I asked Eli how he would describe himself as a writer and he replied: I like to make bad things happen to good characters, and I like to do it in places that don’t exist in this world. Sounds like a science fiction writer to me! Please welcome Eli Nixon to No Wasted Ink.
Well, my name is Eli Nixon. I live in North Carolina with my wife and five-year-old daughter and a dog and the world’s smallest flock of one chicken (that nobody can seem to find) and a garden that somehow grows rocks and I love all of it. I spent a few years in Costa Rica pretending to learn Spanish while actually learning how to surf. I try to keep things simple, and as a result there’s not a lot to me. My joy comes from the little things I have and, of course, writing.
When and why did you begin writing?
When I was a kid I’d always scribble down these little stories, and I was a ravenous reader, so I think it’s always sort of been there, just waiting for me to acknowledge it. I actually began trying to make money writing as a copywriter for website content. I was working in a call center at the time, hated it, and had a ton of free time, so I started doing that in the evenings. I think it was about a month later that I quit the call center and started writing full time. Not fiction, right, but sales material and product descriptions. But I think that paved the way for getting back into my childhood fantasies of fiction.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
When I stopped writing copy, ha ha. I think it was when I first self-published a collection of short stories on Amazon (under a pseudonym, of course. Nobody was ever going to know I wrote that). But the first sale of that Kindle book sort of drove it home: I can do this. I’d called myself a writer before that whenever someone asked the ubiquitous “So, what do you do?” but after that I sort of believed it myself. It was slow going, but now I’m working Son of Tesla, the first book in a trilogy about Nikola Tesla returning from another dimension to enslave humanity, and although my ideas haven’t gotten any better, I feel better about referring to myself as a writer.
Can you share a little about your current book with us?
It’s a futuristic story about a drug addict in a world where a plague killed all the animals about a decade previously. He goes outside one morning, and there’s a parrot on his front porch. It tells him he’s going to die unless he kills a specific list of people. It’s called Pretty Bird.
What inspired you to write this book?
I walked out my front door one day and thought, what if all the animals were gone, and there was a parrot here telling me I was about to die? That’s essentially it.
Do you have a specific writing style?
I’ll admit to being sort of a leech. The writing style of whatever I happen to be reading at the time tends to seep into my writing. I can’t give any specific examples for Pretty Bird, but for a portion of the novel I’m writing now, Son of Tesla, I was reading Kathy Reichs’s Bones to Ashes. Her writing style is often short and punctuated, and some of that got into the middle chapters of Tesla.
Other than that, I’m a sucker for poetic prose, metaphors, similes, and hyperbole, for better or for worse (i.e. “The sun hung over the horizon like a bruised tangerine, limp and cheerless.”). It doesn’t always work, but I like writing it, and I’ll probably stick with it for awhile. So if you’re planning to read my books, sorry in advance.
How did you come up with the title of this book?
For awhile the working title was simply “Parrot.” A lot of the other story elements came about during the writing process, and at some point the phrase “pretty bird” popped into my head. It’s a cheery phrase, and I went with it as a title because it belied the rather dark atmosphere of the story and, along with the cover design, it gave a hint of some plot elements without giving away anything terribly important. I wanted it to be a title (and cover) that you could look at after finishing the story and going “Ah, well that makes sense now.” Whether or not that worked, I can’t say.
Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
Don’t do drugs, ha ha. No, I think if there was a single message, it would be to be careful with technology. The story’s not anti-tech, because I feel that technological advancements are very important to our culture, but just to consider the possibilities of what any given technology can achieve. If it helps sick people, gives a cancer patient more opportunities for treatment, awesome. If it dampens the spirit of a person or population or even an animal, just be aware that it can do that. Don’t stop creating it, but be careful with it. Nuclear technology is probably one of the most important achievements we’ve made the past century, but it’s also mind-numbingly tragic when used as a weapon. I say understand the bad because that’s the only way you can avoid it. That’s one of the big themes in Son of Tesla, too.
I also don’t like anonymity in corporations, but that’s just a small part of the story.
Are experiences in this book based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
I think everything is. No, I’ve never been a drug addict in the future who has to kill people because a parrot told him to. But locations, sure. Mannerisms, yes. Descriptions of characters? Absolutely. Some are amalgamations, some I’ll just pull up a photo of someone I know and describe them. If my friends ever knew I was watching the way they stuck out their tongue a little when they were thinking, or sort of scrunched their nose sideways, or put a certain inflection in the way they said “dinner,” I think they’d lynch me in the town square.
A good example of this is Lazarus, a character in Pretty Bird. He has a very distinct way of talking. I got that from a friend I’ve known since elementary school, and he has no idea. Nothing else about Lazarus mirrors this guy, but all of his dialogue comes out the way I think I’d transcribe this friend talking about his day at work. It’s…sneaky, sure, but there’s inspiration all around you if you want to be the asshole that finds it.
What authors have most influenced your life? What about them do you find inspiring?
Life? Jack Kerouac (not a good thing), Hunter Thompson (arguably a worse thing), and Sir Arthur Conan Doyle. The first two lived their lives with pure, unrestrained freedom, and while I haven’t necessarily followed the specifics of what they did, I try to live each day with that encompassing sense of moving forward. There’s always something new; life is short, and I don’t want to sit in a rocker on my front porch and watch it drive by.
As for the third, the Sherlock Holmes stories force you to look past the obvious for the subtle details. That’s never a bad habit, writer or not.
If you had to choose, is there a writer would you consider a mentor? Why?
Well, Stephen King’s On Writing was a huge inspiration for me to start writing fiction again, but I’ve never met a writer in real life, so I can’t say I’ve had a mentor, per se. I’d say that the books I grew up on as a kid – Ender’s Game by Orson Scott Card, Tom Sawyer by the incomparable Twain, and a neverending supply of Stephen King novels filched from my big brother’s room – shaped my fascination with what could be done with the written word. These guys took something that every child learns in school, grammar, spelling, punctuation, they took these tools and they used them to craft stories and characters that can never die. Except the Stephen King ones, where most of the characters seem to die in the first few chapters.
Who designed the cover of your book? Why did you select this illustrator?
I designed it myself for the dual reason that A) I have a fatal attraction to doing everything myself, and B) I can’t afford a designer or illustrator anyway, so that was just how it had to be. The weird thing is, I made the cover before I knew how the story was going to progress, and some of the random design elements I chose ended up in the story. You never know what’s going to get you there.
Do you have any advice for other writers?
Think about the “what if’s.” If you’re writing a sci-fi novel, or a horror novel, or adventure or romance or anything besides literary fiction, chances are what happens to your characters isn’t something that’s ever happened to you. The exception to that may be romance, but I skimmed my wife’s copy of 50 Shade of Grey and I have my doubts, Ms. James.
And when I say the “what if’s,” I mean what could happen? There are opportunities for that every day. If you’re driving to the store for a gallon of milk and you see a stray dog beside the road, hey, what if that dog lives its life running in front of cars to cause accidents because it feeds on death? What if you stopped, brought it home, and suddenly everything you ever wanted started happening to you? It’s about seeing something different in what’s in front of you. So many of my stories have started with that simple question: What if this happened?
Besides that, I’ll just echo King: Read, read, and read. Never stop reading. And don’t start drinking until you’ve written at least 500 words.
Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
Just start writing. It doesn’t matter if it’s good or bad, just stick those fingers on a keyboard, close Facebook, and string some words into a sentence. Then string those sentences into a paragraph, then a chapter, and before you know it, those tiny, insignificant words are going to become a book. Maybe the book sucks. That’s okay. Write another one. Each time, it’ll get better.