Wednesday, September 4, 2013

An Interview with John Steiner, author of "Fire Alive"

Buy it HERE!
Welcome back, John! You've been on Unwritten quite a few times. Last time was in April of this year for the A-Z Blog Challenge, and you had the letter "N". Remember that?

Yes, I describe some of the interesting ways authors come with the names of their characters. Often, those names are Easter Eggs for readers curious about the meanings behind them.

Tell us what you've been doing since then, and remind the readers where you're from and what you do when you're not writing.

My other job is as a tutor in college math, biology, chemistry and physics at Salt Lake Community College. In my daily commute as a pedestrian I’ve become astute in reading traffic like a wolf studying herds of bison. That’s just so I don’t get run over when crossing the street as the light goes green my way.

Outside of the day job, the spaceflight addiction monkey’s been riding my back hard, and so I have been writing short story installments for my science fiction series, Flipspace. It’s a set of adventures based around a 22nd century aerospace force crew on a ship capable of crossing between stars in what’s called a Spatial Rotation or Flipspace Event.

Your newest release, Fire Alive, puts a supernatural twist on a firefighting drama. What inspired you to write this story?

Part of it stems from a little-celebrate yet brilliant scene in the movie, Backdraft. Robert De Niro is describing to William Baldwin about the secret to mastering the job of a firefighter. De Niro instills into Baldwin the belief that fire isn’t just an electrochemical reaction, but a living breathing thing that hungers and hates.

Speaking to firefighters, I found this a common theme, and that a few told me that’s the frame of mind governing the best of their trade. It’s not unusual at all to hear terms such as “The Animal” or “Old Man Fire.” There is even the concept of the fire “looking at you” suggesting that the inferno will give signs that it’s coming your way.

Fire Alive! was a way to show the realistic firefighter experience to people like myself not baptized into their world of flames. To flush it out further, I sought concepts of particle physics I believed could be the basis of actual living organisms of fire and devoid of mass. The Islamic belief of the Djinn is a good mythic parallel to the creatures of Fire Alive! The title itself comes from a code I invented whereby firefighters can warn their department brothers and sisters that such fiery wrathful monsters are on the scene.

The story is set in 2026. Not that it's THAT far away, but why did you choose that date in the future for the time period?

At first, I was going to set it in the present day… and then stopped myself. “I’m a science fiction writer. Roll the clock forward.” Maybe I could add a few ideas that might come into practice and save lives. There were a few side-plots, some science fiction and others social commentary, that I needed a few years to have develop in a realistic fashion. I can’t picture what firefighting might look like many decades from now, but I suspected there were technologies in development now that might mature into vital instruments for our friendly neighborhood dragonslayers.

Bouncing ideas off a fire instructor whom I credit in the front cover, I drafted a new training idea that would help firefighters prepare for the unpredictable turn of events that can spring up. The SCBA [Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus] Confidence Course has eight steps or evolutions. I added a ninth, calling it the Ninth Circle in reference to Dante’s Inferno. The fire instructor was impressed by the idea, so it wouldn’t surprise me if, in the near future, we see something like it in practice.

Did you interview or hang out with any actual firefighters for research, and if so, what did you learn from them?

I did a tour of Salt Lake City’s Station 8, which serves as the center for the story. I also emailed Captain Dale G. Pekel, who is the firefighter instructor I brought my ideas to. Further research included a website called founded by Paul Grimwood, which I have to say is the most poetic surname a firefighter can have.

In addition, Captain Pekel sent me a video of the 2011 Fire Department Instructor Conference, where the speaker was a Lieutenant Ray McCormack of NYFD’s Ladder 28. His speech about fighting fires and where problems occur with the wrong priorities inspired the background story I devised for my main character, Captain Duane “Longhand” Longhurst.

It’s best to let Lt. Ray McCormack lay it out in his own words with all the passion he brings to firefighting.

A lot of little boys want to be firefighters when they grow up. Did you ever want to be one? Would you be one now if you could?

Actually, no. As a kid, I just saw it as going around with a hose, axe, ladder and funny-looking helmet. It didn’t strike me as a terribly sophisticated job.

As an adult researching firefighting, I came to realize the job is much more complicated than I ever imagined. My respect for firefighters grew as I learned more about their skill sets. And true to the depicting in Backdraft, they are always firefighters, even when they’re off the clock. I think that to become a firefighter would consume so much of my focus I couldn’t imagine being able to delve into other stories. There are many firefighters, like the aforementioned Lt. McCormack and Paul Grimwood, who write articles on firefighting tactics.

