1The Electric Church is a confident novel, full of ideas and fresh takes on familliar ideas in science fiction. Jeff Somers is a refreshingly honest and genuine guy. You get the sense that he’s just excited about thinking up cool ideas and writing them as a reader would be flipping through the pages. Funny too, as he clowns his own intelligence(But he is very smart) and his quest to become a writer. We exchanged e-mails and he told me about his doomed career as a brain surgeon, his love of dystopian future movies, and the creation of the website related to the book is truly a work of genius in marketing and a way to further engage the reader. Check it out: The Electric Church – by Jeff Somers

Was being a writer always your goal?

At first my goal was to be a brain surgeon. When I was in kindergarten or 1st grade, and people asked me what I wanted to do when I grew up, I generally said "Brain Surgeon". It impressed the adults, especially since my Mom liked to dress me in white shirts and ties.

Then, heartbreakingly, I realized one day when I was 27 or so that becoming a brain surgeon would require lots of school, hard work, and a basic understanding of math. So I decided to write.

No, seriously: Since I was about 9 or 10, I guess. Back then I used to go through phases where I’d pretend to be things–a rock star, a scientist–and just sort of make up an imaginary scenario for a few hours. One day my class was herded into the library for one of those forced-reading sessions, where we were warned sternly to have at least one damn book in our grubby hands before we left. I found "The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe" and the sequels and those books totally took over my mental life for a long time.

I borrowed my Mom’s manual typewriter (which I still have and use now and then) and started pretending to be a writer. I guess I never stopped.

When did you start reading Sci-Fi? Was your goal as a writer  always science fiction?

I lived and breathed those Narnia books for a long time, taking them out of the library over and over again. Slowly I started getting bored, so I started hunting for new things to read, and it wasn’t a long jump into Sci Fi. SO I was probably about 10-11 when I first read something you’d say was Sci Fi as opposed to Fantasy.

When I started writing seriously, everything was SF/F, definitely. I wanted to write one of those epic trilogies, you know? Like Tolkien. I think I wrote my first purely SF novel when I was about 16. I actually "sold" it to a tiny, tiny publisher–a one man operation, actually–out in California. No advance, but a royalty contract. This despite the fact that I failed to include four pages from the manuscript (this happens when your parents are making copies for you on the sly at work). He started to edit the MS by hand, in pencil. I told everyone I would not need to attend school any more because I would soon be rich and famous.

He was a nice guy, and sincere, but financial and health troubles ground him down, and two years later I got my MS back, covered in his tiny, chicken-scratch edits.

The Electric Church seems more influenced by sci-fi movies rather than novels. Am I right?

Probably. Like any creative work there’s a huge list of partial and sometimes nearly-subliminal influences, like you’ll read about a desolate street in a book and fifteen years later you’re writing about your own desolate street and pulling from that old book without even realizing it. I’d say TEC is influenced by 3 things: Old detective stories (think Chandler), Sci Fi books I’ve read, and naturally movies that I’ve seen. But my Sci-Fi reading hasn’t had the sort of atmosphere or dystopian flare I went for in TEC, so movies have definitely influenced it.
There’s a bit of Blade Runner in there, of course. A touch of Hellraiser.

As a science fiction writer, how do you take a familiar city like New York and re-create it while still making it seem familliar?
I think the trick is to look back. I’m not old by any stretch, but I’ve got a few decades here, and I can see the gradual changes that have occurred, you know? Plus you can read some history and see how things have happened in the past–then, imagining the events you’ve set up for the future course of history, how would the city react?

I tried to avoid having the characters, especially the narrator, be too aware of their surroundings, which I think helps. People don;t go around noticing their city–I’m near the Empire State Building all the time, and it never even occurs to me to look up, or to think about the building. So the characters don’t go through the book muttering to themselves about what buildings got blown up and which ones once served some other purpose. So when a detail does slip through, I think it has an impact on the reader because it’s a mile marker as to what’s happened to the city, and it works to keep the imagined city vibrant and

There’s a big Western feel to The Electric Church as my review and others have noticed. Happy accident or intentional?

Accident. I love certain Westerns (Eastwood’s Spaghetti movies and Deadwood leap to mind) but I didn’t have a conscious Western thing in my head as I wrote. Though I did have the theme from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly in my head quite a bit as I wrote, but I think that piece transcends the genre a bit.

The Electric Church is a lot more grounded than most popular science fiction. There are no spaceship scenes, other planets, or aliens. Does this make it more personal for you?

It’s funny, the very first draft of this book, written about 15 years ago, had some of that–The System was a Federation of planets, not nations. Scaling the universe down a little bit definitely made it more immediate for me. I think that’s a better word–immediate. I guess it’s personal because I imagine places I’ve been, streets I’ve walked on, and then set the story there.

Were you ever religious? Some of the Monk’s speeches make you sound like a man who has listened to more than one sermon.

Not seriously. I’m Catholic, and I went to a Jesuit high school. My parents more or less made me stick it out with church until I was confirmed, then stepped back and said the rest was up to me. I continued to attend church for a few months after that, but I am a creature of habit. I get into a nice deep rut with things and it’s difficult to stop. But I don’t think I ever quite bought into religion in general. The spiritual side of things I won’t claim to have any knowledge about, but organized religion seems pretty clearly to be a bunch of bunk.

