Author Interview: Joseph Devon

[Today, I’m pleased as pumpkins to introduce for your reading pleasure an interview with one of my favourite authors, Joseph Devon. You may or may not have seen my reviews of his books, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions, but if you haven’t just take my word for it and check them out. They’re awesome.]

1. In your books Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions you spin some interesting philosophies and concepts that have a pseudo-religious feel to them. What if any outside influences led you to envision this strange kind of afterlife?

There are so many different versions of the afterlife out there, I’m pretty sure Probability Angels is a mish-mash of everything I’ve encountered on that topic.

I would say some of the biggest influences, though, are Zen Buddhism and the ancient Greek gods. Zen Buddhism doesn’t exactly have any hard and fast answers about the afterlife, or this life even, but there’s a playfulness in its philosophies, a kind of constant checking and rechecking with reality to make sure it doesn’t get too full of itself or too reliant on rules from the past. So you have stories of children outwitting Zen Masters, or over-thinking pupils being fed SUPER thinky things by their chuckling masters to try and get them back to the here and now, and the occasional stooge-esque slap to the face.

I think the reality of the afterlife I’ve presented draws a lot on those notions. Epp is constantly telling his students that they have the ability to be correct just as often as he does, assuming they open their damn eyes. And he certainly has ways of slapping them across their face to get their attention…like dropping them off of the Eiffel Tower. So the notion that reality is the only master and everyone is a student kind of runs through everything, I think that comes from Zen.

And then the ancient Greeks gave me the wonderful ability to write gods who are allowed to fuck things up. The Greek and Roman gods were, I mean they were children. Big, powerful, typhoon-causing children.

You have stories like the Iliad and the Odyssey where the humans involved are dealing with their emotions and faults on a very noble level. Achilles mopes in his tent, refusing to fight and dooming thousands of Greeks to death because of his absence from the Trojan war, but he is very aware of these consequences and has some heartbreaking speeches about the difficulty of sitting by while his kinsmen fight and die.

And then you have the gods running around like lunatics, undercutting each other, backstabbing, scheming, causing chaos and mischief and never thinking about it for a second. I’m not saying that the characters in Probability Angels are that reckless, but the notion that an immortal could be just as much of a fuck-up as any given human at any given moment…well that notion has always stuck with me.

The example I always come back to is that in Probability Angels there’s a fairly important event that Kyo shows up late for because he forgets to adjust for differences in time zones.

2. Probability Angels was originally published as a loosely connected series of short stories on your blog, that slowly congealed into a more cohesive whole. Looking back on that experience, how do you feel about the concept of serial stories? Do they still have a place in modern literature?

I think the internet is probably the perfect medium for a serial story. I keep waiting for one to catch on. There are tons of them out there but nothing has really caught fire. And there are plenty of larger publishers tinkering with the concept, but they really seem to be taking current works and cramming them into a serial concept.

I want to see someone really run with it and create a great story. I kind of think that will be one of the first truly big success stories of internet fiction. It just seems like it’s SUCH a perfect place for it. I kind of want to try one myself but, and I’ll get into this on a later question, I have to admit that my writing method does not lend itself to serials. I could take a finished product and divvy it up and release it in serial form, but as I mentioned that’s a little different.

I barely made it through Probability Angels. Barely. But, yeah, man doesn’t a website seem like the absolute perfect place to tell a story bit by bit?

3. You can send one tweet to yourself ten years ago. What is it?

HA! I wouldn’t have been on twitter ten years ago so I wouldn’t be able to receive it. Mwahahahahaahaokay I’ll answer for real.

So I get 140 characters to send to myself ten years ago? “Keep writing. There are highs and lows coming but building up a library of work you can be proud of is the most important constant.”

4. I know you’ve done a lot of research into advertising and publicizing your work, so spill the beans for the rest of us. What works? What doesn’t?

Man I wish I had an awesome answer to this question. But I don’t. I have a long list of things that don’t work…which sort of makes this embarrassing to talk about. That being said I’m trying to come around to sharing more of the results from all of my experiments in marketing. But since I’m not an established best-seller yet my brain likes to tell me that I’m a failure still, and, as such, I have no input on this subject.

