Why did you choose self-publishing over traditional publishing?
I considered both routes and feel that the benefits of traditional approaches do not outweigh their disadvantages. As a self-publisher, I have full artistic control, which is worth a lot to me. Because I absorb the risks of publication and marketing myself, there are larger royalties and a higher potential upside. Although I faced the prospect of marketing my work with considerable dread, in the current media climate, publishers do not give first-time authors the kind of marketing support they give proven authors (and celebrities), so I would be responsible for marketing anyway. Finally, I genuinely enjoyed the book and cover design process—I feel like I truly own my creation. To me, these outweigh the $10K or smaller advance I would have probably received as a first-time author.
What about editing and book design?
I would urge any self-publisher to employ professional beta-readers and copy editors. Although tools like Grammarly can help a writer to correct most grammar and punctuation errors, it cannot catch all of them, and writers have an understandable tendency to overlook problems in their own prose (parents seldom notice their baby’s flaws). I employed Silvia Curry of Silvia’s Reading Corner, and she was worth every penny.
As far as book design is concerned, I believe a writer can learn the tools (I used InDesign) and the basics of good book design (fonts, margins, widow and orphan control, etc.) if they set their mind to it. However, the process is tedious and exacting. If you don’t mind putting on a pot of coffee, some relaxing music, and going through the text line by line for a month or so, I believe an author can do a good job as long as they keep it simple.
What About Cover Design?
The conventional wisdom that you should hire a professional cover designer has merit, but it also has some downsides. Too many professional designers produce covers that look like all the other professionally designed covers (for example, in the fantasy genre, how many covers feature a muscular hero holding a sword/ray-gun/assault-rifle facing down a horde of dragons/aliens/mutants?). On the other hand, designers that are truly original and take the time to really understand your work are expensive.
I chose to do my own cover because: 1) I had a strong idea what I wanted and could not find a designer I could trust to carry it out; 2) I kept it simple; 3) I could call on my wife, an artist (she illustrated Mother Rat), for help and critiques; 4) I wanted to spare some poor designer the agony of working with me. You can judge my covers for yourself.
Now that you’ve tried self-publishing, would you consider traditional routes for future books?
I would lean toward self-publishing, although a large enough royalty advance and guarantee of full artistic control could make me reconsider.
How Mother Rat Invented the World
Why did you decide to write a book with a packrat as the hero?
The idea came to me when I was cleaning out the garage in the house we’d just purchased and came upon a packrat nest. Although the rat fled (fortunately, there were no babies in her nest), I was fascinated by this little animal’s behavior. Her nest was filled with screws, washers, and other shiny objects from my workshop, and pieces of cactus were arranged around the whole thing to keep out intruders. I immediately wanted to write a story about a packrat and, after kicking various ideas around, I came up with the idea of the workshop at the beginning of time, with Mother Rat contributing the serendipity and unpredictability of life to a brand new universe.
What about Blue Jay?
When I started writing, I quickly realized I needed a character with whom Mother Rat could interact to reveal her personality. Having her talk to the old man or old woman seemed too cute, so I added Blue Jay. I chose him because the blue jays in my yard have these cocky, fearless personalities I thought would contrast nicely with Mother Rat’s practical, reserved character.
On the back cover, you describe the book as a love letter to science, but the idea of a workshop before the big bang doesn’t seem very scientific.
Of course, there were no workshops, rats, or old men and women before the big bang, but without characters there can be no story. The old woman and the old man embody the professions of scientist and engineer and demonstrate the exploratory, creative nature of both disciplines. Combined with Mother Rat and Blue Jay, they let me place the ideas of cosmology, physics, evolution, and environmentalism into what I hope is an entertaining story.
You describe Mother Rat as a story for both children and grown-ups. Isn’t this just some sort of marketing cliché?
I initially wrote Mother Rat as a light, humorous entertainment for adults. It was only later that Silvia Curry, my editor, told me it seemed more like a children’s book. She even tested it on her daughters (ages 8 and 9), and it received favorable reviews from them. Both adult and child beta-readers have liked the book, so I believe it truly is a book anyone would enjoy.
Where did you get the idea for five house cats who join minds and bodies to become one large cat?
Back in 2008, I had a dream where my own cats joined together and became one very large, scary cat. Unlike most dreams that are forgotten after a few days, this once stayed with me. In a sense, it haunted me until I turned it into a book. The name Swarm was a nickname my wife and I had given our bunch of cats because (like the cats in the book) they tend to converge on every mischief as if of a single mind. Also, they were the book’s inspiration.
Why did you decide to set the bulk of the story in the Homeric Bronze Age?
Once I committed to writing a novel about the Swarm, I quickly came up with the character of Astrid Lund, and the basic idea of her inheriting her mother’s cats and being drawn into the mystery of their origin. Introducing the idea of shape shifting cats in a way the reader would accept was a bigger challenge. Myths from ancient Greece and Rome use the motif of people changing into animals, and animals into other animals, so placing the cats’ origin in classical times made sense. I settled on the Homeric Bronze Age because I had always loved the Iliad and Odyssey, and because an undergraduate course in Homer had given me some background in both the Homeric and historical bronze ages. Soon after this decision, everything seemed to fall into place, with Circe, Hecamede, and Nestor as partners in Astrid’s adventure, and Phaethon emerging as my villain.