I’m very pleased to present this interview with Misha Burnett, the author of the intriguing and exciting ‘Catskinner’s Book’:
One of the things that impressed me about Catskinner’s Book is how it is an interesting amalgamation of a number of ideas, such as the tattoo-binding of a demon/alien to a human infant, the “walk-ins” concept of aliens on earth, a kind of schizophrenic experience of having two minds in one body, a sort of interstellar gang warfare, the uncomfortable relationship between parasite and host, a rather complex and uncertain sexuality and the “lone gunman” aspect of the professional hit man among others. What was the starting point, the original idea, and when and how did these other aspects, in so far as they were conscious and deliberate, come into play?
The starting point was James and Catskinner. I wanted to tell a story from the viewpoint of someone who was dissociative, who had multiple distinct identities. Realistic fiction that features dissociation tends to focus on the early trauma that caused it, and I didn’t want James to be seen as a victim of his upbringing—I didn’t want to tell the story of what was done to him, I wanted to tell the story of what he did. So I fictionalized it. By writing Catskinner as something truly alien I was able to concentrate on how James dealt with the present, instead of dwelling on the past.
The relationship between the outsiders and the human race was largely inspired by William Burroughs’ Nova Express novels. Fans of Burroughs’ work will notice quite of number of references, but fortunately it’s not necessary to pick up on them to follow the story. The basic idea that I lifted from Burroughs was that the Earth is host to alien intelligences which are essentially carrion feeders—they sow chaos and discord in order to feed on the energy released by suffering.
So I didn’t want a galactic empire or anything organized. This is an invasion of carpetbaggers, flim-flam artists who move in to take advantage of the gullible rubes for a quick profit. What’s more, they lie—they lie about themselves, about the other Outsiders, about everything. The heart of my cosmology is in Alice’s speech in the bowling alley, when she tells James, “They have been influencing human history for thousand of years, starting wars, inspiring all sorts of atrocities for their own purposes, and we don’t even know for certain what they are.” (Which is why I used that quote for the back cover of the print edition.)
How I told the story was largely inspired by Phillip K. Dick, particularly works like A Maze Of Death and Time Out Of Joint, where the narrator doesn’t understand the rules of the world in which he finds himself. James is not a contemplative man, he’s not concerned with answering the cosmic questions, he just wants to get through the next day.
The physicality of the relationship between James and Godiva was partially inspired by Burroughs (and also by Samuel Delany, another author whom I feel has been woefully neglected by the mainstream) and partially my own sexuality. Without getting overly personal, I have always responded to another person as a person, and the gender of the person is pretty far down on my list of significant characteristics. Godiva’s physiology was my way of expressing that concept in a speculative context.
Much of the book, especially the various shoot-out scenes, are quite cinematic, and I wonder if you had that in mind when you were writing – how would these scenes develop if it were a movie? – or was that more unconscious and instinctive?
I am a product of my time. I grew up with movies, and the cinematic mindset has shaped me as a storyteller. I didn’t set out to write scenes to be filmed, but I did “see” much of the action as if I was watching it in a movie. I am a huge fan of the films of John Carpenter, and I’m sure that his style inspired the way I paced the action sequences. At times I saw James as Jack Burton from Big Trouble In Little China, in fact, a very simple, down to earth man suddenly confronted with the fantastic.
As far as Catskinner becoming a film—I certainly wouldn’t say no to the money. But I wouldn’t expect the film to follow the story of the book—they’d probably cast Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan and make James a science teacher from Pittsburgh who decided to follow his lifelong dream of opening a bookstore in the inner city or something.
But, hey, that’s the movie business. Note to any producers who read this—I am so willing to sell out my art for cash. Just tell me who’s buying.
