Please welcome Patrick Swenson to the blog! His new book, THE ULTRA THIN MAN, just came out this week and he kindly answered a few of my questions about it, why he writes, and much more!
Congrats on the release of The Ultra Thin Man! Will you tell us more about it and what inspired you to write it?
Thank you! It all started as a way for my brother and me to keep in touch when he moved to California. I give him full credit for the title, and he started the ball rolling with the first installment. We didn’t even know what we were going to write. But we passed around a few chapters over a number of years. About an eighth of the book has my brother’s input. Eventually I took on the challenge of writing the bulk of it.
You’ve been a teacher for many years, but has it always been your goal to write a novel? What’s one of the first things you can remember writing?
Oh yes, I’ve wanted to be a writer most of my life. (I didn’t decide on wanting to be a teacher until high school.) I remember at age nine sitting at my desk downstairs writing a science fiction story called “Mr Mooney Goes to the Moon.” Mooney is my mom’s maiden name, and I based the character a little bit on my Grandpa Mooney. There were two sequels: “Mr. Mooney Goes to Mars,” and “Mr. Mooney Goes to North Dakota.” (We lived in Eastern Montana, right on the border of North Dakota. I guess I thought North Dakota was an alien place.)
The Ultra Thin Man takes place in the 22nd century. Will you tell us more about your sort of near future and the world you’ve created?
The Ultra Thin Man introduces you to the eight worlds of the Union, although you only see three worlds. You discover the milieu as the main characters live and interact with it and talk about it. The year 2113 is not that far away, when you think about it. A hundred years. Will we command the technological prowess of the Union of Worlds by then? Probably not. I created the Memors, an alien race with superior technology; they found Earth, took pity on us, and shared. In particular, they gave us the jump slots that connect to other suitable colony worlds. They upped the learning curve. David Crowell thinks of it as a win-lose. He has a sense of nostalgia for the old days, even though he wasn’t around during the old days. He loves all that old stuff. The Union has all this new tech—lots of gloss—but what’s been good for the Union has left Earth itself a little worse for wear. People are moving out to the colony worlds.
The other alien race—the Helks—were found later by humans. They’re huge, ugly, and mean, and they don’t play nice with humans (and vice versa). The fact that the terrorist movement’s leader Terl Plenko is a Helk only adds fuel to the fire. A lot of tension exists in the Union, and some of the worlds have even threatened to leave the Union.
What did you enjoy most about writing David and Alan’s characters, and what supporting characters did you particularly have fun with?
David Crowell and Alan Brindos are alike in many ways, and polar opposites in others. Okay, mostly opposites. I also planned to get both of them on the run and separated, so the reader could see them on their own, trying to solve the mystery without the ability to rely on each other. Brindos, in particular, was a hoot to write, because that poor guy goes through hell in this book.
The supporting character I like most is Tem Forno. He’s a Helk, but he’s very human in the way he holds himself. He and Dave are a bit of an odd couple, but they start to understand one another. I’ll leave it at that. Without saying too much, I’m also fond of Joseph, the concierge Alan meets. Talk about a conflicted, complicated character: that’s Joseph in a nutshell.
Why SFF? What do you enjoy most about writing, and reading, in the genre?
I grew up reading in the genre, from an early age. Science fiction is the only genre that talks about change being the norm. You read about H.G. Wells, and his uncanny predictions in his novels, prophesizing that this was going to happen and that was going to happen. And it often came true. Yesterday’s sci-fi is today’s science fact. But not always. There are a lot of things Wells didn’t get right. But it’s that sense of wonder and the need to understand how we feel about our own world that really hooked me. Science Fiction isn’t always about the future. Often it’s about what bugs us in our present.
Who are a few of your favorite authors?
I discovered Dune by Frank Herbert in junior high, and then I read all the sequels, and many of his other books. I simply devoured a lot of the classic SF writers while growing up: Arthur C. Clarke, Robert Heinlein, Robert Silverberg, Philip K. Dick, Ursula K. Leguin, Ray Bradbury, Andre Norton.
