Lanternfish Press

Rare & Strange

Interviews

Introducing Christopher Smith, Author of Salamanders of the Silk Road

InterviewsAmanda Thomas

Salamanders of the Silk Road just came out in September. We're excited to catch up with author Christopher Smith. If you're in Nashville on November 13, join us for the official book launch at Parnassus Books!

Hi, Chris! Tell us a little bit about yourself.

Well, there’s approximately three of me. I’m a dad and a husband. I live in Clarksville, Tennessee, just north of Nashville, with my wife, Kate, and our two daughters. My son is in his first year at college, and we—or rather, she—homeschooled him all the way through, not for religious reasons but because she wanted to. The girls started public school last year and are loving it, and Kate’s now working a great gig as a state librarian in Nashville. 

I’m also a journalist and editor. Off and on I’ve flirted with the idea of just being a full-time writer (I also buy lottery tickets), but for now I use my word skills to pay the bills working in newspaper journalism. I found the best way to both have time to write and make enough money to support my family was to go into newsroom middle management. I don't wear suspenders, but I do tend to walk around the office with a cup of coffee.

And I’m a writer. I’ve been writing fiction or dabbling in poetry since high school, and it’s the closest thing to effective therapy I’ve experienced. When I don’t write fiction, I become an unpleasant version of myself. I’ve been trying to find success with that for decades, and only now have I started to break through; I’m excited to see what happens next. So, yes, there’s three of me. 

And tell us a bit more about the legendary character you’ve brought to life: Prester John. Who is the real (?) Prester John?

Prester John is the most important historical figure you’ve never heard of. Quick version: In the 1100s, messengers appeared in the papal court to report on a so-called Prester John who promised in his letters to bring an army of monsters to fight in the Crusades. He claimed to have led an army to the Tigris River but turned back when the Tigris didn’t freeze to allow him to pass over. This mysterious Christian empire of the east was supposed to be filled with magical wonders and strange creatures, and the published and recirculated letters of Prester John grew in length and popularity in Western Europe as a sort of pulp fiction over the next couple hundred years. The legend was taken seriously enough that it inspired expeditions, including those of Marco Polo and Bartolomeu Dias. A byproduct of early cartographical confusion resulted in the kingdom moving from central Asia to Abyssinia. Into the mid-1500s, cartographers continued labeling central Africa as the kingdom of Prester John.

How did Prester John become the protagonist in Salamanders? What's it like to get into the head of a character who is immortal?

I’d been working on a short story about a man and a woman having a long discussion in a hot tub. They’d decided to kill themselves, but they were having an ongoing series of arguments, so the man couldn’t kill his wife because he wanted to kill her out of love, not out of anger. At the same time, I was reading Daniel Boorstin’s nonfiction work The Discoverers, and it was rife with references to Prester John. I’d never heard of him. I asked everyone I knew, and only three knew of Prester John: a friend who’d read Umberto Eco’s Baudolino, another who was a deep fan of Fantastic Four comics, and my wife, who’d read about him as a little girl in a mysterious legends anthology that she still has. So I thought, this is a great character who needs deeper treatment—plus, if he were alive in 1100 and still alive in 1500, he’d surely still be alive today. And maybe he’d be arguing with his wife and finally contemplating suicide. So Prester became the man in the hot tub, and the story blossomed into a novel. 

I had a lot of fun handling the immortality part. Early on, as he’s getting accustomed to his unique perception of time, he loses track of it, and some of my favorite passages are of him standing on a hillside for months at a time, watching his horse dying of starvation, an apple tree blooming, and the stars, which he mistakes for meteors flashing across the sky. But later in the story it gets deeper, with Prester coming to terms with everything that’s changed in the world and in himself, and with how gloriously he’s failed to deal with all of that. 

What writers have inspired and influenced you? Are there particular authors that you enjoy reading or look up to as a writer?

For story, Neil Gaiman, Chuck Palahniuk, maybe a bit of William S. Burroughs. Gaiman is brilliant at creative storytelling, at taking the fantastic and sometimes ridiculous and turning it into something poignantly beautiful. For tone, I like the poet John Berryman and Morrissey. Listening to The Smiths touches me in a place that just compels me to write. For style, definitely William Gay. I could read him every night for the rest of my life. He was a self-educated Tennessee writer who could spin these dreamscape paragraphs about wilderness hollows under a low-hung sky and the musky smell of sex amid the dust of red clay. You just want to underline everything. 

Salamanders of the Silk Road
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What is your writing process like? How and when do you find time to write around your other obligations?

