Questions & Answers
(And some tips for aspiring writers)
Did you always want to be a writer?
When I was young I was more fascinated in rockets, atomic energy, astronomy, oceanography and things like that. When I lived in Pakistan, my older brother and I were bonkers about space exploration. We couldn't get enough of it (this was around the time of the first manned moon landing), and when we found an address for NASA in a copy of Popular Science we’d been bequeathed, we promptly sent away for information packages. NASA sent us tons of material that fueled our passion for space and we spent waaaaaaay too much time (time that should have been spent doing school work, I might add) designing rockets of our own and dreaming up rocket factories. Our bedroom was festooned with drawings, plans, and diagrams of rockets and our proposed rocket factory. We had this notion that one day we’d own this great rocket-building enterprise and go into space ourselves. Nothing was impossible to us. We dreamed big back then.
I also had a passion for animation (still do) and for the longest time wanted to be an animator. I fancied that one day I'd get to work for Disney. Comics were also something I had a big interest in, and I considered the possibility of one day pursuing that. Then I wanted to be an astronomer, an oceanographer, a painter (the artist kind), and a plethora of other things. In truth, I had too many interests -- which as it turns out, is great when you're a writer.
The thing is, you never know where life will take you. Mine led me in places I never expected, but throughout it all I think there was a part of me that always wanted to craft stories and have others read them. Probably because I’ve always loved books, regardless of what form they come in. And now here I am, probably in the place I always wanted to be.
Where do you get your ideas?
From all sorts of places. For Becoming Darkness the initial idea came from reading Bram Stoker’s Dracula and watching a documentary about World War Two that I happened upon one day. But as I was developing the story, I drew upon events in my own life, my own interests, and aspects of our world I find fascinating. For a more detailed look at this you can read the section “Evolution of a Book”.
For a book I’m currently working on, I got ideas from watching a TV show about various ways in which the world might face extinction and paired this with ideas about O’Neill space colonies (which really fascinated me back in my late teens).
But you never know where ideas for a book might come from. You could be watching the news or reading a newspaper or out cycling or whatever and suddenly it'll just strike you. It might start off small and grow to something big or it might just fizzle and die. You never know. But the world is full of possibilities and endless stories to be told. When you find the right one, you know it -- because it just sort of sings to you. And then you develop this itch, this compulsion to put it down in words, and that only stops when you've written the last one.
What is your writing process like?
I do the actual writing of the manuscript on a laptop using MS Word. There are other writing programs that some claim are better suited for a novelist, but I guess I’m something of a creature of habit – not to mention Word is used by most people in the publishing industry. It has a feature called “Track Changes,” which is a useful tool for writers and editors; it enables them to leave notes to one another at precise locations in the text or make alterations and show how they've changed things as they go through the editing of the manuscript. Without this feature, it would be much more difficult and time consuming to polish the story.
I sketch out a lot of ideas in notebooks – the old paper kind. To me they're invaluable. Writing things out in longhand seems to set the ideas more firmly in my mind. While I have the basic plot worked out beforehand, new ideas will always occur to me as I’m engaged in the actual writing of the book. Not all of them will work, but I jot them down anyway. Sometimes these come at the oddest times. I’ve been known to wake up in the middle of the night just to scribble something that has come to me while I’ve been sleeping. My notebooks are full of such spur-of-the-moment entries.
On occasion I'll sketch drawings of characters or places or scenes. I’m very visually-oriented and images help me to get into a particular character’s head or submerge myself in a particular scenario. You can find some of that sort of thing under the section “Sophie’s World.”
Where is Haven (in BECOMING DARKNESS) set? Is it Hawaii?
Although I've seen a couple of reviews that have suggested that Haven is Hawaii or some existing South Pacific island archipelago, it is not. In the book, the fact that the equator bisects Central Island and that the anti-meridian cuts through the middle of the island chain makes it clear that Haven is, for the purposes of this story, a fictional construct. I did this so that I would not be burdened with explaining what had happened to the existing population and the infrastructure of Hawaii or some other Polynesian island chain. It afforded me more latitude in creating the geography, history, and culture of the world in which Sophie exists, giving Haven its own unique character, as well as precluding any preconceptions readers might have had.
