A Conversation with Boyd Morrison, Author of The Ark
***SPOILER ALERT! Some aspects of the plot in THE ARK are discussed in this interview!***
1. You were one of the first authors to self-publish on Kindle and turn your electronic success into a multi-book deal with a major publisher. What motivated you to try this non-traditional approach? Would you recommend it as an avenue for burgeoning young writers to explore?
When my agent, Irene Goodman, first submitted The Ark to publishers in 2008, I received what I call "wonderful rejections." Editors often praised the storyline, pacing, and characters, but they just didn't see a market for the novel for one reason or another. I was actually encouraged. I thought my books would find readers if given the chance, so with Irene's unwavering support, I made all three of them available for download from my web site and for the Kindle. No one was reading them anyway, so what did I have to lose?
My main goal was to get attention for my books. I briefly considered self-publishing print books, but without bookstore distribution, it would have been much harder to sell paper copies of my books on my own. Print-on-demand books can be expensive to the consumer, so unless I planned to do a lot of handselling, I didn't see how I was going to convince readers to take a chance on a new author like me. I could sell my books online for a much lower price, almost like an introductory offer. And other than paying for a graphic designer to develop professional-looking covers for my novels, selling my books online didn't cost me a penny (I would have built a web site anyway, so I don't count those costs). Publishing electronically let me focus on writing the next book rather than figuring out ways to sell print books. Now that I have a publisher, I can lean on many people with a lot more expertise in bookselling than I have to get my novels into the hands of readers.
I think electronic publishing is a fantastic opportunity for new writers. Literally anyone with a computer and an Internet connection can do it. With imagination, persistence, and a dedication to the writing craft, you can write a story and develop a fan base around the world. When my books were available on my web site, I received emails from readers in the US, Canada, England, France, India, Australia, Bangladesh, and half a dozen other countries. Nothing raises your morale more than readers telling you that they can't wait for your next book.
2. How does your PhD in Industrial Engineering and your previous experiences working for NASA inform your writing? Do you consider yourself a writer with an engineering background, or an engineer who knows how to tell a good story?
An engineering degree is a great education because it teaches you to logically and systematically develop creative solutions to difficult problems, which is my approach to writing thrillers. I start with a "what if" scenario. What if someone actually found Noah's Ark? How is that possible? Who found it and what were their motives? What are the implications of such a find? The questions go on and on, and now I have to answer them in a way that's not only exciting, but also makes sense to the reader. But answering each question raises even more questions, and constructing a plot requires answering those questions. There's a lot of trial and error involved as well as experimentation. Engineering also trained me to turn a problem on its head and look at it from a different angle when there's no obvious solution.
For my Master's and PhD, I had to write a thesis and a dissertation, which taught me to lay out my thoughts clearly in writing. But academic papers are also boring. By definition, thriller novels can't be boring, so there was a limit to the writing lessons I could carry over from my degrees. Luckily, I'm a huge fan of thriller novels, so over the years, I've learned from the masters in the genre, which is a great education in itself.
Working at NASA fed my inner ten-year-old boy's desire to explore. Nothing is more adventurous than heading out into space, but it also requires a lot of hard work and problem-solving. I suppose my NASA background prepared me for the same experience in writing thrillers. It's a huge amount of hard work to create a novel, but the end result is an adventure.
I've created my own stories since I was a kid building spaceships out of Legos and sending them into epic battles, so in a way I've been on the path to both writing and engineering from the beginning. I really consider myself a storyteller. My medium happens to be the written word, and my engineering background gave me many useful tools to build stories.
3. The techno-thriller requires you to use a very specific vocabulary when writing about weapons and military technology. How much research does a book like The Ark require? Is your research an ongoing process, or do you like to have all of the information laid out in front of you before beginning to write?
Research is extremely important for anyone writing a scientific thriller or techno-thriller. Readers expect you to get the details right, and they'll justifiably call you on it if those details are wrong. I do my best to make sure what I include in my novels is scientifically plausible, even if it stretches those limits occasionally. After all, I write fiction, and the story comes first.
