Q: Can you say how your main character first occurred to you and how he or she evolved from that first spark to a full character?
ALAN: When I first met Ken, he had a character looking for a story, and I had a story that was in search of a character, a typical “haunted house in space” scenario that eventually became “Mask of the Ferret.” I have always been attracted to stories that feature a group of people trapped in a restricted space and forced to fight for their lives.
Ken’s only further instruction to me was that he would like to see a Roman Catholic character in the story and that he was to be displayed realistically and respectfully. The result was Father Eric Heidler, a Roman Catholic priest high in the fictitious Order of Saint Dismas and a man working out his penance for his work before he joined Mother Church which explains his appearing fascination with Jill.
The story did so well, we wrote Dyads as a sequel for ISIGII.
KEN: The main character in Dyads is Father Heidler, whom Alan came up with for the initial story “Mask of the Ferret”. Originally a clergyman covert operative, he became fixed as a Catholic priest (fictional order) when “Mask of the Ferret” was tweaked for ISIG1 and took off from there.
I think Alan chose the name “Heidler” from the street he lived on. Plus it’s a name found among his Pennsylvania Dutch roots. Then I discovered the Twilight Zone connection – according to this one 1943 OSS intelligence report I picked up in a used bookstore, “Heidler” is an Austrian or Sudetenlander name. As in the original form of the name “Hitler”. I checked my closets for Rod Serling after finding that out.
This Fr Heidler is never physically described, other than being human and getting on in years, a common convention allowing the reader to insert their own – these days, probably Shepherd Book instead of Adolf without the ‘stache. Especially since his milieu has some of the gritty retro-future feel of Firefly.
Fr Heidler’s order, the Order of St Dismas, is a hat-tip to Poul Anderson, whose memorable space-opera merchant-prince character Nick Van Rijn swore by St Dismas, “patron saint of thieves” and presumably interstellar wheeling and dealing.
Q: Did you choose your subject, or did your subject choose you?
ALAN: I’m going to defer to Ken on this one as the subject is actually of his creation.
KEN: Both. It began with “Mask of the Ferret” in ISIG1, with a character who does not appear in “Dyads” – a chain-smoking Goth ferret-woman named Jill Noir.
The “furry” angle (aka “The Cold Wet Nose school of non-human design”) has always been a constant thread through my fantasy. In this context, I think of it as following an old space-opera tradition: basing alien races on animals or composites thereof. Main difference in “Dyads” is the alien cosmic archetype is Fox instead of the more usual Cat.
“Mask of the Ferret” (ISIG1):
It all started with a fursuit (anthropomorphic animal costume) in the masquerade and fursuit dance at a “furry con” (SF/fantasy convention specializing in anthromorphic animals and much weirdness) in January of 1999. Said fursuit was a petite retro-Goth ferret-woman in all-black 17th Century men’s formal garb. Very impressive – like a Goth Captain Hook in all-black, down to the long Restoration-style wig.
She struck me as a natural for a “bad girl” character; when I got home from the con, I did a doodle of an as-then-unnamed character based on the suit and about half a page of speculative notes. For the next couple years, she sat unused, a character in search of a story.
A year or two later, I met Alan at another furry con (this one on the East Coast) through the intermediary of a beheaded unicorn. (A tale in and of itself; see this bootleg for the picture and flashfic that did it.) We corresponded a bit, and I mentioned I had this character in search of a story. He expressed some interest, so I shipped him a copy of the doodle-and-notes. ZANG!
Turned out he had a story in search of a focusing/catalyst character, and the Goth ferret fit right in. He suggested a collaboration, and this time the collaboration worked. He did the first draft NaNoWriMo style, a “trapped in the bad place” horror scenario with a space-opera setting. Then he sent it off to me, the Tolkien-style worldbuilder who outlines and pre-plans everything (including doodling and diagramming “sets and costumes”); I added a few scenes, elaborated others, and made everything canonical to my pre-established universe. Result: “Mask of the Ferret”, which appeared in ISIG1. When he received my final version, he said “I sent you an Alan Loewen story; you sent me back a Poul Anderson one.”
And the fursuit that started it all? Only appeared once, at that con in ’99, and has never been seen again.
Then came ISIG2. We were working on expanding “Mask of the Ferret” into a full novel, and needed another story that could fit both as an “episode” in a braided novel and as a standalone in ISIG2. This time, we’d concentrate on the other main character in “Mask of the Ferret”, Father Heidler.
