Interview: Jeff Somers, author of Chum

You may recognize Jeff Somers as the author of the Avery Cates SF series, and most recently, the excellent TRICKSTER, Book 1 of the Ustari Cycle. However, his brand new book, CHUM, is a bit of a departure from his usual and he was nice enough to chat with me about the new book, and more (and he isn’t sarcastic at all. Nope, not one little bit.)

Please welcome Jeff to the blog!

jeffsomersOk, I sorta missed out on Lifers and there’s talk that your new book , Chum, is its unofficial sequel. Can you give us some background on that and tell us a bit about Chum?
First of all, I am outraged. Lifers was published by a small press twelve years ago and the small press went out of business shortly thereafter and paid me part of my advance in copies of my own book and despite getting a mediocre review in The New York Times Book Review it sold terribly and then I released it as an eBook in 2011 without fanfare, promotion, or knowledge of how to format an eBook and you’re telling you missed out on it? I do not understand you or your people.

Chum isn’t really a sequel; the books share a universe and some characters. A lot of my writing is in this universe, and I’ve even sort of brought these stories together with my speculative fiction via the magic of a multiverse. It’s all connected, and someday I hope to publish every single thing I’ve ever written and then everything will be made clear and I will likely be elected Emperor Beyond the Sea.

So, Chum: I actually wrote the first draft of this book a loooong time ago. It was a period of my life where not only was I hanging out and getting drunk and thus learning to despise and hate the same small group of people every other night, but I was also attending a lot of weddings. A lot of weddings. It was the last fierce Moment of Single in my life and thus there was a need for loose wedding dates. Put those together and you have a story that I think is equal parts Disaster Wedding Porn, Dark Humor, Misanthropy, and Rashamon.

Go buy it!

chumI read that you sold your first novel at 16, which is pretty damn cool. Will you tell us a bit more about yourself and your background?
My god, I’ve been waiting for someone to ask me that my entire life.

I should note, first, that “sell” is a strong verb for my first novel. When I was 16, a tiny press signed a contract with me for a SF novel I’d written. No money changed hands, the publisher hand-edited the manuscript for two years and then sent me a sad note about how he had to close down. The end.

It was kind of humiliating, because I’d told everyone I knew several thousand times that I was published and would soon be on a red carpet somewhere as the film version of my bestselling novel premiered. Then, after months of radio silence, I had to admit that there was, in fact, no book deal. I remain scarred by this.

Now, about me: I’m from Jersey City, originally and now live in Hoboken about five minutes from where I was born. I’m married and have five cats, no kids, and generally think children should be shipped off to military school as quickly as possible. I went to a public grammar school where I learned to cover my face when being beaten up, a Jesuit College Preparatory School where I learned there is no god, and a State College (Rutgers) where I learned that I do not, after all, wish to live a life without alcohol.

I started writing when I was nine or ten. My first novel was a reworking of The Lord of the Rings into a 90 page masterpiece. I’ve been stealing big and stealing little ever since.

To round off the about me: Pop Punk, Infocom, Power Chords, Glenmorangie, Deimer-Blackmaar Gambits, and Miller’s Crossing.

lifersYou’re well known for your Avery Cates sf/noir series and also The Ustari Cyle novels, but Chum is a bit of a
different breed of book. Is it easy for you to transition between genres when you write? Will you tell us a little about your writing process?
I’m well-known? Jeebus, that’s news.

It is pretty easy for me. When I was a kid I read and wrote mainly SF and Fantasy. Then in college I decided I had to grow up so I started writing torturous stories about real situations which mostly involved me being awkward and unhappy. That went on for a while. Then I jumped back into SF with the Cates books. Maybe all the genre-jumping helps, but I pretty much write whatever I feel like. I’ve also never felt like I was part of any sort of community or anything, so the idea that I had to write in one genre or another always seemed kind of absurd.

I’m a Pantser, I believe is the technical term. I just make shit up. I usually start with an image or a scenario I’m interested in, then see if anything grows out of it. Usually it doesn’t. I force myself to write a complete short story every month, with a beginning middle and end, and let me tell you, most of them are terrible.

I don’t revise much. Usually if a book makes it all the way to The End I like what I did along the way, and I’ll take another pass to clean things up. Once in a while I’ll take feedback and really dig into a novel, but not too often, to be honest. If I don’t like what I did, I usually prefer to just start over and write a new book from a new angle.

I also don’t have any sort of schedule. I just hit the keyboard when I feel like it. I write freelance for a living, so I am usually sitting at my keyboard about 12 hours a day, so this is easy. As is developing a heart condition and what is known to science as Chicken Leg Syndrome.