My graduate degrees required scientific research, and I published several articles in academic journals, but no one would call them page-turners. Still, it gave me a nose for research, which for me is an ongoing process as I write. I may have an idea of where a story is going, but I may get to a chapter and realize that I need to equip my character with a particular weapon or learn more about a particular setting. Then it's off to the Internet or a few phone calls to experts to track down the specifics. Sometimes I learn something that offers intriguing story possibilities, so I fold that right into the novel. Serendipity plays a huge role in my writing.
I'm curious by nature, so I regularly read six newspapers online, as well as magazines such as Discover, Wired, National Geographic, and Popular Science. Often I'll see an article on something really cool and decide I've got to figure out a way to use it in a story. Sometimes I use it right away. Sometimes it takes years. But I've got an inexhaustible supply. The real problem is that I can't use it all.
4. Have you always been interested in the story of Noah’s Ark? What inspired you to re-imagine such a well known tale?
There's something so elemental and fascinating about the story of Noah's Ark. It has everything: wickedness, judgment, faith, calamity, family, redemption. It's the original thriller.
But I've always wondered about the details of the story. How did Noah build such an amazing ship? How did he fit all the world's animals into the Ark? How did water cover the entire earth? There has been debate through the centuries by those who believe that the story as told in the Bible happened exactly the way it is described and by those who believe the story is a metaphor. The differences seem irreconcilable.
But one night I was watching a special on the Discovery channel about the search for evidence of Noah's Ark, with some claiming that the boat still exists intact on the slopes of Mount Ararat in Turkey. So I thought, what if the story in the Bible is true, but because of translation errors by imperfect humans over the years, we've gotten the story wrong? Could there be another explanation for Noah's Ark and the Flood, one that would be scientifically plausible yet support the Bible? And most importantly, could that explanation be twisted by some evil mastermind to threaten civilization as we know it (I mean, I am a thriller writer)? Scarily enough, I had answers to all of those questions, and the premise for The Ark was born.
5. The countries and locations you chose as settings lend themselves well to advancing the story. Do you like to set your novels in places where you have personally traveled? Aside from locales dictated by the premise of the story, like Mt. Ararat, how important are the settings where the action takes place?
I've traveled to many countries over the years, so I love to feature places I've been to. It also makes it much easier to write believable scenes when you've been to the setting person to scout out locations and get a feel for the environment. But I don't let that limit me, and the Internet and travel guidebooks are useful for those places I haven't been to. A key part of the book takes place in Seattle where I live, so I was able to see exactly how the characters would move and the obstacles they'd encounter. But although I would have loved to visit Mount Ararat to scout out a scene that takes place there, it just wasn't possible.
Because my stories feature a ton of action, the setting can be crucial to how the scene unfolds. Often I can invent my own versions of real locations, whether it's a giant cruise ship or an off-shore oil rig. Then I can configure it exactly to the needs of the story. But if it's a real location, like Los Angeles International Airport, I like to use the real features of the location so that readers who've been there can put themselves in the characters' shoes.
6. Was it more difficult for you to write this book, or become a champion on Jeopardy!? Did your appearance on the show help raise your profile as a writer?
Writing The Ark was far more difficult because it took a year to complete, but I've never had a more nerve-wracking experience than appearing on Jeopardy! You get one shot at the show, and you have seconds to answer each question while appearing in front of a live studio audience. The pressure is intense, and I was so focused on the game as I played it, I don't think I ever blinked. I was lucky to come away as a one-day champion, lucky because the returning champion on my first game was crushing everyone in her path. But I was fast enough on the buzzer to pull out the win. I was ahead on the second game going into Final Jeopardy, but then I didn't know the answer in the category "Elegant words," and my champion run was over. I must say I'll never forget the origin of the word "posh" again (just think of the song Posh Posh Traveling Life from the movie Chitty Chitty Bang Bang; "Port out, starboard home").
