INTERVIEW: Brett Armstrong
Are you a full time author or do you have another job as well and if so how do either or these fit in with writing time?
I have another job during the day. I work as programmer for the infectious diseases division of my state which basically entails managing/maintaining their disease surveillance data system, updating their website, and being of general IT use. It works out pretty well, because as a state job I have regular hours, flexible leave, and when I’m finished at work, I come home and rarely have to bring any work with me. Sometimes I’m even able to write while on break.
At home, I spend a couple hours playing with my little one before he goes to bed and then a couple hours with my wife before she goes to bed. That leaves me from around ten to midnight to write. It would be nice to have all my time to write, but this way my family is provided for and I get to give back royalties to charity and mission-work.
Do you write on your novel daily or do you try to have days off?
I don’t take intentional days off, though sometimes life hands me those. Usually what I do is have more than one novel that I’m working on at one time. One of the two (or even three) will be given the lion’s share of the week, but I always try to give Wednesday and/or Saturday to the other. It’s a very brief break, but it gives a change of pace, a little distance from what I’m writing to get some perspective, without losing a grip on both story’s core themes and respective sound.
Do you go back to published books and want to change them in any way?
Of course. I really like drawing as well and I’ve learned over the years that no matter how well I draw something and how pleased I am with it at the end, invariably, there will be a day where I will look at a finished drawing and all I will see are the flaws I failed to remove. It’s humbling and I think the same is true of writing. At some point you have to accept you have not made a perfect piece of art. Moreover, you will not be the only one to be aware of that fact. The alternative, to not publish it at all, wouldn’t benefit potential readers or the writer. So, mostly I try not read over things I’ve written in the past too often…except when I need a good dose of humility.
What do you think is the most effective marketing is for your books?
Like many authors, I feel my own efforts seem to become a bit futile at times, but God seems to be blessing those things I have little control over most. So, the most effective avenue for me thus far has been print news. When my first book won the CrossBooks Writing Contest, my state’s primary newspaper did a story on it. Since then, I’ve had speaking engagements, book reviews, libraries carry the book, local businesses stock it, and multiple people call or reach out to me just to discuss writing through it.
If you have a ‘baddy’ in your book, can you tell us a little about this character?
There are quite a few of them really. If I had to pick one, I’d focus on Agent Amar, just because some of the others get more page time. Amar was a student of Ian McIntyre, the protagonist’s grandfather. Gifted enough to join the NSA and recruited early on by Project Alexandria’s behind-the-scenes architect, Victor Almundson. He’s a bit of quietly sinister character to be watching behind the scenes for signs Ian hadn’t just “gone quietly into that goodnight” and had left something stop Project Alexandria. In particular, he is the vehicle for the opposing logic to those trying to stop Project Alexandria. I don’t like villains who are evil for the sake of evil, I think villains of all sorts have a rationale, however twisted, that drives them. Amar does what he does, because he believes that whatever freedoms and truth is lost to people through Project Alexandria, society is better off. The ends always justify the means in his viewing and if it takes cruelty to achieve them, then so be it.
Is there any romance in your story and if so can you tell us a little about this?
There is a budding romance between the protagonist, Elliott, and a girl he met while working on Project Alexandria, Lara. The two share a love of art and have complimentary natures. Though Elliott carried a torch for Lara before the first page, he’s only just gotten the courage to act on it. Like most of us, he has terrible timing in a sense, because just when things seemed to be going right they all got swept up in Project Alexandria’s sordid tide, but it also was like a more condensed version of all the testing normal relationships endure. Throughout the book, Elliott is forced to come to terms with the things he’s taken from Lara because her life becomes collateral damage in the explosions of his own. Worse still, Elliott faces a number of betrayals and really has to question what is real in his life, including his relationship with Lara. Under enough heat and pressure graphite can become diamonds, and through the events of the book that’s something I think Elliott hopes very dearly will come to pass for himself and Lara.
If you have to write any fighting scenes, what are your best tips of how you create them?
I’ve tried to rein in some of the details over the years for fight scenes. Mostly they need to move quickly, be crisp, unambiguous about the actions, and serve the overall story. I also have recently tried to shoot for more reasonable action in the scenes. Because while I like the movie 300, that film has a very specific style that really doesn’t carry over into the rest of my scenes, so toning down the drama of fight scenes so as to not engage in that kind of theatricality usually seems prudent for me.
Do you ever write sad scenes and do you feel the sadness as you write it?
