Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Interview with Scott Bly, Author of SMASHER


It's always exciting when we interview a debut author on the Enchanted Inkpot.  Today we are featuring Scott Bly, whose middle-grade novel, SMASHER, came out just yesterday!  Here's what's it's all about:

SMASHER is a fast-paced techno-thriller about computers, magic, and time travel, set in an alternate Los Angeles in the near future. A magician’s apprentice in the Renaissance era is recruited by a time-traveling bionic girl to help stop Gramercy Foxx, the most powerful media mogul alive, from releasing The Future — his most exciting and mysterious product ever.  They race against time to unlock the secret of The Future before the magical computer virus enslaves every human being on the planet.

And now for the interview:

Lena: Welcome to the Enchanted Inkpot, Scott, both as an interviewee and as one of our newest contributors—and big congratulations on your debut!

Scott:  Thanks for having me, Lena!  It’s a real honor to be included among the ranks of authors such as yourself, Gretchen McNeil and my fellow Scholastic author Jennifer Nielsen.

Lena: I really enjoyed SMASHER.  One of the things I found the most original was the way you wove together both magical and technological elements.  How did your own work with computer technology influence the book?

Scott:  I’ve spent the last fifteen years helping people with their computer issues and dealing with small business technology needs – everything from getting a computer virus to identifying hacker intrusions and working with the FBI.  Of course, there are lots of other little things, too, but those are the most dramatic examples!  One the most common pieces of advice that writers get is to “write what you know."  I certainly know computers.  And I wanted to give kids a way to learn about computers in a way that wasn’t dry.  So finding the most interesting story where that could happen was a really strong motivator for me.

Lena: I saw that you began your novel in 2006 and wrote more than nine versions.  My own first novel took ten years to write, so I’m always interested to meet others who have had a similar experience.  What stayed the same from that first early draft?  Was there a key moment when the final story began to come together?

Scott:  Yeah, it was quite a journey!  There are two key chapters that never changed – the second, in which Gramercy Foxx is introduced (although it was originally chapter one), and the scene where Jane Virtue is running through the shopping mall as Foxx calls for her video call.  I’m sure there are other pieces here and there that were largely unaltered, but those two stood out as being nearly untouched the whole time.

Even for a long process like mine, there are times when the voice and the structure and the pacing all line up and you just have it and it rings true.  I think I just got lucky with those two.

You ask about the final story, and I think that by the time I was most of the way through the first draft, which in and of itself took nearly three years (I had no idea what I had gotten myself into), the story was pretty well locked.  It became a matter of cutting and cutting and cutting.  There were a few key elements that changed, and things shifted a lot and tightened a lot, but the story itself never really changed.  Of course, this is over nearly ten years, so who knows?  Memory is a fickle thing.

Lena: I know what you mean! Sometimes I think we authors forget what a story was like in an early draft and then when someone asks, we end up struggling to make something up.

Everyone’s path to publication is different.  How did SMASHER end up being published with Scholastic and what was the editorial process like?

Scott:  Well, I had stopped writing for quite some time after film school and a frustrating introduction to the entertainment business.  So I started writing and playing music for a creative outlet as I got my computer consulting business off the ground.  One of my clients referred me to my editor, Bonnie, here in LA when she got a computer virus. 

During that first lengthy conversation she said to me, “In twenty years of unsuccessfully trying to use a computer, you’re the first person who has been able to talk to me about this stuff in a way I can understand.  Have you ever thought about writing a children’s book?”

So I gave it some thought and we had a series of conversations over lunches that ultimately started to turn into chapters. She had a very brilliant way of asking just the right questions that would turn my entire worldview on its head and send me off into different directions.  I was really fortunate in that she served very much as a mentor through the whole process. 

Lena: Tell us about Charles and Geneva, your two main characters.  I thought they were great foils for each other.

Scott:  Thanks!  I really enjoyed the dynamic between the two of them as they in turn served as master/student then reversed roles.  It was very important to me that each had a gift that was the opposite of the other so that they would depend on one another.

Lena: Charles is a boy from the past who is brought forward in time.  Did you have to do much historical research for the book?  What about computer research?

Scott:  The historical research was probably more involved for me than the computer research.  There were certainly some details about some of the theoretical quantum computing and DNA encoding that I had to dig around for, but the computer side of things was primarily stuff that I use on a day-to-day basis.  Also, I love the magazine Scientific American, so getting to read about whole worlds of scientific research as a layperson really informed a lot of the book's future technologies.  Of course, some is completely made up, like the AquaFase screens.  Seems cool, seems plausible, but outside of some knowledge of how researchers use lasers to cool atoms, I have no idea if something like that could ever exist.

