Author Interview: Misha Burnett and ‘Catskinner’s Book’

To all of you who may or may not have been waiting with bated breath for me to make good on the author interview series I started making noise about last month, the not-actually-that-long wait is over!

Author Misha Burnett is the first to be kind enough to submit to my tedious questioning. His debut novel has been at the center of quite the bit of scuttlebutt around the WordPress community, and when I read Catskinner’s Book I found out why. The story following James and Catskinner  is unexpected in those better ways that writers often try for but almost as often can’t quite manage: the traditional story elements are all there, but the approach–from the punchy writing style to the crookedly likable characters–offers a nice twist of flavor without killing the mood by going fully experimental. Think equal parts cozy mystery, detective crime thriller, and urban Lovecraftian fantasy horror with a dash of romance added for spice.

Now, if you’re not convinced by my testimony above, I’d encourage you to visit Catskinner’s Book on its Amazon page to check out the first two chapters. Click the book cover to read the sample, or go ahead and just scoot your mouse a little to the right to purchase the book and cut out the middleman. If you’re like me and have a Nook that doesn’t handle Kindle files, don’t despair. The free software Calibre does a fine job of converting to either ePub or PDF.

Now, stop lazing around up here and scroll down to read the interview. 🙂

castkinners-book

With regard to Catskinner’s Book:

PRC: For those who may not have read the book yet, in your own words, what is Catskinner’s Book about?

MB: I never know how to answer that question, but if you’re looking for a plot synopsis:

It’s about a man named James and an alien intelligence called Catskinner who lives in James’ head. James is suddenly attacked by someone who knows about Catskinner and knows how to immobilize him, and then James and Catskinner have to find out who is behind the attack and why. Along the way they find out more about the world they live in.

PRC: Where did the story come from? It’s such an unusual take on fantasy, from the punchy, noire detective tone of the narration itself to the more scientific approach to the things living alongside the human world. Any particular inspirations or experiences of your own that led to the setting and events?

MB: The main driving force behind the books is the relationship between James and Catskinner, which is based on my own experience. I have Dissociative Identity Disorder, (what they used to call Multiple Personality Disorder) and Catskinner is based on a part of myself. I fictionalized it, and gave Catskinner some cool super powers, but I’m basically writing about DID here.

The other fantastic elements are largely borrowed from William Burroughs—the Ambimorphs, the Blue Metal Boy, the Minraudim are all based on concepts from Nova Express. The nature of the Outsiders is taken in large part from C S Lewis’ Perelanda trilogy. Structurally, I owe a lot to Phillip Dick and Samuel Delany.

PRC: You mentioned in the pre-interview that it can be nerve-wracking to introduce your characters to an audience. What is the best you can hope for in how your audience receives your characters? Who are they to you?

MB: Well, they’re not me, despite having pieces of myself in them. So if someone doesn’t like them, I don’t take it personally. But my work is very character driven, and someone who doesn’t like the characters isn’t going to like the book. That’s the main thing I learned from reading my reviews—all of the people who reviewed it negatively said that they just couldn’t relate to James. Most of the positive reviews mentioned feeling sympathetic towards him.

I like to tell people to check out the e-book sample on Amazon. If you read the first few pages and James doesn’t grab you, don’t bother buying it.

PRC: Do you plan to continue the story beyond the second book, Cannibal Hearts?

MB: I’m already working on the next one, which will be called The Worms Of Heaven. I have some vague ideas about continuing it in several more books, but I don’t really plot. So we’ll see what happens.

PRC: Any future projects planned (unrelated to the Book of Lost Doors series)?

MB: Right now I am committed to The Worms Of Heaven, but I do have other projects that I would like to do.

Recently I came up with a plot for a novel about a woman who uses the interstate highway system to travel through time. I wrote up some notes on that that I hope to be able to revisit later.

I’ve also gotten a book that I’ve wanted to write for a while called Montgomery’s Island, which is a sort of sequel to H G Well’s The Island Of Dr. Moreau. Unfortunately all of my plots end up turning into a Furry version of Peyton Place, which would be fun, but I’m not sure I’m the man for the job.

I have a sequel in mind for War Of The Worlds, too. There’s a book that just calls out for one. The world’s capitals in ruins, masses of refugees roaming the countryside, and all of this sexy Martian technology just lying around for anyone to pick up and de-engineer. I’m not sure I’ll ever write it, though, it’ll end up getting branded as Steampunk, and I really think Steampunk has peaked.

