Welcome to Cheri's 20 Questions! My interviewee today is the amazing Susan Kuchinskas. Susan is the author of Chimera Catalyst (Pandamoon Publishing, 2017), a science fiction/detective novel mashup that takes place in near-future California. She works as a technology journalist and often extrapolates from current science and tech breakthroughs. She also wrote The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy and Love(New Harbinger, 2009), and writes erotica under the pen name Lynx Canon.
Tell us a little something about what you write: I like to mash up genres: My 2017 Pandamoon novel, Chimera Catalyst, and its upcoming sequel, with the working title of Singularity Syndrome, are science fiction/detective novels that take place in a near-future California. I've been writing neo-noir stories lately, soon to be published in the anthologies Faultlines and Switchblade. I also wrote The Chemistry of Connection: How the Oxytocin Response Can Help You Find Trust, Intimacy and Love. I work as a technology journalist and content specialist for tech companies, and that's an excellent pipeline for science fiction ideas.
Cheri: What is the first book that made you cry?
Susan: Maybe Winnie the Pooh? I had the original editions, written in the 1920s. They are quite literary and different from the Disney cartoon version. When I was a kid, I didn't get all the subtext, but when I reread them as a tween, the bittersweet ending, when Christopher Robin has to grow up and leave the magical forest and his bear, just killed me.
Cheri: Does writing energize or exhaust you?
Susan: I'm afraid it tires me—although I have learned to quit before I get exhausted. I wish I was one of those people who "just have to write." I want to write, and I love having written. I am still learning to manage that balky part of me that says, "I just don't feel like it." Sometimes the writing part of my brain feels like a teenager whom I'm nagging to do a chore. I have tried bribing myself with M&Ms, but the best tactic I've found is promising myself I only need to do X number of words or write for Y amount of time and then I can stop.
Cheri: If you could tell your younger writing self anything, what would it be?
Susan: Just keep writing; but, what's even more important, connect with other writers. It's that juice that flows between people when you share your work and theirs, your writing process, your hopes and fears, that invigorates your own work. And having those genuine connections will make it easier if you want to publish. You'll have true friends who want to support you by blurbing, writing reviews, introducing you to agents. Writing doesn't have to be lonely.
Cheri: How did publishing your first book change your process of writing?
Susan: It helped me to stick to it. It made creative writing less separate from my day-job writing, made me feel more "professional" about it.
Cheri: What was the best money you ever spent as a writer?
Susan: That has to be getting my first real computer, a Mac. I have really terrible handwriting. I've got a couple travel journals that I literally cannot read. And, I find it physically uncomfortable to write. But I'm an excellent typist. Being able to write fast and, even better, move things around on the screen, takes the most awful labor out of the process.
Cheri: What was an early experience where you learned that language had power?
Susan: I was bullied cruelly when I was in fifth and sixth grade. My teachers would humiliate me in front of the class and, as I realize now, tacitly incite the other kids to do the same. Unfortunately, this was the power of language used against me. And it's made it very difficult for me to speak up. Even now, in certain situations, that gets triggered. These days, I try to throw praise around as much as I can, because I've learned that we all need it, crave it. It's the best way to help people succeed.
Cheri: What’s your favourite under-appreciated novel?
Susan: I'm not allowed to say Chimera Catalyst, right? Okay, then Silence of the Lambs by Thomas Harris. Yes, it was a huge movie and a best seller when it was published. It has a huge, juicy story. But what might be underappreciated is Harris' characters. There are no spear carriers in this book. Everyone has a compelling backstory and a subplot that's resolved at the end. And, if you read closely, he even has compassion for the serial killer, who, like all serial killers, suffered abuse as a child.
Cheri: As a writer, what would you say is your mascot/avatar/spirit animal?
Susan: I have a wonderful garden, and I'm always sneaking out to watch what's going on. Sometimes it's the bees; right now, it's the drama of the monarch caterpillars on the milkweed. So maybe my spirit animal is … insects?
Cheri: How many published, unpublished, and half-finished books do you have?
Susan: Hah. I have three unpublished novels and a memoir sitting around. I actually think they're pretty good, but agents and publishers have disagreed. With all the tools to self-publish and distribute your work, there is no excuse for my not getting them out into the world. Then, I have three published books, one from the 1990s about mobile apps for business; Chemistry of Connection; and Chimera Catalyst.I just finished the sequel to Chimera,Singularity Syndrome. So, I have absolutely no unfinished books! Weird feeling that doesn't come too often.
