Thursday, October 4, 2018

The Accidental Zombie: An Interview with Mark Bessey

by Silver Webb


Mark is one of those writers who, to all appearances, is sitting quietly in the corner, writing code, when in reality he is unleashing a wry humor into stories, usually about zombies. His flash fiction "You Get Used to It" sent zombies stumbling into Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal. Because Mark has a great sense of humor, I veered into weird and unusual interview questions, and he rose to the occasion.

Silver: What is the appeal of zombies and why do you write about them?
Mark: Zombies have a fascinating history in American media. They are the go-to stand-in for whatever the general population is afraid of at the time. The 1950s zombie movies were about the Red Scare, and the early 2000s saw the rise of Jihadi stand-in zombies, and now... well, that’s interesting. We have a lot of different zombies now.
     One reason I started writing the zombie stories I’ve been working on is that I thought it would be interesting to explore some themes around a “zombie apocalypse” that happens in more of a slow-burn fashion over years (or decades), rather than in a week or a month, as has been the case in much of previous zombie stories. In a world concerned about Immigration policy, the failure of the Millennial generation to "leave the nest," and other generational issues, I thought it’d be an interesting area to explore.

Silver: In twenty years, what do you hope to have accomplished as a writer...novels? particular awards?
Mark: Mostly, I want to have my stories published, and to have people read them and (hopefully) laugh at my jokes. I don't have a novel in progress (well, technically, I do, but haven’t worked on it in a year), so for now, I’m focusing on short stories. I have a bunch of short story ideas set in the same “universe,” so maybe that’ll grow into a novel.

Silver: What are you working on now? 
Mark: Besides the zombie short stories, I have a project that I keep coming back to. It’s a trans-humanist interactive fiction project, exploring the question of what it means to be human, and the responsibilities that the next evolution of the human race has toward those of us left behind. It’s likely going to end up as a sort of visual novel, though I’m still experimenting with game-play ideas.

Silver: If you won the lottery, what would you do?
Mark: I’d probably be the most boring lottery winner ever. I’d take the one-time distribution, pay off my mortgage, and put the rest into mutual funds until I figured out what to do with it. Ultimately, I’d end up giving most of it away to charity. I have been extraordinarily fortunate in my life, already. I don’t need more money to feel better about myself.

Silver: What do you think about when you’re alone in your car?
Mark: Mostly, I think about work. That’s kind of a cop-out, since the vast majority of my time in the car is spent driving to and from work. When I’m on longer trips, I tend to think about what I’m seeing along the way. Sometimes those things make it into my writing, like the literal dust devil I saw that one time.

Silver: What’s your favorite 80s song and why?
Mark: Probably Weird Al’s “Dare To Be Stupid.” He out-Devo’d DEVO at the height of their powers. It’s an amazing little time capsule of 80’s culture. And in retrospect, it’s a pretty damning indictment of the culture that lead to our current world.

Silver: If you could transform into any animal in the world, what animal would you be and why?
Mark: Probably a Brown Bear. I feel like bears are the animal I see having the most fun out in the wild. They get a lot of time to think about their poetry every winter, too.

Silver: What is your most embarrassing moment from high school?
Mark: I don’t really know. Possibly having to explain to my parents that the reason I was in danger of not graduating was because I *forgot* to serve a detention I got for an utterly stupid reason.

Silver: What is the oddest thing that has ever happened to you?
Mark: Funny thingI’m actually working on a book about the odd things that have happened to me. It’s really hard to pick out *one* oddest thing. In terms of truly unique experiences, it’s probably the time I took a Zeppelin ride down the California coast with Buzz Aldrin.

Silver: You’ve been given an anteater. You can’t give it away or sell it. What would you do with the anteater?
Mark: Is it an Echidna or a South American Anteater? That really makes a huge difference. The true anteaters of the southern Americas are much more cuddly, but also potentially much more destructive. We have a nice little courtyard in our house which could pretty easily be made anteater-appropriate. And the local Argentine Ant mega-colony would probably keep even a Giant Anteater well fed. We’ve got a local dog park which has a number of downed trees, so I think I’d probably end up spending more time at the park with both of the animals.

Silver: If you could be any superhero, who would it be?
Mark: James Robinson’s Starman (Jack Knight). I’ve always thought that the “reluctant superhero” was the only kind that made any sense. There are probably people out there who’d be all “I can shoot laser beams from my eyes? That’s AWESOME!” at the end of their origin story, but the more realistic reaction for most of us is probably along the lines of “Oh, great, now I have to deal with all this costumed hero crap, AND hold down a regular job?” Also, Jack has an obsession with old things, which definitely resonates with me. In a parallel universe, there’s a version of me who owns an antique shop. In my case, the antique shop is probably filled with music boxes, farm tools, and Victorian automata.

Silver: A penguin walks through that door right now wearing leiderhosen. What does he say and why is he here?
Mark: “Guten Tag”maybe it’s that they’re always wearing a suit, but I have always taken Penguins to be very serious and formal. If I saw a penguin walk through my door, I’d assume they were lost, and try to direct them to the beach, using Google-translated German.

Silver: What would the name of your debut album be?
Mark: “A Series of Unlikely Events”

Silver: If you were a Microsoft Office program, which one would you be?
Mark: Microsoft Project. Everybody thinks they recognize me from somewhere, but they can’t quite remember where from.

Silver: What is your favorite food?
Mark: Pizza is, as far as I’m concerned, the best evidence we have for the existence of a benevolent creator. It’s an entire food pyramid, in conveniently-transportable form. And it’s delicious.

Silver: What was your best McGuyver moment?
Mark: Probably the time my Jeep overheated in the middle of nowhere, and I rappelled down into a ravine using a bunch of random rope-like objects we had with us (cargo ties, maybe a belt and some bungee cords), to get water out of a mountain stream so we could limp back out to the highway.

Silver: What is the last book you read?
Mark: John Scalzi’s Head On. He’s probably the writer I want to be “when I grow up.” Consistently funny, and hugely productive.

