Last week I posted my review of Silence the Living, a new sci-fi novel by Florida author Brian Bandell.
This week, I had the opportunity to interview Bandell about his novel. We had a really great chat on the phone that I'm excited to share with you now. We talked about Silence the Living, his writing process and, of course, science fiction. This interview reiterated to me how much I love interviewing and talking to other writers.
Andrea Kovarcsik: Hi Brian, thank you for the opportunity to read Silence the Living. It was a great book to review, and I always love reading new science fiction. So let's kick it off with my first question. Why alien nanotech? I love this unique idea so much. What drew you to this idea as the basis for your sci-fi novel?
Brian Bandell: Hi Andrea. Thanks so much for your review. To answer your question, I wanted to try and figure out a more realistic alien invasion story and ran into a lot of biotech research. For example, there's an organization called the Scripps Research Institute here in Florida, and they deal with biotechnology, changing genes and proteins. There's actually a lot you can do with DNA in terms of changing it and manipulating it when it comes to diseases.
Also, if you really think about the difficulties of traveling over light years, it makes more sense that something small would do it. If you try and get something up to light speed, and it's a human-sized thing, well, it's going to go splat if you accelerate to light speed. So the only real way to get to light speed is if you accelerate at whatever gravity is. So it might take 500 years just to accelerate to light speed and then another 500 years to slow down.
AK: Oh my goodness!
BB: So that's why I had the idea. It would be a combination of nanotechnology with a bit of their biology and size. It would be an intelligent machine that doesn't need much to survive in space and could just kind of be thrown out there like a seed. These aliens would probably have a mission to take the biology of the planet and use it, but not necessarily to become body snatchers.
So I felt that would be a more realistic way to do it. It's really hard to guess what's alive out there. You know what might be habitable, so you can imagine sending something in that direction for 50 light years. It's easy if you have something small and disposable you can just throw all over the place.
And, of course, I also felt that that made it more interesting when you look at how the plot would develop with this kind of an alien.
AK: I like that a lot. You're trying to tell a more realistic alien invasion story, not what we're used to, which is giant aliens that are very scary, come in a huge ship and blow up the White House.
BB: That's what we used to do. But I find it funny how they come here to eat us. They can't eat anything else? Really? I also don't necessarily think that such aliens are evil. They just don't have their home planet and are trying to resurrect their species.
I view it actually as something we might think about. It's almost like 3D printing. What if we could just send a 3D printer and 3D print people? Imagine if we could get to that level. That's basically what the aliens in Silence the Living are trying to do.
AK: They're not necessarily evil, they just have to survive. That's another twist on our usual alien stories as well.
BB: Exactly, they're trying to survive. They obviously don't care all that much about taking lives in the process, but they don't do things that are unnecessary. They don't kill just because they want to kill. They kill because it helps further their goal.
AK: And that makes a lot of sense in the context of the story. Everyone in this story, the way I see it and was reading it, was really just trying to survive. Which leads to my next question about the main character, Moni Williams. How did you think of this character? Why did she become your protagonist?
BB: She's someone who's always cared about other people, from her time as a police officer trying to help kids. So that gives her a huge problem because she cares about the world. She doesn't want to be selfish, but at the same time she wants to live and she wants Aaron by her side. She cares about people, but also has empathy for the aliens too. She's caught in a weird in-between place.
AK: Is she based on anyone you know who inspired her? Or is she totally made up?
BB: She's not based specifically on someone, but I would say the whole dynamic of Moni is similar to me dealing with my mother's mental illness. When you have someone with mental illness and you want to be close to them, and you want to help them at the same time, you don't really know how to do it. Sometimes when you're around someone with mental illness it can be draining, and it can bring you down trying to be with them.
And I think sometimes you have people in your life whom you want to help but being around them may not be the best for you. So can you make that sacrifice? I think that's the dynamic I wanted in the novel. Moni and Aaron want to be together, but for both of them it's dangerous to be together. Ultimately, they have to decide.
AK: That's so powerful. Thank you for sharing that. The Moni-Aaron dynamic really is very strong that way. I love that writing can help us work through our own lives. It's really beautiful, I think. It's such a wonderful aspect of storytelling.