PRC: One of the most common phrases that aspiring writers will hear is “write what you know.” This is tricky for fantasy writers to adhere to due to the simple fact that most of us would like to be considered original in story and approach. Your story is highly original, so I feel like you may have some good advice when it comes to preparing a polished and well-structured original world without completely eschewing traditional structure in favor of experimentation: what is your take on this maxim as a fantasy author, and was there any particular research you did to prepare for your story?

MB: There’s a lot of what I know in Catskinner’s Book. Aside from the James/Castkinner thing, I’ve based most of the locales on places that I’m familiar with and the characters have personality traits from people I’ve known, just mixed up and twisted a little bit.

I think that the problem is that many fantasy writers don’t write what they know, they write what they’veread. Tolkien wrote The Lord Of The Rings based on what he knew as a historian and a linguist. He’d spent his life studying Northern European epic poetry, so that’s what he wrote. Most of us don’t have that background, so why should we try to recreate his world?

Me, I’ve had a lot of odd jobs, locksmith, repo man, general maintenance, bouncer—that’s what I drew on to create James and populate his world. I ran my personal experiences through the blender of the fantastic andCatskinner’s Book is what came out.

I’d advise other fantasy authors to base their worlds on what they have personally seen and done. Don’t try to write in someone else’s fantastic universe, write in the world you know and add in your daydreams and fantasies.

To be honest, the only actual research I can remember doing was looking up the chemical name for horseradish extract. I did a little more research for Cannibal Hearts, mostly for the damned riverboat.

A Little About the Author

PRC: How long have you been writing? What got you started?

MB: I’ve been writing for as long as I could hold a pencil. Making up stories and writing them down has always seemed to me to be a very natural thing to do.

My mother always had books in the house, and I read everything that I could get my hands on, much of it probably wasn’t age appropriate. I was exposed to a wide range of poetry at a very young age, and I think that fueled my love of elegant language. Other kids were reading The Cat In The Hat, and I was reading T S Elliot’s The Wasteland and Oscar Wilde’s The Ballad Of Reading Gaol.

PRC: Was Catskinner’s Book your first major project?

MB: It’s the first novel I finished. I’ve written a lot of poetry and had much of it published, but as much as I enjoy poetry, I don’t consider it my primary medium. I have tried to write fiction before, and I probably have racked up a million words or so over the past thirty-plus years, but I never actually finished a novel before now.

My ex-wife and I wrote a screenplay together. It ended up being a top six finalist in the last season of Project Greenlight, back in ’02. I still have it, and I’d love to find someone to produce it.

It’s kind of an interesting story, it’s a horror/romance and the female romantic lead is also one of the monsters. It was a pretty radical concept when my ex and I wrote it, but these days undead romances are practically cliche.

PRC: What authors would you say have influenced you and your style the most, and are these generally your favorite writers to read?

MB: Influences? Samuel Delany, Phillip Dick, George Alec Effinger, William Burroughs, Tim Powers, Clive Barker, China Mieville, Robert A. Wilson, Kurt Vonnegut. I consider myself an heir of the New Wave movement of Science Fiction in the 1960’s and 1970’s. (Does that make me “Neo-New Wave”? Maybe that’s what I should start telling people when they ask what genre I write.)

New Wave was kind of a reaction against the Hard Science Fiction of writers like Asimov and Heinlein and Clarke. Instead of focusing on the technology, New Wave focused on the psychology of the characters and emphasized poetic language over scientific accuracy.

Now, as it happens, I also love Hard Science Fiction, but it’s not what I write. I don’t tend to limit my reading by genre, I read for character. If I like the people in the story, it doesn’t much matter to me where and when they are. For example, I am a huge fan of the crime writer Donald Westlake.

Thanks again to Misha Burnett, and best of luck with your upcoming projects!

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10 thoughts on “Author Interview: Misha Burnett and ‘Catskinner’s Book’

  1. Michelle Proulx says:

    Fantastic interview! That was a really fascinating insight into Misha’s mind. I didn’t make the connection when I was reading Catskinner’s Book, but there definitely are Lovecraftian overtones to it. Thanks for sharing 🙂

  2. Sue says:

    I’m attempting fantasy and you give good advice. I wonder if there are any authors out there who are “normal” with no baggage. Excellent interview

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