Wednesday, August 1, 2012

Interview and Giveaway with Ray Chen Smith, author of The Jazz Cage

Hi everyone!  I hope you guys are having a great week so far!  I have some very good news for ya'll.  I am doing an author interview with a really cool guy that has published a very interesting book called The Jazz Cage.  This books puts us into an alternate universe asking the question "What if the South won the Civil War?"  You can see my review here.
Without further ado, everyone please welcome Mr. Ray Chen Smith to Read to my Heart's Content!!

Author:  Ray Chen Smith

Bio: Ray Chen Smith is a writer and teacher living in Los Angeles, California. 

In his late twenties, he wrote a literary novel set in China then decided it wasn’t fit for public consumption.  He did, however, chop up a couple of parts and sold the chunks to literary magazines.  (Both stories can be downloaded for free from his website.)

For his second novel, he decided to go unabashedly commercial, and The Jazz Cage is the result.

He is currently finishing up his third novel, a thriller titled Dawn at Midnight.

Further information—the aforementioned short stories, a more detailed biography—can be found on Ray’s website.

1.)  Your novel, The Jazz Cage, takes place about 60 years after the Civil War, with one small difference: the South won the war.  How did you come up with this very interesting and original idea?
Well, I decided to set my thriller in a glamorous time; hence, the Jazz Age.  But since gangsters-during-the-'20s stories are cliched, I wanted to add something unique, and thinking of Robert Harris's Fatherland (where the Nazis win WWII), I decided to reinvent history by having the South win the Civil War.  This alternate reality would allow a lot of different things to clash against each other--gangsters and abolitionists, bootleggers and runaway slaves, etc.--and allow me to insert famous real people like Lucky Luciano into my story.  It would also allow for an easy tag line:  Uncle Tom's Cabin meets The Untouchables.  
2.) What is your most favorite part of writing and your least favorite part? 
The concept, the research, and the outlining are probably most enjoyable.  In conceptualizing your story, you can just let your mind run wild without restraints.  The research is fun because you get to travel and learn new things.  For The Jazz Cage, I traveled to Virginia, Maryland,  New York state, and Canada--essentially every single location in the novel I've been to and stayed at awhile to soak in the atmosphere.  I also had to check old maps to see where everything was during the 1920s and consulted historical societies to see how Richmond would look as the capital of the Confederacy.  The outlining is also fun.  I do a very, very extensive outline on Excel (with dozens of drafts) so I can see exactly where I'm going, if there's a weak spot at a certain point, etc.  So that's fun.  You feel like an architect designing a house.

The LEAST favorite part is the first draft, which I write very quickly.  I keep my chapters short (everything less than 4 pages) so I can write a chapter a day, but what comes out is hideous!  You're essentially downloading the story from the outline to your page.  The final revisions are much more fun since you're finally tweaking the prose and dialogue to make it sound better.

3.)  Do you plan out everything in your stories or are you more of a "fly by the seat of your pants" writer?
I do a very, very extensive Excel outline so I plan everything out ahead of time.  Stephen King once said his characters surprise them with what they're doing, but not my characters.  I'm like Big Brother when it comes to my characters--I know exactly where they're going, what they're doing, etc.  They hold no surprises for me.  But once the outline is done and I actually write my first draft, it's pretty much "fly by the seat of your pants" stuff.  I spend one day thinking of the chapter and the next day just blitzing it out in 1-4 30-min bursts of writing.  I don't care whether it's good or not, I just get it on the screen.  I want to finish the entire novel first before I decide what I need to tweak, and generally, with the first draft, I need to rewrite maybe 90% of it.  But the body is there already so you have a starting point.  It makes no sense to me to dwell too much on the first several chapters when the rest of the book is unwritten

4.) How old were you when you just knew you wanted to write?  Was there a special moment that helped push toward this future?
I'm not sure.  I always liked stories as a kid and truly never really thought of doing anything else.  It took awhile for me to start writing since I spent most of my twenties traveling around (I was in the Peace Corps) and enjoying life too much.  Only when I returned stateside several years ago did I start writing, and that was mostly because I thought, Okay, you've traveled and had enough fun, now it's time to fulfill your dream.  The process so far has been very interesting but slow and often painful--i.e., looking at my first stories and seeing how deplorable they are!

