Interview with Dan Thompson

Thompson HeadshotI have been reading science fiction and fantasy since childhood, with early memories of Ringworld and A Princess of Mars, but I was writing SF/F even before that, inspired by Star Wars and playing Dungeons and Dragons with my big brother. I have also been drawing and painting in various SF/F veins for about as long.

As for my personal life, I am an unreformed un-hippie, a long-haired kilt-wearing Scotsman, a gamer, a geek, a native-born Texan, a burner, a fan-boy… all in all a general purpose weirdo living down the street. My politics are both too liberal for most Democrats and too conservative for most Republicans, so I tend not to say much about them. And if you’re ever looking for me in a crowd, I have been described as “somewhere between a Norse god and a serial killer.”

But mostly, I’m just that dude sitting over there in the corner.

1.       Why do so many of us stop playing Dungeons and Dragons even though we still enjoy the game?

For most of us, it comes down to time and the increasing responsibilities of adulthood.  My golden age of playing D&D was in college (late 80’s) when we held a marathon session every Sunday from lunch until the wee hours of the night.  We all lived in the same dormitory, so it was simply a matter of walking down the hall to the study lounge and then ordering pizza for dinner.  These days with kids, jobs, and living all across town, the practical obstacles to such a regular gathering are insurmountable.

However, I do want to point to a couple of solutions.  The first is computer-based D&D.  No, I don’t mean MMORPGs like World of Warcraft.  I mean specialized chat clients that support group chat, private, messaging, public and private die rolls, and in many cases maps and supplementary images.  Add in Skype or Ventrilo, and it’s comparable to being in the same room.  In some ways, it’s better, since you can pass private notes back and forth to the DM without any of the other players noticing.  The last time I actually played D&D was in this style and in many ways, it was the most immersive role-playing experience I’ve ever had.

The second solution is to start playing with your kids or coworkers.  One of my old college gaming buddies has been leading his kids through a number of dungeons lately.  He also has a semi-regular lunch session with some coworkers, though they’re playing Traveller.

2.       Do you ever use RPG methods for creating characters in your stories?

About the only thing I’ve lifted from RPG’s for my writing is the notion of random attributes.  No, I’m not rolling dice to generate the intelligence of my characters, but the idea keeps my mind open about possibilities.  Does that character have to be male?  Does she have to be pretty?  Does the guard have to be dumb?  I have found that when I opt for the non-obvious choice, I have been rewarded with much richer characters who come alive rather than hiding in bland two-dimensionality.

3.       Are you related to Santa Clause?

Yes, he’s my uncle – sort of.  When I was about four or five, we had a large family gathering for Christmas: aunts, uncles, all the cousins, etc.  As we’re winding down towards bedtime on Christmas Eve, Santa arrived, complete with red suit and white beard.  Amidst all the excitement, I glanced around and saw that my uncle Clifford was missing, and upon closer inspection, I saw that behind the beard, Santa bore a striking resemblance to that uncle.

Now, you would think that this would be the point in my intellectual development that I would realize I was being had, that there was no Santa, only my uncle in a suit.  Alas, that was not the conclusion my young, Christmas-frenzied mind reached.  Rather than realizing my uncle was playacting, I concluded that my uncle was, in truth, the real Santa Clause!

For a few more years, I was convinced that my cousins got the Best Presents Ever!

Thompson Omega_Starfury4.       What’s the coolest piece of SFF art or memorabilia you own?

That’s a tough one, because I own quite a bit, but probably the coolest is a replica of an Omega-class Star Fury from Babylon 5.  It’s not the rarest or most beautiful, but I would have to say it is the coolest.

5.       What is your favorite Pre-Raphaelite work?

“Meeting on the Turret Stairs” by Frederic William Burton.  My wife and I both fell in love with this piece.  We love the rich colors, and the detail, but mostly it’s the theme that gets us.  It’s a brief romantic interlude, hidden away from prying eyes.  It seems both forbidden and quietly passionate.

I am fond of several other pieces from this movement, many of which are much better known, but this is my favorite.

Thompson Meeting_on_the_Turret_Stairs_-_1864 (1)6.       Who is Cassandra?

I am.  I’d explain, but you’d never believe me.

