This month QM had a talk with Marcus Alexander Hart, author of The Oblivion Society and Caster's Blog. He is also former chief editor of the humor ezine misinformer.com, and like us, enjoys science fiction, sarcasm, heavy drinking and being an unemployed writer rather than workin' for The Man every night and day.
Validate his lifestyle choice. Buy a book.
Quantum Muse: When did you start writing?
Marcus Alexander Hart: I think a lot of authors skew this question to make themselves look like they came out of the womb clutching half of a novella. Yes, you started writing when you were six. It's called "Going to school." If you had a choice, you would have been watching Sesame Street and eating Otter Pops. But I digress. And considering that we're only on the first question, we may be here for a while.
I would say that I "started writing" in 1996 with my play Walkin' on Sunshine. At the time I was in art school working my way toward a degree in Computer Animation, and getting that play produced showed me that I was in the wrong business before I was even in the business.
QM: The editors at QM got into writing because we mistakenly thought girls would think we were cool. What's your excuse?
MAH: In all seriousness, I think that's why all guys who write get into writing. It's certainly why I did. I suppose the real question is, why do I keep writing now that I have a girl? I guess now I just do it out of habit.
QM: Which authors have influenced you the most? What other media have influenced you the most?
MAH: As far as authors go, of course Douglas Adams was my biggest inspiration. But to be perfectly honest, I've been more influenced by TV and movies than by books. I know I lose a lot of pretentious author points on this one, but it's the truth. I've never wanted to write the next War and Peace, but I'd love to write the next Three's Company. People tell me that The Oblivion Society reads like a movie. I'd like it to actually be a movie.
QM: Which of your works are you happiest with? Are there any you would change if you could?
MAH: Although I don't think it's my best work, I'm definitely the happiest with Caster's Blog. Because it was designed as an experiment, there's no psychological pressure for it to be perfect. Also, even though he's not real, I can share the blame on that book with Ray Caster. When someone says "Your plot is contrived" or "Your punctuation is awful," I can say, "It's Ray Caster's fault." That's a good feeling to have.
As for the others, I'd keep changing them until the day I died if I could. Every time I pick up The Oblivion Society I think things like, "I'd like to change that 'said quietly' to 'whispered softly.'" But you have to cut yourself off at some point or else you go insane. I published ObSoc about three months after that point.
That being said, my current project is a rewrite of Walkin' on Sunshine.
QM: From November of 99 through early 2004, you edited an ezine, misinformer.com, with some friends. Among QM editors, this usually results in fights with broken beer bottles over deadlines. How would you describe this experience?
MAH: Working with the misinformants was a lot more fun than my "misinformer editor" persona would have you believe. My guys would give me great stuff... when they could find the time to do it.
Considering that there was never any money, the misinformants did it all, as mentioned before, to impress girls. We shut down misinformer.com when we realized that there were more of us than there were girls who had visited the site in its five year run.
QM: P.J. O'Rourke said that the one thing writers hate more than writing is promoting their writing. You've done quite a bit of promotion. Can you tell us about it?
MAH: There are some aspects of promotion that I like. I like going out to events like Comic-Con or the LA Times Festival of Books and meeting new people. I like doing interviews like this one. In a nutshell, I like talking to people who already want to talk to me.
What I hate is trying to force people to pay attention to me. I hate having to get in people's faces and do the "Look at me! Read my book!" song and dance. I am the most low-key salesman in the world, because I know how much I hate being on the receiving end of a high-pressure sales pitch.
I like to just give someone my postcard and say, "You can read the first 100 pages on OblivionSociety.com for free, then decide if you like it." That way they can check it out on their own time, in the privacy of their own home, and not have to worry about offending me if they decide it doesn't interest them. I think it's a great technique.
Unfortunately, this technique does not work. At all. That's why I hire sexy girls to chat people up instead.
QM: In Caster's Blog you created a character on LiveJournal, and narrated a year of his life through journal entries. What made you decide to try this, and how did it work out? Did the actual experience meet your expectations or surprise you?
MAH: I belong to the school of writing that says that every word has to count. Everything you commit to paper should tie in, tie back, and tie around to every other thing until the book is such a tight web that nothing can go in or come out without causing irreparable damage to the story. This tends to make the editing process something of an unholy nightmare.
I was complaining about this to a friend after a particularly harsh day of working on The Oblivion Society. She suggested that I write something that I "don't care about so much" in order to clear my head and blow off some steam. Taking that advice, I began Caster's Blog as a no-stress, seat-of-my-pants kind of writing project. Within two months I was pulling my hair out trying to get every tiny detail to tie in, tie back, and tie around to every other thing. You can't change who you are, Norma Jean.
Anyway, Caster's Blog was a lot of fun, and was certainly an ego boost. Towards the end--when unbelievable things start happening with preposterous regularity--I kept thinking to myself, "Today is the day that everyone is going to call bullshit on me." But it never happened. Sure there were people who had their doubts, but nobody ever came out and said with true conviction, "Stop lying. You are not real." I credit that to solid exposition.
