Synchronicity and Self-Publshing: An Interview with William Dooling

Synchronicity CoverThis week I’m happy to present an interview for your reading pleasure. The interviewee is a friend and former schoolmate, author William Dooling. He was kind enough to talk to me about his new book, Synchronicity, and his decision to self-publish.

During our talk on Facebook you had mentioned that the book was about various subcultures and how they are kept apart by advertising, prejudice, etc. That seems a very specific subject. So how did the book come about?

Like yourself I was Jesuit educated, and in the Jesuit school system you run into a lot of really weird arguments, like whether you can prove the existence of God using rational arguments or whether souls exist before conception or whatever. In college and immediately after I noticed that these arguments were of no particular interest to communities that I expected would really want to have them. For example, I studied the history of alchemy and early modern chemistry in college, and among 16th century pre-scientists there was this huge raging debate about whether demons were solid objects that could interact with ordinary matter (no, seriously). Now, one would think that the comic book and urban fantasy community would be, you know, laser-focused on historical curiosities like this…but in reality, most Jim Butcher fans that I’ve talked to about this sort of thing are scientists or engineers or whatever and consider the whole matter to be really rather silly. Around the same time I started to notice this, I also realized that a lot of the identifiers my friends and I were using to describe the particular beliefs/fan communities/social circles we were part of really didn’t work as neatly as we thought: for example I’m an open and avowed atheist and so is my best friend, but I was raised catholic and he was raised protestant and so our opinions on everything diverge very, very sharply and predictably. In effect, I’m still a Catholic and he’s still a Protestant.

So: I wanted to write a book where a bunch of characters from different cultural and faith backgrounds were forced to interact and sort out the particulars of what they believed about the world and why. I also wanted to sort of “unite the clans” between fan communities a bit (does anyone get that reference). So I wanted to write a book where, for example, a priest shoots a demon in the throat with an automatic weapon…but I also wanted to write a book where the same priest tries to logically prove the existence of god using a technique I learned in my freshman theology class. Obviously, this book has the potential to both delight and annoy so that’s what I’m starting to test right now.

Very interesting. So am I right to say that the book tries to bring together the fantasy elements of the comic book and urban fantasy worlds with the actual history and mythology that inspires it?

I would like to think so, though of course even I’m not sure if I’ve done a good job of it yet. Both are such big and complicated worlds that it’s hard to know for sure if you understand them even a little bit.

It sounds like a daunting task. With Synchronicity, was it a challenge to do the research required, or did the novel flow from your educational pursuits?

A lot of this came initially from my ordinary day-to-day…so a third of the story takes place at a Jesuit university, a third takes place in Taiwan, and a third takes place in an underemployed goofball’s apartment. Having been in all three of those places, I initially thought it would be easy to just write from experience…but as I kept doing the writing, I discovered that I didn’t know as much about all three places as I thought I did. The whole book’s about the perils of thinking you know and understand everything, so it was really a good object lesson in the fact that a story always becomes a symbol for itself. There was one major error I only caught on the last read-through, I’m embarrassed to say. I attributed the wrong idea to the wrong old dead greek dude. That’s fixed, but now I live in mortal fear that some professor from college or colleague from Taiwan is going to write me up informing me of another mistake. Something to the effect of “Dear William, I have read your novel and thought you would like to know that the entire history department at your Alma Mater considers you to be a total idiot.”

Ha. I feel as if you could then write, “You gave me my degree.” Shifting gears a bit, Synchronicity is a self-published title. At what point in the production of the book did you know you were going to self-publish, or was that always part of the plan?