I also think having a bunch of different projects open at any given time is good, because I can jump into something fresh when I get frustrated with something else.

Also: I don’t pay attention to word counts. I either wind up at a length I can sell, or I don’t. Increasingly I’m finding word count to matter less anyway due to the influence of eBooks and the Internet, where spine thickness doesn’t matter (though you do still get some people solving an equation where price/words = quality, which is insane).

Of course, I am also frequently drunk, so who knows? In my blackouts maybe I’m revising like a bastard and following a strict schedule.

killerinsidemeWho, or what, have been some of the biggest influences on your writing?
I’m sure my list is kind of typical.

When I was a kid and I wrote that aforementioned 90-page Tolkien ripoff, my Dad was so proud he took it to work and made copies. This was back before home computers were all that common; I wrote everything on an ancient manual typewriter. A guy at my Dad’s office read the book and actually copy-edited it and made feedback comments on it. It was the first time anyone had taken me seriously as a writer, and that guy – Mr. Galvin – probably did more to cement my path in life than anyone else.

As for style – Jim Thompson, Raymond Chandler, Dashielle Hammet for voice. Thompson’s gotten some attention but remains a woefully underappreciated writer in my opinion. He’s like Hemingway after a night of eating shrooms and murdering people.

For the Sci Fi side of me, I’m kind of low-rent for influences: Jack L. Chalker weighs heavily on my teenage years and his influence is likely still showing here and there.

Read any good books lately?
My reading is so strange, because it’s very random. I like used books, so I tend to just buy stuff for $1 and put it on a pile, so there’s some obscure stuff.

One of my faves recently is by Sean Ferrell, The Man in the Empty Suit. Incredibly ideas in there, and written in a beautiful style.

Without thinking too much about it, if someone were to ask you for a book recommendation, what would be the first book to come to mind?
The Killer Inside Me by Jim Thompson. Or perhaps The Grifters.

What would you like to see readers take away from Chum?
A sense that we are all doomed by our animal natures and that all people are essentially horrible and we will all eat each other the moment disaster strikes, or something along those lines.

I’m only half kidding – I think the common thread in a lot of my writing is the idea that civilization is fragile. In the Cates books I literally document civilization ending, and Cates himself is only one of several people in the story that make decisions that contribute directly to that collapse.

In Chum there are no cyborgs or nanotech viruses or world governments, but it traces the fault lines between our smiling, polite selves and the vicious killing machines inside us all.

Also: Weddings are awful things. Not marriages, necessarily – just weddings.

When you’re not working on your next project (and playing your guitar), how do you like to spend your free time?
That is my free time. I like to write, so it’s actually one of my favorite hobby-like activities. And it’s the same way with guitar – I like to write songs and actually put them together (and post them to my wee blog) because for me if you’re not creating a distinct piece of art, you’re just wasting time. Not that I think my songwriting or guitar playing is worth much, mind you – it’s just fun.

I do play a few video games now and then, and I’m a huge movie and TV show fan, so you can find me in the theaters or watching Breaking Bad pretty often. I also like to drink a lot, and am always searching for new and exciting whiskies to try. This is starting to make me sound like a serial killer.

Also: I have five cats. That isn’t helping with the serial killer thing, is it?

What’s next for you?
Right now I’m promoting Chum a couple of ways: There are some free eBooks with connections to the novel over at Smashwords,  which I encourage everyone to download; they both contain an excerpt from Chum. Plus I’m giving away signed copies of Chum to ten folks over on my blog, which everyone should give a whirl because it’ll be fun.

After that, the next thing is the sequel to Trickster, which is getting complicated. Originally it was to be a standalone sequel titled Fabricator, but now we’re going to combine the two books into one titled We Are Not Good People, which will be out sometime in the summer of 2014 from Pocket. More details on that as they come in.

I have a few things cooking but nothing to announce yet, so we can just assume more whiskey, guitar, complaining, and other standard Somers shenanigans.

Keep up with Jeff: Website | Twitter

chumAbout CHUM:
Mary and Bickerman are the center of their circle of friends–but these friends are strangers as well as family to them. In the course of year, under the influence of a stressful wedding and a whole lot of alcohol, relationships and nerves are twisted and broken as the dynamics of the cozy-seeming group shift. Secrets are kept, emotions withheld, and it doesn’t look like it’s going to end well for anyone.

Told always in first person, but not the same person, and unfolding in double-helix chronology that provides a Rashomon-like narration, Chum is the story of love, liquor, and death.

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