Tuesday, April 29, 2014

Interview with David Ramirez, author of The Forever Watch - April 29, 2014

Please welcome David Ramirez to The Qwillery as part of the 2014 Debut Author Challenge Interviews. The Forever Watch was published on April 22, 2014 by Thomas Dunne Books.

TQ:  Welcome to The Qwillery. When and why did you start writing?

David:  The when was third year in high school. I started writing for fun then, and not just for the occasional bit of homework with leeway for creativity. Though it took a while for me to move on from poor attempts at poetry….

The why is because a lot of my life was lived in daydreams even before I was writing. Imagining other lives, other times, other worlds.

It fed on itself when the right outlet came along. Writing was that outlet. It just took a long time for its importance to me to really sink in.

From childhood up through college, I was determined that I would either be a scientist or a doctor (or both—I was thinking about MD/PhD programs). But the writing thing would not leave me alone. Slowly, gradually, it took on more and more importance to me, until something I had started as a hobby became something I couldn’t not do anymore.

TQ:  Are you a plotter or a pantser?

David:  For short fiction, I’m a pantser.

For long work, I prefer to be a plotter. Everything is easier when there is a formal map, even if there are occasional unplanned side-trips. I didn’t finish my master’s in computer science, but had more than a taste. The formal process of programming, with specification, design, planning, implementation, documentation, and so on, actually helped me a lot in thinking about writing fiction.

However, sometimes my being a plotter does not work out. Sometimes I start writing, and the scenes tuned to the plan feel stale despite tweaks and re-planning. So when all else fails, I sit there and pound the keys and see what happens next, all preparations tossed to the wind.

It needs editing at the end anyway, whether plotted out or pantsed. I guess if I had to be classified as a writing type, it would be “re-writer.” That’s where all the real work happens for me. My initial stages of revising aren’t typo fixes or cutting out a scene here or there—I tend do major reworking. Characters may change significantly; entire story arcs might be rearranged. I’ll go into that more when replying to one of the later questions.

TQ:  What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?

David:  Sustaining focus. The hardest part of writing is writing even when nothing is going right and my mind wants to be elsewhere. It’s about facing the fear of not knowing if what’s going out onto the monitor is good or lousy and going forward anyway.

TQ:  Who are some of your literary influences? Favorite authors?

David:  The question of influence is difficult to answer from the inside—others can probably see in my writing what has shaped it better than I. My guesses for who have influenced me most are William Gibson, Michael Moorcock, and Katsuhiro Otomo. I could be wrong. There are many books and comics I read when I was younger that made a deep impression on me and became part of that influence without my noticing or remembering. Every note comes from somewhere.

The list of my favorite authors is pretty fluid and changes depending on my mood. The authors I most admire who are always at or close to the top of that list are Stephen King, Neil Gaiman, and Haruki Murakami.

TQ:  Describe The Forever Watch in 140 characters or less.

David:  Risking all, Hana and Leon search for a killer whose existence is kept secret by the very authorities charged with the survival of humanity.

TQ:  Tell us something about The Forever Watch that is not in the book description.

David:  The world of Forever Watch came to me in nearly complete form in a dream. The testing, the rigid society, the ship, the major plot devices, etc. In the dream, I held and read documents describing one of the most important secrets of the ship.

So, at first, I tried too hard to write out my dream.

In the earliest version of the story, the main character was Detective Barrens. Dempsey was an almost passive noir “good” woman—nearly a side character to be admired and protected.

It was not working. The characters felt stilted and predictable. The biggest secrets in the story were very complicated, resulting in a messy multi-tiered caste system. It would have been a longer and slower story.

Many things were changed. The world-building was simplified, so the plot tightened up. Dempsey became the lead, which brought some of the most important parts of the ship’s society to life, like Breeding Duty, and the social norms that are tweaked to maintain crew efficiency. The character grew into that expanded role, and as Dempsey changed and became more complex, so did Barrens.

TQ:  What inspired you to write The Forever Watch?

David:  I was in the middle of writing another story when The Forever Watch hit me and I had to write it. But it did not come out of the nowhere of the subconscious—at the time, I was thinking a lot about issues of freedom vs information and censorship. I was displeased by the narratives forming in the news about wikileaks and whistleblowers. They seemed overly simple.

So, while a lot of it was the fortuitous firing of the subconscious, there was also my very conscious desire. I wanted a story in which something that is self-evident to most, differing only based on what side one is on, becomes very different from how it seems on the surface.

TQ:  What sort of research did you do for The Forever Watch?