Over the past year I queried more than 100 agents and publishers with very little results. I got some mild interest which of course freaked me out when it happened, a few professionals even read the whole thing and sent me back some impressions, but I never got anywhere significant. This book has always been a really heavy burden because from page one it’s not really the sort of book people write success stories about: A lot of writers keep up the hellish slog toward “legitimate” publication because they feel like they’ve got a blowout success on their hands, if only it lands on the right desk of the right publishing office. They think (or in some cases know) that they’ve got the next Harry Potter and the Sorcerer’s Stone on their hands. I on the other hand have known since I first started writing this that it was only going to appeal to a small subset of people who read long form fiction, which is itself a pretty small subset of the general population.
 William Dooling

So really I’ve always wanted to use this as a way to experiment with what the self-publishing industry is capable of. Think about it this way: If you consider a list of books that everyone “has got to read” you could literally populate it with thousands of books, more than anyone could reasonably read in a decade or a lifetime. So why write anything new at all? It’s awfully presumptuous. The answer I think is that while a new author has only a miniscule chance of saying something everyone ought to hear, most of us have something to say that will really matter to a few thousand people. So I can’t go around trying to sell a book with a hook like “So here’s a book that has psychics, demon summoning, witchcraft, and extended discussions on Taiwanese/Chinese geopolitics” to a mainstream publisher…but for a few thousand people, a book like that will really matter quite a bit. We now have the ability to sell directly to those few thousand people from a population of hundreds of millions of internet users. The challenge is now to reach them.

Right. The boom of the digital marketplace has made it possible for products that are a bit more niche or esoteric to find their prospective audience. Can you tell me a little bit about your editor, Benjamin Christensen? When and how did you make the decision to have an editor on the book?

I’ll try to say this without annoying too many writers.I would like to advance an observation that as a culture critic yourself you might be able to appreciate: television shows and comic books are starting to become the dominant medium for “serious, narrative art.” The final season of “Breaking Bad” for example, struck me as more powerful, deep, and compelling than any book on the 2013 best seller’s list. This is even truer if you go “down the chain” to less mass-market stuff. When a friend comes to me and says “you have got to read this comic book that just came out” I find I take it a lot more seriously than when someone says “you have got to read this e-book that just came out.” As a writer of fiction, I’m almost embarrassed to admit this. I think one of the reasons why is that it’s just easier to create a book, these days, than a comic book or a TV show, though I’m open to the idea that this may be wrong. We now have a world where a single human can create a book, and a culture that praises the individual…we ignore the fact that no great work of literature has been a one-man operation.

Early on, I knew that I wouldn’t be able to do this book the right way unless I treated it like a real project: something I would invest time and money in. Most importantly, something that another person could help me make. Ben is a great guy and the reason I hired him to help me with this is that I always know I can count on him to tell me when I’m doing something stupid. The writer/editor relationship is really collapsing in the modern world, even among mainstream authors. A lot of “real” novelists can tell you horror stories about editors getting laid off, swapped, or overloaded with work, and ruining excellent books as a result. I hate to be cynical but I think a big reason why is that the big publishing houses are realizing they can get away with what they consider to be “little mistakes” so long as they have a big household name behind a given book. The most egregious example in recent memory is Veronica Roth’s Insurgent which is chock-full of continuity errors that were cleaned up between the first run print edition and the first e-book edition. Really, really boneheaded stuff. They knew it would sell, so they didn’t take it seriously. A lot of people don’t care about the little stuff, but I wanted to, so I knew I’d have to hire an editor that knew what he was doing.

I do agree that it appears that comic books and television are becoming the go to format for narrative “art.” I wonder if that’s something cultural; many of the literary books we consider to be singular entities were produced as serial works, either via oral tradition (The Odyssey) or actually sold in volumes (The Life and Opinions of Tristram Shandy, a Gentleman). To end the interview, is there anything you would want to add in regards to Synchronicity (or its upcoming sequel)?

The sequel Cryptocracy will deal specifically with comic books and conspiracy theories. I am currently in the process of researching both. I encourage anyone who wants to tell me about either to write me at Theodidactus@gmail.com to suggest things for me to read up on.

William Dooling’s book, Synchronicity, can be purchased as an e-book on Amazon.com. I hope you all enjoyed the interview today.

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