Q: For the benefit of those not familiar with you and your work, can you give us the “411″ on Jeff Somers?
Sure. All you need to know: Born in Jersey City, New Jersey but no one believes it because I am not very tough-looking; went to public grammar schools where I learned to curse extravagantly and a private Jesuit High School where I learned, well, Latin, mainly; was an Eagle Scout though my main memories of the Boy Scouts involved being dirty most of the time, drinking cheap blackberry brandy in the woods, and living life on the edge of a Lord-of-the-Flies situation any time we went camping; majored in English during college because I suspected (rightly) that this would allow me to sleep in and skip most of my classes; have been writing since I was about nine when I crafted a ninety page exercise in Tolkien plagiarism titled The War of the Gem; married above my station in life and am living peacefully with stronger-than-she-looks wife and three cats.
Q: Without giving anything away, can you give us a taste of the story that is THE ELECTRIC CHURCH?
It’s set in an unspecified future after the world has undergone Unification—the forging of a single world government and the destruction of all national borders or distinctions, resulting in The System of Federate Nations. This wasn’t an easy or even popular process, and the whole word was rocked by riots which were eventually brutally put down by the newly formed System Security Force, a world-wide police force with extremely wide latitude, well-trained officers, and very little oversight or restraint.
Unification had a disastrous effect on the economy, and the world has settled into a split between the haves and the much more numerous have nots. Droids do most of the labor, so there aren’t many jobs. It’s a pretty bleak life, and most people feel completely justified in becoming criminals just to survive.
Another option has been creeping onto everyone’s radar: A new religion, preaching that a single human lifetime is not nearly enough to attain salvation—only by becoming a cyborg, a robot body with a human brain—can you live essentially forever and have enough time to contemplate your sins. And despite the fact that everyone agrees that is one extreme and freaky decision, this new religion—The Electric Church—is the fastest growing religion in the world.
That’s the world in which our narrator, Avery Cates, lives. Cates is a contract killer. He likes to think he’s a little better than a thug, but the fact is he kills for money, and feels justified in doing so because he lacks any other realistic options.
Naturally, when Cates and the System Police and The Electric Church get mixed up with each other, things go downhill. Fast. And in very entertaining ways.
Q: As one of their launch titles, is it a bit daunting to realize that Orbit USA are relying on you to make an impression on the market?
I don’t think about it, to be honest. Thoughts like that lead to madness. I just mutter a Serenity Prayer and drink heavily.
Q: Are you happy with the advance reviews you have seen thus far?
Sure—they’ve been more or less positive, so I can’t complain. I read reviews, but I don’t ponder them too much—good or bad. I mean, there’s no point in making little fists of rage when you read someone who dislikes your work—just as there’s no point in shooting your guns in the air when someone likes you. Like Cliff in Singles says, all that negative energy just makes me stronger.
Q: What can readers expect from the sequel, THE DIGITAL PLAGUE?
If The Electric Church is fast-paced, The Digital Plague is warp drive. I intentionally hit the ground running, more or less in media res and never let up. It was fun to write. I had a time frame for the story that’s kind of ridiculously short, as far as what happens in a matter of days, but that was how I saw it.
It’s a story that involves a plague of sorts, after all, and a lot of times what people do with plague stories is take their time, show the collapse of civilization, explore how people respond to it. I wanted to do it a little differently, where everything happens so damn fast you never get that sense that you know what’s about to happen. Or at least I hope that’s what I’ve accomplished.
Q: What’s the progress report on THE DIGITAL PLAGUE? Any tentative release date yet?
I think we’re shooting for spring/summer of 2008. I’ve completed the manuscript and turned it in, so I’m pretty sure we’re on schedule for that—and thank goodness, because my Corporate Masters would beat me with oranges wrapped in bath towels if I missed that delivery date. I fear them.
Q: In terms of worldbuilding, you used the post-apocalyptic environment, though you offer few details about the Riots and the creation of the System of Federated Nations. Will we learn more about what led to the Riots and the Unification in the next book, or are you planning to utilize the worldbuilding as a backdrop that doesn’t intrude too much on the rest of the story?
Definitely as little intrusion as possible. I want the story to have an immediate feel, and people just don’t go around pondering the backstory to things. It slips through in dribs and drabs, in subtle references and things half-attended to.
Plus, the characters are often on the move, rapidly trying to not be killed or escape from someplace, and I just can’t see characters pausing in the midst of a gunfight to have a lengthy internal lecture about why things are the way they are. It’s sort of like Broadway musicals—do people ever actually break into song during their daily lives? Maybe. But do I want to go watch them do it? Nope.
Q: What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write THE ELECTRIC CHURCH in the first place?
I read Douglas Adams’ Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency when I was a kid. Didn’t get most of it, of course—I mean, I enjoyed it, but when I read about the book now I realize that there was a lot going on in that story that just flew over my head. I have a terrible memory and things I read usually descend into a partially-recalled murk almost immediately, but one thing I did remember from this book was the couch jammed in a stairwell in an impossible way, a way that meant the couch would have had to have been beamed into place because otherwise it violated the laws of physics. That messed with my mind.