Pre-Raphaelite painting of Cassandra. I can see the resemblance...

Pre-Raphaelite painting of Cassandra. I can see the resemblance…

In Greek mythology, Cassandra was given the gift of prophecy but cursed so that no one would believe her.  Thus, she went through life knowing all the troubles to come but unable to convince anyone to avert the pending disasters.  I have a soft-spot for Cassandra figures in modern story telling – perhaps my favorite is G’Kar of Babylon 5 – because they provide such great foreshadowing that rarely spoils the coming surprise.

As for me, let’s just say I’ve developed a reputation for being right about the future, but that friends and coworkers have rarely appreciated it until after the fact.

7.       Do you own a utilikilt?

No.  I own several!  I got hooked on them almost ten years ago, and in Texas, they are the perfect garments for most of the year.  In the few weeks that qualify as winter, they’re a bit too cool, and in the heat of late summer, they’re a little too heavy.  But for the rest of the year, it’s great.

8.       What is the significance of the key that hangs on your office wall?

Wow, this is a toughie.  Let me start by saying that I’m not a big believer in mystical dreams or the likes.  I’m too much of a scientist to put much stock in it.  However, I can’t deny people what they themselves experienced, and this is one of my own experiences.

Very early in my writing career, I had a sequence of dreams that all featured one object: a key.  It wasn’t a modern key with grooves and angular teeth.  Rather, it was an old-style, almost iconic, key.  It was big, made of brass, and had a ring for a handle and a single tooth at the end.  If Gandalf or Dumbledore had to open a magical door, this was the kind of key they would use.

I don’t want to get too much into the nature of the dreams – except to say that I don’t need hallucinogens, thank you very much – but I came to understand that the key represented something about my creativity or my imagination and that it could be used to create wonderful things or to distract me from the important things in life.  I never told anyone about these dreams at the time.  They were for my own private navel gazing.

So anyway, as these dreams were pounding away at me over the years, I was also struggling with my writing, as I tried to make the transition from short stories to novels.  In the middle of that, at a WorldCon, my wife presented me with a gift: a large brass key, styled exactly like the ones in my dreams.  She had no idea what it meant to me.  She had simply seen in the dealer’s room and thought I would like it.

So, while I still don’t know what to make of such dream analysis or coincidental gifts in the waking world, I have hung on to that key.  When I get discouraged in my writing, I look at it, hanging on my wall… and I get back to writing.

9.       What is the Burning Man community about?

Golly, that’s a hard one to pin down.  I would say the culture is about radical self-expression and self-reliance, and the events are temporary cities built to encourage those attributes.  More information, of course, can be found at http://www.burningman.com/  for the big event in the Nevada desert or at http://burningflipside.com/  for the Austin-based regional event I attend each year.

But probably what makes burn events so different from other events is that the experience is unique to each person.  If anything, it’s… well, *more* unique.   I know that’s twisting the meaning if unique, but in this case, I think the grammar Nazis should cut me some slack.

So, my experience with burn events, particularly Burning Flipside, is a fun campout with friends that I can count on.  I volunteer as part of the safety team (“rangers”), and I am actually one of the shift-leads who handles the radio dispatch.  It’s both fun and challenging, and it’s been a great opportunity to stretch myself into new areas of responsibility.  That might sound more like work than fun, but it’s a chance for self-discovery.  Plus, as my wife has said, competence is sexy.

I also do airbrush bodypainting, and Flipside is one of my best venues for it with plenty of happy canvas walking around.  I must have painted twenty-five people at this most recent event, but when you consider that there were over 2500 participants, that’s less than 1%.  So, while I may have been cranking them out hour after hour, each one of them had their own painting, and they were one of the special few with such decorations.

So, when I tell people about these events, I tell them about the things I have experienced like art, fire-spinners, acrobats, art cars, dancing, and so on, but I also tell them this: The thing that will make the biggest impression on you will not be anything I have mentioned.  It will be something new, something ephemeral, something that even I can’t quite wrap my brain around.  It will be… unique.

10.   How do you feel about Battlestar Gallactica rebooting with Starbuck as a female character?  How do you feel about reboots in general?

