So, funny enough, despite being friends with a lot of fantastic authors, I’ve never once used this blog as a platform to interview them and pick their brains about fiction, stories, and writing in general. A great big missed opportunity, right? After all, whether you’re a reader or a writer getting insight into an author’s approach can be really eye-opening. Plus, it’s always a great way to discover new writers and, of course, new books. Today I’m going to fix that!
Welcome to Prose Palaver, my new series where I’ll be interviewing fiction authors who I personally know. The goal is to do something a bit different from the standard author interview. These won’t be canned “where do you get your ideas” sort of questions. I’m hoping the tone within is more conversational, allowing us to open up and talk craft on a deeper level.
In this first interview, I’m interviewing my friend and travel buddy J. Rushing who’s debut historical fantasy novel RADIO just launched in ebook on April 4th. Jim and I have known each other over a decade now, we come from a similar background, and we’ve spent many hours drinking scotch and talking stories in those years. A former elementary teacher from Seattle, Jim now finding himself living and writing in Baden, Switzerland.
[!] Quick Note: The intent of this article was to try to regain some sense of normality as we’re all sheltering-in-place and working to flatten the curve in our communities. Because of that I specifically avoided discussion about the virus or related topics. Enjoy!
K. M. Alexander: Hi, Jim. Thanks for coming to my blog. You get the dubious distinction of being the first Prose Palaver interviewee—no pressure.
J. Rushing: Thanks for having me. You know I’d never pass up an opportunity to talk shop with you, and it’s an honor to get to be here while you smash the champagne against this new ship.
Thanks! I’m excited to launch. So, let’s talk about you. Congrats on the launch of RADIO! I bet you’re eager to get it out in the world. Tell us about it. Give us a short pitch.
Thanks. It’s been a long time coming and I’m so happy to finally give readers the opportunity to discover this world I’ve been living in for the past few years. While RADIO has a strong plot, it’s really focused on the characters. If there was one core theme for RADIO it would be struggle. The struggle against addiction, a struggle to save one’s livelihood and legacy, the struggle to work with people who are at odds philosophically but share a common goal, struggle with feelings of loss and betrayal, every character struggles with something. As for a pitch, I’m pretty happy with my back cover copy so I’ll go with that:
Amid the music, lights and energy of 1928’s Paris, something sinister pulses through the æther. The Radio of the Gods manipulates minds across the continent and its creator, the arrogant god Marduk, will sacrifice everything to keep his kind from perverting his masterpiece.
Attempted treason and bitter betrayal force Marduk to escape into a new, unknown body. Worse still, the previous owner, an opium-addicted jazz guitarist, is still inside.
Desperate, drug-addled and fighting for control, Marduk is forced to rely on the few friends he has left – and one terrifying enemy — to see his mission to fruition. If Marduk and company fail, the gods’ vain machinations will destroy everything they’ve built, including civilization itself, all made possible by his RADIO.
You’re an ex-pat living abroad, and you lived in Paris when you started writing this book. I remember you talking about the idea’s gestalt when we were coming back from a trip out to the Olympic Peninsula. How much did the city influence and inspire the world and the writing?
I remember that day vividly. RADIO started out with two basic ideas. Well, one question and one challenge to myself. The question was, What if consciousness behaved like a radio signal? As in, what if it’s external to the body rather than intrinsic? That one small question started an avalanche of ideas and concepts. As I was setting out to turn those concepts into a story, I set a challenge for myself.
Human beings are complex. No one is evil or good 100% of the time. Evil people still pet kittens and good people still wish others dead. I love it when a writer can make me truly like a truly bad character. The challenge I gave myself was, could I write a protagonist that is more than just an anti-hero, but a true asshole, and still have people like them? So far, the feedback I’ve been receiving is that yes, I can. That has been both a huge compliment and a huge relief.
As for Paris, everything about RADIO is dripping with Parisian influence. Aside from merely setting the story in Paris, I wanted to capture the true atmosphere of the city. Paris is a million things at once. So much of the media surrounding Paris only focuses on its place as a city of light and love. Paris is viewed as a gleaming jewel or a fairytale city full of beauty and wonder. The trouble is that these images are absolutely true yet only ever show half the picture. Paris is a gorgeous, romantic city from the knees up but look down and the streets are filthy and trash-strewn. It’s a city full of art, science, and literature, but it’s also a city of excess, vanity, and selfishness. It’s a city that is both fuelled and hobbled by its history. Living in Paris is as much a non-stop struggle as it is a non-stop joy. It’s the hardest place I’ve ever lived yet the most vibrant. I wanted to build a story set in the darker, dingier half of the Parisian mystique. There’s so much to explore there and it’s so often ignored.
