Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Interview: Author S.C. Barrus (Midway Between Heaven and Hell)

Author S.C. Barrus stops by TeamNerd to chat about his short story, Midway Between Heaven and Hell, why he chose not to give a name to one of the main characters, his upcoming debut novel, Discovering Aberration, and what sins he would be punished for if he were a character in his short story and what sins he would want to punish others for he were the Host.

TeamNerd Reviews: Revenge is the theme behind Midway Between Heaven and Hell. Why write a story essentially centered on man’s brokenness and dire need to get revenge the way he does? Where did the inspiration come off?

S.C. Barrus: When I was a kid, my dad gave me a copy of “Tales of Mystery and Imagination” which is a collection of short stories by Edgar Allen Poe, and I've been in love with Poe's work ever since. For some reason, the darkness fascinates me.

Then I found this collection of Edgar Allen Poe radio plays from the golden age of radio, with quotes like, “I'm walking down the stairs now, and what do I see before me?” Gotta love it.

When I read, or more often than not listen to an audio book, I really study the storytelling and the prose. While listening to Poe, I began to think to myself, “I can do that...” So I gave it a shot.

I'm not a dark person, and I've rarely wanted revenge for something, except maybe once in high school back when I used to get into fights. Literature for me isn't exactly about perusing feelings I have, it's about exploring feelings I've never felt, about putting myself in a position to feel those things.

When I write, my wife says I scowl.

Here's something I love to talk about but never get the chance to. What is literature at it's core? It's a guided tour through emotion. It doesn't matter if it's fantasy or science fiction, literary fiction or romance. Literature is guided manipulation of feeling so that the writer (and the reader) can feel things they cannot easily feel in the real world. The right emotions in the right sequence create maximum poignancy which equals great literature.

I've never wanted to revenge myself on someone, but I have revenged many people through fiction.

TeamNerd Reviews: Because Annabell REALLY wants to know, can you share the rest of the speech the Host never got to finish in the short story?

S.C. Barrus: That's a great question. If I wanted to be mysterious and coy, I would say, “That's for the reader to decide, the answer is inside *YOU*...” But I'm actually not that mysterious or that coy.

Truth be told, I never thought about what the letter said till this very moment. The story didn't dictate that. I really only think so far as the circumstances of the story dictate. But I did hope the reader would grab onto that letter, that it would leave a strong emotional impact.

TeamNerd Reviews: I love the play between the elegant setting and the dark acts committed in the mist of the dinner. The beautiful mask that covers the ugly. What do you think it is about masks that people respond to?

S.C. Barrus: I think most people have this feeling in the pit of their guts, like an acorn that you can feel but the doctors can never find. It's the feeling that there is something subtly wrong in the world.

Look at how most Americans view our government, for example. They vote our leaders into office, they follow their laws, and they even root for their own team. Meanwhile, the majority of Americans don't trust the government for one reason or another. Why is that?

It's not just politics, either. You can see this when looking at celebrities or the wealthy, or when just about anyone in the place of authority. We feel like something might be wrong, or maybe should be wrong.

I think we want to believe in the mask, because it makes the mask more interesting. It makes us feel like we are more equal to others. It allows us to root for and against people, like our leaders and the wealthy and celebrities, etc.

We don't want to think that they are just regular dudes guessing at life like the rest of us, trying to get by and doing the best they can. When there is something wrong in the background, it makes us feel more equal, and with that is a certain satisfaction.

In terms of storytelling, order and dichotomies inspire feelings of completeness. When someone is wholly evil, doing evil things, killing his henchmen because they brought him bad news, there is nothing compelling about that because there is nothing to weight that evilness against. But when that same evil guy or gal is taking care of his dying aunt, buying her flowers and crying for her because he doesn't think she'll get better, all of a sudden we can see ourselves in the face of that evil person. And that's interesting.

TeamNerd Reviews: There’s this grand, self-imposing speech Mr. Johnson gives before he keels over where he explains that the meek may be waiting to inherit the earth but the power really belongs to those with enough money to pretend they’re exempt from their sins. Why do you think people become so blinded by money?

S.C. Barrus: I don't think everyone gets blinded by money. Look at Luis C.K. He self-released a stand up special and made millions on it. With that money, he paid off his workers, took 500 grand for himself, and donated millions to charity. I can't remember what he said exactly, but it was something along the lines of, “I don't deserve to be a millionaire”. I want to buy that guy a beer.

But it's true, many people do get blinded by money, and I don't know why that is. I do know that Mr. Johnson got a little money when he was young and he liked the feeling. Then he got more as he grew, and he liked the way that money can get you what you want, and people will bend to your will when you flash money in front of them. He worked hard, took substantial risks, and it all paid off in big stacks of cash, lots of power, and a self-important attitude. The more he made, the more control he felt like he had over life.

In the end though, he was pressed up against something that terrified him. A lack of control, but he acted like he still held all the cards because it had worked for him in the past. It didn't turn out so well.

TeamNerd Reviews: What was the reason behind not giving the Host a name? Were you deliberately trying to portray the character as “every kind of man” type?

