Yesterday, I had an interview with Apocalypse Weird writer Jennifer Ellis, author of the amazing polar apocalyptic tale, Reversal. Another one of the AW stories to be unleashed next week is Chris Pourteau’s incredible book The Serenity Strain. Just like with Reversal, I felt like I was on the ground with the characters, living their lives with them for better or for worse (usually worse). There are a lot of great things to like about The Serenity Strain. I highly recommend it. To talk about the book and his experience in indie publishing as well as AW, here is Chris Pourteau:
WS: First off, give us a short background about who Chris Pourteau is and your career thus far.
CP: Well, I’ve been a technical writer and editor for the past 20+ years at the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI). I started working there after I finished my master’s degree in English at Texas A&M and, you know, needed a job. TTI is the dayjob that pays for my fiction writing in my spare time. In Sept. 2013, I indie-published my first novel, Shadows Burned In (SBI). Short of the technical aspects of putting it up on Amazon, I had no idea what I was doing. Like many first-time indie authors, I think I had it in my head: “OK, here’s the opportunity to show the world what the traditional publishing world was too stupid to see.” So I put it out there and waited. And waited. And waited. Lightning did not strike. I was not declared the next Great American Author. What a pisser, right?
But that turned out to be a good thing. The best thing that’s happened to me in the last year and a half is that I got plugged into the independent publishing community and met great folks like Nick Cole, Michael Bunker, Jennifer Ellis, Hank Garner, and yourself, all of whom seem determined to help one another out. What a concept! So, in retrospect, I’m glad SBI didn’t take off. Quick success might’ve robbed me of getting to know, and coming to rely on, my fellow indie authors. Every one I’ve met has been generous and helpful to me in my quest to become a successful fiction writer. And whenever I can, I take the opportunity to pay forward the kindness to others who are just entering the world of independent publishing. I’m a big believer in karma, and that if you put good out into the world, it’ll come back to you.
CP: I met Michael about a year and a half ago via Nick Cole’s Facebook page. Michael’s a fellow Texan and we share the same barbed sense of humor, so we hit it off pretty quickly. I did the standard “new author” thing of “Hey, would you read my book?” So Michael read SBI and liked it, and I wrote some fan fiction in his world of Pennsylvania, and he loved that. So he invited me onboard AW.
WS: What inspired your story The Serenity Strain?
CP: Back in September, Nick asked for a pitch. I gave him one, he liked it, and he assigned me a deadline of mid-December for my novel. I was horrified. I’d written SBI back in 2000 or so, shelved it due to disinterest from the traditional-publishing establishment, picked it back up in 2013, reworked it several times . . . well, as you can see, publishing SBI wasn’t a fast process. So the idea of banging out a full-blown novel in a couple of months was very daunting. (Nick can knock out a Hemingwayesque classic over a weekend in Sausalito… 😉 ) Plus, I was in the middle of producing Tales from Pennsylvania, a short story collection set in Bunker’s world of Pennsylvania, and my second Pennsylvania fanfic novella, Susquehanna. So I didn’t even get started on TSS until mid-October. I even remember PM’ing Nick and telling him, “I’m gonna bust my ass for you, but prepare for me to blow past your deadline, man.” He was totally cool about it, though.
So, I had very little time, in my book (heh), to produce a quality novel. To save time, I decided to go with what I knew (the old writer’s mantra, right?).
- I’ve lived on the Gulf Coast all my life, so multiple hurricanes seemed natural apocalyptic fare to use;
- I set the novel in North Houston, a region I know very well;
- The concept of a demon who unleashes appetite-driven inhibitions was very appealing to me. I’m a licensed professional counselor [LPC], so understanding Freudian psychology is part of my DNA;
- The 3-part, 7-chapter organization I’d used in SBI gave me some structural reassurance amidst the “crap! I have to do this in two months!” feeling;
- And last, but certainly not least, I’ve been through the pain of divorce, so it wasn’t hard to plug into those feelings for my main characters.
All those elements became my essential equation for TSS. And, by the way, I was only a week off Nick’s schedule in bringing the novel in, so I was kinda proud of (more or less) making his deadline.
WS: Do you think this was easier because you did Pennsylvania fan fiction? Why?
CP: Absolutely. Michael Bunker liked SBI, and that was very gratifying. But he was really enthusiastic about my writing after he read Gettysburg, and he had a similar reaction to Susquehanna, as did Nick to both novellas. I think those two pieces, plus co-helming Tales, showed them both I could write well enough and be organized and reliable about it.
WS: I really liked the nonstop thriller aspect. From what I can tell, you had four distinct storylines that intersected here and there, eventually coalescing in the final scenes of the book. Talk about the challenge of writing a multi-strand book and making sure all the chess pieces end up at the right place.
