AUTHOR: Erec Stebbins
BOOK TITLE: The Ragnarök Conspiracy
PUBLISHER: Seventh Street Books (imprint of Prometheus Books)
1. Why don't you start with telling us a little about yourself? What genre do you write in and why?
I am a biomedical researcher in New York who has been writing in a number of genres for many years. These efforts were mostly for the “art” of it, and I had not initially thought about offering my work up for sale. In 2008, I wrote a thriller born from the emotions of the September 11 attacks, and when I finished I decided to try and publish it.
The success of that endeavor now has me plotting a series of political and international thrillers, even as I now consider publishing some of my previous writings in other genres.
In general, my stories usually are born from the raw emotional conflicts created by contemporary events around me, either personal or societal. I also feel that the best stories challenge us, so for stories beyond personal events, I try to create art with a certain kind of relevant edge, at least as I experience it.
2. Tell me about your current book which you are promoting.
My debut novel, The Ragnarök Conspiracy, is the thriller I mentioned that was engendered by the 9/11 attacks. One of the best summaries that doesn’t reveal too much was given by author Alan Leverone when he said that it “turns the traditional terrorist thriller on its head.”
At its root are two divergent responses to the threats revealed by those attacks. My protagonist and antagonist each suffered a terrible loss, but deal with it in two ways that lead them in the end to a global clash. John Savas is an FBI counter-terrorism agent who finds himself battling a new terrorist group that is driving the world to a global conflict between the Islamic and Western nations. He must overcome the emotions of losing his son to Islamic terrorism in order to work with a Muslim CIA agent to stop the diabolical plan of a madman with the resources to set the world on fire.
3. How long have you been writing?
I became passionate about creative writing in high school. With three close friends I published an “underground” magazine called WoR?PeD. Using PC’s pre-Windows and a Commodore 64 (dating myself), it was a good example of DIY self-publishing in another era! Since we were the writers, editors, and publishers, we had total freedom to experiment, and I would write essays, humor, poetry, sci-fi, you name it. Later, the burdens on my time of a science career and family made writing something of a forgotten hobby for many years. As my two daughters grew up, however, I rediscovered my old passion. I’m hoping that the arrival of our newborn son will not interrupt that rediscovery too much! Maybe with age will come some scheduling wisdom
4. What got you interested in writing, and what inspired you to write your first book?
In general, my interest has always been in creating things, building things, giving birth to things. I always liked Tolkien’s quote that “Fantasy remains a human right: we make in our measure and in our derivative mode, because we are made: and not only made, but made in the image and likeness of a Maker.”
Whatever an artist’s religious leanings, there is this calling, this (often obsessive) drive to create. It can be manifest in construction, in fashion, in the traditional arts, and of course in writing. I long ago learned that no amount of effort on my part would make me able to produce graphic arts (at least by hand), but I was more adept with the written and spoken (or sung!) word. So, writing allowed me to create entire worlds, characters, events, the stories already playing in my head with an over-active (or properly active?) imagination.
As for my first book, that would be an unpublished novella called Junk Man, a work with no discernable commercial potential (as far as I can tell). What led me to write that was the usual: the story demanded to be told. I had no plans to write Junk Man – it had plans for me. My old friend Insomnia visited in Greece while seeing family there, and suddenly in the middle of the night my protagonists began speaking in my mind. Taking forms. The story was fleshed out roughly by morning. Their voices were strong, real, and would not be denied. So, I wrote them as best as I could.
As for my first published novel, The Ragnarök Conspiracy, as I mentioned, it was my own idiosyncratic emotional response to the attacks on my city on 911. Perhaps cryptically, one could say the germ of the story came from a simple question I asked in the years after those events: “Why hasn’t there been an American bin Laden?”
5. Do you outline before you write? If not, what’s your initial process?
Yes, I’m an outliner. But I’m also a scientist who used to write a lot of computer code, so perhaps I’m doomed to structuring things. Especially for the thrillers with multiple story threads that must intersect in chronologically realistic ways, I simply have to flow out timelines and outlines of the events and story/character arcs. I even posted my outline for The Ragnarök Conspiracy at one point on Facebook because I found my hand-drawn timeline entertaining.
6. What comes first: the plot or the characters?
A conflict. Always there is at root an emotional storm of some kind. That storm then becomes incarnate in characters, who act, creating events. When a few strong events based on that emotional conflict won’t leave my mind for some time, I decide to write the story. The events are then used to seed a larger plot, depending on the nature of the story, the genre, etc.