That’s a fair point. Paris, as a character, tends to get polished up and viewed through rose-colored lenses—overly romanticized. In many instances, it’s almost more of a fantasy setting rather than a living and breathing city. How much of the Parisian culture crept into RADIO—in particular, the characters and how they behave and interact with one another?
That’s a tricky question since most characters aren’t specifically Parisian but I think there are aspects of Parisian culture present. Paris is a funny place. Most of the French stereotypes people hold in the U.S. are actually only Parisian stereotypes and a lot of those aren’t even true. For a classic example, I only had one rude waiter in almost three years of living there. Seattle or New York are much worse. But there are quite a few that do still hold up. One thing that struck me as unique and a bit odd when I moved to Paris was how survivalistic people in public all seem to be. Day to day life always seemed to be about carving out your own space and not yielding to others. Population density likely has a lot to do with that and Paris has been dense for centuries. In a city like Seattle, or Tokyo, or Edinburgh, if two people approach each other on a sidewalk, they’d each take a small step to the side to allow each other to easily pass but in Paris, pedestrians will shoulder check each other to maintain their own path. On the flip side, if you ask almost any Parisian for help, if you make your interaction at all personal, it’s like a social switch flips and they are more than willing to make time for you. I think the brusque streets yet willingness to help when called upon definitely found their way into RADIO.
Living in the city already gives one a unique perspective. How much research did you have to pour into this work? The clubs from that era really only exist as records, right? Any books you’d like to recommend that helped you out?
I tend to be very open and willing to experiment in my writing but there are a few aspects where I refuse to compromise. Most of my writing is set in worlds that are a take on our own. I only like to ask my readers to suspend disbelief over a few core details. In the case of RADIO, it’s mind control, gods, semi-immortality, and consciousness being external to the body. Past these few asks, it’s very difficult to allow myself to just make things up.
RADIO was as well researched as I could manage. At one point I swore to myself that I’d never write anything historical ever again because the self-induced pressure to be accurate was so great. I’ve calmed down since then. Everything from the music of the era, to street names, trains, and clubs, all were present in January of 1928. I can’t and won’t promise perfection but I can say that to my knowledge there are no anachronisms and all of the details are as period-accurate as I could make them. While the research was difficult and often tedious, it often yielded some amazing fruit. For instance, I discovered that the grocery store I shopped at most often while living in Paris turned out to be the site of what was probably the most terrifying nightclub in the city. If you get a chance, look up pictures of L’Enfer. It was right across the street from the Moulin Rouge in Montmartre. Trust me, the effort is worth it.
As for books and resources, the internet was my best friend. I would try to find the same information from as many sources as possible to help determine accuracy. It wasn’t a perfect system but being an ex-pat makes finding more official English language reference materials a little bit challenging. I do want to mention one book, however. In researching opium and opium addiction, it became very clear just how biased and inaccurate the various available resources were. Then I found a book called Opium Fiend: A 21st Century Slave to a 19th Century Addiction by Steven Martin. Basically, he was an opium antique enthusiast who also realized the shortcomings of the available material and decided to gather accurate, modern data by documenting his own experiences. Those experiments turned into a full-blown addiction and his book covers everything from his first antique pipes to his detoxing and withdrawals. It was important to me to make my depiction of opium use and how it affects the body as accurate and respectful as I could and this book was invaluable to me. It’s wonderfully written and I recommend it to everyone, whether or not you’re doing research.
You recommended it to me as well, and I have a copy in my TBR pile. You talk about being careful around anachronisms, and it’s funny how many writers don’t think about that stuff. But it really goes a long way toward making a place feel like a place and an era feel like an era. Paying attention to little nuances like that are essential, don’t you think? Otherwise, you risk pulling readers out of a story.
I totally agree. It’s really all about building trust. When your readers trust that you as an author, have full command over the world and characters you’ve built, they are a lot more willing to follow your lead and focus where you want them to focus. Sometimes you want them to doubt what they’re reading and when it’s by design, it can be really powerful and engaging but inaccuracies breed mistrust and when that happens, readers start to spend more time looking for other mistakes rather than enjoying the ride.
Trust is a good word for it. Along with living abroad, you’re also an extensive traveler. I’ve lost count of how many countries you’ve been to at this point—what from your travels finds its way into your work?
The last seven years have been an absolutely wild ride. When my wife was able to transfer to Paris, we sold almost everything we owned, I quit my job as a teacher, and we made a pact to explore the world as much as we could for as long as we could. We haven’t looked back.
When I travel, I often take a notebook with me (or just take notes on my phone) and I devote a little time to scene scouting as I explore both new locations and old favorites. I write down the sounds, smells, flavors, mood, and any other specific details that seem to make a given place unique. Sometimes it’s a matter of just taking mental notes but I always keep myself open. Even if I don’t plan on using the location in any current projects, I try to capture something that may prove useful. In RADIO, and really all my work, the atmosphere of a scene matters as much as any character and my research while traveling has been so helpful. Sometimes being able to describe the right smell or sound can really make a scene pop and help readers immerse themselves.