One of my favorite SF writers today is Robert Charles Wilson. My favorite writer of literary fiction (but he has SF sensibilities throughout his work) is Steve Erickson, not to be confused with Steven Erikson, the fantasy writer. I’m a lover of mysteries too: Robert B. Parker, Elmore Leonard, James Lee Burke, and a host of classic noir writers. As a teacher of honors and AP students, I of course have my favorite literary writers (Cormac McCarthy, Toni Morrison, Jeanette Winterson, Kahled Hosseini) and books (To Kill a Mockingbird, The Good Earth, Heart of Darkness)
Have you read any good books lately? What are you currently reading?
I just finished Tobias Buckell’s new novel Hurricane Fever, an extremely well-done eco-thriller. Before that I read Daryl Gregory’s Raising Stony Mayhall, a zombie novel with a difference. So well-written! On the thriller side, I loved Headhunters by Jo Nesbo, and I very much enjoyed the first two novels in Craig Johnson’s Longmire series. Great also was Nancy Kress’s After the Fall, Before the Fall, During the Fall. Currently, I’m working my way through Leviathan Wakes, the first novel of the Expanse, a space opera by James S.A. Corey.
When you manage to find some free time, how do you like to spend it?
Free time? I’ve heard of that! Well, my twelve-year-old son Orion gets a good bit of my time. We love good movies, games and just hanging out and reading together. I love to attend author readings and signings, meet friends for food and drink. I read for pleasure when I can (Often the reading I do is related to work in some way.) I love looking for story in other forms.
I used to do a lot of hiking when I was younger, and skiing. Sadly, not much these days. I braved a skiing trip two years ago for the first time in 20 years. I hadn’t forgotten how, of course; in fact, the technology had changed around me, making it easier! But those leg muscles . . .
I have to ask…how did you celebrate when you found out that The Ultra Thin Man would be published?
It’s hard to answer this, as it was a bit of a rolling acceptance. My editor first told me that his assistant had loved it, so he was going to get back to reading it himself. Then much later I heard he was going to pitch it to the editorial team at Tor. Just hearing that was a great moment. When the phone call finally came, it was the last day of the school year. I was in my classroom, and I had my head halfway out the window to get enough cell service to talk. I celebrated by texting or calling just about every friend and family member I knew. Beyond that, it’s a bit of a blur now, and I don’t remember what I did that night or the next day to celebrate!
What’s next for you?
I’m currently nearing the end of the first draft of the sequel to The Ultra Thin Man. It’s not under contract, but I’m hoping this first book does well so that the sequel has a chance to get out there. I’m still running my own small press, Fairwood Press, and the projects there keep me busy. On September 3rd, I begin my 30th year of teaching. Strangely, for some reason, I’ve not been thinking a lot about school this summer!
About THE ULTRA THIN MAN:
In the twenty-second century, a future in which mortaline wire controls the weather on the settled planets and entire refugee camps drowse in drug-induced slumber, no one—alive or dead, human or alien—is quite what they seem. When terrorists manage to crash Coral, the moon, into its home planet of Ribon, forcing evacuation, it’s up to Dave Crowell and Alan Brindos, contract detectives for the Network Intelligence Organization, to solve a case of interplanetary consequences. Crowell’ and Brindos’s investigation plunges them neck-deep into a conspiracy much more dangerous than anything they could have imagined.
The two detectives soon find themselves separated, chasing opposite leads: Brindos has to hunt down the massive Helkunn alien Terl Plenko, shadow leader of the terrorist Movement of Worlds. Crowell, meanwhile, runs into something far more sinister—an elaborate frame job that puts our heroes on the hook for treason.
In this novel from Patrick Swenson, Crowell and Brindos are forced to fight through the intrigue to discover the depths of an interstellar conspiracy. And to answer the all-important question: Who, and what, is the Ultra Thin Man?