Not only is Joseph Carrabis a fellow Black Rose Writing and Book Fiends author friend, he’s an amazingly nice and generous guy. I am looking forward to meeting him in person in November, but right now you can get to know him a little better with my next World-building Showcase interview.
Hey Joe! Tell us a little about yourself.
I consider myself boring and dull.
Realistically, wouldn’t you worry about someone who self-defines as “exciting, thrilling, …”
I’d tend to stay away from such people. I know what is exciting and thrilling to me and don’t want to get caught in it.
Although boring and dull, my life is full and complete. I’ve been with Susan (wife/partner/Princess) for forty-one years and it keeps getting better. I’ve done and seen things, been places, et cetera, most people can’t imagine and wouldn’t dream of. Good for them and good for me. First, I wouldn’t want anyone else to go through what I’ve gone through. Second, I can write from experience and people read it as fiction. It don’t get much better than that.
What Inspired your novel, The Augmented Man?
Back in the late 1980s I had the idea that trauma is trauma, that PTSD is PTSD, meaning little difference existed psycho-emotively between the trauma a soldier suffers in combat and the trauma a child suffers in an abusive home.
Nobody paid attention, so I wrote a book about it (I wrote The Augmented Man in 1990).
Now that concept is part of the psychotherapeutic literature.
So it goes.
Do you have any Thoughts about World-building in General?
World-building is an interesting and amusing phrase to me. I don’t think it existed as such when I started writing professionally (1970s). Perhaps people understood it without naming it as such. Consider authoring concepts such as atmosphere, character, description, dialogue, narration, pace, plot, POV, scenes, setting, structure, style, tone, viewpoint, … are we whirling them all into the single term, world-building? Okay, so long as we recognize the whole is the sum of its parts and a weakness in any one of them is a weakness in all of them.
But what is “world-building”? Is it something indigenous to SF/F/H/…?
World-building is in all writing, fiction and non-fiction, because (to me) “world-building” is the art of getting your readers to accept the story’s mythos as more real than their daily mythos (meaning the story’s reality is more engaging and actualizing than their daily reality). I’ve read biographies and histories and been caught up in them, lost track of time, forgotten to eat, read until my eyes closed and then dreamt about what I read. Likewise I’ve read fiction that I’ve put down and forgotten to pick up again because I couldn’t care less about what was happening in the story.
I’m told I do lots of world-building in my work and ask, “Can you show me where?” Most can’t because I work to share a story’s reality through the development of the story itself, not in expository lumps (an “expository lump” occurs when the author tells the reader something rather than showing it, or more correctly, rather than providing the reader with sufficient information to experience it). World-building case in point, the first paragraph of one of my works-in-progress, Gable Smiled, is:
Valen patted Gable’s muscular neck as they trotted into Lensterville. They’d been ten days out, mostly soldiering Sipio’s vast Northern Plain, and this time of year that meant heat with a capital “H”. Valen could feel his own sweat trickling through the hairs on his chest and back, and every time his Ranger-issue travel cords relaxed around him, his scent rose like steam washing his face.
Right out of the gate, the reader knows this story is about Valen and Gable, Valen cares about Gable (pats him), Gable is powerful (muscular neck), they’re coming into (probably) a town/settlement of some kind (trotting into Lensterville. And extra credit for anybody recognizing who I’m tipping my hat to there) and that Valen is riding Gable (trotting, Valen pats Gable). Further, they’re tired (ten days out), involved in some kind of military or peace-keeping assignment (soldiering, “Ranger”), the reader learns some of “Sipio”’s geography/topography/sociology (vast Northern Plain, they can trot into a town/settlement hence it’s not a big, industrial center) and that Sipio experiences seasons (“this time of year”). Lastly, Valen is described via what he’s feeling (sweat trickling through the hairs on his chest and back) and that these sensations are unpleasant (his cords “relax”, “steam washing his face”).
The above paragraph (minus the parenthetical comments) is an expository lump. It does nothing to bring the reader into the story. The paragraph above from the actual story conveys all the information and (I hope) pulls the reader along.
What amuses me is sharing ten or so pages of Gable Smiled and being told that much world-building needs to occur over 5-6 chapters. I respond with the question, “Based on these ten pages, would you keep reading?”
