Friday, December 14, 2018

Author Interview with Mark Engels, author of Always Gray in Winter

Tell me a little about yourself and why you decided to become a writer.

Thank you for asking! I geeked out over trains and electronics as a boy growing up. That’s the main reason why I work now as an electrical engineer designing and commissioning signal and communications systems for railroads and rail transit agencies across the United States. But I’ve been every bit as long a part of media fandoms like anime, manga, and anthropomorphics (“furry” writing and art.) So I came to enjoy creative endeavors like role-playing games, acting, and, of course, writing. I am an American, born and raised in Michigan, never far from the shore of one or another of the Great Lakes. Kept that trend going through moves following college to Minnesota and Indiana. Now I live in Wisconsin together with my wife, our son, and a dog who keeps my favorite spot on the sofa warm until I sit down to write.

After writing anime/manga fanfiction for years and gettings articles published in rail and transit industry trade magazines, I got into my head I ought to take up creating my own original genre fiction. (Well, more precisely, she got into my head but more about that in a moment.) My paranormal sci-fi thriller ALWAYS GRAY IN WINTER, first in my werecat family saga series, was the result. It became an itch I couldn’t bear not to scratch.

Do you remember the first anime/manga that you read?

As a boy I would sneak into the living room at 6:00 AM weekday mornings and plop down right next to the TV to watch Kimba the White Lion (with the volume way down low so as not to wake my parents!) As I grew older I thrilled to Battle of the Planets, Star Blazers, Voltron, Captain Harlock, and Robotech. But I wouldn’t actually come to know the term “anime” until the first time my mates and I watched Bubblegum Crisis on a fifth-generation fansub my sophomore year of college. Within a month, I was at a comic store purchasing my first manga--North American first run copies of Johji Manabe’s Outlanders, Masamune Shirow’s Appleseed, and Hayao Miyazaki’s NausicaƤ of the Valley of the Wind.

How would you describe the genre for “Always Gray in Winter”? I kept thinking of it as “realistic fantasy” but that didn’t seem right.

As I wrote the book, all I knew about my story was that it was, well, my story. I didn’t get around to figuring out genre labels until the time came for me to seek publication. A query or pitch would require me to identify my book’s genre beyond “first in a werecat family saga series.” So I came up with “paranormal sci-fi thriller”, capturing what I thought was the book’s most important elements. I anticipate successive books will be billed similarly.

How do you get inspired for your writing?

Something has to really move me before I’ll write‎. Whenever I wrote fan fiction based on my favorite anime and manga series, I did so because I felt the creators left interesting and exciting parts of the story untold. And when I couldn't find any paranormal sci-fi thrillers about the modern-day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats, I knew Something Must Be Done.

Do you hope that one day someone will write fanfic for your novels? I see you already have some art on your website, is that from your fans?

šŸ¤© YES, PLEASE! Because then I’ll feel I’ve come full circle. Creators whose works I loved enough to write fan fiction inspired what would become the genesis of my own work. I hope someone desiring to play in the sandbox I’ve built for a while will go forth and build one of their own. So others can play too. The artwork featured on my website are mostly developmental and promotional pieces I’ve commissioned (aside from ALWAYS GRAY’s cover, which Thurston Howl Publications arranged themselves) but you’ll find a couple of fan pieces there, too. I appreciate each and every one of them so very much! Given the manga, anime and anthropomorphic stories I drew from as inspiration for my own, I’m thrilled to work with artists willing and able to depict my characters in similar stylings. Click on my site’s “Gallery” link and sit back to enjoy the slideshow. Click on any piece to pause; title, artist credit and an artist contact link appear beneath the image.

Where did you come up with the idea for Always Gray in Winter?

Aboard a test train one night while commissioning Metro's Silver Line west of Washington, DC in northern Virginia. (No, really!) My novel’s origins go back to a plot outline I’d worked up for an “anthro” artist to help launch his webcomic. The guy's live streams featuring his own cloak-and-dagger characters helped pass many a lonely weekend lying about my hotel room. He’d publicly bemoaned lacking a firm grasp of his antagonist’s motivations, so I thought I’d help him out. We sat down at a nearby convention one weekend together to go through my outline. When I finished he told me “it’s a great story, but it’s not my story” and that was that.
Or so I thought. ‎My muse she be a werecat, you see. She accosted me as I deadheaded back to the yard that fateful night and started slashing away at my subconscious. I tossed and turned on my rack all day long at the hotel trying to ignore her. But Pawly, as I came to know her, makes a very convincing argument with fangs and claws. And she wanted out of my head. Insisted I recount her family's struggle, hostages within their own bodies. Forced to live as societal outcasts on account of their Affliction while hiding in plain sight. I could hardly think about anything else until I caved and began outlining the story.

Why do you think you’re drawn specifically to werecats? Or is it just this specific character and she just happens to be a werecat?

Some of my favorite anthro characters are felinoid. Erma Felna, the titular character from Steven A. Gallacci’s cornerstone-of-the-genre work. Omaha and her lover Chuck from Waller & Worley’s Omaha the Cat Dancer. Flora and her kin from Twokinds by Tom Fishbach. Brett A. Brooks’ reimagining of the 40s-era Pussy Katnip comic in novel form. Tracy Butler’s Lackadaisy. Nearly the entire cast of White Shadow by Keiron White. One of White’s endearing characters, a Siamese-styled assassin named Violet, suffers from a debilitating condition called “feral psychosis.” I expanded upon that, exploring how shifter characters might need to mitigate primal urges in human and anthro form. Though I deliberately eschewed werewolves because others had done them and done them well. I wasn’t sure I could add much to that body of work. So I settled on werecats for much the same reason my stories draw from Polish and Korean culture, customs and folklore--because they’re different!

