About My Book

Learn more about my first book, Six Pack: Emergence.

Sunday, April 9, 2017

Twenty Questions With Brett Armstrong

This week's Twenty Questions sessions is with fellow Clean Reads author Brett Armstrong, whose latest release, Day Moon, is now available. Here is the blurb about Brett's latest release.

In A.D. 2039, a prodigious seventeen year old, Elliott, is assigned to work on a global software initiative his deceased grandfather helped found.  Project Alexandria is intended to provide the entire world secure and equal access to all accumulated human knowledge.  All forms of print are destroyed in good faith, to ensure everyone has equal footing, and Elliott knows he must soon part with his final treasure:  a book of Shakespeare’s complete works gifted him by his grandfather.  Before it is destroyed, Elliott notices something is amiss with the book, or rather Project Alexandria.  The two do not match, including an extra sonnet titled “Day Moon”.  When Elliott investigates, he uncovers far more than he bargained for.  There are sinister forces backing Project Alexandria who have no intention of using it for its public purpose.  Elliott soon finds himself on the run from federal authorities and facing betrayals and deceit from those closest to him.  Following clues left by his grandfather, with agents close at hand, Elliott desperately hopes to find a way to stop Project Alexandria.  All of history past and yet to be depend on it.

You may visit Brett's website here. Now let's hear more from Brett about his book and his interest in writing.

1. How did you get interested in writing?
When I first started I suppose it was a natural outgrowth of reading books at my hometown’s library.  My mom would take me there and spend hours looking over books for the pre-school classes she taught and I would go into the back and read.  I particularly liked the history section and some of it was framed like a newspaper from the time, so I just kind of started writing my own stories about different places and times.  Gradually I started doing serialized stories for journal time at school and read them to my class.  In most situations I really dislike public speaking, but talking about writing and reading stories felt and feels very natural to me. 
I didn’t start seriously writing until I was a junior in college.  When it came time to select a major and a career path, I wanted to go into biomechanical engineering but WVU didn’t offer that so a friend talked me into computer engineering.  The courses were a pain at times and while I could do the work it felt a little like drudgery.  I had to fill some credit hours one semester and couldn’t take a class I needed, because it was full, so I took a creative writing class.  Then another, and another, until I had a minor in it.  I remember very clearly walking back from class one evening and getting about halfway down the hill I was parked on and just feeling like I’d been struck by the most obvious thing I had never considered.  Writing made me feel something very different from other things that I like doing.  Different from drawing, doing math, etc.  I suddenly understood what Eric Liddell, the 1924 Olympic gold medalist, meant when he said, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.

2. What inspired you to come up with this story?
A few different sources really inspired me.  At the time I was graduating from WVU, there were a few controversies in the sports world where people’s achievements were being overturned because of things they had done more recently and it was like they were erasing history to an extent.  I didn’t think the wrongs that had committed should be ignored, but it struck me as very wrong to try to go re-write history so to speak.  Around that time I also had an assignment in my capstone writing class.  Go out and do a writing “scavenger hunt”.  I had to observe certain things and write little story notes based on them.  Except it was raining that day, so I ended up on the portico of the English hall looking out on the campus at the library and I just began writing about a student doing the same thing.  The question of why the library was significant came to mind and that’s when Day Moon started coalescing into its basic outline.  I had the basic premise within a couple days and then proceeded to sit on the story for another two+ years.

3. Tell me about Day Moon’s main character, Elliott, and what inspired you to create him.
I kind of imagined what my son might be like one day.  What he would face, what background he would have, and then let the events shape Elliott’s character from there.  I’ve always had issue with people who say characters are more important than plot.  I think the two are equally important.  I like to let the story pick the characters up and carry them to places they would never expect and in so doing, the characters are shaped by the events.  But at a certain point, the characters’ decisions begin to shape the outcome of the plot and I think the balance there is very important to maintain.  So that’s how it usually works for me.  I start with the seed of a person or persons I’m familiar with and then let the story and characters mutually shape each other so that each takes on a life-like quality.

4. What characters, other than Elliott, did you find enjoyable to write as you progressed with the book?
I really enjoyed writing Lara’s portions, because she’s so snarky.  She’s also a nice foil for Kendra, who is also kind of sharp-tongued but in a very different way.  Then there’s her lovely interactions with Elliott’s cousin, John.  I feel like Lara brought out a lot of fun qualities about all the characters she interacted with, including the Siberian husky they encounter.

