Friday, February 18, 2011

Interview with Jim Mastro

Hi there, space cadets! Please join me in giving a warm welcome to fiction and nonfiction author, Jim Mastro! Jim is the author of several books about his experiences in Antarctica, as well as The Talisman of Elam, the first book in the Children of Hathor series. He's stopped by today to talk a bit about his experiences with writing The Talisman of Elam.

What was your inspiration for writing the Children of Hathor?

Actually, when I started out I did not intend for the story to be a trilogy. Only after I began developing it did I realize I couldn't possibly fit the whole story in one book. So I expanded it to the Children of Hathor trilogy and set about writing the first book, The Talisman of Elam.

I had originally intended to write a fantasy novel. But when I went to the bookstore to see what was out there, fantasy was all I saw. So I changed direction and decided to write a science fiction nov
el instead. (I've always had a tendency to buck the prevailing trend and sail against the wind.)

Anyway, to answer the question more directly: at the outset, I had no idea what I was going to write about, until I remembered a fantasy I had when I was in middle school. We lived next to some woods, and I used to spend a lot of time in there exploring. At the time, UFOs were all the rage, and I thought it would be so cool to find a hidden flying saucer. I imagined myself going inside and learning how to fly it. It was from that germ of an idea that I began to develop the story for The Talisman of Elam.

Jason, Kevin, and Amelia each have their own individual talents that contribute to their journey across the universe. How did you decide who knew what?

I'm not sure "decide" is the right word. Kevin's skill with computer gaming fell into place very early, but I did not know what Amelia's skill would be until she "revealed" it to me. I can't explain it any other way. And then, of course, her skill with language became critical to their success.

How did you come up with the structure of the universe?

I am going to assume that this question refers to the history and political structure of galactic civilization. Coming up with that was some of the most fun I've had in years!

In order for there to be a story, there has to be a backstory. In order for Jason's quest to make sense, there had to be a story behind the Talic. So, begin
ning with the premise that all humanoid civilization in the galaxy descended from one progenitor race (the Hathor), I began to develop a history of the galaxy, from when the Hathor first appeared to the present. I drew upon the intriguing evidence that Earth has been visited in the past, and expanded that to include the many "gods" in mythology (who I assumed were merely highly technological space travelers). I tried to imagine what galactic culture would be like, and just let my imagination go wild. It wasn't all smooth; I hit a few snags here and there and changed my mind a few times. But overall, the history of the galaxy just sort of spilled out of my head. Sometimes it felt like I was merely transcribing something that actually exists. It was really fun to think about civilizations and histories covering hundreds of thousands or millions of years. It's very mind-bending to work with those immense time scales.

And as for the way the physical universe is structured... I based that on my knowledge of astrophysics. Some physicists actually do believe there might be macro-scale cosmic strings left over from the Big Bang. And others theorize about dark matter, as well.

What was your favorite planet to write about?

All the planets were fun to write about, but I'd say my favorite was Sussoo. Which is funny, because originally Sussoo was inhabited by a race of rock-like creatures that survived on nuclear energy. During the final stages of revision, though, I came to realize that those Sussoo creatures were the only ones in the book that didn't make biological sense. It was just too hard to suspend disbelief about them, compared to the other races and ecosystems. So I threw them out and started over. I wanted to
go in a completely different direction, with a completely different kind of planet, one that was not supportive of human life but could support another kind of life. And I needed those other life forms and their ecosystem to be plausible (or at least internally consistent!). The idea for the conjoined symbionts just came out of the blue, but the rest of the Sussoo ecosystem is based on my knowledge of marine ecosystems.

As for the native, sentient species, long ago two species began to work together, much as symbiotic animals do here on Earth. But in this case, the two animals evolved to become one animal. They sort of grew together, as it were. So we have the giant, sauropod dinosaur-like part and the daintier, semi-humanoid part that lives in a hollow in the back of the giant's skull. The second part acts as the brains and voice, while the first part acts as the legs and mouth. I loved coming up with these guys and developing the ecosystem they'd need to survive.

