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Thursday, November 5, 2009

Interview with Gary A. Ballard (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Fantasy Book Critic was able to sit down and interview Gary A. Ballard. Gary A. Ballard is the author of Under the Amoral Bridge, the first in The Bridge Chronicles. Read FBC's review of Under the Amoral Bridge here.

We'd like to thank Gary A. Ballard for taking the time to interview with us.
Mihir would also like to thank Robert Thompson and Liviu Suciu for their help and inspiration with this interview.


For the benefit of readers, could you tell us about yourself and why you chose to write?

Born and raised in Mississippi, I’ve been an avid reader for as long as I can remember. I blame my school teacher mom. One of my favorite places as a kid was the library, the other being the local newsstand where I bought comic books. Comics, science fiction and fantasy were my favorite things to read, and all of those escapist stories of these marvelous other places and other worlds that were bigger than life and bigger than the rural places where I grew up lit a fire in my head. I started banging out really bad stories at 11 – most of them sword and sorcery fantasy, real Dungeons & Dragons stuff, all because I wanted the D&D boxed set for Christmas. I would stare at that boxed set in the store and dream up stories. Then I’d type those stories out on an old electric typewriter we had sitting in the laundry room. I’d say my love of comics and my love of role-playing games kept me writing through my teen and college years.

What can you tell us about this book specifically and the Bridge chronicles?

About 15 years ago, I came up with a pen and paper roleplaying game, wrote up a whole backstory on the world and did some playtest sessions with some buddies. All along I had in the back of my mind a series of novels set in the world that would accompany the RPG. I had some good initial response, then went and tried to redesign the system and the new system just didn’t work. It was way too exploitable. I shelved the game but never stopped thinking about the novel. It was about that time I got involved in MMOG’s, specifically Everquest and Dark Age of Camelot. I ran a guild for about 2 ½ years and it’s amazing how much of my time that sucked up. I rarely wrote. It wasn’t until shortly after 9/11 that something snapped for me. I had turned 30 a few months earlier, the guild was successful but there were a ton of interpersonal clashes and drama. All that drama causes an unbelievably crazy amount of stress. I took a step back and realized that a lot of my existential angst was over the fact that I’d done nothing with this great idea for a novel. I quit the game, handed over leadership and started writing.

I finally finished that first novel and had it ready for publication in 2005. Two years of failed attempts to publish had me rewriting that novel, but again, I got no traction with publishers. Objectively, I can see now that it was way too long, there were too many main characters and it needed professional editing. It also isn't what I would consider a mass market work – at best it’s a niche book. Cyberpunk is a sub-genre of sci-fi which is in itself a niche genre – so I’m trying to sell a niche of a niche to a mass market audience. Finally in late 2007, I decided to try an experiment. Rather than butt my head against the typical publishing world ritual of writing a ton of short stories and having them published in magazines to build notoriety, I’d write a short novel and publish it serially on a blog. I’d use this novel as an advertisement for the original novel. The story was meant to be kind of a bridge. That’s literally how I came up with the main character’s name: he’s a bridge, the story is a bridge, I’ll call him Bridge. I’d tell the story of some of the world events that lead up to the “main” novel. But along the way, I found I really really like this character. Bridge is a complete bastard, but you can’t look away: you have to see what he does next. Once I finished the novel, I knew there were other stories that I wanted to tell in that universe, significant events in the world’s backstory . That’s where the next two novels in the Bridge Chronicles have come from – the second was just completed online this August and the third is being written now.

On your blog you have first serialized this novel & then done the same with the sequel to it, any particular reasons behind this creative endeavor?

My day job is in Internet marketing and as part of that, I’ve started using social media as a marketing platform. Putting the novel online first was a way to experiment with distribution channels, to see how a complete unknown could promote his work using the Internet almost exclusively. I believe the “freemium” business model has potential, i.e. giving something away to get a customer to pay in the future. A big-time established novelist can “pull a Radiohead” by allowing the customer to choose how much they want to pay (or if they want to pay at all) for a work. But can a guy like me do that? We’ll see. I like to give the people who might actually become fans of my work a little something no matter how they choose to experience it. With ads on the web site, if I can build up enough traffic, even the free version will one day pay me back – or I can sell the paperback/ebook and get paid more directly. I view the web site as “the director’s cut” version of the novel – it has extras that aren’t in print, like the GlobalPedia articles. The print version has the extra short story that doesn’t appear online.

