One of the goals of SPFBO is to give a chance to self-published authors to get more exposure. In the Finals I’m taking part in the competition as one of the judges in Fantasy Book Review‘s team. As I did with our group’s authors, I decided to offer a spot to the Finalists too to be featured on my blog. You can check out all of our content during Phase 1, and everything that’s happening during the Finals on my SPFBO 4 page!
Mike Shel (not his real name) was born in Detroit, Michigan in 1964 and grew up in the suburb of Dearborn, the hometown of Henry Ford, genius industrialist and virulent anti-Semite nutjob. Mike has also lived in southern Illinois, Louisville, Kentucky, Atlanta, Georgia, and now Indianapolis, Indiana. After writing two adventures forDungeon Magazine in the early 90s, he crawled down a deep, dark hole. He emerged 15 years later, Rip Van Winkle-like, looked around for a moment, then crawled back down again. Re-emerging after another 3 years, he rubbed the sleep from his eyes and began freelancing for Paizo Publishing and third-party publishers like Kobold Press and Legendary Games.
Welcome to the Asylum! Take a seat by the fire, have a glass of beverage of your choice and tell me something about yourself!
I’m an American, born in the Detroit suburbs. I grew up playing hockey (goaltender; that alone will speak volumes to those who play hockey), reading SFF, and playing Dungeons & Dragons. I wrote a couple adventure modules that were published in Dungeon Magazine in the early 90s before entering graduate school in clinical psychology. I’ve practiced as a licensed psychotherapist for 25+ years now, with an expertise in anxiety disorders and panic. About nine years ago I discovered one of those adventures I wrote in the early 90s was pretty popular, and I got in touch with Paizo Publishing, who do the Pathfinder RPG and once produced Dungeon Magazine for Wizards of the Coast. I wrote adventures and world building material for Paizo for about seven years before managing to sit down and write my first novel, Aching God. It was originally conceived as an adventure module for the Pathfinder RPG, set in their game world of Golarion, but Paizo turned it down (two years in a row!). That actually afforded me the opportunity to create my own world. I’m married to a lovely woman named Tracy (a psychiatric nurse manager) and we have a four year-old son named Leo and a dog named Neko. I also have two adult step-daughters, Haylee and Trinity, who are out on their own now. We live in Indianapolis, Indiana. Yes, where GenCon happens. Yes, I attend every year. You’ll see me: the balding, bearded fellow; pasty, need to lose some weight, cargo shorts and nerd t-shirt likely related to Cthulhu or the Big Lebowski. See you in August!
Why did you decide to become an author and how did you end up choosing self-publishing?
I’ve wanted to write since I was young. I started writing short stories for class in the 5th grade and tried longer-form stuff in middle school (most of it is gratefully lost in the Mists of Time; I remember my first attempt at a novel being a terrible, post-apocalyptic story set in America—totally derivative of Logan’s Run). I co-wrote a satirical serial in high school with a friend about a high school biology teacher (a thinly veiled portrait of an actual biology teacher) who was attempting to clone students in his back room.
As an adult, I made many attempts over the years to write a novel, but would quickly get bogged down in obsessively editing and re-editing and re-re-editing the same 20-30 pages until I had successfully squeezed every ounce of joy and inspiration out of the project. While 40K word Paizo projects had given me some help in understanding structure and such, it hadn’t helped me surmount the inner critic. Finally, at the 2016 GenCon Writers Symposium, I attended a seminar in which one of the panelists (I wish I recalled his name) shared his own writing process: when you sit down to write, do one quick editorial pass over whatever chunk you wrote the day before and continue from there. In 10 weeks I had the first draft of Aching God, all 132K words of it.
