Author Interview: Tom Olbert

Today I’m joined by my fellow Mocha Memoirs Press author, Tom Olbert! He has some great things to say about science fiction, the writing process, and publishing…plus he talks about his recent release, Long Haul. This title sounds really interesting, so you definitely don’t want to miss what Tom has to say!


SJ: Every writer has some sort of process. Give us a glimpse into yours. Do you meticulously outline? Do you write depending on what calls are out there?

TO: It starts with an idea.  Sometimes, nothing more than a visual image (or, as in the case of a science fiction story like “Long Haul”) a science concept.  Once in a while, if a publisher says he or she wants a particular theme, I might approach that as a challenge, if I find it interesting.  Once the story takes shape, I do a rough synopsis.  First, I have to clearly map out each character, in terms of motivation, back story, etc.

SJ: Bonus question – Do you put on a cape and do a chant before hunkering down to work? Sacrifice anything? Along with your process, what’s your quirkiest writing habit?

TO: No cape.  No chant.  No sacrifice.  No quirk, really.  Once I get down to each scene, I pretty much just spew out whatever I need to get out, then clean it up afterwards.  Sometimes, I’ll go over and over a scene while I’m fixing dinner or cleaning the apartment, so when I finally sit down and type it, it’s already in my head.

SJ:  Are you a meticulous planner or do you believe in the muse? Where do your ideas come from? Do they filter in through your dreams? Do they show up at inopportune times and whap you upside the head? Do they result in a shady deal with a dark power?

TO:  It’s often something I’m irritated about, so the writing is cathartic.  Like, if there’s an ongoing situation in the world that bothers me or if I read an opinion or commentary or hear somebody say something that bothers me, I’ll want to deal with that.  That often is the basis of a horror story.  For a science fiction, it usually starts with a cognitive idea; something I’ve read about in a science journal.  But then, I once based a short story on a song lyric.  Another time, I based one on an historic event.  Another time, I glimpsed a line from a movie promo that gave me an idea.  I never know where it’s coming from.  Very seldom from dreams.

 SJ:  bonus question – If your muse had a physical manifestation, what would he or she look like and how would she or he act? Is it a sexy superhero version of Callisto? A sharp-tongued rogue? A reptilian alien? Do they have a catch phrase?

 TO:  Pretty much just somebody very common and non-descript who says “Why the hell didn’t you see that, you idiot?”

SJ: What’s the book/story that’s closest to your heart? Is there a piece that you clearly feel is a piece of you? Do you play favorites?

TO: I don’t play favorites, no.  A story will sometimes stand out because it was a first-time experiment for me.  “Long Haul” for instance, was my first attempt at first person narrative.  It was also my first attempt at comical, wise-cracking, action-oriented sci-fi.  I really had fun with it.

SJ: If you could only write one genre ever again upon pain of being sacrificed to Cthulhu, what would it be and why?

TO: Probably science fiction, because it covers the most territory; pretty much all the other genres are in there, including Lovecraftian horror, Cthulhu and all.

SJ: What’s your biggest frustration as a writer? What do you consider the downside, or is there one? Is there any cliché that makes you want to wring people’s necks?

TO: That’s several questions.  Biggest frustration?  Trying to escape the “description trap”; finding ways to keep a character and a scene alive; to not tell the reader what happened, but to put the reader in the character’s skin, and without being repetitive.  Downside?  Not getting your work to sell.  Trying to learn marketing when all you really want to do is write.  (But, then, that’s more a challenge of personal growth than a downside.)  Irritating cliche?  In writing, or in life?  We all run into those, I guess.  (But, again:  If anything irritates me, I just write about it.)

SJ: If you had to be stuck in one of your own books/stories for the rest of your life, what would it be and why? If you had to stick a loved one in one of your own books, what would it be and why? An enemy?

 TO: I have a short SF novelette out called “Meeting” in which the protagonist struggles to figure out why his world is crumbling around him and which of two lives he’s living is his real one and which is the illusion.  In the end, he basically discovers the world is a work in progress and what part he plays in it pretty much depends on what he chooses to bring to it.  One of this two lives is the sum of his experiences, the other, of his dreams and desires.  Only by integrating the two can he become whole.  That’s the world I’d wish for friend and foe alike.  Just truth.  You accept it, or you don’t.

