Please welcome Jason Sheehan to The Qwillery as part of the 2013 Debut Author Challenge
Interviews. A Private Little War
, Jason's fiction debut, was published on June 11 by 47North.
About A Private Little WarA Private Little War
TQ: Welcome to The Qwillery.
Jason: Glad to be here. Let’s dance.
TQ: When and why did you start writing?
Jason: Doing it for kicks started young. Maybe 10 or 12. What got me started was dull afternoons at the bowling alley and my early ineptitude at videogames.
I can distinctly recall school breaks when my mom would drag me along with her to her bowling league. She’d let me loose in the alley and give me, like, a buck in quarters, which would immediately go into the first arcade game I could find. 15 minutes later, I’d be broke and looking at the clock and wondering what the hell I was supposed to do with the next three hours. My first masterpieces were written on bar napkins with those tiny score-keeping pencils. Later I learned to bring my own pens and paper. But I like to think that if things had gone just a little bit differently, I’d be a pro bowler right now—with one of those bowling gloves, a magnificent beer gut and a shelf full of third-place trophies.
Getting started as a pro was a somewhat different story. But let’s just say that, when I started, I was right back to writing on bar napkins again.
TQ: What would you say is your most interesting writing quirk?
Jason: That I have rarely produced anything fit for human consumption while the sun was up? That’s not really a quirk, though…
Oh, how ‘bout this? Every single thing I’ve ever written that was longer than a newspaper article has its own soundtrack—a bunch of songs that I listened to over and over again during the writing just to keep the tempo and the rhythm of the language right—and that I often assemble the soundtrack before I write a single word.
TQ: Are you a plotter or a pantser?
Jason: Used to be a wicked pantser. Thought plotting was for those that didn’t trust in their own ability to handle weirdness and the unexpected.
To a certain extent, I’m still the same way, but since I’ve had to start doing things like writing pitches and assembling outlines for publishers and editors, I have begun to find some comfort in knowing that somewhere a document exists which details an endpoint and shows a way to get there.
Not the only way to get there, mind you, but one way. When you know where you’re going, a map is just a distraction. But when hopelessly lost, they can be handy for getting back on track.
TQ: What is the most challenging thing for you about writing?
Jason: Finding that endpoint mentioned above. My characters are stubborn sons of bitches who fight like soap opera starlets to stay in the script, often refuse to die when instructed and just never shut up.
TQ: Describe A Private Little War in 140 characters or less.
Jason: There was a time when the biplane was man’s most perfect killing machine. For the natives of the planet Iaxo, that time is today.
TQ: What inspired you to write A Private Little War?
Jason: An old magazine or newspaper article, vaguely remembered, that I just couldn’t let go.
See, back when I was a younger man, I had some idea that maybe, someday, I would be a writer. In anticipation of this, I made every attempt at comporting myself like one. I smoked and drank, stayed up late, read The Great Gatsby a hundred times and made poor life choices. But I’d also do things like find interesting articles in newspapers and magazines that inspired me for some reason, cut them out and stick them in a folder for later perusal. A lot of these had to do with spaceships, lasers and girls. One of them had to do with biplanes.
The way I remember it, it was a piece about the aftermath of the Gulf War. The first one, back in 1991. And how, after having his air force and infrastructure destroyed by the American military, Saddam Hussein went looking for biplanes and biplane pilots for his fight with the Kurds. Why? Because a biplane didn’t need a runway. It didn’t need air control. And when you’re basically just dropping poison gas on people riding horses and fighting with bolt-action rifles, the situation doesn’t really require a MIG. It was a question of least application of force, and for some reason, I found that fascinating—so much so that the idea of it hung with me for 20 years.
So flash forward. My agent, East Coast Dave, and I are talking about stuff. We’re trying to think of a project to fill an unexpected gap in my schedule and I mention this story to him. I tell him that I think it could make a pretty cool science fiction story—which is a pretty serious departure because, to this point, I was known only as a food writer.
But Dave is a good guy (and more than a little crazy) so he says, “Sure, give it a try.” We figure that if I can finish the thing, he’ll try to sell it. Maybe we’ll both make a little beer money in the process.
So I dive in. 500-some pages later, I resurface with something entirely unlike what I’d intended to write. A story about biplanes and least application of force, sure, but also about aliens and sex and death and spaceships and abandonment and toast. We tinker with it, we sell it, and here we are.
The funny thing? Come to find, I don’t think the story I was remembering was actually correct. I think the article in question—the one about Iraq and the kurds and the biplanes—was about modern times at all. Because in 1940-something, during the Anglo-Iraqi war, a bunch of old Gloster Gladiators were used in combat by both sides. And in 1949, the Iraqi air force used them in attacks against the Kurds. I only found this out much later, and have never been able to find another reference anywhere to biplanes being used in the 1990’s.
