Wednesday, March 14, 2012

George Berger - The Crimson Scars

We are pleased to have George Berger with us today to speak about his book The Crimson Scars.

What is your name?
You can hug me and love and me and squeeze me and call me George... except for the hugging and squeezing and probably the loving parts.

How old are you?
I was born early enough in the Cold War era to have legitimately bought records at a record store when they were still a prevalent form of entertainment, and not 'audiophile' or retro-cool.

Where do you currently live?
In Saint Paul, Minnesota.

Tell us a little bit about your life.
I've had the traditional American lifestyle, I think. I was conceived, then born; I had a very forgettable (and now mostly-forgotten) childhood during which I was probably both precocious and irritating. Adolescence arrived right on schedule, leaving me alienated and ostracized. A bunch of other stuff happened, I fell in love, acquired a stalker, got adopted by a cat, got shot at, and discovered the hard way that the employment prospects for ugly misanthropes with attitude problems are very, very poor...

When did you first start writing?
I'm one of those sad people who has been telling stories of one sort or another since I was a wee anklebiter. I first started writing in, oh, middle school, I think. I had absolutely zero talent whatsoever, but a teacher encouraged me nonetheless.

What was your very first story about?
I don't remember any of the specifics, but I think it was probably “loosely” inspired by a computer game.

Have you written anything that you were too afraid to let anyone read?
With great frequency! It's fairly well-established that right now the audience for e-books is overwhelmingly female – something like eighty or ninety percent so. I try to ignore this fact as much as possible, because, despite all the instructions to “only write what you know”, I occasionally include sex scenes in some of my books. Not as erotica, or an attempt to titillate, but for mostly plot-related reasons. Well, usually. Anyway, on the rare occasions when I stop and think about it, it's pretty much bed-wettingly terrifying to think that women I don't know are reading these books and, well, rolling their eyes and sighing, or something.

Did you experience anything you’ve written yourself?
Many of the cynical life lessons in my slightly dystopian (and completely clean) first novel, Mendacities, are the product of first-hand experience. And my intimate familiarity with storm sewers came in handy when writing my thriller, Without A Spark.

Who are several of your greatest literary inspirations?
'Inspiration' is a bit tricky. I'm not really sure why I started writing fiction, but I suspect some of the blame might fall on the editor of some random old short-story anthology. Back in the day it was common for SF or fantasy anthologies to feature comments or introductions to each story from the editor, or the author... or both. I remember reading several such anthologies – Harlan Ellison's infamous Dangerous Visions series, and Robert Asprin's Thieves' World series come to mind – and being inspired by the apparent ease with which pretty average-seeming people produced memorable fiction. If they could do it, surely I could do it, y'know?

In a more general sense, I'm a big fan of the late Roger Zelazny; he had a distinctive but understated sense of humor that I feel some sort of kindred bond to – and the background to his story 'Unicorn Variations' always makes me smile. I also greatly admire the even-more-obscure E. Phillip Oppenheim, an amazingly prolific British writer who pretty much single-handedly invented the thriller genre as we know it today, and wrote a huge number of other works, as well. His novel Havoc is particularly brilliant, as far as I'm concerned.

What kind of education have you received, and how has that affected your writing?
I went to greatly overrated public schools, and was a pretty indifferent student. Around the fifth grade, I think, I decided I was probably going to be single all my life – the impetus for this decision can be found in my short story 'Nothing Like Love', available on Amazon – and so started taking classes with an eye towards perpetual bachelorhood. Where other boys were taking shop class, I was taking Home Ec, because being able to cook seemed more important than being able to make a cribbage board. Food and cooking feature largely in a lot of my fiction, probably for that reason, and in a rare display of actually writing-what-I-know, most of my male protagonists tend to be a bit oblivious to romance, which did not figure largely if at all in my formative years.

How much research time customarily goes into your projects?
I suppose that depends on the book, and how you define 'research'. I do extensive amounts of plotting and outlining prior to writing most books. As far as facts-and-figures research, it greatly depends on the title. I sometimes spend inordinate amounts of time fact-checking all sorts of strange details as I write. I try desperately both to get everything right, and not be one of those people who shares every detail he's researched with the reader; after doing research for Without A Spark, I know a possibly dangerous amount about how to manufacture chemical weapons in the comfort and convenience of your basement. Oh, and after writing a pair of early-Victorian stories, I know far, far more than I ever wanted to about the history of insurance. It was a bit of a nuisance to discover that theft and burglary insurance didn't exist until the late 1890s, as I'd plotted out a perfectly delightful comedy of errors about insurance fraud in the 1850s. Oops.

Who is your favorite literary character?
Y.T., the protagonist of Neal Stephenson's novel Snow Crash. She's pretty much just made of win, as the kids these days say.

Who is your favorite character of your own creation?
I'm not sure. I'm honestly not that attached to any of them, in particular. I know it sounds terrible, and perhaps it is. Most of my characters are – or so I like to think – very real, and very flawed, people. Not quite into anti-hero territory, usually, but... if I really had to pick one, it'd probably be Nataliya, from my first novel, Mendacities. She was extremely fun to write.

If you were ever to write an autobiography, what would its title be?
“Mr. Dumbass – or, How I Learned to Stop Worrying and Hate Myself”.

(Editors Note: Massive brownie points for a Dr. Strangelove reference.)

Tell us about your featured book.
I honestly have no idea. No, wait... It's a strange and quirky story of chance meetings, drunken frat boys, and the improbable ways in which love seems to, against all odds, function. It's not really all that great, but it's also not really very expensive...

Why did you write that?
I regularly haunt (though 'infest' might be a better word) the Writers' Cafe at Kindleboards. A couple times a month someone posts in desperate confusion wondering how on earth to write a short story. They're not trolling, usually; they've often written several novel-length books, but just can't wrap their heads around writing short fiction.

Now, because this is, alas, the Internet, they get a lot of advice, much of it less than completely helpful... My usual recommendation – and it's not necessarily any better or worse than any other arbitrary approach, of course – is to go out and study some perfectly ordinary, run-of-the-mill short stories, and then try to imitate them. Literally, pick an obscure short story at random somewhere, and read it critically, as a writer, thinking about the plot and everything. Then, take that plot, and create your own story, changing as much as you can. Do that a half-dozen times, and you'll probably understand much of what there is to know about how to plot a short story, which is 98% of the process, really.

While posting such advice several months ago, I realized with a certain degree of sappy nostalgia that it had been a long time since I'd done that myself, if only as an exercise. So, I found a magazine from 1912, picked the first story that wasn't an appalling period romance, and followed my own advice. The result is, well... strange. But so was the story that provided inspiration, once you got past all the extraneous bits; the author had apparently been paid by the word, and padded it out rather dreadfully. And to be honest, taking a story about a well-to-do bachelor, set in New York City around 1900, and producing a story set in the midwest around 2000, featuring a college co-ed, isn't as easy as it sounds.

If you had to live in another time period, which one would you choose?
The 1950s. Despite the civil rights problems and the Red Scare and the post-war housing crisis and tuberculosis and all that fun stuff, it seems, from a half-century later, to have been a time of this kind of wonderfully naïve optimism, where science and technology were constantly just months away from giving us the absolutely most awesome future. It seems like one of the few points in modern history where even I could have believed that the future held something more than bleakness and misery...

Our eternal thanks to George for being with us. His book can be found below. Just right down there...yes...yes, that's the one. Click it.

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