In some respects, I was influenced in this by Thomas More's Utopia, in that I wanted a construct that stood on its own (for philosophical reasons) and could thus be freed of the constraints of a prior historical paradigm. That said, the dynamic that exists between Haven and the Third Reich (within Becoming Darkness) has its roots in our world. In this regard I saw the situation between China and Taiwan as a model (as well as other geo-political relationships that exist around the world wherein a very large state is in a somewhat symbiotic co-existence with a much smaller state that it can easily dominate).
How did you come up with the names for the characters in Becoming Darkness?
Sometimes the name just comes to you as you begin to mold the character into shape in your mind. To a certain extent that happened with Sophie, although I always wanted her last name to be a bit gothic sounding and somewhat allude to Mina Harker from Bram Stoker’s Dracula.
In the case of Camille, that was again a bit of a tip of the hat to another gothic horror story called Carmilla, written in 1871 by Joseph Sheridan Le Fanu. It’s about a female vampire and predates Stoker’s Dracula.
Val (Valentine) is the name Vladimir Arghezi assumes when he becomes a vamp. Again, I wanted this to be evocative of vampire myth, some of which is rooted in the story of Vlad III, Prince of Wallachia (1431—1476), a man posthumously known as Vlad the Impaler and often said to be the inspiration for Stoker’s Dracula.
For Sophie’s mother I chose the maiden name of Mary Wolstencroft because for me it had a gothic ring to it and evoked the maiden name of Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley, the author of Frankenstein. And if you've read the book, I think you'll understand why I wanted this connection.
The Old One who appears in Becoming Darkness is known as Ahriman, a name which appears in ancient Persian texts related to Zoroastrianism and is associated with evil and darkness and general unpleasantness. The Old Ones are thought to be thousands of years old, so I wanted mention of them to date back millennia.
When I was thinking up a name for the detective in the book, I wanted something that would remind people of the traditional British fictional investigators. I wanted the name to give the reader as much of an immediate visual impression of the man as any description I might add. “William Havershaw” just seemed to click, and I have to confess that he’s a bit of a favorite of mine.
Colonel Muller is another name that I chose because I felt the sound of it immediately implanted a certain image of what the man was like. There’s just something rather rough and brutish about it.
And then there are the names I just had fun with, like Ticket and Silverlock, which I think just set a certain tone for the characters in question.
What books do you read?
My tastes have always been somewhat eclectic, ranging from YA to literary. I don’t have a favorite genre, although there was a time when I read an awful lot of science fiction. But I’ve also read a lot of the classics – Tolstoy, Austen, the Bronte sisters, Jules Verne, Hemingway, Conrad, etc. You need to read a lot in order to write – and if you read good material, it will hopefully make your writing better.
I should point out that I don’t restrict myself to fiction. I read an awful lot of non-fiction – particularly books on history, science, politics, etc. What I learn from those helps me in my fiction writing, providing me with new ideas and background details that make for a richer reading experience.
For a long time comics were a staple of mine and I had a small horde of a few thousand. I sold that collection some years back and I no longer buy comics as frequently as I used to, but I still love the art form. Right now I indulge myself occasionally by purchasing old Gold Key comics – more out of nostalgia than anything else. And I’ve remained a fan of Herge’s Tintin ever since I bought my first of the adventures back in 1971. We were living in Isfahan, Iran at the time and there was a bookstore there that had several of the Tintin books. I started with “The Red Sea Sharks”, which isn’t really the best place to begin (“The Crab with the Golden Claws” is better, since that introduces Captain Haddock). If you’ve never read Tintin, I highly recommend the books. They are beautifully drawn (particularly the later ones) and very well written. The fact that they’ve never been out of print is a testament to how good they are, and if you're an aspiring writer or graphic novelist, they are an excellent example of how to write a tight story. Herge packed a lot into 62 pages.
What was your goal when writing Becoming Darkness?
While crafting an entertaining story was first and foremost on my mind when I set out to write Becoming Darkness, I also wanted to create something that would make readers sit back and think a bit about the world they live in and their place within it. So to some extent the novel is an allegory, shining a light (if somewhat obliquely) on many of the problems we face today and have faced in the past.
I’ve already stated that some of the inspiration for Haven came from the complex political dynamic of China and Taiwan, but it was also very much influenced by the whole Jewish experience: the flight of Jews from Germany and greater Europe throughout the years leading up to World War Two; the extermination of six million Jews by the Nazis; and the eventual push to create the state of Israel, where Jews could exist free of anti-Semitism and the extremes (and horrors) of inhumanity it can produce. All these can be seen as mirrored in the experience of the Immunes who live in Haven.