Catskinner’s “host” has a difficult relationship with his parasite. At times he seems resigned, at times he seems to glory in its capabilities, at times he seems frustrated by the whole thing. This relationship seemed the heart of the book and the most interesting part to me. Was there a time when the host tried to rebel or thought of rebelling, leading to, for example, a sort of “exorcism” attempt. I imagined there may have been a struggle at some point, perhaps in his youth?
James has certainly fought against Catskinner—fairly early in the book I allude to an incident where James actually threatens to kill himself because of Catskinner’s actions. However, James has never known what being without Catskinner would be like—he really can’t imagine it. He wants Catskinner to be more tractable and less randomly destructive, but he doesn’t want Catskinner to be gone. For good or ill they are two halves of the same organism. Even leaving out Catskinner’s unique physical abilities, James would be lost without him.
The book has received mostly very high ratings on Goodreads and, I expect, elsewhere as well. You must be gratified by that. I have a sense that indie authors such as yourself must play a long game. Your book(s) will not be going out of print and are not at the mercy of the old-fashioned publishing cycle. There are a lot of different ways of going about getting attention for the book, such as targeting particular readers through reading clubs or online specialty book sites, engaging in promotional events (blog tours, book giveaways, etc ..), producing and distributing video promos, and so on. How active have you been or intend to be, and what are some of the activities you’ve engaged in or considered?
Heh. I’m making it up as I go. I am currently featured on a site called “Story Cartel” (http://storycartel.com/ ) that allows authors to offer free downloads of e-books and giveaways of print copies to generate reviews. I also just joined a site called “Ozark Hellbenders” (http://ozarkshellbenders.weebly.com/ ) that is for authors of paranormal and horror fiction from the Ozarks region. (I grew up in Springfield, MO.)
I am also going to be at Archon, a local science fiction convention, this year, with a table of books (I should have Cannibal Hearts out by then.)
Personally, I believe that the best strategy for independent authors is to work together, to build word of mouth networks to promote each other’s works. When I find a book I like, I always check the author’s website and see who she or he recommends, and have found a lot of excellent books that way. I see author-created platforms for promotion springing up all over.
I personally have found that a combination of WordPress and Twitter seems to suit my own communication style. I am not by nature a social person, and so self-promotion is outside of my comfort zone, but it’s part of the business of being an author today. The days of living in a cabin in the woods and having a publisher do all the promotion for you are long gone—even for those who write for a traditional publishing house.
I liked the cover art for Catskinner’s Book and I noticed you’d mentioned having done it yourself. Can you share some of the tools and tricks you like to use? Do you do other artwork or just covers?
I started with an outstanding photograph, so the rest was easy. My partner, Susan (MzSusanB (http://mzsusanb.wordpress.com/ ) on WordPress) took that picture, and those are my hands. I did the text in Paint.Net, the font is Times New Roman with some extra stretching on the uprights.
Now that I have sort of set a theme, I used another picture that she took of my hands for the cover of Cannibal Hearts.
Oh, and any authors looking for a cover photograph are welcome to check out her Flickr page (http://www.flickr.com/photos/-susanb-) her work is available for licensing. Contact her for rates.
What, if anything, can you tell me about ‘Cannibal Hearts’, your current work in progress? Is it a sequel?
Yes, it is a sequel, the second of what I plan to be a series. It picks up about a year after the end of Catskinner’s Book. It’s a little different in scope, it opens with James and Godiva working as local bosses in the Outsider syndicate. It’s more of an ensemble cast, many of the characters from the first book and quite a few new ones. I feel that a sequel should offer the reader something different than the first work, a new story set in the same universe.
Consequently, while the first book dealt with James discovering the true nature of the world he (and the rest of humanity) lives in, this one is more concerned with the relationships between the modified humans and how they function while keeping their existence below the radar. There’s still conflict and action, and I am working to make it as fast moving and exciting as the first book, but it’s a different sort of story.
I feel that I have more freedom to explore the cosmology in this book. So much of Catskinner’s Book was concerned with simply setting up the sandbox, in Cannibal Hearts I get to really play in it.