The first draft of what became Salamanders was written when I was working the night shift and we had three small kids we were homeschooling. My wife would go to the YMCA in the mornings for a 45-minute workout. She’d put our daughters in the nursery, and I’d take my son with me to a coffeehouse across the street that doubled as a Wiccan/spiritualist bookstore. I’d buy coffee and he’d get hot cocoa. He read Lord of the Rings and I wrote the novel for most of a year in those 45-minute spurts. Later, as the kids got older, I renovated part of the basement to create a man-cave, and that made things easier. I also write on vacation. I wrote a few chapters in an actual Florida beach house in between spurts of reading One Hundred Years of Solitude. You can and should force yourself to write. But if you don’t, eventually you write when you need to write. When I need to write, I find time, and it has to happen. If it didn’t, I’d probably take up smoking meth or something. 

You spend an enormous part of your professional life writing. How is writing creatively different from what you do at your day job?

Journalism writing and editing for me is like an artificial, hollow version of what I do when I’m writing fiction. It’s like the difference between playing a video game and actually driving, between cheap domestic beer and a craft ale, between masturbation and sex. I’m good at journalism, and writing or editing a news story can satisfy the urge, but afterward, I’m simply satisfied. Done. There’s none of the deep fulfillment that I get out of writing fiction, at least when I’m hitting on all cylinders. 

A good example of this: I started writing the novel after writing a weekly parenting humor column for five years. I enjoyed doing the column, but those five years of writing about reality absolutely propelled me into surrealism. I was so done with reality, I was ready not just for fiction but for sentient water that struggles when you gargle, for words that crash onto the floor in a rainstorm, smashing an alphabet soup of letters on the ground, and for constellations that fight in the sky and sulk at sunrise. Holding back on fiction for so long, I think, made me a better writer, or at least made writing a lot more fun.

Where can readers visit you on the internet?

You can find me at www.salamandersmilk.com!

 

Catching up with Vikram Paralkar, Author of The Afflictions

InterviewsAmanda Thomas

It has been two years since we published The Afflictions (time flies!), so we decided it was a good time to catch up with the author, Vikram Paralkar. 

For our readers who haven't met you yet, tell us a bit about yourself.

I was born and raised in Mumbai, and lived there until the age of 24. I moved to Philadelphia in 2005, and am currently a physician-scientist at the University of Pennsylvania. Literature has been a passion for me since my teenage years, when the works of Italo Calvino, Jorge Luis Borges and Vladimir Nabokov introduced me to the power of words and ideas. The Afflictions is my first book, and it was wonderful to publish it with Lanternfish Press back in 2014.

It's been two years since The Afflictions was published, what's new in your writing life since then?

I have completed a novel The Wounds of the Dead, the protagonist of which is a misanthropic surgeon in rural India who is asked to operate on the dead to return them to life. My literary agent is currently looking for a publisher for the novel. I have also written some short stories during this time, one of which features a series of episodes in which the Hindu deity Vishnu appears at various scenes of inequity in modern-day Mumbai.

We hear that The Afflictions is being translated into both Spanish and Italian! Tell us more about that.

Soon after The Afflictions was published by Lanternfish Press, it caught the attention (through an blog entry) of Diego D’Onofrio, the editor of La Bestia Equilatera, a fantastic publishing house in Buenos Aires, Argentina. They got a translator (Laura Wittner) to translate it into Spanish, and it was released in July 2016. Though my literary agent, I have also signed a contact with Bompiani, a prominent Italian press that has been the publisher of the late, great Umberto Eco. That manuscript will be released sometime within the next year.

Readers are always curious about how writers do their work. Tell us more about how you write. What's your process? Where do you get your inspiration?

The ‘Process’ question is easier to answer - I compose all my writing on my iMac, at my desk (No romance-of-pen-and-paper-in-a-pastoral-field for me!). Music plays a very important role in my editing process. I might pick a particular piece that (in my imagination) matches the literary “texture” that I’m trying to convey through my writing at that moment, and then I “weigh” the words against the music, and sculpt them accordingly.

The "Inspiration” question is much more difficult - both Calvino and Borges are obvious influences for The Afflictions, but, beyond that, what I write is a complicated amalgam of sources that I couldn’t tease out if I tried.

We've heard that you recently put out a scientific paper too (congrats!). Tell us more about your day job. How does your career intersect with your writing?

In my day job, I am a physician-scientist - a specialist in leukemia. I treat patients with acute and chronic leukemia, and I conduct research into the way in which normal blood cells develop, and how they sometimes turn cancerous. In April 2016, I published a research paper in the journal Molecular Cell dissecting how a class of RNAs known as “long noncoding RNAs” regulate genes. I find my research immensely enriching, because it involves asking fundamental questions about biology. In school, I used to be the kid who spent my summer vacations doing scientific experiments with the tools available to me - magnets, baking soda, potato batteries. Now, as an adult, a career in science allows me to ask questions about the world that no other human may ever have asked. It’s an immense privilege to have that opportunity. So far, my writing career has clearly been influenced by my medical training. For instance, ‘The Afflictions’ harnessed the idiom of the medical vignette to explore questions about identity, exile, language and desire. ‘The Wounds of the Dead’ is heavy with medical language and surgical detail. In some ways, literature has as its main subject the same thing as medicine - the human animal. The tools and approaches are different, but they seek to dissect the same beast.

