Interview with Joshua Grasso

What's the story behind your latest book?
The inspiration from my latest book comes from Russian fairtyales, and specifically, the tale of Kaschei the Deathless, who hides his death in a box. I first read about this as a teenager and was always fascinated by the preposterous, yet exciting, idea of squirreling away your death where no one could find it (thus making yourself immortal). I've always wanted to expand on this idea, and in my current novel, The Count of the Living Death, I finally approached it in a more extensive manner--though without removing the fairy-tale, fantastic elements from the story. The Count never intends to hide his death away--his father thoughtfully did that for him--and once he knows, realizes at being 'immortal' isn't all its cracked up to be.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
I've been writing books since I was 19 and trying to publish them on and off over the years (I'm now 40!). I've had glimmers of success here and there, but kept hitting the brick walls of publishing fads and accepted wisdom. Most publishers and agents simply aren't willing to take chances with a book that doesn't have vampire or zombie in the title. Indeed, I recently met an author whose publisher insisted that he add 'vampire' into the title of his book, even though the vampire in his story is only a minor, and very fleeting, character. I was even rejected by another agent for using semicolons! The beauty of indie publishing is that you can decide when a work is ready for the public to read, and if you want to make changes, you can do so immediately and upload it the next hour. Perhaps more junk gets thrown into the world this way, but it's also a way to finally reach the public before I'm 50! I have many novels that I'm re-writing and polishing for publication over the next few years. Even if they all are utterly ignored I'll still feel validated that the works exist and people can read them. That's enough for now.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
For me, the greatest joy of writing is simply finding my way from one chapter to the next. I envision each work carefully but I never outline. I love to see how a work grows organically as I play with characters, descriptions, and dialogue. This often requires extensive re-writing as second or third ideas change everything that came before. However, that's what makes it fun--I am continually surprised by the story and feel that I am less a writer than a conduit to someone else's ideas and characters. When the book is finished, THEN I become the writer, as I edit, hack, and refashion the work into something worth reading (I hope). But the actual writing of the work, knowing I have hundreds of pages before me and characters to still come to know, is what drives me to finish the work--and ultimately, start another one.
What are you working on next?
My next novel, which is in the messy revision stage, is called The Astrologer's Portrait. It's not a sequel to my first novel exactly, though it's set in the same world and there are references to some of the characters from The Count of the Living Death. It concerns a prince who falls in love with the woman in a portrait...though he fears the portrait may be 500 years old. Sadly, he's correct: the portrait is quite old--though the woman is still alive, still beautiful, and the victim of a terrible curse. Hiring the condemned magician, Turold the Magnificent (his own title), he sets off to find her...only to abandon the one woman who truly loves him. To get her back, he must stage a coup for the throne and allow the disembodied hands of Einhard the Black to ravage the kingdom. And little does he know the sorcerer has already betrayed him...
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
I spend the majority of my time teaching, since I am a professor of English at a small university. However, in many ways, teaching is a form of writing. Putting together a class is a creative act, since you have to create a kind of narrative, shaping ideas from the text into a form that can lead to productive discussion in the classroom. Also, as I re-read the work before class, I often see ideas and connections that escaped me before, which I then weave into the overall theme of the class. It honestly gives me the same feeling as writing a chapter in a book, and not coincidentally, several classes I've planned have led to book ideas. Teaching literature forces you to become the author, imagining why he/she wrote, thought, or imagined what he/she did...and this lends itself quite easily to the act of creation itself. So in some ways you can say I'm always writing.
Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
The first story I ever wrote would now be considered 'fan fiction,' though that term didn't exist (at least not to my knowledge) in 1985. It was a very loosely plotted, 3-4 page Star Wars story concerning Han Solo, and was undoubtedly ripped-off from the novel, Hans Solo at Star's End. I wrote it on a typewriter and promptly lost it afterward. A great loss to literature, certainly! However, I remember writing it quite clearly, and the act of making characters do things straight out of my head was pretty exciting stuff. I never really stopped writing since.
Do you remember the first story you ever read, and the impact it had on you?
Common publishing wisdom likes to tell us what kids will and won't read, and in general, how unadventurous they are. I just don't think this is the case. As a kid, the books that most interested me were the ones on my parents' shelves. I enjoyed reading kids' books, but more enticing was the Pandora's Box that held works like The Illiad, Frankenstein, and a book a specifically remember trying to read, Edith Hamilton's Mythology. This latter work was a retelling of Greek myths from Ovid and elsewhere, and I desperately tried to make sense of it, excited by names like Atalanta, Theseus, and Perseus. It probably helped that I had recently watched Clash of the Titans in theaters, so I was gung-ho for anything epic. The work had a few illustrations, which helped me piece together the narrative. I loved what fleeting glimpses I had of the actual work, and this inspired me for years to come--and indeed, The Illiad remains one of my favorite books, and Greek Mythology permeates my own writing.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
My 5 favorite books, not in order are,
The Illiad: despite their epic scope and liberal use of fantastic elements, they're deeply human stories. You can relate to everyone in these books. The scene in the Illiad where Hector has to leave his family and meet the screaming Achilles outside the palace gates is harrowing stuff...everyone knows he's going to die, and he pretty much knows it, but he feels he has to do the honorable thing. And yet, everyone's telling him, "damn honor, the Gods want you dead--you can't win." But he stubbornly sticks to his guns and dies an ignoble death. Far from glorifying war, the book reveals it to be an empty experience for all involved, where any chance of honor of victory is lost in the bloody muck of the battlefield.