7. Which of your characters do you love/hate/fear/pity the most and why?
Tough one. A toss up between John Savas and Husaam Jordan. To me, John Savas is the quintessential wounded soldier. A former NYPD cop who lost his son on 911, he saved himself from an emotional downward spiral by channeling his anger and hurt into counter-terrorism. His life is thereby focused on a never-ending war, and therefore he can’t allow himself the range of human emotions he possesses internally, spanning the spectrum from love to spirituality. He suppresses them to stay sharp and focus on his personal war with terrorists. His “bunker mentality” is challenge badly by the Muslim CIA agent Husaam Jordan. Jordan pulls at me because he is a young black male who pulled himself out of the ghettos and gang violence. Part of that journey involved his embrace of Islam, and he is passionate and unflinching in his devotion to both God and justice.
8. What was the hardest part of writing your book?
As my first thriller, The Ragnarök Conspiracy required me to shed my 20 plus years of academic and research oriented style. Re-write after re-write I tried to find ways to make the pacing more in line with the expectations of the genre. Initially, as many agents told me in rejections, they loved the premise but it was too slow, too academic. Too many meetings and discussions. Too many characters. See, I’m the kind of person who found “The Council of Elrond” in The Fellowship of the Ring to be one of his favorite chapters! That chapter is epic in length, with nested narratives, multiple unknown characters barely introduced. But not everyone likes that sort of thing! So, it was a learning experience, but I knew the story could best be told as a thriller. My second thriller was written from the get-go with a different mentality, and is far more intensely paced. Hopefully that book will find a home soon!
9. Did your book require a lot of research? How long does it take to write a book for you?
I do research for a living, so I’m comfortable diving into information. Since I’ve never been training in law enforcement, military operations, firearms, explosives, Old Norse, or visited most of the locations in my book, let’s just say there was a lot of googling. In today’s world, nearly all of human knowledge is online, and specific information is just the right search keywords away. Not just information, but locations, satellite images, floor plans, blueprints of weapons, explosives, factsheets on ballistics, troop formations, terrorist groups, and even ancient Northern languages! Not everything is there (the CIA is so uncooperative!), but truly it’s astounding how easy it is to find things out now. One danger, however, is getting caught up in the research and spending too much time with the endless internet library and delaying the writing.
As for how long to write – I write very quickly. Not always polished, not close to finalized. I’m good at getting the clay thrown onto the wire skeleton in a short period of time and roughing out the basic shape. This is my MO because psychologically I need to see a creation coming to be. It may be rough, but it seems real, tangible, 100 pages already! I then go back and do rounds and rounds of revision based on my review and the critiques of others.
I wrote the first draft of The Ragnarök Conspiracy in about three months, between the hours of 10pm-2am when my wife and children were sleeping. My second thriller was written in a similar total time frame.
10. What are some of the challenges in your writing process?
Love scenes. It has been frustrating and humbling to find out that I am terribly stereotypically “male”. I easily write action scenes that most find very engaging. I struggle with romance and the product of such efforts has received, shall we say, very mixed reviews. For The Ragnarök Conspiracy, while there was an important romantic subplot (very critical to the emotional journey of the protagonist), it saw progressively decreasing “air time” as critiques came in and I did re-writes. My second novel has even less romance, even though there is again a core element of a love story there. A challenge for me is to find a way to awaken my inner 50 Shades of Grey.
11. Describe your writing space.
Wherever I can sit with my laptop. Basically that’s it, although it has to be distraction free. And coffee or tea must be near. Or at night, whisky.
12. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?
Between running a lab and spending time with my family, there isn’t much time left! But I also have a strong interest in music. I play a few instruments very “amateurly”, and the last few years began making Native American style flutes, an instrument I especially love. I began with wood, paperclays, and ceramic clays, and then involved my technical side and began designing flutes on the computer for use in the new manufacturing method called “3D printing”.
I also like making videos, and put a lot of amateur time into designing and producing “book trailers” for my novels. You could link to them, perhaps!
Trailer for The Ragnarök Conspiracy: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-WEDPZ3QZRA
Teaser for my next thriller: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_5eeTN3KvEA
13. What books or authors have influenced your writing?
J.R.R. Tolkien was a dominant early influence, even, or especially, his long historical accounts of his legendarium. Others that have meant a lot to me over the years are Kurt Vonnegut, Robert Ludlum, George Orwell, Dan Simmons, Tom Clancy, Frank Herbert, and Olaf Stapledon. I think Stapeldon’s “Star Maker” remains one of the more profound works I have encountered, followed closely by Dan Simmons’ more entertainment oriented Hyperion/Endymion novels. Some of the thrilling protagonists of Clancy and Ludlum inform my sense of what a thriller “should” be to this day.
