Interview with David Sheppard

Published 2014-06-12.
Where did you grow up, and how did this influence your writing?
I grew up in Chowchilla a small town in California's San Joaquin Valley. People have heard about it because of the famous kidnapping of a bus load of elementary school kids back in 1976. It's also the hometown of Ron Moore, the screenwriter and television producer famous for his efforts on Star Trek and the Syfy channel's re-envisioned Battlestar Galactica. I went to high school with his father. My first novel, The Escape of Bobby Ray Hammer is set in Chowchilla during the same time period. So the town and my experiences had a heavy influence on the story, but it certainly isn't autobiographical. Bobby Ray isn't me.

Chowchilla is a farming community, and I lived three miles outside of town. I have three brothers. It certainly wasn't inspiring. Even though it was an intellectual wasteland, being out late at night and seeing the stars and planets, the Milky Way galaxy, set my mind to questioning what the world is all about. It was the mystery of human existence. That's what fuels my writing today.
When did you first start writing?
You know, I actually put the first words of a story on a piece of paper when I was eleven. I had just read my first science fiction novel, and I was so excited, I was about to jump out of my skin. I immediately wadded it up and put it in the trash, afraid my older brother would see it. I didn't write anything after that until college. Then I started writing poetry. Where I came from and the crowd I ran with, people would laugh at you if you thought you could write a book. But my first serious writing efforts were at the age of thirty, right after I got out of the US Air Force. I felt liberated, somehow. Years before while still in college, I started reading Dostoevsky and couldn't stop. Over a couple of years, I read everything the man wrote. I believe his sense of the ridiculous and propensity to write long-winded narratives had a big influence on me.
What's the story behind your latest book?
Latest two books. I'm writing two at the same time. I've always been a student of the writing craft. I struggled for years trying to write a novel and couldn't get beyond the first one hundred pages. Even when I completed a first draft of the Bobby Ray Hammer novel, I knew it wasn't plotted properly, and it took a couple more years to drive a plot through it. So I've been thinking about the essence of extended narrative storytelling for quite a while. That's why I wrote Novelsmithing. But in the ten years since I wrote Novelsmithing, I've learned a lot about storytelling in general, so I'm now finishing up another book on craft titled Story Alchemy, The Search for the Philosopher's Stone of Storytelling. In Novelsmithing, I went to great lengths to describe the creative process, and to do so I used a good bit of Jungian psychology. I go even further into the creative process using Jungian psychology in Story Alchemy. Jung studied the alchemists, and what he learned from their writing had a major influence on his work. A technique he developed called Active Imagination can be used by authors to help them activate the creative process. I wrote Story Alchemy to show storytellers how to more reliably and powerfully activate their own creative juices using Active Imagination. I made another major discovery while writing it, and that involves what they call a memory palace. Really exciting stuff, and it's totally changed the way I write. Wish I knew then what I know now about storytelling. It could very easily have changed my life. I hope to change the lives of young storytellers.

To help me develop the material for Story Alchemy, I wrote a novel using this new technique I was developing. It's a vampire novel, interestingly enough, a genre I've not tried before. But here's the thing. Active Imagination is a process whereby you contact autonomous entities within your own psychic space. I use one of my psychic entities, a young woman, to tell the vampire story. I then use this young woman's name as a pen name since the story was actually written by her. I view it as me channeling this particular narrative voice. Confusing? Perhaps. But still, to do so is to honor the process. Alice Walker felt that she was channeling her characters when she wrote the Color Purple. I've done the same thing and given the voice I channeled credit for writing the story. Only seems fair.
What motivated you to become an indie author?
Frustration. That and the abject stupidity of the publishing industry. Back when I finished the Bobby Ray novel, I landed a New York agent rather quickly, not by going directly to agents but because I was recommended by a publishing house acquisitions editor. The woman submitted it to Jason Epstein at Random House, a personal friend of hers, and when he rejected it, she quit marketing it. She said, and this is the truth, that he knew fiction and if he rejected something, it wasn't publishable. Unbelievable, but that's what she said. Another New York agent who took the trouble to call me personally about Bobby Ray because she absolutely loved it, said that she was afraid it might be perceived as a young adult story, and they weren't selling well at the time. It had been among the five finalists in the Pirate's Alley Faulkner Society novel competition.

My second book was Oedipus on a Pale Horse, Journey through Greece in Search of a Personal Mythology. I had a couple of publishing houses interested in it, but they finally rejected it because they said it was a foreign sale and wouldn't go over very well in the US. A few years later, I put it up on the internet, and it immediately started getting responses from readers from all over the world who loved it. But it was really the academics that latched on to it, recommending it to their students and thanking me for the resource. I even had a well known anthropologist contact me wanting to write an article on my description of Thebes and the ancient myths that occurred there. Still, the major publishing houses could care less.

