Today my guest in the Hot Seat is Misha Burnett, an author I didn’t know before I decided to try and tempt the more off-beat authors to reveal themselves. I’m pleased that I did as it has given me the opportunity to discover some really original writers. Misha is one of those writers who seems to have defied every convention in the book—an ideal candidate for the ‘unclassifiables’ I was so keen to get into the hot seat.
Handing over now to Misha, to tell it as it is.
G. K. Chesterton once remarked that when inscribing a circle, one can begin anywhere. To begin trying to explain the world that I have created in my novels, I want to start with a drunken conversation at a party some years ago in which I was discussing William Burroughs with a friend of mine and someone entered into the discussion under the impression that we were talking about Edgar Rice Burroughs.
The confusion didn’t last long, but the chance juxtaposition of two very different writers, both of whom I happen to enjoy for very different reasons, started a chain of thought in my mind. What if (and “what if” is writer talk for “hold my beer, I want to try something”) I took what I liked from both writers and put it together?
The world has changed and grown some since then, but the seed crystal with which I started was an attempt to combine the cosmology of William Burrough’s Nova Express novels with the very prosaic and quotidian style of an Edger Rice Burrough’s narrator.
My novels are set in a world that seems very much like ours, but is under attack by bodiless parasites from outer space, creatures that exist only as information and feed on order. They have destroyed their own worlds and have attached themselves to the Earth, entering the minds of human beings to sow madness and chaos, increasing entropy and sucking the sanity out of everything they touch.
They also make deals with human beings. They sell technology that allows humans to change themselves into other things—ambimorphs, blue metal boys, necroidim, minraudim, hives, pale surgeons. I deliberately set out to create a new mythology of semi-human creatures, avoiding the standard vampires, werewolves, zombies, elves, and so on.
Now, that’s the half that’s easy to explain. The other half is my narrator, James, and his alter ego, Catskinner. This gets a little personal. I have a mental condition that is known as Dissociative Identity Disorder—what they used to call Multiple Personality Disorder. In creating James & Catskinner I wanted to capture the subjective experience of dissociation. I fictionalized it and made it into something with a fantastic explanation because I wanted to concentrate on the feelings rather than the facts behind them. (I, myself, do not believe that I have an alien demon living in my head, nor do I kill people. Just so you know.)
Clearly, I have some difficulty giving an elevator pitch on my novels. I have a main character who isn’t entirely himself, in a world where nothing is quite what it seems. I deliberately blur the line between science fiction and fantasy, keeping the true nature of the Outsiders ambiguous. My narrator is not a hero, he is, at best, the least of a host of evils. My romantic lead is a half-plant hermaphrodite. My protagonist’s sidekick makes his living conning government agencies into thinking that he works for them.
And don’t even get me started on James’ family.
My experience with traditional publishing has been somewhat underwhelming. I queried twenty-something agents when I finished the first novel, Catskinner’s Book. I carefully sorted through listings for those agents who were currently looking for new authors, who accepted science fiction and fantasy and horror (since my book could be considered any of those), and who specifically said that they were looking for works that broke new ground.
I never got a single reply. Not even a “no, thanks, this isn’t for me.” Nothing. To be honest, I don’t know if any of them even received my query. I know that people say that I should have kept working on trying to get representation, that I should have sent out two hundred or two thousand letters, but when the first twenty—the ones that I had hand-picked as being most likely to accept something really different—failed to reply at all, I gave up.
I decided to self-publish.
Am I a financial success? Not so much. I have reached people, though, and I have a small but very enthusiastic fan base. My work isn’t for everyone, but those who like it seem to really like it, and it’s not something that they can get anywhere else. The reviews for both Catskinner’s Book and Cannibal Hearts have been very positive, and I have a lot of interest in the third book, The Worms Of Heaven. (I’m working on it, okay? It’ll be done when it’s done. Soon, though, I promise.)
I have tried a lot of different kinds of promotion, ranging from expensive stuff that doesn’t work to cheap stuff that doesn’t work. I’m a terrible salesman. Most of my new readers learn about my books from other readers, one friend telling another, “You’ve got to check out this book… it’s so weird!”
I also pick up new readers from my blog, where I talk about the art and business of writing and post samples of my work.
Now that I have some reviews on the two books that I have out there and a third nearly finished, I have started looking for a publisher again. There are a number of reasons for this, but the main one is that there is a lot more to putting a book together and selling it than just writing the damned thing, and I am very willing to share the profits in exchange for help with editing, formatting, promotion, and the rest.
It is still an uphill battle, but now I can point to my fans and say, “See—people will actually pay real money for this stuff! And say nice things about me, too!”
So we’ll see what happens.
To whom would I recommend my work? People who like books that mess with their heads. I consider myself a New Wave writer, in the tradition of Phillip Dick, George Alec Effinger, Ursula K Le Guin, Samuel Delany, and, more recently, Tim Powers, Clive Barker, and China Mielville. I don’t think that speculative fiction—by which I mean science fiction, fantasy, and horror—should be safe or comfortable. I raise a lot of hard questions in my work, and I don’t even try to answer most of them.
I like questions that don’t have easy answers. I think that they’re the only questions worth asking.
For more of my work you can check out my blog at: http://mishaburnett.wordpress.com/
My Amazon author’s page is here: http://www.amazon.com/Misha-Burnett/e/B008MQ8W4K/
Thank you for telling us about yourself and your writing, Misha. I think many of us would agree with you about the discomfort factor being somehow necessary in spec-fic, even if it is possibly easier to win over a certain readership by slipping in a romantic element that distracts attention from the potential nastiness of futuristic/fantasy worlds.
Your reasons for self-publishing will also seem pretty familiar to many of us. Interesting that you are going to persevere with your search for a publisher. I hope you’ll come back and let us know how you get on.