Q&A with Joe Mahoney: a science fiction writer you want to know

A really fun thing about being a reader is discovering new authors. So I’d like to introduce you to a writer you might not know about just yet. Joe Mahoney is a writer and broadcaster living in Whitby, Ontario. His debut novel was published in October 2017. I asked Joe about writing A Time and a Place, his day job at the CBC, and, of course, what kind of refreshments you should enjoy while reading his book.

Before we get to the Q&A, here’s Joe talking about why you should pick up his novel:

Can you describe what your book is about in five sentences or fewer?

A Time and a Place is a time travel, science-fiction fantasy adventure about a man who has to rescue his nephew who’s been recruited into an army to fight a war half-way across the galaxy.

In the course of trying to rescue the boy, Barnabus J. Wildebear must travel through space and time and even into the minds of other beings, including a seagull, an alien cat, and a creature best described as a monster. He also gets a chance to save his sister who died in a motorcycle accident a couple of years earlier.

On another level, it explores philosophical themes such as the nature of free will and the perils of too much knowledge. And there’s a lot of tongue-in-cheek humour.

How did you come up with the idea for the novel?

A bunch of friends and I were writing stories about one another for fun. So I wrote a few pages about one of my friends being controlled by some unknown force. I was trying to evoke H.P. Lovecraft but in a funny way.

A few years later I discovered those few handwritten pages and I liked the ever-so-slightly comical tone. So I changed the names and began turning it into a proper story. It grew organically from there, with the themes and plot suggesting themselves as I went along.

You work full-time at the CBC. How does your day job inform your writing?

My day job at the CBC has influenced the novel in both subtle and concrete ways.  Although I love my job, it was always a great pleasure to dive into the novel after work as a kind of release.

I realized that I was capable of writing a novel after being locked out from the CBC back in 2005 during that summer’s labour dispute, during which I maintained what they called a Lock Out Blog. I wrote so much that summer on the blog that I realized I was capable of writing an entire novel if I only put my mind to it.

Some elements of the novel are inspired directly from the CBC. I describe the artificial intelligence unit, Sebastian, at one point of consisting of “twenty-eight servers and hundreds of desktop units.” That actually describes a networked digital audio editing system called DaletPlus that we have at the CBC. I’m sure there are other unconscious ways the CBC has influenced the novel as well.

How do you like to write (e.g., pen vs. laptop, home vs. coffee shop)?

I started writing A Time and a Place in pen, but after a few pages switched to typewriter, and did about the first five chapters on a typewriter (this gives you some indication how long ago I started on this novel). Then I got a computer and wrote a bunch on a desktop computer. Then my wife and I moved to Whitby, which is a fairly lengthy commute into my job in Toronto, so I bought a laptop so I could write on the train. And that’s where I did (and still do) most of my writing: on the GO train.

But I take that laptop and write wherever and whenever I can. I like to write in coffee shops, in airports, while my kids take swimming or art lessons–absolutely wherever. I don’t care how noisy or busy it is. As long as I have enough elbow room to type, I will write.

What did you learn about yourself while writing this book?

I learned that I have a lot of patience–that I can start a project that literally takes decades to finish and have the perseverance to finish it. I also learned that I’m a perfectionist, which is why it took me so long. Every word in that 103,000-word novel had to be exactly the right word. I’m not sure that’s a healthy attitude, but it resulted in a book that I am happy with.

Who are some of your favourite writers?

I love Stephen R. Donaldson (The Chronicles of Thomas Covenant), Tim Powers (anything by him), Ken Grimwood (Replay), Susanna Clarke (Jonathan Strange and Mr. Norrell), to name the big ones.  Robert Charles Wilson (anything by him). Thomas Berger (Little Big Man). I have a long list of writers I like, so I’ll stop there!

What’s a book you love that you don’t think gets the attention it deserve?

The Fatness, by Mark A. Rayner. Well, I think it is getting some love, but not as much as it deserves!

In my book reviews, I like to include “recommended refreshments.” What refreshment(s) would you recommend readers enjoy while reading your book?

Ooh, that’s easy. Lagavulin Single Malt Scotch Whiskey. Just a sip from time to time.

What are you working on now?

Two things. I’m just finishing up the audiobook version of A Time and a Place. It’s taking me forever because of the perfectionism I mentioned earlier.

And I’m working on a space opera called Captain’s Away. It’s based on a radio play I produced one time, but this is a completely different take on it.