My third book (second novel), titled The Mysteries, A Novel of Ancient Eleusis, didn't make it either. By the time I finished it, it was no longer possible to go directly to publishers and agents were themselves so swamped that it was practically impossible to get them to look at anything if you didn't have some personal connection. Plus, the same old tired story: wonderful novel but historical fiction isn't selling right now.

My fourth book, Novelsmithing, came about as a result of classes I taught at New Mexico State University. It started out as class notes, which I eventually put on the Internet, but it became so popular that I decided to publish it myself, because I had heard of CreateSpace, and thought self publishing sounded like a great idea. I left it on the Internet, and the paperback edition still sold. And it still does, except that with eReaders becoming more and more popular, paperback sales have correspondingly shrunk.

Publishers are delusional and always have been. They have always said that the good stuff always finds its way into print. What a joke! Robert Pirsig tells us that when he tried to get Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance published, he went through 121 publishers before one took it. And even then, the acquisitions editor gave him a minimal advance and told him that that would be the last money he'd ever see for it, that he, the editor, knew that it wasn't going to sell. Of course, it went on to be one of the biggest bestsellers of all time, selling over five million copies. If Pirsig had stopped at 120 publishers, his book would have never been published.

With this backlog of books, and the fact that I wasn't about to quit writing, I decided to quit even considering publishing houses and started publishing all my writing myself, including my individual essays and short stories. For me it has never been about the money. It's about readership, and that's why I make some of my books free. Few books even when published by major publishing houses ever pay out their advance, and then the author loses control of their work. A good friend of mine published two novels through a major New York publisher several years ago. Her books were written at the same time I wrote mine. Her books never sold in large part because the publishing house didn't market them. Her books are now out of print, and neither appears in digital form. All my books are still in print, both paperback and digital, and they are still selling.

I cannot imagine any circumstances where I would go with a publisher. Of course, if a lot of money were involved, I'd change my mind in a heartbeat. But that's not going to happen unless I first come up with a bestseller. Of course, then the major publishers will want all my books. Right now, I'm extremely pleased that I have all my work in print, that I have a readership, and that I own the copyright.
How has Smashwords contributed to your success?
Smashwords has been the greatest thing ever. Amazon with the Kindle and CreateSpace were great, but when Amazon started KDP Select, that spoiled it for me. They want me to make my digital books exclusively theirs. Sorry. That's just not going to happen. My digital sales have also tanked on Amazon since they started their Select program, which makes me wonder if they've done something to make it more difficult for readers to find my books since I'm not a part of their exclusivity program. I've been an Amazon customer for over fifteen years, but now I don't buy digital books from them. I will go anywhere else and pay more if I have to.

I really like Smashwords' meatgrinder. It converts my MS Word files into many different formats and makes them available to the reading public immediately. And it's all free. Plus, I can make any changes I feel are necessary and have the revised digital text online in a heartbeat. I especially like the Smashwords annual July sales event where I can make all my books free, so I can spread the word.
What is the greatest joy of writing for you?
Twenty years ago, at the ripe old age of fifty-two, I quit my day job and started writing full time. Money has been an issue at times, and I've never lived off the proceeds of my writing, but I've never regretted my decision. I've given up several million dollars in engineering income to write. But writing to me is more than a profession. Writing is the way I live. I only take on writing projects that are of interest to me and through which I will be able to research and learn something about the human condition. To me it's all about meaning. I'm interested in life and what it's all about. I investigate the topics that interest me most through my writing. Every writing project I've ever undertaken has always proved to be more intellectually fruitful than I imagined at the outset. Writing makes my life better. My greatest joys are the discoveries I make along the way.
What do your fans mean to you?
I believe my motivation for writing is different from that of most authors. I don't write for an audience. As I've said before, I write to live. I write because it is the only way I can live my true life. However, since I do publish my work, that does mean that I have a relationship with my readers. Since my writing is so person, when someone takes the time, and it is a considerable amount of time when you think about it, to read something I've written, it is even a little more special than it would have been if I'd written it for them to begin with. They like something that is deeply personal to me. That make us bosom buddies. Because I'm not writing to entertain someone or to make money, when someone takes the time to read one of my books, it means that they have a personal connection to the subject and to me. That makes them special because it is a personal similarity. My readers are my kindred spirits. I don't know that a connection between author and reader ever goes deeper than that.
What are you working on next?
After Story Alchemy and the vampire novel, I would like to get back to finishing the third volume of the Tales of the Mythic World series. The first two volumes are Introduction to Frankenstein and The Eternal Return. The third volume is titled Let Their Be Light, and it concerns the scientific advancements that led from Newton to Einstein and the development of the atomic bomb. But I would also like to get back to the third volume of The Mysteries, which I've titled, The Twice-Born. I've taken some criticism for leaving so many things hanging at the end of the second volume. I've always had a third volume planned but got sidetracked writing Story Alchemy and the vampire thing. I wouldn't want my readers to think that I'm not interested in finishing the story that I started with the first volume of The Mysteries. Far from it. It's just that sometimes more pressing issues come to the front, and I believe that Story Alchemy is the most important work I've ever written. I believe it has the potential to change things for all authors, make the creative process more predictable and effective. It came and got me. I had to write it. Really didn't have much of a choice. But now it's almost finished and I'd like to get back to The Twice Born.
Who are your favorite authors?
Okay, well here we go. I have to start off with Dostoevsky. As I've already said, I read everything he wrote fifty years ago, plus a couple of biographies. He was a military officer before he was a writer, and I also have a military background. I spent almost eight years in the US Air Force. I was a captain when I was honorably discharged. So his writing was my first love, particularly Crime and Punishment.