Fielding, Tom Jones: a sprawling 800+ page book written in the 18th century, it is a deeply satirical work about Tom Jones, a somewhat amoral hero in a very immoral world. The writing is superb and the story has made me laugh more than almost other book--and certainly any book of 'classic' literature.

Austen, Pride and Prejudice: I'm a big fan of all Austen's novels and teach them regularly in my classes. There's not one I don't love, but this is probably still my favorite, mostly for its amazing satire and wit, as well as the subtle and satisfying nature of Elizabeth and Darcy's romance. We take this work for granted now, but if you read it without the baggage of the all the movies and works that have followed, you will be blown away by its originality and sentiment.

R.K. Narayan, The Guide: a beautiful, gentle satire of Indian life in the mid-20th century, it follows the career of Raju, a tourist guide who gets in over his head when he becomes the manager of a famous dancer. After going to prison, he emerges as a broken man...and immediately gets mistaken for a holy man who can work miracles by a small village. Used to conning people (and anxious for a free meal) he plays along until they believe he can summon the rains and end a terrible drought if he fasts for an entire month. Hilarious, but also quite thoughtful.

Clarke, 2001/2010: These seminal science fiction novels remain, to me, the best speculative fiction ever written, filling the reader with wonder and the possibility of "what if"? Unlike the film of 2001, the novel is entirely lucid, and makes the characters quite believable and convincing. 2010, though less known, is perhaps the most exciting of the two, and made it almost impossible stop reading even for a bathroom break.
What do you read for pleasure?
Everything from classic literature to fantasy to Non-Fiction to graphic novels and poetry. Reading IS pleasure.
What book marketing techniques have been most effective for you?
Begging people on Facebook to read my book. A few of them even did!
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up between Atlanta, Georgia and Tulsa, Oklahoma. Both places influenced my writing less by the place itself than the surroundings. I was actually born in New York, so I didn't entirely fit in in either place, all the more so since I was small and bookish. The largely football, churchy culture of each city (and I lived in the suburbs of Atlanta, so I didn't get into the actual culture of the place until later) forced me to turn inward and bury myself in comics, books, and role playing games. If I had been more stimulated by like-minded people and a diverse culture, I might not have had to struggle to find myself the way I did--and who knows, I might not have become the professor/writer I am today. That said, both places had a lot of hidden sanctuaries that as I got older, I was able to find and connect to--mostly comic book stores and used book stores, that helped me on my path to college and beyond. I often find that many artists don't come from big cities, since a small town forces you to rely on your own resources and make your own entertainment. That said, it's good to get the hell out of them as soon as you can to preserve your sanity!
Published 2014-04-20.
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