Politics in Fiction with Matthew S. Rotundo

P1060077Welcome to Part Two of Calico In Conversation with Matthew S. Rotundo. If you missed Part One: Taking Off Like a Rocket, feel free to click here to catch up!

Editor’s Note: this interview was originally conducted in March through July of 2016.

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Let’s dig into Petra. It was a lot of fun re-reading it after reading the initial draft, what…. nearly ten years ago? I also remember at that time, I was a complete crazy person who read through that sucker TWICE (I don’t do that anymore with novels), so the published version is my third time through, and still, despite remember various details and broad strokes of the story (your ending is specifically memorable), I found it to be an engaging, fast read, and I’m really disappointed there wasn’t more interest when you shopped it around. I mean, I know SF has been a hard sell in the past ten years, but dang. This is one of the most professionally polished self-published books I’ve ever read, and believe me, I’m not saying that because I know you. You mentioned you hired a copy editor and a cover artist. How did you go about finding the right ones for your book?

Wow. Thanks so much for the kind words. Petra is a labor of love, as I’m sure you’ve guessed. In addition to the writing itself, I went to some trouble to teach myself how to format both ebook and print editions of the book. That was an inordinately time-consuming process, but I learned a lot, and am grateful for it.

I do wish the market — i.e., publishers and agents — had shown a bit more interest. Of course, I think it’s brilliant, but then, I would, wouldn’t I? Still, there is a glimmer of a possibility that a traditional publisher might pick it up. In the meantime, though, I’ll just keep plugging along with it.

My copy editor, Tamara Blain of A Closer Look Editing, came recommended to me. She did a sample edit of the opening pages, so we could be sure her style meshed with mine. Did it ever! She really knows her stuff. Beyond that, though, she has a lot of experience with independent publishing, which has been invaluable to me. She pointed out issues I never would have thought of on my own. So a lot of the credit for the polish you admire goes to her.

As for my cover artist, Ryan Malm — he’s my niece’s husband, and a talented graphic artist. It was kind of no-brainer to contact him.

Who knows what the market will bring, and what it will look for? If not Petra and its sequel (sequels?), perhaps something else you write in the future will be published through a traditional house! Then again, maybe you’ll get addicted to being an indy author and eschew the traditional publishing process!

But let’s stop speculating: What advice do you have for authors considering the self-publishing route?

In a nutshell:

  1. Write the best book you can.
  2. Learn what it takes to put out a professional product.
  3. Invest in the resources you’ll need to create that professional product.
  4. Take the time to do it right. Don’t rush it.
  5. Have a coherent marketing plan. Don’t just put it up on Amazon and expect the world to come flocking to your book. Not gonna happen.
  6. Don’t give up. You’re in it for the long haul.
Petra2-ebook
Cover Art by Ryan Malm

Great advice! Now, let’s get back to Petra. People talk about how they don’t want “politics” in their science fiction and fantasy, though I’d argue they don’t want politics they don’t agree with, because everything, even Heinlein, has some degree of something political. Petra is no different: The title of the series is The Prison World Revolt, and there’s no doubt the book has something to say about prisons and how the governments utilize them. At one point, I noted a distinct parallel between the United States prison system and that of the one described on your hero’s world of Juris. What was it that inspired you to tackle this particularly topic in a science fictional story, and why is it so important to you?

Oh, I wholeheartedly agree about politics in fiction — although I feel it is often a mistake to try guessing at authors’ politics based solely on their stories.  We are professional liars, after all.  🙂

As for the inspiration for the story — I’ve always been fascinated by power and those who wield it.  So one day, I’m playing a videogame — a Star Wars podracer game, actually.  One of the races was set on a prison planet.  And being me, I got to thinking about how much power the warden of a such a world would have . . . and almost instantly, I knew I’d stumbled upon a novel.

It’s no accident that I chose a line from Dostoevsky — The level of civilization in a society may be judged by entering its prisons — as the epigraph for Petra.  It so perfectly sums up everything that Petra is about.  Consider: how we treat the least among us — i.e., criminals — says a lot about our values.  And yes, the parallel between the U.S. penal system and that of Juris is deliberate and, I hope, unmistakable.  We as a country and a society have devoted a lot of time, treasure, and resources to being “tough on crime.”  And that’s had some unintended consequences.  Mandatory minimums remove human judgment from the system, resulting in draconian sentencing in some cases and, not incidentally, a disproportionately devastating effect on minority populations.  Overcrowded prisons are unstable and therefore dangerous, not only to the inmates, but to the guards and other staff who work there.  An overburdened penal system means that district attorneys have to plea bargain away cases that should be prosecuted more vigorously.  It’s fair to ask, I think, exactly how just such a system is.

Though this is an adventure story, I did take some trouble not to be too pat, too black and white.  Many inmates on Petra don’t deserve to be there, but many of them do.  The line between the good guys and the bad guys is perhaps a bit fuzzier than one would expect.  But then, isn’t it always?

In fiction, ideally the line between good and bad should be rather fuzzy. Maybe not always, but I personally find the shades of gray far more compelling. Now, without getting into spoilers, is it fair to say you’ve got people who seem good at first actually being bad, people who seem bad at first actually being good, and people who are everywhere in between?

Well, I like to think so, anyway.

There are some who aren’t fans of shades of gray in fiction.  I’m not among their number. I’m suspicious of easy answers and bored by convenient, caricatured villains.  They bear no resemblance to my lived experience.

You know, a lot of people call SF “escapist” fiction.  I think that’s utter nonsense.  I don’t read fiction to escape from reality.  To explore previously unknown inner and outer landscapes, yes. To expand and feed the imagination, definitely.  But to run away from my own life? Never. In fact, I would argue that reading fiction helps me to cope with reality, not to hide from it.

And the reality is that very few people are all good or all bad.  We as human beings ignore this at our own peril — and, as writers, to the detriment of our craft.  Those shades of gray are the richest veins of drama.

After reading Petra, I can definitely speak to the fact that it’s not “message fiction” — you’re not sketching out the bare bones of a story just to tell your readers that prisons are problematic; you’ve got a page-turner. But it’s a page-turner that makes no secret: there’s an endgame here. Petra is book one in a series or trilogy? What are you hoping people get out of it (besides, obviously, a good read)?

I have three books planned for the Petra series, which will complete a story arc. I have a feeling there are many more stories in this world, though. If these first three books generate any interest, I could see myself happily going back to Petra again and again.

I most sincerely hope that people find the books a good read.  That is priority one.  If that’s all anyone ever says about them, I will be content.

Beyond that . . . I really don’t know. I guess I never considered it. As I said, themes about power fascinate me. I suppose I would be overjoyed if the story of Petra inspired others to consider the subject from another, unaccustomed angle — that of the powerless. And maybe to think about how they would prefer to be treated should they ever find themselves in a similar situation.

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Next week on August 16th, Matthew S. Rotundo comes back for his third and final part where he discusses his short fiction, what inspired him the most when it came to writing, as well as all of the other ideas percolating in his brain.

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