase.
The actual mechanics of publishing an ebook are dead easy. The hardest part is creating an arresting cover graphic – and I knew exactly how I wanted the one for May Day to look, so it was just a matter of putting the elements together for that. (However, I recommend most writers have a professional graphic artist do their covers, even if they’re certain of what it should look like. I did the cover for May Day myself only because I honestly couldn’t afford to pay anyone else to have it done for me.)
Formatting the book for publication in paperback was a little more challenging, thanks to Word’s lousy documentation and confusing ribbon bar, but my Google-fu is pretty advanced, so I was able to find the mystic spells that Microsoft thoughtfully withheld from me to do stuff like start the page numbering from the beginning of the text, rather than from the copyright statement and other front matter. Creating the wrap-around cover was another challenge, but I bested it, two falls out of three.
All of this is just more distraction from the work of completing War, though. I realize that, even if I got a traditional publication deal that included a substantial promotional budget – and most of them, particularly for new, previously-unknown authors, don’t – I’d have to do book signings, public readings, radio, TV, and podcast appearances, and other time-consuming things to get the word out about the novel, so I’m resigned to having to stay on the hamster wheel, regardless.
But, truthfully, I sometimes envy Thomas Pynchon. He never does any of that stuff, and he remains happily anonymous, more than 50 years into a career as a world-famous literary figure. It’s not so much that I want to avoid fame – in fact, I think I’d probably enjoy being famous – but that celebrity is such a time-consuming vocation. All in all, I’d rather write.
Looking back, is there anything you would do differently in terms of publishing or marketing May Day?
Given my financial resources and the lack of interest from traditional publishers? I’m not at all sure what I could have done differently. Or better. Once the book was in the Kindle store, I guess I could have made it available via other outlets, such as Smashwords, Goodreads, and Scribd. That would have cut my Amazon royalties effectively in half, though, so I was loathe to do that during the first few months, when friends and family members were buying a reasonable number of copies. Now that the initial spurt of interest is past, though, I’m tempted to suspend publication of the ebook on Amazon, and make it available on those other sites, instead.
Quite a few authors have pimped the strategy of giveaways to me, but I’m unwilling to go that route. For one thing, most of those folks write romances. Those are easy to churn out. A novel as ambitious as American Sulla is not. For another, people point to success stories like Hugh Howey’s Wool series, but, again, not to take anything away from Howey, but the freebie first volume of Wool is only 58 pages long. May Day, by contrast, is 596. That’s a huge difference in terms of the amount of work that went into the two books. Finally, there are any number of people who simply wait for a Kindle book giveaway, and then download it for free. They never actually buy ebooks. Frankly, I don’t give a tinker’s dam if any of them ever read my novel, because they’re simply parasites. They usually don’t post reviews, either, so what, exactly, do I, as a writer, get in return for giving my book to them for free?
I have been toying with the idea of using Google Adwords, but I’m hesitant to risk my very small supply of cash for that purpose. And, unless sales magically pick back up, I may have no choice but to lower the price of the book – because $3.99 is somehow just too much to ask for 596 pages of fiction (but 2.99 for 120 pages seems to be just peachy).
I did send a copy of the May Day trade paperback edition to President Obama, after he said, “I continue to be much more concerned, when it comes to our security, with the prospect of a nuclear weapon going off in Manhattan.” If I’m very, very lucky, he may eventually even see it. Some day.
What type of feedback have you received on May Day? How do you handle critical reviews?
I leave a “thank you” comment for anyone who posts a review on Amazon, regardless of the nature of that review – even if I think it’s unjustified, or stupid.
I’ve gotten everything from five-star, highly-complimentary reviews (and I thank you for yours!) to one-star ratings that, quite frankly, make no sense at all. The particular example of the latter I have in mind is one where the reviewer said it was an interesting, well-written story, with strong characters – and then complained about what he claimed were “dreadful stereotypes” that ruined it for him. Now this person did not actually purchase the book, so the only thing I can surmise is that he read the prologue, using the “Look Inside!” feature of the Kindle store, and decided that the characters who detonate the bomb on the 63rd floor of the Freedom Tower were cliched “Muslim terrorists”, and based his review on that misconception.
You’ve read the whole book, so you know that I purposefully led the reader to make that assumption early on, only to reveal that the true perpetrators were clandestine operatives for a nation-state, and that the May Day bombing was an act of covert war – an act of revenge for a botched CIA assassination, not a simple act of terrorism for terrorism’s sake.
So there’s that. I also got a two-star review from a woman who complained that my “extreme left-wing politics” ruined the story for her. Evidently, she’s incapable of making the distinction between the author’s politics and those of his characters. And then there’s the guy who said it was an interesting story, with strong characters, but gave it only three stars, because he thought it was overpriced.
My gast was completely flabbered.
What makes America Sulla different from the other novels in its genre? Why should readers choose your book?
I’m not at all sure there are other novels in American Sulla’s genre. It’s kind of in a genre of its own. Or, perhaps more fairly, it crosses several genres. It’s a political thriller, sure. It’s also a disaster novel. And it’s a war story – although you’ll have to wait for Book Two to understand just how thoroughly that’s true. It’s a work of social commentary. And it’s an epic. Just a big, big novel.
It’s also an extraordinarily deep story – we witness both the short- and the long-term effects of the May Day bombing on a whole range of characters, from those who stride the halls of power to those who pick rags from the dustbin. And, increasingly in the coming volumes, we see the global impact of that event and its aftermath. It’s not just an American story, it’s a story that actually remakes the world, before the reader’s very eyes.
Finally, I’d like to say how much I enjoyed reading your book. It’s an intelligent, thought-provoking read I would recommend to everyone. It isn’t often that I recommend a book to everyone, but with American Sulla, I feel comfortable in doing so. Where can readers go to stay up to date on American Sulla, or to learn more about you?
People who’d like to “try before they buy” can download the first 38,000 words of May Day on the American Sulla home page: http://www.starkrealities.com/Sulla.html
It’s available there in a variety of ebook formats.
Interested readers can buy the Kindle edition at: http://www.amazon.com/dp/B00FT8U6IO
or the 596-page trade paperback at: http://www.amazon.com/May-Day-American-Sulla-Volume/dp/0615915159
There’s also an American Sulla Facebook group at: https://www.facebook.com/groups/187349658059345/
I also have a Twitter account, if anyone is interested … https://twitter.com/Thom_Stark
Thom, thank you once again for spending so much time speaking with me. I thoroughly enjoyed our conversation and hope we can visit again when Book Two of America Sulla is released. Please keep me updated. I'm dying to get my hands on a copy of the book.
If anyone has any questions for Thom or would like to join in the conversation, please leave a comment below. Have you read May Day? Has your interest been piqued? I love to hear from you!