Tuesday, September 30, 2008

Interview with Richard Bellush Jr. About "Slog".

I recently had the pleasure of reading the book “Slog” by Richard Bellush Jr. This novel is set in a post - apocalyptic future where the global warming has devastated the human race. Bellush weaves an adventure story with plenty of humor and some very interesting observations on human nature and our current society.

I asked Richard if he would mind being interviewed for my blog and he stepped up to the challenge. I tried to keep most of my questions based around elements of storytelling, but I just had to throw in a random question or two.

And now, Richard Bellush Jr. about his novel: “Slog”.

1) What drew you to write a post - apocalyptic story? It's been done before, what did you think you could add?

“Nothing is said that has not been said before.” – Terence, c. 160 BC

This is not quite true, of course. I just said, “Skateboarding wombats broke all my concrete soap dishes with Frisbees.” It is possible that someone has said that before, but I doubt it. Terence was closer to right in a less trivial sense. The fundamental human elements of good stories are what they always were. Yet, we still find new ways to present them, as Terence did himself.

In the case of science fiction, there likely hasn’t been a truly unprecedented premise for a story in 70 or more years. That’s OK, too. Authors still can bring us different and (one hopes) worthwhile personal perspectives. Moreover, every sf tale is a product of its particular time and place. Consider a few other post-apocalyptic novels: economic depression and fascism loom large in Well’s The “Shape of Things to Come” (1933), Vidal’s “Kalki” (1978) is inextricable from the political events and social developments of the 1970s, while the sensibility of the Cold War-era UK (including a twist on British fondness for dogs) pervades Hoban’s “Riddley Walker” (1980). At this point, these can be considered as much alternate histories as sf. All can be read today with enormous pleasure, but none would be written the same way today. Slog belongs to the 00s.

It wasn’t my primary plan to write a contemporary novel, however; this just happens whether you plan on it or not. I simply wanted to write an adventure tale – to invent characters and play with them. I did sneak political and social observations into their adventures, but hopefully in a light-footed way. Exotic locales are always good for such stories, and a post-civilized earth made even New Jersey (surely one of the most prosaic of places at present) exotic.

2) How did this book evolve? It feels like it might be a set of novellas united by its characters.

Actually, that is correct. Slog began life some 15 years ago as a short story: basically, chapter 1 of the novel. It was published in an early, and now-defunct, sf/horror webzine called “Clique of the Tomb Beetle”. For the next decade I wrote a variety of short stories, including one with the same characters as “Slog” (basically chapter 2 of the novel), many of which were published in webzines or in odd print lit-magazines.

In the early 2000s the idea of a full length novel became attractive. I already was half-way there with the two “Slog” stories, so I set to writing a couple more. I reworked the bunch (which made them of the 00s rather than the 90s) and the result was Slog, the novel.

Though the book is self-contained, I should add that there is one more novella in the series; it was begun after Slog was too far along with the publisher to be attached. “After Slog,” with one major character from the earlier novel, is included in the collection “Trash and Other Litter”. This was published a few months ago, and is available on Amazon and elsewhere.

3) How the does the title of book fit into the story?

I have a penchant for monosyllabic titles, e.g. “Scum,” “Trash,” and “Blow” (the latter short story about cocaine was published before the movie of the same name was made, but I don’t think the title was borrowed). In the original short story, “Slog” was meant to convey a sense of the wet jungle environment through which the characters had to, well, slog. I simply carried it over to the novel, though the characters there range over deserts and mountains, too.

4) Why climate change instead of war or famine or disease?

In part because it is topical. I didn’t want to get bogged down in the politics of it, though. This is why the change is attributed primarily to the sun being more variable than had been believed (as some stars are); it unexpectedly enters a hot phase. Disease and famine do the rest. This scenario also has the plot advantage of leaving the remains of civilization (including some dangerous weapons) decayed but largely intact.

5) Is there something I should know about Quebec's desire for world domination?

Aside from the chance it gave me to tease a friend and occasional horseback riding partner (he is a French Canadian physicist), it was meant to show that such ambitions are opportunistic. People and peoples are tempted to grab for power when the chance arises and the risk is low. It also let me play a bit of role reversal with language politics -- in this case English-speakers resisting the dominant French. Aujourd'hui Nouveau Jersey, demain le monde.

