Saturday, May 9, 2020

Ten minutes with Greg Hickey, Author and Forensics Professional

Author Greg Hickey.
One day I received two emails from two authors asking if I'd be interested in reading their books. As it turns out, Greg Hickey's The Friar's Lantern is a book about choices, an interactive story, and my first decision was to choose this one, in part because Hickey is a Borges fan and the genre is a literal garden of forking paths. (I happened to be halfway through two other books at the time, but put his in the fast lane once I got immerse. I will return to that other author's work soon.)

The interactive story genre has a new dimension. With hyperlinking, an eBook can take readers anywhere. You don't have to find Page 133 if you choose to run and Page 79 if you choose to stay. The hyperlinks take you there. Needless to say, the book was a fun read and in return I asked Mr. Hickey to share a little about himself and his writing.

EN: When did you first take an interest in writing stories?

Greg Hickey: In seventh grade, I wrote a short story for English class about the passengers of a shipwrecked cruise liner forced to coexist on a deserted island. It was a kind of grown-up Lord of the Flies. I had a lot of fun writing it, and it received some positive feedback from my teacher and classmates. So I decided I would spend the following summer expanding the story into a full novel.

I didn’t get very far. I had good intentions, but as a junior high student, I soon realized I wanted to be outside playing with my friends, not typing away on the old Apple computer in our basement. But that experience kindled my passion for telling stories.

EN: Briefly share how you came to be a serious writer?

GH: I took a creative writing class as a senior in high school, which further fueled my passion for writing. During that class, I started the practice of keeping a writing journal to record any story ideas that came to me. I continued to use that journal through college and beyond.

In college, I took a course called Dostoevsky and Popular Culture, in which we read several of Dostoevsky’s works and then watched their film adaptations. Our final assignment was to write a film treatment for The Brothers Karamazov. When the semester ended, I continued to work on my film idea outside of class. I wrote a complete screenplay based on my treatment and later modified the script into a wholly original story titled Vita.

But I would say I really became a serious writer in the year after I graduated from college. I had played baseball in college and accepted a position as a player and coach for a team in Sundsvall, Sweden after I graduated. My responsibilities there were limited to about three practices and three games per week, so I had a lot of free time. During that summer, I wrote most of the first draft of my debut novel Our Dried Voices, based on an idea I had recorded in my writing journal three years before that.

EN: You’ve now written how many books? Do you have a full-time job and write on the side, or have you been able to make it as a career writer?

GH: I have published two novels (Our Dried Voices and The Friar’s Lantern) and one novella (The Theory of Anything). And I’m putting the finishing touches on a third novel titled Parabellum.

I have a full-time day job as a forensic scientist with the Illinois State Police. I work in the firearms section of a laboratory in Chicago, where I analyze guns, bullets and cartridge cases from crimes. I write during my lunch breaks, in the evenings and on the weekends.

EN: Are your books self-published or do you have an agent and a publisher? How did those decisions come about?

GH: Our Dried Voices and The Friar’s Lantern were traditionally published by two different small presses. The Theory of Anything was self-published and Parabellum will be self-published as well.

When I was starting out as a writer, I assumed the best way to reach as many readers as possible was through traditional publishing. That may be true if you’re Stephen King or you place a title with one of the big publishing houses. But that was what I believed was the best approach, and I spent months sending query letters to publishers and agents. When I got rejected, I revised Our Dried Voices and sent out more queries. It was a great thrill to get that first acceptance letter!

After having two novels traditionally published, I found that most of my sales came through my own outreach efforts. It’s great to have the stamp of legitimacy that comes from being traditionally published, and I appreciated having someone in my corner when it came to producing and selling my work. But while I know the publishers worked to promote my books, I also realized publishers will always be splitting their efforts among all the titles they offer. In contrast, I know my stories better than anyone and am dedicated solely to my work and no one else’s.

The Theory of Anything was a test case for me, to see if I could self-publish a short novel and have it look professional. I feel good about the way that book turned out, and I’m excited to do it on a larger scale with Parabellum. I’m still going through the steps I would for a traditionally published novel—hiring an editor, a cover designer, etc.—but I’ll be in control of everything and won’t have to accept a percentage of the profits from a publisher.

EN: Your book The Friar’s Lantern is intriguing on several levels. It’s an interactive story in which the reader decides where the story will go by making choices along the way in a series of forking paths. What prompted you to try this kind of story telling?