Your other characters are so clear as well. It's not just the Moni-Aaron dynamic. Your character motivations, desires, are all set. And that's something I struggle with as well, making sure every character is clear. It's a hard aspect of storytelling. I read once that you should be able to know who's talking without the speaking tags.
BB: Exactly. That's what I'm trying to do.
AK: I think you nailed that. And I know how hard it is. I've gotten that exact comment regarding my writing, that sometimes my readers didn't know who exactly was speaking so they had to reread a certain passage.
BB: I think reading the entire novel out loud helps with the dialogue. Usually on my first edit I'll just edit silently, but during my next edit I read everything out loud. That's when you realize, okay, this doesn't really sound like that character should, or these characters sound too much alike. Or, this doesn't sound like a natural speech part, and you begin to change things. In the dialogue, it's okay that things aren't 100% grammatically correct. In fact, sometimes it's better if they're not. It's not beautiful, but its more authentic.
AK: It's more natural, which is why it's so hard to nail. Speaking of the characters, you have a wide range of them. And everyone, except Aaron, is or has been at one point in law enforcement. Did you do a lot of research for the military and police scenes?
BB: I did some research, and I've spoken to police officers before. I haven't gone undercover with officers or anything like that, but I've talked to them and have also read a lot of novels that include law enforcement. You can learn a lot by reading books by really good authors who write about law enforcement or the military.
AK: What about the scuba diving scene? You included many details about how that mission would go down.
BB: I do know someone who's in the navy, an old high school friend. So I asked him a bit about that. I also watched some of the videos that the University of Florida filmed when they actually went into Peacock Springs. So I looked at the actual cave footage of them diving in Peacock Springs and how dark it is, and how you just go down with a flashlight and see nothing outside of the flashlight. You could be 20 minutes from surfacing and still surrounded by all black.
Then I checked out the real maps, and I also have to credit Randy Wayne White. He's a novelist in Florida who writes the Doc Brown series. I read some of his books that have cave diving scenes also. That gave me an idea of cave diving in Florida and what you have to go through. Plus I listened to a lot of Tool to get in the mood. That was my music for that particular scene.
AK: Realistic details always add that extra layer in storytelling. And bouncing off that question, what was the hardest part of writing Silence the Living, and what was the easiest?
BB: I guess making sure that the relationships worked. When you have people making life and death decisions, such as Moni and Aaron staying together in an almost impossible situation, it can be hard to understand why they would stick together. That was one hard aspect.
Another thing was also to make sure there was no confusion with the telepathic communication. Here I'm doing things differently; Moni is talking into someone's head instead of talking out loud. She can read people's thoughts. She can implant thoughts into people's heads. I tried to make that very clear.
In terms of what was easy and what was fun, I think writing the action scenes was fun. For example, the whole attack on the town of Columbus along the border was a lot of fun. That was a big drawn out action scene, and I had a lot of fun setting that up.
AK: That was a very intense scene. So how do you go about writing an action scene? What is the hardest thing for you, and what is the easiest?
BB: When I do an action scene, it all starts with the music. I wrote in the introduction that the band In This Moment had a lot to do with it. For much of the novel, when I was thinking of what was going to happen, I was listening to their album Star-Crossed Wasteland. A lot of the scenes are very much connected to those songs. Some of the songs I just played over and over as I was writing out scenes. I associate the music to the mental picture and then again, the music to the actual writing and making the mental picture happen. There's always a fine line between, I'm seeing it like this, but is the reader going to read it like this.
AK: I love that. I'm glad I'm not the only who listens to music to help with scene writing and is listening to the same thing over and over. It really helps a lot.
Backtracking a bit, you mentioned one of the hardest parts of writing the novel was making sure everything was clear when Moni speaks telepathically. How did you think of the idea to take away your main character's voice?
BB: In the first novel, Mute, I had Moni caring for a little girl who lost her voice after her parents were killed. That little girl was infected, and you don't know it for much of the story. So in Silence the Living, I turned the tables. The difference is that girl was completely controlled by the aliens and Moni's not. The aliens have no use for speech because of own their telepathic ability, so they take away the voice of everyone they connect with.
Also, the idea of getting rid of communication goes back to mental illness again. When someone has a problem, they can't always communicate it clearly. And by getting rid of Moni's communication, it isolates her even more, and also puts her in a tough spot because it's hard for her to be fully independent. Although she can communicate by putting thoughts in people's heads, she can't do that with everybody because they'd freak out.