Even the political dynamic that exists between the (vampire) Third Reich and the (Immune) Haven is something of a reflection of what we see between Israel and the predominantly Islamic states that surround it. One can argue that ever since its creation, Israel has been under threat of invasion, and the psychological state under which its citizens exist is very much as I envisioned the mindset of the people of Haven.
When you write a book like Becoming Darkness you don’t want to hammer people over the head with all this stuff, however. For the readers, it should be subtle: it is either there for them or, if they choose not to see it, it shouldn’t be – which is to say the book should be open to their interpretation. You don’t want to have your characters making long speeches about this sort of thing – which is why when Sophie meets Ticket, I don’t spend a lot of time digressing on the whole Jewish experience under Hitler’s Nazis. For one thing, that’s a history that is surely well enough known that merely mentioning Auschwitz and using the term “Nazi” should be sufficient to evoke enough of the very real horrors and atrocities associated with those. Moreover, such a digression would not have served the narrative mechanics of the book and I think it would actually have detracted from the character of Ticket. For although she is Jewish and a survivor of a concentration camp, I didn’t want her defined by that to the extent that her whole character was subsumed by it and became nothing more than a cliché. I wanted the reader to see her as a person – a person who had survived one horror after another and had managed to continue to exist right in the midst of a world governed by Nazis. And for all that, she willingly puts herself in danger of exposure to help a stranger. It takes a rare kind of courage to do that.
On the flip side of things, while Haven might reflect the Jewish experience, there are aspects of Becoming Darkness that very much feed into what we are seeing happen to Muslims in many Western countries, where the actions of a few extremists are attributed to an entire body of people and the religion to which they subscribe -- and used accordingly as a pretext to discriminate and isolate. In my novel the attitude of most Immunes is to regard all “vamps” as being of the same ilk, of being a part of the Nazi horror machine that exterminated almost the entire human population and hunted down and killed most of the Immunes. But Sophie’s relationship with Val and her later encounters with Clauswitz, Isabelle, and Ticket shed a different light on the whole Immune/vampire relationship that exists in her world and reveals the very real dangers of falling into the trap of guilt by association.
Of course, there are all sorts of other issues Becoming Darkness addresses: the moral quagmires governments can sometimes find themselves in when they seek to serve the broader interests of their people; the unsettling aspects (chiefly the actual chronological age disparity) of the vampire/young woman relationship that is rarely if ever addressed in vampire novels; the extent to which love can blind us to the truth; the fact that sometimes good people do bad things for reasons they consider right and just; how sometimes in seeking to preserve the way of life we hold dear, we become the very thing we fear and hate the most.
I could go on, but I don’t want to get too pretentious here. It is, after all, just a book – and to many nothing more than a piece of entertainment. I would like to think, however, that like any work of art, people will bring what they want to the book and interpret it in many different ways – some of which may not be ways I’d ever intended. But that’s a good thing. And if a writer can get people talking or thinking about the world around them, then that should be considered a success.
Will there be a sequel to Becoming Darkness?
I’ve written one, and I’ve got a third and final book close to completion, but whether either of these see the light of day will depend on how successful Becoming Darkness is. Obviously the more copies it sells the better, but that’s entirely up to the readers. The fact is, just because you get a book published doesn't mean you're guaranteed anything after that. Publishing is a business, and it only continues to function if it makes money. The truth is, most books either don't earn back their advance, or barely do so.
There is simply an enormous amount of competition out there. Not just from other traditionally published writers, but also from indie and self-published. And the thing is, luck plays a part in whether a book is a success or not. So, too, does timing. There are examples of books that when first released went nowhere, but years later were "rediscovered" and became hits.
So, even if you get an agent, get a publishing contract, and finally get your book published, the chances are that that may be it. There may be nothing after that if your book doesn't sell. You may not get another chance. So if you do happen to get lucky and get a traditional publishing contract, be humble. It's fine to be proud about what you've accomplished, but don't get arrogant about it. Don't think that somehow that makes you special, that you're so much better than all those other struggling writers out there. Because I guarantee you that it can all come crashing down.
And that's all I have to say about that -- which really doesn't have a lot to do with the whole issue of the sequel but if you're a yet-to-be-published writer (or newly published one) is something you should heed.
