Intellectual Curiosities and Provocations

A Talk With Bill "Tamper" Ectric

By Levi Asher on Monday, August 24, 2009 06:48 pm

Florida author and blogger Bill Ectric is one of my very favorites among the indie writers I've met here on Literary Kicks. He and I first bonded many years ago over our mutual regard for Henry David Thoreau, and he made a big showing in our 2004 collection Action Poetry. His playful intellect and sweetly philosophical frame of mind make him more interesting, in my opinion, that most of the mainstream authors crowding our bookstores these days, though his work does not fit neatly into any category (is it comedy? speculative fiction? boys adventure? Nobody knows for sure).

Tamper is Bill Ectric's most cohesive novel so far. It opens in a small town in a past golden age, as two boys take pictures in the pitch blackness of an old abandoned church with a clunky ancient 35mm camera and ponder the mysterious orbs that bloom in the resulting photographs. What do you see when you take pictures in the dark? That's the kind of question that absorbs the mind of a writer like Bill Ectric. Tamper evolves into a classic good-time mystery/adventure that explores the legend of Amazing Stories writer Richard Shaver, and somehow ends with a printed diagram of a folded-paper fortune teller, the kind I remember playing with as a kid. Ambiguity? Sure. I decided to ask Bill five questions about his new novel, and the results are below.

Levi: I've been enjoying your work for a while now, but your new novel Tamper appears to be your most ambitious and focused work to date. Can you talk about your evolution as a writer, and why you wrote this particular book at this particular time?

Bill: I’ve been writing Tamper off and on for almost three years. I started having crystal-clear dreams and visions when I stopped drinking three years ago. Looking back, it seems like I placed my writing life "on hold" upon joining the Navy in the seventies, and only picked it up again years later when I discovered Literary Kicks in the nineties. While writing Tamper, I got in touch with feelings of awe, wonder, fear, and enchantment that I hadn't felt since childhood.

More to the point is why I was able to finish writing this particular book at this particular time. It’s because of the numerous books I’ve read and studied, which equipped me with the tools I needed for the novel I wanted to write. Just to name a few: The Art of the Novel by Milan Kundera, who talks about the "dazzlement" of discovering hidden truths in one’s own writing (thanks to Jamelah Earle for bringing Kundera to my attention), and books by writers I identified with because their childhood memories seemed as magical as mine, like Swann’s Way by Proust and Dr. Sax by Kerouac.

Philip K. Dick's novel VALIS used the concept of an "influencing machine" -- a term coined by psychoanalyst Viktor Tausk to describe a common trait among schizophrenics who think that some type of machine is trying to control them. Which is what many people theorize was happening to Richard Shaver, the pulp science fiction writer, who claimed that the stuff he wrote in Amazing Stories magazine was true! The question in VALIS, of course, is whether or not the main character is crazy, or is a satellite in outer space beaming signals to his brain, or is God speaking to him, or is the satellite and God one in the same? And does it make any difference?

Levi: Tamper seems to deal with the paranormal, and yet is highly grounded in real life. Do you seriously believe in supernatural influences in our life, or are you just screwing around with the theme and having fun?

Bill: I seriously believe that magic and science are both flowing wide-open at the same time, like two parallel river currents that converge briefly at points. When we really tune in to it, we see that it’s the same river, but if you look too close, it diverges again.

Science fiction writer Arthur C. Clarke said "any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic". Back in the 1600s, if you said “some day men will fashion a small moon from the Earth’s metallic elements and hurl it into the heavens, giving us power to direct thoughts from our brains to our fingertips and out to people miles away” there would have been cries of, “Witchcraft!” but I’m simply describing satellites and cell phones. When I say it like that, it sounds like I’m leaning more toward science, but I should add that there have been times when my mother could sense that a family member was having some kind of problem or illness, which turned out to be true, and sometimes it was downright uncanny! Or, maybe you’ve heard about the well-documented out-of-body experience of Pam Reynolds, who nearly died in surgery in 1991. Like in many near-death experiences, she said she looked down at her own body on the operating table, surrounded by the medical team, but the fascinating part is, she described several things that she couldn’t possibly have known unless her astral experience was real!

Ever since I was a kid, I’ve read countless books on unexplained mysteries -- all the supposedly documented stuff about ghosts, UFOs, the Bermuda Triangle, spontaneous human combustion, the devil’'s footprints in Devon, the Bell Witch, and so on. But what a lot of people don’t get is that I am fascinated in equal measure by the stories themselves and in the mechanics of documentation. This goes to my interest in meta-fiction, which includes devices of writing as part of the story, like the poem and footnotes in Nabokov’s Pale Fire, the books within books of VanderMeer’s City of Saints and Madmen, or the complete text of Aylett’s Lint.