AK: It was definitely an interesting twist on her. I don't think I've ever read a novel where the main character couldn't speak. It affects not just her independence, but it affects her as well. She has to turn inward and can't communicate traditionally with the world. I thought it was interesting how the lack of communication affects all aspects of her life.
BB: Then the other thing is by sharing other people's thoughts she can hear things she may not want to hear. She can sense danger, but she can also sense people who are rude, people who are thinking bad things. Even when Aaron's thinking something he would want to conceal from her, he can't. That makes it tough. Imagine you're with someone. You may not want to know all the things they're thinking. Some things you may be glad they're not telling you. But Moni can't help but hear everything.
AK: Which also isolates her. Not just that she can't speak, but being able to hear everyone else's thoughts is also isolating. People may not just act differently around her, but also think differently.
BB: And it's hard to control what you're thinking. Also, some people don't trust her precisely because she can put something in their head. So how can you even trust your own thoughts when you're around her?
AK: Exactly. And that's another thing that will isolate her further from everyone, and maybe even take more of her humanity away. She's alone in so many different ways.
BB: I think there a lot of people who feel like that. They're not good at making conversation. They feel like they don't have enough friends. Or maybe they have only one friend who can understand them and the rest of the world can't. I think that is an experience to draw on here. I kind of felt like that growing up sometimes, you know? Sometimes you go into a crowded room of people and you don't know what to say. There's maybe only one person you could cling to.
AK: And even though she has Aaron, it almost doesn't matter because she's so alone. There's still that barrier even though they love each other so much. He can never fully understand what she's going through.
BB: And she doesn't necessarily want him around if she's going to be hunted by the military like that.
AK: There's so much physical isolation and emotional isolation. Everything isolation. It comes up in the novel of course, but as we're talking about it, it's hitting me more and more. It's quite sad. She's so alone in all these different ways.
BB: That's what "Standing Here Alone" by In This Moment is about. Standing here alone is the only way to survive. That's the song I listened to at the very opening of the book, and also the very last chapter of the book. I think that kind of sums up where she realizes that she has to stand alone and rely on herself. She's never really been able to stand by herself before in her life. She's always had other people there for her, and at this point she realizes she has to face it alone. Which is a scary thought for anybody.
AK: Yeah, exactly. I love this! I love talking about all of this. Okay, so going off in another direction here, is it easier or harder to write a sequel?
BB: I think it creates more challenges because you have to create the right balance. The harder parts are you don't want to rehash everything that happened in the first book, but at the same time you want to give a new reader enough information. I'm not a big fan of stopping the plot and doing backstory. I like to keep the current plot going and not look backwards too much. But it's obviously a challenge. Some of the character development happened in the old book.
For example, there's a lot of the abusive relationship between Moni and her father in the old book. But that made more sense because her father was a bigger character then, so it was more important to understand what she went through growing up. Here I only put it in a few places because I didn't want to go over all that again.
I think also the exciting part is when you have more fully formed characters. In the first book, I was writing and learning about who Moni is. This time Moni and Aaron and are fully formed in my head and it's much easier to write them.
AK: That's interesting because now you don't have to struggle with figuring it out. You can just take it and run with it.
BB: Exactly. As you're writing a book, the character doesn't really live until you write the character. You can think the character in your head all you want, but until you actually start writing, the character doesn't really come to life. A lot of times, you might go back to the beginning of the book and change a few things about who the character is. You might develop a speech pattern or something like that, or develop a sense of humour, or something about the character you didn't know at the beginning. Here the character was already developed.
AK: That comes through as well. Like I wrote in my review, I found Silence the Living works as a standalone novel and that comes through as well about the characters. They're immediately fully formed. Personally, when I was reading it I was never confused or wondering what happened before because you had enough backstory.
BB: I tried to incorporate it. So instead of just pausing and saying what happened, I tried to say how they felt about what happened. That's the thing that's important. Moni obviously feels really bad about allowing the invasion to happen. She feels responsible. Also, Colon feels responsible for all the deaths in the battle on the Space Coast, the people he couldn't save. I tried to show how what happens in the first book is impacting them emotionally going forward, instead of just stopping and giving history lessons.
