Tuesday, July 3, 2018

Interview with Alan Felyk, author of Damaged Beyond All Recognition

Today on the Speculative Fiction Showcase, we are delighted to introduce Alan Felyk, author of Damaged Beyond All Recognition, who has been undertaken to answer our interview questions, which are not for the faint-hearted!

Your novel, Damaged Beyond All Recognition, was published in January this year. You say it was inspired by the writing of Kurt Vonnegut and Douglas Adams. What does that mean to you?

After college, I read my first two Kurt Vonnegut novels, Slaughterhouse-Five and Breakfast of Champions. And it occurred to me that I strongly identified with how those books were written. They were unconventional and hard to define in terms of genre. His style was so straightforward, void of the overwriting that I had read in many other novels. But what I absolutely loved were his transitions — three centered dots and the reader was off to another time and perhaps place. He eliminated what Elmore Leonard called “the parts that people skip.” Vonnegut didn’t have to escort the reader from location or time to other ones.

I knew I would write in the Vonnegut style if I ever wrote a novel. But I thought I would write serious science fiction until I picked up a copy of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy in the early 1980s. I toyed with the idea of just writing comedic science fiction, but I put that on the back burner, too.

My first book proved to be a humorous memoir. It was the right time for it, and I enjoyed working on it. But then I drifted for a few years, not knowing what to begin next. And then I returned to Vonnegut, and I wound up reading The Sirens of Titan, a novel that I hadn’t read yet. I got about twenty pages into it, and I said to myself, “Wow, this is what you need to write — serious science fiction with humor.”

The book has a plot of mind-blowing scope with an existential threat to the afterlife – and jokes. What made you choose that route – satire and humour?

The stories that I truly love are ones in which tragedy and humor are mixed together. My favorite movie of all time is Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, a story about two outlaws who know in their hearts that they eventually will be cornered and killed. But they never lose their sense of humor even near the end. We loved the TV series M*A*S*H for the same reason. What could be more horrible than mangled bodies on makeshift operating tables? But laughter was the element that kept the characters sane. I knew that humor would make Damaged Beyond All Recognition more realistic. That my characters could laugh even when it appeared that all was lost.

One reviewer describes the story as ‘highly imaginative and slightly peculiar’, which sounds like a good sign. Are they correct?

Hahaha. Yes. I’ve always been attracted to offbeat, surprising stories. I loved Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone because I’m a sucker for a twist ending. So, if you read Damaged Beyond All Recognition, you’ll scratch your head and wonder why I tell everybody how the book will end at the very beginning. But there are such things as the journey to the ending and double endings.

To me, science fiction is the most imaginative form of creative writing. You’re not restricted by past, present, and future; planet Earth; and the physical laws of nature. I’ve always been a what-if person. I always wonder about other possibilities that make up the big picture.

I love building a complex story and then trying to simplify it for the common man and woman. I used to do that when I edited new-business proposals for the space industry. I would read engineering descriptions of how we would design, build, and launch a planetary probe to Mars and convert them into plain English that the layman could understand. 

Douglas Adams and Kurt Vonnegut are two very different writers. Adams is very British to me, his writing elliptical and slightly melancholy. I haven’t read Vonnegut, though I did see the film of Harrison Bergeron as a teenager, as part of Between Time and Timbuktu (1972), when it rather blew my mind! If you could choose only one author … who would it be?

It would be Vonnegut. I try to write much like he did in the sense that the science fiction doesn’t overpower reader. I’ve always believed that the best science fiction is about ordinary humans in extraordinary situations. Now, having said that, Vonnegut refused to include romances in his books because he thought that’s all the reader would see. But I view love as a necessary element to a lot of stories because it’s so important to us as human beings.

The edge of Adams represents my furthest boundary. He was a master at devising absurd situations, and at times Damaged Beyond All Recognition visits that boundary without fully crossing over. That’s because I wanted my story to retain a sense of seriousness amid the humor.

How does this novel relate to your first book, Damaged Right out of the Box?

I suppose my first book could be called Book Zero of the Infinity’s Trinity series. It’s an autobiography told mostly through humorous stories. I wrote Damaged Beyond All Recognition using all the locales familiar to me, and those environments are discussed at length in my first book. It contains a chapter entitled “There’s a Little Black Spot on the Fun Today,” and it’s about the real-life Maggie Mae Monahan who was a college girlfriend. If you read that segment first, you’ll realize how easy it was to develop Maggie Mae’s character. She was nothing more than plug and play.

Is your hero, Paul Tomenko, an Everyman? How much of yourself do you see in him?

No doubt about it—Paul is me. I just wrote how I would respond to specific situations, although it’s difficult to project how well I would do meeting the Almighty. But Paul isn’t easily rattled, and that’s me. I remember leading a new-business proposal that was worth half a billion dollars during my days at Lockheed Martin. The project manager dropped every morning and stuck his head in my office. He said I was his barometer—if I looked anxious, he knew the proposal was in deep trouble.

I’m loyal to a fault, and the truth is important to me. I tried to portray those qualities in Paul.

Who would direct the film of Damaged Beyond All Recognition? Could it be made into a film?

My worry is such a film would wind up on Buzzfeed’s list of movies that will destroy your faith in humanity. When I was finishing the novel, my girlfriend at the time thought it would make a great movie. She had a vision for it, how it would be rewritten with the stories of Paul and Maggie Mae told in alternating scenes while the two characters are apart. She was far more sold on it than I was, but she knew a hell of a lot more about moviemaking than I did.