But then I have to go way back. Sophocles was another fascination of mine when I first started college. Later came Euripides, and now I appreciate him even more than Sophocles, or Aeschylus for that matter. Shakespeare has been a big part of my reading life since high school, and I wrote The Eternal Return primarily to connect Sophocles' Oedipus at Colonus and Shakespeare's The Tempest. What made The Eternal Return such a pleasure to write is that I got to live inside OaC and TT for months at a time. Life just doesn't get better than that.

Of course, I've lived inside Tolkien's fictional world for months at a time. I read both The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings while I was going to Stanford and just fell in love with that crazy fictional world. That was long before LotR became all the rage, and I mean the novel, much less the Peter Jackson movies. I've reread all of them several times since.

Other authors I admire seem to be because of one work, not their entire oeuvre. I greatly admire Chang-Rae Lee's Native Speaker. Just fabulous and devastating at times. Alice Walker's The Color Purple made a tremendous impression on me, probably because the voices are so strong. John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath because it is so closely connected to my family history. We moved to California during the Dust Bowl days, but we weren't as destitute as the Joads. Mary Shelley's Frankenstein I see as probably the most important work ever written. Its warning about the double-edged sword of scientific advancement is ever with us. That book, written almost two hundred years ago, has never gone out of print. Her The Last Man is also an interesting read.

I owe a lot to classicists. Charles Segal wrote so many books about classical Greece, and they are all simply priceless. To understand the ancient Greeks is to understand Western Civilization, and I don't know that anyone knew more about them than he did.

Loren Eiseley is my favorite essayist. The man was a genius and wrote amazing prose, very lyrical. All his books are great including his autobiography, but The Night Country has always been something special to me.

Carl Jung has provided insight to the creative process and done more for my writing that anyone I could have even imagined. The good part of it is that he was one of the most prolific writers of all time. The volume of his work is staggering. He actually had insight into the way the mind works, and Freud doesn't even come close to Jung. Not even in the same ballpark.

Carl Kerenyi is the man who finally explained Greek mythology to me. I'd been trying to understand why it fascinated me so, but no one seemed be able to get at the essence of it. Kerenyi is rather oblique, but once you catch on to what he's saying, the meaning behind Greek mythology really starts to come to the surface.

Richard Bach was one of the New Age phases I went through. Loved Jonathan Livingston Seagull. Bridge Across Forever was delightful, as was Illusions. But he starts to wear a little thin after a while.

I enjoyed Dan Brown's The Da Vinci Code, but his other novels didn't excite me. Plus, his craft is terrible. Inferno was so horribly written, you just wonder if he actually did it himself. Maybe it was just half baked. Of course, he's a phenomenon now, so all his books sell regardless of the quality.

Homer is still one of my favorites. The Iliad and The Odyssey are such great stories. Of course, you have to read a good translation, and I still believe Robert Fitzgerald's is the best.

