Interview with Sam T Willis

Do you remember the first story you ever wrote?
I was eight years old, and part of the third grade curriculum included creative writing time. They'd give us little prompts and we'd go wild on them. I started finishing the actual assignments early so I could work on my masterpiece, the epic struggle of a team of plucky ninjas and their seemingly endless gun battles against a nameless foe that I couldn't actually be bothered to come up with. Ninjas kept falling in the "crushing machine," which was obviously very dangerous, but they'd always escape just in time. The only other plot point I remember clearly was that the ninja team, after some adventure somewhere, returned to their base to find their comrade, let's just call him "Embarrassing fake Asian name," was wounded in a horrible and non-specific way. They fixed him up with remarkable speed, and he was the main character thereafter.
How do you approach cover design?
It starts with an image in my head. I can't stand having people on my book covers, I feel like that takes away from suspension of disbelief, so I like to grab on to some powerful, mood-setting image. With "Beaten" I just kept coming back to a trail of blood footprints in the snow. To make the cover I made some "blood" out of water and food coloring, waited for a nice snowy day, then trekked up an unblemished hill, sloshing out a bit of "blood" every step or so. Then I came down the other side of the hill and started taking pictures. A little bit of Photoshop magic, and a lot of workshopping, later I had my cover.
What are your five favorite books, and why?
This question is agony to answer. It's taken me a while to pare the list down. I'll start by being a good English major and going straight to the Shakespeare.
Iago, in all his unapologetic, villainous glory. It's rare, in my experience, to find a villain in fiction who oozes legitimate menace. When it happens it's almost never because of overwhelming physical power (except maybe the Tyrannosaurus Rex in the original Jurassic Park) but rather because said villain was built of the Iago archetype: the vindictive schemer, who seems to have planned for all the angles, who's playing with everyone else like they're just pieces on his chess board. Think about Kaiser Soze. Think about The Joker in "The Dark Knight." They were menacing, there was something almost inevitable about that. That's Iago. Nobody does inevitable like Shakespeare.

"Catch-22", Joseph Heller
This was probably the toughest one to choose on the list, but it's probably the best example of my favorite combination in fiction: whimsy meets melancholy. "Catch-22" is hilarious. The English language itself becomes part of the joke in this novel. I tried to watch the movie of it a ways back and gave up a half hour in. I don't think this book can be done visually, the jokes don't work without the words. It's 450 pages, and every word feels absolutely necessary. It's also profoundly sad. Think about Hungry Joe, who wakes up every night screaming. Think about Major Major (Major Major Major), terrified of his own responsibility. Think about Snowden. Somehow, the layer of jokes over the sadness only serves to make it bite harder.

"The Long Goodbye", Raymond Chandler
Read some Chandler. Seriously, do yourself a favor, forget every stereotype you've got stuck in your head from Humphrey Bogart movies and people parodying Humphrey Bogart movies and just read some Chandler. Marlowe is probably my all-time favorite protagonist, and it drives me crazy how far off the mark most renditions of the character are. There's such a subtle, pervasive sense of self-loathing in Chandler's work, and it comes at you from all angles in "The Long Goodbye."
"The moon’s four days off the full and there’s a square patch of moonlight on the wall and it’s looking at me like a big blind milky eye, a wall eye. Joke. Goddamn silly simile. Writers. Everything has to be like something else. My head is as fluffy as whipped cream but not as sweet. More similes. I could vomit just thinking about the lousy racket."

"Breakfast of Champions", Kurt Vonnegut
I think this was the second Vonnegut novel I ever read, but it's the one that's stuck with me most. He just turns the whole idea of telling a story on its head. I had no concept of a postmodern narrative before i read this book, so my head exploded. It really shaped my idea of what makes a story, and I've read it more than I've read any other book. He tells you flat out how it's going to end, there are practically no major plot points, and it all just fits together because Vonnegut writes like he's standing next to you, telling you the story as it rolls out of his head.

