Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Sam Winston talks about his extraordinary debut What Came After, crossover writing, bad advances and the future of us and of publishing

I hear about books in all sorts of ways. Sometimes publicists and editors contact me. Sometimes authors do. And sometimes I just keep hearing about a book on social media and I get so curious, I seek out the book myself. Case in point: Sam Winston’s extraordinary What Came After, an e-book about the end of the world. I started reading after dinner and didn’t stop until I finished. This is no ordinary book.  Character-driven, haunting, and gorgeously written, I think it’s a classic.  So, of course, I tracked Sam down and talked him into coming on my blog. Thanks, Sam!  Now hurry up and write something else! And visit Sam at his website

So what's it like to be a celebrated new novelist? Can you tell us about your road to publication? And what's next on your agenda?

There’s celebrated, and then there’s celebrated. But people are finding the book and responding enthusiastically to it—that’s the main thing. And apparently they’re telling their friends, too, which makes all the difference. It’s gratifying.

My path was and remains like that of so many other writers. I’d written a number of novels, and I’d had some first-rate literary representation over the years, but for whatever reason that magical sale to a big New York house never quite materialized. And when I finally began working on What Came After, there was an urgency about the whole project that made me decide to forego the usual commercial process—which, as you well know, has a built-in delay of at least a year between sale and publication even if things go perfectly—and publish it myself. My agency never even saw it, although they’ve definitely seen it now…

As for what’s next: I’m working like mad on a couple of related projects. One is a full-length sequel, and the other is a group of short stories set in the days just prior to What Came After. Little bits of backstory, having to do with the collapse that set everything in motion. I’ll be releasing them one by one, with the aim of keeping readers happy until the sequel’s ready.

I always ask--what sparked this novel? It certainly seems really timely.

You’ve put your finger on it. The classics of science fiction have always been imaginative responses to the culture around them, and in that sense What Came After is a real-live hunk of old-fashioned sci-fi. The world that it describes comes straight from the list of things I worry about every single day: the cruel imbalance of rich and poor, the perilous state of our health care system, the outsourcing of government (especially the military), the genetic modification of foods, and so on.

Just as filmmakers in the fifties and sixties conjured up alien robots and little green men to substitute for the Russians, today we substitute hordes of vampires and zombies for the things we’re really afraid of. I thought it would be good to write a post-apocalyptic adventure that didn’t rely on that kind of transference, but faced up directly to the mess we’re making of things.

I really loved that the Apocalypse was caused by our need for greed. Do you think that our future is ever going to change or are we doomed?

We need to start working together if anything is going to change.

Funny thing is, you see very similar sentiments on both sides of the political spectrum. The Tea Party hates big government and the Occupiers hate big business, but in the end it’s the collusion of government and business that’s gotten us into this fix. In What Came After that collusion is best represented by Black Rose, a private army that the federal government spun off in the years before the novel begins. They’re brutal mercenaries through and through, selling their services to the highest bidder. Poor Henry Weller, one man just trying to get some health care for his daughter, has his hands pretty full.

At the heart of the novel is Henry's love for his daughter, which was so moving and which, for me, grounded the novel, and put it squarely in the literary arena. Do you think that love can save us?

I sure hope so. I’m a dad, you know, so that’s the kind of thinking that drives both me and my work. As a parent you can’t help but look into the future and try to imagine how things will work out for your children—and right now, we’re in a state that Americans haven’t been in for a long time: life threatens to be worse for our children than it has been for us. Henry Weller saves Penny. With any luck, by giving readers a lens through which they can look at these things, I can help save my own kids.

I’m glad you mentioned the word “literary,” because everything else I’ve written would fall squarely into that camp. What Came After uses very compressed and telegraphic language that’s not quite conventional for sci-fi, and it’s built around a steamroller of a plot that’s not quite conventional for literary fiction, and so in those ways it’s a bit of a crossover. So far, though, folks on both sides of the aisle seem to dig it pretty well. The main thing is that it’s about credible people in a credible—and extremely perilous—situation.

What's your writing life like? (I love to hear about structure, rituals, outlines, the works.)

I’m very methodical. Most people don’t realize that if you write for an hour a day, and get 250 words down, inside of a year you’ll have a whole novel on our hands. That’s a very powerful routine. And the duration of it gives you the time you need to get the thinking right.

I usually start out working by the seat of my pants and end up shifting into a kind of desperation outline by the halfway point just to keep things straight. This novel was different, though. Instead of jumping right in, I sat down and wrote out the whole narrative just the way I’d tell it to you over the supper table. Maybe four or five pages’ worth. So I knew exactly what was going to happen when, and how it all tied together.

I’ve never heard of anyone using that system before, but then again I don’t get out much. It worked really well, though.

What's obsessing you now?

The whole crossover phenomenon in publishing. I came to this book organically, as a more or less literary writer who’d grown up reading the masters of elegantly-written science fiction: Ray Bradbury and Kurt Vonnegut. So it was only natural that What Came After worked out the way it did. (My brother sent me a note while he was halfway through, saying that as he read it he could see me propped up in my bunk bed, reading The Martian Chronicles.)

Today, though, we have this phenomenon of literary writers jumping into the more speculative and sensational genres—Colson Whitehead writing about zombies, Justin Cronin writing about vampires, Glen Duncan writing about werewolves—but the criticisms in the air suggest that there’s nothing deeply integrated about some of these projects. They don’t seem to appeal all that strongly to either side of the literary/genre divide, and that’s too bad.

Then again, maybe it’s a matter of expectations. As an unknown, I have the good fortune of coming to the table with absolutely zero in that department.

What question didn't I ask that I should have?

How about, “Do you have any regrets about self-publishing instead of taking another stab at the traditional route?”

Why, I’m glad you asked.

Sure, I have some regrets. A big advance would have been nice. Review coverage in the press would have been nice. The support of a publisher who’d send me out on tour would have been nice, too. On the other hand, those things have never been exactly common, and they’re less common today than they ever were.

So I look at the upsides. Doing it yourself gives you total control over the product. There’s very little delay in getting to market, which was important for this book. You get to keep one hundred percent of what you make, and if you price your work properly you can do just fine in that department too.

In the end, it all comes to the same thing: your work and the reader. If someone likes your book and tells a friend and that friend likes it too, then you’ve succeeded.


Danielle said...

This is a magnificent book, Caroline! I'm so happy you discovered it and are giving Sam some airplay.

And Sam, I am breathlessly awaiting the next book, so I'm happy to hear you have a solid writing routine. Best of luck!

Sandra Gulland said...

Click! Bought it! Gorgeous cover, too. Bravo!

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