What if you were charged with the responsibility, and given the power, to correct all that you perceive as evil in the world, maybe even the universe? Such is the compelling premise of author Scott Skipper’s latest novel, Gravity Waves.
Interviewer: Christina Hamlett
Q: A lot of authors who identify themselves as voracious readers discovered the joys of reading at a young age. Was that the case for you?
A: Absolutely. I think it was in the third grade I started getting serious about reading. The Bookmobile’s arrival was a life-changing event. I lived in a rural area and wasn’t allowed to cross the street, so going to the library was not an option.
Q: What books might we have found on the nightstand of your 10-year-old self? Your teenage self? Your current nightstand as an adult?
A: At 10, it would have probably been Robert Heinlein. Around that time I remember starting Gulliver’s Travels, but it was so long I had to return it to the aforementioned Bookmobile after having read only the first three voyages. To this day I love the concept of the flappers of Laputa. At my father’s suggestion, I segued into Edgar Rice Burroughs and finished his Martian and Venusian series before tackling Tarzan. Burroughs wrote a lot of books, so he occupied my nightstand into my teenage years. Around that time, Ian Fleming struck it rich with his series about a British spy named James Bond. During my late teen rebellious years, I developed a fondness for Aldous Huxley and Anthony Burgess. Today there’s no book on the nightstand; instead there’s a tablet, and on it, you will find all manner of things. I read quite a lot of history, including biographies, and I lean toward self-published authors. When I run out of something to read, I browse Smashwords and download half a dozen samples.
Q: Did you always know you wanted to be a writer or did this passion develop over the course of doing something else to earn a living?
A: At age 13 I wrote a short story called The Happiest Man in Hell on a 1910 Underwood with a broken ‘p.’ I submitted it to a fledgling sci/fi magazine and was dumbfounded to receive a letter from them a few weeks later saying they had sent it to an illustrator and would get back to me about the details of publication. Naturally, I figured this writing thing was a cinch and started thinking about renting a garret on the Left Bank. A few more weeks passed, and I got a letter from the magazine telling me they had landed a serial deal with Harlan Ellison, and my story was no longer required. My aspirations were so cruelly dashed I didn’t submit anything for publication for 35 years, during which time I was engrossed in that making-a-living thing. In the mid-80s, I had an opportunity to not work for a year. During that time I wrote like a fiend. I knocked out a novel, which was terrible, and managed to publish a few short pieces that earned about enough for a bottle of gin to ease the pain. Needless to say, I went back to my career in the metal fabrication business. When I retired, I didn’t immediately start to write. It was the advent of self-publishing that motivated me. At my age, I don’t have enough years left to run the traditional publishing gauntlet. In June, I published my 13th novel, and I’m 10,000 words into number 14, so don’t get between me and the keyboard.
Q: What was the first project you ever published?
A: The very first, after that above-mentioned aborted flirtation with the sci/fi magazine, was a travelogue about a trip I made to visit two very remote Mayan ruins near the Mexico/Guatemala border. As was common then—and probably still is—I was paid in copies of the magazine. Around that same time, I sold a story to a magazine that was devoted to basket weaving of all things. Somewhere, I still have a copy of their check. I think it was $25. From that era, I also saved a file full of rejection notices. Those can be funny sometimes. I remember one that was a form letter with checkboxes. The reason they checked for rejection was ‘wrong shoes.’
Q: How many works have you published since then and do you feel your writing has changed from what it was initially?
A: In addition to 13 novels, I have five short stories, and I’m in two anthologies. The short stories are for promotion. They are permanently free at Smashwords and their distribution network. How has my writing changed? Well, it’s evolved quite a bit, in fact, I’ve recently begun doing a re-edit of my earlier works. Today, I’m much more aware of point of view and taking more care to shift viewpoint with a logical break. Also, I’m looking for plots that I hope have a broader appeal. I wrote several political satires, which gave me a great deal of enjoyment, but we live in such a politically polarized time that whichever side one takes, eliminates half the potential audience.
Q: What genre(s) do you write?
