Friday, January 17, 2014

BookSpin Interview:

A Few Minutes With Author John Sundman

From John Sundman's Amazon page:

Author John Sundman prepares
to battle Sehlob.
John (F.X, Compton, Damien) Sundman grew up on a small farm in New Jersey, attended Xavier (Jesuit, military) High School on 16th Street Manhattan, got a degree in anthropology from Hamilton College, did a two year rural development stint in Peace Corps, then: Purdue grad school agricultural economics, 25 years or so high tech hardware software Boston area & Silicon Valley, drop out Martha's Vineyard, truck driver, warehouseman, construction worker, working class hero, poverty & embarrassment. Wrote technoparanoid novel, metafictiony geekoid novella, dystopian illustrated phantasmagoria; back in and out of high tech; firefighter; husband, father of 3, essayist for; food pantry worker.

BookDude:  I love the descriptions of your books in your self-written bio (above).  I have always assumed that fiction with high-tech driven plots are difficult to keep relevant. How do you know when you have a story worthy of publication as opposed to the ones that never see the light of day?

John Sundman:  A perceptive question. And you're right: fiction with high-tech driven plots is difficult to keep relevant. But only if you handcuff yourself to the technology instead of to the story. It took me a while to figure this out. 

During the writing of Acts of the Apostles, I was initially preoccupied with keeping the book current and edgy. I was inventing stuff that was supposed to be futuristic and threatening but still plausible. So if I invented something and then somebody actually invented it in the real world (which did happen a few times) I felt that I had to adjust the book. For example, one of the central questions driving the plot of Acts of the Apostles is "What (if anything) caused Gulf War Syndrome?"  At the time I was writing the book, in the late 1990's, those were very pressing questions. I worried that the real cause of the illness (and many people at the time asserted that the illness itself didn't even exist) would be discovered, and that thus my fictitious explanation would be moot and stupid. Which would make the book moot and stupid (or so I thought). So I obsessively followed news about medical research into Gulf War Syndrome, in borderline panic that it would be figured out before my book hit the proverbial shelves.

I came to realize, as the writing process dragged on and on and on, that I was putting myself in the position of the Red Queen (in Alice in Wonderland), forever running in place while trying to stay just a bit in the future. Eventually I got worn out. So, I decided that my book was set in a specific time period -- the early to middle 1990's, when Gulf War Syndrome was a total mystery -- and that I would just have to accept that, and if future events obsoleted it, there was nothing I could do about it. During the writing of the book, in other words, the setting went from the near future to the present to the past. 

Although it's set in the past and deals with Gulf War Syndrome, Acts of the Apostles is about, mainly, the convergence of biological and digital technologies, and the practical, political, moral and epistemological implications of that convergence. Those topics are still current, and I expect that they will continue to be current until the Singularity overcomes us and people stop reading novels. The fact that Acts is set in the 1990's actually grounds it in a particular time (& in particular places), which I now see as a great strength of the book. It feels authentic to people.

So here we are in 2014, twenty years after I started writing Acts of the Apostles (which came out in late 1999), and many people today have no recollection, or only the foggiest recollection, of the first Gulf War (1990-91) or Gulf War Syndrome.  The disease is now believed to be real, and its causes are pretty well understood. How do these facts affect the experience of reading my novel? Not very much, so far as I can tell. It's like if you were to read a thriller about the Second World War, and the plot involved something that just might cause Hitler and the Nazis to prevail. Now, we all know that didn't happen. But so what? While you're reading the book you pretend you don't know that. I'm actually a bit embarrassed that it took me as long as it did to recognize this simple reality. If you do your job as a writer, your readers will willingly suspend their disbelief. In fact, they want to suspend their disbelief. So stop worrying and tell the damn story.

The two novellas I've published since then, Cheap Complex Devices and The Pains are much more fanciful. Their plots, such as they are, don't rely so much on real-world referents. For example, The Pains is set in a universe that is about 1/3 Orwell's 1984, 1/3 Ronald Reagan's 1984 and 1/3 stuff that I made up. To the extent that Ronald Reagan participated in the real world (which is in dispute), only about 1/3 of The Pains has real world referents. So the anxiety about keeping the book relevant diminishes considerably.

That being said, The Pains is a geeky story and does involve geeky technology. It was fun to include discussions of both analog and digital computing technology from 1984, and I tried to make those descriptions as non-anachronistic as possible.  

BD:  What surprised you the most about publishing a book?

JS:  Another interesting question. Keep in mind that I published Acts in late 1999. So we're relying on old (hence unreliable) memories here, filtered through nearly 15 years of experience. 