I have mixed opinions about reboots in general.  Some seem to take an orphaned property and breathe new life into it.  Others seem to cash in on another successful property while offering nothing worthwhile.  For example, the 1978 reboot of the Superman franchise was well done and introduced the hero to a new generation.  Lois and Clarke and Smallville did good jobs building on that as well.  Meanwhile, Tim Burton’s reboot of Planet of the Apes was atrocious.  Ditto with Will Smith’s reboot of Wild Wild West.

But as for Battlestar Galactica’s reboot of Starbuck?  This is probably one of the best reboots I’ve ever seen, not just for the series, but for a character.  It’s not that I think Kara Thrace (aka “Starbuck”) was better because she was a woman.  I think Kara Thrace was better because she became real.  The original Starbuck was a fairly simple happy-go-lucky pilot, and about the only hint we got as to his depth was the episode where they found his father.  Meanwhile, Kara Thrace dragged us to the depths in the first five or six episodes, and we never came back up for air.

11.   Which Babylon Five actor would you most like to invite to your house for dinner?

Part of me would like to answer Andreas Katsulas who played G’Kar, just because that would mean bringing this fine actor back from the grave.  However, sticking to the living, I’d have to go with Claudia Christian, simply because Ivanova is God.

12.   Can you explain how many different venues an Indie author has to consider when publishing a book in electronic format?

There are dozens of venues for electronic self-publishing.  The big fish, of course, is Amazon.  (Obligatory piranha joke goes here.) Kobo is a rising star, especially in international markets, and the Nook is hanging on.  Apple and Google remain mysteries to me as everyone I know who reads ebooks on Apple or Google/Android devices does it via a Kindle reader application.  In other words, they become an alternate version of Amazon’s Kindle device.

Amazon, Kobo, and Nook all have direct submission programs, so you can set yourself up with them fairly easily.  The vast majority of my sales have been through Amazon, and while Nook’s future may be in doubt, I believe Kobo will only grow stronger in the coming years.

Smashwords will get you into all of these and others, of course, but I prefer going direct to the ones I can reach myself.  It gives me greater control (and a greater cut).  I also have ongoing problems with Smashwords’ aptly-named Meatgrinder book formatter.  While they are a champion for Indie authors, I know several who have stayed away because of the Meatgrinder.

But in all of that, never overlook the print market.  Even in fiction, ebook sales are only 40-50% of the market.  Some people will always prefer print, and with easy print-on-demand fulfillment from Createspace, there’s no reason not to have both print and electronic.

13.   How many flavors of FTL are there? How many flavors of hyperspace are there?

As many as you want there to be, I suppose, but I find that most FTL’s break down into four basic types: warp drive, hyperspace, wormholes, and jump drives.  The names may change, and there’s some mix and match, but rarely have I seen anything that breaks those paradigms.  The pilots of Dune may “fold space”, but their method of transport is functionally equivalent to jump drives.  Of course, a single universe need not limit itself to just one.  David Weber’s Honor Harrington series made good use of the strategic mix of hyperspace and wormholes.  I’m in the middle of a series of blog posts on precisely this subject.

14.   What advice would you give a newbie author about writing epic, multi-novel storylines?

Prove to yourself that you can write a good book before investing too much energy into multi-novel storylines.  I understand that research and outlines have their purpose, but they’re no substitute for the grind of going from “Chapter 1” to “The End”.  I know the market is geared towards trilogies and ongoing series, but even if you end up throwing the novel away, the experience of writing it will be worth your while.

Thompson ShipsOfMyFathers_FrontCover_600px15.   How did the idea for Ships of My Fathers begin?

This one came together from multiple sources.  The first was the Harry Potter series, which wrapped up (in book form) in 2007.  Yes, I’m jumping from fantasy to sci-fi here, but it was the slow revelation of the back story that caught my attention, particularly relating to Harry’s father.

Then came the fact that my own father died in 2005, and as time went by, I began to ponder different back stories for my own father.  The movie Safe House (1998, with Patrick Stewart) did an interesting job with this, as a retired executive reveals to his children that he was actually a covert operative all along.  I started to imagine little what-if scenarios with my own father.  What if he had been a spy?  Or a classified weapons designer?  Or a hidden government witness?  What if some of his old contacts came looking for me?  What if he had left a job for me to finish?  None of these scenarios fit the facts, of course, but they were interesting thought experiments.

