Today marks a happy departure from my usual half-baked, I-just-had-an-idea-let’s-write-about-it posts. Instead of the brain-to-keyboard detritus of a 21 year old writer wannabe you’ll be treated to the more measured responses of a seasoned author because, yes, this is my first ever interview piece!
Sean Munger (above) is a fellow Jukepop Serials author whose current work, The Armoured Satchel, is poised to spring into the site’s thirty most popular pieces (if you haven’t already, send your votes his way on the site!). The Armoured Satchel is a riveting work of historical fiction, so you can see what got me on board, but it’s worth pointing out that Sean’s Jukepop work is merely the latest in a successful and ongoing publishing career. Of particular note is Zombies of Byzantium published by Samhain Publishing just earlier this year. His blog, linked above, lists his numerous other pieces (Beowulf is Boring looks especially awesome!).
But enough from me, this post belongs to Sean! And if your appetite for writerly QandA really isn’t sated by the end of this post, hop on over to his blog to read my own interview on the joys of trying to convince publishers I can realistically represent life 400 years ago despite only being 3 years out of high school…
Robbie: So what got you into history? It’s a tried and tested question for authors of historical fiction, but everyone’s story is unique.
Sean: I’ve always been fascinated by history for as long as I could remember. For some reason, understanding what things were like in the past has been a constant hunger in my life. I remember one time—I was probably about five or six—my parents took me to this restaurant that was decorated with all sorts of retro junk. There was an old car, like a Model T, in the centre of the place. For some reason I remember asking my mom, “Was that Abraham Lincoln’s car?” I was fascinated when she told me that Abraham Lincoln lived so long ago they didn’t even have cars. I also used to think—based on things I’d seen on TV—that the world used to be in black and white, and colour was a recent invention. When my parents told me that the world had always been in colour, but it was only early pictures of it that weren’t, that blew my mind. So I’ve always had this strange curiosity about the past.
The public has a general idea that people who write about history do so academically, especially teachers such as yourself. Why did you choose the fictionalised path over the scholarly one?
Well, actually I chose both. I do academic history as well. I recently had a scholarly article published in the Madison Historical Review. But scholarly academic history is only one way to interact with the past. I think historical fiction is an equally important way, because it shows people what the past was really like—what it smelled like, what it was like to live there, and the kinds of things that would have mattered to you if you lived in a certain time and place. Many more people who would never read a scholarly history article would love to read a novel set in a historical setting. Plus, I’m a writer and I love to tell stories. So, history and writing fiction seem a natural match for me.
Moving on to your ongoing work for Jukepop Serials, how did you discover the site? What convinced you that they were the right home for The Armoured Satchel.
I think someone on Twitter RT’d a link to JukePop on my timeline shortly after they started last fall. I looked at it and I was intrigued, but I was then working on another book (The Zombie Rebellion, which will be out from Samhain Publishing next spring) and had another one ready to go, so I decided I didn’t want to sign up for the commitment of doing a weekly serial. I was also not sure whether JukePop, which was then brand-new, would find an audience. But I did bookmark the site in case I changed my mind.
In January I took another look at the site and saw it had gained a lot of readers as well as some great stories. I started to think seriously about pitching a story to them. I’d wanted to do a World War II spy story for years but never had a workable idea for it, but at that point I began working on one, and what emerged was the concept for The Armoured Satchel. I wrote the first chapter very quickly and frankly didn’t expect it to be accepted. I thought I would pitch it, and if they liked it I would write it, and if not, I could say that I tried.
What do you want to get out of your time writing for Jukepop?
I’d love to build a readership and a fan base outside of my published books. Readers love serials—they have since the genre started in the early 19th century, and now the rise of the Internet has brought them back. I’d like to be on the cutting edge of that revival. The world of letters is changing dramatically now that readers aren’t limited to the traditional books that a handful of big publishers choose to invest in. Serials are one manifestation of that change. Above all I want to tell a story and participate in the fun of watching a readership for that story grow in real time. It’d also be nice to make a little money. When writers and readers both gain, that’s a sign that something is going very right.
Your historical settings are incredibly diverse. The Armoured Satchel takes place during World War Two, whilst Zombies of Byzantium is set in the 8th century AD. The Giamotti trilogy spans all eras (and universes!). So the question has to be, what’s your favourite historical time period to write about?