A: My first two endeavors were historical fiction, and that’s because I had a trove of source material from 15 years of genealogical research. While researching In the Blood, I stumbled upon an obscure piece of history, namely the Mexican War of 1845. That inspired an alternative history. When I finished The Hundred Years Farce, I went looking for more source material and found it in my garage. It was a folder filled with brittle, yellowed newspaper clippings I had saved from the 80s when the grave of Nazi doctor, Josef Mengele, was discovered in Brazil. The story intrigued me, so I wrote about Mengele’s 40 years on the run. After that, I fell into my political satire mode, and I followed it with a science fiction story inspired by a serendipitous visit to the Roswell UFO museum. Alien Affairs was so well received I followed it with two sequels. By then, I was tired of beating a dead alien, so I switched directions with a story about a woman who, as a young reporter for an underground newspaper, witnessed the Kent State shootings and was harassed by the right-wing government for her outspoken views. As she matured, she grew conservative and became a successful novelist, but she was once again hounded by the now left-wing government. That’s A Little Rebellion Now and Then, which in my not too humble opinion, may be the best thing I ever wrote. Megalodon is a novella about some soldiers of fortune’s quest for a sixty-foot prehistoric shark. Following the shark, came an apocalyptic love story and then the tale of a California real estate agent who had to recover her estranged husband’s body from a Mexican morgue. While negotiating Mexican bureaucracy, she turned to a life of crime. That one, Artifact, may defy genre. I don’t know what to call it. Maybe it’s action and adventure. Finally, we have Gravity Waves, which is the fourth in the Alien Affairs series. So, I’m clearly a writer with genre identity issues.
Q: Agents often advise aspiring authors to pick one genre and stick with it. Do you feel that writing in multiple genres makes it more of a challenge to build a readership?
A: Actually, I do believe that. So, why don’t I try to be a little more focused? Well, frankly, I suppose that I’m a bit of a scatterbrain. I get tired of writing the same thing time and again; although, no one could truthfully accuse me of being a boilerplate writer. I don’t write with the expectation of huge success, which is a good thing, not that I don’t hold dear the belief that someday one of my books will be a bestseller. In the meantime, I’ve developed a new business model: if I can never write a book that will sell a million copies, I’ll write a million books that sell one copy.
Q: What was your inspiration for your latest release, Gravity Waves?
A: Stephen Hawking who died two months before I released Gravity Waves. I even read A Brief History of Time for the third time before I started working on Gravity Waves. It’s rather hard-science oriented, but it’s not technical mumbo-jumbo, it’s about people dealing with extraordinary situations. In it, I believe that I have not asserted anything that is out of the realm of possibility from the viewpoint of physics.
Q: Do you see yourself in any of the fictional characters you create?
A: Ha! In another interview, I declined to answer this question on the grounds that it would get me in trouble with my wife. Truthfully, there’s some of me in most of my characters. Adam Peyton, the protagonist of Golden State Blues, is a younger incarnation of me. Eric Day in Half Life is me, and there’s perhaps some of me in Vicky Rice, the real estate agent turned criminal in Artifact—maybe I’m even Terrie Deshler in Alien Child and Gravity Waves. Why? It’s because I want my characters to be real, and to be real, they have to have flaws. Since I’m the most flawed creature I know, I’m a logical model.
Q: If you yourself could be an intrepid time-traveler, would you rather go to the past and be minus the conveniences you have enjoyed in the present or go the future and face the challenges of a steep learning curve to catch up with everyone else?
A: Once we learn how to warp space-time sufficiently to allow us to travel through time, I would go both ways, to the past to correct wrongs, and to the future to see how the consequences of what we do today effect things to come. See, I’m a lot like Terrie Deshler.
Q: What do you suppose your parallel self in the multiverse is doing while you’re here answering interview questions?
A: I certainly hope I’m sitting at a seaside bar in the south of Spain drinking gin with Ernest Hemingway and my late writer pal, Burt Boyar.
Q: What is a typical writing day like for you?
A: I try to write every day. The first thing in the morning, I take care of whatever chores or annoyances that reality thrusts upon me, then I deal with email and social media nonsense. Around lunchtime, I settle onto a comfortable chair by a large corner window with a view of the San Gabriel Valley—and frequently with a Yorkshire terrier beside me. I write on a laptop until around four in the afternoon. My goal is 2,500 words, which sometimes I achieve and sometimes I don’t. At four, I reward myself with a cocktail.
Q: Writers are sometimes influenced by things that happen in their own lives. Are you?
A: Of course. Sometimes a reader will say to me, “Nobody would ever say a thing like that.” Then I have to tell them that I said that, or that the person who was the model for the character said or did things that I wrote. A Little Rebellion Now and Then is told partly in flashbacks to 60s. A lot of the experiences of the character, Katie, are based on things that happened to me or that I saw happen to people around me. In Half Life, the character is invited to bid on a project at a nuclear power plant, so he checks his briefcase to make sure he has a pencil, sketchpad, tape measure, and a draftsman’s eraser. Someone challenged me about that. He said, “Why would he take such simple things to a nuclear power plant?” I informed him that those were the exact tools I took when I called on the San Onofre Nuclear Generating Station. We often hear we should write what we know. I tend to agree.
Q: Critique groups: helpful or a distraction?
A: Critique groups are enormously helpful. I participate in two, the La Verne Writers’ Group and the California Writers’ Club. Feedback is essential and the input of others helps shape what I write. It’s an organic process, after all. It’s also a great way to get help spotting typos.
Q: If you could invite five of your favorite authors (living or dead) to dinner, who would they be and what would you most like to ask them?