5.)  I see that you are a teacher and I have to applaud you for that.  I know it is not an easy job but very rewarding.  What subject do you teach?  Has being a teacher helped in your writing career?
I teach English at a Los Angeles high school, and it's generally not a tough job if you can keep your work out of your mind once you get home.  As for teaching helping me as a writer, I would say I always keep in the back of my mind, you got to entertain before anything else.  If you're in front of thirty kid and you're not entertaining, they'd eat you alive.  Same thing with my writing.  I want the readers to be always turning the pages, and that's one of the many reasons I keep the chapters short with plenty of action.

6.)  Any authors that have inspired you?  Are you reading anything now that you are just enthralled with?
Without a doubt, I'm enthralled by Stephen King.  His talent is just so beyond most commercial novelists.  His way with prose is pretty amazing (I still remember him description once of a sawed-off shotgun as "a derringer with the case of the mumps"), but it's his character development and dialogue skills that set him apart.  I remember reading the short story "1922" in Full Dark, No Stars where a girl guesses something right and the boy, instead of saying something prosaic like "You guessed right," says, "Give the girl a Kewpie doll."  Now, I can think of something like this, but it would take me a bit of time.  Stephen King writes like 4 books a year so he's coming up with these zingers on the fly.  At such times, I feel like Salieri observing Mozart.

As for what I'm reading currently.  I'm reading Harlan Coben's The Innocent and listening to Patricia Highsmith's The Talented Mr. Ripley.  Both decent, good writers, but neither amazes me like Stephen King.  Thank God for that.  If every successful novelist writes like King, I would've given up a long time ago!

7.)  Let's pretend that you were going to make The Jazz Cage into a movie/tv show who would you pick to play Frank? Della?  The Hound?  CeCe?  Issac?  Try to give a reason why if you can. 
Ohhhh, this is fun!  Unfortunately, the people I have in mind are all too old.  But since this is fantasy I would place my favorite actors and control their ages.  How about that?  For Frank, that's the easiest:  Russell Crowe around when he's 40.  For Isaac, just as easy:  Adrien Brody when he's 25.  Della, very, very simple:  Jada Pinkett-Smith when she's 30.  The two other, Cece and the Hound, are harder.   Cece, I guess Zoe Saldana at 20.  The Hound is hardest of all, though.  He's ridiculous looking but also so evil so a guy like Paul Giamatti wouldn't work.  I guess Jack Nicholson when he's 35 with a false set of crooked, discolored choppers.

8.) If you could go back in time and speak to one famous person who would that be and what question would you ask?
Actually, I would speak to someone living.  It would be James Patterson.  Haha.  Here's a guy who truly doesn't have much writing talent at all, but he sells a boatload of books.  I would really probe his mind, his marketing strategies, etc. 

9.)  I love to play video games.  In fact it is my second favorite thing to do, with reading being my first.  What are your two favorite things to do for fun?
Movies and traveling.  Movies both because they're fun and also because they often have better dialogue than novels!  I still remember LA Confidential's dialogue, esp. James Cromwell's line to a gangster:  "This is the city of angels, and you ain't got any wings."  Great stuff!  And traveling is so you can see the world and actually develop your imagination a bit.  I've been to maybe 20 countries and each one was something special.  Video games are fun too, but I forcefully stopped myself from playing them a long time ago because I was becoming addicted!
 10.)  Where do you see yourself in ten years?
Best case scenario:  writing full time.  Worst case:  still dealing with screaming kids at 8 in the morning!

Now here is some even better news:  Mr. Ray Chen Smith was nice enough to offer up some prizes for a giveaway for The Jazz Cage.   Please remember these rules before you enter the giveaway:
  • you must be 18 and over to enter this giveaway
  • This is open internationally 
  • If the winner is an international resident they will be gifted an ebook version of the book 
  • If the winner is an US resident then they will receive a paperback copy of the book
Alright everybody good luck! 

1 comment:

  1. I had to laugh at some of these answers! I love, love, love Stephen King! And James Patterson...oh that made me laugh! I have never read a book that he wrote that I actually enjoyed. I'm adding The Jazz Cage to my TBR! It sounds great!


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