Yesterday, I reviewed speculative fiction novel, Numb, the story of an assassin who feels neither physical nor emotional pain. It is the featured novel in this month’s Christian Science Fiction & Fantasy Blog Tour,and an excerpt of this fast-paced futuristic thriller can be read here or by clicking on the book cover image.
Today, I ask author John W. Otte a few questions about writing the book and dealing with negative reviews from readers who don’t expect his faith to be front-and-center in his fiction.
So, without further ado:
Keanan Brand: If I’m writing a short story, it maintains its general plot and characters from first draft to last. A novel, however, morphs over time until my original idea may not be recognizable in the final product. An upcoming fantasy novel, for instance, began as a short story almost twenty years ago, but readers would never know the novel was born of the short story. What sparked the idea for Numb, and how did your original vision change as the story progressed? Can that inciting idea still be recognized in the published novel?
John W. Otte: It’s funny you should mention it. I decided that I would tell Numb’s origin story on the first day of the tour. (You can find the story here.) I don’t think my vision changed all that much. I had a pretty good idea of how I wanted the story to proceed. One of the curses of being an outliner, I suppose. At one point, I did have to modify the antagonist’s story a little. Without giving away too many spoilers, the antagonist’s motivation didn’t seem to be enough to me, so I had to up the stakes for him/her just a little. Once I had done that, the whole thing just gelled perfectly.
Brand: Numb is fast-paced and intriguing. I’ve read reviews of many books recently, some of which I’ve edited, and a recurring theme among non-Christian readers is their annoyance at being “duped” or “sucked in” to a story that they later find to be Christian in its themes or worldview. Some of those reviews can be vitriolic, and even contain warnings to future readers not to buy the books. Numb contains much violence — not graphic, but integral to the plot — and also many frank Christian references, from a twisted version of the faith to an almost Early Church version. Have you encountered readers uncertain about or unwilling to read a blatantly Christian novel? Or Christians unwilling to read a novel containing violence? If so, how have you handled such criticisms?
Otte: Not about Numb, at least, not yet. With my first book, Failstate, I’ve seen two reviewers on Goodreads that weren’t pleased with the fact that it was a Christian book. In one case, the person who wrote the review said he didn’t finish the book because he had a bad experience with Christians in his youth. I offered him a refund, but he turned me down since the copy he bought was for the library he worked in. The second guy was extremely angry at being “tricked” into reading a book by a pastor who wanted to preach at him. He said he was going to go through the book with a marker and black out all the religious stuff. I decided to ignore that one. And really, that’s probably the best way to handle that sort of situation. Not everyone is going to like what I write and arguing with them isn’t going to change their minds.
At some point, someone may call me on the violence in Numb. If it happens, I would probably point out that, given Crusader’s background and the nature of the Ministrix, that sort of violence would not only be acceptable but expected. Part of Crusader’s journey is trying to leave that violence behind, but that’s not easy, given how ingrained it is within him.
Brand: Given his task as assassin and his harsh faith, Crusader may be difficult to like at first, though his efficiency and skill are admirable. Did you struggle to make him likable, or did you just write him as you saw him, and hope the reader came along for the ride?
Otte: I don’t think I struggled all that much. I know that sounds cocky, but truth be told, I kind of lucked into Crusader’s temperament. I knew that people would have a hard time relating to him, so I decided to include the fact that he was a gifted artist as a way to soften him up a little. But that was really the only conscious decision I made to try to make him more relatable.
Brand: Confession: I was uncertain about his reaction to Isolda. I didn’t want a taut story to derail into squishy romance. However, you managed to keep the story going, and used the attraction and the deep feelings to propel the forward motion of the plot. How difficult was that to write, and did you consider other outcomes for Crusader and Isolda’s storyline?
Otte: When my wife saw this question, she insisted that I include the following statement: “I am not a romantic person by nature.” And as much as it pains me to admit it, there’s a lot of truth to that. I’ve always been a little clumsy and awkward around women. I still count it as a minor miracle that my wife fell in love with me. So in some ways, that made Crusader’s romance with Isolda a lot easier to write, at least from his perspective. I could just inject a lot of my own experiences into it.
As for an alternate ending for Crusader and Isolda, I don’t think so. It’s been like seven years since I wrote the book, so some of the details are hazy (I do remember that I took an extended break from writing the book toward the end of chapter five and I can even tell you what line I stopped at), but I’m pretty sure their ending never changed. Again, it’s one of the perils of being an outliner when it comes to writing. I have to know the beginning, big chunks of the middle, and the end of a story before I start writing it and I don’t deviate from my plans unless I have a really good reason to.
Brand: Numb is quite good as a standalone novel; and, as a reader, I’m good with just the one book. However, there are still characters and ideas that could be explored. Have you considered setting other stories in the same universe?
Otte: Actually, I have. A few years back, I wrote what I call a “pseudo-sequel” to Numb entitled Hive. I call it a pseudo-sequel because, while it’s set in the same universe and takes place shortly after Numb wraps up, there’s not a lot that carries over from Numb to Hive. It earned the nickname “the pregnant teenage cyborg book” at a writing conference (that’s actually a good summary of one of the characters). I need to do some work on it. I haven’t had the chance recently, but maybe in the next couple of months. We’ll have to see.
Brand: If you write it, I look forward to reading it!
For more about Numb, click here to read my review and to find a list of other bloggers reviewing the novel.