The Monks were definitely inspired in part by those crazy folks who will approach you on the street or at your house and just start preaching or asking you leading questions about your beliefs. Those people are more frightening than cyborgs out to steal your brain.
Does Avery’s story have an eventual ending?

Oh yes. I have a general idea where Avery’s going. There’s a lot yet to happen to him. He’s not a Man of Destiny or a "the One" character, but he’s a guy whose belief system and way of life are increasingly at odds with the real world around him. It won’t be pretty. 

Why a professional criminal and killer for a protagonist?

Well, why not? The universe in TEC is such a grim one, it had to be someone at the bottom of the pyramid–but also someone who had some personal power. A criminal of some ability and standing was essential, and Avery’s voice was pretty clear. I always think Avery would have been a plumber or an accountant if he’d been born in a sane world. The fact that he’s a cold-blooded killer is just circumstances.

Which is probably true for everyone, something I think about every time I ride the subway: Any one of these people could be contract killers, in an alternate universe.

If you could choose anyone, who would play Avery and who would direct?

I hate to answer that question, because when I read books I like having my own mental image of the characters, and then you find out the guy you thought was short and dark-haired is thin and blonde, and you hate it every time you read the book again.

But in all honesty, you know who I think would be a great Cates? Jason Statham. Something about his face and physical mannerism ring true for the character. There. I’ve probably poisoned the minds of dozens of horrified readers. Damn your eyes. 

What will the next book be about?

The Digital Plague picks up a few years after TEC. Avery’s rich and unofficially the most wanted man in The System, but Bad Things (i.e., the titular plague) start to happen immediately after he is sold out and almost killed…

TDP is a really fast-paced story, blistering. There’s a bit of tie-back to TEC as Cates slowly figures out what’s going on. And I beat the crap out of him on just about every page, which was fun.

Where did you get the title and the idea of the Church?

The germ of the idea came from "Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency" by Douglas Adams. He had an idea in there for The Electric Monk, which was an appliance that believed things for you, thus saving you the trouble. Classic Adams. I really liked the concept, and when I like concepts I spend years plotting how to steal them. I riffed on it for a while and after grinding through my brain’s gears the Monks of my book came out the other end.

The title The Electric Church came naturally at first, just popping into the text, but later I did wonder if it was a little too gonzo, you know? Too literal. But over time it grew on me. Same thing happened with my publisher–at first they thought, great book, but maybe the title needs tweaking, but after a few months they decided The Electric Church was genius. Or something.

What’s interesting is that in general, people despise my titles. I always go for loopy poetic things that sound mysterious, have nothing to do with the book, and as far as my agent is concerned will actively deter folks from buying the book. This is one of the rare times I went the other way with the title.
Who are you reading these days?

I’ve usually got two books in the rotation. For fun I’m reading Trouble is My Business, a collection of Chandler stories. Because I am an intellectual masochist and like feeling stupid, I’m also trying to read Godel, Escher, Bach: An Eternal Golden Braide by Douglas Hofstadter. it is…not going well.

My reading’s all over the place, running the gamut from Spec Fic (I’ve got Richard Morgan in the queue next, I think) and history and just about everything else. The thing is, I’m ignorant; I could throw a dart at an encyclopedia and hit something I don’t know a damn thing about, so I just buy used books by the cartload and read whatever’s on top of the pile as I come to it.

Why such a big delay between your first novel, Lifers, and The Electric Church?

Well, I actually originally sold "The Electric Church" (twice) in 2004, so it wasn’t that long between. I originally sold it to a web publisher who went out of business, and then sold it to my editor, who was at Warner Aspect at the time. When my editor jumped to Orbit, she took my book with her, and thus the extra delay, as Orbit was launching in September 2007.

Plus, the drinking doesn’t help, as I lose a lot of months–and, frequently, my pants with them, usually forever.

What’s the story behind the Electric Church’s website?

It’s scary, ain’t it? Muhahahaha!

Right after I sold the book, in a fit of demented enthusiasm, I registered the domain and created a web site for it. It was the same basic concept – it was meant to be the actual Church’s web site, and someone was hacking it as you clicked through it, warning you off or threatening you. It was all very lo-fi; I don’t know Flash so everything was done with javascript hacks and other HTML tricks. It was very monochrome, black and white, which I liked. Overall, I think it worked pretty well for a DIY web site. There were also a few basic puzzles – just some hidden passwords and such.

When the publisher started to market the novel, they saw potential in the basic concept of the site, and also too I had written all this dialog and descriptive text. So they hired a fancy-pants designer and gave the site a candy-coated sheen.

The Marketing guy at Orbit, Alex Lencicki, is a genius, and he saw the few puzzles I’d worked up and decided to make it into a more involved game for people to solve. He and I worked on a few of the beginning puzzles, but at a certain point he left me behind and just went merrily down a dark road, crafting puzzles I still am not sure how to solve. It was great fun. We had (and continue to have) a great response to it – people really enjoy it.

Funny thing is, there’s an email link on the site to contact Ty Kieth, who’s a character from the book and on the site is the hacker trying to warn you off. That email goes to…me. There’s no robot, no chat script–it show up in my mailbox and I’ve been responding in character. For a while I was getting a lot of "Wow, you’re the greatest chatbot EVAH!" comments. Then at a reading Alex came up to me and said, "Dude, you’re insane the way you’re responding – that was meant as a last resort, you don’t have to spend your life responding to game players on your site!" But I kind of enjoy it. I probably won’t do it forever, but for the time being its kind of fun to play a role.