If you were kidnapped by aliens and forced to live on their
planet for a year, what five items would you bring with you? Would you be excited?

Yes, I would be excited! (As long as I wasn't going to be locked up in a cage or something!) Of course, I'd miss my family and other things about Earth, but what an experience! I'd take some photos of my family, a camera, my guitar, plenty of pens and paper, and my toothbrush. (And a jackknife, if I could have six things.)

What was your favorite part to write in the Talisman of Elam?

The whole book was fun! But I think my favorite part was the climax (SPOILER ALERT), where Jason learns how the Talic can transport him, and they escape the Urian ship and end up in the Council Chamber. I couldn't type the words fast enough! (Second favorite part: Amunis and Takkadian Pheno!)

How was it different writing fiction vs. nonfiction? Did you face any unexpected challenges?

It was different writing fiction because I had to make everything up! And that was the challenge. At first, it was like pulling teeth. I did not expect it to be so difficult. But after writing non-fiction for so long, I felt like I had no imagination anymore. However, as I worked at it and worked at it, my imagination "muscle" got stronger and pretty soon the ideas were pouring out.

Tell us a bit about your writing process. Do you have a favorite spot to sit and write? Do you have a favorite drink to drink while you're writing?

My process for writing a novel is multifaceted. First I have to come up with the story arc and develop the plot and characters. That "discovery" process is something I do in a number of places. Sometimes I just sit on my couch with classical music in the background and a yellow, lined pad on my lap. If I get stuck, I lay down and let my mind wander. Sometimes I doze in and out, but invariably when my mind is in this free-floating state ideas come to me. My unconscious mind cuts loose. It amazes me how effectively this works. Then I snap to and get back to jotting notes.

Sometimes I go down to a local cafe and sit in the corner, jotting notes. This is a good place to establish the different sections of the story and fill out my section sheets. If I need to see the big picture, I'll go home and spread out the section sheets on my living room floor, so the whole book is laid out before me.

When it's time to actually start writing, I'm in my office at my computer, again with classical music in the background and a cup of green tea beside me. For editing, I listen to jazz. Don't ask me why I use classical music for creating and jazz for revising! It just seems to work.

Did you learn anything while writing the Talisman of Elam?

Absolutely! I always learn from writing. Mostly (I hope) I learn to be a better writer. The cool thing about writing is that you never stop learning about it. Ask any writer and he or she will tell you that you could live to be 300 and still not know everything there is to know about writing. It's a very complex activity! And every genre, every story, is different.

In this case, I also learned a lot about book layout, publishing, and marketing!

Did you have a favorite sci-fi series or movie as a kid? Do you have a favorite sci-fi series now (TV or book)?

My favorite sci-fi series as a kid was Star Trek. I still love it, in a nostalgic sort of way. But at the time, it really opened up my horizons. Later, I really enjoyed The Next Generation series. I loved the first three Star Wars movies, too. I don't watch TV any more (no time!), and I don't really have a favorite sci-fi book series, but I do really enjoy Vernor Vinge's books.

If you could go back and change anything about your book, what would you go back and change?

At this point, I would change nothing. That's not to say that the story couldn't be made better by some changes. I'm sure it could. Any story can be improved, but at some point you just have to let it be finished. In this case, I revised the whole book over 50 times, and the first chapter over 100 times. Time to move on!

What are you working on now?

Right now I'm writing the second Book in the series, The Hand of Osiris. It took me a couple of years to develop the plot and story arc. I had no idea that the middle volume of a trilogy would be so much harder to plot out than the first! But fortunately, it is much easier to write (probably because I know the characters so well now), and the story is just pouring out of me. Sometimes it just seems like I'm serving as a secretary for the characters, who have completely taken over and are running the show. It's incredibly good fun!


Great answers, Jim! Thanks so much for taking the time out of your busy schedule to join us here on Oktopus Ink.

For those of you unfamiliar with Jim's work, you can check out my review of the Children of Hathor, HERE (it was an awesome book) and visit his website HERE. You can even read chapters of the book for free!