S.C. Barrus: Originally neither the host nor Bobby had names. Bobby was just “The boy in the tweed jacket”.

I left the Host nameless because it makes him feel like some kind of elemental force. He's no longer a man but a wind of vengeance and curiosity.

TeamNerd Reviews: You seem to be a BIG fan of anime which we appreciate here at TeamNerd because it officially makes you a nerd *fist bump* What’s with the obsession?

S.C. Barrus: I love animation of all kinds. I also love things that are strange or different. Hence, anime.

When regular people find out I love anime, they kind of look at me funny sometimes because the average persons view of the medium is either, “Aren't cartoons for kids?” or “Isn't anime just low budget exploitative cartoons with bad voice acting?”

There is so much anime out there, there was bound to be a wealth of great movies and shows. Sure, a lot of anime is terrible, maybe even the majority of it, but there are some that are so mind blowing that I simply can't believe the regular person won’t give it the time of day. Have you seen Metropolis? That's not just good Anime, that's masterwork of film making on par with Martin Scorsese or Steven Spielberg.

And then there's the fact that animation can do things that normal films can't because of the simple fact that they are animated. It's one more layer to suspend disbelief, so we give it a license to do more. A Scanner Darkly would never have worked as a live action film, but it's a brilliant movie. Also, Spirited Away or Princess Mononoke couldn't have been pulled off with live actors, even with the best special effects because people wouldn't take it seriously. But with that layer of animation over it, we can forget about that stuff and just let ourselves get lost in the beauty of the story.

Animation can take risks, can do things out of the ordinary. Look at films like Paprika or Summer Wars which can go beyond what traditional film making even attempts to pull off.

And then there's shows like Evangelion, FLCL, Gurren Laggan, which make you go “Wow, I can't believe they went in that direction! This is amazing.”

But it's not just anime. It's foreign films in general, especially their action movies. Asians are leaving Americans in the dust when it comes to creativity and thrills. Legand of the Fist, The Good the Bad the Weird, House of Flying Daggers, Little Big Soldier, and even The Raid offer more in the way of pure entertainment than almost any American action film out there.

TeamNerdReviews: What was the pivotal moment that made you decide to venture into the writing world? (Please refrain from the standard “I decided to be a writer when I was three and discovered my love for reading” lol)

S.C. Barrus: I wrote my first novel in high school. It was about a suicidal boy who falls in love with a strange girl. She takes him on all the hijinks he never had the stomach to do (theft, pranks, sex, drugs, etc). Then she dies, and its all over.

So I really did want to write from a young age. I felt like I had something to say, something to share with others, and I felt like it was one of the first things I could do well.

Ever since, I've written because it's a compulsion. If I don't write, I go mad. I need to write, I thirst for it. There are stories and ideas bubbling up inside my mind like you wouldn't believe, and they are all just beginning to spill out onto paper. I have a wealth of backlog that I am just now beginning to release to the world, and I still have so much more to say.

I don't have a pivotal moment because I was born a writer, and even if my writing never sells, even if the only people who read it is my wife and my friends, that'll be ok. Of course I hope others will buy it too, but really I'm not writing for them. I'm writing for me, because I need some way to get the crazy out of my mind.

TeamNerd Reviews: You’re working toward preparing the publication of your novel Discovering Aberration, which sounds like a book between Treasure Planet (the Steampunk-inspired Disney movie before Steampunk became cool) and Atlantis, except with darker edges (this is meant as a compliment!). What drew you to the Victorian era?

S.C. Barrus: I had this weird dream. I get them all the time. In my dream, I was traveling to this island to find a lost civilization. I found it submerged at the bottom of a lake, lights from the technology of it glimmering, just out of reach.

I had also been reading a lot of Jules Vern, Robert Luis Stephenson and Johnathan Swift, even some Jane Austin as well as childrens stories like Peter Pan . I love their writing . It's fun, it's adventurous, it's magnificent.

I was also in the mindset that I would write a novel people couldn't help but read. Something so fun, enjoyable, unique and bloody mind bending that they couldn't put it down except to tell their friends. It would still share my ideas, and it would be something I adore, but it would be something with a built in audience as well. That way I would have people who want to read it in the beginning (steampunk aficionados) as well as something that would bleed over past that audience to genre lovers (sci-fi and fantasy), and finally to the average person who appreciates fun books with complex ideas and a literary bent.

Finally, the story dictated a Victorian setting. I don't think this story could be told in this way without it. But I also didn't want to be confined to being historically accurate, which is why I began the story “It was the year of our Lord 18XX...”, setting the scene but not breaking loose of the reader who thinks, “they didn't have that at that time! This dude doesn't know what the hell he's talking about.”