Silver: If aliens landed in front of you and, in exchange for anything you desire, offered you any position on their planet, what would you want?
Mark: Artist-In-Residence. I lack any kind of confidence in my ability to RUN anything in an alien society, but my nu-metal cover of ”Mary Had a Little Lamb” is, I guarantee, like nothing they’ve ever heard before.

Silver: If Hollywood made a movie about your life, who would play the lead role?
Mark: Probably Michael Cera or Tom Holland, depending on when they get filming, and what period of my life they decide to focus on. I feel they both are pretty good playing at the wide-eyed innocence that has been my stock-in-trade for essentially all of my life.

Silver: What would drive a person to put nutmeg in literally every dish they make?
Mark: As my lovely wife can attest, I’m very easily influenced in my shopping habits by the end-cap displays in stores. I happened to be at the local market when they were having a promotion on bulk spices. I ended up buying half a pound of nutmeg. Now, nutmeg is a pretty strong spice. After you’ve made it out of eggnog season, 8 ounces of nutmeg starts looking like a lifetime supply. So, I’ve been experimenting with expanding my use of the wacky evergreen spice. In a hearty stew, it blends right in. Sprinkled over vanilla ice cream? Not so much.

Silver: Name the three greatest dangers of living in the Midwest.
Mark: Weather, weather, and weather. When I moved to California, a couple of my relatives asked me “Aren’t you worried about earthquakes?” and I just had to laugh. My cousin’s house was nearly destroyed by a tornado (it got the doghouse out of their yard!),  I know several people who lost parts of their fingers to frostbite, people drowned every year on the great lakes in bad weather...and everybody’s worried about me getting hurt in a once-in-a generation event?

Silver: How often do you write and what inspires you to do it?
Mark: As I suspect is true for many writers, the answer is “not as often as I should.” I have always been a bit jealous of writers who say that they’re compelled to write. For me, writing has always been *hard* work, and I feel like I have to wrestle with myself to get anything written down most of the time. But sometime, sometimes...an idea does take hold, and I can sit down and write for a couple of hours, and it feels totally natural. I’ve been setting aside time to write every Monday, which has been somewhat more successful in getting some writing done every week.
     A lot of my writing starts as a little vignette, or a scrap of dialog (dialog is the one thing I actually find “easy” in writing). I usually write a scene, and the story comes from figuring out how these people got here, and where they’re going.

Care to see Mark's work in print? You can purchase Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal here.

Thanks to a successful career in tech, Mark escaped the hustle and bustle of the strip mall infested Silicon Valley for greener pastures in Santa Barbara. When he’s not writing about the impending zombie apocalypse, he enjoys zeppelin rides, using too much nutmeg in everything he cooks, and hunting for ghosts in abandoned mining towns. You can read his thoughts on technology issues on his blog, www.codemines.blogspot.com, or follow him on Twitter at @mbessey. 

Wednesday, September 26, 2018

An Excerpt from "Pests"

Pests

by S.M.C. Wamsteker
from Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal

A high-pitched smack shatters the stillness the retreating night leaves behind, a loud hissing its apparent echo. “Vile insects!” A broken housefly tumbles to the ground.
“Off to more beautiful things,” he whispers and descends the wooden staircase with measured steps. As he arrives in the dusky hallway, he flips up the Bakelite light switch on the faded wallpapered wall. He closes his eyes and deeply inhales the mildewy scent that drifts in subtle wafts from behind the kitchen door. A smile of contentment appears on his still-swollen morning face. He never used to get this puffiness before, not even when he still drank. And he did drink, especially towards the end. Drink to recover from the endless workdays. Drink to get through the time he had to spend with her. Drink to forget the empty waste his life had turned out to be.
He takes a hold of the handle and opens the door a sliver. Through the crack, his eyes scan the space behind it to find the object of his anticipation. For an instant, he fails at detecting it in the lingering early-morning dark. Something has changed. His mind adjusts and focuses on the correct location. The bed of dark brown leaf matter at the far left end of the room is dotted with newborn lilac pinheads that have attained an ultraviolet hue with the bluish morning light coming in through the kitchen windows. A warm ecstasy passes through his body and settles in his groin.
He opens the door wider and enters the kitchen, which looks like a graveyard full of freshly interred caskets. The kitchen table is taken up by a man-sized crate structure full of soil. Virginal white spheres are strewn over the moist black earth like so many little moons across a night sky. Blue plastic wide mesh buckets hold an abundance of perfect white stalks that have pushed their grey disc-like heads through the holes. Moldy wood stumps are positioned haphazardly throughout the room. A few are residing on the sink’s cracked marble workspace. Some, barely recognizable as pieces of tree trunk anymore, erupt with tiny lacquered porcelain umbrellas; others are almost entirely covered with fleshy beige cushions. Still another is decorated with a fringe of bright yellow funnels looking up in silent expectation.
Unable to take his eyes off of the compost pile at the far end, he gathers his robe, which has come loose, revealing his worn off-white underpants and soft hairless potbelly. He approaches the crate with the lilac protrusions in the soil. A small sign attached to the side of the container reads Clitocybe nuda. With tender reverence, he gazes at the tiny bulges, passes his fingertips gently over the mauve caps of the wood blewits, and closes his eyes.
“There you are,” he sighs, “finally.” He stands for a few minutes, relishing the sensation of their velvet skins.
Since her departure, he’s felt a peace he never experienced before. She was always so present. She didn’t understand.
They look so still, but they never really are. Something is always brewing. How often has he been caught off guard by their sudden appearances? Or, perhaps even more so, by their unexpected demise, when their ephemeral beauty is replaced by unsightly goo? The quiet transformations. That’s what fascinates him the most.  
Taking a deep, complacent breath, he opens his eyes and looks out at the woods that are beginning to stir, the solitary song of a wood thrush announcing a prolific day breaking.
After downing his breakfast, he walks towards the sunroom, where he takes the latest Mycology Digest from the coffee table and sits in his worn leather recliner. He likes to be here when the day dawns. On the cover of the magazine is a breathtaking picture of a Clathrus ruber, one of the several mushroom species that are less likely to be recognized as such. It resembles red coral, with branch-like protrusions and a pale red color, but the Clathrus doesn’t fan out at the top; its shape is like that of a rounded red cage that emerges from a white egg, the volva, in the ground. This one is captured in early morning, the freshly emerged sunlight refracted by the dewdrops perched on its alien arms, its shape still flawlessly oval.
To him, the odor of this wondrous creation resembles the musky sweet smell of the secaderos in the Spanish mountains, where the hind legs of the acorn-fed Bellota pigs are hung inverted from the ceiling to cure, while the fat drips away and is collected in small white cones stuck into the meatiest part of the leg. The tour of the cure houses in Guijueolo, Salamanca, was the only part of the Spanish holiday she made him go on that he really enjoyed. Vacations are a waste of time and energy. Without holiday travel, he is convinced nobody would ever again be ‘too busy.’ He only agreed to join her on this one because it was their twentieth anniversary.
She had always known about his social phobia, and accepted it. In a way, it had made her feel special.