Being a Jeopardy! champion did come in handy when I would meet agents and editors. When I pitched them my novel, I told them about my Jeopardy! appearance. Then when I sent a follow-up letter, I'd remind them that I was the Jeopardy! champion they'd met. I don't know how much it helped, but at least it was better than saying I was "that blond guy".
7. Scenes from the book, like the cave showdown with night-vision goggles, really seem like they would translate well to modern video games. Do you find that your work for the Xbox games group at Microsoft helps you be imaginative and creative when you write?
I've been an avid gamer since my dad got me the very first Pong video game. Like thriller novels, the best games are suspenseful, challenging for the characters, and rewarding at the end, and they make you want to find out what happens next.
Today, because the technology is so advanced, storytelling is a key aspect of most games and provides a truly immersive experience. In the Xbox division, my job was to figure out what made the games fun to play and where they became too frustrating. Our group collectively watched thousands of players interact with the games, and then tabulated the results from 150-question surveys to make them even better. We did research into what makes a game fast-paced, whether storylines made sense, whether enemies were too challenging or too easy, and what would make a person stop playing.
I hope I've internalized some of those lessons. In a way, reading a novel is an even more immersive, interactive experience than playing a video game because readers bring their own imaginations to bear in visualizing the story. If you've ever gotten so lost in a novel that you felt like you were there, that someone had to call your name three times to get your attention, you know what I mean.
8. Do you find yourself inadvertently or purposefully adding some of your own personal quirks to your characters? Which of the characters do you identify with the most?
I think every character in some way is an extension of myself. Somebody I wish I was, or somebody I'm glad I'm not but might be under different circumstances. But I also take qualities from people I know or people I've observed in public and then give each character a dose of those attributes. Sometimes I want a character to have a certain trait because it serves the story, and sometimes I give the character a trait that influences the plotline in ways I never anticipated. It's what makes the writing process both challenging and fun.
While a memorable and formidable villain is necessary for a thriller, I suppose I always identify with the heroes the most because I want my readers to identify with them. If readers can't, they won't care whether the hero is defeated or prevails. Without that, all suspense is drained from the story, and readers will neither buy the premise nor care about the outcome.
9. Who are your writing influences, and what are you currently reading? Do you stay away from reading your peers to avoid picking up a similar tone, or do you find it helpful to survey the competition?
I've been a fan of thrillers all my life. Some of the authors who've inspired me to write are H.G. Wells, Jules Verne, Stephen King, Dean Koontz, Michael Crichton, Clive Cussler, Robert Ludlum, and Tom Clancy. When I was younger, I also devoured books by the deans of modern science fiction: Robert Heinlein, Isaac Asimov, Arthur C. Clarke, James P. Hogan, Joe Haldeman, Larry Niven, and Harry Harrison.
When I'm writing a new book, I often read nonfiction for research. I love reading current thrillers so that I know what's out there. Plenty of it is stellar work, so why not learn from it? I don't think I'll be unduly influenced, but it does make me jealous sometimes. I'll read something really great and go, "why didn't I think of that?" Then it makes me work even harder.
10. In the final few paragraphs of the book the following thought crosses Tyler Locke’s mind: “Gordian and the rest of the world would survive without him for a week. He needed a little time to relax,” (p. 415). It sounds like we haven’t seen the last of him! Are you planning on reuniting Tyler, Grant, Dilara, and the crew for another adventure?
Whether he likes it or not, discovering Noah's Ark gives Tyler a reputation as a man who can solve ancient mysteries. I know for a fact that there are forces conspiring to draw him into another action-packed adventure, and you can be sure that Tyler will take Grant and Gordian Engineering along with him (although Grant won't need much prodding). Dilara's pretty busy excavating Noah's Ark, so she might be indisposed for a while, but I wouldn't be surprised if Tyler seeks out her help in the future.