How did you end up writing about The Bridge chronicles? What was the spark of inspiration behind it?

See the long answer above about how the Chronicles started. The spark of inspiration was really that idea of a bridging novel, to the point where the character was a bridge as well. Not just in how he makes a living, being “the bridge” between someone with a need and someone to fulfill that need, but also in bridging the reader from this point in time to the point in time of the original novel. He also bridges the reader over to the characters that make up that first novel. The cop character, Gina Danton, was one of the characters from the original novel, and she’ll have a bigger part in the third Bridge novel. Another character in Under the Amoral Bridge is a big part of the original novel as well.

On your blog you have also mentioned about your poor eyesight, how do you reconcile this with your writing?

Well, I’m exaggerating a bit – I’m not actually blind. I’m just so nearsighted I might as well be without my glasses. The only thing I need to reconcile is to wear my glasses when I write. I will say though that if there was one piece of future tech I’d want from the gear I write about, it’d be cybereyes. Everybody talks about flying cars as their measure for the future. Hell with that – as badly as most of the idiots on the road drive regular cars, do we really want to put them thousands of feet in the air with a z-axis to worry about? No, we do not. Give me cybereyes with telescopic vision and a HUD and I am there.

Your story, by blurb details, would fall in the "Cyberpunk" genre, what does it mean to you and do you agree whether your story should be listed under such.

Bridge is definitely cyberpunk. Cyberpunk is a great genre, it’s such a melding of disparate elements from other genres that you can tell a lot of great stories. I look at it as urban political drama with whacked out metal gear. It’s our everyday class struggle, the haves holding down the have nots but with the individual rediscovering their power in the face of oligarchic oppression through the strategic (or desperate) use of knowledge. It’s noir detective fiction with existential protagonists who skirt the edge of nihilistic depression fighting back against the inexorable strength of capitalistic muscle. Action movies, animation, comic books, pop culture, it all gets stirred up in this soup and juxtaposed against these greater philosophical questions about the abuse of technology and the depersonalization of modern life.

Who are your literary idols? What are some of your favourite books?

I read really slowly, unfortunately, so I don’t read as much as I like. But I’m always reading something. My cyberpunk inspirations are what I call the big 3: Gibson, Sterling and Stephenson. Snow Crash is just the business. My literary inspirations are diverse: Camus; Sartre; Kerouac, Burroughs and Ginsberg, the whole beat generation really. Babylon 5 had a big impact on me. John Woo action movies and the early work of Tarantino before he turned into a self-indulgent muppet. Guy Ritchie’s first two movies. The comic work of Eisner, Frank Miller, Alan Moore and Dave Sim. And of course, video games.

How would you describe this book or your writing style to get a potential reader enticed?

Under the Amoral Bridge is a political thriller set up against a cyberpunk future of a city owned by corporations. It's a fast-paced page-turner, with some subtle and not so subtle examinations of morality, democracy and the abuse of power. The protagonist is a witty, acerbic bastard, the kind of guy you want to punch in the face while being completely absorbed in every rotten thing he does.

What do you do when you are not writing or reading books, what are your other hobbies?

I play video games, mostly PC games like FPS and MMOG’s, and console sports games. And I watch a lot of TV – I maintain that Tivo is the single greatest invention since the television. I’m a huge sports fan: I watch as much football and soccer (go Liverpool!) as I can, with a bit of baseball, hockey and rugby mixed in.

What type of writer are you. An Outliner or a freewriter? And could you give us a glimpse of your writing style and schedule?