I guess I would say that the biggest surprise was and continues to be the range of responses to the very notion of the self-published novel. Self-publishing is much, much more mainstream/accepted in 2014 than it was in 1999. At the risk of sounding flippant, I'd say the change in typical attitudes to self-publishing has paralleled the change in attitudes towards marriage equality. Self publishing is not a human rights issue like marriage equality is, but it's seen a similarly radical change in general acceptance. Fifteen years ago, in general, most serious readers assumed that if a book was self-published, it sucked. Today that's not the case at all. In fact, many people seek out "indie" books; they prefer them.

Even fifteen years ago, I found that many people were willing to read (and purchase) a self-published book without prejudice. I've sold thousands of books, in person, to total strangers (at trade shows and similar venues). I've had influential reviewers treat my books as legitimate literature; I've experienced
bookstore owners who purchased books from me & gave them prominent display. I have experienced truly incredible and heartwarming response from readers and fans (who've become friends). People have sent me money to support my continued work. They've blogged about me and my books, bought copies of my books for their friends, sent me letters of encouragement, taken me to dinner. 

But I've also experienced derision, disdain, and outright insult. I've had total strangers tell me that they were certain that any positive review of my books had been written by me or my friends or by somebody in my employ (because it's axiomatic that self-published books suck, and thus there can be no legitimate positive reviews). And so forth. 

I don't know what I was expecting when I first published Acts and announced its availability to the world. (I was probably expecting a Nobel Prize for Literature by return mail, but let's not talk about that.) But I don't think I expected that I would make as many real friends as consequence as I've in fact made. Yes, there have been haters and snobs. But screw them, who cares. The pleasant surprise has been the number of real, valuable and truly bilateral friendships I've made. Who woulda thunk it?

BD:  How long is it typically for the writing of a book?  Tell us about your specific process.

JS:  It takes forever. My process is that I get a great idea for a book (from where? who knows. Mostly from my usual preoccupations) and I figure, since I have the book all clear in my head before I've written a single word, that it will take me a Joyce Carol Oatesean 3 months to write the book, no revisions necessary. 

And then I engage the beast and discover that I'm Frodo in the dark corridors of Shelob's lair about to be wrapped in a cocoon and consumed. I scribble in notepads. I research in the most unlikely places, letting serendipity be my only guide. I write whole chapters, and more, only to find when I re-read what I've written that it is utter crap that must be discarded. I get despondent. I question my sanity. I procrastinate on the level of Olympic Procrastination Team procrastinators. I drink beer and get fat, then give up beer and work out obsessively and get in shape again. I weep real tears.

But by some miracle I break free, with my trusty hobbit-sized sword, and I slay the nasty spider. I complete a first draft of the book! 

Only to discover that, just as in the Alien(s) movies, the beast is now inside me, gestating upon my very victuals! And so I must take that same sword and cut myself open and pry the ghastly living thing from my innards, a kind of auto-caesarean-section, rewriting it, pulling it out of me by sheer force of will to save my very life. 

A case in point: I got the idea for The Pains pretty much in a flash. I had been kicking around the idea of writing a story set in a world that married Reagan's 1984 with Orwell's 1984. And then one day I read a diary in an online diary site in which I used to be quite active that began with the line, "I woke up this morning with a pain in my body that felt as if it might have been a soul gone bad." I wrote that sentence down and meditated on it, convinced that it was significant. It was (at least, it was to me.)

A few weeks later almost instantly the story came to me. I was at a mall where I had taken my youngest daughter with a few of her friends for her 16th birthday. (When you live on an island with no malls or even traffic lights, a trip to an  off-island mall is a big deal.) While my daughter and her friends were out being teenagers, I went into a $1 store and bought a $1 notebook and a $.25 pen and sat down and wrote the first chapter of The Pains. 

It's in many ways just a retelling of the story of Job: a decent man ("Mr. Lux"  in my book) is selected by God, or the universe, or fate, or randomness, to endure an endless succession of pains. How he bears up under this assault has some cosmic bearing on the fate of the universe. That's the story.

The book, as published, is only 111 pages long. And it has 12 full-page illustrations. So it's less than 100 pages of text, and it took me five years to write it. Even though the story was pretty much complete in my head that whole time. 

But during the time I was writing the book my brother Paul, whom I loved very much, was dying of ALS, and I was spending a lot of time taking care of him (and of my day job, of course). And my sister Maureen, whom I also loved, was dying of brain cancer. They were both younger than me. And it so happened that whenever I invented some impossibly ghastly and cruel affliction to befall Mr. Lux, something more ghastly and cruel would befall my brother or my sister. 

