Adam Interviews...Mike Karpa!
Hello, it's Monday again, and that means I'm back with another author interview!
Today I have the pleasure of talking with Mike Karpa.
Mike’s fiction, memoir and nonfiction can be found in Tin House, Foglifter, Tahoma Literary Review, Oyster River Pages and other magazines. He is the author of Criminals, a literary thriller that was a Kirkus Reviews Best Book of 2022 (Indie), the upbeat scifi romance Red Dot and The Wealthy Whites of Williamsburg, a contemporary comic novel set in a near-future New York. He lives with his husband and dog in San Francisco.
Red Dot: https://www.amazon.com/dp/B09GR7PH2B
Star Trek or Star Wars?
That’s easy: Trek! My initial reaction was that I love them both. But honestly, Star Wars I, II and III killed off my interest in the franchise. I saw all three in the theaters. There was a love scene in one between young Darth Vader and Natalie Portman. Young Darth Vader cried out soulfully “I’m in agony.” Someone in the audience yelled out “me too!” Everyone laughed, and it was all over. I have never seen another. Star Trek, however, continues to maintain my interest, iteration after iteration. The shows have variety. And you have to respect a show that can survive the hairstyles of the Kazon, that initial band of aliens in Star Trek: Voyager. What was that about?
Firefly – gone too soon or overrated?
I did not get Firefly when it first came out. Watching it years later, I found that the characters and world building sucked me in. And it was just fun. Plus, it had a fine cast, who’ve gone on to great things. The plucky underworld Roguey types that head up many science fiction novels appear less often on screen, so that was refreshing. Sure, the Chinese accents were tonelessly horrendous, but they did lead to a moment on the Nathan Fillion’s later show Castle when he says something in Chinese, someone else expresses surprise, and he says something like, “long story.” That was worth a chuckle.
Coffee, tea, or cacao?
I start the day with strong black tea—a couple cups of a modest Assam. I pace myself with decaf coffee. (I have full octane when I am out writing.) And I always break for chocolate. In the immortal, slightly adjusted words of the Taco Bell commercial, ¿Por qué no los tres?
When did you first realize you wanted to be a writer?
About ten years ago. I’d been writing for decades, publishing earnest stories infrequently, but encountering no great success. Soldiering on began to feel crazy because the industry is brutal. (As Scarlett O’Hara is my witness, I’ll never send out another query letter again.) One day I had to ask myself why I was putting myself through it. Okay, I asked myself that many times. But I couldn’t quit. Or rather, I didn’t quit. And then one day I answered my own question: I like doing it. Writing is fun! I was writing because I wanted to write. Is that different from wanting to be a writer? It’s as close as I’ve come.
What is your work schedule like when you’re writing?
My ideal work schedule for writing is the picture of lazy self-indulgence: get a hot brew of some kind around eight or nine, then sit down at the computer and write or rewrite for a couple hours. I don’t often get to do that, but those morning hours are when I get the most done. Sometimes I am cogitating during that first hour. Recently, as I work on a sequel to my scifi novel Red Dot, I have come to realize that while the main characters know how they’re going to, well, save the world, they haven’t clued me in on their plans. When they do clue me in, it will be in that self-indulgent hour. That’s when my brain is comes up with the good stuff. Sometimes plot, sometimes emotional resonance, but most days Il settle for a memorable line.
What would you say is your interesting writing quirk?
This may be common: I write really well at home when I’m alone. When my husband is home, I feel self-conscious. And yet somehow, at a café, surrounded by strangers, I don’t feel self-conscious at all. I probably should. Especially on those days when I get home, pass by a mirror, and see the crazy, overgrown, out-of-control hair that I’ve just paraded around town.
When did you write your first book and how old were you?
