Interview with Eliot Baker, author of 'The Last Ancient'

Eliot Baker lives in Finland. He teaches communications at a local college and runs an editing and translating business, but would be content singing for his heavy metal band and writing novels full-time. He grew up near Seattle, got his B.A. in World Literature at Pitzer College, and got his M.S. in Science Journalism from Boston University. He was an award-winning journalist at the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror, and before that he wrote for the Harvard Health Letters. He spent four years pursuing a career in the sciences while at the Harvard Extension School, during which time he spun old people in NASA-designed rocket chairs and kept younger people awake for 86 hours at a time in a sleep deprivation study. He likes good books, all music, and bad movies, and believes music and literature snobs just need a hug.

His latest book is the supernatural thriller/historical mystery, The Last Ancient.

About the Book:

 Around Nantucket Island, brutal crime scenes are peppered with ancient coins, found by the one man who can unlock their meaning. But what do the coins have to do with the crimes? Or the sudden disease epidemic? Even the creature? And who--or what--left them?

The answer leads reporter Simon Stephenson on a journey through ancient mythology, numismatics, and the occult. Not to mention his own past, which turns out to be even darker than he'd realized; his murdered father was a feared arms dealer, after all. Along the way, Simon battles panic attacks and a host of nasty characters -- some natural, others less so -- while his heiress fiancee goes bridezilla, and a gorgeous rival TV reporter conceals her own intentions.

Q: Welcome to The Writer's Life!  Now that your book has been published, we’d love to find out more about the process.  Can we begin by having you take us at the beginning?  Where did you come up with the idea to write your book?

It started with a simple story idea that was overwhelmed by inspiration. The idea: while hunting, a man finds a wounded mythological creature. I’d been meaning to get back to writing fantasy, and I intended for this to be a shorter piece, perhaps a novella. But then inspiration struck, and that idea germinated into an entire urban fantasy world that encompassed my personal and professional experience as an American emigrant and a science journalist.
My inspiration for The Last Ancient included two phases. It started off as something darker than the final product. Some people very close to me were having their lives ripped apart by addiction, and I began writing a parable about that downward spiral. As I travelled further down a creative rabbit hole myself, I found some incredible stuff, recorded it, and realized the story I needed to tell was a much more personal one than I’d intended. I’d just quit my job as a reporter on Nantucket and moved to Finland to raise a family with my Finnish wife. Having given up career and country to make the move, I felt stuck between two worlds, living in one but missing the other. Staring out my office window at the pale winter sunlight, I suddenly thought back to our former home on the island. I got homesick. I recalled one of my first field assignments as a reporter where I’d shadowed a deer hunter at sunrise, and how amidst a chorus of shotgun blasts the red island sun rose over the cold, windswept island. I remembered seeing truckloads of dead deer at the weigh-in station, and some illegally butchered carcasses discarded on pristine trails and beaches. Looking back down at my laptop, out of nowhere, I typed, “Shotguns crow across Nantucket.” The Finnish sunlight outside just seemed to turn golden. A gateway to this darkly fantastic Nantucket opened. It was a pivotal moment.

Q: How hard was it to write a book like this and do you have any tips that you could pass on which would make the journey easier for other writers?

Remember how Keanu Reeves had to first decide which pill to take to enter the Matrix? And once he’d made that decision, he then had to learn how to fight and fly and teleport and choose the perfect black leather-and-sunglasses ensemble? Writing The Last Ancient was kind of like that: swallowing the pill was pretty easy. I was compelled to write the story that was unfolding before my eyes. But dealing with the consequences of swallowing that pill was really hard.

I knew my story required a complex conspiracy, but I’d never designed a mystery before, much less one involving mythology, peak resource theory, alchemy, and history. At times I felt like I was juggling flaming machetes. So much research, so many interlocking subplots and historical anecdotes. And yet the characters always spoke to me and the story always flowed. I rarely got burned or cut and never dropped the blades. How? First off, I believed in the story and committed to it. You have to believe in your story if you want it to have real depth.
Next, I found the sweet-spot between hard research and outlining, and creative release. You see, I’m a natural pantser who’s reformed himself into an outliner. I’d set aside days – sometimes weeks – for research and outlining, while dedicating other time blocks for hard-core writing, often in a secluded cabin away from all my soul-sucking electrical gadgetry. Cliché, yes, but it worked. Fiction is like journalism in that once you’ve got your background research settled, you can let your writer’s brain take over.