***

Even with his entire kitchen and garage occupied by an exceptional collection of cultivable fungi, which he can contemplate from every possible angle, he has an insatiable hunger for more images.
However, he does have his preferences. Miracles like the Clathrus ruber he admires from an aesthetic point of view, but nothing brings him more pleasure than a strapping bolete on the cover. The perfect curves of the usually chestnut-colored cap, tiny yellow or cream pores peeping out from underneath—just a sliver, like the scarce pubic hairs of a teenage boy sticking out of his too-small swimming trunks—if too much is visible, he knows, death and decay are not far off. The strong and fleshy stipe, rising proudly from the moss.
Of the boletes, the Boletus luridiformis or dotted stem bolete, which has bright red pores, is his favorite. The vermillion of the pores, so strikingly unlike the gills of other mushrooms, is like an invitation to him. Towards the end, she caught him, once, while he was servicing himself over the picture of an especially well-shaped specimen. Her reaction was outrageous, of course, but nothing worse than could be expected of her. She uttered words like “aberration” and “unsound” and issued threats of psychotherapy, involuntary confinement. Well, he can’t help thinking, chuckling to himself, look who’s confined now.
For a while, he reads. Mostly things he already knows. About how fungi can clean up the world. How they absorb heavy metals that have contaminated the soil in certain areas, especially those surrounding abandoned metal smelters. Apparently, some even grow in areas that have become seriously radioactive because of a nuclear disaster and simply “ingest” the radioactivity.
Sure, we pump all these toxic chemicals into the earth, and what do we do? We let nature herself clean the mess up. His heart palpitates with angry agitation, but admiration takes over and puts him at ease again.
He recalls an afternoon when he saw some puffballs growing on a dead fox, slowly decomposing it. Disassembling it into its original elements. Truly the great cleaners of nature.
His peace is enhanced by the knowledge no one can disturb him anymore. There is a phone in the house, but he had the landline disconnected. She had still been around when he did, but he never let her know. When she noticed the line was dead, he told her he’d already called the phone company.
“Yes, uh, I’m on it. Some wiring problem… it must have been caused by that, um, thunderstorm we had last week.” She had accepted his explanation, probably because she had a cell phone. She never felt safe, all alone in the woods.


***


After reading long enough for the sun to have fully risen, he climbs the stairs to dress himself. Sitting on his bed, he takes off his slippers. He tries not to look at his feet, but he has to. The white is coming up between his toes now. Thin white veins of dead skin find their way to the upper part of his foot. If he spreads his toes, he can feel the skin crack, and tender pink patches reveal themselves underneath the white scales. At first it had been invisible—if he chose not to look at the soles of his feet, but it was spreading to the dorsal surface now.
Without the painful itching, he would have been fascinated. A while ago he had taken a piece of effected skin and placed it in a petri dish to see to what extent it would grow. It didn’t.
When she discovered the white spots on his feet, she had gone off on him.
“I’ve had it! They’re taking over our house, our life, even our bodies.” She assumed her characteristic domination stance, her voice carrying that tone of excited anger. “I mean, they’re everywhere! The walls in the kitchen have black mold, fruit rots in front of our eyes, bread doesn’t last more than a day.”
He had been too hurt and stubborn to tell her that any fungal growth wasn’t caused by the mushrooms, of course, but by humidity.
“You have fungus growing on your feet, for chrissakes!”
During those moments, he always remained completely silent. Her voice grated on his nerves to the point where his jaws would clench. Always trying to get him to say things.
Dismissing the memory, he rises and gets socks from the cupboard. He has started using cotton ones, but they don’t seem to make a difference. Antifungal creams are out of the question, as he fears they might pose a risk to his population, and the same goes for any “natural” remedies. He tried rubbing vinegar on his feet, but it stung the raw spots fiercely, and when nothing had changed after a week, he decided to discontinue the treatment. Besides, he was afraid that acidic traces from the vinegar might harm the fungi. Any substance that could possibly be detrimental to the result of so many years of diligent work was banned from the house.


When he started using the kitchen for cultivation he’d had dark shades installed on the windows. Mushrooms are not fond of direct sunlight—in fact, most of them don’t need any light at all.
One evening upon returning from work he’d learned that the shades had been up all day after she had failed to roll them down in the morning. It had been a sweltering day, and the mushrooms in the beds near the windows had suffered. The following day, about half of all the fruits growing in the kitchen had disappeared—but even worse, the beautifully knotty mycelium inside the jars he had inoculated with spores of Tricholoma matsutake, the edible and very rare red pine mushroom, had dried out irreparably.
She had apologized, but not really. “It was such a sunny day, for once I didn’t feel like obscuring the entire kitchen for the sake of a few vegetables.”
At that time, the kitchen still retained its original function, and only held half the number of fungi it does now.
“And you know what, I opened a window, and the dampness has gone too,” she had added triumphantly. “Those moldy jars with dead plants don’t smell as bad anymore.”
Getting nauseous, he barely managed reminding her that the kitchen needed to be humid and shaded for the fruiting of fungi.  In a choked voice he told her, “First of all, um, mushrooms are not vegetables, and the ‘moldy jars with dead plants’ you refer to, hold, uh, the s-s-spores of a very rare edible mushroom.”

