It is with great pleasure and honor to interview a good friend and respected author, Steve Umstead. Steve has recently wrapped up Book # 2 of the Evan Gabriel series, entitled “Gabriel’s Return.” The following is a short interview I had with Steve in addition to some of my own comments I through in. I hope you enjoy it.
AJ: Obligatory question #1 – What inspired you to write Gabriel’s Redemption? Was it other books? Films? A mixture of it all?
Steve: I’ve been a scifi fan for many years, all the way back to Star Wars, but as for this particular story, it was a scene I had in my head for quite some time. That scene turned into Chapter One of Gabriel’s Redemption for NaNoWriMo last year, and the characters, settings, and plot all grew from that one scene. Readers can sample the ebook through Amazon/Barnes & Noble to see what scene I’m talking about (shameless plug!).
AJ: It’s truly incredible how a scene in your head, as vague or general it might be, can be the starting point of something so much bigger. Clearly the case with the Evan Gabriel series.
One of the first things I noticed with your story is the plethora of gadgets, gizmos, and weapons you developed for the story. Not only did you develop them, but you created brand names, for example the Heckart firearms company. You certainly never appear to be running short of invention ideas (or names). Do you just have an Umstead Invention Dictionary lying around? Or do you get to every one of those situations and just think on it a while?
Steve: Every one of those was an individual decision when I hit that part of the story. In most cases, since my focus is to write now/edit later, I will leave a placeholder (like Brevik withdrew the XXX pulse cannon from its case). Then when editing, I will go back and create names/brand names/tags/descriptions, even a history in some cases, for that particular item (or in some cases, location). That way I keep my writing flow (the story is far more important than an item name) and give me time later to create something that makes sense. I use historical or famous names for people and items (the character of Tevez in the first book, the name was taken from a famous Argentinean soccer player; the Dobranoc sniper rifle in the second book was used by a Polish soldier, so I looked up the Polish word for “goodnight”; the city of Bradbury on Mars is…well, obvious.) Other names I might use a random name generator, looking for an appropriate sounding name with the right origin (Heckart was a random German name generated, and I wanted the gun to be of German origin). I also tried to stay within the universe I created – the North American Federation is composed of the US, Mexico, and Canada primarily, so I tried to insert Spanish phrases and companies (Escobio Oso-11 – Escobio being a somewhat-obscure Mexican surname, and Oso is Spanish for bear) and some French-Canadian names. Also the Eritrean character uses two swords, but instead of typical katanas or broadswords, I wanted something from Africa, so I did some research and found the takoba, a traditional weapon used by the Tuareg people of northern Africa and gave it a backstory of them being given to her grandfather by a Tuareg chieftain. This type of research is actually one of the most fun parts of writing science fiction!
AJ: Funny how you write a sci-fi story that takes place on other planets besides earth, yet some of your research can you lead you back to not only modern day earth, but past times that would be considered “early days” even by today’s standards.
While we’re on the topic of inventions, let’s talk about neuretics. I absolutely love the idea, and while I know some sci-fi stories have used that concept before, you not only integrated it smoothly into your stories, but you took it to new levels. Where did you come up with the ideas for this?
Steve: Secret confession time – I actually made up that word after remembering it from a dream I had. I thought it fit very well as a combination of neural implants and cybernetics. And hey, change one letter and you get neurotic, right? You hit the nail on the head – many science fiction stories use neural implants. I’m nearly welded to my iPhone, so I wanted to imagine the functions of that device (real time net access, heads-up layer displays, secure communications, remote controls, etc.) as being part of the combat soldier. Again, fun stuff to write.
AJ: Here’s a curveball for you. Totally hypothetical scenario – if Gabriel were to be killed in combat in one of your scenes, which character would be most likely to step into his shoes and take over the series?
Steve: By function of the chain of command, his second is Lieutenant Harris Brevik, a rather large man of very few words. He was the commander of this team prior to Gabriel arriving for the special mission in book one, so he’d be the natural. Sowers would be too much of a jokester, and Takahashi, while very intelligent, would be on the young side. Have to go Brevik.
AJ: The opening of Gabriel’s Return is vividly painted through the eyes of another character on Eden. Reading it put me right in the boots of the poor soul. My skin was itching from MoorAnts, I felt pins and needles, and almost cottonmouthed (okay maybe a bit exaggerated, but still a really clear depiction of the scene). How did you go about writing that one? Did you often place yourself in his shoes like I did as the reader?
Steve: Yes, most definitely had to put myself into the scene. A lot of the more intense, descriptive scenes I would really try to put myself there, act out the motions, picture the setting, and so on. Without the ability to do that, I think a writer is in for some serious challenges. If the writer can’t feel the scene, the reader won’t. As a side note, I tried to make a conscious effort in Gabriel’s Return to add images in characters’ minds, and smells. Two different things that I think bring the reader into the story even more.