"Watchmen" by Alan Moore
This book did the same thing for me and graphic storytelling, and hero-based storytelling, that "Breakfast of Champions" did for me and narrative. Made my head explode. It was the first time in my life where there was a plot twist I absolutely should have seen coming and I was so blinded by suspension of disbelief that I totally missed it. Actually found myself flipping back through the pages to reread parts as the plot unfurled, and I never do that. He plays with, and tears down, comic book tropes, trots out parallel narrative structure, and presents at least four different versions of "morality" for the reader to chose from.

"The Wind-up Bird Chronicle", Haruki Murakami
Have you ever read a dream? Vonnegut melts the narratives, Moore melts medium, but Murakami melts the mind. I honestly don't know how much more I can say about this one, I read it a year ago and I'm still unpacking it. Give it a shot, let yourself get lost in the story like you're sitting at the bottom of a well in total darkness.
What do you read for pleasure?
Right now I'm reading "Jane Eyre." My wife is making me. We fight about Victorian novels, because she loves them and I find them painfully repetitive. I told her I'm going to write a script that randomly generates Victorian novels, wherein every sentence is "Consternation on the subject of X" and "X" is marriage 70% of the time.
Describe your desk

Are you crazy?

I have a gigantic, green, tufted chair. My laptop sits on the armrest, and I drape myself over said armrest and type. There's an awesome library table next to it, where I store my beverages. I do my best work in gigantic chairs.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in a boring suburb in Upstate New York. I was bored, because said suburb was boring, so I wrote to kill the boredom. Then I wrote because it was fun. Then I wrote because I couldn't stop. Now I write because my head might explode if I stop.
What's the story behind your latest book?
When I published "Beaten" I was pretty sure I wasn't going to do a sequel. I could see some more story, but at the same time, it was a pretty personal story (for reasons that will only make sense to a few people on the planet) and I felt that, by getting it out, I'd achieved some kind of catharsis. But the brain wants what the brain wants, and I knew the SSPO wouldn't be buried just because of the events in "Beaten." So the story for "Headless" kind of formed on its own, in my brain, while I wasn't paying attention. Eventually it just couldn't be denied, so I wrote the thing.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
I started with the traditional publishing idea in mind, and operating under the assumption that going indie was giving up. I started querying agents, then having conversations with agents, and after I got a little ways down the road with one of them it occurred to me that it wasn't, really, what I wanted. Traditional publishing meant a lot of waiting, and a lot of ceding control of my work. I wouldn't even, necessarily, get to decide if I wrote a sequel. Pretty sure my head would have exploded if I'd been stuck subjected to a publisher's demands. Not that traditional publishing is a bad thing by any means, it's still probably better for a sizable chunk of the population. I just don't think it fits my personality. I'm laid back about most things, but I'm a control freak about my stories.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
There's a moment, usually when I'm writing a scene that I've been crafting in my head for a long time, but sometimes it happens completely out of the blue. The words start rolling out fast, crazy fast, and it's all I can do to keep up. It's almost like I'm losing authorship, the book is just writing itself, and everything is just coming together perfectly. It's like the sensation of reading a book that's working perfectly, only with the volume turned up. Shivers down the spine and everything. That's got to be my favorite part.
What are you working on next?
Something completely different. The longest novel ever written in the English language, if I have my way.
Published 2016-07-06.
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Books by This Author

The New Program
Price: Free! Words: 16,620. Language: English. Published: March 27, 2017. Categories: Fiction » Thriller & suspense » Spies & espionage, Fiction » Thriller & suspense » Action & suspense
The Federal Penitentiary in Odessa is getting a new rehabilitation program. It's been a huge success everywhere they've tried it. Inmates are rendered quiet, docile, and manageable. Just like they were in the 40's and 50's, when transorbital lobotomy was the treatment of choice. Now history is repeating itself…but the details are classified, of course.
Price: Free! Words: 15,780. Language: English. Published: August 15, 2012. Categories: Fiction » Thriller & suspense » Psychological thriller
Bussing tables, court-ordered therapy, a thousand prescription pills. Ian Kensington is alone, save for the phantom footsteps and whispers that are always behind him. They’re not real, like the draft notice he got in the mail. But the army knocks on his door anyways, promising to quiet the voices that have plagued him since childhood. Why would they help him? What kind of army are they raising?