I sometimes find unintended humor in the way paranormal investigators use some facts and omit others. Take the Bell Witch legend. There is a house in Adams, Tennessee where in 1817 a man named John Bell and his family experienced poltergeist activity. The word spread until even General Andrew Jackson heard about it. This part is true. Jackson, his wife, and some friends actually traveled by covered wagon to Adams, Tennessee to spend the night in the Bell house. By all accounts, nobody got much sleep that night. People were pinched and slapped in the dark, covers got pulled off of beds, weird noises were heard. Andrew Jackson is widely quoted as saying, "I would rather fight the British than to deal with the Bell Witch!" But what he actually said was, "I saw nothing, but I heard enough to convince me that I would rather fight the British than to deal with this torment they call the Bell Witch!" I tried, in Tamper, to capture some of the humorous aspect of paranormal documentation. To convey the fun of it.

Levi: Does the fictional town of Hansburg, Virginia correspond to a real place? Can you talk about the places in this book and what they mean to you in real life?

Bill: Oh, for sure, I based Hansburg very much on the town in Virginia where I was born and raised, called Christiansburg. It started as a settlement called “Hans Meadow” in the 1700s. Later, they changed the name to Christiansburg. A small, idyllic town like in the old television shows, Leave It To Beaver or Andy Griffith or that Twilight Zone episode where Gig Young tries to revisit his childhood. Seventy-five percent of everything in Tamper really happened, but of course, I embellished parts of it. The treasure hunt, the layout of the streets, the bag of bones, Main Street, the woods, racing sleds and bicycles downhill, are all based in reality.

Besides the events in my hometown, some of the other stuff is based on real experience too. For example, I really did sit on a beach under the night stars in Spain, with some friends, looking out at the Rock of Gibralter, listening to "Four Cornered Room" by WAR on a small, battery operated cassette tape player, and it seemed almost transcendental at the time.

Levi: How do you plan to market and sell this novel? Do you enjoy being an indie writer, and do you have advice for other indie writers?

Bill: I would prefer that a major publisher picked up my book and promoted it to the masses. There is one thing I like about being an indie, which is the realization that just because a book is supposedly finished, that doesn’t mean I can’t go back and fix things. I learned by trial and error on my first two books, and I used to stress out, thinking, "What if I release a book that’s not good enough?" I either put the book out too soon and grieved over the errors, or toiled endlessly for perfection. Partly, it was not being able to afford a second edition with some of those high-priced, so-called self-publishing companies. So, I founded Surtsey Publishing, and I use CreateSpace for print-on-demand, and it’s no longer a problem. Obviously, I have to draw the line somewhere with revisions. At some point, you have to let it go. I don’t foresee any revisions on Tamper -- it’s nearly perfect. But I’m going to combine the short stories from my first two books, Time Adjusters and Space Savers, into one volume, re-release them on Surtsey with some killer revisions! Anyone who has already purchased one of those books will get a chance to buy the new edition at the greatly reduced price, or maybe even get a free copy for a limited time. I haven’t worked out the details yet. But anyone interested in reading Tamper need not worry -- it’s not going to change.

As for marketing, there’s been a lot of talk lately, mainly from Cory Doctorow, about making books available online for free. Doctorow says that making his books available free online has not hurt his book sales. I’m not quite that adventurous yet, so I’m going to make the first three chapters of Tamper available on the internet.

I’ve got two book signings lined up here in Jacksonville, Florida so far, where I’ll read excerpts from the book and talk about it.

I plan to use blog ads to target the various types of readers who I believe the novel will appeal to. These include, on one hand, the pulp science fiction fans and the Forteans, folks who know that Richard Shaver was an actual writer for Amazing Stories Magazine in the 1940s. People who like offbeat historical fiction. My first draft had Richard Shaver as one of the central characters, in the manner that James Morrow includes Ben Franklin as a character in his novel The Last Witchfinder, but I wasn’t sure how far I should go, so I invented Olsen Archer, a friend and colleague of Shaver, to fill out the plot. I also think Tamper will appeal to those who enjoy dark psychological excursions into the locked desk of Henry James, as well as enlightening psychological expositions from the open lectern of his brother, William James. And books about the intersection of mysticism and science, like Deciphering the Cosmic Number by Arthur I. Miller (thanks to Jessa Crispin for recommending that one on her blog).