AJ: Totally agreed. If you can’t see yourself in the shoes of a character going through an extreme emotion (pain, sorrow, joy, etc) then it’s definitely likely they won’t be able to capture that feeling and put it into words. I think both books demonstrate quite well that you often do place yourself in the roles of your characters, and try to experience what they experience.
Of either books, what as been your favorite scene or chapter to write, and why?
Steve: Hard to say – at this point, I’ve written over 80 chapters between the two books! Several of them I was not happy with, and several were very fun, and several gave me (the writer!) goosebumps. The final scene (epilogue) in Gabriel’s Redemption was so exciting to write because it wrapped everything up, and was the first time I completed a story start to finish. Another scene in that same book has an epic hand-to-hand battle between Brevik and a very large mercenary, that was a lot of fun to write. But oddly enough, the one scene that sticks in my head is from Gabriel’s Return, and it’s probably the shortest scene in either story. It’s under 1000 words describing a bomb as it processes from arming to detonation. I did a lot of research on chemical compositions and terms, sizes, electronics, speed of electric signals, and a bunch more. Writing it made me feel like I was reading an old Tom Clancy novel, and it felt…good to bring an inanimate piece of hardware to life, in anticipation of the destruction it was about to unleash.
AJ: I remember reading that scene, and continually asked myself as I read each word “What’s going to happen?” – it certainly elevated the heart rate some.
What was the most frustrating to work out?
Steve: Writing Gabriel’s Return, I did a lot of scenes based around locations on Mars as well as three skyhooks (space elevators). I found myself struggling to keep them all straight! I was constantly referring back to the first book, as well as going over detailed maps of Mars’s surface with distance markings and elevations (to make sure train tubes could be run, time of travel, etc.). It was a little nerve-wracking – one of those things I saved until last!
AJ: You’ve received three phone calls today. One from Ridley Scott, one from James Cameron, and one from Neill Blomkamp, they ALL want to create the Commander Gabriel universe in a film. Who do you choose?
Steve: Wow, tough question…let’s see, go for the big bucks blockbuster (Cameron), the gritty realism (Scott), or the character driven (Blomkamp)? Cameron’s out – while I’m quite entertained by his work, they’re not exactly…deep (pardon the Titanic pun). Scott obviously has some clout with Alien and Blade Runner, two of the finest scifi movies ever made (and didn’t he do the 1984 Mac commercial? Classic…). But after seeing District 9, I’ll throw Gabriel’s lot in with Blomkamp. Tremendous movie, great bending of the tech, settings, and real characters, and political and current intrigue – right up the Gabriel alley.
AJ: You, sir, just got a lot of brownie points in my book! I believe Blomkamp would be who I would choose as well. In District 9 I found great character development, amazing pacing, and the perfect touch for an ending, in my opinion one of the finest movies ever made. I whole-heartedly agree, Gabriel is perfect to have him as a director!
On to a few writing tactics:
AJ: Favorite place to write?
Steve: On the balcony, overlooking the Caribbean, sipping on a cold Negra Modelo.
AJ: Favorite music to listen to while writing (if anything)?
Steve: Instrumental or soundtrack only; anything with lyrics throws me off. I find the Fifth Element soundtrack a fun one to write to.
AJ: Agreed. I have a hard time writing anything with lyrics. Just throws your thinking off.
Steve: As sad as this may sound, Crystal Light iced tea. Probably drink close to a gallon of it a day. Gotta keep the Doritos off the waistline. Wow, that is sad now that I type it. OK, strike that – let’s go with a Sierra Nevada Pale Ale, or a nice California cabernet.
AJ: Hey, I’m not here to judge. 🙂
Any advice for aspiring writers who have the ideas, but not yet put them down on paper?
Steve: Write. Just write. Flesh out an outline, even a general ‘he did this one day, she did this the next’ outline. Then block out two hours per day and write. Don’t stop until the story is finished. Don’t edit in the middle, or you’ll end up with a handful of awesome chapters, and no ending. Just write. Everything else will fall into line. And if you don’t think you have enough time to write, you don’t really want to be a writer… Sorry, cold hard facts. Everyone has a day job. Work around it. Get up two hours early, stay up two hours late, write a scene at lunch break. If you want be a writer, you’ll find that time. Otherwise, you’ll run out of time…
Steve, thank you so much for taking the time to answer these questions. I can tell you folks, that if you are looking for a fun, exciting, and technology packed read, then the Evan Gabriel series is the one for you! Steve just released book # 2 – Gabriel’s Return, and as I understand it, Book # 3 is in the works to complete the trilogy! If you haven’t read Book # 1 – Gabriel’s Redemption, I suggest picking that up (and right now it’s only 99 cents!), then snag yourself Gabriel’s Return. You can find both book’s links below, as well Steve’s website.