That has nothing to do with my book, however. The other thing I remembered from the book is the Electric Monk, which was an appliance invented to believe things for you, sparing you the burden of having to believe them yourself. A brilliant idea, but I took it and ran it through my brain, which has gears made up of Thundercats and Battlestar Galactica reruns, and I saw a dark side to that: Take the sort of religious fire-eaters who always want to tell you you’re going to hell and all that, then make them into heavily armed cyborgs. I’m surprised I was the first one to make this transformation from Adams’ work, actually.
Q: What was your inspiration for the Monks and the Electric Church?
Q: Could you tell us a little of the road that saw THE ELECTRIC CHURCH go from manuscript to published novel?
My lord, do we have time? This book is a prime example of how you can never tell how things are gonna go.
First, cast your mind back to 1990. This was when I wrote the first manuscript of the story. I named most of the characters after friends of mine, which, looking back, wasn’t a good idea since most of my friends were girls. Most of the main parts of the story were there, but the writing was flabby, as I imagined a group of ruthless people seeking the truth about The Electric Church but having endless cocktail-party conversations along the way, filled with witty banter and insults. Witty banter is fine, of course, but basically my characters would be in gunfights and making nonstop jokes, because I was enamored of myself as a humorist back then.
The manuscript sat for ten years. I started to read more widely, reading stuff that wasn’t spec fic, and for a while I wrote a lot of mainstream fiction or attempted-literary fiction. Some wasn’t bad. My first published novel, Lifers (out in 2001), was written during this period.
After that I returned to the central story and themes of TEC a few times, trying to rework it in a more intelligent fashion, but didn’t get too far. Then in 2004 I saw an advertisement for a web site called Another Chapter. Their idea was to deliver serialized fiction via email—you’d subscribe to something and get another chapter every week. Get it? I didn’t think much of the business model, to be honest, but they were looking for spec fic and offered a royalty contract, so I thought it’d be a good exercise if nothing else. I submitted a proposal and they accepted it, assigned me an editor, and I started rewriting the whole thing.
Well, the web site went out of business a few months later, but the editor they’d assigned to me was none other than Lilith Saintcrow (http://www.lilithsaintcrow.com/), author of the Dante Valentine series being published by Orbit (and lots of other stuff). She loved TEC and offered to show it to her editor. I didn’t think much would come of it, but I said sure, and her editor bought it!
So there you go: A more convoluted path to publication you can’t find.
Q: What made you decide to go with the first person narrative for this novel?
This was instinct—I had Cates’ voice in my head. The man’s been bitching about things in my head for years. This is one reason why I drink.
Q: Avery Cates and his merry band of misfits are a fun and interesting bunch. Are you surprised by the fact that you managed to make a hitman so endearing?
A little—especially because Cates is kind of mean. He’s constantly bullying people. But I think the mitigating factor is that he truly feels that he has to be this way—that the world will walk all over him if he doesn’t put up a constant fight. I think the reader can see that. And his longing for a past world where things were fair and made sense—a world that maybe didn’t actually exist—softens him, because you get the feeling he’d jump at the chance to become an accountant or a butcher, if he had the chance.
Q: Will you be touring to promote the book this fall? If so, are there any specific dates that have been confirmed as of yet?
I haven’t contemplated a formal tour. So far I have one reading scheduled in New York at Rocky Sullivans (www.rockysullivans.com) in Brooklyn, new York on September 24, and I’ll be mooching around World Fantasy Con in Saratoga in November if anyone wants to buy me a drink. I’m sure we’ll be adding a few readings and such as we go.
Plus, I often starting quoting my own work when I run into people in taverns, usually accompanied by a little staggering soft-shoe and the expectation that they buy me a drink, and I’ve been toying with the idea of counting these ‘performances’ as ‘readings’.
Q: What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
My main strength is a brutal willingness to cut, cut, and then cut some more when I’m revising. At least half of what I write is complete crap, and my strength lies in realizing that. I think. That, and years of alcohol abuse has taught me how to not go to the bathroom for hours and hours, allowing lots of unbroken writing time.
Q: Orbit came up with a terrific website to promote THE ELECTRIC CHURCH (www.the-electric-church.com). Did you have any input during the process of creating the site? What do you think of the final product?
I actually wrote almost all of the content—the words, not the code. I’d set up a site that had the same concept—official site for the Church, a hacker breaking in and vandalizing pages to warn you, a code here and there for fun—and they took that and re-worked it on a classier and higher level, and then added a lot of complex codes that were fun to work through. I really enjoyed that, coming up with puzzles or having puzzles presented to me, and then writing little scripts and such for chatbots to say or actors to record. The guy I worked with at Orbit, Alex Lencicki, is amazing—very sharp and smart, and he made the site into something I never dreamed it could be.
Q: The fact that there are a website and a blog dedicated to your work is an indication that interaction with your readers is important to you as an author. How special is it to have the chance to interact directly with your fans?
First off, I don’t have fans. Not yet. What I have are vaguely interested people who might decide to read my book. The folks who have read my zine aren’t fans because my zine is an embarrassing collection of personal anecdotes involving me getting drunk, weeping, and losing my pants—there’s no respect there, so they’re not really fans.
