Last week I interviewed author Derick William Dalton. Mr. Dalton is the author of Houses of Common, a science fiction thriller released earlier this year. He's a former high school biology and anatomy teacher, and currently works as a family practice physician assistant. Though happy with his life, he wonders how it would be had Hogwarts or Starfleet Academy accepted his applications. He's currently at work on a collection of short stories parallel to Houses of Common, and is also working its sequel, Meaner Sort.
Who is your all-time favorite character?
Of those I've dreamed up, it's Ranyk. He's a 22nd century alien terraformer working for the US Department of Agriculture. An extra-terrestrial working for the USDA. That just strikes me as funny. I also love that he's brave, brilliant, and gets away with saying things I never could. And who doesn't want a bulletproof exoskeleton?
Of other authors' creations, I'm an enormous fan of Bill Watterson's Hobbes. How can someone be so enthusiastic and forgiving? And look so good in orange? “Sometimes it's a source of personal pride not to be human,” Hobbes once said. That statement was in response to a bunch of garbage strewn in the beautiful woods, and aside from insults when fighting with Calvin, it's the meanest thing he ever said. Hobbes the tiger is my attitude hero.
Where did you get the idea for your latest novel?
My brain was trying to sabotage me. To finish grad school before I ran out of money, I was cramming three years of school into two. The harder I worked the more distracting, creative ideas my brain produced. One spark for the novel struck in my botany class. We were studying ferns, which reproduce through a process called alternation of generations. The offspring of the fern is a small plant, like a miniscule water lily. That plant is the parent of what we recognize as a fern. I wondered about the repercussions of that kind of reproduction in a sentient species, and Ranyk was born.
The setting and plot had a similar origin. As a diversion from working on my thesis, I read and reread the article by Robert Zubrin, titled "Getting Space Exploration Right." In it, he notes those nations who backed out of colonizing North and South America subsequently backed out of world importance. Mr. Zubrin posits the same will happen with lunar and Martian colonization. That was the other spark, and now Ranyk had a place to live and a job to do—terraforming new planets for humanity. His adventures were far more interesting than educational law, but I found a balance and still finished school on time.
Tell us more about Houses of Common. What's it about?
I wanted to write heroic propaganda about sharp, skilled people, but not superheroes. I wanted intrigue and adventure and romance. I wanted real science such that my inner geek would be ecstatic, but woven organically into the story so those who love literary fiction wouldn't be put off. I wanted heroes who would dare mighty things, make mistakes, but not empty-headed, thoughtless, plotless mistakes out of poor literary fiction. Then I would be put off. I also wanted bad guys who were not out of a comic book. Real bad guys, just like what we have now, but with a century of technology and practice to exploit the masses. Not to thwart James Bond and take over the world, but to integrate themselves into civic institutions and disappear from collective societal attention. To siphon the work of humanity subtly, but with growing boldness.
Ranyk gets mixed up with them before any other characters. Trying to help Irish scientists and citizens evacuate early to their new planet to escape a civil war, he inadvertently disrupts the plans of someone violent enough to chase him across the solar system trying to vaporize him and his starship. Ranyk's friends and his species' ambassador to the United States are attacked. His sister finds proof of illegal experimentation and xenocide. But evidence of who's behind it all is harder to find than a safe place to hide. If he can't discover who to trust and who to go after, it will cost the freedom of forty thousand Irish colonists, the safety of his friends, and his own life.
How did you meet Shelly? How long has she been your pet? (For those who don't know, Shelly is Dalton's box turtle who has a lot to say on his blog.)
Shelly was a gift from a staff member at the high school where I once taught. Shelly was indignant she wasn't consulted, of course, but seemed to enjoy my classroom anyway. For a while.
I shared the room with the part-time home economics teacher. She took one look at the turtle terrarium and got even more cranky than Shelly. “Salmonella!” she cried, worrying about all the cooking her class would be doing in the room. Rather than explaining infections from pet turtles are almost exclusively from toddlers putting baby aquatic turtles in their mouths, and that there were no toddlers or baby turtles or aquatic turtles around, I just took Shelly home. Now that I think of it, I forgot to consult her again. I did not forget, but did fail to inform the other teacher, that my students regularly dissected rats and fetal pigs on the cooking tables.
That was about ten years ago. It's clear you've read Shelly's blog, so you're aware it hasn't all been roses. Or earthworms, as Shelly prefers. But we make a passable team.
Are you a pantser or a planner? (In other words, do you just sit down and write and see where it goes or do you plan and outline?)
I plan to be a planner. I schedule the time and place and topic when I write. It forces me to fit what I need into that limited window of opportunity. It gives me a sense of urgency which keeps me from getting sleepy or goofing off. Within that framework, though, I sometimes get surprised. When writing Houses of Common, I needed a one-scene character to help move the plot along so I could finish the chapter. As I wrote, he turned out so intriguing I forgot about the chapter and worked him into the story as a main character. The chapter didn't get done when I wanted, but I have lots of people tell me how much they love Captain Nedford Gill and his spaceship.
What's your favorite part of the novel-writing process? What's the most difficult?
I like all of it. Writing down ideas, outlining a novel, researching facts. Putting fresh words to a blank document is exciting. Reading those words a week later and making improvements is fun. Sometimes too much fun and I have to go back and edit rather than just read. I've had a great time working with editors and fellow authors to finalize and promote my work.
The most difficult part is to keep my writing in proper perspective. My sister, sci-fi author Jessica Parsons, once made a very wise comment. Speaking of her novel Time Walker, she said, “I don't want my kids to look at this book and be reminded of a mom who wasn't there for them.”
I find that particular book intimidatingly good, by the way.
Any advice for aspiring authors?
Criticism is your friend. The kind of friend who sometimes makes you bleed and always leaves a bruise. You need alpha and beta readers who are skilled and honest. Nice is unnecessary. Hire an editor. Hire. It's expensive, but it's an investment with a better return than the sorry percentage your bank is so proud to give on your savings account.
When you are bruised and bleeding, don't quit. Funnel the emotion into your work. And I mean work. The Muse is nothing more than neurochemistry. Fill your head with good information to warm up the synapses and write until you're empty. Then get some more criticism.
I noticed you like Harry Potter. What's your favorite book?
I know you said book, singular, but I have to answer one and four. Hero origin stories really grab my interest. Introduction to a wondrous new world is the whole reason for reading and writing science fiction and fantasy. Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone is both, and a skillfully crafted example. And, I got to see the movie as Philosopher's Stone because I was living in Canada then.
The Goblet of Fire really gripped me because it expands the scope of the wizarding world just as everything is about to get uglier. It's a shift away from the lightheartedness of Hogwarts and foreshadows the awfulness to come. Like Umbridge. As a former teacher, I hated her and her No Witch or Wizard Left Behind changes way more than anything Voldemort ever did.
Now I'm buzzed to read them all again. Thanks, Kami. With this one question you've just postponed my next novel, Meaner Sort, by at least a month.
Derick William Dalton can be found on Shelly's blog and on Facebook.
Check out Houses of Common in paperback, Kindle, and Nook.
On a side note to my followers, don't forget about the signed copy of Ender's Game I'm giving away here. You just have to comment for a chance to win.