Because of my work with Paizo I had an in with an editor at Tor who attended GenCon. He offered to look at my manuscript once it was finished. I was already in touch with some self-publishing fantasy writers and was considering going that route when I sat down with the editor at GenCon 2017. He had kind things to say about the novel, but informed me it would not interest any of the big five New York publishers, in large part because my protagonist was too much of a good guy. It was really generous of him to take the time with me (AND TOR PUBLISHING BOUGHT ME LUNCH) and he was really helpful with some other suggestions. I’ve never been good with rejection, and the thought of obtaining an agent and going through the process of finding a publisher filled me with a bottomless dread. Knowing that I was unlikely to score a deal with a Big 5 because my protagonist was too nice convinced me that indie was the way for me.
I should mention that I could never have succeeded were it not for the help of a number of indie writers who offered their insight and experience.
Which author would you say is your greatest influence as a writer?
Gah! Hard to say. If pressed, I’d probably have to credit Michael Moorcock, as he was the fantasy writer who really got me into the genre when I was a teenager. Some of his stuff doesn’t hold up as well today—it doesn’t have the complexity of more contemporary fantasy. But he gave me a love of adventure and the wild places fantasy can go. I love Elric (shades of Stormbringer in my own Szaa’da’shaela), Corum, and Hawkmoon. Fritz Lieber and Robert Howard are great pulp influences as well.
Gene Wolfe is another. His Book of the New Sun was a revelation to me. Heavy, intricate prose, dripping with mystery and atmosphere. And Ursula K Le Guin’s Earthsea books also had an impact on me. More recently, I really loved Glen Cook’s Black Company books, and I think his style influenced mine as well.
If you could go back in time and offer any advice to a younger Mike prior to releasing Aching God what would it be?
Worry less about promotion, focus 95% of your energy on actually writing. Stop whining to your writer friends about bad reviews.
What SPFBO means to you? What do you hope to gain (fame and wealth aside)? What are your experiences so far?
I entered SPFBO hoping that it would bring in new readers. The indie scene is enormously dependent on word-of-mouth. I think the competition has amply demonstrated that indie authors are producing work every bit as good as the trad houses. My hope is that it shakes away the lingering conceit of indie publishing’s inferiority.
Of course, I’ve also gotten the opportunity to meet a lot of other indie fantasy authors. That alone is a great gift.
What inspires your writing? Do you listen to music, stare into the fire, listen to the whispering of the wind, make deals with the Devil?
I owe it all to Satan.
That’s not true. Satan is a hack. He’s all about the harem subgenre now and tired zombie apocalypse re-hashes.
I’m inspired by really good storytelling in television and film. It doesn’t have to be scifi or fantasy, though I’m a sucker for Game of Thrones and the like. The majority of my inspirational reading is nonfiction, has been for several years, primarily history. I’m especially enamoured with the history of the Roman Empire, the Italian Rennaissance, Tudor England, the American Civil War, medieval Japan, Byzantium, ancient China, Moghul India, the era of Islamic conquest and expansion, ancient Egypt, etc etc.
When I write, I have to have complete quiet. How do people write listening to music with lyrics? Huh? Sometimes I use a playlist of instrumental music, which includes titles from a couple of my favorite soundtracks (Last of the Mohicans, Glory, and The Mission).
How do you relax after a long writing/research session? Do you have any hobbies (writing not included :P)?
Again, I read a lot of history (probably 85% history, 15% fiction). I haven’t done so for a while, but I paint with acrylics. I also live with a four year-old who loves games, so I play a lot featuring Paw Patrol and Thomas the Tank Engine.
What was the most exotic place you’ve visited? Did it inspire any of your work? How that experience affected you personally?
I don’t know how exotic you would say Italy is, but it is hands-down my favorite place on the planet. My wife and I have visited twice and we’ll be back in November. Florence is the most amazing location in the western world as far as I’m concerned. Venice is a close second. Rome is overwhelming, but chockful of so much history and art and cuisine you have to buckle down and soldier through it. I’m Italian on both sides of my family. My mother’s family came from a town in Calabria called Amantea (it’s where I got the surname for my protagonist, Auric Manteo), and my father’s from a town in the Italian Alps called Pieve di Cadore. Many Americans have lost touch with their immigrant heritage. I found my trips to Italy incredibly inspiring, moving, life-changing, gah! Once I get started talking about Italy, I can’t stop.
