It’s Friday, my foodies, which means it’s time to bring a new chef into our kitchen! Welcome Steven M. Moore, author of The Collector, part of the Detectives Chen and Castilblanco series! A veteran chef, let’s see what insights he can provide for us!
Please introduce yourself to my literary foodies!
First, I want to thank you for this interview opportunity. I’ve been in this business for a while, and I know readers are interested in authors. I’m a reader myself, and I personally know a lot of interesting authors. More to the point: I wrote my first novel the summer I turned thirteen (it was terrible, but similar to the plot in the movie City of Angels), collected plot and story ideas all my life, wrote a bit now and then, and started publishing my prose just before and after I left my last day-job. I grew up in CA, spent years in Colombia, and made my way back to the U.S. East Coast, where my wife and I now I live in Montclair, NJ. Having seen some of the world and experienced different cultures, I celebrate human diversity in my novels (they’re designed to entertain too, of course) and don’t shy away from important themes and social problems. Every ebook in my “Detectives Chen and Castilblanco Series” (C & C for short, as used below) contains some of the latter. As a side to my main entrées, I believe women are generally smarter than men, the world would be better if they ruled it (a lot of testosterone seems to be associated with power), and celebrate strong women in many of my novels (I’ve also known many wonderful ones in my life).
Do you do any work outside of the writing kitchen? Any non-work interests?
My first jobs were in academia and R&D—I knew from an early age that writing probably wouldn’t put much food on the table—I didn’t want my family to be a starving writer’s. I don’t have any regrets here because those choices allowed me to collect all those plot and story ideas. Unfortunately, my muses (really banshees with tasers) know I have oodles of them and prod me to keep spinning out those yarns. My interests include music, math, physics, genetics, robotics, scientific ethics, and environmental concerns.
What is your latest dish to be served up? Are there any past pieces of literary cuisine you think we should take a bite out of?
My last ebook was the sci-fi novel More than Human: The Mensa Contagion (here Mensa is a constellation seen only in the Southern Hemisphere). It’s a stand-alone. I have four series; each ebook in them can stand-alone too. Silicon Slummin’…and Just Gettin’ By, #2 in the Mary Jo Melendez mystery series, and Fantastic Encores!, a short story collection following up on some characters from my “Chaos Chronicles Trilogy,” are also new this year. The latter and Pop Two Antacids…and Have Some Java are story collections that are reasonably priced intros to my prose. What do I recommend? Maybe print out my list of books, paste the list on a dartboard, and throw a dart? If you hit one, that ebook’s as good a start as any. (C & C #6, Family Affairs, will be published in a few weeks.)
What made you want to put on the chef’s hat and whip up your own books?
Reading. I’ve always been a reader. Early on, I figured I could write a novel or two. After collecting all those plot ideas, it seemed like time to do it (those muses again). It’s great fun, and if I can entertain just one person with each ebook, I consider that ebook a success, so I don’t set my bars high.
Do you have a genre of specialty or do you dabble? Why?
Mystery, thrillers, and sci-fi are my specialties. The first comes naturally from my technical background. The last two are genres I’ve always liked. Of course, some of my stories are combos of these genres. I’ve dabbled a wee bit in comedy and paranormal, and maintain an active blog where many articles are op-ed comments on current events (including the writing business). Genres are for retailers. I don’t pay much attention to them in reading or writing. If I want to write a fantasy, I will. If I want to write a sci-fi mystery, I will. Same for reading. (The great Isaac Asimov wrote two sci-fi mysteries, Caves of Steel and The Naked Sun. Dick’s Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep? was a hard-boiled detective novel set in the future; it was made into the movie Blade Runner.)
Style! Every literary chef aspires to have their own unique one! What do you think sets yours apart and why?
My style isn’t unique. I practice two basic principles: minimalist writing and the Goldilocks Principle. The first says, “Let the reader participate in the creative process.” I won’t spend pages of narrative describing a character, for example—a paragraph here, someone’s observations there, will let the reader form her/his own image and opinions about a character. No matter what, your image of a character will be different from someone else’s—the author might as well take advantage of that. It might make turning one my novels into a movie a challenge for any director, but that’s too bad. (For my mysteries and thrillers, some might call this hard-boiled a la Chandler or Child, but it’s a more general principle.) The second principle could be called balance—getting everything just right, and not too much of any one thing. Dialog, back story, characterization, and so forth have to be balanced in a story and appropriate to the genre. Of course, each element in that complicated Goldilocks dance has to be strong, or it will threaten the total balance.
Even the best of us find inspiration is the dishes of others. Do you have any literary inspirations, heroes, and influences?