Are you working on anything else?
Writer's are always writing. Right now I’ve several coals in the fire, as they say. I’ve completed the first two books of a SF YA thriller, and have notes for a third, concluding novel. I’ve also just completed a YA contemporary that deals with Alzheimer’s and draws on some of my own experiences of watching my mother suffer from (and eventually succumb to) the disease.
There are of course plenty of other ideas I have in the works, but I prefer to get a few projects properly squared away, rather than having too many on the go at once.
Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
I am by no stretch of the imagination an expert, but I can offer a few things I’ve learned from my experience in the world of publishing. First and foremost, I can tell you you’re going to need a lot of patience. Sadly, few new writers will enjoy overnight success. The road to getting traditionally published is fraught with difficulties, and most writers are going to find there will be more than a few obstacles to overcome along the way. This will no doubt lead to immense frustration and even despair, and if you’re a writer enduring this, there will be times when you’re just going to want to chuck it.
When it comes to actually writing the book in the first place, I’ve noticed a lot of nascent writers rushing things. They seem to put a great deal of stock in achieving a certain word count each day (usually around 2000), with the aim of finishing the novel as quickly as possible. Personally, I would be wary of this. It’s all right to have goals and to be disciplined, but to be wedded to turning out a certain number of words each day and completing a book in a given number of weeks should be reserved for those who are working under real deadlines. If you’re not contractually committed to getting your book completed on a particular date, then why rush? It took me nearly a year to write Becoming Darkness, putting in six to eight hours a day, five days a week. It took several more months to polish the manuscript to the point where I was comfortable submitting to an agent. And that was only the beginning.
Once you’re established as a writer, you’re either going to be successful enough that you’ll have the luxury of producing a book pretty much whenever you feel like it, or you’re going to figure out that in order to survive, you’ll have to churn out a publishable manuscript every so many months. For the writer looking to break into the field, however, I’d urge prudence and suggest taking your time to get your first book right. Don’t be in a hurry to get it done as quickly as you possibly can. Care more about the quality, and if it takes you a week to hone a passage of few hundred words, then so be it. Better to have one well-crafted page than ten indifferent ones you’ll likely have to chuck or rewrite numerous times to get right.
When you’ve finished writing and polishing your book, find someone who can help you edit it. Self-editing has it's limits and you should always try to get a second opinion. However, don’t depend on family and friends to help you in this regard. Nine times out of ten they’re not going to be honest with you and point out the flaws and weaknesses of your work. Not to mention the fact that it’s doubtful they’ll have the trained eye of an editor, which is necessary to pick up on things that often trip up writers.
The thing is, if you’re serious about this whole getting published thing, you want people who are brutally honest to look over your manuscript. You want that so that you can fix the deficits and whip your work into the sort of shape that will pass muster with agents. In fact, if you can at all afford it, hire a real editor to edit your book. This is expensive (probably at least two thousand dollars for an average-length book), but it may be worth it in the long run.
Once the manuscript is ready, you need to take things to the next level. In the old days you could often submit directly to a publisher, but most of the bigger ones now require submissions be made by agents. Unfortunately, acquiring an agent is by no means easy, and unless you’re extremely fortunate, you’re probably going to accumulate a lot of rejection slips before finally landing representation. The fact is, there may come a point when you’ll just want to give up because all you get back from your queries are form letters (if that). What you have to realize is that agents are swamped by submissions from writers eager to be published. The good ones receive thousands (even tens of thousands) of queries a month, and in all honestly, it’s doubtful they can give most of them more than a cursory glance. Which is why your work has to be exceptional and why your query letter needs to grab their attention right off the bat.
None of this is easy, and if you find yourself intimidated by what you’ve read thus far, be aware that it can take years to get published traditionally. And for some people, it’s just never going to happen. In some cases it’s simply because the books are just not good enough, but in others it’s merely a question of not being lucky enough to hit on the right agent, or submitting at the right time.
You can, of course, always elect to self-publish. Literally millions have. A few have had great success doing so, but I would counsel avoiding self-publishing for as long as possible, simply because the chances of that kind of success are rare. I’m not trashing those who self-publish; there are many reasons for doing so. But if you opt to go this route you need to be aware that it seldom leads to much in the way of sales or acquiring an audience. Most self-published novels sell fewer than one to two hundred books, and often no more than a few dozen. Those who manage to sell more invariably have to devote immense amounts of time and energy into making those sales, or they must invest considerable amounts of money to hire people who will help them attain that level of success.