In junior high, we had to turn in a piece of writing once a week. I wrote a boys’ adventure that became a continuing story. It didn’t amount to a book, though it had aspirations. The two boys had a dog named Jup, so-named to allow me the line “Up Jup!” I was a very sophisticated writer. Towards the end of high school, I would tell my brother stories, and in college I wrote them down. That was more like a book, but it was painfully derivative and had no beginning or end. The first real book I wrote was what is now published as Criminals. I finished the first draft when I was 32. Despite those early efforts, I turned out to be a late starter. I am persistent though, and when I published Criminals, Kirkus Reviews listed it as a Best of Book 2022 (Indie). It’s been out for fifteen months and sold dozens and dozens of copies. Well, several dozen, anyway.
Is there a trope you find yourself going back to in multiple works? Or one you avoid?
I’m not sure this is a trope, but I noticed in my first three books that the hero is always getting his face mangled. In Criminals, the guy gets his face bashed several times by different people. In a sprawling book I wrote about India, a character gets caught in lathi charge, which is when police with long clubs charge a crowd. (A lathi is a long club.) In Red Dot, a character has his face removed surgically, which was not nearly as bad as it sounds, since in this future, plastic surgery is an art form. (It’s painless, and they put it back. Sort of.) In my most recent book, The Wealthy Whites of Williamsburg, which is a 30-seconds-into-the-future story set in an imagined New York, nobody gets their face bashed. There isn’t any blood in the entire book. Oh wait, I forgot about something. But no spoilers here, folks.
What does your family think of your writing?
They are very supportive. They don’t even roll their eyes when I get talking about writing. I am beyond grateful.
How many books have you written? Which is your favorite?
I’m going to say six books. The genres are all over the place. Criminal is a thriller/suspense novel, which I followed up with an alternate history about India building the atomic bomb in the 60s (which includes an alternate history of the Nazi bomb-building effort). Then I wrote a book-length memoir covering a five-year period of my life that I suspect will never see daylight. Then came a book of interlocking short stories centered on family, followed by my first true sci-fi book, Red Dot. Then came the new “30-seconds into the future” The Wealthy Whites of Williamsburg. I am noticing now that the genres may be more cohesive than I realized, since alternate histories are spec fic. And my earliest published story was about a cab driver who gives a Raymond Chandler character a ride in his cab: spec fic! Of those, I think the India novel is the “best,” but Red Dot is my favorite. I’d wanted to write Red Dot for a very long time, and then finally did, thanks to NaNoWriMo. It’s lighthearted, it’s funny (at least to me), and it’s about something: what does it mean to be a person? It has an almost exclusively LGBTQ cast of characters, and I like that they are so normalized. Plus, it got a competition, so that builds in forward momentum. And it was my first foray into world-building: an optimistic post-Global-warming world. That was a hoot to write.
Do you have any suggestions to help someone become a better writer? If so, what are they?
For my India saga, I wrote a huge outline of seven interweaving character arcs, not realizing that meant it would be a huge book. I then produced a 250,000-word book that I rewrote and rewrote and rewrote. I got interest from agents. One said I was “sure to get an agent.” (That person was wrong.) Interest and encouragement kept me rewriting and rewriting. So, my advice to someone to help them become a better writer is, don’t do that. Don’t spend forever rewriting. Just don’t. Yes, rewriting is essential and it’s terrific, but keep writing new stuff. Don’t rework the same thing over and over. Move on! (Hey, did I mention this year I’m rewriting the India book, har har.)
Do you like to create books for adults?
I do. I started out wanting to write gay novels that were realistic and included sex in a realistic, adult way. I felt that there weren’t many such books, that there should be, and I was going to write them. However, it took me so long to get off the ground that now there’s a million of those. There is no unmet need in that regard. So increasingly my books are suitable for all ages. I think. Which means I need a pseudonym for that audience. But even these books that are all-ages in orientation (so to speak) are adult in their sensibility, which I might term “wry realism.” As you can see, I never know what I am doing till it’s done.
As a child, what did you want to do when you grew up?
As a child, I just wanted to get out of grade school, then out of junior high school, then out of high school. What I wanted to be when I grew up was not in school. These last five years, I’ve become a teacher. Joke’s on me!
What is the first book that made you cry?