And finally, while editing my first novel, Beneath the Sky, a friend of mine spoke of how much she enjoyed the character Father Chessman.  He was a minor figure, originally meant as little more than a stock villain, but I could see the potential there.  Combine that with various references to a civil war that had come 15-20 years before, and I had exactly the kind of fertile ground for back stories that Harry Potter had.

So, from those disparate sources, I have a tale of a boy coming into adulthood without his parents.  Their fate was tied up in the civil war years ago, but now that Michael is digging into the past, we find that it’s not quite as buried as his parents.  Of course, it goes in a completely different direction than the Harry Potter books, but I owe the slow revelation of histories and motivations to that series.

16.   How many books will be in this series?

There will be five.  I pretty much know what is happening in each book, and I have the titles chosen as well.  I don’t want to give out any spoilers, but I will say that the second book, Debts of My Fathers, has already been drafted and should be out around January 2014.

17.   How much of a series do you like to have written before the first of the series is published?

I like to have an idea of where I’m going.  That’s more important to me than having large portions of it already written.  I may not know exactly how I’m getting there, but I have each book’s climax in my head as well as the final denouement of the last book.

As for how much to have written?  I am aiming to have the next book written before the current one is published.  That is, book N+1 should be down on paper before book N heads out the door.  This lets me catch some continuity details that I might otherwise miss.  For example, in writing book 2, I realized I wanted to keep returning to a particular pocket knife as a touchstone throughout the series, so I made sure to give it more visibility in book 1.

In an ideal world, I would want to write the entire series in one go and polish it all before the outside world saw the first word.  And in that ideal world, I wouldn’t have bills to pay either.  So, as it is, they’re going out as I work my way through.

18.   What is your favorite electronic or digital writing tool?

I’m a Microsoft Word junkie.  I’ve been using it for close to twenty-five years.  I’ve heard all the raves for tools like Scrivener, but Word is good enough that nothing has enticed me to start the learning curve of a new tool.

19.   What is your favorite non-electronic writing tool?

My red pen.  The brand has changed over the years – currently a Uni-ball Gel – but it’s always been a red pen.  Apart from early schoolwork, I have always done my writing on screen, so I’ve never drafted on paper.

However, I have always edited on paper, and that’s where the red pen comes in.  The analogy to blood-letting is obvious, but I try not to think of it too much has hacking and slashing.  Instead, it’s like surgery, where each cut is necessary, each resection is prudent, and the transplants life-saving.  Subsequent passes are less like combat surgery and become increasingly cosmetic.  The final pass is little more than wart removal.  But there’s always a little blood.

Thompson HanShotFirst20.   Who shot first, Han or Greedo?

I’ve got three answers to that question, but they all come down this: Han, Han, and Han!

So yes, Han shot first.  That’s what I saw in 1977, and no seft-doubting revisionist is going to edit my childhood.  That’s right, Mr. Lucas.  You are dead to me!!!

And for the sake of the story, of course Han shot first.  When Han shoots first, he shows us he’s a character of action.  He takes care of his own problems, and he’s not afraid to get his hands dirty.  It’s merely “sorry for the mess” and on with business.  He’s exactly the kind of partner you want to have at your back when you’re blowing up an Imperial Death Star.

But on a more serious artistic note, yes, Han shot first.  That was the decision Lucas made back in the 1970’s when he was immersed in the project, and he should have trusted his initial judgment.  If anything, these revisionist “special editions” should serve as a warning to artists of all stripes.  Do your best work, and then let it stand on its own.  Don’t spend the rest of your life coming back and tweaking it.  Do new work.  Go amazing places.  Surprise us once again.  Yes, you may start to see the warts on your early work, but it’s part of your history as well as the history of your early fans.  The solution is not to go back and fix them.  The solution is to make us forget the warts by blowing our minds with something else.

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About AmyBeth Inverness

A writer by birth, a redhead by choice.
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One Response to Interview with Dan Thompson

  1. Pingback: Interview! | Making It Up As I Go

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