The historical side, though, required research for almost every detail that made it’s way into any draft, whether it survived to the end or not.  There are actually a tremendous number of chapters that served as episodic educational adventures that were cut from early drafts, and those will almost all end up online in the very near future.  That represented the lion’s share of the research that I did, and was actually a lot of fun!  It’s just that about 95% of it isn’t in the published novel.

Lena:  I know that you’ve developed children’s interactive computer games.  Do you think that books and reading will become more interactive in the future?  If so, is that a good thing?

Scott:  I don’t want to overstate the development I’ve done, but I’ve certainly been involved in the creation of some alternate reality gaming that I have worked on with a team.  We’re gearing all of that toward the educational market, and it’s very much a story-driven experience.  But that’s more about the educational experience, which I think has to change – we’re a couple hundred years into the current educational paradigm of teacher in front of class, and we’re finding that the approach is only partially successful.  Kids are driven to games because of the interactivity, the fact that those individual small goals on the way to a larger goal – they totally hit the pleasure/reward centers of the brain – and they’re learning the entire time.  Unfortunately, most of the skills they’re learning aren’t particularly helpful in the real world except to maybe a drone pilot in the military, but they are skills nonetheless.  With the gamification of education taking place right now, I think we’re going to see a dramatic rise in gaming theories and approaches change the education landscape.

As for the book business, I’m not so sure.  The process of reading hasn’t changed in thousands of years.  There is of course, a different language in images, and now in moving images, but that’s a different paradigm altogether.  Books may be available on e-readers and what not, but I think that the fundamental process of being told a story is something that human beings want at a nearly genetic level.  And with reading, if the interactivity takes you out of that experience, I think it can be a negative effect.  That said, if the interactivity is a truly organic part of the storytelling experience and can be done smoothly, without technical glitches and the other frustrations that we all run into with computer issues, then I think we might see a real increase in “interactivity” as it were.  Of course, I say all of that having now positioned myself very much in the interactive space.  I hope that the trend continues, but it really depends on the successes being a transformative experience.  I think Avatar is a great example from the film world, where a 3D movie successfully accomplished what 3D is meant for.  There are a lot of films where the 3D is just an updated version of the same gimmick that we’ve seen since the sixties or seventies.

Lena: What were you reading when you were thirteen?  Do you think any of your childhood favorites have influenced SMASHER?

Scott:  I was reading Dungeons and Dragons novels, specifically the Dragonlance books, which I loved.  And of course Lord of the Rings.  So a lot of fantasy, but not many of the other real established names like Piers Anthony or Asimov on the scifi side.  Once I was just a bit older I started reading Stephen King and Tom Clancy, and I think that their influence is more obvious on the kind of writing I did in SMASHER, especially Clancy.  I really see SMASHER as a Tom Clancy novel for kids.  With magic.

Lena: I like that!  Any advice for debut authors like yourself (or debut-authors-to-be)?

Scott:  Eat your vegetables and stay away from high-carb meals, especially late at night.  And call your mother.  She misses you.

Lena: Thanks Scott! And congrats again!

Read chapters one to three of SMASHER here!

Lena Coakley's first novel, Witchlanders, was called “one stunning teen debut” by Kirkus Reviews and won the SCBWI Crystal Kite award for the Americas.  It is a 2013 MYRCA nominee and a 2013 OLA White Pine honouree.  Lena is also the author of two children’s picture books and the former administrative director of CANSCAIP. Learn more about her at www.lenacoakley.com

10 comments:

  1. This was a wonderful interview (and thanks for the kind mention - honored to be a publisher sib with you too)! Congrats on the new release, Scott - I cannot wait to read this book. And I know exactly which of my computer-loving kids will love this book too!

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  2. Awesome interview! I'm intrigued that your Chapter 1 made the cut and endured to become chapter 2 in the final version. (In my experience early on, Chapter 1 -- and quite possibly 2 and 3 were the ones -- had to be cut to get to the heart to the story. ;))

    Thanks for sharing and for the good advice. *calling Mom now*

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  3. Ooh! There's one to put in the cue for my kids. Awesome. Can't wait!

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  4. Wonderful interview, Lena. I love the title: Smasher.

    Hey. I want an AquaFase screen. Whatever that is. I'll have to read the book and find out!

    ...help stop Gramercy Foxx, the most powerful media mogul alive, from releasing The Future — his most exciting and mysterious product ever.

    Wow. Love it. "Releasing the Future." Intriguing!

    Congrats, Scott!

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  5. Thanks for the great interview, Lena and Scott!

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  6. Thanks everyone! And thanks Lena for the wonderful questions!
    Scott

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  7. Thanks everyone! And thanks Lena for the wonderful questions!
    Scott

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