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Wednesday, July 17, 2013

GUEST INTERVIEW WITH MICHAEL R. FLETCHER, AUTHOR OF '88'

Cover Artist: Jeff Minkevics
I RECENTLY FINISHED READING Michael R. Fletcher's debut novel, 88, published through Five Rivers Publishing. The book is gritty and violent, and  deals with the depths to which human evil can fall, as well as the innocence and helplessness it preys upon. Despite the dark themes, I found myself rooting for 88, Michael's autistic eight year old protagonist. Her journey of survival is fascinating, and by the end of the book, I wanted to know more about how her life evolves. Michael also talks about his journey to becoming a published novelist. I suspect you'll find his very honest replies both surprising and refreshing. I did. 

1). To start off, Michael, tell us a bit about 88 in a brief description: 88 is an autistic eight year old girl who is turned into a computer to serve the business needs of the South American mafia. She's bright, but her autism makes it difficult for people to realize just how frighteningly intelligent she really is. Griffin Dickinson, a Special Agent for the North American Trade Union (Mexico/US/Canada unified under a single government for purely economic/corporate reasons), is tasked with shutting down the black market crèches where children like 88 are raised. Joined by Nadia, a state-sanctioned reporter and Abdul, the ghost of a dead Marine inhabiting a combat chassis, Griffin is drawn deep into the shady underbelly of the brain trade.

2). How would you describe 88 in terms of genre? A lot of people are describing it as dystopian, so I suppose I'd have to go with that. I don't see the world I created as hopeless, just a natural and (sadly) logical progression of current events.

3. What was the inspiration for the book? The initial inspiration was born out of a three-day drunk in Matamoros, a small town in Mexico just across the border from Brownsville, Texas. While lying on the roof of a rented car I'd put 2,861 kilometres on, I noticed the street was lined with dentistries. At the time, I thought it odd, but the visual stayed with me.What if all those dentistries were neurosurgeries instead? What if an epidemic of brain cancer drove neuroscience at a fantastic rate? Though none of that made it into the book, that was the original inspiration. During the course of writing the novel, I also listened to an awful lot of death metal. I wanted the book to be fast, to move. Each time I found myself writing an action scene, I'd put on the most blistering angry metal I could find. And then I tried to keep up with it.

4). When did you start to write 88, and how long did it take you to finish it? I started writing 88 back in 2008, while my soon-to-be wife planned our wedding (totally brilliant on my part; I might still be in trouble). At the time I was working nights as a studio and front-of-house sound engineer, recording albums and mixing bands at clubs, going deaf, and losing my mind. I worked nights mostly and had my days free to write. The first draft took about a year to complete and was written in classic manic/depressive style. I'd crank out a few thousand words a day, and then write nothing for days or weeks. My writing (quantity, not quality) was very much influenced by what I read. If I read something amazing, I'd get depressed and think, I can't do this, and stop writing. If I read a garbage book, I'd get excited and know I could do better. I probably spent the best part of six months editing and pestering friends and family to read it. When I felt it was ready, I went after the biggest publishers first. That was an eye opener. Most wouldn't even look at it unless I had an agent. I'll get an agent, I thought. Easy! Right. I'd never been published—not even a short story—and I'm not sure agents took me (or 88) seriously. I spent a year writing and rewriting plot synopses and cover letters...and got nowhere. Obviously I needed to be published to get published. How hard can it be? I wondered.  I'll just write a bunch of short stories and then try to get 88 published once I've got some credentials. A year later, when I was about to call it quits on short stories and writing in general, On Spec bought one of my stories, a little tale called Artificial Stupidity. It took almost another year to sell my second story, Intellectual Property to Interzone. After that, I sold stories to Daily Science Fiction (Character is What You Are), Heroic Fantasy Quarterly (Death at the Pass, and Death and Dignity), and the Arcane II Anthology (Fire and Flesh). Ha! I thought. Now they'll look at my book! Wrong! I spent another year chasing agents and getting nowhere. Eventually, I decided to completely change my approach. Instead of chasing the big money, I researched small publishers, trying to find which would be the best home for my book. During my search I discovered Five Rivers and immediately liked Lorina's views on the publishing world and how it is changing. The rest, as they say, is history. Over the course of roughly a year, we bounced the book back and forth several times during the editing process. The Five Rivers editors were amazing, never willing to say, 'it's good enough.' They wanted the best book I could write and they were willing to break me—and incidentally, to teach me how to write—to get it. I'm still learning. 

5). What were some of your most difficult moments when writing the book? What were some of your best? Doubt was my biggest hurdle. Never having previously written anything—much less a novel—I had serious doubts I could finish something of that magnitude. Then there was the question as to whether I could write something anyone would want to read. I was reasonably sure I had a neat idea, but that's such a small part of any book. I have two favorite moments: the first occurred about halfway into writing the novel. I suddenly realized I'd lost control. I didn't know how the book would end and who (if anyone) would survive. 88 had taken on a life of its own and from that point on I was just along for the ride. Very exciting! The second favorite moment happened on the day I typed The End. I'd done it, I'd written an entire book. It was an amazing feeling of accomplishment. I knew then I had more books in me. 