It’s about a family who become refugees when their space station is blown out from under them. They’re all separated, and have their own wild adventures, and have to find their way back to one another. It’s about the consequences of good and bad leadership. But mostly it’s supposed to be a fun space-opera adventure.

Pick up your copy of A Time in a Place at Bakka/Phoenix Books in Toronto, or you can buy online via Amazon.ca, Joe Mahoney’s website or Goodreads.

 

Advertisements

4 reasons to write in cafés

20160809_190939If you’re a writer, chances are you can write anywhere. You probably have memos saved on your phone and handwritten notes scribbled on the backs of receipts. But we all have our preferred writing locations, the places where we are most productive. Here are some reasons why my favourite place to write is in a café.

There is background noise

I am a quiet person, and I am a person who likes quiet. But if it’s too quiet when I’m trying to write, I get distracted. Noises from the fridge or from the neighbours seem louder than they actually are, and I get stuck trying to figure out exactly what it is I’m hearing. And I can’t write while listening to music that I enjoy. If I do, I become immersed in the music instead of in my writing.

Background noise allows me to focus. A loud conversation occurring next to me in a café will annoy me, and if a song by The Smiths comes on, I’ll probably stop writing for a few minutes while the song is playing. But, more often than not, when it comes to noise, the café atmosphere gets the balance just right.

Distractions are limited

Writing at home means easy access to the internet. That can be a good thing–perhaps when a writing project requires a fair amount of research. But most of the time it’s just another distraction. Yes, most cafés offer free WiFi, but the trick is not to log in. Of course it’s easy enough to check your phone from time to time, and I am guilty of that, but it definitely limits those internet distractions.

Writing in a café also means I don’t have to look at my messy apartment and think about how I should be vacuuming  or washing dishes instead of writing.

There are strangers to observe (and write about)

Sometimes I finish writing a scene and I’m not sure where to go next. Instead of staring at a blank page, I find it helps to look around the café. I’ll do a writing exercise where I’ll find a person at another table (or a barista, if the place is empty) and I’ll make up a bit of a story about them. If there’s a group of people or a couple, I might write about the dynamic I imagine them having. This kind of exercise allows me to turn back to my main project with fresh eyes, and it could be inspiration for another project.

All of the refreshments!

When I write (or read, for that matter), I almost always have a cup of tea on hand. To be honest, the tea I have at home is usually better than what I get in cafés. But sometimes I like to switch things up with a hot chocolate or cappuccino, which I never make at home and don’t have the supplies to make. And I haven’t yet mastered how to make an almond croissant or pain au chocolat. Writing in a café keeps the hunger at bay and ensures a variety of snacks and beverages to choose from.

It doesn’t matter where you write; all that matters is that you do keep writing. And while writing in a café might not be the best thing for your bank account, if you’re like me, the payoff is worth it.

7 myths about working with words

dictionaries and language resource materials

Words, punctuation, grammar—these are a few of my favourite things. I’ve worked as a proofreader, writer, transcriber and editor, and, throughout my career, I’ve come across some misconceptions about what it takes to do this type of work. Here are seven myths about what it takes to be a professional word nerd.

Myth 1: You work best on your own.

This is true for a lot of word nerds for at least some of the time. But editors, writers and proofreaders really thrive when they have a network to turn to. We don’t always know the best way handle a situation, or maybe we’ve spent so much time on something and could use a fresh set of eyes on it. It can be helpful to get another opinion (or a few).

Myth 2: You feel strongly about the serial comma.

When you work with words, people often assume you feel passionately about the serial comma. But the value of this tiny mark has been blown out of proportion. What’s important is being consistent and clear with your communications, and this is possible whether or not you use the serial comma.

Working as an editor or writer means you will likely work with style guides maintained by someone other than yourself. You need to be flexible. You’ll probably use the serial comma for some work and you won’t for other work, and you’ll realize that either way is fine.

Myth 3: You are (or could be) a spelling bee champion.

You don’t need to know how to spell every word in the English language, but you definitely need to know to look them up. Yes, having a large vocabulary is helpful, but no matter how much you know, you should continue to consult your trusty dictionary. With this type of work, paranoia can be a good thing, because it’s when you get too confident that you start to miss stuff.

Myth 4: You won’t stand for people breaking language “rules.”