5. What are some of the themes you explored in writing the novel?
There are quite a few.  There’s the clash between the old and new, along with the sense of loss that goes along with that.  The familiar theme of deception and wanting something so badly you ignore the obvious warning signs of something worse. Having resiliency and courage to stand up against evil, even when it is a lone stand that may fail.
One of the major themes led me to think up a new application of the word surreality.  Conventionally it means the same thing as surreal, but I think it could hold more nuancing than that.  So I use it meaning, a surreal reality or a surrogate reality.  Which is what a lot of the people, including the protagonists, live in at the novel’s start.  It’s this false reality we conjure for ourselves because it makes getting through actual reality feel easier.  In that respect, the setting of this novel isn’t so different from my first novel, Destitutio Quod Remissio, which was set in ancient Rome.  Ancient Rome suffered the same kind of ills of pretending the world was something it wasn’t for them.  Really that was one thing I think that sets Day Moon apart from some other dystopian works I’ve read.  The horrible situation society is in wasn’t something resulting from a catastrophe per se or something people were drug kicking and screaming into.  It’s based on choices.  The thousands of seemingly inconsequential tradeoffs that get made and we never weigh the consequences.  After a while, even if you want to weigh them, it’s easier to just accept things as they are and move on, pretend some things don’t matter or worth losing.  Self-driving cars in the novel are a good example of this.  There are so many benefits of having them that the manner they were implemented and the sacrifices of some measure of freedom of choice and action and attention to the world around them were overlooked.
There’s also first love, finding your place in the world, and an emphasis on family relationships.  Really there are quite a few spiritual themes as well.  Elliott struggles the entire book with doubt.  Did his grandfather really intend for him to find anything?  Is he up to the challenge of stopping Project Alexandria?  Should Project Alexandria be stopped?  He’s forced to follow the directions left by someone he knows but doesn’t get to have an audible conversation with.  Yet he’s convinced there is something he was being led to do.  In that respect, it is somewhat like following Christ for a Christian.  We know enough about Him to trust Him, but there’s this constant struggle to take that next step forward when things get dark and difficult.  Elliott faces a lot of setbacks and betrayals and each time  has to keep choosing that forward progress. 

6. How familiar were you with Shakespeare’s works when you wrote this novel?
More familiar than many, but less than many as well.  I really enjoyed reading Shakespeare while in school, particularly Macbeth for some reason (probably because my family has a hefty dose of Scottish ancestry).  I knew enough to be dangerous in Jeopardy Shakespeare categories, but really, Shakespeare’s works are so diverse and nuanced it would be a lie to say I’ve got a firm hold on them.  I learned that in particular when I went to actually write the poem “Day Moon” for the novel and had to try to piece together a sonnet in iambic pentameter.   

7. What were some of the things you learned along the way as you wrote and edited the book?
On the editing side, I learned it can actually feel very rewarding to do edits.  Past experiences editing for publication had their highpoints, but this was much more enjoyable.  I have to attribute much of that to the fantastic editors I got to work with. 
A lot of what I learned wasn’t necessarily fresh insight, but more reinforcing of things I was already beginning to latch onto.  There are a whole slew of balances a writer must maintain: character and plot, exposition and pacing, showing and telling, the author’s wants and the reader’s needs, etc.  To an extent, I do agree with the idea that a story writes itself.  I think a novel is likes trekking through the mountains.  You can see peaks in the distance, but much of the journey is going into valleys, through forests, and past rivers; most of which you can’t see at the outset or even for much of the journey.  So it becomes a process of anticipation and surprise for me.  I know some things are going to happen, but there are so many things between point A and point B that I never anticipated, and that was very much true for Day Moon.

8. How did this compare to other novels you have written?
It is a fairly steep divergence on the surface. All of the novels I had written to this point, published or not, had heavy infusions of history in them.  This was a chance to be more direct with how I wrote.  It isn’t really fair to say I was looking to the future more than with historical fiction, because I firmly believe historical fiction can say as much about today and tomorrow as it does about yesterday, but this was subtly different.  It was also the first time I found a setting so close to home for a book.  Everything else was always far flung, beyond Appalachia by at least hundreds, and often thousands, of miles.  It was a chance to explore some of what growing up in Appalachia felt like to me, some of my sharpest memories of it.