To self-publish under the notion it’s an easy path to fame and fortune is foolhardy, and you’ll be sorely disappointed if you think that all you have to do is write your book, put it up on Amazon through their Kindle publishing arm, and sit back and wait for the money and accolades to roll in. Unless you have something truly extraordinary and by happenstance someone notable stumbles upon your book and word of mouth spreads quickly, you’re likely looking at watching your work sit unnoticed, gathering the metaphorical dust. Even for traditionally published authors whose publishers do some PR and marketing for them, getting the attention of readers is extraordinarily difficult these days. When you have only yourself, the task is all but insurmountable.
I don’t want to put you off, but if you want to be a writer, you have to be aware that it isn’t an easy row to hoe. Few novelists are able to make a living out of writing. While you may be lucky and hit the jackpot and become one of the few who do, the chances are better than not you won’t (only eight percent of writers in America are able to make their living solely from writing, and the numbers are worse in Canada). As mentioned in the answer to an earlier question, even if you get one book traditionally published, there are no guarantees you’ll get another contract. Publishing is a business, and publishers aren’t interested in writers who don’t have a good track record.
So be patient, grow a thick skin (because you’ll need it to deal with the rejection slips and – if you get published – the reviews, some of which will inevitably be hurtful), be realistic about your chances, and never stop trying. If you keep getting rejected for one novel, then at some point you might want to consider rewriting it, or trying with a different book. I’m not going to promise you that persistence and perseverance will pay off -- that's a myth too many people peddle and too many buy into -- but I promise you that if you don’t try, if you give up too soon, then you’ll never know whether or not you could have made it. Better to have tried and failed than to have not tried at all.
Remember this: Most great accomplishments began as great dreams, and without dreamers, the world wouldn’t be the marvel it is today.
What about reviews? Does it bother you if you get bad ones?
Of course it does. But they’re a fact of a writer’s life. I very much doubt there’s ever been a writer who has gotten one hundred percent rave reviews. There are always people out there who aren’t going to like a given book and even the best of books sometimes receive withering criticism. It could never be otherwise, because we’re all different, and there are many and varied tastes among us.
To new writers, I would probably counsel against reading reviews, but I know from personal experience that that’s easier said than done. I don’t imagine most established writers bother too much with them and don’t spend time fretting over them, but for newly published writers there’s this compulsion to know what people think of what they’ve written. That’s only natural, so it’s difficult not to be tempted to read what people are saying. And when a writer sees people slagging the thing he/she may slaved over for years to bring to fruition, it can be pretty demoralizing.
I try to use criticism constructively and see the silver lining in it. I also keep reminding myself that one can never please everyone. There will be things about any book that some readers will love and which others will not. Some will think the main character brilliant and others will find him/her annoying. Some might marvel at the plot while others will suggest there isn’t any plot, or that it’s tired or hackneyed or silly or any number of things. And people will read all sorts of things into what a writer has written that in all likelihood the writer never meant and on occasion will accuse the writer of offenses he/she certainly had no intention of making. But that’s all right, because most works of art are open to interpretation, and the audience always brings something to it that is their own. No two people will look at a painting, watch a film, listen to a song, or read a book and get exactly the same thing out of it.
What is perhaps the most difficult thing to deal with when it comes to reviews are those occasions when the reviewer strays beyond an objective analysis of a book and makes the issue personal. When a reviewer casts aspersions on the writer (either directly or indirectly) it can be particularly galling – especially when it’s clear the reviewer in question has given the work nothing more than a superficial reading and yet feels qualified to make bold statements about aspects of the novel that are patently untrue. In such cases a writer’s first instinct might be to write a rebuttal, taking the reviewer to task. But that would be a mistake. Writers should avoid engaging with reviewers who have given them poor reviews. Instead, writers need to rely on the intelligence of readers to sort out what is fair and what is not. If a writer has good reviews, an honest reader is going to read those as well as the poor reviews and make a judgment based on that.
The thing is, writers should always always respect their readers – even the ones who hate their books. They should be grateful that there are people taking the time to read their work and who go out of their way to offer their views on it. Remember that readers are the lifeblood of a writer, and without them a writer is only writing for him/herself. And while that may be satisfying on some levels, it certainly doesn’t pay the bills.