I don’t think this book actually made me cry, but I saw the movie of The House of Mirth with Gillian Anderson. It was gut wrenching. So, I then read Edith Wharton’s novel. I didn’t cry, but knowing what was coming I could not read the ending. I read 95% and stopped. I’ve never finished it; it was too painful. I find it easier to cry at movies, in general, probably because I’m in the dark. But they’re never ones I’d expect. I cried during Star Trek: Insurrection. Seriously. There was something about the kid and the robot… On a second viewing years later, it still got me chocked up. Also, Pal Joey, although I think that was not about the story. And just the other day, my husband and I watched Spoiler Alert. Hospital scenes get to me. I am remembering now a book that did make me cry, and possibly it was the first. Paul Monette’s memoir about the death of his partner Roger, Borrowed Time. I squirmed reading it but couldn’t stop. Devastating.
Do you try more to be original or to deliver to readers what they want?
I don’t think these are at all at odds. I don’t think I have any choice but to be original, because I have to come up with words to put on the page, and they have to come from out of my head. But at the same time, I don’t want to waste the reader’s time. The more I write, the more cognizant I am of the value of just getting to the point. Having things happen. Now! And of not manipulating the reader. I don’t like phony tension created by withholding information. I like events that lead to a deepening situation that pulls the reader in. In that sense, I’m trying to deliver to readers what they want, which is to have a good reading experience. It’s hard to do, and I have plenty of ideas that I end up admitting just aren’t good enough. When I have those, I try to turn them into something that is good enough. And when I do that, I’m definitely thinking of delivering for the reader.
What’s your favorite under-appreciated novel?
I absolutely love Philip K. Dick’s Clans of the Alphane Moon. I saw a list of all his novels rated for quality, and Clans clocked in near the bottom of the list. It set on a moon of Alpha Centauri that gets cut off by an interstellar war. Before the war, it was the location of an insane asylum. During the century that it is cut off, it evolves into a society where people are organized into tribes by diagnosis. There is a paranoid tribe, a depressed tribe, a schizophrenic tribe. It’s delightfully ridiculous. In the second chapter, the main character’s neighbor is a telepathic Ganymedean slime mold who enters his apartment by oozing under the door. I laughed through that whole book. I don’t know anybody else who’s read it, although I’m sure there’s lots of folks like me who’ve read everything Philip K. Dick ever wrote.
What do you owe the real people upon whom you base your characters, if anything?
The main thing I owe real people is not to hurt them. For the accursed India novel, I pillaged the lives of my parents for easily identifiable details that I then used for two characters. My mother read it, although my father died before I finished it. She seemed okay with the book, saying the character was “nothing like me,” which was true enough. I think that was a bit of bluster and that she was somewhat hurt by it, although hopefully also gratified that I devoted all this attention to her. I tried to have some aspect of their fantasy lives come true in heroic ways. True, hah! Anyway, I will never do that again. If I want to write memoir, I’ll just write memoir, and I’ll write about myself. That way the subject has an easier time chewing out the author.
What is the answer to the Ultimate Question of Life, the Universe, and Everything?
You’re not going to like it…
What do you have coming next?
The next book up is a middle-grade or YA adventure about five orphaned puppies called Squirrels-Fall-From-Trees. I just put up a mock cover on mumblerspress.com, the website for my press. The puppies and their mother are strays. When the puppies (all girls) are eight weeks old, their mother is taken away by animal care and control and killed. (It’s a Bambi start.) The five sisters then fend for themselves. But then they hear from another stray that they have a dad, so they set off to find him. But rumor has it he is a pet! That’s the worst! It becomes a road story, with the question hovering over the sisters: can five wild puppies and their domesticated dad form a family?
While I am rewriting this for publication, I’ll also be finishing the draft of Green Dot, which is half done at the minute (as they say in Ireland). In Green Dot, I’m having a lot of fun writing the language AIs use with each other. Finishing a sequel will be a big deal. I always thought writing a sequel would be easy, but it turns out sequels are as much work to write as any other novel! Whose idea was that?