Even people who complain the loudest nod vigorously. Asking “Is there too much/too little world-building?” is putting the sled before the mastodon. The first question is “Based on what you’ve read, do you want to read more?” Get a simple yes/no, a binary. In either case, I’ll ask for elaborations on any problems.
However, unless the respondent is a skilled author/editor/agent/publisher, they’ll tell you what they did/didn’t like, not necessarily what is/isn’t working. I’ll ask lay readers “Where did you have problems?” but not “How do you think I should fix it?” The difference is the same as telling your doctor “It hurts when I do this” and then your doctor asking your opinion on the proper form of treatment. Your doctor’s been to medical school, has a degree, done an internship, et cetera (I hope). You may have seen a medical show on TV.
Similarly, readers tell me the opening to The Augmented Man is tremendous. One reviewer actually wrote “The early world-building is very strong…”
Is there a rule about world-building? All I can come up with is “When world-building, every time you have an opportunity to show something most people aren’t familiar with, do so to add color to the story.”
And with every rule there are cautions. You have to ground the unfamiliar with the familiar so that readers can relate to it. Example: Another reviewer wrote of The Augmented Man’s protagonist, Nick Trailer, “His struggles were easy to relate with and, honestly, I found myself hoping to see his happy ending by the end of the novel.” The “reader wanting the hero to succeed” is key to world-building as it demonstrates the reader is emotionally involved with a character individually and the story in general.
A familiar example of grounding the unfamiliar with the familiar comes from the original Alien movie. Shortly after the ship’s crew wakes up, they’re in the mess complaining about being woken up, how crappy the coffee is, are they going to get extra pay for this extra work, et cetera. But they’re on a ship in the middle of space, right? No, not really, they’re your friends in the corner bar grumbling about work, they’re your co-workers in the company cafeteria complaining about crappy food, they’re your workmates wondering if the company’s going to pay them for any overtime coming from making an unscheduled stop on their delivery route.
In short, most people accepted the unfamiliar in Alien because whatever happened, it was happening to people they could relate to and understand; the unfamiliar was grounded in the familiar.
Let’s Get Specific. What is The Augmented Man About?
From the backcover copy, you’d think The Augmented Man is a military thriller and you’d be correct, on the surface. The heart of the story deals with healing from abuse and trauma, about how childhood abuse creates PTSD just as crippling as what’s experienced in combat, and the steps involved in healing from such experiences. I hope I hinted at that in the backcover copy :
What do you do with a deadly weapon when it’s no longer needed?
Nicholas Trailer is the last of The Augmented Men, beings created first by society and completed by a political group the public can’t even imagine exists. Captain James Donaldson takes severely abused and traumatized children and modifies them into monsters capable of the most horrifying deeds without feeling any remorse or regret.
But the horrors of war never stay on the battlefield. They always come home.
Battling what society and science has made him, Nick Trailer discovers he is loved. From the horrors of childhood to the horrors of a war, what does it take for someone to find true love and peace? Especially when everyone has their own agenda, from the senators who sanctioned his making to the Governor of Maine who wants to use Nick’s struggle to propel himself to the White House.
The Augmented Men were good at war, perhaps a little too good. Now they have to come home…or do they? What do you do with man-made monsters?
Nick must decide if his friends are his friends and if his enemies are his enemies, all while protecting the woman he loves.
And are you truly the last of your kind?
What if you must remain a monster to defeat a monster? Will you sacrifice love to protect what you love?
What are the main differences between the “regular world” and the world of The Augmented Man?
Hopefully there’s not much difference. Reviewers have written “Carrabis paints him and every character around him with the verisimilitude of a man who’s been to war and got more than his hands dirty.”, ”…you’ll be left wondering how real the experience may be in the near future.”, and “the reader can only pray it is strictly fiction and not a harbinger of things to come in the near future.”
These three and similar reviews indicate The Augmented Man’s world could easily grow from ours, hence they must be similar enough for such to happen.
But the heart of any story is believable characters either succeeding or failing to achieve their goals. There is a general rule about people; what people do rarely changes. How they do things changes. Example: people gossip. One hundred years ago people gossiped by gathering in the general store, the local pub, in the park. Now they gossip on their mobiles, Facebook, Twitter, et cetera. People have gossiped since we climbed down from the trees and stood on our hind legs. How they’ve gossiped has changed over time.