Many. I’m an avid reader, and almost everything I read influences me in some way. I already mentioned Asimov and Dick. N. Scott Momaday taught me to love poetry. I can’t write poetry, though (my only published poem is at the beginning of C & C #5, The Collector, and I give Detective Castilblanco credit for it). Isaac Asimov, Robert Heinlein, and a few others were more than an inspiration; they showed me that having a scientific background doesn’t preclude a writing career—quite the contrary. The classic mystery and dystopian writers also influenced me. A character in The Collector is modeled after Miss Marple. The complete list of inspirers is finite but too long for this interview.
Let’s get into the meat and potatoes: the art and craft of writing itself! Do you have a preference of points-of-view when you write?
I stick to first person and third person. I hate stuff like “…and little did he know that he would soon be meeting Pamela in less amicable circumstances.” I want to find out myself. In my detective novels save one, I mix first and third person POVs. Castilblanco is first person (lets the hard-boiled shine through) while everyone else is third person (and not just one). I don’t think I’m the only one who does this, but it’s unusual. (Don’t worry. I might shift POVs many times, but they’re constant within a section of a book.) I’ve never experimented with second person. A lot of sci-fi world-building is omniscient, but I generally put that in some character’s third person POV too, if I can.
Sparse or wordy, how do you like your descriptions served up? Are you a Hemingway man or do you like some saucy adjectives with your nouns?
Hemingway was a minimalist. Many ex-journalists are, although Garcia Marquez is an exception (maybe the language of Cervantes lends itself to that?). I’m not trying to emulate Hemingway, but I am a minimalist. Adjectives and adverbs, especially those in –ly, are scarce in my prose—for me, an –ly adverb just means I used a weak verb. My dialog tends to end in “X said” or “X asked” because anything else interrupts my reading (I’m a speed reader, but any reader “brakes for dialog tags” on the reading road).
Picking off the menu of base literary conflicts, what’s your favorite and why?
I like a thriller where the protagonist has to overcome stressful situations in order to survive (everyone knows the classic list of story categories); I like a mystery where the crime and suspects are complex. Social problems can amplify both of those. That’s what interests me in my reading, so it’s what interests me in my writing. Sexual tensions play a secondary role in my own prose—they’re there, but only when they make sense for the rest of the plot. (I won’t criticize readers or writers of bodice-rippers or erotica, but those books just aren’t my cup o’ tea.) Sometimes my literary conflict is unusual—in The Golden Years of Virginia Morgan, for example, the conflict is about accepting old age, among other things. There are infinite variations on the standard story plots and conflicts. Each novel I write is a new adventure. Maybe the critic can categorize it to hell afterwards, but I’m just out to tell a new story.
What do you think is more important to your recipes, plot or characterization? Why?
Plot. Let’s take it out of the book world. When someone tells you movie X is a great character study, do you cringe? I do. There are many elements necessary to make a good story, but plot is the most important one. Characterization is important, but, without plot, I’m not interested.
We all know that the first taste means the most! What do you do to get that first bite hook with your readers?
That’s probably different for each book too. I’m probably more patient than most readers—I’ll give an author a few chapters before I give up on her/him (in my official capacity as a reviewer, I’ll always finish the book). I personally try to capture the readers’ interest in the first few pages. The trick is to get the reader to ask, “Why is this happening? Do I care?” “Hook” isn’t the right word. A reader’s already hooked because s/he picked up the book to read or loaded it onto her/his e-reader. “Reeling them in” is a better fishing metaphor. Every fisherperson knows that reeling the fish in is the difficult part. My technique is to imagine what I would think and feel as an impatient reader looking for a good story. There are so many reading choices these days—what would keep me interested? Hopefully, that method works more often than it fails in my own writing.
The most important of questions: Cake or pie?
Not particularly a reading question, but I’ll make it one. I prefer pie over cake because the former has interesting stuff going on between the crusts—fruit, nuts, gooey goodness (I’m eliminating the gooey stuff on top of the cake—that’s just frosting…sorry). Same for a book—the author better have something interesting going on between the cover art and the end of the book. I don’t care if it’s her/his first novel or the last.
Finally, if you could give one piece of advice to aspiring literary chefs out there, what would it be?
Write, write, write. Yeah, I know, if you’re an indie writer, or even traditionally published but not one of the biggies (the biggies follow this advice too, with a few exceptions like Harper Lee), you have to spend some time on things like editing your stories and PR and marketing (maybe even some money too). Many of us are born with a gift for storytelling (the Irish call it blarney), but we have to continuously hone our craft and learn the techniques. I’ve been at this for over ten years. I learn something new every day. Maybe my most recent novels and short stories aren’t any better than the first ones, but they’re certainly different. But I’ll bend the rules a wee bit and add another piece of advice: Be humble. Thank your readers and reviewers. Nowadays, they have so many good choices for books and so many authors to choose from, be thankful they chose yours. James, you and others like you (I’m a reviewer too), give back to the community of readers and writers. In this age of digital publishing, readers and writers are the most important groups. All others are less so, to the point that if they stand between these two groups, they’re a problem.