Today we welcome author Sam Starbuck, a personal favourite of mine. Sam’s quick-witted writing style and DIY approach to writing and publishing are the best rebuttal I can think of to anyone who insists that self-publishing means a lack of quality. But as LeVar Burton would say, don’t take my word for it- check out any of Sam’s books in .pdf format for free. — Reesa
Tell us a little about yourself. What do you like to write? What’s your latest release about? What have you read recently that knocked your socks off?
Sam: I used to write a little bit of everything. In my twenties I was pretty proud of the fact that I could shift gears between comedy and drama, jump across genres, and emulate styles. I used to think it was strange that we have this idea of a writer as someone who picks a genre and sticks with it, but as I get older I think I understand it better, because you do start to feel like you want to stop doing everything “pretty well” and start doing one thing to the absolute best of your ability.
My latest release, Trace, sort of helped me choose somewhere to focus, because I’ve dabbled with magical realism in the past but I really got to dig into it with Trace, and I loved that. Magical Realism is nice because you get that element of fantasy, the idea that anything is possible, without having to build a whole new world and without the stigma that sometimes comes with High Fantasy in particular.
As for what I’ve read – well, recently I read the entire collected novels of Bret Easton Ellis, and while he has his flaws as a writer I was consistently floored by his skill and his ability to tackle difficult subject matter. He has a facility for escaping labels that is truly impressive; each of his books is slightly different and defining in their own way, so that he never really gets put in a box of “you write like this” even though all his novels are stylistically similar. In particular I enjoyed Lunar Park, because Ellis wrote it in response to a slam on him by Stephen King, and I love that attitude, that “Oh, you think I can’t do this? Watch me,” streak that allows writers to push their limits. And as much as I love Stephen King, Ellis writes better endings than King does.
Sam: That’s tough. I think sometimes the joy of stealing comes from the knowledge that you’re not suffering consequences you should – there’s always a guilty pleasure in knowing you’ve worked the system or escaped punishment.
There’s a famous art theft that still gets a lot of attention, the theft of several paintings from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in Boston. Everyone always talks about The Vermeer, the painting by Vermeer called The Concert which is one of the stolen works, but I’ve never been that enamoured of The Concert. I think if I could steal anything in the world, I would steal back the Rembrandt that was stolen, Storm on the Sea Of Galilee. I find it a much more compelling piece, plus it’s the only seascape Rembrandt ever painted and he put himself in it, grasping a rope and looking straight out at the viewer. If I could steal anything, I’d find that painting, steal it back, and maybe keep it around the place for a few days before giving it back to the Gardner.
How many of your daily meals make it into your writing? (That is, if you make pecan waffles on Saturday mornings, do you ever have a character do the same?)
Sam: This is such an appropriate question for me! I love to put food in my writing, because food is such a pressure point for most people. The food you ate growing up, the food you like best, it affects you, brings back memories or creates feelings.
I do a lot of experimental cooking but I’m pretty unimaginative in my actual day to day eating habits, so I’ve been teased before for always making my characters eat the same thing. Spaghetti and meatballs is an easy dish and it’s comfort food to me, so my characters used to eat it a lot before it was pointed out to me that maybe I should vary the literary menu a little. But when I’m giving a character a meal, I still tend to think about what I ate in the past few days, and what would be appropriate for them to eat.
Which means my characters rarely eat vegetables.
When I was writing Trace, I had a hard time because one of the major plot points involves someone turning the food rotten, so most of the descriptions of the food in Trace were really ugly: gritty half-cooked oatmeal, pizza with mold growing under the cheese, carrots with brown spots. I got a lot of feedback from early readers about how gross the food descriptions were, which helped me to develop this theory of food as an emotional prod for lots of people.
What is your ideal writing environment? – Submitted by Carl
Sam: Quiet, dark, and not too warm. Temperature changes really bug me for some reason, and I hate being too hot, so that’s a huge factor in how well I write. Noise I can deal with, as long as it’s not something I actually have to be paying attention to. And I like dim lights just because it feels more private that way, and I like privacy when I write.
Also I hate uncomfortable chairs. I’d rather lie on the ground than sit on an uncomfortable chair, which is probably the reason I’ve used laptops for writing exclusively since 1999.
What’s a label that people apply to you, that you wish they wouldn’t?
Sam: You know, it’s not that I deliberately don’t pay attention to the labels other people give me, it’s just that usually I’m totally oblivious to them. I don’t really know, often, how other people see me. I find that labels matter less on the internet because half the time you don’t see them, and if someone tried to label me as a writer and it bothered me, I’d just write something outside that zone. But I don’t really mind labels, on the rare occasions I actually stumble across them.
When I was in high school, I got labeled as “scary” not because of anything I did or any way I dressed but because I was smart. That did bother me, because I didn’t have many friends and I didn’t like the idea that I was losing out on friends because people were scared of me. What was I going to do, smack them around with my brain?
Sam’s latest release, Trace, is available now. Check out the excerpt.
THEY SAID A lot of things about Colin Byrne in prison, once he was no longer there.
They said that he was a con artist, that he could sweet-talk anyone and make cigarettes and scraps of paper disappear like a stage magician. He’d show you he was a pickpocket, given half a chance, by picking yours. They said he was a snitch – that there was a cop on the outside who was his lover (that this lover was a woman; that this lover was a man). They said he was in tight with the Five Families, the Bloods and the S.M.M. boys they ran with, La Mugre, the Aryans. The Aryans denied it, but everyone said that was because he stole one of theirs before he left.
He once shanked a guard so stealthily that the man didn’t even notice until ten minutes later, and they never did figure out it was him. He didn’t kill him, just made him writhe a little, for some unnamed insult he’d suffered at the guard’s hands.
He could get you anything you wanted. He knew what you wanted even when you didn’t. He’d show it to you, and you’d know, and then he’d name his price.
He had nicknames on the inside: the guards called him Cat, the inmates called him Suicide.
In dark corners, in quiet voices, at other times they said this: that he could do magic, real magic, prison magic. He’d once drawn a bird so real it flew off the page. He couldn’t be tattooed; the ink ran out of his skin while he slept. He could walk through prison bars. He could tell your fortune by looking in your eyes. If you gave him a lit cigarette, he could hypnotize a man just by flicking it back and forth. He could steal your soul if you let him draw you, but he wouldn’t (but he had once). His name wasn’t even Colin Byrne.
They said that he was a ghost who’d just disappeared one day, straight out of his cell, and he’d taken one of the Aryans with him. They said he’d come back. Some people believed it; some didn’t. Gutierrez, who talked to God, said there was a priest who owned his shadow.
All of it was true. More or less.