My stories tend to be character rather than tech driven and even The Augmented Man, while being technology rich, is basically a story about someone overcoming their past in search of a better life, something most people deal with at some level or another. That kind of story can take place anywhere. I chose a scifi setting to demonstrate how abusive childhoods lead individuals into self-conceptualizing themselves as monsters and the steps involved in rehumanizing them. It could be written in a non scifi setting but then the monsterhood becomes one of acts rather than physical capabilities and I’d lose some authorial brushstrokes. Hannibal Lechter is a monster but can walk down a street unnoticed. Nick Trailer can’t. His augmentation is intended to make him look terrifying.
Does language play any role in your worlds? Does everyone speak the same language, or is there a variety? Did you invent any new slang or terminology during your world-building process?
Here I paraphrase Aristotle’s Poetics, “Avoid neologisms unless introducing some new term/word/phrase is crucial to the plot; use jargon only to move the story along.”
The Augmented Man uses lots of military, biologic, and psychologic jargon. One first reader asked me “Am I suppose to understand this stuff?” to which I answered, “If that stuff was replaced with something like ‘Oh, and we did lots of biologic and psychologic stuff to them’ would you have accepted Trailer could do what he could do?”
“No. Probably not.”
“More to the point, did you believe Donaldson (the character using most of the jargon) was an authority on what he talked about?”
Long story short, I could have reduced the jargon and it would have weakened the story.
An amusing note on this: Nobody had a problem with the military jargon, some had issues with the biologic and psychologic jargon. Evidently, as a culture, we’re more comfortable with war than with our own physical and psychological well being.
In my short story Cymodoce I use Ameslan and it’s fairly standard, nothing new. In Empty Sky I use an amalgam of Native American dialects and create a language but it’s based on Hawaiian Pidgin. The Goatmen of Aguirra has some words based on a central Andean dialect, but not much.
The problem with introducing a language is that someone in the story has to speak the reader’s language and has to learn the introduced language, meaning the author needs to have some idea of any Creoles formed from that union. Empty Sky shows a child learning a new language and I bypass Creolisms by having his language instructor directly place the language in the child’s mind. But I still show about a page of the learning process (just to keep myself honest, really).
Another way to deal with neologisms is to show what they’re about by how characters interact with them. The previously mentioned “What’s a ‘Flaknoc’? (revealing tech through characters)” is as an example.
What kinds of climates do your characters experience? Do they see a lot of change or is it always the same? Has your world always had this kind of climate, or has it changed over time?
The Augmented Man shows a character’s past history in northern and central South America, and current history in Massachusetts, New Hampshire, and Maine, with a few other exotic locales here and there.
What do people in your invented world do for fun? Are there sports, games, music, or other activities they do in their free time?
Same as they do here; music, games, sports, food, paint.
Note to culture-builders: Leisure time activities tend to be sensory-dependent. A Jovian would “paint” using radium-biased “paints,” probably, as their “vision” developed on a planet where our visible spectrum couldn’t penetrate the clouds and the planet radiates like a sun-in-the-making; they wouldn’t have eyes like ours, or what served as eyes would be radiation detectors (perhaps Geiger counter like stalks?).
When you build a world, what is your process like? Do you do a lot of research upfront, wing it completely, or something in between?
I research everything. I’ve heard authors say that when they get to a point in their writing where something occurs they don’t understand or know or aren’t sure how something happens, they write “[XXX]” or something similar and move on, looking things up later. In my opinion, such writing shows.
I’m told that my work is so tightly written that it’s tough to remove stuff without throwing everything else out of whack. It’s like Story-DNA. Sure, you can switch a genome here or there, but that one genome and its placement affect the entire string. You may change hair color from chestnut to dark brown but now you’ve got three fingers that look like toes and a penis growing out of the middle of your forehead.
I stop writing when there’s a piece of something – tech, location, language, culture, anything! – in which I feel my knowledge is lacking.
And I always feel my knowledge is lacking.
How central is the setting of your story to the story itself? Is it more of an interesting backdrop, or is it integral to the events of the story?