A: Well, Hemingway would be the guest of honor, and I’d ask him what the hell Gertrude Stein said to her lesbian lover that embarrassed him so that he ran out of the house?
Tom Robbins would be on the guest list, and his question would be: What were you on when you wrote Fierce Invalids Home from Hot Climates?
I’d ask Robert Heinlein what gave him the idea for the waterbed. I’d also ask him how he predicted the current tattoo mania.
Arthur C. Clark I would ask what it was like working with Stanley Kubrick.
Finally, Winston Churchill, I’d have a lot of questions for him, but I guess the most pressing would be: How did it feel to be in a mounted saber charge in Sudan and live long enough to be the leader of a nuclear power?
By the way, I’d serve paella.
Q: Like many authors, you’ve chosen to go the route of self-publishing. What have you learned from this experience that you didn’t know when you started?
A: Many things, but first and foremost, I learned how to format a manuscript. That’s the essential first step to being a success in self-publishing. I know many people who self-publish but don’t know how to do it themselves, so they find it necessary to pay somebody pretty large chunks of money to format their books. The chances of them ever breaking even is almost certainly nil. The most I have spent to publish a book was $15 for the cover image of Gravity Waves. I thought I had a bargain at $5, but when I got the receipt, I realized the price was in Euros. It was worth it, though. I’m proud of that cover. Okay, that was a practical answer. A more philosophical response is that I have learned marketing is a sort of voodoo, and almost nothing is effective. As a corollary to that, I’ve learned it is incredibly hard to get people to spend $3.
Q: What’s the greatest compliment any reader has paid you about your work?
A: I’ve gotten some really head-swelling compliments. There are two aspects to that question, what was said, and who said it. Burt Boyar, who spent a considerable amount of time in the number one spot on the NY Times Best Seller List called Alien Affairs a “Fabulous Must Read” and Golden State Blues “Fabulous Page Turner.” Burt was a personal friend, but he said those things with no prodding from me. Alien Affairs has gotten the most compliments: “Absolute gem,” “It’s different, it’s wonderful,” “…the entire Alien Affairs series is nothing short of magnificent.” I could go on, but I’m beginning to feel my head swell.
Q: Conversely, how do you handle personal criticism and/or negative reviews?
A: One of the first things I learned as a writer—and this was a long time ago—is that no matter what you write, someone won’t like it. Take Hemingway for example, I think he walked on water, but he is considered an overrated hack by a lot of people. I find that the majority of negative reviews that I get are because I offended somebody not with my writing but with the content of the story. One of my favorite reviews is a one-star for Alien Affairs—it even sells some copies for me. The guy said it was a good story until I started making fun of President Obama. Now, I did not mention Obama. It’s amazing what readers project into the things you say. Something to keep in mind is that there infinitely varied readers out there. Just because I couldn’t connect with one doesn’t mean I won’t connect with another.
Q: How would you define “success”?
A: The easy answer is runaway sales, but that’s too easy. When I do my proofreading and self-editing, and I can say to myself at the end, “That was pretty damned good.” I consider it a success. There’s a chapter in A Little Rebellion Now and Then that I can’t read without getting emotional. I’ve never read it at an open mic or a critique group because I can’t get through it without being reduced to tears. I doubt if anybody else reacts to it so strongly, but I captured something there, and I know it.
Q: If someone came to you for your top tips on the craft of writing and the challenges of publishing, what would you tell them?
A: My stock answer sounds flippant, but it is what I really think about good writing, and it is what I look for in the books I read. Do your damnedest to give every preposition an object, except in dialogue, and if you’re tempted to use a metaphor, think about twice, then don’t do it. To that I would add, only inhabit one character’s head at a time. As for the challenges of publishing, learn to do it yourself. You can read the Smashwords Style Guide in one afternoon, and it will tell you all that you need to know about formatting and self-publishing—it’s also free.
Q: When you read for pleasure, what do you prefer?
A: Historical fiction, real history, and quirky stories with good characters, preferably self-published, in that order.
Q: What would readers be the most surprised to learn about you?
A: Hmm? Well, how about I’m a high school dropout? Or maybe that I live in a place frequently visited by bears and mountain lions. Oh, here’s a good one, I don’t have a Smart Phone.
Q: What’s next on your plate?
A: I’m 10,000 words into a story about a man experiencing so many strange occurrences he begins to think he’s slipping into dementia, but some of the things might be coming from an external source.
Q: Where can readers learn more about you?
A: www.ScottSkipper.com is where to find out about my books and stories. As of this writing, Facebook has locked me out of my account, and they don’t respond to my requests for help. Hopefully, I will get back in someday. In the meantime, email me at Scott@ca.rr.com. I occasionally tweet a thing or two, that’s @sskipperauthor.