Are You Infected? A Comprehensive Interview with Author Scott Sigler
Scott Sigler, author of Infected, released today by Crown, is known by some as the world's most successful podcaster, with more than 30,000 fanatically devoted subscribers per book. He's also been profiled in The New York Times, among others. Sigler's background is as a reporter, marketer, and project manager, although he was "writing the whole time." Infected is pulse-pounding suspense fiction with horror and SF elements, involving radical personality shifts and parasites. The novel has already received NPR coverage and an enthusiastic endorsement in Entertainment Weekly. When I asked Sigler if the book had a soundtrack, since he seems to bring a very punk feel to his fiction, he told me: "It runs from metalcore to Frank Sinatra to the blues to AC/DC and The Donnas. Killswitch Engage can pop up next to the Bee Gees then Evanescence. Lately I'm really into American melodic metal influenced by the 'Sweeds' (Killswitch Engage, Trivium, Bullet for my Valentine, etc.). I interviewed Sigler via email recently to give Amazon readers more of a sense of both him and his writing--including his insights about podcasting, parasites, fans, and secret fears...
Amazon.com: Let's pretend for a second no one knows who you are. How did you get started doing podcasts, and was it always fiction you were podcasting?
Scott Sigler: I started podcasting fiction in March, 2005, with my first novel Earthcore. The book was originally going to be published by AOL/TimeWarner in May 2002, but they shut down the imprint the book was on, and I was back on the slush pile. It took my agent a few years to get the rights back, and by the time we did, we'd lost interest and momentum. I'd had enough. When I discovered podcasting, I went looking for fiction novels, as it seemed like a great way to revive the weekly serialized fiction of 50s radio--but I couldn't find anything of the kind. No one was podcasting fiction at the time. Once I realized I could be among the first, I figured out how to record, edit, make an RSS feed and scrambled to get an episode up.
Amazon.com: Do you find that writing fiction for podcasts is any different than writing fiction with the idea of a "book" in mind? And did this come into play during the editing process with your editor at Crown?
Scott Sigler: Fiction writing and podcasting fiction is the same for me, because I write a manuscript first, then podcast. I write, edit, re-write, re-write some more, then when the book is finished I podcast it. So the process is the same, but I get some great feedback from the Junkies and that lets me tweak the story in ways that will appeal to the fans. It's like market-testing your fiction. The changes are usually subtle, but significant. I find out what characters they like, or when they do NOT like my main character, plot holes, factual errors and more. I consider this a job, and my employer is my listening audience. I work hard to make stories that entertain them, so if they can point out problems I'm always listening to whatever they have to say. This makes the final print version much, much stronger. The Crown editor (Julian Pavia) brings another level of analysis to the story. He rocks the house. Between Julian and 30,000 avid listeners making suggestions, the story is forged into something cohesive and logical with a big payout at the end.
Amazon.com: You project an aggressive persona on your website. How much of that is your public profile and how much is Scott Sigler, the guy who has to go down to the local grocery store to buy a gallon of milk?
Scott Sigler: I'm just me on the podcast. The people in my social circles are used to the overly opinionated, loud, bombastic personality, although I've been working to dial it back a bit in some social settings. I.e., I tend to piss people off and that can be a downer at grown-up parties. That's the breaks. I also have a huge issue with political correctness--if I have something to say, I say it. If people come after me, that's fine, but they have to be open to me giving my opinion back. If you can dish it out, you better be able to take it. People who can do both tend to get along with me famously.
Amazon.com: You allow your fans pretty full access to you. Do you set any ground rules on protecting your personal space?
Scott Sigler: I really don't have any parameters around protecting my personal space. Email me, IM me, whatever. I don't give out my phone number and the fans tend to respect that (mostly). I also meet regularly with fans one-on-one, but I think that has to change. My wife has concerns that if our success continues to grow, the crazies will start to show up, and it only takes one moment of letting your guard down for things to change forever. For example, when fans come into San Francisco and ask if we can get together for a beer, I'm always down for it but she points out--correctly--that it could lead to trouble. It's all great fun, but these are also often complete strangers. I can still open up at conventions and readings, so there's plenty of opportunities to see me make an idiot of myself.
Amazon.com: Let's talk about Infected. The epidemic/plague novel has a rich and varied history. What's different about your take on it?
Scott Sigler: The epidemic genre is awesome, because it's something humans have experienced before, many times. History is rife with examples of massive death counts: the black plague, the Swine Flu, and many more. Sometimes the body count is so high it can only be estimated. Our technology increases on a daily basis--there are more people on the Earth at this moment than there have ever been in the history of the world, so clearly, we're doing a bang-up job as a self-perpetuating species. But even with that in mind, we all get sick, we all catch the latest strain of the flu, and most educated people understand that it's possible for one of these strains to mutate to the point where we have no defense. Not probable, mind you, but possible. And in that possibility lies a bed of reality upon which you can bounce a story. And come on, when you get the annual cold/flu, doesn't a little part of you wonder if maybe, just maybe this is the big one? That you're the first wave of victims, part of the nameless mass of bodies that will be cleaned up with bulldozers and burned in a chemical pit? No? It's just me, then? Fine, screw it.