AK: Okay, I love that. You tried to write not just what happened in a here's-what-happened-on-last-week's-episode kind of way, but you aimed to write how they felt about what happened. I like that a lot. It's a good way to continue a sequel. And it's so much more powerful than plain exposition.
BB: Yeah. As I said, I don't like to stop the action and tell a big backstory. I know some people do that, and it works. Sometimes you can have flashback scenes and that's fine. I generally like to keep the momentum going and keep the pace going forward in terms of plot and development.
AK: I'm learning so much from this interview it's becoming selfish! Haha!
BB: Haha, that's totally okay!
AK: So what are you working on next?
BB: I'm a business reporter in South Florida, and I was here during banking crisis, when everything kind of went to shit. There were all the closures and everything like that. So I decided to go in a bit of a different direction for my next book and write something about the financial crisis, as fiction. I'm working on a book where the biggest bank in Florida fails. Not long after that the CEO dies, and it initially looks like a suicide, but they quickly realize that someone had something to do with it. The challenge that the police officers have is that the guy was a scumbag, foreclosing on everyone and their mother, so everyone in town has a motive to kill this guy.
BB: So for this book, I was trying to think of the right way to do it. Initially, pretty much all my books have been thrillers. For this one, I felt that wouldn't work as much. As I was writing, it just felt more sensitive to base this one on humour. I was looking at all the things that happened at real banks in Florida, and they sound absolutely ridiculous. For instance, there was a CEO who always brought his cat to the office and made them throw a birthday party for the cat.
AK: Oh jeez.
BB: So if I'm going to do all that, then really it's a comedy. It's going to be a lot of ridiculous things that happened in the financial crisis, and you're like, that wouldn't happen, a bank wouldn't finance a porn company! Come on! But they did!
So there's all these humourous things that actually did happen during the financial crisis. As such, I thought it would work better if I wrote it as a comedy murder mystery. I've written the first draft and I like how it turned out. I'm pausing now to do marketing for Silence the Living, but after that I'm going to do some more editing.
Humor is a different challenge. It's funny to me, but is it funny to other people? I don't know. Is it appropriate? I definitely don't know. In this politically conscious world I don't know what's appropriate and what's not. So I'm going to need people to help me with that too. I'm hoping it works.
AK: It's difficult because you have to try to make sure the image is properly in the reader's mind because they can't see it. You have to describe it to make sure that it's happening properly in their mind and then they can recognize that that's a funny situation.
How long did it take you to write this draft? And how long did it take you to write Silence the Living?
BB: Probably from beginning to end it was close to five years. The reason it took so long is because I have other books. So probably close to four or five. When Famous After Death came out, I had to stop the work on Silence the Living to do the marketing of that. And because I'm a full-time journalist, it's hard for me to do two books at once.
Plus it also took a long time to do the critique circle. I did critiquecircle.com. I gave them a mention in the front of the book as well. I uploaded a few chapters at a time, then a number of other authors, usually four to six authors, read those chapters. I read all their chapters as well, and we gave each other feedback. I did that for the entire book. That in itself took over a year, because you can't post every week. I think you can post maybe two or three chapters every two weeks. So it took a long time to do that back and forth feedback with them. But in the end it was worth it. Even thought I had an editor with my publisher, I think this was good because I got direct feedback from other authors. If three people are telling you the same thing, they're probably right. I would definitely recommend critique circle to aspiring authors who are looking for feedback.
AK: That sounds incredible. Really detailed feedback is so hard to come by. So Silence the Living was four to five years. How long was it for your latest novel?
BB: It took me almost two years to get to where I am now. We'll see how long it takes to edit it. I need to get through the marketing phase of Silence the Living first. I've got book fairs to attend, as well as book signings. So probably after all that I'll be able to settle down with it.
I enjoy the editing process because it's kind of fun to read it. The toughest part is to separate yourself from your work and look at it critically, and to slow down and to find typos. To look at it like someone else would look at it, not how you would look at it thinking you're so awesome
AK: Haha, Like, "I'm a literary genius!"
AK: So more on this line, what is your writing routine?
BB: Generally I write Saturday night and Sunday night. Because I'm Jewish, I don't work on Shabbat, but that actually works out because during Shabbat I can take a lot of time to think about what I want to write.