“Oh well.” She had shrugged and rolled her eyes. “You never eat them anyway.” Not long after that, she was gone.
......
Curious to see what happens? You can read the rest of "Pests" in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, available here.



Although she is Dutch by birth and living in Amsterdam, English is S.M.C.’s language for writing fiction. It’s her creative language. The foundation for this was laid during the four years she resided in Los Angeles, where she moved to pursue an acting career. Instead of making her an actress, however, the city forged her into the shape of a writer.

Before she moved to Los Angeles, she lived in Santa Barbara. It didn’t throw her around the way L.A. did, but it still occupies an important part of her heart. She had the opportunity to go back last June, to attend the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. After bidding farewell to her acting career, she returned to Amsterdam to study English literature and become a journalist. She was a reporter for several Dutch newspapers.

Fiction is a truer love, however, and she finished a novel titled LA Diary or The Dark Side of the Sun. At the moment, she is working on a screenplay for a Dutch film company and researching a new novel.

Tuesday, September 11, 2018

Delightfully Sinister: S.M.C. Wamsteker

An Interview with S.M.C. Wamsteker
By Silver Webb


S.M.C. is the kind of writer an editor prays will submit her work. “Pests” was published in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, a story awash in spores, murder, mushrooms, and ghoulish impulses that might, after all, be perfectly natural. The intelligence and careful plotting of her story is all the more remarkable given that English is not her first language, but rather something she chose as an adult to be her form of creative expression. Coffee and water fuel this Dutch-Californian writer of sinister tales, although she admits to the occasional drop of Jack Daniels. Her zodiac signs are Cancer and Dog, virtually guaranteeing a loyal, deep-feeling friend.
You can find Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal on Amazon here.

Silver: Where are you from originally and how has it influenced your writing?

S.M.C.: I was born in Haarlem, a city on the outskirts of Amsterdam, The Netherlands. I’ve lived in Holland most of my life, and this undoubtedly influences my writing; not just my use of the English language, but the subject matter as well. Having said this, I’ve never considered myself very Dutch, and the first time I visited the United States it felt as if I was coming home, even if it was also a rather brutal culture shock. It felt so ‘right’ that I decided to come back and live in California for years, with the objective of becoming an actress.
Although quirky, Holland is a moderate country, and I guess I’m not. I thrive on the extremes that can be found in America, both the good and the bad, and its work ethic. I like to set almost unattainable goals for myself, and that’s not a very Dutch quality. My father, who was an internationally renowned surgeon, did show me the way, in that respect. 

Silver: What do you hope people will feel like after reading your work? Are there particular emotions you hope to elicit?

S.M.C.: Not really. I hope they enjoy it, and that it’s strong enough to engross them. If people are enlightened or inspired by my work, that would be great, but I don’t mind if they’re freaked out by it. As longs as it elicits some kind emotional response. Apathy would be bad. But then again, I’m not sure if I would mind that either.
Considering my mushroom story, there is a particular sensation I was aiming for. I would call it: horrified exaltation. It’s the feeling I myself get when reading a story by Edgar Allan Poe or Roald Dahl. That delicious anticipation you feel throughout the story that something’s going to rattle you, and even though you were expecting it, when it’s finally there, it still gives you chills.

Silver: When were you first gripped by the determination to be a writer of fiction and what was the inspiration for it?

S.M.C.: Although I never realized it, or identified it as such, I’ve been writing since quite an early age. It never occurred to me that it might be something that I would do for a living, or that I was any good at it. Just a subconscious need to write down what cannot be said, something that plenty of teenagers experience, I suppose. When that need presented itself more fiercely at the time I was living in Los Angeles, I still didn’t see it as anything other than mental flatulence. Just things that needed to be expelled, that I needed to get rid of, digest. And such a wide array of madness happened when I was living in LA, there was a lot to digest. One time, as an impulsive act, I sent out a poem to a contest, and to my own astonishment, I won third prize. Later on, I discovered that the organization was one of those moneymaking scams, but that doesn’t matter. It was the spark that ignited the belief in myself as a poet and writer.

Silver: How often do you write? Are you driven to do it?

S.M.C.: Yes, the drive, or need, as I like to call it, is there. And I can’t attend to that need often enough. My two kids are a source of inspiration, new wisdom, and so much love and joy, but it’s a constant struggle to find enough time to work.
Actually, it’s not the amount of time. It’s the lack of head space; to write, you need a certain level of egocentricity, or maybe just the ability to close off all distraction. And that aspect is at odds with being a good parent. To make things worse, my standards are unnecessarily high, I’m a perfectionist, which doesn’t make me a better mother, but does occupy a significant part of my working mind.
There’s this dichotomy of wanting to give your all both to your work and to your children. It’s impossible, but I find it hard to accept that impossibility. It doesn’t help that I really like my children and love to spend time with them. Fortunately, I have an amazing husband who pulls more than his weight, so that helps; but it can’t erase this gnawing sense of having to be available all the time. On the other hand, having children is also incredibly enriching, opening up new avenues and offering many insights.
But to answer your question a bit more concretely: a good week consists of five days with three or four hours of writing each. I also get distracted easily, which I regard as both a weakness and a strength, because it’s a way I pick information from a wide variety of realms.

Silver: Where do you find inspiration for your characters?

S.M.C.: Everywhere. In daily life, on TV, in newspapers, in books, on Facebook, pictures, ads. Most of the time, however, my mind gets to work with the information received and suddenly presents me with an idea. A character can arise from a single thought.

Silver: How would friends describe your personality?


S.M.C.: I think they would say I am a loner, with whom it is hard to keep in touch. They would probably say I am opinionated and passionate and sometimes belligerent about issues that I feel strongly about, for example my conviction that there is no real difference between women and men, or homo- and heterosexuals. They would probably say I’m a libertine and a bit strange.

Silver: Are you ever satisfied with your work?


S.M.C.: Sometimes. But Doubt is always lurking. I can read some of my work and be proud of it one moment, but detest it the next. When a piece is finished, I usually don’t like reading it again. As if I have let go of it. That’s why rewrites are hard for me. When enough time passes, I often regain my appreciation for what I wrote.

Silver: What’s the wildest adventure you’ve ever been on?