This is a hard question to answer! So many historical places and settings interest me that I would never have to write about the same one twice if I didn’t want to. That said, I absolutely loved writing about Manhattan high society in the 1950s in Life Without Giamotti. The research I did for that section of the book was some of the most interesting and fun book research I’ve ever done. So it’s conceivable I may return to the 1950s in some future project. This summer I’m gearing up to write a book set in New York in 1880, and I’m excited about that because the Gilded Age is such a fascinating and atmospheric setting. The lavish clothes, gas-lit parlours, horse-drawn carriages—it’s going to be awesome.
My all-time favourite historical era, however, is the one I’m studying in my professional career, the U.S. Early Republic. That’s usually defined as the period from the creation of the Constitution (1789) to the eve of the Civil War (1860). My upcoming book The Zombie Rebellion takes place in 1794, so I’m firmly in that period. There’s a lot of potential for great stories set in this era, which was a very unique and unusual period in history, for a number of reasons.
Like almost all authors, you hold down a day job alongside your writing. Do you find the two clash or complement each other?
I’m lucky that in my case they complement each other. I teach history as part of my Ph.D. program, and that together with my professional research means I’m always in a library, always thumbing through a book and always gathering historical information. You’d be surprised the amount of historical “ground” I cover in a normal day’s work—in the morning I might be teaching about the street revolutions in Paris in 1848, then in the afternoon I’m reading environmental history from the 1930s, something about Imperial China or even contemporary events that have just barely crossed over from “news” to “history.” Slipping questions for The Armoured Satchel into my daily to-do list, things like “What sort of planes would have been parked on the runway of an RAF base in 1944?” or “What kind of identity card would an SS officer carry in Occupied France?” is very easy to do. It’s all part of the many questions I try to answer day in and day out. I love reading history and I especially love presenting it to others, so I love my job.
Does your job as a teacher of history give you a lot of writing inspiration?
Yes, it does. Especially teaching the sections in the broad survey courses, where most of the students have had very little background in history, it’s amazing how much of a blank slate they are. I mean, they may know that a war called World War II occurred several decades ago, and they know or can at least intuit that the United States and Great Britain won it, but they might not know much more than that. Readers are the same way. Maybe a few readers of The Armoured Satchel would know, if they happen to be World War II buffs, anything about cryptography or the Ultra Secret or how the Germans tried to protect their communications, but the vast majority of readers won’t, so I have to present it to them in a way that both sets the stage for the story and also draws them into it so they enjoy being a part of it. I have to do that exact same thing with students. It’s a challenge, but it’s fun.
When you deal with something really far out there—like 8th century Byzantium, for instance, something that very few people know anything about—this gets even more pronounced. You might as well be writing high fantasy, like Lord of the Rings or something. The world you create did exist and the things you describe about it do come from historical sources, but the readers don’t know that, nor, in most cases, do they care. You have to build the whole world for them on the page. What do these people look like? How do they dress? What do their houses look like? What’s their religion? What are they afraid of? You have to paint this picture for students too in order for them to understand the history.
Do you have a writing routine? What’s your favourite time to write?
With a spouse, a full time job and course of study, and whatever passes these days for a social life, I’ve found that “my favourite time to write” has morphed into “whenever I get a chance to write,” and I have to seize what chances I have! For The Armoured Satchel I do try to keep up a routine, though it doesn’t always go according to plan. I write a very script-like outline of every chapter, and I’ll usually do that at night during the week, after work/school but before dinner. If all goes well that outline will be complete by Saturday morning, and then I’ll spend much of the daylight hours on Saturday writing the chapter, polishing it up and uploading it to the site. If I’ve got some place to be or something else to do on Saturday, it’s often a challenge to find the time to get the chapter done.
What plans do you have for both the short term (typing up your Jukepop work) and long term (the next novel) future?
I still have a lot more chapters of The Armoured Satchel to go through, so I expect it will continue running through the rest of the summer. I’ve also toyed with the idea of doing a sequel. Max is only 20 at the time the story takes place, and I thought, if readers continue to like him, it might be interesting to catch up with him later in his life—perhaps in the ‘50s he’s working for the CIA against the Russians or something. Who knows? This summer will be busy for me, though, as I have another horror novel to write that I hope will be published by Samhain Publishing, the outfit that published Zombies of Byzantium. This is the new novel set in the 1880s. Beyond that I’m not sure, but my work never seems to be done, so I’m quite sure I’ll still be writing for the foreseeable future.