And it began with a fragmentary note. Remember the Inquisition testimony scene in “Dyads”, the one with Khrysha the Hangvixen? She was an established character I’d been writing about for a while – the in-story viral video is a direct reference to my first Khrysha story “Kill 23”, podcast here — and one of my notes on her had to do with a human missionary/gallows groupie who first tried to proselytize her big-time, then ended up getting forcibly deported after going berserk in the world’s main temple. Alan decided to take that incident and see what he could do with it; since Fr Heidler is a “Vatican Secret Service” troubleshooter, he’d be a natural to handle the fallout.
Well, he upped the ante on me Big-Time, by having the failed missionary BOMB the alien temple in a desperation move. And that’s what we ran with, for what ended up as a 26,000-word novella. Including cameos of established characters, references to other stories and backstories of the background universe, a future that parallels and echoes the past. In the process, we added two elements to the established universe – Cathuria’s offworld-affairs capital of Shallivarden, the Great Temple/“Foxy Vatican”, and Earth’s past between now and then.
The title – “Dyads” – means “groups of two.” And I put a lot of dyads into “Dyads” – the male-female dichotomy of Thalendri religion; the contrast between the Catholic Church with its long historical trace and splinter groups like the “True Remnant Fellowship” without; similarities and contrasts between Humandri and Thalendri, Liturgical Christianity and the Eternal Dance, Holy See and Great Temple, male and female, “then” and “now”. And since ISIG2 had a Catholic theme, I pulled out all the stops; “Dyads” is probably the most Catholic thing I have ever written.
If there’s anything I had in mind while writing “Dyads”, it was a sense of deep history, a future extending from a long past. And a tribute to all those classic Poul Anderson and Beam Piper stories I used to devour in back issues of Analog and used-bookstore paperbacks.
I also had a field day with the “villain” of the piece, Cameron “Bucky Bible” Lakeland, the desperate failed missionary-turned-amateur terrorist. I spent a good chunk of the Seventies in a similar aberrant Christian splinter group (“end-of-the-world Cult” would be a better description), and it took years to get back. Writing about a similar quasi-Cult – contrasting it with the historical Liturgical Church that helped duct-tape my head back together – was shall we say a bit of catharsis.
Q: How do you work?
ALAN: If you are referring to the partnership between Ken and me, in reality, I’m a very easy person to work with, but on top of my relationally-oriented personality, there are two other aspects of this project that affect how Ken and I work together.
The first is that when I am done with the story, I have no problem giving it over to Ken and mentally and emotionally I give up all “rights” to the work. The reason I can do that is because I recognize Ken as the superior writer. I know that whatever I send him is going to be turned into a captivating story and I’m thrilled with the simple reality that he used my plot framework and dialogue.
As for working as a writer, I am still in the process of learning and restructuring my life in order to facilitate my goal to have 50% of my annual income come from my writing itself. In working toward that goal, I find that books like Jeff VanderMeer’s Booklife: Strategies and Survival Tips for the 21st Century Writer helpful in working toward that ambition.
Presently, I’m sorry to say that my present employment has me on crisis call 24/7 so I find it difficult to impossible to have a set time to write. However, in the madness, there are a few golden, salient moments where I can put hand to keyboard and get work done.
KEN: Depends on what you mean by “work” – individually or as a collaboration.
Individually, I write intermittently. I have a high-stress day job, and when I stress out (which is often), the writing is the first thing to go. I write best in the early morning, before the stress hits; if I’m lucky, I have an hour or two on weekdays and two to four on Saturday mornings. Eight-twelve hours a week, max.
I’m a pre-planner, outlining and working the story out in my head before I can put it down. My big weakness is the coming up with the initial idea, the “seed” of the story. Like a random-number generator, I need a “seed” to start with. Once I have that, I can build on that foundation, fleshing it out into a rich, detailed narrative. The only exceptions to that are the occasional “spontaneous stories” that burst into my head fully-formed, maybe one every couple of years. These are usually shorts, unrelated to anything else, and usually pretty Dark, i.e. “The last time this happened, a unicorn got beheaded.”