I've read a lot of Hemingway, and I love the prose, but he is so dark and at times degrading that I'm in a perpetual state of flinch while reading him. He always has a way of projecting his stories as myth that just boggles the mind. The opening paragraph to A Farewell To Arms is one of my favorite passages of all time. Love the elephant hunting stories buried in his posthumously published The Garden of Eden. You have to be careful about believing what he says about writing in his nonfiction. He's always trying to be somewhat of a charlatan, yet you can learn a lot from him if you know how to take him.
Who are your favorite authors? Part II
I'm still crazy about Daphne Du Maurier's Rebecca. Love that story. The first time I read it, it just sort fell into my hands, and I didn't know what I was getting myself into. I'd been reading mostly Dostoevsky, and I was still in the Air Force pulling alerts in Titan II missile silos. The base library always sent out a cardboard box full of paperbacks because we were on alert for 24 hours, and we frequently had little to do after running our checklists and performing maintenance. I picked up Rebecca on the way out to the silo and just immediately fell into it. Fell really hard. We usually didn’t get a lot of sleep, but that night I didn’t sleep at all. I read all night and the next morning on the way back into base. Finished it after I got home. I’ve read it again recently, and I must say, Du Maurier is a marvelous writer. I don’t know why she hasn’t gotten more critical acclaim. Probably because she’s a woman. What most people don’t realize is that Hitchcock took Du Maurier’s short story The Birds as the source for his movie.

I read a lot of nonfiction and much of it is psychology. Murray Stein is a Jungian therapist and author who really seems to understand some of the most difficult stages of life and can write about them in a way that can really help people. His In Midlife is quite probably the most influential book I’ve ever read, and it literally pulled me through a problematic time in my life. But then, he uses Greek mythology to explain a lot of what people go through during midlife, and it’s just amazing how it really can put it all in perspective. Sometimes books effect me so profoundly that the depth of my gratitude is difficult to express. This is why I write. What you write can resonate with a reader and change their life, and at times immeasurably for the better. This is what happens to me when I read Murray Stein.

Kurt Vonnegut is the wittiest writer I’ve ever read. Love his books, novels and nonfiction. They are so deliciously irreverent and his commentary so pointed that you just have to marvel at the way he does it. And it’s so effortless.

I went through a big and long Carlos Castaneda phase. Read his first four books simply hypnotized. But the man eventually went off the rails, and he was a charlatan, evidently, and yet his philosophy is truer than most academic philosophers. Quite the conundrum.

I also fell in love with Cry of the Kalahari by Mark and Delia Owens, mostly her writing actually. They gave their lives over to their love of anthropology, and it didn’t fail them. What they did makes you want to follow your dream, no matter where it takes you. I think that their example gave me the courage to travel Greece alone and then write Oedipus on a Pale Horse. Be careful what you write people.
What inspires you to get out of bed each day?
You know, my day starts before I get out of bed. I write a lot at night. I write just before sleep, when I wake up during the night. I have a little insomnia, which I've learned to greatly appreciate. And just after I wake in the morning.

I also love breakfast with a hot cup of coffee. Dry cereal with frozen strawberries and soy milk. Mmmmm. Just can't beat it. Coffee I make in the Greek style. Turkish grind we get at The Flying Goat here in Healdsburg. Very strong.

Once I'm up and going, I go to the computer, and I'm pretty much there all day. I do deviate from my writing by visiting a news site or a blog now and then, but writing fills up my day. I mostly edit what I've written during nighttime, which is my most creative period.
When you're not writing, how do you spend your time?
You have to understand that I have chronic fatigue syndrome, as does Laura Hillenbrand. I would love to be out fishing, love to fish, or hunting meteorites in the desert, but that isn't possible for me anymore.

However, I do make a little time to look at the heavens. I've been an amateur astronomer since I was fifteen. It was the night sky growing up on a farm that kept my eyes looking toward the heavens. I've had a couple of small telescopes for decades, but a few years ago, I bough a 20 inch Obsession, and that changed everything. You have to realize that by 20 inch I mean the diameter of the reflecting mirror not the length of the telescope. I have to use a ladder to get to the eyepiece when it's pointed much above the horizon. Marvelous view of planets, nebula, star clusters, and even galaxies if it's a really dark sky.

I also enjoy movies. I have a NetFlix account and do a lot of streaming. Also enjoy a football game now and then. But I watch entirely too much baseball. Thankfully the SF Giants aren't doing so well this year, so I don't feel that I have to watch every game. I'll also faithfully follow a TV series now and then. I absolutely loved Buffy the Vampire Slayer, and also Firefly. I'll watch anything by Aaron Sorkin, and greatly enjoy his new series, Newsroom. Movies I've enjoyed in the past: The Matrix, James Cameron's Titanic, Groundhog Day, Hitchcock's Rebecca, The Perks of Being a Wallflower, Super 8, All the Star Trek movies, Fargo, Lord of the Rings (not so much Peter Jackson's the Hobbit, interestingly), etc.

TV series. Buffy, of course, West Wing, Newsroom, Firefly, Dead Like Me, Friends, Cheers, Taxi, Dick Van Dyke, The Honey Mooners, Star Trek (both generations), etc.
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