When I think about people who might make a good movie from the novel, the Coen Brothers or Martin McDonagh jump to mind. The novel doesn’t have any over-the-top violence, so it would need someone who could sustain enough of its quirkiness to keep the audience seated.

You mention your career as a journalist and later as a writer and editor. To what extent has your personal experience found its way into your writing?

The newspaper business taught me how to write to fit an available space. It provided excellent practice when it comes to trimming excess words, sentences, and paragraphs from a story. We were taught to write stories with an emphasis on the human element. And that’s important if you plan on writing novels that people will find relatable.

Working in the space industry for 27 years probably did more harm than good. In that job, I took highly technical material and translated it into layman terms for government evaluators. I think explaining science for as long as I did carried over into the novel. I tended to overexplain the scientific principles, and my reviewers jumped all over that—and rightly so. So, I trimmed out a lot of the why and wherefore when it came to the science. In retrospect, I probably should have done more of that.

You say you have over 27,000 songs on your iPod. What do you listen to when writing?

Before I sit down to write, I listen to music that I think will pertain to the chapter I’m working on. It helps set the mood that I’m trying to capture in my words. What happens is that you construct an extremely eclectic “soundtrack.” For Damaged Beyond All Recognition, I wound up with a soundtrack of 246 songs—more than 17 hours of music from every genre across 60 years. In my “musical world,” the book begins with the Chambers Brothers’ “Time Has Come Today,” and it ends with the Moody Blues’ “One More Time to Live.” In between, it has songs by artists like Malo, Adele, Rhianna, Joe Walsh, and the Rolling Stones. And, if it ever becomes a movie, David Gray’s “Back in the World” can run during credits.

Science Fiction and Fantasy seem to be more popular than ever before. Why do you think this is?

I think there’s always been a shift to science fiction whenever we feel uncomfortable with the world. The political upheaval in the United States seems to pervade or at least punctuate everything we see and read, and people want to escape from it all. The irony is that much of our science fiction seldom provides comfort through storylines. The stories are often about what goes wrong in the future. But, most of the endings are positive—good conquers evil. And that’s what we’re really needing right now.

What are you going to write next? Have you got a work in progress?

I’m working on the sequel to Damaged Beyond All Recognition. It’s entitled Damaged And No Longer Under Warranty, and it will address the new universe—the Paraverse—that was created at the end of the first book. I hate to project when it will be finished because creative writing doesn’t adhere to schedules.

Do you like to watch contemporary science fiction films (or TV series) and have you got any favourites?

As I mentioned earlier, The Twilight Zone got me hooked on the science fiction genre when I was a kid. Those stories still are being shown on television, and they hold up rather well across two generations. Star Trek and all its spinoffs are high on my list. Some others that I’ve loved, in no particular order, are The X-Files, Torchwood, Fringe, Black Mirror, Stargate SG-1, Firefly, The Outer Limits, and The Prisoner. And, with the advent of Netflix originals, we seem to be well-stocked with new science fiction television series.

I have to admit that I’m worn out by the overload of comic book movies. I lean very much toward cerebral science fiction, and the superhero films usually don’t include those type of storylines. I thought Guardians of the Galaxy was delightful because it combined a serious storyline with humor and pop culture references. It reminds me of my own book. Her taught us the drawbacks of loving our computers, The Martian pushed the ingenuity of MacGyver to new limits, and Edge of Tomorrow proved that you need to keep doing things over and over until you get it right.

What about the older, classic science fiction films; have any stood the test of time?

It may be a while until we see a science fiction movie as good as 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s a masterpiece even if the ending left you lost. Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original) proves that we can all be replaced, and Soylent Green demonstrates that we can’t trust the Food and Drug Administration. Alien should discourage us from exploring dark caves on other planets, and Terminator shows us that machines are far more unstoppable than humans. And I would be remiss not to include some Philip K. Dick novels that became films—Blade Runner, Minority Report, and Total Recall.

What are your thoughts on post-apocalyptic and dystopian SF. Have we had enough yet?

As a science fiction writer, I must consider what is happening now and extrapolate what I think all of it will lead to in the coming years.  I think the outlook looks bleak in the United States. Why? Because we lost our unbiased press. All the so-called journalistic outlets have taken sides—they doggedly support either the left or right. People tend to lock themselves inside these outlets, and they never hear other opinions and arguments. I call it the Age of Polarization, and we are only rescued from civil war in my novel when we discover how to steer people to the unvarnished truth.  

I’m planning on writing a short story that solves the problem of detrimental political leadership in the future. Maybe I can start some crap. Hahaha.

About Alan Felyk:

The son of Ukrainian immigrants, I was born in St. Paul, Minnesota, in 1950. My family moved to Cañon City, Colorado in 1957, and I graduated from Cañon City High School in 1968.
A University of Colorado graduate in news-editorial journalism, I worked as a public information aide for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) while earning my degree.
I started my newspaper career as a sports editor for Sentinel Newspapers in Denver and moved to general assignment reporting. I became senior editor of the four newspapers in Adams County. I also wrote freelance music articles for several national publications. 
In 1984, I joined Lockheed Martin (then Martin Marietta) as a technical editor. I worked on numerous new-business proposals for the Department of Defense (DOD) and National Aeronautics and Space Administration (NASA). I retired in 2011 from my post as manager of the Lockheed Martin's Space Systems Company Editorial and Graphics department in Denver.
During my life, I also worked as a groundskeeper, janitor, road crew worker, survey crew assistant, busboy, waiter, houseboy, and taxi driver.
I'm a serious music fan (my iPod contains more than 27,000 songs), and I enjoy comedy and science fiction. And, of course, there's the writing.
I live in Lakewood, Colorado.

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