Tuesday, March 27, 2012

Throwing Down the Words - An Interview with Justin Macumber - Part One

Plan D: I know you as one of the voices behind the writing podcast The Dead Robots' Society, so it makes sense that you're a writer. But for those who haven't listened to The Dead Robots' Society (and if any of you haven't, you really should!), can you tell us who is Justin Macumber?

Justin Macumber: Wow, that's a big question. How existential should I get? Personally, I'm most importantly a husband, a son, and a brother to a family that I adore. Family is important to me, though I'm terrible at showing it. But, I don't think that's what you meant though. More professionally I'm a writer and a podcaster. I started the Dead Robots' Society about four-and-a-half years ago to communicate with other aspiring writers and establish a network with publishing professionals. We've been finalists for the Parsec Awards twice, and it's been our pleasure to talk with authors, publishers, podcasters, and agents. Through the show I've met a lot of cool, interesting people, and I've learned a great deal about what the publishing industry is really like. Now with the release of my first novel, Haywire, through Gryphonwood Press, I get to experience it first hand. It's been an interesting ride thus far, and I don't see it getting less interesting in the days ahead.

On a less serious note, I'm also a hardcore gamer, a Trekkie, a hair metal fan, and I cried at the end of Lost.

D: What led you to writing?

J: A desire to create worlds. When I was a young kid I fell in with some people who were playing Dungeons & Dragons, and since we didn't have money to buy officially-made and -sold adventures, we had to make our own. It didn't take long for me to fall in love with creating stories and locations for my friends to explore. Over time, I made dozens and dozens of campaigns, stretching my young mind to its limits. After that, I met a guy who wrote and drew his own little homemade comic book, and being a fan of comics myself I thought that would be interesting to do. I was a terrible artist, but the stories and dialogue came naturally to me. Then I wandered into writing longer prose, dabbling in fantasy, horror, and later science fiction. The person you see today is the end result of all those disparate styles, stories, and genres. I'm a mess, really.

D: Is Haywire your first novel?

J: It's the first novel I've had published, but as with most successful authors, it's not the first novel I've written. Back when I was in an online writing club many many years ago I wrote approximately three novels worth of stories. Looking back on them, I'm rather embarrassed by the flowery language and indulgent style, but that's just something we all have to work through to find our real voice. Someone (I don't remember who, sadly) once said that a writer's first million words are what they have to get out of their system to become a real writer. I believe that. After leaving the club, I wrote a novel entirely of my own creation, and while trying to find an agent for it, I wrote half of the follow-up novel before I decided that I shouldn't spend time on a sequel if the first book hadn't found a home, which it never did. So, between those books and previous writing, I was able to work through those million words and get to a place where I could write a book truly worth publishing. Luckily Gryphonwood Press felt the same way.

D: How did you connect with Gryphonwood Press?

J: Back in December of 2010 we had author Jeremy Robinson on the podcast as a guest, and while talking to him about his experience with self-publishing and small presses he mentioned a guy he knew by the name of David Wood who wrote novels in a similar style to his own (action adventure) and who was also the founder of a small press called Gryphonwood Press. He recommended we have David on, which we later did. David and I kept in contact after the interview, and when I suddenly found myself on the hunt once again for a publisher, he was the first person I thought of. So, I reached out, he said he'd take a look, and less than a year later here we are.

D: There are a handful of short stories with your name on them. What's the difference in your approach to writing a novel versus writing a short story? Is one more difficult than the other? Is one more fun?

J: There's certainly a difference in approach. With a short story, your goal is to tell as simple a story as possible in the least amount of words necessary while still creating interesting characters and a compelling plot. It's all about economy and impact. But, with a novel, you have more room to add plot threads that weave around the central story, you can add more depth to the world and the characters, and the pacing can have more variation in it. You still don't want to waste time or words though. Words tell the story, but they can also get in the way of the story if you're not careful. Is one more difficult or fun than the other? Not really. Just different. Short stories are more immediately satisfying, but novels give more a sense of accomplishment.

D: What influences your writing?

J: Influences are a funny thing. So often we're influenced by people and stories and events, yet we don't even know it. In the past, I've had people ask me if something or other influenced a story I wrote, and while my immediate reaction was to say no, upon further reflection I often discovered it had. Years ago I wrote a short story series called The Ties That Bind: A Tale of the Breaking Dawn, and while writing it I didn't think about how much the TV show Firefly was influencing it, but once I was done and had some distance, the influence was glaringly apparent. Now I try to be much more cognizant of my influences and inspirations.

