James R. Bottino’s life-long interests mix esoteric and disparate fields of study. By day, his foremost influences have been the study of literature and the art of writing. Following these pursuits led him to read anything he could in these areas and to complete every under-graduate and graduate course available to him in the field of creative writing. Following this line, he taught high school English throughout the 1990’s, focusing on the teaching of writing.
By night, when no one was looking, he studied computer systems / networks, computer languages, and operating systems, learning anything he could in these areas, first as a hobby, and, finally, as a career. This mixture of literature and technology served as the inspiration for the The Canker Death’s protagonist, Petor.
James currently lives in a suburb of Chicago, with his wife, daughter, two Australian cattle dogs and far, far too many books and abstruse computers.
You can visit his website at TheCankerDeath.com
Q: Give us an example of a typical writing day.
Like most authors, I have a day-job, so I have to find a way to work-in time for writing. I tried writing after coming home from work, but I found that I was too drained both mentally and sometimes physically to be particularly creative. So, I started a routine alternating writing with exercise. Three days a week I wake up at 4:00am and exercise for around an hour and a half before going to work, and on a different three days of the week I wake up at 4:00am and write until I have to start getting ready for work. I normally get between an hour and two hours of writing in during the writing sessions. The challenge is when the writing days are non-consecutive because in that case I’m spending a good deal of time reading my notes, remembering where I was going and getting my mind into the flow and mood of what is happening in the story. Some of the writing days are spent re-reading, planning and writing notes. Some are used for writing back-story that never appears in the finished story, but which I need to have in order to make things feel real and consistent – to find the motivations behind why things are the way they are in the actual story. And, of course, the most fun days are those when I know I have my mental ducks in a row and I can just write. I usually stick to what I’ve planned, but, sometimes, I get into a zone and come up with stuff I never imagined I was going to write. One unexpected thing that I found during this routine of alternating exercise with writing is that I end up testing out ideas, solving conundrums and creating new avenues or even universes on the days I am not writing. I know there is a good deal of research to show that exercise helps with thinking, but I had no idea when I started just how integral the off-days were going to be for the work of creating a story.
Q: Do you write on a computer or with pen/pencil and paper?
So, this might surprise some people, I guess, but despite being a professional computer geek who really ought to know how to do everything on a computer, I really have to work with both the computer and with pen and paper. The bulk of my actual writing is done on the computer, but my editing and a good deal of the creation and planning of my stories is done with pen and ink. I’ve tried using a word processor to add-in notes to a manuscript, but somehow, it doesn’t work for me; it’s too distracting. I generally use the computer to get things to where I think they’re pretty good, then print out what I have, double-spaced, on one side of the paper. Maybe the English teacher in me takes over at this point because it’s when I’m working with real paper that I find all sorts of mistakes. It’s also when I get a good deal of my ideas on how things can be improved. I often fill the backs of pages, one after another, with notes and ideas and then go back and integrate these edits and additions into the story using the computer.
Q: Do you work from an outline?
This is actually a point of contention with me. I spent all of my college years studying the art of creative writing, even to the point where professors had to create individual classes for me because I’d taken everything the university offered. In every class and every book I read a formula for writing novels that consisted of: writing an outline, writing the first chapter, writing the last chapter, then following the outline to connect the first and last chapters. Whenever I tried this I felt so stifled and bored, I couldn’t continue. Then my mother-in-law gave me Stephen King’s book On Writing. I’d shunned Stephen King, I’m ashamed to admit, because I had been operating under the impression that any serious English major ought to shun Stephen King as some sort of tacit, unwritten rule. The fact of the matter is that King has amazing ideas in his novels. So, I read this book, and, while I’m certainly paraphrasing, he completely disregarded what all the other experts agreed upon. In the book he said that he gets an idea and starts writing and sees where it goes. He said that he typically has no idea how his books are going to end until he is about fifty pages from the conclusion. Now, this was not a writing style that I could fully adopt; my style is much more of a hybrid, but it did give me permission, in a way, to, on the one hand, have a general outline in my head of where things were going, but, on the other, to disregard it whenever I thought of something else that was better than I had initially planned. So, I guess the short answer is: I do work from an ever-evolving, often unwritten, outline that I routinely abandon and dynamically re-create.
Q: What’s next for you?
I don’t want to say that I’m the sort who does something once and then moves on to something else – because it’s not true, most of the time – but I know that, in addition to future novels targeted at adults, I want to write young adult and children’s literature too. To that end, the novel on which I’m currently working is targeting the young adult market. It’s no coincidence that my daughter is entering the target age for the book I’m writing. I have to have an ideal reader in mind as I write, that one person who I really want to love the story. For The Canker Death, that ideal reader was my wife. For my next book, as yet untitled, my ideal reader is my daughter.
Q: What are a few of your favorite genres and why?
My reading tastes are pretty diverse. I love classic literature: Melville, Shakespeare, Hemingway and the like – the sort of stuff that is taught in schools. This isn’t too surprising since I was a high school English teacher for many years. I love how classic authors can take an often simple story and layer it with allegory so that everything represents not only itself, but an entire higher plane of story that is comprised of allusions, themes and symbols. Coupled with this love of classics is a love of entertaining stories, frequently of the fantasy or sci-fi genres. I adore fun, fantastical literature. Fast-paced stories with cool ideas really grab my attention and hold it. I can usually read two or three such books to one classic novel. Interestingly, this love of rather disparate genres became my inspiration for The Canker Death. I wrote the book in an effort to marry these two forms into one.
Q: Do you have a writer’s studio? Describe it for us and what is the view you see from the window?
I do have a writer’s studio. I have a ten foot by ten foot second-floor bedroom that is packed first, and foremost, with an L-shaped computer/writing desk. Stacked next to the desk on one side is a tower of computers, an old G4 Mac, on top of my main Athlon 64 system, on top of a SunBlade 1000, with a few tiny embedded computer systems piled on top of the stack. Behind me are bookshelves filled with antiquarian books; dictionaries and other reference books of various sorts; classic literature books from college and elsewhere; and intermingled with all of these are computer and networking manuals for esoteric operating systems, computer languages and server daemons. The floor is typically littered with laptop computers, keyboards and various computer components, mixed with unabridged dictionaries, Latin translations and piles and piles of pages of manuscripts all inscribed with thick scribblings of notes and edits. Crammed in the corner is an old blue armchair with a matching, faded ottoman. When this, too, is not covered in paper, it’s where I sit to read, to sort out ideas and, often times, to nap.
My windows are covered in thick, light-blocking shades. Since I’m photophobic, I always have these blinds shut during the day and open after dark. If I stand at these windows, I can see my own back yard below and the yards of my neighbors, off in the distance I can hear the hum of the trains at the station about a mile down the road. In the very early morning, when I write, I can look up at the windows from my computer desk and see the boughs of old pines, oaks and maples, and through their branches, the stars.