Monday, July 22, 2013

Interview with Jay Posey

Jay Posey's debut novel, Three, was a pleasant surprise for me as a reader. I was surprised by how what appeared to be a by-the-numbers tale transformed into a compelling meditation on self isolation and the bonding of a surrogate father and a troubled child. Posey's approach to world building was refreshingly minimal and his bleak prose reminded me of Cormac McCarthy. With that said, I approached this interview with far more relish than I had originally expected when I agreed to do so before reading the novel. There were a few hiccups in getting the interview in (though not due to any lack of response of Jay's) and given the rapid turn around from Jay, I can't say I am anything but impressed with the answers. I hope you enjoy this interview as much as I did. 

52 Reviews: What can you tell us about the genesis of Three? Did the idea come to you fully formed or was there a germinating process? How different is the finished product from what you initially envisioned?

Jay Posey: I had the seed of the idea for a good couple of years before I ever found the setting that I was happy with for the story.  But once I found the world for it, I think that had inevitable impact on how the story itself developed.  I knew I wanted to explore a story about surrogate fatherhood, but when I wrote that first scene that introduced Cass, she instantly became a crucial third piece to the story puzzle.  In the very earliest days of conception, I’d actually expected Cass to die in that opening scene, leaving Three with Wren.  But she had other ideas, and I’m really glad she did.

It’s kind of strange, because in some ways Three is exactly the story I wanted to tell.  I was really pleased with the characters and the relationships that developed over the course of the book.  But there are plenty of things that surprised me about how it turned out.  Some of the settings felt a lot more like I was discovering them than creating them, like Greenstone and the Strand, and several of the characters had much deeper histories than I was expecting, like jCharles and Mol, or Dagon.  So from that standpoint, I think the world turned out to be much larger and deeper than I had anticipated when I started out.

52 Reviews: I see from you author bio that you have worked extensively in the video game industry. How has that professional experience deepened your understanding of story mechanics, and was it difficult to make the leap into prose? 

Jay Posey: Working in games has definitely forced me to work very hard at understanding the fundamentals of storytelling.  In a lot of ways, storytelling in games is almost fractal … you can have a story line that you expect players to take 12 hours to get through, but then that story can be broken down into, say, four hour arcs, which can each be broken into one hour missions, each broken into fifteen-minute segments, each broken into five-minute game play loops.  Working to understand story beats and how to play with pacing, and trying to deliver satisfying beginning-middle-end experiences repeatedly gave me a lot of practice with the fundamentals.

It actually wasn’t too tough to transfer those skills over to the prose world.  There’s a ton of writing for games that doesn’t ever actually show up in the finished product … documents about character backgrounds or world events, for example.  When you’re creating a video game world, you’re often working with a lot of other creative individuals who want to understand, say, the political motivations and level of professional training of the enemies you face, so you end up writing a lot of that background material that influences the game without necessarily ever showing up where a player can see it.

I think in a lot of ways, it was really freeing to write a novel, since I had a lot more control over the story and world than I do in my day job.

52 Reviews: One of the hallmarks of speculative fiction is world building, and authors often spend copious amounts of time detailing all of the things that make their settings different from the real world. In Three you use a very sparse almost minimalist approach to world building, providing very little detail about how the world came to be in its current state. What led you to this decision and should readers expect more of the same in future volumes?

Jay Posey: There were a couple of reasons for that.  The biggest reason was because I really wanted to keep the story small and focused on the characters.  I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I tried to give people all the information they needed to understand that story without getting bogged down in trying to explain the state of the world. 

On another level, though, I genuinely wasn’t sure how much people were going to be interested in the world itself, and I didn’t want to give people a huge info dump about things they might not care about at all.  Moving forward through the series, I’ll definitely be answering more questions about the world, though I suspect there’s a good chance I’ll leave a few gaps for readers to answer for themselves.

52 Reviews: One of the larger themes of the novel seems to be the loss of humanity through isolation. Three begins to see himself in a completely light once he allows himself to be drawn into the problems of Cass and Wren. What in your own experience contributed to the overall character arc of your protagonist?

Jay Posey: I think a lot of this came out of my own personal journey.  I’m highly introverted by nature, and I was very much a nerd growing up (and continue to be), so I think I got used to feeling out of place.  There have been times in my life where I just found it a lot easier to do my best not to get noticed, and to try to do everything on my own so I didn’t have to rely on others.  I think there’s a natural tendency for all of us to do that at some point, particularly after we’ve been hurt by someone we trusted.  There’s a temptation there to withdraw and try to avoid letting anyone get too close.

When I became a father, though, I think it helped me realize how important it is to stay connected, how much we really need other people to help us be our best, and how to try to operate beyond ourselves.  My children have taught me a lot about myself, and I think have really brought me a lot of healing over some things I’d come to believe about myself.
52 Reviews: Another aspect of Three that I found fascinating was your use of technology in such a way that it was less of an outside force and more of an internal part of everyone's make up. The fact that your protagonist's lack of this bio-tech was what made him such an effective hero, seems to be a veiled statement about our growing dependence on gizmos and gadgets. Was that an intentional statement or something that grew organically in the telling of the tale? 

Jay Posey: It was an intentional decision once I’d settled on the setting I wanted to use for the story, but it’s really an essential part of the character.  It’s not really an attempt at an anti-tech morality tale or anything, because I love technology and think there’s a lot of awesome stuff going on out in the world.  But I definitely think a lot about the implications of how much we’ve let technology into our everyday lives, and how that can be potentially used against us.  It really had more to do with the nature of the character though, about how Three built his entire life around this idea of being entirely untraceable.

