Please welcome my special guest Dr. James Stone, author of the spy novel, Crypto, just released by Twilight Times Books.
It’s a pleasure to have you here, Dr. Stone. Why don’t you begin by telling us a little about yourself?
I’m a recently-retired electrical engineer with a Ph.D. and a number of international certifications in computer security. I spent most of my career working for some element of the Department of Defense, either civil service or as a consultant. Married, two children with Ph.D.s, one in engineering and one clinical psychologist. They have moved away, so it’s just my wife and me at home. My wife is extremely supportive of my writing, so I can write whenever I want.
When did you decide you wanted to become an author?
I never aspired to “become an author.” I just enjoy writing and telling a good story.
Were you an avid reader as a child? What type of books did you enjoy reading?
I’ve always been an avid reader, having learned to read from the newspaper comics, especially Pogo. At age 13, we moved away from ‘home’ at the end of the school year, and I knew no one. We had a porch swing. I got a library card. Every three days, I’d check out three books. On the way back to the house, I’d buy a big bag of green apples. Then I’d lie on the swing, eat green apples, and read – all summer. In those days, I was reading Agatha Christie, Rex Stout, Gardner, et.al. I took a speed reading course some years ago, so books only last a third as long as they did. Fortunately, I read a wide variety of genres, from serial murders, to space opera, to hard-core sci-fi, and even go back to some of the classic Regency Romances (Austen, Heyer).
Tell us a bit about your latest book, and what inspired you to write such a story.
Early-on, I was struck by how little the general public knew about the realities of international conflict. To the insider, the world is an endless cycle of crises as the international competitors test the others. To the general public, except since 9-11-2001, all was pretty smooth except for the occasional bubble that escaped into view. I thought it would be interesting to write a book that captures that dichotomy. It took a long time for circumstances to align where I could write it. Now it’s done and published, and I’m on to another book.
How would you describe your creative process while writing this book? Was it stream-of-consciousness writing, or did you first write an outline?
Stories just seem to spring full-grown from somewhere in my subconscious. Once the story is there, I visualize it as a series of scenes in a movie. My job is to capture the scenes in my computer, like with a shooting script. I use Microsoft Project to time-line the whole book to make sure I don’t have my characters sunning themselves in a blizzard, or some such nonsense. If the time line doesn’t work, I tinker with the scenes until it does. Sometimes that takes some major re-ordering of scenes.
Did your book require a lot of research?
Yes. I’m something of a perfectionist for detail. When a story is set in a real environment, the detail needs to be accurate and current. For instance, two characters in Crypto were going to dinner in Baltimore. I wanted them to eat at Hausner’s, a wonderful restaurant set in a private art gallery. A check on the Internet showed Hausner’s is no longer there. So I had to find another in the same area, research its décor and menu, and relegate Hausner’s to a nostalgic description. As another example, I wanted a scene that starts with a string of Zil limos entering the Lubyanka in Moscow. It occurred to me I didn’t know if there was a way for that to happen. Google Street View showed me a single vehicle entrance off what is essentially an alley behind the Lubyanka. Problem solved, except for my continued amazement at what one can find on the Internet.
What type of writer are you—the one who experiences before writing, like Hemingway, or the one who mostly daydreams and fantasizes?
I suppose I am a hybrid. I get ideas from what I experience, and then build on those experiences for scenes in the book. But the bulk of the story comes from my imagination. As an example, my next book, “My Every Thought,” is a near-future sci-fi involving human-realistic robots. I have co-equal protagonists who are very advanced engineers and mathematicians. At one point in my life, I seriously thought about becoming a professional Blackjack player, but dumped it when I figured out engineering was much more fun. I play poker as a hobby and recently cashed (that means I won money, not won the event) in a World Series bracelet event. I used that experience in fleshing out my two protagonists. I’m also very concerned about the direction of U.S. health care. There’s a major theme in the book involving grave injury and a court battle over whether the injury is recoverable, or whether the Government has the right to pull the plug and harvest organs for the “greater good.”
From the moment you conceived the idea for the story, to the published book, how long did it take?
I had Crypto fully in mind forty years ago, but would have found it very awkward, professionally, to write it and get it published. Once I started writing is seriously, it took maybe six months to completed draft manuscript. Twilight Times picked it up in February of this year and published the eBook in August. That’s about seven months to my reckoning, and most of that was working back and forth on edits. I thought I was a good writer, but was woefully deficient in making a good book. For instance, I didn’t know about “point of view” until the editor explained it to me. That resulted in my rewriting a lot of dialog scenes to get it right.
Describe your working environment.
I’m currently sitting in a La-Z-Boy on casters, my keyboard propped at an ergo dynamic angle, in front of a 24” screen connected to a high-end laptop (eight processor cores, 10 GB memory, 5 GB disk), connected high-speed to the Internet. If things get noisy, I put on my Koss noise cancelling headphones, and play Bach over Pandora into them. I call it my “cone of silence.”
Do you write non-stop until you have a first draft, or do you edit as you move along?
I draft, edit, and polish each scene as I go.
They say authors have immensely fragile egos… How would you handle negative criticism or a negative review?
Tolkien was told a lot of critics did not like his Hobbit and Lord of the Rings (I do, immensely). His response was that he likely didn’t like the kinds of books they like. I feel the same way. I like my book and feel it is a good representative of the genre, as well as being a fun and exciting read.
Are you a disciplined writer?
I don’t feel doing something you enjoy involves discipline. Rather, for me it takes discipline not to write.
Do you have an agent? How was your experience in searching for one?
No agent. Over the transom to Twilight Times. Just lucky.
Do you have any unusual writing quirks?
I’m all quirks. Years ago I was working at NASA-Houston. Although I had my own office, I was getting distracted a lot. I built a battery-powered white noise generator in a small box, and taped it to the top of some headphones. When things got noisy, I’d put them on and turn up the volume until the outside noise was blocked. I looked like Spock in the episode when bad guys had removed his brain and substituted a remote controller. At the same time, I was recovering from some minor back injury, and GI chairs weren’t doing my back any good. I brought in a Boston Rocker and put an upholstered board across the arms for a work surface. One day a fellow engineer stopped by to laugh at me. “Jim, I’ve got an artificial fireplace I can loan you, but you’ll have to supply your own dog and hearth rug.” In response, I pointed to my Ph.D. diploma hanging on the wall and said, “The fine print says eccentricity is mandatory to receive the degree. The exact forms they take are up to me.”
What type of book promotion seems to work the best for you?
I’m just getting started, so I don’t know yet.
Do you have a website/blog where readers may learn more about you and your work?
Not yet. Soon.
Do you have another book on the works? Would you like to tell readers about your current or future projects?
Yes. I have a near-future sci-fi half-written, to which I alluded above. It’s got some hard-core science mixed in with romance and contemporary politics. Stacked behind that, I have a sequel to Crypto, but the main characters have moved on to cyber warfare. Like Crypto, It has the hard science of computer security, hacking, and covert war intermingled with romance and high tension.
Thanks for stopping by! It was a pleasure to have you here!