Interview with James R. Bottino - Author of The Canker Death

James R. Bottino is a self-admitted computer geek and a creative writing teacher rolled into one. He earned a BS in English Education from Illinois State University and taught high school English in a suburb of Chicago for several years. After teaching all day, he studied creative writing in graduate school at Northern Illinois University. All the while, though, in the deep corners of the night, when no one was looking, he led a double life hacking and building computers and networks.

Eventually, unbeknownst to him, word of his activities leaked out, and employment offers started coming in. In the end, he switched his hobby with his profession and became a senior computer / networking administrator for a scientific research laboratory.

Just six months into this position, however, tragedy struck when, at the age of 31, James was diagnosed with cancer. Given ten to one odds of living out the year and knowing that his infant daughter would never remember him if he died, he began the fight of his life, enduring massive doses of chemotherapy that killed the cancer but nearly killed him as well.

After years of struggle, he survived, but only after enduring systemic nerve damage from the treatments that left him permanently photophobic, phonophobic and with frequent difficulty in using his hands. These events focused his efforts and helped him to prevail in his dual goals: being a father to his daughter and completing his first novel, The Canker Death.

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.

James R. Bottino can be contacted at: "nokinis(at)thecankerdeath(dot)com"

Welcome to The Writer's Life, James. Can you tell us a little bit about yourself and how long you’ve been writing?

A: Thanks for having me. Well the first thing that comes to mind about me is that, at almost any free moment, I am composing / creating some sort of story or scene or character or plot in my head. I honestly do not remember any time in my life when I was not this way. I find that some of the ideas I think about I end up dropping pretty quickly as being too “out there and not feasible,” but most others I latch onto for one reason or another.

These ideas continue to grow and mature until I have a chance to write things down, once it's all been sorted in my mind. This is how it usually happens, though, there are times when I get an idea that I simply must stop whatever I'm doing so I can write it down. I'll be in the middle of a forty-something mile bike ride and suddenly something occurs to me and I have to pull off the path and frantically scribble my thoughts on a notepad.

Or, sometimes, I'll awaken from a dream and know the answer to some plot point or theme or character or whatever. Then too, I'm immediately up and writing. As for how long I've been writing, I guess it's been since about the age of thirteen or so; that's probably the first time I ever wrote out some scene I'd been kicking around.

I was fifteen when I first showed anyone what I'd written (a girl I liked), and it wasn't until I was eighteen that I ever submitted anything for publication. The work I submitted was a comedic short story titled “Beauty, eh?” which was extraordinarily silly, and was published in a local magazine. After my battle with cancer, though, is when I decided to take writing seriously and to dedicate myself to the long hard hours it takes to write anything, really, but most especially novels.

Can you please tell us about your book and why you wrote it?

A: It's an adventure story about a reclusive, cynical computer geek who finds that one of his own servers has been cracked late one night and gets far more than he bargained for when he decides to track down the perpetrator. What his search uncovers thrusts him, unaware, into a mad shifting between worlds, time and alien minds.

From the start the story was inspired by a real hacker who managed to crack into one of my servers, and from there the story evolved into something that is an unusual cross between a Heinlein/McCaffrey sort of adventure coupled with a flavor of Melville and Dante. As a former creative writing teacher and a current computer/networking professional, my tastes in literature spans this spectrum and more. What The Canker Death became is the novel I always wanted to read but couldn't find.

What kind of research was involved in writing The Canker Death?

A: The research involved might surprise you. Most readers come across parts of the novel that have highly technical details and think I must have spent countless hours researching this stuff to get it right. The funny thing is, all the technical stuff I know off the top of my head, since I've done this sort of work for years.

Perhaps fortunately, so long as they know that the main character, Petor, knows his stuff, no one who reads the book actually needs to “get” all the technical details to fully grok the novel. Most of my real research involved learning about what makes consciousness possible and how the brain works in respect to understanding such things as communication, time, memory and reality.

Has it been a bumpy ride to becoming a published author or has it been pretty well smooth sailing?

A: It's been bumpier than a Jamaican highway. Really, I had set out to write a novel that combined the sort of allegory one finds in classic literature with a fast-paced mystery/action/fantasy. It's not the sort of novel that fits cleanly into any category, which makes it challenging to target. Fortunately, I've been getting good reviews from all sorts of people who say they typically only read one genre or another, which is really satisfying as an author – to pull in readers who come to the book looking for one thing and then finish it enjoying something they didn't expect.

Do you plan subsequent books?

A: I do. I'm working on something completely different for my next book, but I have every intention of returning to what I started with The Canker Death.

Can you describe your most favorite place to write?

A: Well, this is a bit of a mixed bag, really. As far as really sitting down to write for hours, there's no place like my little study, which is crammed full of unusual computers and computer components all sort of jumbled with a crazy number of books, be they technical manuals, reference materials, antiquarian books, sci-fi / fantasy paperbacks, or beautiful tomes of classic literature.

That said, a good deal of the real inspiration comes from outside, literally. I can be sorting out some plot-point, theme, symbol, character or setting without really even knowing I'm thinking about it, then, poof! I've got exactly the right idea for something. So I end up pulling the car or bicycle over, or I stop running on the treadmill because I have to get the idea down on paper. I can write on anything, a note pad, if I have one, scraps of paper, the back of a map, even napkins. Time flies away.

It's only after I've managed to get the whole idea down that I have any idea how long I've been scribbling. So, I guess the real answer is: both in my study and wherever the heck I am when an idea occurs to me.

If money was no object, what would be the first thing you would invest in to promote your book?

A: Money's no object, you say? Massive billboards on all the major Interstates where hundreds of thousands of people would see them every day. The advertisements would all be short and somewhat cryptic, with an artist's rendering of a different scene for each billboard. Barring that, I guess I'd try to pay somebody off so I could get a job cleaning one of Oprah's mansions where I'd work diligently until she noticed me and I could hand her a copy.

How important do you think self-promotion is and in what ways have you been promoting your book offline and online?

A: Especially for a first time novelist, I think it's essential. If you've “made it,” I assume you have some sort of following so you are building up from some number of readers who already know you and want to buy your next book. If you're unknown, you're starting from zero. Consequently, I advertise in every way I can think of. Of course, I use Twitter and Facebook, and advertise on the latter, but I also reach out to others by email and by networking with others online. As far as offline goes, I approach local venues that are interested in books, especially in the cities in which the novel is, at least partially, set.

What’s the most common reason you believe new writers give up their dream of becoming published and did you almost give up?

A: Well, a lot of people give up because getting published is serious, hard work. Right after I finished writing the first draft of The Canker Death, I read a quote that said, “Congratulations, you have finished writing your first novel! You are now almost half way done.” I laughed when I read it, but never were truer words spoken.

In order to get an agent or a publisher you have to deal with being rejected over and over and over. I got discouraged, sometimes, but I never gave up. Each time I'd get too discouraged, my wife would give me a pep-talk or I'd give the manuscript to someone who I didn't really know very well and ask them to read it. Fortunately, the feedback I received was enough to keep me going.

Any final words of wisdom for those of us who would like to be published?

A: Really, I really don't feel like I'm some kind of grand expert who should be doling out advice to others. But I can say what helped me was reading, writing, writing and writing some more. I don't know that practice makes perfect, but it certainly helps.

Ultimately, having spent time teaching others how to write well certainly helped. They say you never really know something until you teach it. There's some truth to that. In the end, though, nothing helps more than persistence.

Thank you for your interview, James. I wish you much success!

A: Thank you very much for having me; it's been a pleasure.
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