That was another hidden treasure I discovered when writing Fire Alive! I loved the strategies and pace of small unit military tactics, and firefighting makes use of so many of them, that the crossover from military stories to fire suppression wasn’t as big as I first thought. The added bonus was instilling in readers that fire is an enemy that cannot be negotiated, coerced, bought off or frightened.

Can you give us an excerpt from one of your favorite scenes?

The following scene is from the first installment of the Flipspace series titled Flight of the Mockingbird. Stanley Goddard is what’s referred to as a Logician, because of the fact he had DNA-based computers in the neurons of his brain and wireless synapses in order to think faster. He, the flight surgeon Captain Malcolm O’Connell, a security operator named Lieutenant Cipactli Arroyo-Diaz and other crew members are inspecting a Flipspace Device or FSD for signs of damage or tampering. To do that he needs help from an AI or Self-Ware named Khronos:

Excerpt from Flipspace 1: Flight of the Mockingbird.

“Everything seems in order here, Captain,” the EVR lieutenant with the earlier question called.
Diaz’s fire team led the group over to one of the nearer five FSD compartments. All the while Malcolm noticed doubtful thoughts crisscross Stanly’s features from within his helmet.
“What is it, Goddard?” O’Connell asked.
“I haven’t been trying to reach Khronos, because he may not be the only one listening, but he should’ve made himself known in some way. I’ll have to talk to him for the FSD check.”
“What about that, Lieutenant Diaz?” the captain queried. “Goddard says he needs Khronos’ help on the FSD diagnostic. I figure if no one knows we’re in here by now we should be in the clear.”
“Not necessarily, sir,” Diaz countered. “But it suggests they don’t have access to the network.”
Inside the compartment that appeared more spacious, for lack of a giant power plant in the middle, Stanly went to work by himself. The EVR flights had nothing to do but watch with the rest of them.
“I call upon the spirit of Father Time!” Stanly incanted with overdramatic flair, and waved his hands over the console, as if casting a spell. “Manifest before us, I bid you!”
“Cut the shit, Stanley,” Malcolm quipped with fake sternness, knowing the Logician couldn’t see his bemused grin. “Just get the old dude on the line.”
Mr. Goddard’s demeanor grew serious so fast, O’Connell suspected something was wrong.
“He’s not here, Captain.” Stanley’s helmet jolted side to side, as if looking into the terminal itself. “I’m looking through the entire vessel’s system now. He’s nowhere inside.”
“Can an AI do that?” Diaz asked anyone who would answer. “Just jump ship?”
“Yes and no,” Stanly half affirmed. “Without physical hardware to occupy an AI can’t cross through a rotating tesseract, nor can they travel on nonlocality transmissions. Outside a quantum computer they can’t be considered alive or awake. It’s like cryostasis for Self-Ware.”

“So barring an in-system backup,” O’Connell postulated. “He’s either deleted or used a main antenna to transmit himself back home at light-speed.”

Time for a random question! This one comes from one of my kids' favorite books, Would You Rather: Radically Repulsive.
Would you able to get revenge on the school bully (or any bully) by having a voodoo doll of him or by having the ability to control all of his bodily functions?
With my background in Hun Gar Kung-Fu, my time in the U.S. Army and a childhood filled with violent abuse from an older brother, the likes of which I didn’t see paralleled until the Abu Ghraib military prison scandal, I’m more of a hands-on guy. Let me stand before my childhood adversary and school them on just how hardened and resilient life has made me.

That’s part of why I truly relate to the Firefly/Serenity character, Malcolm Reynolds. They guy takes a beat-down, but always stands– or stumbles back onto his feet. Sometimes he doesn’t even knowing why he gets back up. The world’s kicking his ass, and it may one day blow him off his feet, but it’ll never bring him to his knees.

Thanks so much for visiting Unwritten again, John. I hope you can return soon and wish you all the best with this new release!

Thank you, I appreciate being invited back again. Should Flipspace be published, I hope to bring the insights of that to your readers as well.

1 comment:

***NOTICE*** Thanks to a spam bot infestation, every comment must now be subjected to a full-body search. If you pass, you can skip the anal probing...maybe.