Levi: Many blogs such as Largehearted Boy and Paper Cuts ask writers what music they listened to while they wrote their latest books. Instead, I'd like to ask you a better question: what foods did you eat while you wrote this book?

Bill: I fell in love with olive oil and feta cheese about three years ago. I went for weeks at a time eating nothing but a big salad every day, with all kinds of fresh vegetables, topped with olive oil, vinegar, and feta cheese, and later in the evening, drinking many cups of black coffee, staying up all night. But from time to time, maybe to compensate for the lack of booze, I went on binges in which I ate big bowls of cereal with milk, bananas, raisins, peanut butter, and ice cream piled on it. I seem to be one of those all-or-nothing people. I won’t even go into the prescription drugs I eat.

* * * * *

For more about Ectric's novel go here, or check out Bill's website.

23 Responses to "A Talk With Bill "Tamper" Ectric"

Sounds like you got another hit on your hands, Bill. Congratulations!

by Bill Ectric on

Well, Mikael, as Levi so adroitly declares in the first paragraph of his review, “Nobody knows for sure.”

by TKG on

deros.....

deros....

You member mi address mi like get books in mail

deros...

Can't wait to read it!

By the way, when I write I don't eat anything, just drink vast amounts of coffee sweetened either by:
Hazelnut syrup,

maple syrup - called "Canadian coffee" by a dude I met in Paris

or Blue Agave - my current favorite

The mix of sugar and caffeine gets my muse working every time

The new release of the stories sounds quite interesting, too. I'll have to give them a peruse.

The online free sounds like a good scheme. From the New Yorker article about Kindle2, it seems most will still prefer books in the short run until up and coming readers are accustomed to reading on screens.
This blurb Bill wrote is good: Tamper will appeal to those who enjoy dark psychological excursions into the locked desk of Henry James, as well as enlightening psychological expositions from the open lectern of his brother, William James
Could quitting drinking become a good tale? It seems every year Hollywood releases a getting sober story.

by Steve Plonk on

Yes, Bill Ectric, you have a wonderful scenario in your book there. TAMPER seems like a book I would love to read. I am a born natural mystic and I also have in true life seen some "orbs" of my own and also have photos of some unexplained sights. I wish I knew photoshop and could attach a few of these pictures. Perhaps, at a later date, I can do so, with help of more savvy relatives.

I happen to have spent some quality time in the Christiansburg area. There used to be a steakhouse on (is it US 321?) which was not to far from the interstate. I spent one of my more enjoyable times there when I was hitchhiking through that part of Virginia in 1973.

I also went up on the Appalachian Trail near there in Floyd County -- also not too far from Christiansburg. When I was a boy we traveled on the Blue Ridge Parkway with the Boy Scouts.

Steve, sounds like you know the area pretty well! My brother has hiked much of the Appalachian Trail. The Blue Ridge Parkway is a beautiful area. In 1973, I was in Spain, but otherwise, I might well have seen you in that steakhouse, which I believe might have been called "Stone's" but I'm not sure.

by Steve Plonk on

I'm not certain either, but "Stone's" does sound familiar. Plenty of sorority ladies from nearby Radford and guys from Va. Tech. fraternities hung out there. They were not the usual preppie types either. In fact, they were very welcoming to a drifter like I was at the time. The steaks were done medium rare like I liked them at the time and mouthwatering "taters" and salad were served with plenty of rolls. One of my more memorable meals in a restaurant.

by Steve Plonk on

Addendum: The restaurant we spoke of was located where US 221-- got the digits right this time--and US 460 came together right off Interstate 81.

However, Bill, you knew I meant US 221. So, I hope I didn't throw things off too much.

"Stone's Steak and Ale", or whatever its name, was a fabulous place to eat and they cooked your steaks just the way you wanted them. They were friendly to tourists and strangers and so was the clientele. Reservations were optional and you didn't have to wait too long to be seated.

In 1973, as you probably know, this above steakhouse was a hangout for tourists & college students from both Radford and Virginia Tech. Everybody was laid back and it was a wonderful eatery atmosphere to be a guest in... A friendly place in a friendly town.

by Steve Plonk on

ADDENDUM #2: Bill, I also forgot to mention US 11 and State route #8 all came together on Roanoke Ave. which, I think, was the local name of the street the steakhouse was on. In 1973, I believe, there was an alternate US 221 because the current US 221 was under construction. As you know, Bill, now it parallels Interstate 81 and goes through Floyd, VA, Etc. My "sense of place" is out of step by about twenty years. The last time I passed through was in 1989. (I really love geography, sight seeing and traveling...)

by TKG on

Hey man, you're making me hungry and wanting to go out and buy a steak.