Still, that’s where A Private Little War came from. Poor memory, forgetfulness, mistaken transmission of information, the usual.
TQ: What sort of research did you do for A Private Little War?
Jason: I’m a journalist by trade, so I did lots. And was still making edits regarding the technical details of the planes right up until the final draft.
TQ: Who was the easiest character to write and why? The hardest and why?
Jason: Fenn, the main character’s best friend, was the easiest. He just bled right on the page. He was as real to me as anyone I’ve ever known. And the toughest was probably Vic, the chief mechanic and main female character. I’ll attribute that difficulty to being nearly 40 and still not knowing hardly anything about girls—as my wife will readily attest to. I also don’t know a hell of a lot about mechanics, but that was less problematic.
TQ: Without giving anything away, what is/are your favorite scene(s) in A Private Little War?
Jason: As a writer, I love the first chapter. I didn’t write it first—I actually came up with it while pretty far along in the editing process—but I think that only made it better. It sets a tone better than anything I have ever written before.
As a reader and appreciator of the absurd, though, there’s this little throwaway scene about a third of the way through the book where the pilots’ commanding officer, Ted Prinzi, is walking back to his tent and he steps on a slug. He gets so pissed at the slug—because it’s winter and the ground is frozen and they’re on a planet a hundred light years from Earth so the slug plainly has no business being where it is—that he just loses it. It’s actually the scene where Ted starts going insane and the scene on which the emotional tone of the story hinges. Where everything starts to go wrong.
And it’s all about a slug.
TQ: What's next?
Jason: I’d love to say something like “a long vacation” or “a 30-city book tour on my publisher’s dime,” but the truth? Another project, which will actually be launching frighteningly soon as an Amazon serial. It’s called “Tales From The Radiation Age” and is just a hardcore geek fever dream of giant robots and dinosaurs and spies and ray guns and bad language and a blimp fight. It’ll be launching in July as a bi-weekly serial and everyone reading this should pony up and buy the sucker the minute it comes out because it’s cheap and weird and awesome.
And did I mention it has a blimp fight? Who doesn’t love a good blimp fight?
TQ: Thank you for joining us at The Qwillery.
Jason: Thanks for the opportunity. Been a pleasure.
47North, June 11, 2013
Trade Paperback and Kindle eBook, 374 pages
He felt something in his belly twist up like cold fingers curling into a fist. This is it, he’d thought. This is when it all goes bad…About Jason
Private “security” firm Flyboy, Inc., landed on the alien planet of Iaxo with a mission: In one year, they must quash an insurrection; exploit the ancient enmities of an indigenous, tribal society; and kill the hell out of one group of natives to facilitate negotiations with the surviving group—all over 110 million acres of mixed terrain.
At first, the double-hush, back-burner project seemed to be going well. With all the advantages they had going for them—a ten-century technological lead on the locals, the logistical support of a shadowy and powerful private military company, and aid from similar outfits already on the ground—a quick combat victory seemed reasonable. An easy-in, easy-out mission that would make them very, very rich.
But the ancient tribal natives of Iaxo refuse to roll over and give up their planet. What was once a strategic coup has become a quagmire of cost over-runs and blown deadlines, leaving the pilots of Flyboy, Inc., on an embattled distant planet, waiting for support and a ride home that may never come….
The debut novel from acclaimed, James Beard Award–winning food critic Jason Sheehan, A Private Little War is the dark tale of a deadly war being waged in secrecy—and the struggle to stay sane in a world that makes no sense. A Catch-22 for a new generation, A Private Little War is sure to become a science fiction classic.
Jason Sheehan is a former dishwasher, fry cook, saucier, chef, restaurant critic, food editor, reporter, and porn store employee. He was born and raised in Rochester, New York, and though he has since fled the Rust Belt repeatedly, he still harbors an intense fondness for brutal winters, Friday fish fries, Irish bars, and urban decay. As a young nerd, he fell hard for Star Wars, Doctor Who, William Gibson, Roger Zelazny, and the spaceship-and-raygun novels his father would leave on his bedside table. He dreamed of someday befriending a robot, stealing a spaceship, and wandering off across the stars in search of alien ladies and high adventure. Since that hasn’t happened (yet…), he now writes about it instead—which is almost as good. And yet despite all this, his mother still kinda thinks he should’ve been an orthodontist. He is a James Beard award-winning journalist and the current food editor for Philadelphia Magazine. A Private Little War is his debut novel.Twitter