Again, does it move the story forward? The Augmented Man doesn’t need to take place in northern Maine per se, it does need to take place in a dense woodlands and I happen to know Maine better than Montana. Empty Sky doesn’t need to take place at Dartmouth College/University, I happen to know Dartmouth College/University.
The other side to this; if setting isn’t important – and I can’t imagine it not being important. Perhaps I have a different concept of “setting” – then mention it as little as possible, or only mention the aspects of that setting that are necessary to the story. Katherine Mansfield is a master of this.
How much of a role does realism play in your world-building?
I go back to the familiar in the unfamiliar, the mundane in the fantastic.
Do you have any specialized training or background from your “real life” that has informed your world-building?
Not that I know of.
(Susan (wife/partner/Princess) proofread this and pulled a full stop at the above line. She explained that it was male bovine turd, extreme male bovine turd, and told me to fix it.
But again, I consider myself boring and dull. So what to list? What are the things I’m most proud of?)
My editor tells people “The two things you’ll find in all of Joseph’s stories are 1) a deep understanding of human psychology and 2) love.” Susan and I have been together forty-one years and it keeps getting better. Probably because we actively work at it. So that’s why love shows up in my work a lot.
Okay, I’m ruminating. Something else I like about myself: I enjoy helping people. Our patent attorney was asked to write a bio-blurb about me and included “He is a stalwart friend, willing to support anyone in a time of need with only their request for help as remuneration.” By god, I hope that’s true. I work to make that true.
(Stuff some people consider important):
I hold patents in a technology I created in my basement that (last time I checked) was in use in over 125 countries. It involves human psychology. Also mathematics, linguistics, anthropology and neuroscience. We had offices in North America and the EU. We gave it up because we were sick of the male bovine turd involved in business. Go to http://nlb.pub/amazon and look at the books entitled “Reading Virtual Minds…”. They document the technology and how to achieve the same results without having to use our technology.
I contributed to translations of Coptic (don’t worry, nobody’s spoken it for about 4,000 years). I worked for NASA. I demonstrated a fundamental link between General Relativity and Quantum Mechanics (it’s mathematically valid. Nobody wants to believe that a “f?cking farmboy from Nova Scotia” could come up with it. That line was said in my presence and in the presence of others, by the way, at MIT, as in “I’ve got the whole goddamn Media Lab down the street and some f?cking farmboy from Nova Scotia figured this out?”). I’ve served as a professor of psych and anthro (years ago). I was fired from a high school teaching post because I got remedial math students to do college sophomore level engineering calculus and solve logical calculus problems (that stumped the other high school math teachers) – rather than simply teaching them to add and subtract. They could already do that. All by helping them to believe in themselves.
I own twenty-three musical instruments and manage to make recognizable music on most of them.
I can hold conversations in at least one language from each continent. Including Antarctica. When you can get the penguins to talk with you. They tend to be cold and aloof, you know. They chatter freely amongst themselves but try to get a chirp in edgewise and unless you’re offering free fish, they don’t call, they don’t write. They never TXT. Oy!
So that’s how my real life influences my stories. If readers want to see the bios written about me (since 1995) let me know and I’ll post them somewhere.
(feel better now, Susan?)
How do you keep all of the details of your world and characters straight? Do you have a system for deciding on different factors and keeping it all organized, or does it live more in your head?
I close my eyes and look around. I turn off all the sounds of this world and listen to the sounds of that world. I run my hands along the ground, submerge them in the waters, I hold my breath and breathe the air of wherever the story takes place. Et cetera. Neuroscience teaches that anything perfectly imagined is real.
Did you experience any difficulties while building your world? Any facts that refused to cooperate or inconsistencies you needed to address while editing?
Not per se, although I’ve sometimes made use of a fact later in a story that I failed to document earlier in the story, a kind of “if you show the reader a gun on page 2, somebody needs to shoot it on page 7.” With me it’s kind of “Well, I knew the gun was there on page 2…”
Thanks so much for sharing your worlds with us! Where can people find you on the web and find out more about The Augmented Man and all of your books?
You can find all my books at http://nlb.pub/amazon
Blog/Website – https://josephcarrabis.com
Twitter – https://twitter.com/josephcarrabis
LinkedIn – https://www.linkedin.com/in/josephcarrabis
Instagram – https://www.instagram.com/josephcarrabis/