Monday, August 25, 2014

A Conversation 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.

Thank you for this interview!  When did you start writing?

In the womb. I tapped out a morse code story against my Mom’s uterus about a little boy who wanted more in life than umbilical apple juice and tuna fish sandwiches (this was before we knew the dangers of mercury in tuna, of course). But I didn’t pick up a pen start writing stories again until I learned to write, and once I got that whole remedial literarcy thing down, I began writing short stories at age seven. Then I wrote a bunch more in high school, then nothing but essays in college, then wrote a novel right out of college that was neglected by publishers but loved by me. I still heart you, unpublished first manuscript, even if nobody else does.

As a published author, what would you say was the most pivotal point of your writing life?

A single sentence. Before I get there, some background is in order. My inspiration for The Last Ancient 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 dark fantasy parable about that downward spiral. Then I basically went down a creative Rabbit Hole myself, found some incredible stuff, recorded it, and realized the story I needed to tell was a much different and much more personal tale. I’d just quit my job as a reporter on Nantucket and moved to Finland to raise a family with my Finnish wife. I was struggling with feeling like a man between two worlds, living in one and and nostalgic for 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.
If you could go anywhere in the world to start writing your next book, where would that be and why?

One of my next projects is a middle-grade high-seas pirate fantasy thingy. If I could go anywhere, it would be on a sailboat headed out of Nantucket, down around South America, and over to Hawaii. I’d like to re-trace Melville’s steps, without actually killing any whales, and live off limes and the rainwater and fish I catch.

If you had 4 hours of extra time today, what would you do?

I’d jam with my metal band. I’m a singer. We just started writing our own music this winter, and right when we started getting good, life got in the way of practicing more than once every two weeks. Singing takes the edge off of life and gives an edge to my creativity.

Where would you like to set a story that you haven’t done yet?

Finnish Lapland in winter. Living in Finland for four years, I’ve been to real Lapland in the summer just once, and only visited the edges of it in the winter. Lapland is such an eery, beautiful place. Everything about it seem otherworldly and endless, from the summer midnight sun to the winter darkness, to the clouds of summer mosquitoes and thousand lakes and snow and northern lights… You can understand why so much of Finnish mythology (recorded in the Kalevala) was inspired by Lapland and Laplanders. It’s an ideal location for a couple modern folks to meet a lot of creatures. And there’s some pretty cool creature-lore in Finland, too, that hasn’t been popularized yet. I have something sketched out called The Reindeer Killers that I’ll hopefully write this winter.

Back to your present book, The Last Ancient, how did you publish it?

I went the small press route.  I didn’t really consider self-publishing because I don’t have the social platform to pull it off, and because I really wanted the validation of being accepted by a house and having a great editor, which I received in Nikki Andrews. I pitched my novel at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association in 2012, and got interest from some New York agents and indie publishers. BURST Books was the one house who wanted my book as-is, no substantial changes please, and they praised my writing and story right off. The larger houses were worried the book was too long and combined too many genres. I went with the house that believed in me. And have they ever. They named The Last Ancient Novel of the Year for their Champagne Book Group Annual Author Awards. I’m honored.

In writing your book, did you travel anywhere for research?

In a way, yes (grinning). I worked on Nantucket for two years as a reporter and fell in love with the island. It’s one of the best places I’ve ever been to. Magical, I’d call it. While there as an environmental and health reporter, I wrote extensively about the nooks and crannies of the island and its people. I basically got a Master’s in Nantucket Studies and parlayed that into The Last Ancient, which takes place on Nantucket. Indeed, Nantucket is in its own way the protagonist of my story.

Why was writing The Last Ancient so important to you?

Writing this book kind of saved my life. I had a lot resting on it. By moving to Finland, I left behind a job, city, country, friends and family I very much loved. It was a very hard move, and this isn’t a terribly easy country to live in for a writer; there are few opportunities as a journalist. I basically said, “The only way this can work is if I can write novels.” And I did.

Moreover, The Last Ancient is the fulfillment of a life long dream. And it contains themes of deciding between worlds that are very personal and important to me, as is the location of Nantucket.

Where do you get your best ideas and why do you think that is?

My best creative ideas come when I’m spacing out from highly logical work, like scientific papers or delivering lectures or writing technical manuals or translations. I think some part of my giggling-monkey-brain demands that this (often very interesting but extremely dense) stuff be more funny or exciting, so I’ll be working on a presentation about Peak Oil Theory or nuclear fusion technology when all of a sudden I’ll think about how dang convenient it would be if an alchemist would show up and make it all energetically feasible.

Any final words?

Thank you for having me here! Lastly, I want readers know what they’re getting into. The Last Ancient has been uniformly well-reviewed by Kirkus, Midwest Book Review and Foreword Clarion, who’ve all described it as a unique, genre-bending tale of everything from thriller, horror, fantasy, and suspense to historical mystery and steamy romance. You may squirm a little, but this isn’t a gore-fest or a swinger party. The deer mutilation crime scene on the first page contains the most graphic content of the book. If you can handle that, you’ll be fine. And there are a couple steamy romantic scenes but they serve a higher purpose. I don’t believe in gratuitous sex and violence, and I refuse to write about rape. But I do believe characters’ reactions to sex and violence provides insight into their souls. So: There’s some stuff in here. You’ve been warned! Happy reading!


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