I’ve never been much of an outliner, though I’m trying to correct that a bit with the third book. Everyone I’ve ever heard give advice about how to write is to do so on a schedule, but I don’t necessarily work best that way. What I do is think about what I’m going to write – whenever I’ve an idle moment, whether it be while driving to work or walking the dogs, I’m thinking about scenes I’m going to be writing. I often will write phrases or bits of dialogue in my head way before I ever write them down. The final conversation between Bridge and Thames in the first novel was written at least 3 or 4 months before I ever got to that chapter. It just wasn’t written down. I take few notes, which means I probably won’t leave much work to be published posthumously. But when I get to the act of writing it down, I barrel through the novel in a linear fashion. I start with chapter 1 and go straight through. I don’t skip around. I usually know the beginning, the ending and a few important scenes and the rest I make up as I go along. My schedule is sporadic – since I work normal office hours at my day job, weekends are the best time for me to write. My Saturday morning is usually get up, walk the dogs, eat a bowl of cereal and watch a game of footie, then try to write at least one “chunk.” Since I’ve started serializing my work and hammered out about how long I want a reader to digest in one serial sitting, that chunk unit is variable but tends to come much easier.

How has the reader feedback been since you started serializing your books?

Slow to come. Finding readers is difficult without any sort of mainstream press exposure, but the ones I’ve found have responded positively.

What do you think of the cross-pollination today between different formats such as film, novels, comic books, television, et cetera? If given a chance to do the Bridge Chronicles in any other format which would be your first choice & why?

I’m all for cross-pollination. The way the publishing world is structured, writers make dick – even bestselling authors make pretty low margins per book. Without being a best seller with a sweetheart deal, a writer either has to write in copious amounts, or he has to merchandise the intellectual property. Even if a movie tanks, the writer is likely to make as much if not more from selling the movie rights than from selling books. That’s a horrible situation, but it is what it is. If the different mediums treat the original story with respect while altering the message for the medium, it’s all good. I would love to see a Bridge movie or TV show – one of my backburnered projects is to knock up a screenplay for Under the Amoral Bridge in case I ever get approached. I’d love to direct movies or TV, but it would take a special kind of crazy to give a neophyte like me that kind of control.

Since you are going the E-publishing way along with a lot many authors. How much do you feel will the publishing world is paying/not paying attention to this crucial format?

Like most of the traditional media, the publishing world has been glacially slow in responding to the possibilities of digital production. Something like the print-on-demand technology that I’m using with CreateSpace to produce my book would represent a revolution in the way books are sold if only the mainstream publishing world would get involved. But like any kind of legacy industry, it’s hard to argue with “we’ve made money like this for a hundred years.” A lot of heavy players make a lot of money from the way things are – much like our healthcare industry. Unfortunately, the status quo doesn’t really help the majority of authors. The “mid-list” novel has disappeared. The only people getting the press are established best sellers, celebrity tell-alls, nonfiction books with controversy attached or the rare media sensation. And if you self-publish, getting any media coverage at all is almost impossible. In fact, many agents, publishers and or media outlets won’t touch you with a ten-foot pole. It’s a shame – I understand there are lots of crazy cranks out there self-publishing their batshit insane manifestos, but there are good authors writing good material like me. I think the stigma of self-publishing is going to lessen over time as technologies like POD and the Internet gain favor, but the publishing world is going to have to see the dollars before it shifts its thinking in any sort of concerted way.

In your book and amongst many SF books there are various degrees of dystopian future shown with a spectacular rise in technology as well as human decadence, what do you think is the curious reason of this setup which is as much as an SF cliché as in the farmboy-prince cliché in fantasy?