GH: I distinctly remember having the idea to write an interactive novel for a grown-up audience almost fifteen years ago, when I was in college. Up to that point, my experience with interactive fiction had been limited to the original choose-your-own-adventure books and related titles, which were written for younger readers. Bringing the genre to an adult audience wasn’t a new idea—I since discovered that other authors have written grown-up stories in this genre—but it was new for me, and I hung onto it until I could decide what I wanted that book to be about.

At the time I had that idea, I was reading a book of short stories by Jorge Luis Borges. For those who aren’t familiar with Borges’s work, he wrote stories that used science fiction, fantasy and magical realism to explore creative ideas to their full potential. His stories were often mazelike in the way they plunged deeper and deeper into an idea, if not mazelike in structure (the story collection I was reading was actually called Labyrinths). So I’m guessing the idea of a labyrinthine exploration of an idea also inspired me to tackle this interactive, multiple storyline structure.

Over time, I decided it would be a nice synergy to make a novel in which the reader has to make choices focus on that act of choosing. I began to draw on various examples of choice—in philosophy, science, law, artificial intelligence—and incorporate them into what I wanted the story to become.

EN: I assume that hyperlinks or hypertext is what made this possible. Can you explain what you did to build this document?

GH: Yes, the ebook format is a helpful tool for reading an interactive novel because the reader can use hyperlinks to get to the appropriate page instead of having to flip through physical pages. My publisher created the hyperlinks for the ebook, so I didn’t have any influence on the actual construction of that format.

However, the challenge of navigating through an interactive novel became very apparent when I was drafting the manuscript. I knew the page numbers would change as I revised my drafts and as the novel went to print or was formatted for ebook. So instead of page numbers for each choice, I labeled each new scene with a unique three-letter code. That approach made it easier for me to find my way when I was revising the novel, and it was simple to replace those codes with the appropriate page numbers when the book was ready to publish.

EN: Stylistically there’s an Earle Stanley Gardner starkness in the way your story is told. Was this creator of Perry Mason mysteries an influence?

GH: Thank you very much! That’s high praise.

I actually haven’t read any Erle Stanley Gardner novels, but I’m aware of his renown and influence. But as a forensic scientist, I do work in criminal investigation and I am occasionally called to testify in court about my findings. So even though The Friar’s Lantern isn’t entirely a crime novel or courtroom drama, it does draw on my experiences in those fields.

EN: Who have been your biggest influences as a writer?

GH: I try to write entertaining stories for smart readers. So I’ve always gravitated towards authors who combine an engaging plot and compelling characters with the exploration of a bigger idea. I mentioned the importance of that high school creative writing class. The summer before that school year, I was assigned to read Ayn Rand’s The Fountainhead for a course called “Ethics in Literature.” I think the combination of those two events built upon the passion for writing I had discovered in junior high school.

During that school year, I was reading and discussing a book with an engaging story and an overt philosophical agenda while also learning the craft of writing stories. Plus, one of the messages in The Fountainhead is that people should be free to pursue the work that makes them happy. All of those events inspired me to continue writing as long as I enjoyed it and made me see that there was a place for the kind of stories I wanted to tell.

Other influences include writers like George Orwell, Albert Camus, David Foster Wallace—authors who use their fiction to explore deeper questions about who we are, the world around us and how we should live. I’m not sure they’re stylistic influences, but they inspired me to create the kind of stories I have written so far.

EN: You were a professional baseball player? What position and what countries or teams?

GH: Yes, I was paid to play baseball, although I never made enough money that it could have become a serious career. I mostly played shortstop through high school. In college (Pomona College, a small Division III school in southern California), I moved around the infield and also played some catcher.

When I was a junior in college, I studied abroad at the University of Cape Town (South Africa). There, I met a baseball player on a local team and joined that team until the semester ended. After college, I took a job as a player/coach for a team in Sweden, as I mentioned earlier. When their season ended in the fall, I went back to Cape Town for the Southern Hemisphere summer and played a full season there. While abroad, I played mostly third base and shortstop.

EN: Very cool. You and I not only connect on Borges and the other authors you mentioned, but I also got JV and varsity letters playing shortstop. I too, dreamed of playing baseball when I grew up at one time. Where can people find more of your books?  

GH: Readers can download sample chapters of Our Dried Voices, The Friar’s Lantern and Parabellum on my website There, they can also get a free download of The Theory of Anything, which is a prequel to The Friar’s Lantern.

Our Dried Voices and The Friar’s Lantern are also available for purchase in ebook and paperback on Amazon:
Our Dried Voices
The Friar’s Lantern

Related Links
My first online Labyrinth, inspired by Borges, an experiment hyperlinks. (Entrance is at the bottom of the page.
Seven Really Cool Internet Finds Related to Borges

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