Amazon.com: Parasite Rex, which you've read in connection with Infected, is a fascinating book. Can you give Amazon readers a couple of facts from the book that you found particularly amazing?
Scott Sigler: Parasite Rex is an amazing book. Mind-blowing. You find out that you, as a non-parasitic species, are in the minority of life on this planet. The vast majority of life forms on Earth are parasitic, living off of a host. The book also delves into the complexity of parasites, and how they can actually control the behavior of their hosts. This isn't sci-fi, this is the real deal, and it happens all around us every day. At times the behavioral control is so powerful it overwhelms the most basic urge of all - the urge of self-preservation. Parasites can make a host kill themselves, in a way that benefits the reproductive cycle of the parasite. Woah doggies. Anyone with an interest in biology, animals or science in general should pick that puppy up. Parasite Rex was the foundation for Infected.
Amazon.com: In addition to reading things like Parasite Rex, what was the most fun part of writing the novel?
Scott Sigler: The fun of the novel was coming up with the life cycle of the parasites. How do they mesh with their host? How do they keep their host alive? How do they keep the host from just going to the friggin' hospital (and totally ruining my plot)? This had to be done in a logical way consistent with modern science. I think I pulled that off. What got interesting was looking at the human body not as an individual, but as an ecosystem. We have many processes in our bodies that are fully automated--we never have to think about cell division, for example. Yet it happens automatically. It's a machine-like state, and like any machine, you should be able to change it. Cells are little factories that assemble proteins into predictable shapes--change that shape, and you can make the human body create any number of evil things. That's just flat-out fun, my friend.
Amazon.com: What's an influence on your fiction that might surprise your readers?
Scott Sigler: The influences that might surprise readers are an almost complete lack of fictional influences. I'm horribly ignorant of the classics, and most of the time when I was forced to read them, I thought they [were bad]. Just because granny and grampy think something is high art, that doesn't mean I'm going to fall into line and support the status quo. Combine that attitude with the above-mentioned proclivity to speak my mind at inappropriate times, and you can see why my English teachers hated me. That LACK of influence is what has helped form my original voice, or at least what I hope is an original voice. My fiction references movies, TV shows, music, modern culture, but almost never books. I read biology books, pop-science stuff, and I watch movies. I don't read many novels. Most of my ideas spring to life from a scene in a movie, an article in Discover, a video on YouTube, a bum on the street. I tend to get little ideas that aren't that strong by themselves, but they all kind of glom together, and eventually four or five of them solidify into something unique and compelling. I can't define it. It's like a nervous tick--everything I see, everything I hear, everything I do is funneled through this "but what if it was this way" filter. Most times that filter turns out crap, but every now and then you get a facet of something that could be part of a larger story. It's probably obvious that Stephen King is an influence, so no surprise there.
Amazon.com: What's the role of music in your fiction? You've got a long quote from Killswitch Ablaze at the beginning of Infected.
Scott Sigler: Music is a big influence because it can help shape a scene. The right mood can significantly impact the words. But for the most part, music helps me control my ADD. When I have the iTunes on "shuffle," I can write for hours. When the music is off, I'm checking email every five minutes, jumping online, seeing who's on my instant messenger, etc. All I know is that the music helps channel my focus. As for the types of music, it's all over the place. Some bands I listen to when I want to bring a character to life, or when I want to make the monster something that you feel for. Heavy bands tend to do that. Most of the heavy music seems genuine, with people talking about real experiences, real pain, real rage. You know, all the good stuff that makes life worth living.
Amazon.com: How do you think your fiction has changed over the years?
Scott Sigler: I think I'm getting stronger at characterization and dialogue. In Earthcore and Ancestor, I wasn't happy with my main characters at all. They seemed flat to me. With Infected, the characters are more realistic. With Nocturnal, the one I'm doing now, the dialogue is out of this world--I'm finally capturing the daily snarky interchanges between old friends. I think I'm getting closer to the point where people will read my characters, and say "oh man I know a guy just like that!" If I can pull that off, I own the reader and can guide them through a wild ride of a story.
Amazon.com: Readers are curious: Is there anything Scott Sigler is afraid of?
Scott Sigler: I fear the Amish. I'm not kidding. Anyone who can raise a barn in a single day, I'm not screwing with them. Turn the other cheek my ass, they are just waiting for the perfect moment to launch their offensive.
Amazon.com: Finally, you're on the road for this novel, doing a series of readings. Do you prefer podcasts or live performances?
Scott Sigler: Live performances and podcasts both have their strengths. I open up more with characterization in the podcast, and it's more about the story. In person, I tend to get all hyper because I have all these excited, happy people around me, and I rush the reading. I also have a potty-mouth in my writing, and I'm always on the lookout for families with kids in the stores--people can read what they want, but I don't want to subject them to my foul language when they are there trying to enjoy an afternoon with the kids. That means I dial it back a few notches, and my stuff is so over-the-top to start with anything you don't do at 11 just isn't as strong. That's why we schedule a pub crawl after every reading. No kids in the bars, and you can let it all hang out.