Today marks the publication of What Once Was Home by my business partner and dear friend, B.K. Bass. To help him promote this phenomenal story, we chatted about the book and his writing career and I’ve transcribed it below. If you’re interested in post-apocalyptic or science fiction books with a lot of heart, I think you’ll love this one. Without further ado, here’s the interview. Thank you for reading!
Sam Hendricks: First off, you’ve written over a dozen non-fiction articles this week to promote your new book. You delved into some writing advice, like how to write post-apocalyptic fiction, and you got real about your writing career. So I’m thrilled and proud to be chatting with you on the release day! Congratulations!
B.K. Bass: Thank you! It’s been a crazy week, that’s for sure! I’ve had a great time sharing the story of What Once Was Home though, and through that sharing some of my own story as well. I always love discussing the craft of writing and delving into the intricacies of genre conventions, so this has been a great opportunity to expand on that. I’m glad to have an opportunity to discuss this more with you.
Sam: Me too! So, without further delay, here are the questions I prepared. I tried to sprinkle in some that even I don’t know the answer to, so I’m excited to hear!
You’ve described What Once Was Home as your first attempt at a ‘Great American Novel.’ Tell us about the moment you realized that.
B.K.: First of all, the term ‘Great American Novel’ comes from an 1868 essay from novelist James William De Forest, who said this was a piece of work that painted “the picture of the ordinary emotions and manners of American existence.” It’s considered to be a term for a novel by an American author that captures the culture of American society contemporary to the writing of the book.
I’d never be so presumptuous to self-ascribe this badge of honor, but we always have a certain feeling about our own books. My gut reaction on reading through What Once Was Home after the first draft was completed was that this book spoke to a moral crisis facing our country today. I’ve said before the main theme of the book is maintaining one’s moral compass in the face of impossible decisions.
From the halls of the Capitol Building to the sands of Afghanistan, Americans are facing challenges never before seen in our country’s history. The solutions to these challenges aren’t always black and white. More often, they’re grey areas. Also, choosing the high road in many of these situations involves going against what is popular or taking the most difficult route—sometimes to the point of being self-destructive for the person making the choice.
It’s these hard decisions that people must make today that I feel resonates through Jace’s story in What Once Was Home, with the hard decisions he has to make. Sometimes, the right thing to do is unclear. Sometimes, it will upset those who have placed their trust in him. And sometimes, he must sacrifice some of himself to do what’s best for his community.
Sam: This is a book about morality, about integrity in complex and challenging circumstances as much as it’s about an alien invasion and the efforts of a small community to rebuild. Are the message and themes of the book a direct reflection of your own views?
B.K.: The message and themes of What Once Was Home are absolutely reflective of my own views. I poured a lot of myself into this book, more than I have with any prior work. There’s an introduction in the book that talks about this. My late father taught me a simple rule to get me through life: “do the right thing.” The same concept was put forward when I served in the U.S. Army, in the form of the core value of honor. Honor is all about doing what you know is right no matter the consequences. It’s not obedience or compliance; those are doing the right thing to avoid the consequences. Honor is doing the right thing simply because it is the right thing to do.
Jace has to struggle with this. He finds himself in a world where social structures have broken down. He could just as easily have become a bandit taking advantage of the weak for his own gain. Instead, he chooses to support and eventually lead his community. Still, he’s faced with hard choices where the right thing to do isn’t always clear. I’ve faced choices like this through my own life. Dad said “do the right thing,” but it’s not always obvious what that choice is. Often doing the right thing isn’t the easiest choice, or the one that leads to the most favorable results for yourself. That’s the real challenge in living up to that standard; that gut check where you have to analyze a situation and despite any drawbacks to it make the decision that you know won’t compromise your own integrity.
Sam: You mentioned in one of your articles this week that you put What Once Was Home down for a year while you wrote several other stories and founded Kyanite Publishing with me. Tell us more about how you grew as an author during that time.
B.K.: I’m a huge advocate that writing, like any skill, must be practiced. The way one does this is through writing and reading. I’d spent a lifetime consuming books with a ravenous appetite. I can’t even begin to guess how many I’ve read, but it has to be well over a thousand. Also, I wrote off and on for over 25 years, although none of that survived my own critical eye and ended up in the trash.
Still, after all this, I had more to learn. Over the course of writing five novellas and an anthology, plus a number of articles and short stories, I got to practice my craft. Seeing those come back from the editor’s desk showed me what I needed to improve.