And now an excerpt! Prologue and Chapter 1 of The Wealthy Whites of Williamsburg
Prologue: The Fog
Casey wandered the Port Authority bus terminal, newly debarked off her bus from Memphis and feeling like midtown Manhattan had punched her in the face. A guy approached her. The man looked like a farmworker who’d wandered in straight off a granja—his brown skin weathered and creased, his white straw cowboy hat similarly battered by the elements. He was pushing sixty if he was a day.
“¿Cómo llego al JFK desde aquí?” he asked. How do you get to JFK from here?
Casey was surprised to have the question come in Spanish, because she didn’t think she looked particularly Spanish-speaking. But it felt like a welcome to New York. She’d spent the last five years studying language and applied linguistics at the Universidad de las Américas Puebla, UDLAP, in Cholula, Mexico, achieving professional competence in Spanish, and maybe that had revealed itself in her choice of clothing, or the way she walked. Or maybe the old fellow just couldn’t see.
Casey had noticed plenty of signs for JFK plastered high on the walls of the Port Authority, so she told him he could take the subway from there or get a train from Penn Station, a ten-minute walk or so, which was faster and the same price.
“No mires tanto hacia arriba. Parecerás una turista. Es lo que alguien me dijo.” Someone had told him looking up makes you look like a tourist, he said. He tipped his hat as he left, in the direction of Penn Station.
Fifteen minutes in New York City and already she was getting advice.
Looking up is how I know how to get to JFK, she wanted to call after him, but the impulse wasn’t a strong one. No impulse was these days. She was grateful that he had wanted to protect her, and wary of being easy prey. Even after her years-long escape to the pulsing new experience of Cholula, part of her remained in an implacable fog. She imagined herself walking the streets of Manhattan and looking up at all the skyscrapers. That kind of aw-shucks naïveté might be an improvement over the fog; most days it was more than she could manage to maintain eye contact. There was more than one way to look vulnerable.
Casey rolled her bag out of the Port Authority onto Eighth Avenue, not knowing where she was going, only that she had to get there. Car horns sounded, people yelled. Video screens were garish red and hot pink. There had been a recent rain and she could hear tires. Somewhere, jackhammers were going. I’m in a movie, she thought.
Crowds approached. Her chest felt tight. Her gaze fell to the sidewalk.
The dirty concrete was a comfortable place to rest her eyes. She avoided oncoming pedestrians by watching for their feet. She’d become quite comfortable out amongst human beings in Cholula, where people had accepted her as another earnest language learner attending UDLAP, but her distrust of strangers, which she’d fled Memphis to heal, had come back in force once she returned to the banks of the muggy Mississippi. Within a month she was on a bus out of there. Now she felt that same distrust in New York.
Coming here was a mistake, she thought. All these miles between her and hell and she didn’t feel one bit better.
People jostled her, banged into the bag she rolled behind her, and cursed her as they spilled their coffee. A standing man wearing a sign selling bus tours forced her to a stop. She collapsed the pull handle of her bag into its interior and held the bag by the side handle to reenter the stream of walkers. It was hardly better. She remembered the bag had a shoulder strap, so she dodged a bicycle to step into a urine-scented alley where she unspooled it. Now she held the bag in front of her, as she might have done on a Cholula bus, there out of consideration for fellow passengers though also to guard against thieves. Here, the familiarity of the move helped her breathe.
A book in her bag listed inexpensive places to stay. Exorbitant by Memphis standards, let alone those of Cholula, but she’d had hundreds of miles listening to bus tires hum on asphalt to make her peace with that.
She spotted a diner that looked unexceptional, far more so than the chain coffeehouse next to it, whose jaunty, overly familiar logo promised some kind of reassurance Casey knew it could not deliver. She pushed open the diner door. The bell hanging from it rang. She took a seat at the counter and looped the strap of her bag around her stool as she tucked it where she could rest her feet on it.
An older woman, mid-forties perhaps, approached behind the counter, tossed a menu in front of Casey and continued walking, turning her mop of thick red hair back toward Casey just long enough to utter, “Coffee?”
“Yes ma’am,” Casey said. “Thank you.” A busboy slid a clattering white ceramic saucer and cup in front of her.
“Light?” the waitress asked on the return leg of her vuelta.