Sometimes I do. My first published novel is centered on the persecution of Church in 4th Century AD Rome. There are a number of really sad things that befall the protagonist and other characters. You get invested in characters and as a writer, you don’t always know where the narrative will lead. You usually know the big “peak” moments, so-to-speak, but what happens in the valleys is usually a discovery even for the writer. So you stumble on crushing situations: betrayals, loss, death; and you don’t want those for the characters, but at the same time, if those things happen naturally as you’re writing, you can’t avoid them. Because if the characters are going to be as they were at Point A and be as you expect them to at Point B, then you can’t erase what it takes in the interim to make that transformation happen.
Did you write as a child or did you come into your talent as an adult?
I wrote my first short story at age nine. I had been reading some books about the Aztec Empire and got it into my head that I should write a story about a slave captured by the Aztecs who was to be sacrificed as an offering. But, he escaped, blended into Aztec society and rose through its ranks till he seized an opportunity for revenge and overthrew the Emperor. It was five hand-written pages, but looking back felt like some pretty deep material for a nine-year-old. I also was super-dorky and made my own notebook cover for it and came up with a fictitious press for the publisher.
Can you give us a little insight into any fantasy characters in your latest book?
I think the closest I can come to is Project Alexandria itself. Because in a lot of ways, it looms over everything with a very palpable presence. It’s a piece of software, so it doesn’t quite exert its will in the same way as a traditional character, but the ideals it embodies really transcend the characters who support it. For instance, though Agent Amar is a free-thinking character, his decisions are always made with respect to the realities imposed by Project Alexandria. There is an element of Frankenstein’s monster to Project Alexandria and Ian McIntyre in the book as well. By that I mean, what McIntyre created is something far beyond his ability to predict or control.
Is your the world in your book like earth or is it a fantasy world?
It’s the near-future, AD 2039, so I tried to make it very much like the world now in most regards, but there are some key differences respecting the outcomes trends in modern society could take if untampered. There are mag-lev cars (a real thing that’s being researched) which are self-driving (a real thing now that’s coming to a road near you). The cars in Day Moon, however, are controlled by a central operating system, because it is much easier to direct things that way. Much less danger involved. Because really, in modern Western society, how much of life is true spontaneity? And if spontaneity is so rare, modern computer operating systems excel at taking schedule tasks and completing them, even if they are competing in priority. They also handle the exceptions to those schedules very well, so why not let a massive OS handle traffic? Things like augmented reality, quantum computing, etc. all contribute to the technological setting of the story. Other things, like urbanization, youth education reform, conservation movements, and so on are also represented in the philosophical fabric of the world. And I have to say, since Day Moon is dystopian, here’s a rather large spoiler on the philosophical position of the book: It’s not the actual things present in it-automated cars, and so on- that are at issue, but the attitudes we hold as we embrace things without thought. We so rarely account for what we lose when we gain something new.
What is the time period setting of your latest book?
At the time I started writing Day Moon in earnest, it was 2014, so I set the novel 25 years and one week ahead, so it starts in October of 2039.
Do you prefer to write as a series or one off books?
Day Moon, like my first novel, was meant to be a standalone. Then I realized how incredibly difficult it is to get a novel of 250,000+ words published when you’re new to the publishing world. It’s also very daunting as a reader, so I kind of took inspiration from how Tolkien handled The Lord of the Rings and broke Day Moon into the Tomorrow’s Edge trilogy. Right now I’m about 80,000 words into book two.
Do you like to use lots of subplots or do you think just confuses?
In school I was encouraged to introduce subplots, but I’m not sure I can justify them very often. Most often the overall plot of my novels tends to include events and consequences sufficiently complex that even going at them head on without diversions isn’t a straightforward process for the characters. Add to that my conviction that the plot should shape the characters so that they in turn can shape the plot, and subplots become a bit of a fringe subject for me. Though, I have to admit, if the subplots fully serve the main plot, even if they seem confusing at the time, so long as at the end all the pieces fit into a mosaic that is crisp and clear and fittingly beautiful, then I have no problem with them.
Can you tell us a little about one of your sub plots in your latest book?