QM: Oblivion Society is a post apocalyptic adventure novel, Walkin' On Sunshine is a Science Fiction Sex Farce" and we've already discussed Caster's Blog. How was the experience of writing each style different. Which did you enjoy most? What was hardest? Do you have ADD or what?
MAH: My process has changed 180 degrees in the past ten years. When I wrote Walkin' on Sunshinein 1996, the Internet as we know it was in its infancy. Doing research actually meant going to the library and using actual books. Plus I was twenty years old and living on the beach in a house full of college kids and beer. Basically what I'm saying is that I pulled the whole show out of my butt, and any semblance between what's written and actual facts is purely coincidental.
By the time that I got to the last pass of The Oblivion Societyin 2005, I was spending more time researching than actually writing. There is very little that is arbitrary in that book, and much of what's there is so deep and obtuse that nobody will ever notice it.
For example, in my research on post-apocalyptic fiction I found that authors like to place blame for the nuclear disaster on the world's leaders and military commanders, but never on the scientists who actually created the weapons. While I carry on this fine tradition, I give a nod to the scientists by naming every character in my prologue after a prominent nuclear physicist. Will anyone ever notice? Probably not. But it makes great filler for an interview question.
As far as the ADD goes, I think my works are a lot more similar than they may seem on the surface. I like to write about losers who get the hot girl in the end. I have no idea why I find this concept so enchanting.
QM: What are you working on now?
MAH: My major project right now is, as I mentioned before, the tenth anniversary edition of Walkin' on Sunshine. Essentially I'm finally doing the research that I couldn't be bothered to do in 1996. I'm currently in talks with a theater in Hollywood to mount a full production of the Tenth Orbit Edition this October.
I'm also working on a fully-immersive Halloween attraction entitled The Legend of MacAbree Manor, also set to debut this October. On top of that there's more promotion for The Oblivion Society and a few other local projects that I'm involved with in some capacity. I always seem to have more irons in the fire than I have hands.
QM: What has your experience with POD been like? A fulfilling partnership or like the guy at customs with the rubber glove?
MAH: I've never worked with a "real" publisher, simply because I've never had to. This is a great age for writers to be living in, because if we feel strongly enough about our work, we don't have to rely on others to bring it to the light of day.
As I touched on before, I know my strengths and weaknesses. My strength is writing solid, quality comedy stories. My weakness is convincing people to read them. After finishing Caster and ObSoc, I was presented with two options for publishing:
The first option was the traditional method. This involves convincing a publisher to read and invest in my work. Publishers get hundreds of thousands of submissions a year, so the odds of getting a book on their desk without an agent are pretty close to zero. So before convincing a publisher to read my book, I'd have to convince an agent to read my book. Once I did that, then my agent and I would have to convince a publisher to read my book. Finally, with a bit of luck, a year or so later a publisher reads, accepts, and prints my book. At that point it's my job to convince the public to--you got it--read my book.
The second option was POD publishing. I know that my book is gangbusters. I don't have to convince me, and I don't have to convince a POD publisher. The only one I have to convince to read my book is you, the public. I just took a lot of unnecessary effort out of the publication process.
Sure the J.K. Rowlings and Dan Browns of the world benefit from the backing of a big-name publisher, but for a first-time nobody like me, I get just as much support from my POD publisher as I'd get from a big New York house. Namely, none. But if I'm going to have to climb the ladder myself either way, I'd rather take the ladder I already have than the one I need to beg someone else to give me.
QM: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers? Other than "step away from the ledge and get a real job"?
MAH: Absolutely. The only way for you to become a great author is to buy my books. And I don't just mean a personal copy for yourself. Buy them for birthday and holiday gifts. Don't rest until every person you know has a copy, and then buy some copies for people you don't know.
Seriously though, my advice is to just keep writing. Don't pretend to write. Don't sit at the end of the diner counter drinking coffee, scribbling notes in a moleskine notebook and looking pensive. That might get girls to notice you, but if you want to keep them interested, you're eventually going to have to show them something you've written. If all you've got is a couple of hastily penned haiku about hash browns, you're going to die lonely.
QM: Is there any truth to the rumors of wild sexual experimentation? Any pointers?
MAH: I did kiss a dude once, but in my defense we had drunk a bottle of wine each, and he is prettier than most of the girls I know.
QM: How would you describe your agreeing to be interviewed by Quantum Muse:
(a.) a kindness to a struggling on-line publication,
(b.) the low point of a night of binge drinking,
(c.) Quantum Muse who? I thought this was Slashdot.
MAH: I hope that I'm never such a big-shot snob that I snub venues just because of their size or readership. Slashdot may have a hundred times the readership of Quantum Muse, but does that make Quantum Muse's readers any less valid? I think not. Plus Slashdot has never asked to interview me.