The Writing Life of: Elliott Light
This week on ‘The Writing Life of:‘ I am thrilled to be interviewing author Elliott Light. Elliott will be sharing with us detail of his writing life, telling us all about his latest book ‘The Gene Police‘, which will be released on 15th May 2018, and answering a few fun questions too.
So without further ado I’ll hand you over to Elliott Light
I am a retired patent attorney living in Florida with my wife, Sonya, and our feline, Tsuki. I spent most of my life in the Washington, D.C. area. I grew up in McLean, Virginia before the beltway was constructed. Some of my classmates in grade school lived on nearby farms. McLean had a small town feel to it. Gossip spread without the Internet. Party lines were common. Secrets were hard to keep.
When I was in my early thirties, my life pivoted when I was accused of a crime I didn’t commit. My defense counsel and I discussed plans for my likely indictment and possible imprisonment. I could expect to be handcuffed and paraded in front of the media. This experience with the so-called justice system ended after a two year ordeal without an indictment and without going to trial. Even so, it could have ended differently.
Sadly, I will never fully believe that prosecutors, investigators, or the government are as interested in the truth as they are in getting a conviction, an attitude that I share with the semi-fictional Shep Harrington.
1) As a child what did you want to do when you grew up?
The snarky answer is leave home. The more conventional answer is make gun powder. Eventually I did both.
2) Who were your favourite childhood authors?
I read a lot of the Hardy Boy series that were published under the name Franklin W. Dixon, although I’m sure they were ghost written by lots of different authors. That was in the 1950s when comic books were the YA literature of choice.
3) At what point in your life did you realise you wanted to be a writer?
In the early 1980s, I bought an Atari 800 computer with a word processing program. The files were stored on a cassette tape that sometimes wouldn’t reload. Somewhere in that time frame I started writing just to justify the cost of the computer. In the early 1990’s when Grisham and Clancy were the rock stars of the paperback, I realized that writing was something I needed to do. The Beatles “Paperback Writer” probably cinched the deal. I actually spoke to Grisham just after he published The Firm. He doesn’t remember me but I recall the conversation pretty vividly.
4) How did you go about following that dream?
A couple of things come to mind.
First, I wired a 300 baud modem to the game controller port of my Atari 800, connected the modem to our home phone line, and uploaded all my writings to my work computer. The modem ran all night and when I got to work I had a huge text file of unformatted words. Yes, very geeky but pretty cool for its time.
Next I took courses offered by the county adult education system. I remember that of the thirteen attendees, twelve of us were lawyers. The common complaint was the law wasn’t creative enough. We worked with a lawyer who had just published his first book, which of course made him an expert.
What I learned from the course and the reviews by my teacher and my classmates was that my story was bad, my characters were wooden, and the task of writing something that was worth reading was harder than I thought.
It took time but I found a voice and a genre that suited me. I developed characters who interested me. In time, they surprised me with things they said and did. I’m still reading about the craft of writing and hoping to improve on my story telling instincts.
5) What is your writing day like? Do you aim for a certain amount of pages or words before you stop for the day?
I have to confess that I don’t have a writing day, perhaps because my job entailed writing all the time. I think a lot. When I’m at a social function that I’m not enjoying, I’m making mental notes. I suppose the process I use is to imagine story lines or scenes and let them percolate. At some point, I sit at my computer and dump whatever is in my head. Then before I actually go to sleep, I test the idea by imagining it as a video.
6) Did you ever consider writing under a pseudonym?
I did, but my publisher liked the name my parents gave me.
7) Do you have any strange habits before starting, or whilst in the midst of writing?
Besides encouraging my cat to join me at my desk, I visualize scenes before I write them. When I’m uncertain about what to write, I will write the word “CONSIDER” at the top of a page and then make a bulleted list of whatever pops in my head. If I write something I like, I sometimes walk away from the computer to consider the consequences that what I wrote will have for other characters and scenes.
8) Do you write longhand, typewriter, or on a computer?
Longhand and computer. I like to write on a legal pad when I’m brainstorming. There is something right brained about longhand. You can draw lines to connect thoughts, circle and revise in a non-critical way. I use my computer to create a more permanent record of ideas that have survived the “good-idea” test. Of course, very few ideas are actually included in a book.
9) How many books have you written? Do you have any unpublished work?
I have two published books that are still available from most retailers. My new book, The Gene Police, is available May 15th.
10) Are you a plotter or a pantser?
I’m a bit of both. I guess the term for that is plantser. I do an outline of sorts that doesn’t always include an ending. Sometimes I have an ending and pantser the beginning. But I’m never controlled by an outline because characters sometimes do things that are unexpected. In fact, I think writers block can be triggered by making a character do something he or she doesn’t want to do. Basically, the character goes on strike until the writer listens and lets the character act freely.
That said, a story needs to be analyzed to determine how to tell it in the most interesting way possible. A story has a chronological beginning. A book may begin “at the beginning” or some time after the beginning. Finding the beginning of the book as opposed to the beginning of the story can be tricky. So if I’m going to plot, that’s the place where I focus my energy.
11) Do you read all the reviews left for your book(s)?
I do read reviews. I received a negative review recently that stunned me for a bit. But in the end, I wrote the reviewer and thanked her for taking the time to read my book. I was disappointed that the book didn’t resonate with her, but that’s the risk that writers take.
One must be cautious about glowing reviews as well. In fact, a well written negative review may offer more useful information than a positive review that just says what you want to hear.