14. What so you see for the future of publishing and e-books?
Ebooks are already, and will only grow as, a huge part of publishing. I think recent numbers show that about 1/3 of adult fiction is purchased as an ebook? While paper is familiar and has certain advantages, it also has disadvantages. There is nothing like carrying around a library in a device thinner than a notepad, or partaking in the convenience of reading about a novel online, talking with friends on Facebook about it, and then “1-clicking it” to your living room faster than you can make coffee to sip as you read. And many of the “advantages” of paper are likely more perceptions of old folks like me who grew up with the medium, and the coming generations may have very different assessments of the value of different media. Already, even the dinosaurs are switching en masse to ebooks for a large percentage of their fiction consumption.
I think there is going to be a dramatic flux in the next 10-20 years, but a sure thing is that paper will diminish (perhaps significantly, even to a niche market). Publishers are scrambling to come to terms with this brave new world, many will go under, many will merge, some will reinvent and perhaps help transform things. Amazon is the new prince and we’ll see how long that lasts. But the technology is bigger than any company.
Also, it makes self-publishing trivial, which for many who write works that lack commercial potential (but not necessarily skill or significance), they can realize the call of their muse. Some complain that “now everyone is an author.” Sounds to me like what some medieval scribes might have said about the printing press!
15. What are your current books out right now, and what are the books coming up for
To date, only my debut, The Ragnarök Conspiracy, is out. My second thriller, tentatively titled “Extraordinary Retribution”, is finished, and I’m looking for a publisher for this far more intense (even than Ragnarök) political/action thriller.
I am also planning to take advantage of the ebook/POD revolution to produce and release some of my old efforts that are unlikely to pass any marketing filters. For 2013, these include Junk Man, which I’ve tentatively classified as “trashheap redneck mystic lit”, Reader (“dystopic cosmic quest”), and, of all things, a storybook “for not-quite grownups” called The Caterpillar and the Stone to be released in print and as an interactive iBook.
16. What is your marketing plan?
For The Ragnarök Conspiracy, I read all the how-tos, and went for it. I have a small publisher, so while they could work with the traditional publishing lines, a lot was up to me. I set up author and book websites and Facebook pages. I did interviews, signings, tried Facebook and Google ads (I still think my Hannity ad is a masterpiece). I made a series of trailers into which I sunk a good bit of time and money. I thought to myself “This book has many deep contemporary touchstones, and maybe it can gain some traction if I can somehow get it above the white noise of 8 million books a year at Amazon.” My advance is basically gone on all this! I do recommend day jobs.
Currently, I’ve backed off a lot from this initial, frenzied surge. I’m not really a salesman, and I tired quickly of marketing. I have now redesigned my webpage to be less “thriller branded”, and more representative of who I am and what I will do artistically. Perhaps this is not what the mavens would recommend, but it’s better for and more true to me.
17. What advice would you give a new writer just starting out?
Since I am still a relatively unknown writer, I’m not sure I should give out much advice! I have been traditionally published, so I can say that this was for me a long slog, and a tough one to find representation and a publisher. Traditional publishing in this age of DIY offers great advantages in getting talented people to edit and distribute your book. But there are “loss of control” disadvantages as well. If you want to go traditional, I can say persistence is likely more important than method (although both are obviously important). I sent out over 1000 query letters over several years. I nearly self-published on multiple occasions, including just a month before I was offered a publishing contract! Patience and persistence and a thick skin were essential.
If you finally throw in the trad-pub towel, and decide to self-publish, remember most don’t make much money from it. Also, remember that most authors don’t make much money through traditional publishing, either! In addition, the more tech savvy you are from documents and layout to graphics design, the better for DIY. Otherwise, you will end up with a cheap looking product or end up paying free-lancers a lot of money.
18. Where can people learn more about you and your work?
My website at erecstebbins.com has information on my books as well as links to my flute and science websites. I am also on twitter (@erecstebbins) and have an author page at Facebook (www.facebook.com/ErecStebbins). I’m also available for scheduled events at Togather if you want me to sign books and come talk about anything from terrorism or toxins (www.togather.com/erecstebbins)!