S.M.C.: That’s a tough one. Experiences are almost as basic a need to me as food and drink, so I have a serious collection of adventures. I like to explore the darker, dangerous side of life, of humanity. I’m not talking skydiving, but wandering around Skid Row in Los Angeles, for example, which I did as part of the research for my novel, LA Diary or The Dark Side of The Sun. My wildest adventure would be the four years I lived in Los Angeles to become an actress; I did some crazy stuff there.

Silver: Are you in a writing group and how has it affected you?

S.M.C.: No. I am too bullheaded for it. Once, I was in a poetry workshop in Sligo, Ireland, where I attended the Yeats Summer School. We were supposed to give feedback on each other’s poetry. A guy there thought my poem was too old-fashioned, and that I should use modern language. I told him the old-fashioned tone was the whole point of that particular poem. It turned into a stormy discussion. Neither of us was right or wrong, but I decided to stop going to the workshop and this became a bit of a riot. This poet-guy even followed up on my ‘atrocious act’ by sending me a long letter that very eloquently summed up all my shortcomings.
The thing with these groups is that people feel the need to find fault with whatever is presented, even when they don’t have any criticism. You can’t just like something. They teach that in schools. As if having a critical mind means you need to criticize. I want to add that my experience with these groups in the US is different; Americans tend to be more positive and constructive. I guess Europeans are critical by nature. But I really dislike criticism for the sake of it.

Silver: Are there any particular authors that inspire you?

S.M.C.: All my life I’ve had trouble choosing, and only recently I accepted that, most of the times, I don’t need to. I admire a wide array of authors, ranging from A.M. Homes and Jonathan Frantzen to Stephen King, Jack Kerouac, Margaret Atwood, Douglas Adams, Edgar Allan Poe, Jonathan Saffran Foer, Joan Didion, Zadie Smith, Nathaniel Hawthorne and all the Romantics. I’m not particularly fond of Dutch literature in general; it contains a certain asceticism. I love rich, colorful and descriptive writing. Sometimes an austere writing style can work really well, but as an overall property of Dutch literature, I don’t like it.

Silver: Any forthcoming or in-progress novels, poems, books, etc.?

S.M.C.: I have a finished novel, LA Diary, or The Dark Side of the Sun, and I hope to publish it soon. In the meanwhile, I’m working on a screenplay, and researching a new novel. Three of my poems are featured in the Spring/Summer edition of literary magazine The Stray Branch.

Silver: What do you find most gratifying about writing?

S.M.C.: The moments when words or ideas come out that you never knew were there. Those moments when you feel you’re channeling something higher. When you know something needs to be written. It makes you feel insignificant but also less alone, part of something bigger. Getting lost in the story. Some people describe it as ‘being in the flow.’

Silver: Your short story had so many details about mushrooms. What kind of research did you do for that and are you a mushroom fan? Having written this story about murderous mushrooms, do you still eat mushrooms?

S.M.C.: I have always been fascinated by mushrooms, but I did quite a lot of research. I love doing research, learning new stuff, especially about natural phenomena. Sometimes I research a single word or name, it has to be perfect; it’s why I’m a slow writer.
Mushrooms are pretty amazing; they are not plants, and they are not animals. They are like earthly aliens. And yes, I still eat them. One time before my extensive research, I was in the forest with my children and saw these gorgeous porcini. I will only go for boletes, because none of the boletes are deadly poisonous. Still, the first time I picked them, I only ate them myself, after sauteing them. I waited for twenty-four hours and when I still wasn’t dead, or throwing up, I let my family eat them. They loved it. So I’m very careful when collecting wild mushrooms. But the deadliness of the poison of some of them also fascinates me; it’s creepy how the death cap works. And extremely intriguing, why does it need to be so deadly?

Silver: The lead character for your mushroom story is a very neurotic, twisted character who has a carnal relationship with mushrooms. He gripped me quite vividly, and his demise was quite satisfying. What inspired this character and how did he evolve?

S.M.C.: Well, some parts of him came out of me. Being around other people is something I like at times, but it inevitably draws energy from me. I once heard someone’s definition of extrovert and introvert people: extroverts get energy from being around other people and introverts get energy from being alone. The latter is definitely true for me. So I can relate to someone being a hermit, although I don’t think I would ever be one.
His lust for mushrooms is rather deviant. Personally, I’m not sexually attracted to anything non-human, but it seems to me that something you love so much, which you dedicate all your time to, could also evoke physical sensations, especially when a ‘normal’ sexuality is absent. The cap of a newly emerged bolete does feel like velvet.
Many of the Latin names for mushrooms are suggestive of the sexual organs of humans, like Amanita Phalloides (meaning phallus-shaped). And, as the name indicates, they resemble them: some look like human vulvas and many have a phallic shape, especially when just emerged. I tried to create a twisted character that the reader could nonetheless feel sympathy for; to me, his wife seems quite aggravating at times.
Creating him, I was inspired by a short story by Roald Dahl, called Royal Jelly. I read it in high school and it made a lasting impression on me.

Silver: I don't believe English is your first language, yet it is the language you prefer to write in and you do it very well. How does the language influence your writing style?

S.M.C.: Since late childhood I’ve had a special relationship with English: my best friend and I used to play games in English. One of the best teachers I ever had was my English teacher in high school. He’s also a published writer.
Many Dutch people are critical of my choice for writing in a language that is not my mother tongue. In the US this really isn’t that uncommon, although most non-native speakers who write in English do live in an English speaking environment, which I don’t. Not at the moment, at least. My decision to write in English was hardly a conscious one; it was sprung upon me while living in Los Angeles.
I am very aware that it makes me an easier prey for people looking for mistakes. I sometimes purposely neglect to mention my nationality, simply because I don’t want to give people an extra reason for scrutinizing my English. I’m extremely meticulous when I write, and this is especially true for when I write in English. I can get physically unwell at discovering I made a mistake that I haven’t taken out. A couple of lives ago, when I wanted to be an actress, I knew I could only be an English-speaking one. I regard English as my creative language. It’s the language I paint with, where Dutch serves more pragmatic purposes.