David:  Not a lot. I tried to refresh myself somewhat on Machine Learning, but I did not want to bloat the exposition, and let the technical correctness slide based on feel. I hope my CS friends will read those parts and shrug off the looseness—I like to think that they have to put up with a lot less accurate portrayals of hacking in other stories, like certain police procedurals on TV….

Other than that, the power ratings for psychics involved several minutes of messing around with a calculator and looking up which wattage unit goes, approximately, with which size task (kilowatts vs megawatts).

TQ:  Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?

David:  The easiest character to write was Barrens. It is not that he is simple, but that his motivations and desires are intense and always running high. He is a character who has problems with his behavioral brakes. And his complexities are sort of primal—a very physical type who is also an idealist, a thinker without the education to make the most of himself, and so on. I mostly had to think in extremes.

The hardest character to write was Dempsey. I was always worrying about the authenticity of her experience. And then there was her emotional state. I went back and forth on whether it was overdone or underdone. Balancing her negative emotions with the needs of the story and the goal of keeping things enjoyable for readers was tough. I may have wanted to write her as real as I could but she still had to work as a heroic figure.

I’m sure there are going to be some readers who find her too maudlin, while others may think I’ve trivialized terrible things because she does not seem traumatized enough. Readers are diverse and there’s no knowing whether I hit a good balance point until lots of people start reading and reacting to it.

TQ:  Give us one of your favorite lines from The Forever Watch.

David:  “This is how I deserve to die.” I think that line and that moment are the essence of that character.

There are others I like more, but there is no sharing them without spoiling the plot.

TQ:  Why did you choose to write Science Fiction, particularly Space Opera? Do you want to write in any other genres?

David:  I like science fiction and fantasy because while working within real world rules is about skill, working beyond those rules is about imagination. All those possibilities and impossibilities give the largest possible space to play around with for stories. They can be used to reflect aspects of humanity and the world in ways that aren’t straightforward. Societies and human interactions can be explored with very different limits, or with no limits at all.

I want to write many types of stories. Aside from SF, I’d like to be able to do horror, epic fantasy, pulpy sword and sorcery, superhero stories, magic realism…. I would love to be able to write all the kinds of stories I like to read, eventually. Even with just science fiction, there is still a lot to the craft I need to improve, so I’ll probably never develop the skills to write all these things, but who knows? I like to dream. That’s the only reason I’ve gotten this far.

TQ:  What's next?

David:  What’s next is another science fiction story, though it’s near future and there are no psychics or space ships. It’s about a young girl with a talent for manipulating social media, who comes across a hoax that’s gone viral about a mysterious stationary object in the sky.

I thought I wouldn’t be hit by the sophomore curse because The Forever Watch is not actually my first completed novel (it is the first one that broke through the slush pile). So wrong! For various reasons, my next project has been very difficult to write. In the end, I’m having to seat-of-my-pants it to proceed. I foresee much rewriting in my future.

TQ:  Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.

David:  Thank you.

The Forever Watch

The Forever Watch
Thomas Dunne Books, April 22, 2014
Hardcover and eBook, 336 pages

An exciting new novel from a bold up-and-coming sci fi talent, The Forever Watch is so full of twists and surprises it's impossible to put down.

All that is left of humanity is on a thousand-year journey to a new planet aboard one ship, The Noah, which is also carrying a dangerous serial killer...

As a City Planner on the Noah, Hana Dempsey is a gifted psychic, economist, hacker and bureaucrat and is considered "mission critical." She is non-replaceable, important, essential, but after serving her mandatory Breeding Duty, the impregnation and birthing that all women are obligated to undergo, her life loses purpose as she privately mourns the child she will never be permitted to know.

When Policeman Leonard Barrens enlists her and her hacking skills in the unofficial investigation of his mentor's violent death, Dempsey finds herself increasingly captivated by both the case and Barrens himself. According to Information Security, the missing man has simply "Retired," nothing unusual. Together they follow the trail left by the mutilated remains. Their investigation takes them through lost dataspaces and deep into the uninhabited regions of the ship, where they discover that the answer may not be as simple as a serial killer after all.

What they do with that answer will determine the fate of all humanity in David Ramirez's thrilling page turner.

About David

Photo by Ging Lorenzo
DAVID RAMIREZ is an ex-scientist who divides his time between Oakland, CA, and Manila, Philippines. Once a molecular biologist who worked on the Human Genome Project, Ramirez returned to the Philippines to get married. He currently dabbles in computer science and programmed part of the information system for the chronobiologists of EUCLOCK, a cooperative project between European research groups on the study of circadian rhythms in model organisms and humans.

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