A-List author Paul Levinson talks to Writers Bloc

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We started to interview some of the authors who have contributed to our anthologies. We currently have three anthologies either out now or about to be. Paul Levinson very kindly offered to write the introduction to Altered States and also contributed a short story called Extra Credit.

We hope to be doing these interviews in the run up to the 15th December 2014 release of Altered States: a cyberpunk sci-fi anthology.


Author: Paul Levinson
Book Title: Chronica
Genre: time travel science fiction
Country of Origin: USA

Paul Levinson, PhD, is Professor of Communication & Media Studies at Fordham University in NYC. His nonfiction books, including The Soft Edge (1997), Digital McLuhan (1999), Realspace (2003), Cellphone (2004), and New New Media (2009; 2nd edition, 2012), have been translated into ten languages. His science fiction novels include The Silk Code (winner of Locus Award for Best First Science Fiction Novel of 1999, author’s cut ebook 2012), Borrowed Tides (2001), The Consciousness Plague (2002, 2013), The Pixel Eye (2003, 2014), The Plot To Save Socrates (2006, 2012), Unburning Alexandria (2013), and Chronica (2014) – the last three of which are also known as the Sierra Waters trilogy, and are historical as well as science fiction. He appears on CNN, MSNBC, Fox News, the Discovery Channel, National Geographic, the History Channel, NPR, and numerous TV and radio programs. His 1972 LP, Twice Upon a Rhyme, was re-issued in 2010. He reviews television in his InfiniteRegress.tv blog, and was listed in The Chronicle of Higher Education’s “Top 10 Academic Twitterers” in 2009.

Thank you for the opportunity to know you a little bit better. I’ll start by asking how long have you been writing and what inspired you to do it seriously?

I’ve been writing ever since I was seven years old – I wrote my first science fiction story when I was in grade school. What inspired me to start writing was reading – science fiction, in particular. I read it and enjoyed and it seemed I could write stuff like that, too. So that’s what I did. Years later, when I was writing my doctoral dissertation, I had this idea that I could write a novel at the same time. That worked at first, but I soon realized that I was writing only the novel, and making no progress on the dissertation. So I put the novel aside, and went back to it years later. The first part of that novel, “Loose Ends,” was a published in Analog Magazine in 1997 and was a Hugo-nominated novella for that year. It’s now up on Kindle as an ebook.

A lot of writers read in the same genres that they write in, is your writing genre your preferred reading genre as well? If not, what other genres interest you most?

Yes – I love science fiction as a reader as well as writer. Other fiction I enjoy would be mystery. I also like nonfiction history a lot.

Are any of your characters based on you or people you know?

All of them are based on people that I know, more or less, in one way or another. That includes myself. You write best from what you know.

Are any of the characters experiences based on some of your own?

Specific experiences, sometimes. But, all of my characters react in a way I would react in a similar situation. For an evil character, I have to draw on angers and negative feelings that everyone experiences. When I write about women – for example, my Sierra Waters character in The Plot to Save Socrates trilogy – I draw on how I think I would behave and think if I was a woman, but also the women I’ve known most in my life, like my wife, daughter, mother, and grandmother.

How did you come up with your leading character?

For the Sierra Waters trilogy, I wanted a woman who was brilliant – it was fun, as a man, writing from a woman’s point of view. I also was pleased when one review said Sierra was “sexy as hell”. For the Phil D’Amato novels and stories, I just imagined what I would be like if I was a New York City forensic detective, with a penchant for being pulled into very strange cases.

When choosing a name for your characters, what do you consider about them that determines what you finally call them?

I tend to name my characters after people I know in real life. Phil D’Amato – the lead character in The Silk Code, The Consciousness Plague, The Pixel Eye, and three novelettes – was named after a police lieutenant who is a friend of mine (the Phil), and the guy who was a Senator from New York (D’Amato) at that time. Later, I realized that the name means love (Phil) love (Amato). I got the name Sierra Waters from someone who wrote a great review of one of my novels (Sierra), and the Waters just came to me. Sierra Waters appears in The Plot to Save Socrates, Unburning Alexandria, and Chronica.

When you write a love scene, do you use past experiences or do you create a scene where the characters are acting out something that you would like to do and just never had the opportunity?

A combination of both, but mostly from past experience, probably because I’ve had a lot of memorable experience in that area.

Do you know how the book is going to end before you start or do you just let the story write itself as you move ahead?

I usually just make it up as I go along. Sometimes I know the ending about halfway through the story or novel, but, most of the time, not.