I’m a former kid genius and natural-talent speedreader. By the time I was ten, I’d read and absorbed more raw information than most people do in their lifetime – with no idea how to fit it all together. This resulted in a randomly-linked mental database where any reference pulls up a cascade of others; I have little control over it. This is why my stuff is so rich and elaborate, hopefully creating a feeling of depth. From the time I first started writing for serious (fanzines in the late Eighties), my greatest strength has been the in the details, building a feel of “You Are There” that keeps reader interest through the slow spots. Using Orson Scott Card’s MICE Quotient, I’m a Milieu and Event writer. Though Alan says I’m very good with characters, that comes about mostly by accident.
And most of my stuff tends to novella length – the Kiss of Death in a publishing world of one-page flashfics and 600+ page trilogy components. My only hope is a “braided novel” – several related novellas welded end-to-end into a single narrative. Not only does this break up the writing work into more easily-written “episodes”, but each episode can be read in one sitting. And each episode has a definite intermediate ending – no wading through 600-1000 pages of continuous narrative only to find it ends with “To Be Continued”.
Now for “in collaboration.” While I’ve polished other writers’ works, Alan is the only successful full collaboration. I think it’s because of our approaches. I’m a pre-planner, like Tolkien; he’s a spontaneous writer, like Lewis. The system we’ve worked out is he does the first (often rough) draft, and then turns it over to me; this gives me the “seed” I need to begin. Then I rewrite it, usually doubling to tripling its length, making it canonical to the background universe, adding “you are there” detail and references and echoes and parallels, often getting back to him for more seeds of intermediate scenes.
Q: Are you involved with email lists and social media? Why or why not?
KEN: Not very much. I do email, I’m on a couple Yahoogroup lists, I comment on a couple blogs (under the handle “Headless Unicorn Guy”), but that’s about it. I have enough demands on my time without adding more. It comes down to this: Do you want me to be a big presence in “Social Media ™”, or do you want me to keep writing? Because today’s social media selects for and encourages no-life fanboys. I’ve seen the pattern among gamers, I’ve seen it among anime otaku, I’ve seen it among furries – diving into the social media of a fandom to the point you never have the time or energy to do anything else. Like have a life other than constantly blogging or twittering minute-by-minute when you go to the bathroom. I’m 55 years old, with maybe 20 years of lifespan left. I have a hard enough time accomplishing anything in the first place, what with all the stress and ADD distractions. I literally cannot afford the psychological distraction or demands on my time and energy.
I let Alan work the social-media angle. He’s better at marketing and publicity and exposure than I could ever be.
I’ve dreamed of being an SF author since I discovered Andre Norton juveniles around the time the Enterprise first began to Boldly Go Where No Man Has Gone Before. I’ve battled depression and ADD-like distraction and just getting all the raw data in my head collated to the point of coherence. Now that I’ve actually started getting published, I can’t afford anything that could interfere in the maybe 20 years of lifespan I have left. I don’t work all that fast, and at last count I have at least twelve books’ worth of stories either underway or outlined.
And after this interview, I have to finish the last interlude chapter of the braided novel that grew from “Mask of the Ferret” and “Dyads”, then make polishing passes over all the episodes that make up the book. Alan’s shopping the manuscript out at a writer/publisher’s conference this July/August.
ALAN: I administrate a Yahoo Group called ChristianFic2 and have found it valuable as a learning tool not only for the members, but for myself as well. Other than that, I have a blog on LiveJournal where I can announce my publishing credits and speaking engagements. My LiveJournal blog is also attached to my Facebook account.
I believe that marketing is no longer an option in the world of writing. Even if carried by a mainstream publisher, you have to get out there and make people know you are not the best kept secret of the literary world.
Q: If you could have an evening with one fictional character, your own or someone else’s, who would it be and why?
KEN: Haven’t a clue. There are too many of them to make a choice.
ALAN: Now that’s a difficult question. Are you sure I can’t have a dinner party?
If forced to pick just one, I would gladly spend the time with Randolph Carter from The Dream-Quest of Unknown Kadath as he is the author insert of H. P. Lovecraft.
Dream-Quest was an unedited rough draft and I regret that Lovecraft went to his grave without the ability to rewrite and revise the work, but even in its rough form, there is enough awe and wonder there to satisfy the longing of any hardcore fantasy reader.
I would love to talk with Carter/Lovecraft just to see what the final work would have been like.
Earlier Authors’ interviews/profiles for ISIG1 links:
INFINITE SPACE, INFINITE GOD is available from the Publisher