Concerning your latest book:
A Shep Harrington Smalltown Mystery
Publisher – Bancroft Press
Pages – 264
Release Date – 15th May 2018
ISBN 13 – 978-1610882170
Format – hardcover
The Gene Police is a work of fiction that wraps a murder mystery in elements of the eugenics movement. To be clear, it is not a treatise on the subject but should enlighten readers about this little known pseudo science and hopefully inspire some of them to delve deeper into its history, its proponents, and its impact on American life.
The author puts it this way: “My interest in race issues can be traced to growing up in the segregated suburbs of Washington, D.C. My mother’s relatives were slave owners. My great great uncle was a famous eugenicist who was instrumental in the passage of the miscegenation and sterilization laws in Virginia. I’m convinced that if we as society are to rid ourselves of the curse of racism and white supremacy, we need to continue to keep the issue in the public conversation. My hope is that The Gene Police will add to the dialogue about racial issues by teaching readers about America’s fascination with eugenics while simultaneously entertaining them.”
12) How long did it take you to get from the idea’s stage to your date of publication?
The simple answer is about three years, but that includes publication delays.
13) How did you come up with the names for your characters?
Because The Gene Police is the third book in a series, a lot of the character names were chosen in the writing the first book. Some of the names are family names. Others I chose from spam mail. Another source is baby names sites on the internet. I try to fit the name with the character. Starting out, I made a few rookie errors, like having the names of two characters awkwardly similar. Now I keep a list of all of my characters and their ages, birth year and ages at the time of any significant past event that is referenced in the story.
14) Can you give us an insight into your main character(s) life?, What makes them tick?
My protagonist, Shep Harrington, is a compassionate, sometimes self destructive, driven man who seems to attract trouble without actually seeking it. He spent three years in prison for a crime he hadn’t committed. But the stigma is permanent. His life as he knew it may have been destroyed but not his compassion, especially for those he sees as equally mistreated.
Among his most adoring and adored acquaintances are four forgotten residents of the last poor farm operating in Virginia. (Yes, there were poor farms and yes four old folks were apparently living on one under the radar of the state bureaucracy.)
Underestimating Shep isn’t a good idea. He manages, despite his shortcomings, to resolve the injustices he encounters, even if those resolutions are sometimes less than satisfying.
15) Which was your hardest scene to write?
Shep, my protagonist, was left a lot of money, what was once a poor farm, a mansion on the edge of town, responsibility for four elderly people who once lived on the poor farm but currently live in the mansion, and a maze of tax problems stemming from his donations to charities that had lost their 501(c)(3) status. In one scene, the residents of the mansion are all in a dither because they think Shep is planning to leave them. The scene was rich with emotion and stirred some of my personal demons.
16) How did you come up with the title of your book?
The working title, Faded Genes, was actually from a poem that is a clue in the book. But the publisher thought the title didn’t reflect the story that was being told. After some thought, I realized that the eugenicists of the day, those seeking to maintain the purity of the white race, had established themselves as caretakers of the gene pool. They were in effect, the gene police.
17) Did you get a family member/friend to read your work before sending to the publishers?
My wife, Sonya, reads ever thing I writer before anyone else. I sent it to the publisher and then to a friend. I then sent the publisher a revised version based on the friend’s comments. The first draft reader must be someone who will be honest, who is neither patronizing nor competitive. I don’t know that I would provide a manuscript to someone who is also a writer.
18) What process did you go through to get your book published?
I found Bancroft Press, an independent publisher, for my first book. I’ve sent each subsequent manuscript to them to see if they were interested. As it turns out, I’ve been fortunate that Bancroft has published all three of my books.
19) What did you do once you had written the final word in your book?
The final work is marked by both relief and sadness. The relief comes from having a story sustain itself for a few hundred pages without the need for more outlining, tinkering or thinking. The sadness comes from losing the intimate contact with the characters that only the writing process produces. After I finished The Gene Police, I believe I saved the book file, shut down my computer, and went for a walk. I remember feeling as if someone had died, but only for a short time.
20) What’s next for you, writing-wise?
I’m exploring two other story lines to determine if they can fit in my SmallTown® Mystery series. While doing my analysis, I’m reading more about the structure of a good novel, character arcs, and the timing of events. I’m pleased with the three books I’ve written but I want to be a better writer.
1) What’s your favourite food?
I love fruit: watermelon, honeydew, cantaloupe, kiwis, mangos, papaya, plums, apples, bananas, and oranges. Oh, but there’s dark chocolate with hazel nuts. Maryland crab cakes. Ask me later….
2) If you had a box of crayons and you could only choose one, which colour would you choose?
I’d probably pick red. Most likely because all the red LEDs in my electronic gear have warped my color spectrum.
3) What movie could you watch over and over again?
Citizen X. Great flick.
Second choice, The Others.
Third Choice, Dave.
4) What would be the top song on your playlist?
Because, The Dave Clark Five. I’m very partial to Paperback Writer, The Beatles.
5) If you won millions, what would be your first purchase?
I’m sure it sounds corny, but I would make donations to the elephant orphanage outside Nairobi, Kenya and a second donation to primate protection league in South Carolina.
If I won hundreds of millions I’d make sure children have access to musical training even in nursery school. I’d also invest in research into molten salt nuclear reactors because I believe they offer the potential for reducing our carbon dependence while consuming existing radioactive waste.
6) A talking duck walks into your room wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, whats the first thing he says to you?
‘I’m not going to hurt you. I’m a safe quacker’.
You can find out more about Elliott Light by visiting the website/social media sites below.
I would like to say a big thank you to Elliott for sharing with us details of his writing life, and for a wonderful interview.