You might hate seeing “they” used as a singular pronoun, or maybe you can’t stand comma splices, but you understand that how we use language evolves. Maybe you’re proud of knowing how to use “whom” properly, but you also realize the word is rarely used now. Keeping the reader in mind is more important than showing off.

Myth 5: You love detail.

It’s not necessary to love detail, but it’s necessary to notice detail. It’s something hardwired in our brains, and it doesn’t mean we actually like it. It can be a bit of a curse sometimes. We can pore over a small detail that maybe no one else will notice, but we do it because we can’t rely on “maybe” and because we strive to create the clearest writing possible.

Myth 6: You enjoy correcting people’s grammar, spelling, etc.

A good editor or proofreader isn’t going to correct friends during a casual conversation. Corrections are saved for written work and only when that’s what we’ve been asked to do professionally. Even then, we don’t like pointing out inconsistencies or errors. Our goal is to make the piece the best it can be.

Myth 7: You don’t make mistakes.

I’ve had co-workers, friends and relatives tell me they get nervous emailing me because they think I’ll judge them if the message contains errors. And, yes, if there are so many errors that I can’t understand what the email means, I am likely to notice. But we all make mistakes sometimes—even the best copy editors. So try to make the best written communications possible, but it doesn’t mean you have to be perfect yourself.

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma shows us English is a beautiful mess

What I read

The Lexicographer’s Dilemma by Jack Lynch

What it’s about

This book examines how the English-speaking world has arrived at an idea of what “correct” English looks like. Lynch demonstrates that we shouldn’t be so concerned about using English correctly but rather we should be concerned about using English appropriately. And what’s appropriate can change depending on circumstances.

As Lynch takes us through the history of modern English, he provides lots of fascinating information on key figures (Samuel Johnson, Noah Webster, Peter Mark Roget, to name a few). Central to the book is the question of whether dictionaries should be prescriptive or descriptive, and Lynch explains the different views some of these key figures had regarding this.

How I got my hands on it

This Christmas I received some nice books and bookish gifts. This book was one of those gifts, and it was tucked neatly into my stocking. I can’t say for sure who it put it there, but I have a strong suspicion (Santa, of course).

A bit that I really liked

As much as I enjoyed reading about Johnson and the story of how this unlikely character created one of the most famous English dictionaries—I mean, I visited the house in London where he worked on A Dictionary of the English Language, so I’m a bit of a fan—the section on John Dryden stands out just a bit more for me. I’ve finally figured out who I can blame for this nonsense about not ending a sentence with a preposition and this BS about it being wrong to split an infinitive! Dryden was trying to make English follow the rules of Latin, but English isn’t Latin, guys.

Bonus bit: I got a real kick out of Lynch talking about people having issues with abbreviations in texts or social media. Don’t like it when people use “IMHO” or “obvs”? Well, then surely you must never say “AKA” or “fridge” or “exam” or “phone,” right? Thank you, Mr. Lynch, for pointing out this hypocrisy. It made me smile.

You’ll want to read it if…

You’ll probably like this book if you are any kind of word nerd. Proofreaders, editors, writers, people who read the dictionary for fun—you will love this book. But if you’re looking for a book that’s going to back up your rigid views on how the English language should work, you might not enjoy reading this. It will probably show you how silly you are being. I mean, I think it would be good for you to read it, but you might not want to.

Recommended refreshments

Any reading session is more enjoyable with snacks and drinks. For The Lexicographer’s Dilemma, I recommend consuming copious amounts of tea, and not just because tea and books always go well together. Rather, I suggest you drink this tea in honour of Samuel Johnson, as he was known to consume several cups a day. Imagine how many pots he must have gone through working on that dictionary! So, yes, tea is appropriate. And also maybe a bowl of alphabet soup?

 

Back to blogging

I haven’t posted anything here in over a year. My last post was published on New Year’s Eve 2014. I wasn’t sure then if I wanted to keep this space alive anymore, and I was more focused on the writing I was doing offline. So, basically, I never made a decision, and this blog has just been sitting here.

But now I’m back. Expect to see some posts about books I’m reading, which I haven’t done very much of in the past. I won’t be writing formal book reviews, but they will be reviews done my way. You’ll see what I mean. I might report on the occasional reading or literary event I attend, too. And I can’t say for sure that there won’t be an odd rant on something that’s bothering me (please don’t get me started on the serial comma debate again).

It’s a new year, and maybe this isn’t a new blog, but there’s a bit of a new direction. I’m looking forward to it.