Silver: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts with us!


You can find her story "Pests" in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal here.

Or read an excerpt here.

Although she is Dutch by birth and living in Amsterdam, English is S.M.C.’s language for writing fiction. It’s her creative language. The foundation for this was laid during the four years she resided in Los Angeles, where she moved to pursue an acting career. Instead of making her an actress, however, the city forged her into the shape of a writer.

Before she moved to Los Angeles, she lived in Santa Barbara. It didn’t throw her around the way L.A. did, but it still occupies an important part of her heart. She had the opportunity to go back last June, to attend the Santa Barbara Writers Conference. After bidding farewell to her acting career, she returned to Amsterdam to study English literature and become a journalist. She was a reporter for several Dutch newspapers.

Fiction is a truer love, however, and she finished a novel titled LA Diary or The Dark Side of the Sun. At the moment, she is working on a screenplay for a Dutch film company and researching a new novel.

Thursday, August 23, 2018

A Gentleman and a Bon Vivant: T. Lawton Carney's Wild Science Fiction

An Interview with Thomas Williams, AKA T. Lawton Carney
by Silver Webb


Thomas Williams, pen name T. Lawtown Carney, is a consummate gentleman, world-traveler, and bon vivant, whose favorite beverage would be a Pina Colada under the banyan tree in front of the Moana Surfrider Hotel on Waikiki beach. He is also an aspiring writer, having contributed his story "Emeralds for Andromeda" to Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, which you can find here. Thomas is a Pisces, and in the Chinese zodiac, an Ox. Which I think means you can depend on both deep feelings and persistence from him. Thomas has written several books on interior design, and you can visit his Amazon writer profile here.

Silver: Where are you from originally and how has it influenced your writing?

Thomas: I can’t say being from Memphis, Tennessee, has influenced my writing style, but the sultry summers in that town slow one down and allow time to consider life. More significant was having important family members living near. My mother, particularly, started me reading at a very early age, then allowed me into the adult section of the library when I was only seven. My grandfather was also a man who could tell a story that stood your hair on end if he wanted to. His memories of traveling on a river boat on the Mississippi River as a child are incredible and filled with history. So, Memphis was okay, but it was the people there who influenced me.

Silver: When were you first gripped by the determination to be a writer of fiction and what was the inspiration for it?

Thomas: I’ve toyed with the idea since I was sixteen years old. But, I needed to go to school and college and then find a job to support myself. So, I let the writing slide. Then, in 2007 I was inspired to write a non-fiction book and that fired me up again. Within four years I had produced three non-fiction books and enjoyed the process. When we moved to Palm Springs my interior design career collapsed and I was left with nothing to occupy my time. Then it hit me. I have all the time I need now to write. So, get on with it. And, that’s what happened. I started writing and haven’t looked back.

Silver: How often do you write? Are you driven to do it?

Thomas: I write five and sometimes six days a week. Usually I start in the morning and might wrap up by lunchtime. On other days, I work into the afternoon. The process for me is strenuous in the sense that my mind is working overtime when I write. I don’t find it exhausting, but I need to relax after writing for a few hours.

Silver: What do you hope people will feel like after reading your work? Are there particular emotions you hope to elicit?

Thomas: More than anything, I hope they enjoy the tale I tell. I particularly want to envelope the reader in the action and characters. I like setting a mood to start a story then taking the reader into the developing action. I hope at the end, they like the resolution I create and look forward to reading another story.

Silver: Where do you find inspiration for your characters?

Thomas: As a direct answer I will say the inspiration comes from characters I’ve seen in movies and read about in books. But, my characters usually spring from my mind when I need them. It sounds crazy, but they are living in my brain, and when I have the need for a specific type or style of person, they present themselves. It is probably one of the most unexpected surprises for me and the work I do. I love creating the personae, the name, the look, and what part they will play in the story.

Silver: How would friends describe your personality?

Thomas: I can only answer by telling what I hope they see in me. I try in every way to be kind and considerate of those around me. I work hard not to judge and expect not to be judged. I hope I have a great sense of humor. I love to laugh. I can empathize with others challenges and try not to tell people what to do.

Silver: I think all of that is true and more, Thomas! I perceive you as a very easy going person, but quite serious about writing. Are you ever satisfied with your work?

Thomas: There are moments that make my heart sing. It’s when all the words come together and create a moment for the story that is unexpected and delicious. As I write and find something that doesn’t delight me I’ll change it and I’m rarely dissatisfied with the thoughts I put on paper. As with anything, it all always needs an edit or two.

Silver: What’s the wildest adventure you’ve ever been on?

Thomas: I don’t skydive, bust broncos, white water raft or things like that. I never did. Adventure and excitement, for me, is all about travel. So, even if the trip seems mundane to some I always get inspiration and feel excited when I travel. There have been numerous trips I would call wild adventure. Traveling three weeks across the Pacific on an ocean liner. Heck, even a transatlantic trip can be fun. Flying on the Concorde and sitting in the cockpit for landing both in Washington, DC, and JFK. All pre-9/11, of course. Surprising Robert by flying stand-by with only a passport and American Express card from Philadelphia to London. Hot air ballooning over Lake Tahoe. Any roller coaster, and I’ve been on a few. Visiting New York City in 1965 for the World’s Fair. The romance of travel is what makes it a wild adventure.

Silver: Are you in a writing group and how has it affected you?

Thomas: I joined the creative writing class at the LGBT center in Palm Springs in April of 2015. The group is moderated by a man who has been writing all his life. He has twelve books in print and more on the way. He allows each of us a chance to explore our ideas and what we want to write about. The critiques are always given with respect and never meant to demean. Everyone in the class makes suggestions as to what might work better. We all have a chance to read in class, and hearing your own words can be very helpful. The makeup of the class changes every ten weeks when a new session starts. Many members return and there are always a few new people. Each adds his or her own spin on fiction and often helps another class member come up with a new idea. The class helped me organize my time when writing, and it gives me an outlet for my creativity. The group as a whole is very supportive.

Silver: Are there any particular authors that inspire you?