How difficult has it been to find models that fit the description of the character you’ve created?

Not that hard. As a media scholar and professor in my non-fiction life, I’m a devoted student of human nature and all its characteristics. Every conversation I have, every person I see, becomes potential material for my characters.

Do you use a book cover designer?

Joel Iskowitz, a world-renowned illustrator, does all the covers for my ebook novels. His designs are on US coins, stamps around the world, and on NASA murals. He was also one of my best friends in 5th and 6th grade, in the Bronx.

What is the title of your most recent release?

That would be Chronica – the third novel in the Sierra Waters time travel trilogy.

Who is your favorite character and why?

Toss up between Phil D’Amato, my NYPF forensic detective in The Silk Code series, “The Chronology Protection Case” (novelette and movie), and other stories – and Sierra Waters, heroine of the Sierra Waters trilogy. They both struggle against forces that would overwhelm a lesser person. I guess I would give the edge to Phil D’Amato – my daughter, when she was 12 years and read The Silk Code, said, “Daddy, Phil is just like you!”

What is the relationship between the two lead characters.

Sierra Waters, from the 21st century, and Alcibiades, from the time of Socrates, are a classic example of how opposites attract. Everything is different about them – except the commitment they share to saving Socrates from the hemlock and the punishment of small-minded, jealous people.

What are you working on at the moment?

I’m working on a new Phil D’Amato novel – The Hurricane Wars.

Has the number of books that you’ve completed surpassed your expectations and how many are they?

16, including novels, nonfiction, and collections of my essays; add another 20 for translations. I expect to write a lot more, and I’d better get crackin’.

How does it feel to know that hundreds, possibly thousands, and eventually millions of people will read the story that you have created?

Incredibly and uniquely satisfying – though I feel that way when even one person I do not know reads any of my novels or stories. One of the best single experiences of my life was walking into a book store, looking over at the aisle that had my novels, and seeing someone I didn’t know take one off the shelf, leaf through it, and proceed to the cash register to buy it.

What would you like to say to aspiring authors?

Don’t let anything get in the way of your writing. There are a thousand good reasons to do something other than write. You need to ignore them. Your friends will be more impressed with you when your first novel is published than when you join them for dinner.

What do you find the hardest part of writing?

Fending off the things that distract me from writing – not letting anything get in the way . That includes social engagements, sleep, and other work. On the other hand, I find walking, swimming, and watching television very conducive to my writing.

What did you enjoy most about writing your newest book?

It was very satisfying to tell more of Sierra Waters’ story in Chronica. Attempting to save Socrates, and then the ancient Library of Alexandria from burning, was bound to leave open some big questions, and Chronica answers a few of them.

What is the biggest thing that people THINK they know about your subject/genre that isn’t so?

In the case of The Plot to Save Socrates, it was that Socrates was an almost angelic person. In reality, he was a man who was scathing about people he thought were stupid, and indeed he was a critic of democracy. He also liked a good roll in the hay with a woman.

You are a person with many interests and inspirations. What truly inspires you?

All kinds of things – a walk on the beach along Cape Cod Bay, where we spend a month or more every summer; our children, who are now in their late 20s; a sunset, any time; a beautiful snow storm; sitting on my back porch; looking at a book from the 19th century, and thinking that maybe some time in the far future someone will be looking at one of my books; a Roman coin, which serves as an ambassador of Roman culture to our current age; people who are devoted to and love their work, whatever they do.

Who are some of your favorite authors that you feel were influential in your work? What impact have they had on your writing?

First and foremost, Isaac Asimov – the clarity of his writing, the intricacy and logic and surprise twists in his stories are with me all the time. Also, his prolific output is an inspiration to get back to writing whenever I’m not, even though I write every day. Other influential authors for me are Robert Heinlein, Alfred Bester, and James Blish – I read all of their novels as a kid, and they’re part of the foundation I bring to thinking about science fiction.

What did you find most useful in learning to write? What was least useful or most destructive?

The most useful was and is just writing – there’s no better way to learn to write, and to write better, than to write. The least useful is listening to advice from people, even well meaning, who may not be a fan of your work. As a writer, you need to learn early on that you can’t please everyone. You’ve got to please yourself, first of all, then, with any luck, build an audience of readers who enjoy your writing.

Are you a full-time or part-time writer? How does that affect your writing?

I guess, technically, I’m a full-time professor and a part-time writer. But I actually write far more than I teach, and more people in the world know me as writer than as a teacher. I enjoy thinking of myself as a writer, because, deep in my soul, that’s what I am.