Introducing Saul Rosembaum, illustrator for Other Worlds

InterviewsAmanda Thomas

Introducing Saul Rosenbaum, the artist behind our new coloring book Other Worlds.

Hi, Saul! You drew a super-fun coloring book, and we’d love to hear more about the inspirations behind it. First, what kind of stuff did you decide to draw for Other Worlds, and why?

Hi, everyone! The book has a space exploration theme. It also definitely slants towards a few of my other interests—like archaeology and the pulpy science fiction of the 1950s to the 1970s. Technically, the illustrations in Other Worlds had to be designed with coloring in mind: lots of repetition and simple patterns that weave in and out of each other. In one regard, it’s very easy coloring; in another, it’s almost like a puzzle, because things stop and start as they pass behind and through other things.

The inspirations for individual illustrations just developed during the mindless sketching stage. I like to draw rockets. I’d been drawing a lot of simple space scenes for Instagram around the time I started discussing the possibility of a book with Lanternfish Press. I wanted to make a book that adults could color by themselves or with their kids. Thematically, the book is a pretty good mix of silly kid stuff, silly adult stuff (not the rude kind—get your minds out of the gutter!), and mesmerizingly repetitive patterns.

What is your creative process like?

A. Everything starts with doodling and music. I look for some background music that sets a mood, and then I start roughly drawing every idea I can think of as fast as possible. (I use a Sharpie—you can’t get too fussy when you’re drawing in permanent ink!) At this stage it’s not about anything but capturing the idea, maybe some suggestions of big shapes. I think for Other Worlds I initially ended up with 87 separate ideas.

Once I’ve worn a few Sharpies down to nubs, I do some self-editing and mix and match my favorite bits of each piece to get a bit closer to composed illustrations. They’re still very rough, but shaping up into something like an idea.

I’ll usually clean up those roughs in magic blue pencil so I can show sketches to people (like my publisher). Experience has taught me that showing anything before the magic blue sketches is counterproductive. Then, all that’s left to do is everything. I usually like to work in ink, but I decided on day one of Other Worlds production that I wanted to work digitally.

How do you set up your workspace? What tools do you use? Tell us about your crazy new software and favorite media!

Well, I usually scan my approved pencil sketches and basically work on top of them. At some point after I block in the big shapes I discard the sketches and just keep working.

As I mentioned, I decided to do the Other Worlds artwork digitally—I wanted maximum flexibility to tweak, mash up, and repurpose as many of the bits and pieces as possible. I also really wanted the line weight to match on everything.

As far as hardware, I’m pretty happy drawing on my old (wired) Wacom tablet, but it took me a while to decide what software I wanted to draw in. Photoshop didn’t offer the flexibility I was looking for. Your lines there are only as smooth as you’re capable of pulling the pen. I knew that by the end of the book my linework would have improved, making the result disjointed. Illustrator was more flexible, but had the same potential issue with the quality of hand-drawn lines.

I briefly considered an app called Concepts for the iPad Pro but wasn’t sure I wanted to hang the whole project on a piece of hardware I’d just gotten, only a few days previously.

Ultimately, a little serendipity intervened. I was sitting at Indy Hall when I got a marketing email from Wacom, part of their Create More campaign. It was a series of profiles of happy, productive Wacom tablet users, one of whom was Brooke A. Allen. She drew a monster and created an animated gif that was fantastic. At the time, I didn’t recognize the software she was using, but I soon discovered it was Clip Studio Paint, designed by a Japanese company for creators of manga and other animation. It offered a lot of what the Adobe products offered, plus amazing stroke stabilization! I bought it the next morning, without even a trial run, and had finished the first illustration for the book by the end of the next day.

When I’m not working digitally, I like to use pens—markers, paint pens, pencils. I’m much more a pen-and-pencil kind of artist than a brush artist, though I do occasionally use some toothbrush spatter in my work. (There’s none of that in Other Worlds.)

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What did you keep in mind when creating illustrations specifically for other people to color?

We made a conscious decision to combine smaller and larger shapes in each piece. I tried to balance each piece so it would be visually interesting, and neither too simple nor too difficult. I’m aware that at least a few of the pages fall into the very difficult range. I’m pleased that a coloring book could be considered “difficult”! I also focused on making every inch of the book colorable, as much as possible.

Do you have a favorite illustration in Other Worlds?

I have two favorites: the ray guns (who doesn't love ray guns?) and the alien lab with the giant syringe. Both were fun to draw, and are even more fun to color!

Who are your influences?

I like so much! Cubist art, graffiti, calligraphy, single-panel comic strips. I would probably be an accountant if it weren’t for Charles Schulz, Bill Watterson, Keith Haring, and Pablo Picasso.

I really just like shapes. I like how shape and color interact with each other, and I like how different people can look at the same shapes and colors and see vastly different things!