Thomas: Robert Heinlein, Orson Scott Card, Arthur C. Clark, Margaret Mitchell, Frank Herbert, Laura Hobson, Jane Austen, Dashiell Hammett. There are other, less well-known authors, who inspired, intrigued, frightened, and moved me.

Silver: Any forthcoming or in-progress novels, poems, books, etc.?

Thomas: I’m about two-thirds of the way through the third novel in a series of near-future murder mysteries with a favorite character named Sam Markum The first was set in Palm Springs, the second in London, and this third is set in Carmel, Ca. I’ve also completed six short stories, four longer novellas, and a number of shorter pieces.

Silver:
What do you find most gratifying about writing?

Thomas: Writing allows me the pleasure of letting my mind run wild. Then it all just comes out on the paper. It frees me from the day to day horror of who’s running the country and where we might all be headed. It helps take me away from myself. I love developing characters, scene setting, descriptions, and working to fill any story with detail and excitement. That’s what I find gratifying.

Silver: You've traveled a lot and always have good stories to tell. What have been some of your more interesting experiences and how have they affected your writing?

Thomas: There’s so much to enjoy about life. I get a pleasurable buzz when I know I’m about to get on a plane and go somewhere. How exciting is that? Throughout my life I’ve loved old movies and the tight stories that were told on film. The glamour of it all, the sets, costumes, actors and the exotic locales all helped me and my ability to write. Everything I saw in those movies has, in some way, helped me arrive at a point that I believe lets me write a story someone else might want to read. All of it has fired my imagination to create.

Silver: Tell us how you met your partner, Robert, and how your life together has influenced your writing.

Thomas: I met Robert on a flight from Philadelphia to London in June of 1981. He was working as the purser on the flight and I was a passenger. After the meal service, I introduced myself and we talked for three hours as we flew across the Atlantic. Once in London I asked if he would like to have lunch as I had a long layover there. He said yes, but he needed to go home and sleep a little. He told me to come out to his place in Richmond around 11:30. I went into town and bought flowers for him at Harrods. He loved them and lunch was in his local pub. Then I flew on to Milan, met friends after a few days and traveled around France. Once in Paris, I called Robert and asked if he would like to go out to dinner the next night in London. He picked me up at my hotel and out we went. I moved out to his house the next morning and spent five days seeing the sights, plays and just fun. The day before I was due to fly home, we were walking along the tow path on the Thames, and he turned and asked, “Just what kind of relationship are we going to have?” I replied, “I don’t know, but it’s going to be expensive.” Between that date, July 3, 1981 and April 1, 1982 we traveled 32 times between Philly and London. I moved April 1 and we stayed in London another two years before coming to the US. Recently, when I was just starting fiction writing, I had put together a few things that might become a memoire. It was boring and I was getting no help from the class. Robert asked why I wasn’t writing science fiction. He reminded me how much I enjoyed that genre. The moment I started writing, it all came out in a rush. It seemed sci-fi would open my brain to the writing.

Silver: Do you hope to bring LGBTQ characters to Sci-Fi?

Thomas: I already have. Of the books, novellas, and stories I've written, six are LGBTQ themed. I have even taken three pieces I wrote earlier and turned the characters around to be gay or lesbian. That was a lot of fun and added to the dialogue and, I think, the interesting characters. I believe there really might be a market out there. Now, all I have to do is find the right publisher. Isn’t that what they all say?

Silver: And you will find the right publisher, I know it! And you're fortunate to live in a community that is very LGBTQ friendly. Describe the perfect day in Palm Springs.

Thomas: There are moments in every day that are perfect. Early, when we get up, the sun is strong on the mountain as it rises in the east. The glow is magnificent and the air is still just a little cool. Sitting with Robert with a cup of tea or coffee watching the morning unfold can be rapturous. Then perfection can be had when we’re at the Tropicale, surrounded by men and women all having a good time. The atmosphere is electric and the food ain’t bad, either. In the evening with the top down on the car driving home from a dinner party. I don’t expect perfection from a day, I loved to be surprised at the most unexpected moments. That’s a perfect day.

Silver: Thank you, Thomas, and the very best of luck in your writing career. We'll be keeping an eye out for the Sam Markum mysteries!


You can find Thomas's story "Emeralds for Andromeda" in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, available here on Amazon.

Wednesday, August 15, 2018

An Ideal Realist: Author Thomas Timmins

An Interview by Shaun Sanders and Silver Webb




Tom Timmins is the author of novels, poetry, short and flash fiction, and non-fiction. You can visit him here. His flash contributions “Leaving for Church,” “Miracle Dirt,” and “The Fox Can't Resist” are in Volume 1 of the Santa Barbara Literary Journal, available here.

Shaun: You live in Massachusetts, west of Boston. What’s the best part of living there?

Tom: I love the forest, and my wife is from here. I have a lot of friends and am making new ones. I came back to Massachusetts nine years ago from Santa Barbara and started a company. But I’m far from my children, who are all over the country. Otherwise, it’s a wonderful place, aside from the winters.

Silver: I met you many years ago, Tom, when you were writing and rewriting Aphrodisiac for an Angel, and now it’s been published through your company ZöeTown Media. The heroine, Zöe, is a remarkable fifteen-year-old.

Tom: Yes, she's driven by the notion that she can rise to heaven body-and-soul, meet her mother and her mother's friends, and return to Earth. She lives near the Pine Ridge Oglala Native American reservation in South Dakota, near the Badlands and the Black Hills.

Shaun: In the book, we see the world through Zöe’s perspective and it really draws the reader in. What was your inspiration was for Zöe?

Tom: Zöe is focused, fearless, buoyed by indefatigable optimism. Since her only life goal is to ascend to heaven in her body to see her mother who is a spirit, you might think she’s childish or mentally disturbed. But her longing to be with her mother has propelled her thinking and acting since she was six when her mother died in the car accident that Zöe survived.

I was raised in a rural Iowa town, with strong religious and moral values, and I structured the novel after the Catholic mass. In the novel, events move Zöe to follow the path Jesus followed after his death and prior to his final Ascension. When he died, he first he went to the underworld to save the souls, so Zöe collects souls to take to heaven and much of the novel takes place in an underworld.