CP: Thanks! You know, I don’t think a lot about the plotting while I’m writing. For me, the story is all about characters and how the circumstances of the story make them into the people the reader comes to know, if that makes sense. In TSS, a couple of my “heroes” aren’t very likable people at first. But black and white hats bore me. Sometimes life has a way of forcing us to step up, and that’s what I try to remember when writing characters. I want to write about complex people who aren’t perfect but who, at the end of the day, find it within themselves to reach for nobility, usually through an act of self-sacrifice. That appreciation for the journey of self-awareness and self-actualization probably comes from the same place that drove me to become an LPC.
Having said that, I did a lot of outlining for each section of TSS before I started writing. Again, I was writing a lot and fast, so I needed to give myself direction. (I’m pretty anal retentive—if I don’t have a plan, I’ll just stare at a blinking cursory with no idea what to do; I’m not good at improv.) I basically wrote an extended story arc for each of the three sections before I started them, so I could aim at a target. I don’t want to give too much away, so I’ll keep it general, but I knew the basic plot—family in crisis crosses paths with the evil characters in the book—who the Big Bad Boss was gonna be, and how she’d enlist the lesser bad guys in the novel.
Beyond that, I relied on my section outline to give me general direction, with the actual plot details coming about as I wrote. I guess the (too late) short answer is, for me as a writer, plotting is organic and derives from characters and their motivations. I know it’s not that way for everyone. But a general idea of where I’m going with the story is absolutely necessary to my going anywhere with it. 😉
WS: What other books were influential in what you put into this book?
CP: I tell anyone who will listen—Nick Cole’s The Old Man and the Wasteland is a modern classic of dystopian fiction. Someday (if they aren’t already), people are going to hold that up as one of the turning point works for independent publishing demonstrating how, quality wise, it could compete with traditionally published works. At its heart, Nick’s book is a “journey story” of self-discovery and adventure, like its namesake, Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea. I’d also call out King’s The Stand or The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn (Twain is also an author-hero of mine) as examples of that kind of story. Combine that journey/adventure-of-self-discovery model with the psychological grotesquery in Poe’s tales and the “normal guy next door thrown into a horrific situation” of King, and I think that pretty well defines my approach in TSS.
WS: What’s it been like being a part of the initial AW team?
CP: Awesome! I’d also make this point more generally about the indie-publishing community, but it’s certainly true of AW—we aren’t just a bunch of authors working on a common project. We’re a team—and here’s a quick example. When I was trying to figure out how the Serenity Virus would work, I did what all writers do these days—I Googled. But I couldn’t make heads or tails of some of the research—it’s complex stuff! Then I became Facebook friends with E.E. Giorgi and, within a week, found out she does HIV research. Wow! A real-live scientist! So, via Facebook, I reached out to her (she didn’t really know me from Adam) to help me figure out how Serenity might work, if it were real. She reached right back and was very generous with her time and expertise in doing that.
That’s very indicative of how everyone has worked together in AW. I do the same for the other authors, when they ask. I have over 20 years’ professional editing experience, so while AW has its own awesome in-house editor, Ellen Campbell, she doesn’t have time to answer every grammatical question that pops up. So if someone reaches out for that, I do the best I can for them. AW has been (and continues to be) a wonderful example of—as Nick calls it—a Community Created Bookverse, where authors, graphic designers, marketing experts, and all-around good people come together to help lift one another up and produce excellent works of speculative fiction. I’m honored and damned lucky to be a part of this group. I will now lead you in a chorus of Kumbaya 😉
WS: How about that M.S. Corley cover?
CP: Yeah, how about that!? Mike did a great job of individualizing each cover for the 5 launch books but making them obvious members of a family of AW works. Working with him was awesome. He asked for ideas for important characters/stuff to include, then gave me a sketch (which was pretty much on target). Then we refined the sketch together, and he added color and finalized it. It was seamless, painless, and he was very open to my suggestions as the writer. I recommend Mike very highly. A great guy and a very talented artist!
WS: Any hints on your next book?
CP: I’m actually working on two short stories at the moment—one for David Gatewood’s The Tinfoil Tales, one for Sam Peralta’s Dragon Chronicles—both due around March 1. I’ve outlined my third B Company tale, Columbia, which continues the story begun in Gettysburg and Susquehanna. Writing that will take me through March. After that, we’ll see. I have a futuristic/sci-fi/dystopian story idea about an over-the-hill mob enforcer who becomes the target of his own employer, and I’m anxious to pursue that. And I have a couple of what I think are unique ideas for short story anthologies I’d like to helm. Plus, hopefully TSS will be successful, and Michael and Nick will be knocking on my door to write the sequel. 😉 The immediate future is packed with projects, and that’s a good problem to have.
WS: Last thing…besides your book, what is your favorite AW book?
CP: Oh, besides mine? 😉 I’ll be honest, I’ve only read (to date) The Red King, Reversal, and Immunity. ALL of them are excellent. It’s like asking me: Stephen King, Robert Ludlum, or Bernard Cornwell—which is the better author? Well, they’re all great…but different. And that’s what I’d say about the AW novels. We all have different styles and different approaches to our stories, but each has its strengths and “great moments.” So, I’d say, read ’em for yourself…and you make the call.