But I might have a little bit of the tinfoil hat thing going on.  I like to think I have a healthy skepticism, but I’m sure all paranoids think that about themselves. 

52 Reviews: I was really impressed by your handling of Wren. Writing children is incredibly difficult and few author's show the level of authenticity in their portrayal of the very young that I found in your handling of Wren. What was your approach to this very crucial character? What challenges and rewards did you experience in writing a character of such a tender age?

Jay Posey: Wren was really tough for me, though it probably helps that I have children around his age.  I think writing him came from a combination of observing my own children, and reflecting on the memories I had of my own childhood.  There were some moments that I was able to draw on myself, like when your parents are trying to pretend like everything’s fine, but there’s clearly something wrong … and sometimes knowing your parents aren’t telling you everything is scarier in its own way than whatever the something wrong might be. 

I think too I tried to keep in mind that kids are usually a lot more aware of what’s going on than we as adults tend to give them credit for, and so I tried to make sure I treated Wren with respect.  I think the biggest reward was getting to the end of the book and feeling pretty content with the way he’s portrayed and the way his relationship develops with Three.
52 Reviews: I found the descriptive passages in Three to be full of an elegant bleakness. While you certainly gave enough information for readers to get the gist of the setting, I found my own internal imaginings taking up the space between the sparse details you provided. How important do you think the symbiosis between the reader and the work is to making novels of this style successful?

Jay Posey: I can’t tell you how glad I am to hear you say that.  I think it’s absolutely critical that readers are able to fill in those gaps in ways they find satisfying.  It can be scary as a writer to think someone might be picturing a scene differently than the way you do, but I think it can be a more fulfilling experience for the reader when they can contribute to their own experience that way.

I think that’s one thing that working in games has taught me.  Working in video games, you’re so often surrounded by incredibly gifted creative individuals, and I’ve had numerous experiences where I’ve written a scene, or a character, or whatever, and then handed it off to a concept artist, and what they’ve come back with is not at all what I was imagining, but it’s about ten thousand times better, and I find that once I’ve seen it, I can’t imagine it being any other way. 

It really helped me realize that I as a writer don’t have to make sure you as a reader are seeing the exact same picture that I’m seeing, as long as the essentials are there.  And I think that personalization for the reader is incredibly powerful.  It’s one of the reasons I try to avoid answering the question of who I would cast for Three in a movie … I know what he looks like to me, but I don’t want to rob anyone else of what they think he looks like.

52 Reviews: I found the action sequences in three, particularly when the protagonists battle wave after wave of the Weir, to have very much the feel of video game action sequences. Was the cinematic aspect of writing for a visual medium such as video games instrumental in helping you learn how to construct such compelling cinematic set pieces?

Jay Posey: Definitely.  I also have some experience with screenwriting, so having written for primarily visual media has had a profound impact on how I approach prose writing.  I don’t think I was necessarily picturing a gameplay moment, but I undoubtedly was reaching back to that writing experience to find my way in those scenes.

 52 Reviews: I found your decision to leave so many questions unanswered throughout the narrative to be a interesting choice. Was it nerve wracking to know that you may have unintentionally alienated some of your potential audience by taking a 'more questions than answers approach'? 

Jay Posey: I honestly didn’t give it a whole lot of thought while I was writing the novel, though that might be because I wasn’t sure anyone else would ever read it.  I knew the story I wanted to tell, and I wanted to keep it as streamlined as I could.  A lot of the people who read the early manuscript commented on how much more they wanted to know about the world, but they also tended to agree that they didn’t necessarily need to know those answers to be able to enjoy the story, which made me feel like I’d hit my target on that.

Of course, I definitely didn’t have any desire or intention to frustrate anyone, and I really want everyone to like everything I do, so I always feel sad inside whenever I see someone commenting on how they were upset by how little the book explains.  But ultimately, I feel comfortable with where the novel is.  I think I would’ve been sadder if I had added in a bunch of backstory and heard people say I over-explained and the world is boring and dumb.  At least now if people say it’s boring and dumb I can say it’s because they didn’t imagine it better.
52 Reviews: What can we expect from the coming sequel to your excellent debut? What lessons did you learn from writing Three that helped in the process of crafting the next volume, and has the sequel provided even more education for the what comes next? 

JP: Well, without giving too much away, I’ll say the sequel continues the story of a few returning characters and builds on the events of Three, while also introducing several new characters.  I’m hoping to give readers more of a look at the world, and I’m really trying to give each book in the series its own personality, without straying too far from what people might come to expect.  I’m not sure if that’s actually a useful answer or not.

Honestly, Book Two has been much more painful than I was expecting.  I thought having written Book One that I was an Old Pro now and that I’d be able to sit down and knock out Book Two at a leisurely pace while sipping sweet tea.  But I think each book is probably its own beast that needs to be slain in its own special way, once you discern its predictable pattern and find its weak point.  That might be my background in video games talking though. 

I think the biggest takeaway from Book One has been that I can in fact actually finish a long form novel and not expire in the process.  And also that I can trust my creativity to see me through to the end, even if sometimes it seems like I’ve written myself into a corner.  As much trouble as Book Two has given me at times, it’s definitely unfolded some moments that will contribute to future endeavors, so I’m grateful for the adventure, even if some of it has seemed occasionally unpleasant.

Each stop on this Blog Tour of Three by Jay Posey has a unique question.  Be sure to enter your answers into the giveaway by dropping by My Shelf Confessions  and enter your answers in the rafflecopter widget! You can answer as many or as few as you like as each answered question gets you an extra entry!

Here's the questions for my stop: Question #6 - In what kind of world setting does Three take place?"

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