Silver: So Aphrodisiac for an Angel is a quest tale?

Tom: Yes. And a coming-of-age tale. And a love story. As Zöe seeks heaven—and an angel to fly her there—she grows up fast. My sense is that almost all American hero novels are based on the Christ story. The basic structure of a heroine who endures terrible pain and doubt, is nearly killed while facing and overcoming evil, then through some act of immense generosity, saves people or solves the problem. This is the first book in the series, with two more in the hopper. Aphrodisiac is also an environmental novel. But if a novel doesn't feature love it's likely to be boring to most readers. The core of the book emerges when Zöe finds a drink recipe in an old cookbook called “An aphrodisiac for your angel.” With this recipe, she intends to entice an angel to bear her up to heaven. In pursuit of her angel, Zöe, her beloved stepbrother, and a Hunkpapa tribal elder stumble into what could be the most catastrophic environmental disaster in U.S. history.

Shaun: I wasn’t raised in the Catholic Church, but it seemed to me that the things Zöe sees and believes in are possible because of the element of magical realism.

Tom: Garcia Marquez was a big influence on me. Besides a literary genre, magical realism as an approach to understanding the world is something I believe in. I treasure imagination, even as I’m a fairly scientific and logical person. I'm interested in brain science and genetic biology as roots of behaviors and relationships. Studies have shown that magical thinking is networked in the brain with the same places where the imagination arises. Zöe's enormous imagination impels her through the world.

Shaun: Early in the book, we meet Reverend Kessup, who becomes Zöe's antagonist. It’s quite a juxtaposition to go from Zöe’s point of view to this sleazy guy.

Tom: When Zöe is ten years old, she learns about the Rapture, and all the souls who are saved will rise up to heaven. And that’s part of her fantasy. Reverend Kessup comes along and Zöe believes he might help her get to heaven. But it becomes obvious that he’s really sleazy, a dark, bad guy. He represents the false manipulation of people’s minds, dreams, needs. The kind of thing we see when we turn on the television.

Shaun: The book is set in the Dakotas, and we find ourselves in conversation with Wakanda, who is a Lakota elder. I’m wondering did you did have to do a lot of research or did you grow up there?

Tom: As a kid, I spent time in the Black Hills, exploring them, camping, spelunking. I wanted to make the "Wakanda" character a contemporary citizen acting out a family vision. The book does not touch deeply on the sorrowful troubles with life on the reservation. I’ve studied Native American mythology and my sister taught on Pine Ridge in Oglala County, the poorest county in the United States. I don’t pretend to know anything from the inside of Native American cultures.

Shaun: Zöe has her own hero in her brother Devan and they stumble on a nuclear dumpsite deep in the hills near the reservation. We’re exploring a lot of interesting areas, mythology, Native Americans, magical realism, and then toxic dumping. Tell us about that.

Tom: I was born in 1945, on the day the United States dropped the nuclear bomb on Hiroshima. The mushroom cloud is a haunting, fundamental image for me of this world. Having grown up in the 1950's, I had a real awareness of the Cold War and the potential for nuclear bombs. My business is an environmental energy efficiency business, so I’m focusing on reducing energy use throughout the company in large facilities. Though nuclear energy is not polluting in the short term, it has this tremendous pollution of radioactive waste for ten thousand years or more. Right here in Massachusetts, 20 miles to the west and 20 miles to the east sit two of the earliest nuclear power plants in the country. They're closed and the waste is stored there, so I’m very conscious of the presence and dangers of the waste.

Silver: How long have you been writing and do you have a regular time for writing?

Tom: I’ve been writing all my remembered life, but I didn’t write any fiction until I was in my thirties. I wrote short stories. Right now I’m writing a lot of narrative poetry and my favorite time to write is just before I go to sleep. Somehow in that liminal world between waking and sleep, images and ideas emerged unscathed by consciousness.

Shaun: Something that strikes me about your writing is the level of intensity, there’s a lot of description, nuance, characters. I really feel gripped by it. What’s it like to maintain this level of intensity throughout the writing process?

Tom: I think that’s just who I am. I’ve written several books, run several business, I have several children, I love researching and talking. There’s some kind of a creative drive. It’s a drive.

Shaun: You’ve written in a variety of genres from poetry books, Likings for Shadows and I was just laughing, ghazals and sonnets, to Puff of Time, which has shorter stories, to novels. All of these are published through Zöetown Media, your company. How did Zöetown Media come about?

Tom: I first went the route of trying to find agents and publishers. One of my friends is a non-fiction agent with successful nonfiction authors. She sent me to some of her colleagues. They got back to me with “It’s good, but who’s going to publish it?” I received more than 100 rejections. At some point, I realized I was good at starting businesses, and together with help from my son and few other people, I started the publishing company. We expect to expand to a variety of authors. I have an interest in publishing translations of Japanese women mystery and thriller writers.

Silver: My favorite stories, of the ones you’ve written, are the Tofu Noir Mystery novels. You obviously founded and ran a tofu company for a while. How did that experience inform the tofu novels?

Tom: I had a wild ride during the times I was in the tofu manufacturing and marketing business in the 1980's, when the word "tofu" guaranteed a laugh on late-night TV shows. We were idealists who thought we had a chance to solve world hunger issues while making a living to support our families. Those ten years taught me more about the ins and outs, upsides and downsides, light sides and dark sides of people and possibilities than any other time in my life. I couldn't help but write a dark comedic mystery novel set in the tofu and international foods industry. There are quite a few funny scenes.

Silver: You have sustained an amazingly productive writing life, with over ten books published. What do you see ahead for writing projects and maybe new areas you’d like to explore?

Tom: The next book to arrive (fall 2018) is Zom, a graphic verse novel. Then two more books of poems. I have a non-fiction book in the final draft stages and notes for the next two Aphrodisiac novels.

Shaun: Thank you very much for speaking with us, Tom.

Shaun Sanders is a Kiwi author and independent publisher who has lived in Carpinteria for the past eleven years. He has two novels available under the pen name Ray Swift, and he also contributed an essay "The Good Ship Pallamary" to Volume 1 of SB Lit Jo, available here.