Initially, I think the dystopian future settings could be chalked up to a bit of millennial fever – this idea that the world would end in the year 2000 lent everyone a sort of nihilistic fatalism. Combine that with the end of the Cold War in the ‘80’s and suddenly the zeitgeist is one of confusion. How does this new world work? Who are the players? Who is evil? Who is good? You take an event like the Cold War, with its ridiculous assumptions of this titanic struggle of monolithic entities embodying good and evil, and then you make people realize that it was all bullshit. There was no Evil Empire, just some folks over there who were a lot like us, with leaders that put ideology above the good of their people. And the culture starts to feel adrift, cut loose from its moorings. The 90’s brought another massive cultural upheaval with the rise of the Internet – and it causes the same kind of confused outlook on the world. People start to feel as if maybe the clock is slowly ticking down, we’re seeing the end of days. The normal individual feels dwarfed by all these massive changes that are out of their control. Technology intrudes on every aspect of our lives: we don’t bank anymore, we hit the ATM; we don’t look at the newspaper for movie times, we go online; we don’t send letters anymore, it’s all email; our company just got bought out by another faceless corporation AGAIN. All of that combines to make the individual feel smaller and smaller, less in control of his fate. And there is that fatalistic attitude, that inherent nihilism left over from 20th century culture that says “eventually, we’re going to wipe ourselves out.” So if the present is this bad now, how much worse can the future get? The future in the 50’s was all flying cars and silvery clothes – a shining future with disease wiped out. It very much mirrored the zeitgeist of the times, which was that the American Dream was alive and well and embodied by the Cleaver family. Of course, underneath all that conformist, optimistic prosperity, there was a brewing civil rights problem and the beat generation was feeling disaffected from the culture. Minorities and women were living in quiet desperation like second class citizens. The 60’s and 70’s woke us up. The future isn’t flying cars, it’s this scary dark place controlled by soulless corporations and uncaring, weakened governments. It makes a great setting for a plethora of stories, regardless of how far from reality it eventually turns out to be.

In your book you have also come up with a newer form of neural internet and body jacks could you expound on this technology as imagined by you. Could you discuss a bit more about the impact of technology on humanity?

The neural internet and interface jacks in Under is me taking the concepts from the RPG Cyberpunk 2020 and Stephenson’s Snow Crash and putting my own spin on them. I explain a bit more about that in the my GlobalPedia section on the web site: the cyberware (Click here) and the GlobalNet (Click here) articles. Those give a really good idea of how the tech works. There’s actually an underlying theme that’s going to be expanded on throughout both the Bridge series and the later books that I don’t want to spoil now. But suffice to say, the tech isn’t all it appears. But even in the beginning, even with Bridge, you see the dark side of this wonderful tech, how it affects the hackers physically, socially, emotionally, mentally. Bridge refuses to use the interface jack to its fullest potential, likening it to an addiction. Angela is really in some serious dire straits, barely coming out of the net to eat. These crèches are built to sustain the body for days, weeks on end, stimulating the muscles with electric shocks to fight atrophy, feeding the body intravenously. But even with that, it still takes a hellish toll. That’s going to become even more obvious as the series goes on. The people who dedicate themselves to this tech are addicted to it, and there are designer virtual drugs out there like Trip that enhance the experience, but often at a terrible price. I’m a firm believer in the judicious use of technology, despite being an unrepentant geek – just because you can build something doesn’t always mean you should. For instance, cell phones. Talk about a technology that is being overused and oversold. Yes, there are situations where everyone could use a cell phone. But 99% of the time, 99% of the people out there do not need one of these wedges of plastic stuck to their forehead. Sometimes, it’s nice to be out of pocket. That’s the kind of mentality I view the tech in the novels. It’s fantastic stuff, but beware the price, both the sticker price and the hidden cost.

How do you envision your future and what can readers expect from you?

For the near future, it’ll be all about the Bridge. The second novel, The Know Circuit is available in full online and I plan to package it up as a trade paperback as well in February, 2010. I’ve already written the first draft for the short story that’ll be included in that one. Here’s a spoiler: it involves Paulie. I love writing the Paulie character, he lets me get my English Guy Ritchie thug on. As I said, the third novel is in progress – as of last night, I’m about halfway through chapter 2. I plan on releasing it serially on the web just like the others starting in February. After that, I’ve got about five ideas for novels to pick from, including that original series in the same universe as Bridge. And I could certainly get an idea for another Bridge novel while writing this next one. Whether or not I continue to publish them on the web before self-publishing the paperback version depends on the success of this model.


Fantasy_Fiction_Online said...

Wow, great interview!
Thanks for posting it!

The Reader said...

Thanks for your comments. I hope you enjoy the book too.



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