What is it influenced by? It definitely feels like it has a lot of Asian influences - it that just from your own love of Manga and graphic novels or from other areas, as well?

I set out to tell a story where I share so many of my own experiences and interests. Mostly to enshrine those parts of my past I myself don’t want to ever forget. Like growing up amongst Polish-Americans near Detroit. My love of Great Lakes lore and legend. Ice hockey. Staring out through a tractor-trailer's windshield at the passing countryside. Practice in and appreciation for traditional Korean fighting arts.

Since boyhood, I've been a fan of anthropomorphic characters from both east and west. Along with Tezuka’s Kimba, my faves included Disney's Robin Hood and O' Brien's Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH. In my teen years, I’d come to love Thundercats (if for no other reason than Cheetara was hawt.) As I entered college I discovered Steve Gallacci’s Erma Felna, EDF, and Birthright. Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. Waller & Worley’s Omaha. Eastman & Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All faves to this day. Though many furry fans grew up with Brian Jacques, I myself wouldn’t come to read and enjoy the Redwall books until well into my adulthood. ("Boo hur!")

One particularly bittersweet influence I wanted to share, beginning when my mom had subscribed me to the Weekly Reader's Book Club. Every month a fine new book would show up for my twelve-year-old self to devour. One day came ‎Gene DeWeese's The Adventures of a Two-Minute Werewolf; I must've read that book cover to cover a dozen times at least! Ronald Fritz's illustrations really helped me identify with Walter, just your average kid who comes to realize his whole family share secrets like none other. And Werewolf Mom was badass!

DeWeese was also a member of Allied Authors of Wisconsin. To my great regret, he passed away several years prior to my joining the organization.

After you finish up this book series do you plan on continuing your writing into other stories?

Who knows? When I finish my series a couple years from now, I’d be quite glad go on with life knowing I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. To quote a fellow author’s Twitter profile "I didn't write these stories to become an author. I became an author to tell these stories." (Thank you, @HRuthMiller.) Because if I wasn't writing about Pawly and her family, I wouldn't be writing at all. Like I mentioned earlier, something really has to move me to get me to write. Whether something will between now and then, we can only wait and see.

Uh oh, my muse is giving me that look. Methinks this doth bodes ill.

Who are some of your favorite writers?

In no particular order: Hayao Miyazaki, Rumiko Takahashi, Yuu Watase, Leiji Matsumoto, Ben Dunn, Steve Gallacci, Stan Sakai, Reed Waller/Kate Worley, Hiroyuki Morioka, Sheryl Nantus, Gene DeWeese, Ken Akamatsu, Yukito Kishiro, Kenichi Sonoda, Yoshiyuki Sadamoto, David Michael Williams, Brett A. Brooks, Stephen Coghlan, Grant Cravens, M. Crane Hana, William Alan Webb.

Do you have a favorite/go-to book?

All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. It was the first book I recall reading, early in my high school years, where the protagonists didn’t end up with the “happily ever after” I had been led to expect everyone did. (Spoiler alert--the “good guys” all die.) This wasn’t a book intended to entertain; it intended to graphically, viscerally showcase the horrors of war and the fortitude of men who stood together in the face of madness. To make a statement about our world and the people in it. And a crusty old squad leader named Stanislaus Katczinsky, whom everyone knows as “Kat”, became the archetype for one my novel’s most influential characters. He's the namesake of my protagonist’s family, in fact, though I did transpose a couple vowels. His name and mannerisms imply he’s an ethnic Pole, which is in part why my werecats’ clan hails from Poland.

What is your biggest piece of advice to writers just getting started?

There is so much writing "advice" out there. Some of it free, some of it you have to pay for. But keep in mind anyone telling you anything can only talk about what’s worked for them/there/then. Some (or maybe most) of it may not be practical, feasible nor helpful for you/here/now. You will have to find your own way, but be decidedly skeptical of those suggesting your way is wrong. Because your way is every bit as valid as you are. Though I believe a writer would do well to consider other people’s successes and failures, keeping in mind Bruce Lee’s timeless adage:

“Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, and add what is specifically your own.”

So go on now, write the book in your heart to write. The one you wanted to read but couldn’t find. And perhaps one I'll be excited to read myself.

Boyhood interests in trains and electronics fostered Mark's career as an electrical engineer, designing and commissioning signal and communications systems for railroads and rail transit agencies across the United States. Along the way, Mark indulged his writing desire by authoring articles for rail and transit industry trade magazines. Coupled with Mark's long-time membership in anime, manga and anthropomorphic fandoms, he took up writing genre fiction. Growing up in Michigan, never far from his beloved Great Lakes, Mark and his wife today make their home in Wisconsin with their son and a dog who naps beside him as he writes.

Mark is a member of Allied Authors of Wisconsin, one of the state's oldest writing collectives. He also belongs to the Furry Writer’s Guild, dedicated to supporting, informing, elevating, and promoting quality anthropomorphic fiction and its creators.

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This interview was done by MJ. You can follow her on Twitter and Instagram.