One that comes along pretty early is Elliott and Lara are about to go out to eat together at a restaurant called Rosa’s. When they get there the find Rosa’s is closed and have to change their plans. Rosa’s was Elliott’s favorite place to eat out and sort of an island of the past in the sea of modernity around him. The sudden closure of the restaurant surprises Elliott and he puts it behind him, but really it being closed is a significant detail in the overall series. The owner of Rosa’s and Elliott have a history he had forgotten that becomes significant later in the book when Elliott is trying to piece together what is happening with Project Alexandria and what he believes are clues to stopping it. More than that, Rosa’s will eventually impact later books in the Tomorrow’s Edge series.
I value subplots like that most. It’s always a pleasant surprise for me as a reader when things that seemed like trivial details ultimately matter to the greater fabric of the story. I hope I’m not be too vague, but some of the subplot extends into Day Moon’s sequel, so I’m trying to avoid too many spoilers.
Can you tell us a little about your protagonist and your antagonist and how they relate to each other?
There are really quite a few antagonists for Elliott, the protagonist of Day Moon. One in particular that would draw sharp comparisons is Hain Amar of the NSA. Amar is an agent in the NSA and was a top student of Elliott’s grandfather, Ian McIntyre. And he really resents Elliott, because Elliott was groomed to be Ian’s heir of sorts. A bit more calculating and focused on outcomes than Elliott, he can’t see how Elliott is seen as such a threat to Project Alexandria. Key to understanding Amar is his belief in Project Alexandria’s ultimate mission, which put him at odds with his mentor. He isn’t one of those villains who cackles and rings his hands, he’s chosen his side of the fight because he truly believes it is for the greatest good, but the means are always justified.
Very briefly Amar tries to reason with Elliott about why Project Alexandria isn’t a wholly evil invention, but quickly recognizes that Elliott is a lot like his grandfather. Determined and convicted about the existence of some moral absolutes. Each one is clever in his own way, but Amar has the advantage of abundant resources. For much of the book he toys with Elliott, testing the teen the way Elliott’s grandfather had in the past.
Elliott is a lot less shrewd than Amar. He’s trusting and forgiving and much less self-confident. Then again he has much less of the puzzle assembled for him, but that’s what ultimately makes him stronger than Amar. Elliott understands he isn’t capable of combatting everything standing against him by himself. He knows he needs to trust that his grandfather left him what he’ll need and relies on his faith in God that all of this has a purposed end. Though he gets burned time and again for it, assuming the best in people also allows him to work with those who ultimately bring him closer to his goal even if their motives are questionable. Which isn’t so different from Amar, but Elliott draws lines Amar would not hesitate to cross.
How do you think you would feel if you received a really bad review that seemed justified?
Chastened probably. That’s why I think when Tolkien published The Lord of the Rings, he said, “I am dreading the publication, for it will be impossible not to mind what is said. I have exposed my heart to be shot at.” You can’t not take things like that seriously, but at the same time, how can you not take them at all? Writers are human and I’ve certainly found some pointed critiques in hand for some really enjoyable stories I’ve read. I think what needs to be remembered is that so long as the book serves its core purpose and says what it needs to say so that at least some readers understand and are benefitted by it, then the rest can be taken like a classroom critique. Note it, compare it to other comments, and then work to better it next time. There is probably going to be a lot of harrowing self-doubt and angst in between finding such a review and reaching that final state of peace with it, but that is where I would be headed anyway.
Do you think all readers should do reviews to help the writers improve?
As a reader who seldom does reviews I can’t blame any reader for not. To be honest, I don’t think we have a strong enough sense of communal collaboration on art to expect all readers to do reviews. We’ve got too much of a consumer mindset. Writers produce, readers consume. Writers experts, readers the public. I’m reminded of the Bible verse: “As iron sharpens iron, so one man sharpens another.” (Proverbs 27:17) I think if any reader feels strongly enough about what he or she has read to discuss it, he or she should, and there is no reason not to share it with the writer. Writers as humans are fallible, and getting that sharpening flint from a reader might be what makes a writers next work something far more special.
When you receive reviews do you find yourself influenced to make changes?
The problem with reviews is they can help, but like classroom critiques, they are often contradictory. This reader liked the pacing, this one didn’t, that reader liked the themes, this one didn’t get them… It all requires weighing things out. If things are consistently noted in reviews as needing work, then giving at least some more thought to that area couldn’t hurt. Usually if a review mentions something I was concerned about in a negative context, then I take that into note in particular, because it means wasn’t just in my head. Though even those kinds of situations need to be weighed carefully. I don’t think any piece of art can feel error-free to its artist, but at some point, the artist has to stand back and let people make of it what they will. Otherwise the art can’t do what it was intended for: speak to others as it did the artist.