I can edit on a work night, because it doesn't all require so much time. But to actually sit down and write I need to give myself a three-hour block when I can concentrate. I have kids so they don't necessarily let me concentrate for three hours.
AK: I hear that. When I first started writing my novel, I would just write in the morning before work. Sometimes I would only write for 15 to 30 minutes. I don't want to discourage people from doing that, but I guess something happened to me along the way, and I'm starting to realize that it just really isn't enough. Just to get back into the groove takes 45 minutes.
BB: You really need a good block of time. Sometimes that means not watching your favourite TV show, or recording it and watching it later. You've got to sacrifice something at some time in order to do it. It definitely works better when you have a large block of time, where you're not rushed and you can shift into the mindset.
I also like the idea of being able to mentally prepare yourself. Think about what you want to write during the day. If you're walking the dog, walk the dog and think about the next scene.
AK: So just to be clear, you're not writing every day, even when you're working on the first draft?
BB: I write the first draft usually at night on the weekends, and usually with the music I'm associating with that scene. I do a synopsis of the book too, as well as of the characters. I write about who the characters are, what their motivations are, what their challenges are, what the obstacles they face are, and how they deal with those obstacles and where they end up. I do that for all the major characters. The synopsis could change but I generally have an idea of where I'm going with it.
Also, it's hard to write every single day because you need time.
AK: Do feel that affects your momentum?
BB: Sure it takes longer to write it. But I don't put it down for too long. And I read a few of the previous chapters before continuing again.
AK: I like that. I like that you are so honestly saying this because I think a lot of writers, myself included, put that pressure on ourselves of having to write every day if you want to write at all. But sometimes it's just not possible and that's okay. You've written four novels, including the draft of the new one, and you don't necessarily write every day.
BB: Exactly. And I wrote three novels that haven't been published before my first one did get published. You just have to keep writing, and do your best to get your first book published. But if not, while you're trying to get your first book published, write another book. Because you get better every time.
AK: So you've written then seven novels. That's incredible! It doesn't matter if you have an everyday schedule, as long as you're still consistently writing it's going to get done.
It's nice to hear a published author just saying that you don't necessarily need to have this very strict writing schedule.
BB: If you're a part-time author, which a lot of us are, it's okay to write as much as you can. Even if it takes you a long time to write the book, it's okay, just do as much as you can. Some people are able to do more and that's great. Don't sit there and say, "I'm not going to write because I'll never finish it." Or, "I'm not even going to try because there's no way I'll be able to get it done." You always have to work on something. Even if it takes a long time, even if it's a long grind.
AK: Exactly. So, last two questions here. Why do you like science fiction?
BB: I like science fiction because there's a great deal of imagination in it and you can create scenarios that otherwise wouldn't happen. You can put people in situations they'd never be in. Plus you can also talk about the future and what might happen, and get people thinking.
AK: That's why I love it too. Trying to develop characters that meet with hypothetical situations. And what is your favuorite science fiction story, aside from your own of course?
BB: The Ender's Game series is really great. It's not just about space invasion but how people react to it.
AK: I definitely have that on My List. I'm excited to get to it. I like that idea of thinking more critically about alien invasion.
BB: Right. Why would the aliens come all this way just to attack us?
AK: Just to be douchebags? Haha.
BB: Haha, yeah, just to be assholes. No, they'd come here for a real reason. What is the actual reason they would come here? Just to blow shit up. Just to hunt? You don't have things to hunt where you come from?
AK: It seems awfully inconvenient to come all the way here just to be destructive for the sake of being destructive.
BB: Can you imagine a bunch of hunters on Earth. "I'm tired of hunting deer. Let's build a space ship. Let's go five billion light years and find something else to hunt." Really? That's why you're going? Seems awfully expensive, and a lot of effort.
AK: For no good reason.
BB: Literally just to shoot something else.
AK: Haha. Wow, well this has been such a fun interview, Brian. Thanks so much for taking the time and for the opportunity to review Silence the Living.
BB: Thank you so much for the review. And this has been a great chat!
So that’s it, folks. I hope you enjoyed my interview with author Brian Bandell. Be sure to check out Silence the Living if you’re looking for a new sci-fi novel to read.
Also please note that I lightly edited this interview for length and clarity, and I do not receive any kickbacks for linking you to Amazon.
Ciao for now!