Q: Who is your publisher and how did you find them or did you self-publish?

I went the small press route with BURST Books, an imprint of Champagne Books out of Canada. I didn’t really consider self-publishing because I don’t have the social platform to pull it off, and because, honestly, I wanted the validation of traditional publishing and the security of getting a professional editor, which I received in Nikki Andrews. The large house option would have been nice, but I just didn’t see a good fit. I pitched my novel at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference in 2012, and got conditional interest from some New York agents. BURST Books was the one house who wanted my book as-is, without substantial changes, and they praised my writing and story right off. New York was worried the book was too long and combined too many genres, and recommended pretty invasive surgery. I went with the house that believed in me. And did they ever. I received 2013 Novel of the Year from the Champagne Book Group Annual Author Awards.

Q: Is there anything that surprised you about getting your first book published?

I was prepared for rejection, so the fact that I got three outright rejections and three very kind rejections before being accepted for publication was actually pretty solid for me. I didn’t bother cold querying. And the editing process was about as hard and rewarding as I’d thought it would be. But I have been amazed at how much time, effort, money, and skill it takes to market and promote your book effectively after it’s been published; at least when you’re a debut indie author with no real marketing budget from your publisher. There’s just so many indie and self-pub authors out there; reviewers and bookstores are inundated with review requests, so you have to be savvy about how to get out the word about your book.

Q: What other books (if any) are you working on and when will they be published?

I’m really excited about a YA horror/fantasy duology I’m finishing up called The Golden Crow. The starting point–not to get dark here, but—comes from when I was fourteen years old and my mother died of cancer. A month later, a golden crow winged into our backyard, taking residence for the duration of my high school years. I believe the albino-like pigment defect it had is called xanthrochroism, which is universally rare, and perhaps unique in crows. Can’t find another mention of it in the literature. Anyhow, The Golden Crow is, at its heart, a meditation on overcoming grief and finding meaning as a teen after losing a loved one. The Golden Crow also just happens to involve demons and a New Demon World Order conspiracy launched from a high school in a south Seattle suburb (where I grew up).

Q: What’s your favorite place to hang out online?

I usually make my way to my fantasy football team site to memorize statistics, and then I’ll flip through various science magazine sites before perusing Good Reads and then settling into Face Book.

Q: Finally, what message (if any) are you trying to get across with your book?

I’m drawn to growth and transformation, be it for better or for worse, literal or metaphorical.  The Last Ancient became what it is once alchemy came into the picture. Alchemy is a three-thousand-year-old study into transforming base elements into precious ones, especially gold. It’s about finding immortality and godhood, via the Philosopher’s Stone. We’ve all read or seen Harry Potter. But have you read C.G. Jung’s work on alchemy and symbolism? Jun, was obsessed with how neatly alchemical processes and symbology aligned with his own theories on personal transformation. He believed people were trying to basically turn from lead to gold, to become gods. The process of transformation from religions across ages requires certain rites and rituals, from sacrifice and suffering, to love and sex. If this sounds familiar, you probably heard of it from dealings with the Stone Masons in Dan Brown novels. They really believe it. I’m not preaching anything literal like that in The Last Ancient, but I am drawing from such stuff

Q: Thank you again for this interview!  Do you have any final words?

You mean, before you light the fuse that leads to the TNT cannisters you strapped to my swivel chair? Well, how about, “I’m glad I got some words down on the page before the whole thing went kaboom.” And indeed, if you’re struggling with getting your book finished or published, do know that something will work out eventually if you just keep writing. And when it does work out, you’ll feel at peace with many things. Publishing a book you’re proud of is a singularly rewarding experience.

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