I’m working on telling myself, “These ideas didn’t fail, they provided needed information on what doesn’t work.” But that’s tough for me. Still, as I said, I’m hoping to generate more discussion about this with writer’s like you and pool resources more. I think I’ll be revisiting this more often on my site. It feels so unnatural to me to display my failures for everyone though…right.

At any rate I have good news. A lot of the attempts I’ve made so far have required money. Not a ton of money, but about twice a year I usually am budgeted for a large push somewhere or to purchase a sizable ad campaign. And those haven’t worked. They didn’t make me blow up.

That’s my best news: money isn’t the answer. A large budget does not seem to be the key hurdle to success.

That makes me pretty happy because everyone deserves their shot. Other than that it’s a complete freaking mystery what works. Still. And I hate that.

So many people treat marketing like voodoo, or they assume that the last, final, push that brings a book into the spotlight is the whole story. Which is annoying because there was so much work before that breakthrough point for almost every book.

I’d like to bring some logic to this party, I’d like to bring some real knowledge in, especially for people starting from scratch. Frankly, the more I write the more I look forward to success not for myself, but because then I’ll have some real data that I can turn around and share with all the other writers out there struggling in a market that seems mostly dominated by witchcraft and a complete lack of empirical evidence. I think it’d be pretty great to lay out a process that writers starting with three readers can follow in order to find their audience.

5. I’ve seen your picture, and I suspect you’re Brendan Frasier trying to reinvent himself as a writer. Admit it! You’re him aren’t you?

Ixnay on the Andonbray Asierfray alktay.

6. Going back to your process on Probability Angels for a moment, how important is it to know where you’re going with a story? Do you still fly by the seat of your pants or do you tend to plan your newer books out more carefully?

I used to be very concerned about outlines and having my structure laid out before I started writing. It got to a point where I became way too locked in and I wasn’t able to react when something interesting appeared during the writing process. I would hammer that spontaneous and interesting idea down in order to stick to my outline.

That was when my outlining was at its peak and that was when I decided that I hated writing like that. It was devoid of life, of fun, of breath and interest and…well I didn’t like it.

So I came up with the 26 Stories in 52 Weeks project. I would write a new short story every two weeks for a year online. And that’s where Matthew and Epp first appeared. They started as a short story. But I kept going back to their world over the course of the project and eventually realized that an entire book was there and the project ended with me wrapping up Probability Angels with my last few short stories.

That was weird. I had already published these stories online, people had read them and loved them, and since I had done it that way I absolutely didn’t want to change them. And yet I wanted to change them because when you take them all as one book there are places I felt like I could have edited or added clarity or what have you. Introduced characters earlier maybe. But I didn’t let myself do that. Haha…that was sort of my final exam in order to break myself free of writing with an outline. Was I able to listen to my readers, accept that *they* had accepted the book as a whole, and just let it stand? Yes. Yes I did. But it was rough.

And then I put it all together and released it as an actual book, and I stand by that. But…damn sometimes I wish I could jump up and down in front of some reviewers and say, “No no no, wait, it’s a series of short stories!” Which of course is impossible, not to mention unfair. I released it as a book and I stand by it as a book.

Anyway, I went from one extreme, outlining everything, to the other extreme, having absolutely no idea that I was even writing a book. I think between those two I’m much happier staying away from outlining and writing more in the moment.

However, I say that knowing I can go back and rewrite. I love rewriting. It can save anything and…it’s just so important. Persistent Illusions was a bit of a mottled mess at the end of the first draft, especially the ending. Hell, I didn’t even have my ending after my first draft. I still didn’t know what scene would close out the book. But I was able to rewrite and mold the first draft into a whole work and then things started falling into place.

So, yes I still plan things out, but I never let my outline write my book for me. And I still fly by the seat of my pants and hurtle through parts, usually pretty terrified, with no idea what I’m driving towards.

But the key addition is the ability to rewrite. That’s where everything comes together in the end, somewhere around the eighth run-through. 🙂

7. What should I have for dinner?

I’m convinced that ancient cavemen would ask each other this, crippled by indecision as to which part of the mammoth they felt like gnawing on that night.

Well probably not…but I do tweet this question near constantly. Coming off of an afternoon of writing emails and story and notes, it usually hits me like a wall to the face that I have to mash up proteins and vegetables in my mouth and swallow them for energy. On the other hand, I LOVE food and I’m very aware of how transcendent great food can be.