Also, I spent time on the other side of that desk. I had read so many books over my life, but they were always a finished product. Seeing raw manuscripts allowed me the opportunity to learn how other authors presented their stories in a pure form. Also, the process of editing several of those allowed me to train my eye for certain issues that might pop up.
Going back to What Once Was Home after all of that, I read through the first half that I had written and corrected a lot of issues. Many of them were things I had learned through my own writing, and some from working with other authors. I tweaked and nudged things until I felt if this were sent to me as an editor, I’d be hard-pressed to find anything to critique or correct. From there, I wrote the second half with that trained eye, and I think the results are evidence of the benefits of this. Even so, my editor (you!) still managed to polish it up beyond that.
Sam: What does your writing routine look like? How do you manage such prolific output around all your other endeavors?
B.K.: I actually wish my writing routine was more of a routine, but my “work routine” is what really makes a difference. One of the benefits of being your own boss is not having to be at work at a certain time, but still I get up every day around four or five in the morning and go straight to work. That’s the big thing, I don’t putz around and “do it later.” I get up, get my coffee, and sit down at the computer. Often, I’m working on projects for Kyanite or one of my other side endeavors like Worldbuilding Magazine. When I can find the time though, I’ll work on my own writing. Either way, I usually put in between a six- and eight-hour day in the morning.
On top of that, I’ll usually spend some time in the evening working. Again, what I work on here can vary depending on what needs to be done. Often though, this is my writing time. After I’ve had a chunk of time to relax and ponder things, I often find the muse calling to me. The time between “work” often involves a lot of thinking, so that’s where I start to simmer the ideas and stir the pot. This “evening shift” is usually about four to six hours, so you can say my average workday is between ten and fourteen hours. This is five days a week. I take most of the weekends off, but that just means I cut back to about six hours a day on those days and try to spend more time there on my own projects versus the company.
Sam: Are there any other novels lying around your house waiting to be finished? Ha ha, but seriously: are there?
B.K.: Well, there are several novellas. One is actually done and in your queue for editing. That’s Blood of the Desert, a heroic fantasy tale inspired by Robert E. Howard’s work. I’m clacking away as we speak on Night Life, the sequel to Night Shift. This is the second book in the Night Trilogy, a cyberpunk crime mystery. There’s a few more planned, but those are the only two that are in the middle of the process.
As far as novels, there’s one that’s very early in the process of writing the “book,” but that I’ve put more work into so far than anything else I’ve done. This is an epic fantasy novel called Heir to Eternity, the first book in what is tentatively titled The Eternity Saga. The short version of the pitch here is that this is set on a medieval-era low fantasy world that exists parallel to what I call the Faewylde, which is a magical realm that is also the source of all life. In the Faewylde there has been a war raging for millennia between two opposing ideological factions, and it spills out into the “mortal realms”.
So far, I have the prologue written and a ten-page excel spreadsheet outlining five plot threads, four main character arcs, and seven point-of-view characters. Also, and here’s where the bulk of the work has been, I have about 70,000 words of worldbuilding written to set up the world for this series. The focus area for the early story is about 80% fleshed out, but I still have a lot more of the world to develop beyond that.
One of the challenges with this is that I’ve been writing it not just as notes, but with the intent to be an entertaining reading experience with an attractive presentation of its own. I have World Anvil to thank for providing the platform to do this. The world, which I call “Istaria,” is available to the public to enjoy here.
Sam: The future, as depicted in What Once Was Home, is grim. It’s also captivating to envision, and readers have already asked whether you’ll be writing any other stories in the same world. Do you foresee any spinoffs?
B.K.: I have a short story I’ll be working on that’ll be available on my website, hopefully as early as next week. This is being born out of a Twitter game we’ve been playing all week where I post polls and let the community decide certain elements or directions for the story. So far it’s shaping up to be quite an interesting adventure.
Beyond that, the novel leaves the window open for possibilities. I always intended this to be a standalone piece, however. So, as of right now there’s nothing planned for the future. Jace’s story has been told, I can say that definitively. However, the invasion and the aftermath was a global event, and we only focus on a small region in this book. There are stories to be told all over the globe about what happened, and perhaps even something further in the future where we get to find out how things progress between humanity and the “twigs.”
Sam: What’s next? Have any shiny new ideas derailed the future plans we talked about in this video promoting your last release, Parting the Veil?