Bill, when I was young I also read stuff along these lines -- UFO's, weird happenings etc...

I've mentioned a great little book of yarns called Strangely Enough by CB Colby (used to great effect by Michael Chabon in the last piece in Maps and Legends). Did you ever read that one?

And an author of this type (Fortean) was/is John Keel who wrote Mothman Prophecies and a number of other books. As a kid I first heard of the Shaver Mystery in a Keel book. Ever read Keel?

And a fun book I'd recommend is called Shockingly Close to the Truth by James Moseley. It's a memoir of his career as a UFOlogist and shenanigans played out by him and Gray Barker.

by Bill Ectric on

Steve, did they have in-ground trampolines out behind the restaurant?

And yeah, I like going to Google Maps and looking at the aerial photos of my hometown.

Warren, I appreciate that you noticed the “blurb” about Henry and William James. I get the feeling people assume I’ve written a light-hearted sci-fi romp and I believe it is much more than that. As to your suggestion that quitting drinking might make a good story - I touch on it in Tamper, as well as lots of other things.

TKG, I've heard about the James Mosely book and it does sound like something I would like.

Michael, what is Blue Agave? Sounds sinister. Thanks to everyone for their comments.

Bill, Blue agave, despite it's sinister sounding name, is a natural sweetener extracted from the agave plant. You don't see visions or anything like that, it's just a good, natural sweetener. My local cafe now makes an iced coffee drink called "The Evanstonian". It's espresso, blue agave and milk. Quite tasty. They even shake it up in a cocktail shaker!

And folks if I get to the Christianburg area, I'm definately checking out that steak house, if it's still there. Got the directions now.

by Aspern on

As a devoted Henry James fan, I am especially curious that Bill Ectric has referenced Mr. James at least twice: once in this interview and again by including a quote on his web site by Henry James scholar Adrian Dover. I was hoping to read more discussion of the subtle psychosexual subtexts in Tamper.

It was not lost on me that, as an adolescent, Whit feels the need to justify his chosen pastime of writing in his diary, which is described as next to the "sissy" items on the dime store display table, as opposed to playing sports like most of his male friends. Later, upon joining the drama class, Whit expresses an interest in make-up as well as set design. Finally, in the final chapter, included in Whit's list of various forms of "tamper" is the mention of a dark figure coming into his room and touching him at night. Is this a veiled reference to molestation or am I reading too much into it?

by Levi Asher on

Aspern, as another devoted Henry James fan, I am especially curious that your name is "Aspern".

Now we're talking...

Aspern, to answer your last question... maybe it is is, maybe it's not.

by Aspern on

Yes, Mr. Asher, "Aspern" is my screen name. It is based, of course, on the Henry James novella, "The Aspern Papers". Mr. Ectric, I am a little disappointed. You seemed eager to expound on your themes and symbolism. I hope I haven't offended you in any way.

Not at all, Mr. Aspern, not at all! I welcome your questions and I see now it was silly of me to fish for comments and then give such a vague answer.

You are absolutely right. Whit, the young man in my book, is somewhat ambivalent toward sex. I don't think he thinks about sex in terms of "gay or straight", or if has given much thought it.

Whit does not fit in with other people. When he discusses his attraction to Nancy, he frames it in terms of a make-believe world of science fiction. Nancy reminds Whit of Angela Cartwright's character, Penny Robinson, from the Lost In Space TV show. Whenever he has the chance to communicate with her, he does it by means of reciting Poe or Coleridge, or talking about the cast and crew of some old horror film.

I intentionally tried to characterize Whit as a reclusive, sensitive young man who turns to alcohol and drugs for the gusto to see the world.

by judih on

Tamper! How wonderful that it's published. Congratulations, Bill. And this is a wonderful interview. Enjoyed reading very much.

Can't wait to check out the book.

by Bill Ectric on

Well, thank you, Judih. Did you know I included your name in the acknowledgements?

by Bill Ectric on

But in the book, I spelled "acknowledgments" right.

by judih on

ha! - didn't know i'd been ack'ed. i'm pretty sure you can throw in an extra 'e' if you're from canada, the U.K. or australia.
hell, what's life without lots of 'e's.

yeah

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