So usually I tweet this when my utilitarian need for starch collides with my urge to be transported to a new world through spices and succulence. I’m never happy with my answer.

8. As a self-published/indie author what is it you see other indie authors doing that you wish you could tell them all to stop?

There are a lot of specifics that I could go into, but seeing as how I haven’t cracked this nut yet I don’t feel like I should be giving out advice. And I think that’s the overall message I’d like to give here.

All too often I see indie authors and new writers ingesting blogs and articles about publishing and taking them to heart. I do this too. A blog with a community can be a very convincing thing. And these bloggers and article writers have ideas and theories…but that’s all they are. Ideas and theories.

I can’t tell you how many times I’ve come back to myself after getting very worked up by a blog article and been like, “Wait, this person hasn’t even *written* a book much less tried to publish one. Why am I taking their opinion so personally?”

Publishing is in flux right now, and the experts know some stuff, sure, but nobody knows what’s going on in reality. I mean you have heads of traditional publishing houses giving very hard-line opinions about how things will be, but these are the same people that sit around doing nothing while Amazon, of all places, went out and invented the e-reader.

I don’t mean to bash anyone here, my point is just that you’re SUPPOSED to be out there doing what nobody else thinks is right. That’s how progress comes about. Not because some head of industry plans it but because tons of people out there collectively practice trial and error until some things start to work consistently.

Basically I’m counting on you to go out and try things that I would never think of, because otherwise they won’t get tried. And who knows what’ll work? It’s a process of discovery.

I mean in the early days of television the actors would literally walk off set mid-show while the camera followed them, stand next to a product, endorse that product, then walk back on set and get back in character and go on with the show. And the experts in advertising at the time thought they had a pretty good thing going. Then you think about how much more advertising had to develop, and still has to and it seems silly to take the stance that some people know exactly what’s right for an industry and that nothing is going to change.

Look, just go out and do.

And it’s good to stay in touch with the community, but never forget that they don’t know what the fuck they’re talking about either.

9. What does your stack of “to be read” books look like? (Given the digital nature of our reading world, it need not be an actual stack.)

Awhile ago my “to be read” pile became a laughably impossible-to-climb mountain of titles ranging from physics textbooks to ancient poems to murder mysteries to I don’t even know what. I got to a point where it was clear I could either jettison the entire thing or be crushed under it.

Figuratively. I didn’t actually have a mountain of books hovering over me.

So I jettisoned it. I no longer have a reading list. When I finish reading something I pick up whatever catches my fancy or the last decent recommendation I heard. I have maybe one other book on my kindle besides what I’m currently reading, but the list never gets much longer than that.

I figure a complete random selection of books is just as good as a massive list of books that were suggested to me basically at random.

And, let’s be honest, does anyone actually go through their TBR pile in order? I would always scan through it and grab something that tickled me at that moment, which is pretty much what I do now. It’s nice. It was a very freeing feeling to not have that mountain anymore.

10. Since there are loyal fans of your first two books, when you’re writing further in the series do you feel a certain obligation to those people, or do you still try to write for yourself?

Oh yeah. There’s always a ton of pressure.

It seems like most book series or movie series get worse as they go along. Many I’ve enjoyed certainly do that. So I’m constantly nervous about making any of the mistakes that I’ve faulted other artists for…not that I have an exact lock on what happens to cause series to become diluted over time.

But then I get nervous that ALL I’m thinking about is not making mistakes, and that I’ll wind up with a safe third book that doesn’t, you know, have anything happen in it because I played it so safe. I worry about trying too much and I worry about staying too safe. The inside of my head is a very weird place.

So, yes, I feel a very large obligation not to go all Jar-Jar on my loyal fans, but I also want to throw in new stuff because the third book should stand on its own as a good read and not just be a mopping up process.

I think in the end I just have to trust my gut, but I’m currently at a point in the process where story-lines are still very open-ended and lots of decisions have yet to be made and I catch myself over-thinking things a lot.

[Once again, thanks so much to Joseph Devon who is a super author and a wonderful person (as far as I can tell from his Twitter). Do check out his books. They’re awesome.]

[Pumpkins.]

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One response to “Author Interview: Joseph Devon

  1. GREAT interview! Though I thought he spelled his name “Fraser” ? Anyway, “Encino Man” was underrated, IMO. Would love to see another collaboration with Pauly Shore.

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