B.K.: There’s always shiny ideas, but I’m keeping them in the notebook where they belong for now. I made a promise to the people that I would be focusing on sequels over the next year, and that’s exactly what I am doing. I mentioned Blood of the Desert, but that was almost done and finishing it was the one caveat in the proclamation. As I mentioned, I’m working on Night Life now. After that I have Companions of the Stone Road to write, then I’m diving back into The Ravencrest Chronicles for a new trilogy of novellas kicking off an ongoing storyline in that world called The Shadow Cult Series. The third book in the Night Trilogy, Night Shadow, will fit into all of that somewhere depending on how things flow. Either way, nothing new will be on the priority list until all of that is done.
Sam: Our catalog at Kyanite is filled with books in different speculative subgenres, but we all have our ultimate favorites. What’s yours? Are your favorite genres to write and to read different?
B.K.: Most of my favorite subgenres to read are also my favorite to write, and I’m all over the place here. I’ve managed to delve into writing several of these, but there’s a lot of exploration I have yet to do. Off the top of my head, I would list epic fantasy, high fantasy, sword and sorcery, heroic fantasy, dark fantasy, post-apocalyptic, dystopian, military science fiction, space opera, speculative horror, and the old pulp mainstay weird fiction.
Among the genres I read but don’t write, I’d say historical fiction and mystery. However, I’ve managed to incorporate elements of both into my writing so far. I don’t think I’ll ever write anything that doesn’t have some speculative elements though. I also like to spend some time on classic literature, and I’ve spent plenty with Shakespeare, Melville, Twain, and Hemmingway; to name a few. I’ve also read a lot of poetry, my favorite being Edgar Allen Poe. I’ve dabbled a little here, but don’t expect anything for the history books!
I also read a lot of non-fiction; mostly history, military history, and mythology. On the latter, I enjoy a good analysis, but I also like reading original works like the Illiad from Greece or the Poetic Edda from Norse myth.
Sam: You’ve now self-published and published through a small press (albeit one you have an ownership stake in), and you’re familiar with larger publishing contracts as well. What can you tell aspiring writers and authors about the different paths? What guideposts should they use to make decisions about which publishing path is right for their work(s)?
B.K.: That’s a tricky one, and there’s a lot of things to consider. I’d say money is one. Professional editing, cover design, copyrights, ISBNs, marketing; all of that takes money. When I self-published, I didn’t have a lot of money so I was doing it all myself. The results were less than stellar. I’d say if you can’t afford to hire all of this out professionally, you definitely should at least be looking for a small press to help you out.
Even that aside, there’s something to be said about having a team you can trust. Since starting up the publishing company, I’ve learned a lot about how various individuals with a wide skillset can come together to make a book a better finished product than one person usually can. And being involved with a small press not only gives you access to those resources but also a small team with a personal touch. Not all small presses will provide the same experience, however. I’ve heard other authors speak of their publishers with the same praise our authors laud on us, and then I’ve heard horror stories. If you decide to go the small press route, I’d say be selective on who you go with. If you can, try to talk to authors currently working with them to get an idea of what the experience is like.
Then we have the big publishing houses. Again, money is a big difference here. More money for marketing, more money for a larger staff. Established distribution relationships with bookstores. The drawback here is that it’s very hard to get a yes from them. Expect to have to go through an agent (and therefore also share your royalties with them.) Expect a lot of rejections before you get a yes, both from the agent and publishers. Expect your manuscript to take years to become a book. There’s a lot of patience and perseverance needed if you take this route; and even then, there’s no guarantee you’ll get published.
There’s no guarantee with small presses either, but there are more options and they might be more willing to take a chance on a new author because they’re not putting hundreds of thousands of dollars on the line for each book.
Sam: Here’s my final question, and it’s a doozie, so prepare yourself. Which of the fictional characters you’ve written is most like you?
B.K.: Oh boy. The answer to this isn’t going to make me more popular; but in the interest of sticking with the “do the right thing” theme of What Once Was Home, it’ll be an honest one. The character from my books that’s most like me is Harold Peterson from the Night Trilogy (Night Shift, and the upcoming Night Life and Night Shadow.) Harold is a chain-smoking, cynical, grumpy, self-centered asshole. He’s just trying to do his job, feels like he’s getting the raw end of the deal out of life, and doesn’t want to hear anybody else’s sob story because he knows he’s either been through or seen worse. But, when push comes to shove he still gets the job done. When somebody really is getting the short end of the stick, he sees the injustice and will do something about it. When he gets the option to take the easy way out and write off a dead hooker as just another victim of a system that doesn’t care, he does the right thing and goes above and beyond in performing his investigation so this nameless woman can get the justice she deserves. He’s going to take care of himself first and doesn’t have time for your whining, but if you really need help he’d have your back. I identify a lot with all of that.