6) George Custer and Ulysses S. Johnston are obviously named after famous figures in American history. Why did you go with these names?

They are memorable, for one thing, and so the readers instantly can keep them straight; learning the names of major characters is always one of the readers’ tasks when picking up a book, so I cut them a rare break. For another, the names evoke an America that is past, for us almost as much as for the characters in the novel, which has some relevance in the West Virginia events. They also were an opportunity for irony. Unlike his namesake, an ambitious hero who charged into defeat, the George of the novel is a lazy loser who stumbles his way to success; the Ulysses of the novel is very much on the wrong side of the battles he picks, unlike (with apologies to my Southern friends) his namesake. There are more historical allusions when the scene shifts to the Black Hills.

7) Joelle, Selena and Maggie are very strong female characters. Did you make a conscious attempt to write strong and yet ruthless female characters?

Yes. We all draw on our own life experiences when creating characters, of course, and, though mixed and matched, the characteristics and dialogue of Joelle, Selena, and Maggie are not wholly invented. My lawyers tell me only the good characteristics are borrowed from real people, whereas the bad ones are entirely fictional.

Joelle wouldn’t think of herself as ruthless, though anyone in her way certainly would. She merely does what she needs to do to get her way, which, to her mind, is by definition the right thing. Ulysses, on the other hand, readily thinks of himself as ruthless and isn’t the least bit concerned about the right thing; he spouts propaganda to his followers, for example, but he considers them dolts for believing it. These characters are not intended to be a generalization of the difference in the ways that avaricious men and women pursue their ambitions. I won’t stick my foot that far in my mouth. However, misjudgment of the opposite sex (in both directions) does play a role in the plot more than once.

8) Where did your inspiration to have a major portion of the story told through court testimony come from?

The story required a flashback. The trial made this a natural, provided a subplot, and offered a resolution. Those are the reasons I adopted the idea. As for the source, I don’t know. Maybe I watched “Matlock” the night before.

9) What was the toughest part about writing this book?

Slicing away the excess during the edits. It is easier to write long than short – at least if you are conveying the same essential information – but short is more elegant. The first draft was a good 50% longer than the final one. I shortened speeches, tightened sentences, and cut out whole scenes and characters that weren’t sufficiently relevant to the theme or action. Still, one gets attached to one’s scenes and characters, even the peripheral ones, and, much like the memorabilia cluttering the attic, they are hard to throw out.

10) What was the most fun part of writing this book?

It is fun to put one’s feet up, daydream the next chapter, and, when someone asks what you are doing, say truthfully you are working. It also is fun to start writing that chapter and to find the characters insist on taking it in a different direction.

It is odd when characters hijack the plot, but this is a common experience. In fact, the company scarcely could be better. Mark Twain wrote that the eponymous “Pudd’nhead Wilson” was supposed to be a secondary character in a story about traveling Italian twins, but he kept pushing his way to the front. In the end, Twain gave up the fight and handed him the book. The twins even ceased to be twins, but he turned what he already had written about them into their own short story.

11) Is there something in this book you are particularly proud of?

I would like to meet all of the major characters. Obviously, I’m a bit prejudiced, but I think that means at least something about each of them turned out right.

12) Any writing or storytelling advice you'd like to share?

Handling exposition always is a challenge. Too little and the reader doesn’t know what is going on. Too much and the reader gets bored before the action starts and puts the book down. Do the minimum, but not less, and put what you can within the general text.

Set a minimum number of pages to write per day (mine was two). Don’t set it higher than you really can do on a bad day. Then, you’ll always make at least a little progress, and some days you’ll get on a roll and do page after page.

After the draft is done, cut the excess mercilessly.

Use Christopher Schenck for your cover art if you can get him. He was kind enough to do mine. Some of his work for Dark Horse Comics is here. http://www. darkhorse. com/Search/Christopher%20Schenck

13) If you could watch any movie tonight, what would it be?

Bogie and Bacall in “The Big Sleep”. Yes, I know that is not scifi – but neither is my noir-ish mystery novella “Trash.”

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