What are some day jobs that you have held and how have they affected your writing?

The only day-job I’ve held as an adult is a professor at a big university – since 1998, Fordham University in New York City. Teaching helps my writing, especially my nonfiction writing. That’s why I always thank my students in the Acknowledgements of my scholarly books – teaching helps trigger ideas, and better ways of expressing them.

For those interested in exploring the theme of your book, where should they start?

For the Sierra Waters trilogy, they should start with the first novel, The Plot to Save Socrates. For more info and background, I would recommend The Trial of Socrates by I. F. Stone.

How do you feel about E-books vs. print books and alternative vs. conventional publishing?

I think ebooks are the greatest boon to authors since the printing press. For the first time in history, an author can get a book out to the world, to potentially millions of people, without having to go through a publisher. This gives the author direct access to his or her audience. This makes it far less likely that a brilliant author will languish in obscurity. I still use traditional publishers for some of my nonfiction books – such as New New Media – because their sales forces are still very effective in getting word of my books out to other professors, who are the people who adopt scholarly books for use in classes. But, otherwise, I’m increasingly inclined to publish independently via Kindle – with a small independent press, and even self-publishing. As an example, although Tor Books, one of the biggest publishers in science fiction, published my first five science fiction novels and they did well when first released, I’ve sold far more copies in the past few years with the publication of these novels as ebooks by JoSara MeDia, a small, savvy independent publisher out of Texas.

What do you think is the future of reading and writing?

Back in the days before the Internet, critics and professors were moaning the decline of writing and literacy, claiming people weren’t reading that much anymore. I knew they were wrong then, and sure enough, the Internet came along and changed everything. The future of reading and writing looks great, and is enhanced by the advent of ebooks.

What process did you go through to get your book published?

With traditional publishing of my science fiction novels by Tor, I got to know my editor, David Hartwell, and wrote reviews for his magazine, The New York Review of Science Fiction. Then I landed an agent, who contacted David, and eventually I got a contract. In the case of my nonfiction, I never used an agent – I contacted my editors directly. In the case of Chronica, I told JoSara MeDia I was writing the third novel in the Sierra Waters trilogy, and they said, great, we’d love to publish it.

What makes your book stand out from the crowd?

My Sierra Waters trilogy takes the paradoxes of time travel very seriously, and deals with the deep and sometimes raw human emotions that these paradoxes can engender. I also take great care to get my historical details as right as possible.

How do you find or make time to write?

I always want to write. I find the time by giving in to that wonderful impulse, and not letting other things get in the way.

How do you promote your work?

On Twitter, YouTube, Google+, my InfiniteRegress.tv blog, Goodreads groups, and all other social media. I occasionally attend a science fiction convention, but not as often as I used to, because I’d rather devote the time to writing.

What do you like to read in your free time?

Historical nonfiction, medical history, and the occasional mystery or science fiction story or novel. I make it a point not to read fiction when I’m actually writing, because I don’t want other voices in my head. And, since I write all the time, that means I don’t usually read much fiction these days. Still, every once in a while, I just can’t resist …

You contributed Extra Credit to the Altered States anthology–can you describe the circumstances that led to you writing that story and why that theme.

I started writing it in the 1990s, and in fact completed it then and sent it out to about dozen magazines, But it was a much shorter story then – only about 2000 words – and didn’t have any of the cyber-stuff I put in a later, around 2012. Anyway, it was turned down by all the magazines I sent it to in the 1990s. But I always liked the idea, and that’s why I eventually came back to the story 15 years later. There’s an important lesson in that: never give up on a story! And lo and behold, it was published in Buzzy Mag in 2012, where it received some good response from readers. I’ve since sold two other stories to Buzzy Mag – “Synchronicity,” which was published this year, and “Sam’s Requests,” one of the strangest stories I’ve ever written – a rock ‘n’ roll space opera, literally – which will be published next year, And, something I’m especially happy about: “Extra Credit” will be included in the new Chinese edition of my book, “The Essential Levinson” – the only science fiction in the book, which is otherwise a tableau of my nonfiction.

There was recently a discussion with some people in a Facebook group about the term ‘A-list’ as used in reference to well-known authors. As a professor of Media Studies, is the term ‘A-List’ only used for movie stars or can it be used for well-known authors?

I think “A-List” has a general usage now, and can be applied to any part of culture and society in which some ranking by success or quality is required. So, sure, you can have A-List authors, A-List restaurants, even A-List cities!

Thank you, Paul for taking the time to speak with us.