Before writing Discovering Aberration, I had never read a steampunk novel. In fact, I waited to pick up my first one about a month and a half ago because I didn't want to soil what was in my mind. And to be honest, most of the steampunk I've read has been pretty awful, the exception being Perdido Street Station by China Mievelle which is fascinating, disturbing and beautifully written. I knew about the fashion thing going on, and love the look of girls in those outfits (got my wife a couple of subtle steampunk inspired outfits and a steampunk inspired purse from Clockwork Couture which she loves :P ), and I had played a few games and seen a few movies, but really I wasn't really a steampunk enthusiast, going to conventions and stuff. That's not to say I won't ever do that, because I totally will when the book is done.

TeamNerd Reviews: What’s the one aspect of writing a book that can sometimes drive you bonkers? What’s an aspect of writing that you LOVE?

S.C. Barrus: Bare in mind in my answer that I'm self-publishing. I'm choosing this route for a variety of reasons, but in a nutshell it's because self-publishing is the future way of things.

I don't like trying to market my writing. I do it on a daily basis in various ways, usually in non-invasive ways, and I do it because I want to live a life supported by my writing. But I don't enjoy actively marketing. I love interviews, I love book readings, I love talking and listening and doing all that stuff. But I hate keeping up all the social profiles and emailing all the bloggers (no offense, I'm really enjoying myself right now), and sharing links and optimizing my website and collecting emails and planning kickstarter campaigns and worrying about my financial investments, etc.
But when it comes to actual writing, I can't think of a thing I dislike. I can tell you something I'm bad at. I'm terrible at catching typos, and I tend to make up my own rules in terms of grammar.
But coming up with ideas is so magical and pure. It's imagination like you're a kid again. “I'll be the adventurer, you be the gangster out to get me, and then we duel with canes because that's cool!”

Drafting without looking back is exhilarating. I just let my mind spill out on paper as fast as I can type, which usually isn't fast enough for my overburdened imagination.

Re-writing and editing is my chance to craft and take pride in my work. I literally pour myself into every sentence of my writing, making sure it sounds good in my mind, making sure it flows well. I've had people tell me that my writing reads like music, which is one of the best complements I've ever had. Re=writing is my favorite part.

And then, finally, I get to hear what people have to say about it, which makes me smile and breath easy. I've been lucky enough to get really positive feedback from 90% of the people who read my work which is more than I could hope for. People online are so nice to me most of the time. Yesterday, I had a guy tell me that I rekindled his joy for writing. I almost cried at that, I didn't know what to say. It was awesome.

TeamNerd Reviews: Let’s say you were trapped in a dinner like the one in Midway Between Heaven and Hell. What sin would you be punished for (that you’re willing to admit to)? Or if you were the Host, what sins would you want to punish people for?

S.C. Barrus: I know exactly what I would be punished for. So, to begin, I am actually a really nice guy most of the time. If you came over to hang out, we'd have a good time. I'm interested in what you have to say (as long as it's not about football or cars or about that freaking smartphone).

But I've recently come around to the realization that I'm also kind of a dick. Not in a way that you would notice when we hang out, and I don't talk behind peoples backs. If you share something personal, I'll keep it to myself. But if I never see you again, it won't phase me in the slightest. I've abandoned friendships in my life that I look back on and think, “Wow, how could I have done that?” It's not that I moved on, because I didn't need to. And it's not that I didn't care, because I love the people around me. I just hang with a group of people for 3 or 4 years, then move to the next. Kind of a dick move when I think about it.

But at the same time, every time I leave these people, it's because I've reached a new phase of my life and I'm leaving the old one behind. It's necessary for me in order to be a better person, even if it makes me a bit of a dick. There are some people who I still love from childhood, especially my buddy Rick who was the best man at my wedding. We played soccer together in 3rd grade and we've been buddies ever since.

As for part two, what sins would I punish. If I caught someone doing something really heinous, like rape or something, especially to someone I love, I would probably kill them right then and there. In fact, I'm not ashamed to say that I hope I would kill them. I would also kill to defend my family or friends, if the situation was that dire, but I doubt it will ever come to that. I have thought it through, and I do know how to defend myself. I figure, it's better to know before the unlikely situation than to reach that situation and be pressed up against an inner philosophical battle while your loved ones are suffering.

But for everything else, I wouldn't punish a thing. I've had girlfriends cheat, I've lost jobs, I lived in a freaking drug den for a while and I've known some really messed up people. But I wouldn't want to punish any of them. If I could get past my own insecurities (50/50 chance) then I'd probably give them a big hug and say, “How've you been man, it's been ages. Come on, I'll buy you a beer.” And then, maybe we'd swap stories till one o'clock, get good and drunk, say we're gonna see each other again, and then slip out of each other’s lives like a passing breeze.

TeamNerd Reviews: Thank you mucho to S.C. Barrus for stopping by and being so open! Check out Midway Between Heaven and Hell on Amazon and Goodreads.

About the Author: S.C. Barrus writes strange and thrilling literary adventures. He’s published short stories, essays and poems in print and online.

Born in Canada, S.C. Barrus grew up near Seattle in the pacific north west where he lives to this day. He received his degree in creative writing from the University of Washington.
His upcoming novel, Discovering Aberration, is scheduled for release mid-late 2013 in print and ebook format.

Where to Find the Author

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