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.