SJ: Do you think it’s possible to develop a sure-fire recipe/formula for success as a writer? Would you want to, or does that compromise the art or the fun of it?

TO: You can probably sell more by just studying what’s out there, what’s selling now, and grinding out repetition, like Hollywood does.  But, what’s the point?  Publishers could hire professional work groups to do that.

 SJ: Everyone has words of wisdom for young writers, so I’m not going to ask you about that. With a few unknown writers becoming success stories, a lot of people seem to think it’s an easy career choice. What would your words of wisdom be to these people?

 TO: Wise up.  In the age of e-publishing, it’s true that every Tom, Dick and Harry can get published.  Getting your work to sell, that’s the hard part.  Only one writer in a multitude will be greatly successful.  (And, even then, success can be fleeting.)

 SJ: It seems like everyone likes to gang up on certain genres as being inferior, less meaningful, or cheap entertainment (especially if it’s speculative in nature). Make a case for the genre you write.

 TO: When science fiction first appeared, it was just action/adventure for the kids.  After pioneers like Isaac Asimov started doing serious speculative fiction, publishers were shocked by the concept.  It demanded too much of the public, they figured.  People don’t want to be challenged to think or philosophize about the nature of life or the future of humanity.  But, SF writers like Gene Roddenberry and J. Michael Straszinsky proved the naysayers wrong with thought-provoking (and sometimes disturbing) series like Star Trek and Babylon 5, which took the genre into the mainstream and left us all with some fine memories.  The new Battlestar Galactica cable series was another example of dark, serious speculative fiction making a successful impression on the public’s collective consciousness.  Lately, in these fearful and cynical times, science fiction has largely fallen out of public view.  It’s now making a comeback, but so far pretty much in just a cheap, entertaining, violent way.  I hope that’s starting to change now.  (A couple of the SF films coming out, like Host and AfterEarth look fairly interesting.  Certainly well-produced.  The film Another Earth was very good.)  We need the genre in a popular form that keeps the public intrigued about science, I think.  We seem to be slipping backwards, into the dark ages.

SJ: What do you want people to instantly think of when they hear your name or your work mentioned?

TO: That I can offer them a few surprises.  That I’ll try anything.

SJ: Please tell us about your latest/favorite work or a little bit about what you’re working on right now. It’s plug time, so go for it!

TO: “Long Haul” is a quirky kind of science fiction novella which was recently published by Mocha Memoirs Press.  Action-oriented, yes.  In some ways, reminiscent of the grade-B sci-fi action movies of the 1970’s.  But, through all the action and comedy relief, it demands the protagonist face his inner demons and make a moral decision about what he owes to himself and others.

Essentially, it’s a near-future SF in which physicists have stumbled onto a way to slip into other universes by channeling the mysterious cosmic force known as dark energy.  Naturally, a big company finds a way to capitalize on it.  Traveling to other universes at points where they intersect with our world and back again is a way of instantaneously transporting any cargo anywhere in the world.  Literally, yesterday, if the customer pays enough.

The blue-collar hero of the piece is one Garth Jenkins, a free-wheeling, wise-cracking womanizing tough guy and born loser with a heart of gold and zero luck.  A second-generation trucker, orphan since age 13 and gulf war veteran, he’s a cynic but deep down, he’ll always do the right thing.  (Sometimes, he needs a push.)

 He and his square-shooting, argumentative, indomitable trucking partner, best friend and rival Sally Drake have to drive their loads in transdimensional trucks through some pretty strange alien landscapes and fight their way through some pretty bizarre creatures and situations to make their deliveries on time.  All in a day’s work for two combat vets with attitude and an appetite for danger.

 Until they discover that the world is not what it seemed, and that they’re mixed up in something with literally world-shattering consequences.  They’ve got decisions to make and universes to save, and it’s not going to be easy.



Be sure to check Tom out at the following links!

Tom Olbert’s Blog

Mocha Memoirs Press

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