That said, I like interacting with people over the web. It’s a nice buffer. Because I am truly thankful and amazed that people find my writing or my persona interesting and entertaining, so I want to interact. But I also fear people, because so many are crazy. I’d always worry about people coming to burn down my house because they didn’t like that last plot twist where my main character is revealed to be one of Santa’s Elves, or to have been dreaming the whole story.
You may think I’m kidding about the burn down the house thing, but I am not.
Q: Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a Hugo Award? Why, exactly?
That’s tough, because I probably can’t name a Hugo winner. I’ve certainly read a few Hugo winners—because I remember seeing the blurb on the cover about it and thinking, well, that’s nice—but I can’t remember that fact about them. And I don’t rush out to buy Hugo winners just because they won.
On the other hand, my first novel, Lifers, was reviewed in the New York Times in 2001. The review was positive if not effusive, and it had exactly zero impact aside from a few kudos from friends and other writers. There was no bump in sales, no other attention—a month after the review it was like it had never happened. Now, my publisher back then was tiny and had no marketing or PR department to speak of, and had zero presence in book stores, so the fact that they couldn’t capitalize on it wasn’t surprising. But still, I expected something.
In the end, I think I’d go for another NYT appearance if only because my Mother would give me a blank stare if I said the words “Hugo Award”.
Q: Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the cover that graces THE ELECTRIC CHURCH?
Cover art cannot be underestimated. When I was a pudgy lad in big plastic glasses, I bought a lot of spec fic, and I chose almost all of it based on a cursory glance inside and the cover. For some reason I was a complete sucker for those Daryl K. Sweet covers Del Rey paperbacks always sported. I think I bought them all. Every single book Del Rey published in the 1980s. All because of those Sweet covers.
I love the TEC cover. It’s striking, it’s creepy, it’s clean, and I think it captures the mood of the story very well. Of course my original suggestion of a photo of me drenched in blood and holding a knife toward the reader in a threatening manner would’ve been good too.
Q: Honestly, do you believe that the speculative fiction genre will ever come to be recognized as veritable literature? Truth be told, in my opinion there has never been this many good books/series as we have right now, and yet there is still very little respect (not to say none) associated with the genre.
I don’t, and I don’t lose sleep over it. I like it this way. This way, we get to be ominous and disreputable. The Ominous and Disreputable Writers who Smoked and Drank Too Much. Want to join?
Q: Here’s a chance for you to make your pitch. Why should jaded readers spend their hard-earned money on THE ELECTRIC CHURCH?
You mean aside from my need for liquor monies because my wife only gives me $5/week in allowance? I’m really bad at this, and usually resort to (semi)comical begging. Here goes, though: It’s an exciting book—fast paced, with neat surprises, and the world feels very real. If that sounds even vaguely interesting, I think you’ll love it. And if you feel cheated at the end, well, I won’t refund your money—or even the tiny, tiny part of it that might eventually trickle down to me thousands of years from now, when the sun has gone cold and we’re all just brains in floating jars communicating via thought—but I will send you an apologetic email, how’s that? AUTHOR OFFERS APOLOGETIC EMAIL IN LIEU OF REFUND. That’s a sexy headline.
Q: Can you tell us a bit more about your magazine, THE INNER SWINE?
I call it a zine, since it’s really a labor of misguided love. About 15 years ago some friends and I decided we’d cut out the annoying middle man and just publish our own magazine. We had grand plans, and for about 2 years we played around with them, accomplishing nothing, really. One by one my co-conspirators dropped away, until I was left with the bits and pieces of material already produced and sole stewardship of the damn thing. So I threw together everything I had and added a few other things, and The Inner Swine was born. We’re almost 50 issues in now.
It’s a complete vanity project—I write about 97% of all the material, don’t accept submissions, and every issue is just me ranting incoherently with my ignorant opinions and misguided thoughts. Plus fiction I couldn’t sell anywhere, really terrible poetry, most of which was written when I was 20, and other ridiculous things. Some people find it amusing. For a while I had national and international distribution, but these days we’re down to just our subscribers, which number a few hundred. There’s a web site if anyone’s interested: http://www.innerswine.com/.
Our motto is: Misinformed opinion. Bad Poetry. STYLE.
Q: If your wife was indeed right and THE ELECTRIC CHURCH makes you famous, how will you handle all that newfound attention?
Most probably by embarrassing myself on a daily basis. I was not meant for public consumption. Trust me, this is why I lurk in my grubby office, churning out fiction like a Phantom of the Opera. Put me out in the public eye with a few drinks and I’ll go all Britney Spears on you.
Q: Anything you wish to add?
Well, I begged people to buy copies in an earlier question. . .so I’ll beg people to buy some of Lili Saintcrow’s books, also published by Orbit, because Lili rocks and her books are incredibly exciting and well done, and her editing on The Electric Church definitely improved it.
Thanks for the questions—this was fun! Hopefully I didn’t come off as too dorky. The Dork Factor is my burden in life.
Interview by Patrick