But specifically what influences me? Stephen King, for one. If I could model my career after anyone, it would be him. Not only is he an amazing writer, but his imagination has no boundaries, and he can jump from genre to genre like no one else alive. His "Dark Tower" saga is my favorite literary work of all time, and one day I can only dream to try and match it. Joss Whedon is one of those people who has talent leaking from his pores, and his ability to create characters and stories that seem so real and yet extraordinary is something I try my best to emulate. Between Firefly and Buffy the Vampire Slayer, I'm a life-long fan. Robert Heinlein's humanistic approach to sci-fi is something I love and try to bring to my own writing. Kevin Smith's irreverence and ear for dialogue inspires me. Scott Sigler's unrelenting energy and enthusiasm for writing is also inspiring. Since I'm also a gamer, I find myself falling for games with rich characters and compelling stories like Mass Effect, Uncharted, Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic, Silent Hill, Halo, and Gears of War. I'm also a fan of comic books, so titles like Iron Man, Witchblade, and X-Men are woven tightly into the DNA of my writing.

I would be remiss if I didn't also mention music. When I write I'm constantly listening to music, and I make sure that the music I'm listening to matches the theme and emotion of the story I'm crafting at that moment. While writing Haywire, I listened to the soundtracks for movies like Star Wars, Transformers, Serenity, Pirates of the Caribbean, and The Dark Knight, as well as the music for games like Halo, Metal Gear Solid and Medal of Honor. Without music like that I'm not sure how successful I'd be at capturing the spirit of adventure needed for a story like Haywire.

D: As a collector of film scores myself, I could totally shift gears here and drive this interview into Movie Music Land, but I'll try to keep us on the Writing Path by asking how you "match" your music listening to your writing. Do you assemble playlists for specific pieces of writing? (I typically "assign" a particular film score album to specific writing pieces, which then serves to not only inspire my writing, but also helps as part of my "ritual" of writing - when I heard the score from Land of the Dead, for example, I know it's time to work on whatever story I've "attached" that music to in my head.)

J: This is a topic I could easily spiral off into for hours and hours. It's sick, really, how much music I listen to and how much it impacts me as a writer. When it comes to the music I choose, that's dictated by two things. First and foremost, the genre. I can't listen to the Lord of the Rings scores while writing sci-fi, nor could I listen to the Conan the Barbarian score while writing horror. It just wouldn't work. Second is the mood I need to create. Using Haywire as an example, I often found myself listening to Steve Jablonsky's scores for the Transformers movies and the Gears of War games. His probably isn't a name you've heard of often, but I really adore his work on those two properties. They have a darkness to them that works in those moments when you need your characters to hurt, to bleed, but there's also a sense of triumph that lifts you up and drives you to keep fighting. But, when it came to the chapters where I was focusing on two space pirate characters, I usually listened to Hans Zimmer's Pirates of the Caribbean scores. For yet another character, a federal agent type, one of his character bits was that he liked jazz, so in his chapters I often played Miles Davis and John Coltrane. AND, for those scenes when I really needed to squeeze every last bit of raw emotion and heartbreak out of myself that I could, I played music from a guy named Kerry Muzzey. Very few people I know have ever heard of him, but his music . . . it's some of them most delicate, ethereal music I've ever heard. Go give a listen to his score for a short film called Hole In The Paper Sky. If you don't have tears in your eyes at the end of it, you're just not human.

Lately I've been working on a horror novel, and as you might imagine that's a harder musical style to find unless you just like listening to noise. My go-to music there has been the scores for the Silent Hill games, as well as the scores to the movies The Descent, The Exorcism of Emily Rose, and a lesser known movie called The Shrine.

If we had longer I'd give you a ten page list of great music to write to. And don't even get me started on "trailer music" by groups like Two Steps From Hell . . .

D: I could talk film scores with you for days-and-days-and-pages-and-pages . . . but we really need to get back to writing! (But I will say this - if you're looking for horror film scores and want to stick with Steve Jablonsky, he did compose the scores for the two recent Texas Chainsaw Massacre films and the Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street remakes . . . just sayin' . . . ! Anyway . . . )

J: There are a lot of great scores and albums I've left out, so maybe this is something I could talk about on my blog. I'm always trying to find something worth posting, and this might be good.

You can find Justin online at his website at Moment's From a Writer's Life (http://www.justinmacumber.com/). You can hear him on the following podcasts: The Dead Robots' Society, Fit-2-Write and The Hollywood Outsider.

His short stories and books, including Haywire, can be found at Amazon and Barnes & Noble.

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