All that said, one of the most important writing lessons I’ve learned from traveling is that the world is much more similar from place to place than one might assume. I’m so lucky that I get to travel but I don’t think it’s a necessity to be able to write nuanced scenes set in far off places. We often hear the phrase “write what you know” and for a lot of topics, that can be sound advice, but I don’t think it’s very applicable to setting. The thing is, we all know a lot more about the world than we think. For instance, where I live now in Switzerland is very similar to the Pacific Northwest where I grew up and first adulted. Sure we have castles here and you have volcanoes there but seasons, weather (generally), greenery, large bodies of water, mountains, even social interaction styles, all are close enough to be easily understood and described by someone from either location. Lazy writing is always going to be bad writing but if a writer is willing to do the research, a rich setting can be built using a combination of our own experiences and a healthy dose of new learning. Everyone’s mileage will vary (pun intended) but I don’t think writers should feel limited to only their personal travel map. The world and the internet are big places, explore them.
I’ve done a more in-depth write up on the subject over at my own blog.
That’s a great point. I mean, how many people write novels set during specific periods of the past and never live during that era, you know? Research matters. Did you find that your research happened en masse, or was it something that you would dive into as you wrote?
Almost entirely as I wrote. Big picture items like opium, jazz, 1920’s slang, the city of Paris, these were always going to be important areas of study so they were researched in large chunks though I still supplemented that research as I went along. Everything else happened on a scene by scene or character by character basis. I won’t pretend that a strategy like this doesn’t slow my writing down but it just works better for me. It forces me to find the right details while I’m in the moment and inspired rather than just settling on the available details I have from past notes.
I also tend to research as I write. Especially since I’ve become more exploratory in my writing rather than sticking to a strict outline. Research is one angle, but stories—all art, really—aren’t created in a vacuum. Is there a specific set of authors or creators who have influenced your writing? I know a few just from our discussions, but let’s get specific to RADIO.
Absolutely. A lot of influences made their way into RADIO from Agatha Christie to Cormac McCarthy but the most obvious influence pertaining directly to RADIO is probably Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The dynamic between M (Marduk) the protagonist and Bernie, or Bernard as M calls him, is built off of the framework of Holmes and Watson. I say framework because I wanted Bernie to be more assertive and challenging toward M and more active in the story than Watson is with Homes. That said, I really enjoy Watson’s role as the reader’s proxy in the story and I tried to emulate that. Bernie is the moral hero of RADIO and as such, readers can attach themselves to him more than any other character. He’s the anchor just as Watson always was.
Another big influence for me is Chuck Palahniuk, specifically for both tone and his ability to make unlikeable characters likable, or at least sympathetic. A prime example of this is Victor Mancini from Choke. The bleak, stained atmosphere of Fight Club was also a big influence however The Cypher by Kathe Koja does this even better. There’s a beauty to the dark, dirty negativity in that book that really resonated with me. The Cypher has that mid-90’s David Fincher vibe, but on steroids. That aesthetic is all over RADIO to varying degrees. Fincher meets Poirot.
Hunter S.Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas is a clear influence for the drug scenes but not for the reasons one might expect. While his descriptions of drug trips are wild and fun, they lean toward an Alice in Wonderland-esque rabbit hole. I was more influenced by how immersive his descriptions were. You can’t read them without feeling the disorientation. My depictions are meant to be accurate but strive to be as enveloping as Thompson’s. I will add that in one early scene in RADIO, I take a few liberties with the effects of opium but there are other, fantastical circumstances involved that heighten the experience.
Lastly, I’d like to mention Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love. That book is so good for so many reasons. She did such an amazing job creating characters and a culture (in her case, a family culture) that is totally closed off to the outside world while operating in plain sight. It’s also a culture filled with humans who are unique and who fill every role from hero to villain. It’s a culture that is different, and vile, and follows its own rules. All of these elements helped inspire the Mentium, the clandestine group of gods Marduk is both a part of, and who he is his fighting to stop in RADIO.
I still need to read The Cypher. It sounds right up my alley. I’m glad you mentioned Marduk. There’re a lot of interesting choices for the gods that make up the Mentium, some obscure others less so, what made you settle on Babylon’s Marduk as the choice for the main character? I have to admit I found it a refreshing alternative over the tired Odin and Loki archetypes.
Marduk is one of the most important ancient gods in a pantheon that nobody knows about or at least pays attention to. Mesopotamian religion and others from the Fertile Crescent are the source of many of the stories from the Abrahamic religions. Eden, the flood, most of the Old Testament stories are repurposed versions from the Torah which in turn drew heavily from Mesopotamian sources. Western religions trace their roots back to Mesopotamia so it felt fitting that the central god in RADIO should come from there as well.