Cheri: What does literary success look like to you?
Susan: Sometimes, nothing less than the New Yorker will do. Other times, I am so grateful that someone has read something I've written. It's very hard not to compare myself to others. I need to dance that line between ambition—the drive to do better, which is important—and envy, which can kill creativity.
Cheri: What do you feel is the best way to market your books?
Susan: Facebook has been a great tool. I don't do Facebook ads, but just participating and letting people know about what I'm doing. Pandamoon Publishing, my publisher, does a lot of organic Twitter promotion. It's hard for me to get a sense of how that works. I did a lot of outreach to book bloggers and reviewers, and I think that is a very important way to spread the word.
Cheri: What kind of research do you do, and how much time do you typically spend researching before beginning a new book?
Susan: I have a mental ideas file and, if I'm actually working on a book, I'll incorporate news items or research as it comes up. Singularity Syndrome is about artificial intelligence and the microbiome—the community of organisms that live in the human gut. So, I tracked news about that research, as well as keeping an eye on the constant news about AI. And Google is a wonderful thing. As I write, I'll look stuff up.
Cheri: How do you select the names for your characters?
Susan: I work as a journalist, so I get tons of press releases and also read a lot of niche news in the tech sector. As I read these, I collect interesting or resonant names and paste them into a file. I'll mix and match the first and last names, so that I'm not using any one person's real name. However, when I started Chimera Catalyst, I didn't do that: I used a real person's first and last name for the character of Miraluna Rose. After it was accepted by Pandamoon Publishing, I asked that person if it was okay. She wasn't comfortable with it, so I came up with Miraluna Rose which has similar rhythm and vowels, plus the same evocative flavor.
Cheri: Do you hide secrets (or Easter Eggs) in your books for people to find?
Susan: There are references that only some people will get. For example, in Singularity, I named an AI Mercredi, which is an homage to Delay in Transit, a science fiction story from the 1950s by F.L. Wallace. His protagonist has a personal assistant that's like a modern smartphone. Only he's the only one who has one, and it's embedded in his skull. to His AI is named Dimanche, which is French for Sunday. Mercredi is French for Wednesday.
Cheri: What was your hardest scene to write?
Susan: There's a battle scene in Singularity. This is completely new for me. When I'm watching a movie, I tend to zone out during the chases or battles. I read a few articles on how to write a battle and tried to visualize it as a movie.
Cheri: What is the most difficult part of your artistic process?
Susan: Plot, baby! I always have a good sense of the overall arc of a novel, who the characters will be, how it will end. But I struggle with getting from point A to point Z. I know that every scene needs to be there for a reason—ideally, two or three reasons. But … what, where?????? Chimera and my second book in the series, with the working title of Singularity Syndrome, follow the detective novel format. But this can be very … formulaic, if the detective just goes from witness to witness. I keep rereading Raymond Chandler. That's usually his simple plot, but it's his ability to show character and evoke place in just a few words that makes his work so stunning.
Cheri: How long, on average, does it take you to write a book?
Susan: Usually about a year, although I often have a hiatus—um, writer's block—during that period. If I can write a thousand words a day, several days a week, I am really happy with myself.
Cheri: What is your favourite childhood book?
Susan: I really don't know how to answer that. I read constantly from the time I was four. I mean, constantly. I don't remember my parents reading to me, although I know they did. As soon as I could, I started devouring books. So that early reading is a blur. I do remember crying during Bambi, but doesn't everyone?
Cheri: Where/when do you find yourself most inspired?
Susan: Oddly enough, it's often when I'm at a lecture or conference presentation. Maybe because the presentation occupies the analytical part of my brain, allowing the intuitive part to run free. I have all sorts of interesting ideas while I'm listening to someone. When it comes to things like plot points or story problems, sometimes the answer pops into my head during physical activity, like gardening or walking the dog.
Cheri: Lastly, do you have any advice for aspiring writers?
Susan: Keep going. Do not be afraid. Share your work only with people who will support you. Not everyone will like what you wrote. Not everyone likes anything. Ann Rice supposedly submitted Interview with the Vampire to literally hundreds of agents before getting signed. Keep going.
Cheri: Thank you so much for answering my questions, Susan; it's been a pleasure having you!
Check out Susan's Amazon Page here.
Come back next Thursday for another edition of Cheri's 20 Questions!
Award winning historical romance author, Acquisitions Manager for Pandamoon Publishing, wife, and stay-at-home mom of four. Chocoholic, nerd, & bath bomb enthusiast.