Welcome to Cheri's 20 Questions! My interviewee today is the ever-talented Seth Augenstein. Seth is a writer of fiction and non-fiction. His fiction has appeared in Writer's Digest, Squalorly, the Molotov Cocktail, the Kudzu Review, Ginosko, Bete Noire, and the Manawaker Studio Flash Fiction podcast, among a few other tiny presses. His first novel, Project 137, is forthcoming in 2019 from Pandamoon Publishing. A journalist by day, he spent a decade writing for New Jersey newspapers, most recently at The Star-Ledger. Currently he writes about true-life horror and crime solving for Forensic Magazine.
Tell us a little something about what you write: I write stories and books that seek out the moments of epiphany. I think it was James Joyce who called his shorter tales “epiphanies.” I know that even in my day job (reporter, writing about crime and science) that it is always the moments of clarity and realization which really tell us the most about somebody – and really, about ourselves.
Cheri: What is the first book that made you cry?
Seth: I think it would have to be one of the Roald Dahl books. Especially, I thought that Matilda was really distressing at a tender young age. Although there are other moments that ring out. During Sunday School, when I went to church a lot, some of the tribulations of the Old Testament really were kind of upsetting. Job had a really tough time, and God seemed to kind of do it all as a lark…
Cheri: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Seth: Both. I generally write at night, and it kind of depletes whatever energy I have left at the end of a long day. But when I have a huge breakthrough in a story, it kind of suddenly seems to align the stars in the courses, to borrow a phrase, and make the entire universe seem to revolve much smoother.
Cheri: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Seth: Rewrite and revise way more than you ever thought possible. Salvation, and publication, is only for the restless and unsatisfied.
Cheri: How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Seth: My book has yet to come out. So far, my writing process is pretty similar – nighttime, with some Chopin or Joy Division on the speakers, or silence, as I try to boil things down to abstraction (to borrow another phrase).
Cheri: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Seth: The best money I ever spent was the 13 or some odd dollars for Stephen King’s “On Writing.” There are people who know the craft, and then there’s the Bard of Maine.
Cheri: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Seth: I remember vaguely trying to get some innocent person out of detention in the third grade – and ending up there after-school, myself. I made a friend of that person, eventually. So the double-edged sword became clear rather early on, I think.
Cheri: What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel?
Seth: The Good Soldier Svejk by Jaroslav Hasek. That, to me, is equally responsible for Monty Python, Catch-22 and all the best 20thcentury humor of desperation and chaos.
Cheri: As a writer, what would you say is your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Seth: I have a cat named Ambrose (after Bierce), a cat named Calliope (after Homer’s muse), and a pitbull named Mishima (after the Japanese writer, one of my favorites). They’re all spirits haunting me – especially around dawn, howling for their food bowls as I rouse from my dreams.
Cheri: How many published, unpublished, and half-finished books do you have?
Seth: I wrote four novels before Project 137 (forthcoming from Pandamoon Publishing). I wrote one that was from the vantage point of a developmentally disabled young person called Bent Pennies for Neurotic Slots, a one where a husband tries to kill his wife continually called The Gremlin (A Love Story), the third one from a terrorist’s point of view (I can’t remember the title right now), and a fourth one about a reporter cracking open a government conspiracy called Proverbs for Paranoids (a rip-off from Thomas Pynchon). They’re pretty much unreadable, from what I remember. But I learned a lot, failing these first few times.
Cheri: What does literary success look like to you?
Seth: Doing something that hasn’t been done before, and writing something that changes lives utterly. That’s the only real success with the written word – tinkering with the human heart.
Cheri: What do you feel is the best way to market your books?
Seth: I would guess the best way to market books is to find the right reviewers, and the right audience. Project 137 has a bunch of WWII and 20th Century history in it, but there’s also a quite a bit of sci-fi and medical conspiracy elements, and much of it is set in the year 2087. So I need to find the right minds to commune with one those multiple fronts, in my particular case.
Cheri: What kind of research do you do, and how much time do you typically spend researching before beginning a new book?
Seth: I read entire books, pretty much, and I measure them by the foot. For Project 137, it was about two feet of books stacked on my desk which factored in. This latest manuscript – set in 19th and early 20th Century Mongolia, and involving a kind of evil doppelganger of the Dalai Lama – is more involved, and is about three feet of books.
Cheri: How do you select the names for your characters?
Seth: The muse visits me, but I try to rein it in. It’s hard to not give into the Dickensian propensity to name a villain Uriah Heep or Mr. Micawber, for example, but if the name fits…
Cheri: Do you hide secrets (or Easter Eggs) in your books for people to find?
Seth: I riff off of all sorts of language. There are nods to Warren Zevon lyrics, Edgar Allan Poe stories, and even some choice TV moments in some of my stories. It all goes into the hopper, and comes out in the brew.
Cheri: What was your hardest scene to write?
Seth: As a teenager, shortly after my grandfather died, I wrote a very immature story about his time getting shipwrecked on the island of Crete in the 1930s. It was based on a recording I had made of him in high school, and I remember visiting that (cassette) tape as I wrote the story was quite difficult.
Cheri: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Seth: The most difficult part is finding time, between cats and dogs and kids and family and yards and the ever-present bills coming into my inbox. But this is a minor complaint – you find the time for things you are compelled to do, you know?
Cheri: How long, on average, does it take you to write a book?
Seth: I think it just depends? Project 137 took about seven years, considering it was rewritten about three full times. The one going now is about four months old and is about halfway done, even with all the research. It practically writes itself. I’ve gotten quicker, and probably better.
Cheri: What is your favourite childhood book?
Seth: My favorite childhood book has to be the particular Signet edition of Edgar Allan Poe’s stories which made me want to be a writer. But coming up right alongside it is The House with a Clock in its Walls by John Bellairs.
Cheri: Where/when do you find yourself most inspired?
Seth: I find myself most inspired in my office, at my desk, sitting underneath my print of Les Demoiselles d’Avignon by Picasso, listening to some music – as long as the cat’s litterbox across the room has been cleared recently. As of this writing, it has not, and it’s nearly suffocating. I’m glad this is the penultimate question, actually.
Cheri: Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Seth: Force yourself to do it, everyday. No matter how much you want to binge watch something on Netflix. And don’t stop rewriting until you think it’s so good that you’ll puke. Anything less on either account means you won’t succeed.
Cheri: Thank you so much for answering my questions, Seth; it's been a pleasure having you!
You can find Seth on Amazon here.
Come on back next week for another edition of Cheri's 20 Questions!
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Award winning historical romance author, wife, and stay-at-home mom of four. Chocoholic, nerd, & bath bomb enthusiast.