In many ways, that connection through history is another sub-theme that runs throughout the narrative. Music is a big part of this book, and we wouldn’t have the “pantheon” of music we see today without the explosion of jazz and the use of radio to spread it throughout the world. You’re a musician yourself and have gone as far as building your own guitars, how did that knowledge help you when you approached the musical elements of RADIO?
Music is a huge part of my life. I’ve been playing guitar since I was eleven years old and spent many years playing saxophone in middle and high school concert and jazz bands. It just made sense to have the two jazz musicians in the book follow suit and play guitar and sax. One of the most beautiful aspects of music is how, no matter how deep your understanding, you can feel it and move to it, and appreciate it. If all you understand is that you enjoyed it, wonderful. If you’re waiting on the edge of your seat for that Ab7 to finally resolve, wonderful. Both people are having a great time together. In RADIO, I tried to build the musical scenes in such a way that a layperson can still feel immersed in the music while those with more musical knowledge can dive a little deeper.
I also spent years in college playing on stage in a local rock band so the interactions between the musicians in front of a crowd and under the lights is something I have first-hand experience with. Most people have no idea what being on stage would even feel like. I made it a point to try and make those scenes as vivid as possible to give readers the chance to see what it’s like looking out at the crowd vs. up at the stage.
I think you did an excellent job, as you know I’m a jazz fan but a non-musician. That said, I thought the music scenes were evocative—you captured that frenetic energy that lives within jazz. You know, I realize he didn’t make a name for himself until about 30 years after RADIO, but you really should have referenced a Jimmy Rushing song in the book. I feel like that was a missed opportunity.
I actually have a story about him. When I was in high school, a friend of mine worked at a framing and poster shop at the mall. One day he came by my house with probably a three by four-foot poster board of Jimmy Rushing. At that time, I hadn’t seen him before and my friend was hiding the name on the poster so I was confused why I was being gifted a massive picture of a sweaty guy pouring his soul out into a microphone. I love Jimmy Rushing’s voice. He has this syrupy transition technique from phrase to phrase that is just so satisfying to listen to. I wish I still had that poster. Actually, I should check some of the closets at my parent’s house.
He’s an incredible vocalist. I’ve always dug his work with Count Basie, but I really enjoy the album he made with Dave Brubeck. Brubeck’s cool jazz piano and Rushing’s rich vocals work so well in tandem. Okay, enough jazz talk. We’ve certainly covered a lot: RADIO, Paris, research techniques, ancient religions, and so much more. I hope our discussion got my readers excited about your book and writing. I don’t want to keep you too much longer, but why not share what’s next for you?
In the near future, my focus is on getting the paperback edition of RADIO to market and continuing trying to navigate the intricacies of launching a book in the middle of a pandemic. A lot of people have a very doom and gloom outlook about publishing right now but I see our current situation as both a challenge and an opportunity. I will mention just how glad I am that I chose to self publish. I can be so much more dynamic and responsive with marketing than any big publishing house. Right now, I think that’s a huge advantage.
In the coming months I’ll be settling into a new project. While the idea of RADIO being the first of a series is a possibility, it was written as a stand-alone novel. I have ideas for sequels but they’re in their infancy and I want to wait until they mature enough to start those endeavors. In the meantime, I have a few open projects and I’m trying to decide which will fit best as my next WIP. One is a near-future post-apocalyptic series that involves both bio and eco themes. It’s more than fitting for our current state of affairs but also a bit serious. The other is a contemporary urban fantasy which, while still dark, is a lot more fun. Once I make up my mind, I’ll dive in headfirst.
I’m excited to see where you go next. I started rereading RADIO a few days ago [Disclosure: I was an early beta reader for Jim], and I can’t wait to continue. Knowing what I know, the possibility of a sequel is an interesting one. (Maybe Jimmy Rushing can still make an appearance.😉) Thanks for participating in the first Prose Palaver and giving us a little more insight into your process and RADIO. Good luck with the launch!
Thanks. There’s still a lot to do but I’m really excited for the work. This was a lot of fun. Thanks for having me.
J. Rushing’s RADIO launched April 4th and is available as an eBook for any of the platforms I’ve linked below. (Paperback is coming soon, I’ve seen it and it’s real pretty.)
More about J. Rushing
J. Rushing is an American writer whose work blends elements of adventure, fantasy, science fiction, and horror to create worlds that feel as familiar as they do foreign.
He is a musician, amateur luthier, and former teacher who first traded the microbreweries and Cascade Mountains of the Pacific Northwest for the bustle and beauty of Paris. After nearly three years in the City of Light he and his wife settled near Zürich, Switzerland where they spend much of their time traveling and immersing themselves in the outdoors.
Jim is active all over the internet and I recommend connecting with him. You can find all the pertinent links below. Give him a follow.
Thanks for reading Prose Palaver!
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