My brother died in April 2008 and my sister in September 2008, and I finished writing The Pains (including finding an illustrator and commissioning all the illustrations) a few weeks later, after nearly five years of endless thrashing. Although I did not realize it at the time, I was wrestling with this little book as a way of dealing with the existential questions posed by the suffering and deaths of Paul and Maureen. I apologize for being so heavy, but that's the truth. 

And in fact, my other two books, and the ones I'm working on now (Biodigital and Creation Science), come similarly freighted. They always seem so clear-cut and obvious when I undertake them. And yet here I am, again, in the dark with Shelob, years later.

I'm not proud of  this, by the way. I'm not deliberately embracing the cliche of artist-suffering-for-his-art, whose every written word is an act of unfathomable courage. It's actually pretty frustrating and humiliating. I'd much rather be like Charles Dickens, who wrote three five-hundred page masterpieces in the time it has taken me to write a short novella. I'm trying to figure out how to be more Dickensian in output. 

The only good thing I can say about the process it that I'm happy with the results. I very much like the books I've written and published. 

BD:  Who would you say is your target market?

JS:  My target market depends a bit on which book we're talking about. Acts of the Apostles is kind of like "Jason Bourne meets Soul of a New Machine". It's written for readers of intelligent and literate thrillers, especially geekoid thrillers like those written by Neal Stephenson. People who liked his Cyrptonomicon generally like Acts. 

Cheap Complex Devices is a bit more demanding; it's written for readers who like postmodern metafiction (Nabokov, Borges, Lem). Its subject matter touches on computer science and artificial intelligence (and their histories), so readers who are familiar with those things catch a few more of the jokes. But there are no prerequisites for reading the book; it's a bit of a puzzle but it's not deliberately impenetrable or anything like that.

And The Pains is a simple illustrated dystopian phantasmagoria. I would hope that it would appeal to, for example, fans of Neil Gaiman. 

These three books form a self-referential set (which I call "Mind over Matter"), much as the component stories of David Mitchell's Cloud Atlas do. I'm kind of hoping that some of Mitchell's many fans will discover & like Mind over Matter. Hasn't really happened yet, but one never gives up hope. . .

BD:  Why is John Sundman a writer?  Tell us about your journey to publication?

JS:  I've always been something of a writer, since childhood. Why? I don't know. I was a professional writer from 1980 until 1990, writing technical manuals for computer companies. Then I was a manager of technical writers and editors for five years before I began work on my first novel. So I had fifteen years' worth of experience explaining complex technology before I attempted to write a novel whose plot intimately involves complex technology. 

After nearly six years away from the high tech industry, I jumped back into it in 2000, and have spent the last 14 years making my living mostly as a technical writer. I've also written novellas and stories and essays during that time, but mainly I'm a technical writer (and science writer). I like understanding technology and science, and I'm intrigued by their effects on people and societies. Fiction is a good way to explore how technology affects people and societies; I discover how I feel about these things by writing novels about them. My background as a technical writer gives me the confidence to approach things I don't really understand well (I've said elsewhere that "to be a good technical writer, you have to be comfortable with not understanding stuff."). And technical writing is great training for any kind of writing. To write a good a good manual, for example, you have to understand your audience and you have to be very clear about what you're trying to accomplish. You have to be very economical with words. And so forth. 

As to why I first sat myself down and began to write Acts of the Apostles, all I can say is that it was something of a compulsion. I did it because I couldn't not do it. The other books were similarly unavoidable. And the two books I'm still wrestling with also won't leave me alone, although I sometimes wish they would.

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Twitter:   @jsundmanus


  1. That was a very long interview, but I can understand that John Sundman (Swedish ancestry?) needed to explain a lot of things about his writing. I had not heard of him before, but I will now keep him in mind. Thank you Book Dude.

    1. Diane,

      A nice way of saying I'm long-winded. Yes, I do go on.

      My grandfather was from Finland, not Sweden, but, as you deduce, he was of Swedish ancestry. He considered himself a Finn (and a Finnish American after emigrating to the US), but spoke Swedish to his mother. The other 3/4 of my ancestry is Scottish & Irish, peoples given to rambling on.

    2. Thank you for getting back to me, John. My grandfather was from Ă…land, which is actually part of Finland, but he also spoke Swedish and probably considered himself to be Swedish-Finnish. Like you, the rest of my ancestry is Irish/Scottish, so, obviously, we have a few things in common.

      No, I didn't think of you as being long-winded. Many blog entries/interviews are fairly short, hence my comment. I actually found much of what you said (and Book Dude's questions) quite interesting. As I said, I will be keeping an eye open for your books.

  2. Diane, you are right. It IS a long interview and I briefly considered posting it in two parts. But, despite its length, I think it reads fast and well. I was captivated by John's answers. Thank you for sticking with it. I hope to publish more interviews with book people as I can.