9. Tell me about this story you wrote when you were nine that took place in the Aztec Empire.
So, it was actually a three part series that makes me wonder about myself at that age.  The series, called “Aztec” (creative, I know), was about a slave who was taken prisoner after a rival people group was subdued.  In the Aztec culture, such captives were often sacrificed, but this slave was clever and managed to escape.  He blended into the backdrop of Aztec culture, rose through the ranks, and eventually gets revenge by murdering the Aztec Emperor.  He began installing himself in the felled emperor’s place, but the emperor’s son, Moctezuma II, escaped the palace purge and eventually launched his own campaign to retake the empire. In the final third of it, Moctezuma II is just beginning to cement his rule when Cortez arrives and some of the story was just feeling out how that encounter could have played out and the viewpoints of each side as things degenerated.  Somehow I managed to get that into like fifteen or twenty hand written pages and I’ve never been so succinct since.

10. What do you find is the right environment for you to write?
Everywhere.  I drift off into introspection fairly easily, so things for stories can literally come just about any time.  At the moment, the time I most often find myself doing concerted writing, like answering this question, is sometime between 10 PM and 1 AM while my wife and son are sleeping.  I have a full time job, so I feel guilty whenever I’m not with them for those brief hours I can see them, which leaves the late night to write.

11. Are there specific programs or tools you find useful to help you with the writing process?
Lately, I’ve found that handwriting in a notebook with a fine lead pencil (because my print is pretty small) my initial drafts and then typing them up later works well.  I usually write in long bursts, getting entire scenes or chapters done at a time and outlining subsequent passages all at once.  That means there are usually lots of grammar and punctuation errors to clean up later.  Opportunities to polish the prose for the official (that is digital) first draft.  Excel is also really useful for charting out things like characters and their attributes, settings and details about them, and later on anything related to marketing the book.

12. What have you found to be useful methods for promoting your writing?
So much of the successes I’ve had really happened without much action from me.  I feel like a lot of my efforts end in vain and when I let God guide me to something new it works much better.  But if I had to name something discrete, though I didn’t really purpose it myself, when my first book won the CrossBooks contest, I was interviewed by the major newspaper in my state.  It didn’t cause sales to go wild, but it has been a seed that has led to a steady stream of other opportunities that would have been unlikely to come about without it.  Of course social media. Just as a quirky suggestion though, I had a booth at a book festival and my first book was set in ancient Rome, so rather than have bookmarks or something else with the synopsis on them, my family and I made tiny scrolls with the back cover copy on them.  They were a pain, but one woman picked one up and months later posted a five star review on GoodReads after purchasing the book, and attributed her circling back to the book to that little scroll she was handed. Unique, memorable touches like that can really go a long way.

13. What are some of the famous books or authors you have enjoyed or inspired you?
I didn’t read Lord of the Rings till college or The Chronicles of Narnia till just last year, but I would consider both massively inspiring.  Then, of course, there’s Shakespeare, HG Wells, Robert Louis Stevenson, Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe, and the Arthur legends.  Some inspiration when it came to dystopian writing were of course 1984, Brave New World, Fahrenheit 411, and The Hunger Games.  Even though Picasso said, “Good artists borrow, but great artists steal,” I try not to just retell someone else’s story.  So I think what I take most often are ideas for themes and tones.  How to nuance the story I’m led to rather than outright form it. If any of that makes sense.

14. Any aspiring or independent authors whose books you’ve read that you liked and want to mention to others to check out?
Bob Morris’s new book: Six Pack Emergence. J  I would also have to say for those interested in Christian fiction, I’ve talked with a few authors personally and Curt Iles, Joel Thimell, and Robert Craven all have the right heart behind the writing. They’re each in very different genres but all have some good stuff.  Though, honestly, for a long time I kind of eschewed anything that wasn’t a classic or handed to me because it was wildly popular.  The more I read independent works and less vaunted traditional publications, the less fame and big name publishers seem to mean when it comes to having an enjoyable book to read.