I’ll end it with three things in Florence, all within a five minute walk of one another:
- Go to the Loggia di Lanza and stand before the magnificence that is Cellini’s bronze Perseus and Medusa.
- The Ufizzi Gallery. I defy anyone to gaze upon Boticelli’s Primavera without feeling your soul take flight. Unless you are dead inside.
- Get a reservation at Vini e Vecchi di Sapori, a tiny family-run restaurant just off the Piazza della Signoria. Yes, you’ll need a reservation. Trust me, it will change your life.
Which character of your book do you identify with the most and why? Who would you like to live with in an asylum?
In many ways, Auric Manteo, the protagonist, is a quasi-idealized version of me, sans the psychological trauma and loss. He means well, but can be a bit uptight at times.
Do you read your book reviews? How do you deal with the good or the bad ones?
Of course I read my reviews. Some authors say that they don’t read their reviews. They are either better men/women than me, or they’re liars. A good review can buoy my day, inspire me to keep at the grindstone with the next book. A bad review. Sigh. Well, there are different kinds of bad reviews. Bad reviews that have useful, constructive criticism are incredibly valuable and I appreciate them. They’ve helped me identify weaknesses and bad habits in my writing that I hope I continue to address. I don’t enjoy this kind of bad review, but I need them. The other kind of bad reviews (sometimes I think of them as bad faith reviews) are the ones that drive me batty.
- Bad reviews that contain statements of fact that are demonstrably false.
- Reviews written by people who didn’t finish the book or boast of skipping over or skimming portions for whatever reason and yet still manage to express their very authoritative opinion.
- Bad reviews that are cruelly dismissive, or go out of their way to be cutting and cruel for no other reason than to pad the reviewer’s ego or impress other haters. Don’t get me wrong: the Eviscerating Review is an art form and has its place. Mean reviews written poorly, with errors of grammar and spelling that show no real insight or understanding are the literary equivalent of a bully kicking over another kid’s painstakingly built sandcastle.
- Bad reviews by people who open by stating they don’t like the genre or subgenre in which the novel is written or otherwise seem to have some sort of Ulterior Agenda.
A bad review can ruin my day. Yes, I need to get better at this. I don’t expect everyone to love what I do. I just hope that those who didn’t care for what someone writes would exercise appropriate consideration. I hate the idea that a bad review would keep someone who might potentially love a book from reading it.
YES, I AM A BIG BOY AND NEED TO TAKE CRITICISM LIKE A BIG BOY. BUT IT DOESN’T MEAN I HAVE TO LIKE IT.
From all of this whining, glean this: if you really enjoy a book, leave a rating or a review. It encourages the author and draws others to their work.
Are there any books that have been/ are being released in 2019 that you are excited to read?
Timandra Whitecastle’s Mother of Slag, conclusion to her Living Blade series, was released this year. I think Tim is brilliant. Also looking forward to Laura M Hughes’s God of Gnomes. Phil Tucker is working on a novel I think is just a blast, about a young thief betrayed by his mentor, on a mission of revenge. Alec Hutson’s next book is out soon as well BUT I CAN’T REMEMBER WHAT IT’S CALLED. Carol Park’s sequel to Banebringer should be out soon as well.
While you are locked in here for eternity, we will allow you one book – what would you choose?
Whew! That’s a tough one. Has to be an exceptionally long book, with it being eternity. It might have to be Gary Jennings’s Aztec or James Clavell’s Shogun.
Well then, we hope you’ll enjoy your stay in the Asylum! Any last words? *locks door*
Thanks for talking with me!
Wait…the door is locked? HOW DO I GET OUT?
If you’d like to get in contact with Mike Shel, you can find him on social media: