Yesterday, I did an interview with Joseph Cautilli for the Indie Author Fan Connect Facebook group, discussing my latest published novel “Bring Out the Dead”. For those of my readers who are not members of said group, I thought I would share the interview here. Check it out!
Joseph Cautilli (JC): Hello all and welcome. Tonight, we will be interviewing Alex Shalenko on his first novel- Bringing Out the Dead. This is a wonderful story set with am American in Russia dealing with the culture and the occult at the same time. This is a list interview so please feel free to ask questions. y first question to Alex is why be a writer? What has motivated you to get into this field?
Alex: Good evening everyone, and thank you Joseph! I have always been interested in writing, since very early age. I realize that it is probably the answer given by many people, so I’ll elaborate! In my case, I have always enjoyed stories, the more imaginative, the better. Growing up in the Soviet Union in the 80s, the choices for entertainment were rather limited, and I got an early love for all things fantastical. From there, it was not a long stretch to realize that not only did I enjoy reading, but I always enjoyed writing, and had a knack for it. As I acquired life experience and learned more about the world around me, I saw stories to be told, both based on my own experience, and on the experiences of others, from history and mythology to everyday life. This is what drew me to write, to continue writing, and to eventually get to this point.
JC: It sounds like a very interesting start. One thing I like about your work is how it seems to be really alive with Eastern European culture. My wife is from Poland and it gives me the flare of when I go to my place there. So give us a brief overview of story
Alex: At its core, “Bring Out the Dead” is a supernatural thriller set in an exotic locale, offering a different take on the idea of otherworldly forces interfering in the modern world. In the far north of Russia, the town of Severozavodsk is a place where dark history and harsh environment keep its people isolated from the rest of the world. Hidden in the embrace of winter and sustained by the wealth of minerals mined from the frozen ground, Severozavodsk is the place where no one visits voluntarily, but for some, it is a ticket to wealth – and for Jake Levin and Bill Jones, financial analysts hailing from California, it is a job. As the blizzard closes the town off, and deadly supernatural forces begin to stir beneath the Siberian permafrost, Jake must face a secret history of his own if he – and the town – is to survive.
JC: Please give us a link for the book on amazon so people can get it if they like a copy.
Alex: The novel can be purchased at Amazon in two editions, paperback and e-book. The paperback edition link is http://www.amazon.com/Bring-Out-Dead-Alex-Shalenko/dp/1508470650/ref=tmm_pap_swatch_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid= . The Kindle/e-book edition link is http://www.amazon.com/Bring-Out-Dead-Alex-Shalenko-ebook/dp/B00TWVOYKK/ref=tmm_kin_title_0?_encoding=UTF8&sr=&qid= .
JC: The permafrost is really interesting place for the setting of a story. Indeed, unless people are familiar with the constant cold, it is often difficult to get an appreciation for such and environment. I know you are from the Ukraine- but have you ever visited those super cold regions? The story is highly detailed especially about the winter. It kind of struck me like you had been there before.
Alex: A great question! I have always enjoyed stories set in extreme environments, and writing “Bring Out the Dead” gave me a great opportunity to bring such an environment to life. I have been to Siberia at a fairly young age (as a tourist, believe it or not – it is actually a very beautiful place), though not as far north as Norilsk (which is the real-life inspiration for the novel’s Severozavodsk). That said, the frozen North is perhaps a bit less exotic for the people of the former Soviet Union…
In the days of USSR, many would go north to work for a few years, because the salaries there were considerably higher than elsewhere. As a result, almost everyone knew somebody who went north to make money, or who had stories to tell.
JC: The industrial pollution in Russia is very well known. The old Soviets really did not have a great love for the environment. It gives the story a realistic flair. The story takes place in Russia. I was wondering if you had some background of experience in Russia. The story is highly detailed especially about the winter. It kind of struck me like you had been there before.
Ok. So this is Jake’s first trip to Russia. Jake is an analyst and he is assessing a Russian mining operation. Can you tell us a little about what drives Jake?
Alex: Most definitely! I should make a bit of a disclaimer – I have spent the entirety of my professional, non-literary career in the financial industry. As a result, Jake is an amalgam of many people who seem to be attracted to that industry – young, bright, educated, ambitious… and totally ruthless. My challenge in writing him was to stray from the “Wolf of Wall Street” stereotype, and to dig a bit deeper. Yes, he does come to Russia because of greed, and because of ambition… but what makes him stay? What makes him do things that he does? Is there more to a person like that than raw ambition and desire to get ahead at any cost?
I hoped to answer these questions over the course of the novel, which also served to give Jake more depth, and to make him more relatable.
JC: I love the answer. I think it is true that many young men in their 20s and 30s developmentally are in their Empire building stage. It is during this time that they pursue bringing change to the world to bend it into their own image. Can you tell us a bit about your process in designing Jake?
Alex: When I started working on the novel, I tried to do two things. First, I wanted to write about things I knew well – Russia and financial industry topping the list. My initial intent was to write a ghost story, but the novel took me in a different direction, and for that, Jake was a necessity. He is an amalgam of several “Empire builders” who I came across in my own career path, and who represent the traits I do not always like seeing in people – and these traits often hint at shallow, one-dimensional personalities. That said, who is Jake? Is he really an archetype? I decided to dig a bit deeper into him, and to give him more definition and personality. Is he this way because he is truly a self-centered and shallow human being, or is he this way because he thinks it is expected of him, and he must show this side of his personality to keep up a measure of success? I like to think that very few people are truly one-dimensional and can be defined by a single ambition, so in writing Jake, I tried to challenge that paradigm and to present him as a multi-dimensional, realistic human being who starts off in a certain mode, but who has development and rediscovers a degree of his essential humanity.
JC: I think it is a sign of a very well developed character that they don’t stay one dimensional. The process of rediscovery is a painful one though. Speaking of pain, we have all been on a business trip with a guy who just don’t want to be there. There is another analyst assigned to the case as well, Bill. Bill is going through some emotional problems at arrival. Do you think Bill was stable before arriving for the assessment?
Alex: Oh, the poor, messed up Bill Jones! He was a lot of fun to write, especially as his… for the lack of spoilers… dysfunctions started to surface. He was written as a different archetype… at least at the beginning. We all know the stereotype, a middle-aged guy forever stuck in middle-management positions who tends to care more about his next fishing trip than about advancement (and who may guard his position with such jealousy that he can be every bit as vicious as the younger mavericks!). And then, I started to deconstruct him. I think that Bill was definitely not in a very good place at the beginning of the novel, but he started off by wearing his mask reasonably well. In a way, he is at his most vulnerable, and it makes him into the perfect character to, well… you have to read the novel to find out!
JC: Yes, Bill strikes me as type B personality and off the career track. Olga is assigned to help them assess the company. I guess she is assigned to be distracting eye candy but she becomes more. She seems very down to earth and have an understanding of Russia that it pretty unique. How would you describe it?
Alex: I found that there are certain aspects of Russian culture and mentality that are very unique to that country; having lived with it during my formative years, and having grown up with Russian literature and cinema, I think that Olga’s views are probably not unique amongst the Russians. It is hard to explain Russia and its culture in a short format, or even in a larger work – there is, after all, a famous Russian saying that you cannot understand Russia through reason alone. That said, imagine a country that sees itself as being surrounded by enemies on all sides, that had dozens of successive bad governments, that sees itself as a unique place neither East nor West, and that developed hybrid spirituality both fatalistic and mystical – then, imagine the kind of people such place would produce. Olga is the product of this environment, though I tried to give her enough traits that would make her relatable to Western readers, and easier to understand for someone who might not have been brought up in the midst of Russian society and its entire cultural baggage. Through Olga, I tried to give the reader a look through the spyglass, a look at the other side of the Atlantic (or, if you are on the US West Coast, over the Bering Strait!) – and to humanize the Russian mindset, the good, the bad, and the ugly of it.
JC: Speaking of mentally unique- the workers are sort of unique who are called to that type of environment. I like how you pull in a lot of thee trouble with running a mining operation in the cold of the Russian winter. It gives a person that you have strong knowledge of what mining is like and how important it is to this community. Indeed, you mentioned before that the Russians differentially paid the people who work in such climates. It is also mentioned in your book. This sort of work calls for a different type of worker. What would you say drives that type of person?
Alex: Another great question Joseph! To understand this mentality, I think it helps to get a feel for the larger culture of Russia. It is a country where, until fairly recently, free movement of people was restricted. More often than not, if you were born in a certain part of the country, you would end up spending a large part of your life there – you would have difficulty finding permanent living quarters anywhere else, and since the state was the largest (and usually the only) employer, you would have difficulty finding work. For many people, the only way out was through work reassignment, through education (which was much more difficult to obtain), or through military service (and even then only if they were lucky). This gave reinforcement to a uniquely Russian form of fatalism. As a result, the communities that formed in places such as Severozavodsk were rarely voluntarily formed; the few volunteers would view it as a temporary assignment, but the people who were born in Siberia would usually end up staying in Siberia. There is also a tradition of using the area as a dumping ground for all sorts of malcontents, which would further give credence to the idea that once you are there, you cannot leave.
It is perhaps less of what drives the people who live in places like Severozavodsk, and more the lack of hope they would have of finding a better life anywhere else.
JC: Siberia- brrr…Different workers different motivation. Like a lot of people I know in the Market, he sort of has a very self-centered way of greeting the world. Indeed, given his age and that he is sort of in the empire building stage of life this is not surprising. How does this view changes after his challenge with Bill?
Alex: While Jake definitely encounters a challenging situation with Bill, I view it as a trigger that sets him on a journey, not a major part of the entire journey. I think that the situation with Bill creates a nadir of Jake’s experience, and gives him just enough of a nudge in a different direction, so that when other, greater challenges come, he starts to view them differently. Without giving too much away, Jake’s world view will change, but there is more leading into it than just the situation with Bill – both his relationship with Olga, the influence of the supernatural forces at play in Severozavodsk, and ultimately the choices he will have to make (and their consequences) will leave him a much changed person by the end of the novel.
Something of Russia rubs off on Jake, in more ways than one…
JC: How does the episode with Bill change the relationship between Olga and Jake?
Alex: As the situation unfolds and the blizzard begins to isolate the city, all the fears and suspicions in Jake’s mind come to life. His dreams; his odd perception of Severozavodsk; the fears by which he defined himself – fear of failure foremost amongst them. The paranoia is a dangerous thing to have, especially in a foreign land infamous for it, and in a situation that pushes Jake to the edge. As far as his relationship with Olga, I think that this situation brings them closer at one level (after all, they have both been through something serious together), and creates a major barrier between them – which is not surprising, given Jake’s paranoia, and his belief that now Olga has some leverage over him. It is difficult for him to see the world in terms which do not agree with a dog-eat-dog vision he aspires to, and as a result, it significantly discolors his thinking. The episode also creates a certain level of common ground between the two, a connection that challenges both of them to reexamine how they view their relationship.
Fear both unites and divides them, and the realization of what stirs beneath the permafrost adds another layer to them.
JC: In some ways, I think Bill drives Jake and Olga closer. But that is just my feeling. On a different note, the winter in Russia is sort of out of ordinary for the time of year. I like how you use elements to foreshadow events to come. Can you tell us a little about our process in setting this up? Any particular literary techniques you use to build the suspense?
Alex: The elements play an important part in the novel, and I like to think of the Siberian winter as a character in its own right. It is rich fodder for metaphors, but also plays a role in the flow of the story. In fact, I think that I had the idea of a town in winter before I conceptualized anything about the story – the winter had to be the star, because without it, the story would not have happened.
One of my favorite literary techniques is to create a viewpoint character and to use “show, don’t tell” style of storytelling. I try to consider how this character might view the situation, what is going on through his or her head, and, most of all, if I were in this character’s shoes, how would I act? How would someone I know act? Further, I try to avoid plot holes, which probably makes me an overenthusiastic user of Chekhov’s Rifle (if there is a weapon on the wall in the first act of the story, it will be used for dramatic effect by the third act). Each foreshadowing is supposed to lead to something, and fits into the overall picture – and in order to do that, I try to have a good idea of the ending before I get much past the first couple of chapters.
Plus, Chekhov was Russian, so it was oddly fitting for this novel!
JC: I like you you focus in on people’s reactions. Now Zima is sort of the personification of the Russian winter. How would you describe her personality? Does she have human like goals? What was your process in defining and writing her?
Alex: I was going for something inhuman. Zima is quite literally the Russian word for “winter”, and I tried to express that unfeeling, strange character that has little reference point to our notions of morality, kindness, or mercy. It operates on another level that has little in common with us, and I tried to convey that – a force of cruel nature which cares little for human ants… until such ants hurt her by design or accident
JC: Nice comparison. How would you describe Chizhov? What are points of you do you feel he represents?
Alex: Chizhov is the human side of inhumanity. Evil has a way of being so very banal that you can almost forget its nefarious intent. He is the personification of that, the industrial side of cruelty and callousness that perhaps does not even realize its place on the moral spectrum.
I can imagine people like that coming home to their families at the end of the day, drinking their tea, hugging their spouses and children, and not thinking twice about what they had to do to acquire a comfortable life, or whose lives they ruined.
JC: What part of yourself would you say is in Bill? I know it is an odd question but if you can think of something, it might help to unlock the character for the readers. Is it a part that you like in yourself or don’t like in yourself?
Alex: I think to me, he is complacency. All of us have been guilty of it… me as well. He is that comfortable place, hiding from your own demons by pretending all is well until the demons come into the light and refuse to leave.
JC: I agree people take much for granted. What would you say changes in the relationship between Jake and Olga?
Alex: I think that there is more of mutual… respect and understanding between Jake and Olga. At the beginning, it is a mutually parasitic relationship, as they both want something from each other, but eventually, it morphs into something else… and it is exploited by the powers influencing the unnatural events in the novel.
JC: We are sort of running out of time. So what do you plan to write next? Will you continue to make this a series?
Alex: I am currently working on a dark science fiction space opera novel, tentatively titled “Graveyard Empire”. Think large-scale, epic, post-apocalyptic, and quite grim. For “Bring Out the Dead”, it was intended as a standalone – I thought that the story was self-contained, and left little room to explore without losing the impact of the novel.
JC: Well I like to take a moment to thank Alex Shalenko for joining me in this interview. It has been a lot of fun on my end. I want to remind others to feel free to ask questions. One last one- Alex what has it been like working for JEA Press?
Alex: Thank you Joseph – the pleasure is all mine! I have really enjoyed working with JEA. Not only did they offer me a path to becoming a published author, but they were supportive and helpful along the way. I have had a great experience with them, and would recommend them as a publisher of many great works of fiction!