15. What advice would you give to those who want to write a novel before they actually get started?
Take some time to pray about it.  Then if he or she still feels compelled, then go for it.  Don’t wait for perfect timing or the novel to be fully formed and in mind.  To me writing a novel is like travelling through the mountains.  You have a destination in mind and you can see some key points along the route there, but all the depth and substance really takes place as you move from point to point.  It’s one of the most rewarding parts of writing a novel, because you feel as though you’re discovering the story as you write it.

16. I see you like to draw. Have you ever tried creating your own covers for anything you’ve written?
I actually made a cover for everything I wrote from age nine till high school.  I sketched out what I wished the cover for my novel Destitutio Quod Remissio could have been like and even made some concept art for the logo of Project Alexandria in Day Moon.  It’s been a kind of back burner ambition of mine to create a still image book trailer for a fantasy series I’ve been working on for some time.  I just don’t give nearly enough time to making it happen.  Though, the best cover art I’ve ever done for a novel, by far, is the graphic design I did for my first adult novel, which remains unpublished though I went almost to the end of self-publishing before backing off with it.  There’s still a picture of it on my website and if I ever get a publisher to pick it up I will beg them to consider using it at least in part.

17. You enjoy gardening – what are some of the plants you like to grow?
Pumpkins, zucchini, and hot peppers tend to be our favorites.  We usually get enough pumpkin to last all year and for several years my wife and I have had a hot, but edible, pepper growing contest with my dad (who is a much more serious gardener).  We have a blind taste test of peppers we choose to enter and then each score the peppers we taste on a scale of 1 to 10.  The last time my wife and I won with Dragon Cayenne peppers.  They’re only about 80,000 Scoville units, but that’s really pushing the limits of what I consider conventionally edible anyway.

18. How has your Christian faith influenced you and your writing?
Forgive me, because I’m going to be a bit redundant and rehash a little of #1. 
It’s why I’m writing.  When I graduated high school I wanted to get a “practical” degree for a good career.  But after a few years at WVU I took a creative writing class for fun.  Suddenly, writing which had always been a hobby felt so serious, so essential.  I started to understand Olympian Eric Liddell, who said, “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.”  It just suddenly clicked for me that I should write.  As I’m sure you’ve experienced, writing can be a roller coaster ride. Especially when you start trying to publish things and involve agents, publishing houses, marketing… basically everything that frightens and discourages me about writing.  A number of times I’ve asked God, whether me pursuing writing is really what He wants me to do.  I still work a full time job, I have a family, and writing can be costly in terms of money and certainly time.  Every time, without fail, when I’ve been on the precipice of giving up, something has happened to turn me around.  Once it was a man who works in the same organization I do, whom I’ve never met, who read the article in the newspaper about me and more than a year later e-mailed me to say, essentially God had been leading him to say some encouraging words to me.  He didn’t know why but he knew he needed to and he had bought five copies of my first book to give away. 
More to the point, it gives me focus and purpose.  It’s not about getting famous or becoming wealthy or even gaining a career as a novelist.  I’m very much convinced fictional writing can shape how we feel and respond to the real world, so I want to write things that are meaningful. If it can impact one person’s life for the better, then it is all worth it.

19. Is there a favorite type of activity you enjoy doing with your wife and son?
Being able to go for walks together is pretty special.  We live a couple hundred yards from the road our mailbox is on, so we walk out and get the mail together as a family. Those walks often end in chasing our little guy all over the place, which only makes it so much better.

20. Who would win a battle of superhero skills: Superman, Batman or Wonder Woman?
This is a tough question because I’m uber-biased in favor of Batman.  But I think I can justify it.  If the metric is purely superhero skills, then Batman has to crush the competition.  Superman and Wonder Woman each have incredible strength, speed, and a host of other super human (or metahuman as DC terms it) abilities.  Often when fighting a foe, they fly in fast, punch a lot and use a special super power until they defeat their adversary.  Batman, on the other hand, spends time and effort to develop counter-measures for adversaries.  He has mastered a variety of martial arts and in spite of being just an above average human is able to keep up when the pressure is on with Superman and Wonder Woman.  His effort and nuancing to his work require more skill.  So until Superman and Wonder Woman display that kind of resourcefulness I will have to go with Batman every time.

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