Misha Burnett asked me to meet him at this riverboat casino. I’m taking shallow breaths to protect my lungs from cigarette smoke, but my sense of smell is shot. I can’t pick out sounds over the musical ringing and dinging of slot machines. I’m down two senses – is this a trap? I spot Misha, who seems oblivious to the smoke, noise, and commotion surrounding him. Maybe he’s a little too calm. I look down at my pad of paper, and scratch out half of my questions. I want to get out of here.
Misha, many people daydream about writing a novel, but never write anything. What was it that pushed you over the edge?
I think that most people who talk and daydream about writing do write, at least some. It’s finishing a novel that is comparatively rare. I estimate that I started on forty or fifty novels prior to publishing Catskinner’s Book—although most ended up, to quote Pink Floyd, as “half a page of scribbled lines”.
Why did I finish four novels and publish them, instead of continuing to dabble? A number of factors. As one gets older patience becomes easier, and it’s patience (and patience’s maligned twin, inertia) that gets you through the long dark middle section of a book. Poets and mathematicians do their best work in their twenties, I think novelists tend to hit their stride in their late forties.
Also, self-publishing. You can always send out query letters on an unfinished work and indulge the daydream that someone will give you a huge advance to finish it. If you’re going to self-publish you have to have the whole book done and ready to go.
You had a brief period recently where you gave up on writing. What made you return to it?
I give up on writing all the time—I just don’t usually rant about it on-line like I did recently. I have a very troubled relationship with my Muse. We routinely have screaming, dish-throwing fights in which I kick her out of the house and swear that we’re done, finished, it’s over, forever!
It doesn’t last though. As much as I sometimes hate writing, I can’t seem to stop doing it.
Is any part of James based on you? How about [gulp] Catskinner?
James & Catskinner, and their relationship, is very much based on my own experiences. I have Dissociative Identity Disorder—what used to be called Multiple Personality Disorder—and one of the inspirations for Catskinner’s Book is an attempt to capture the feeling of dissociation in a fictional context. To the best of my knowledge I’ve never killed anyone, though.
James is based on me in a lot of other ways as well. He’s self-educated, with a powerful mistrust of authority structures, socially awkward (although both of us are getting better at that) and is more comfortable fixing things than dealing with people.
Are any of your other characters based on people you know in real life? If not, where do they come from?
Yes, my characters are based on people I know in real life, but not in any direct one-to-one relationship sense. Exquisite, for example, is a broad type that I am very familiar with, but I wouldn’t be able to point to any one person and say, “That’s him”. The same with Cobb Russwin—he’s kind of composite of a number of former military types I have known in real life, with a healthy does of characters from books and movies mixed in.
You have sexual content in some of your books. Do you think this gives you a net gain or loss in readers? Do you think about marketing when you write?
I don’t think I have much sex, at least not by the standards of Urban Fantasy. I have a total of two real “sex scenes” in four books—one in Cannibal Hearts and one in Gingerbread Wolves. In The Worms Of Heaven I have one attempted sex scene, but one of the characters involved shuts it down before it can really get started. Compared to Anne Rice or Laurel Hamilton or Clive Barker I am practically a prude. Anyone who reads my books looking for steamy scenes is going to be very disappointed.
I don’t think about marketing while I’m writing, at least not in any positive sense. Sometimes when I write a scene I’ll think, “man, people are going to hate me for this.”
Your book covers don’t seem typical for the genre. Is there a story behind that?
My roommate is a photographer, and a damned good one. She did the shot of my hands holding the flower that I use for Catskinner’s Book some years ago, and I’ve always loved it. Once I picked up that one, it seemed to make sense to make the others similar. I do want to reshoot Cannibal Hearts some time—that’s the weakest of them.
Have you ever published a book, then later thought of something that would have improved it?
Every single time.
What author makes you think “I wish I could write like that!”?
At the moment, Charles Stross. I am re-listening to his Laundry Files series on audiobook and am really impressed by both his style and his structure. The voice of his narrator, Bob Howard (read in the Audible edition by Gideon Emory, who is phenomenal) is so casual and conversational that it’s easy to miss just how tightly his books are plotted. He’s the master of what I call the “time delay bombshell” slipping in clues so casually that you never notice what you’re being set up for until the reveal.
What planet-wide science fiction catastrophe scares you the most?
Totalitarianism. Which isn’t exclusively a science fiction concept, of course, but it’s used in so many science fiction works that I figure it qualifies. Human beings are far worse than any alien invader that has ever been invented. We, as a species, are pretty good at dealing with natural disasters, our real problems have always been self-inflicted.
What science fiction universe would you like to live in?
That’s a tough one. Bruce Sterling’s Schizmatrix, maybe. It’s not perfect, but perfection would get dull. The technology is exciting and most of the wars going on are are covert and you can ignore them.
If I were a competent interviewer, what question would I ask you? What is your answer?
How can your fans get in touch with you?
Via my blog at https://mishaburnett.wordpress.com/. I have a contact page for e-mailing me, and links to my Facebook and Twitter accounts, as well as links to buy my books. Plus I say some gosh-darned clever things from time to time.
As a number of authors and aspiring authors follow this blog, I’d like to ask you some business questions. An online calculator indicates that you’ve sold about 2,000 copies of Catskinner’s Book on Kindle. Is this correct?
If that “online calculator” tries to sell you some vacation property, hang up and call the cops. Seriously, 2,000 copies? I’d like to see how that figure was calculated. I have received tax information from Amazon (and Create Space and Audible) for 2012, 2013, and 2014. All told, all books, all editions, three years, I have made less than $500 from my writing. At around a dollar a book that is about a quarter of that figure.
What has your sales pattern been – mostly at release, or slow and steady?
See the above question. I tend to sell 1-2 books a month, no matter what I am doing.
Has releasing a sequel caused a spike in sales of the original work?
Have you tried any promotional activities that worked surprisingly well, or failed miserably?
No. Again, I sell a couple of copies a month, regardless of any promotions.
What advice do you have for struggling and/or aspiring authors?
It’s all about the work. If you are working towards some payoff—money, fame, groupies, whatever—give it up. You’ll do better financially baking cookies and selling them to commuters on subway platforms. If you don’t enjoy the work for its own sake, with no expectation of return, then you’re wasting your time.
Misha, thanks for your candid answers. I have to leave now, so I can start baking those cookies.
Readers new to this site may want to read my reviews of Misha’s books: Catskinner’s Book, Cannibal Hearts, and The Worms of Heaven. I haven’t read his latest book, Gingerbread Wolves, or his short story in Fauxpocalypse: A collection of short fiction about the end of the world that wasn’t, but I plan to.