6). 88 is smartly written, the world extremely believable in terms of the future technology presented, the span of global big business (both legitimate and otherwise), and the potentials of military and para-military forces. What did you bring to the book in terms of your own background and life experience? What kind of research did you have to do to give the book such a high level of believability? Thanks! I am an imaginative thief and blessed with some very smart friends. I stole a lot from them. One is a tinfoil-hat-wearing-conspiracy-theorist-nuclear-physicist who works for a massive financial institution. I picked his brain mercilessly for ideas on where our civilization might go in terms of politics and economics. And then I muddled it all up with my complete lack of understanding (and total lack of interest) in those topics. I'm also a research junkie. Google is my friend. I researched the mafia and their structure. I researched current military hardware and made guesses as to where it might go based on what I thought sounded coolest. I researched the military to make sure I got the ranks and pay-grades correct. I used Google maps to make sure I got all the streets and directions correct. I wanted a high degree of realism and was willing to spend the research time to achieve it. I have two monitors hooked up to my computer, one for my word processor (Libre Office) and the other for research. I probably spent more time researching than writing. In short, I know nothing about anything and researched everything. Anything that didn't come from research I made up. 

7). You make many references to 16th century Japan and the way of the samurai. Your writing reflects a solid understanding of combat and martial arts. Do you also have a background in these areas? I'm a Black Belt in watching MMA on TV. If the combat scenes work, it's because I saw them in my head before writing them. After that, it was just a case of capturing that vision and making it understandable. I wanted the reader to see what I saw. I started the novel with very little knowledge of 16th century Japan, but one of the characters, Archaeidae, demanded it. To make him the character I wanted him to be, he had to know a lot about feudal Japan, warlords, and tea ceremonies—which meant I had to know it too. 

8). Combat chassis, walking battle tanks where Scans like your character Abdul inhabit robotic hardware, are the perfect killing machines. Many of your future tools of destruction (jumping spider mines, etc.) are vivid and evocative. In terms of the military technology we now have, can you comment on what is cutting edge in terms of intelligent present-day combat hardware? Were any of these an inspiration for you, or was it more of a case of letting your imagination lead you to create these future weapons of mass destruction? Definitely a little bit of both. Most of my friends are physicists and engineers. I wanted to write a book they'd read and think was cool. That meant I had to get the technology right; they're merciless. Most of the tech I used is based on stuff that already exists (the Jumping Spider Mine is the future Bouncing Betty). Some of it, like hyper-kinetic flechette weapons, already exists but isn't yet common knowledge or is still in the R&D stage. Occasionally, if I wanted something a little crazy, I just made stuff up like the ShivaIV—designed to knock suborbital weapons out of the sky by disrupting their atomic and molecular structures. Even then, I did research and had conversations with very smart, educated people so as not to come up with something silly or totally unbelievable. 

9). Your character, NATU Special Investigator Griffin Dickinson, seems to me to be a perfect foil for your antagonist Mark Lokner. I feel as if they are symbols for the best and worst that humanity has to offer. Was this a conscious decision on your part, or did they just evolve that way as characters? The funny thing is, I created the character Miles to be that foil. His fear of choices and commitment and general unwillingness to get involved was to be a balance for Lokner's iron certainty. Miles however had very different ideas as to where his character should go. All of the characters evolved very organically, which might not be as good as it sounds. I suspect a little planning would have made things easier. My character notes for Griffin, for example, said something like He has grey hair and drinks too much. That was it. And then I dropped the drinking part because I forgot to write it in. I hate good versus bad stories. The idea is silly. No one is the bad-guy in their story. Everyone does things for reasons that make sense to them. The difference between a visionary and an evil tyrant (or political/historical figure of any kind) is who writes their press releases. I suppose the answer to your question is no, this wasn't a conscious decision. I certainly wasn't thinking of either character as a symbol. I wanted Griffin to be imperfect, to have issues. Not even a flawed hero, just some guy who hasn't done much with his life and is painfully aware of the fact. I hoped by the end of the book he'd be someone else, changed by his experiences. 

10). I love that 88 begins as a crèche child. I immediately feel sympathetic and protective towards her, and yet, as the story progresses, she becomes so powerful that she could be described as a formidable no-longer-human intelligence. Normally, such alien-like intelligences are seen as threats to humanity, but I still root and hope for her. What was your inspiration in creating 88 as a character? Why did you choose to make her a highly functioning autistic little girl? This one is a little difficult to talk about without giving too much away, so I'm going to be vague. The autism was useful because it hid who and what 88 really was. Many people with Autism/Asperger's have difficulty processing sensory information; too much and they shut down/retreat inwards. When 88's keepers removed those distractions so as to make her a better computer, they freed her. Had they left her a little girl, she would never have been a threat and would have spent her life in poverty, examining cracks in the floor and thinking thoughts no one would ever guess. I like that humanity creates its own worst enemy out of sheer greed and ignorance. 

11). Are you working on the sequel? If so, can you tell us a bit about it and when its release might be? I'm currently working on a skeletal plot outline and putting far more effort into planning the book than I did with 88. I'm hoping this will make the actual writing part a little easier, but I have serious doubts. The sequel, 88.1, will start July 8th, 2034, the day after 88 ends. Beyond that, I'd rather not say. I have a lot less writing time these days—being a work-from-home father is amazing but time consuming, often leaving me with very little Brain—so I can't even begin to guess at how long it will take to write the sequel. I'm currently editing Beyond Redemption, a very messed up dark fantasy novel, and that is my focus. My hope is to get it ready to send to Five Rivers within the next month or two. After that, I should have a few months to focus on 88.1 while they slaughter my fantasy novel and send me the tattered and bloody remains to fix. It's funny. I thought, Ha! I've written a book! I'm finished! I couldn't have been more wrong. It's all about the rewriting. This time, when I finished the first draft of Beyond Redemption, I thought, Ha! Now I can start rewriting.

(Thanks, Michael. For those of you who like dark and gritty dystopian science fiction, I can't recommend 88 enough.)

Next Post: Happy 25th On Spec! Announcing our 25th Anniversary Anthology through Tyche Books!

Stay tuned.

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