An interview with author Christopher D. Ochs . . .
Chris Ochs is a novelist and short story writer. His first novel, the epic fantasy Pindlebryth of Lenland: The Five Artifacts, was published in 2014. His latest novel came out last fall – the urban fantasy/horror tale My Friend Jackson. He’s also the author of a collection of short stories, If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep. Others of his short stories have been featured in several anthologies, including those published by the Bethlehem Writers Group.
Interview by BWG member Dianna Sinovic
Bethlehem Writers Group: Let’s talk first about your latest work, My Friend Jackson. It’s about a teen girl who is bullied by several of her basketball teammates and discovers that she has an unexpected rescuer. How did the story develop? What was your inspiration?
Christopher D. Ochs: While researching girl bullying for “Book Worm” in the BWG anthology Once Upon a Time, a librarian friend recommended Queen Bees and Wannabes by Rosalind Wiseman. Since I was pressed for time, I approached the task with the expectation of scanning as little as possible. However, I found the book such an engrossing study of the psychology and social dynamics of girl bullying, I devoured the whole book. When I finished, I knew the subject was a wellspring of stories.
BWG: Jackson includes an otherworldly chameleon. How did you decide on this character?
CDO: What more natural of a monster than one that can hide so well? One that you will not see, until it’s too late?
BWG: What challenges did you have to overcome in writing Jackson? It’s quite different from Pindlebryth, your first novel.
CDO: Remember the old maxim “Write what you know”? I seem to be constantly challenging that, writing from perspectives far from my own. Pindlebryth is a prince in a world of anthropomorphic animals. One of my current projects is a sci-fi/horror seen through the eyes of an alien. Jackson certainly was no exception, with very special challenges.
Writing from the viewpoint of a teenage girl of color is obviously a stretch for this almost-senior-citizen white male. But research, drawing on several decades of experience working with first-generation immigrants from twenty countries, and working closely with my diversity editor allowed me to explore, learn, then write. Big emphasis on “learn.”
BWG: In these pandemic times, with book signings in limbo, how have you approached marketing Jackson? How does that effort compare with what you did to market your short-story collection (If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep), which came out in 2016?
CDO: My marketing started out similarly to that with my previous books, sending Jackson to a few professional review services (One day, I’ll be able to afford Kirkus.). This round, I planned much more, even before COVID-19 reared its ugly head. Over the span of seven months, I researched 139 book bloggers/reviewers, sending “one-page” material to the half that matched my criterion. I was mildly surprised how many reviewers during the pandemic declined to review because their “to-read” pile was already too big. I ended up sending “book blitz” material to five, ARCs to thirteen, and doing interviews with eight, including two by radio and two by podcast.
I had planned to participate in panels over several writers’ conferences and sci-fi/fantasy conventions, where I hoped to reach a whole new pool of potential readers. Unfortunately, COVID-19 torpedoed most of that effort. The conventions had gone virtual, which removed most of the opportunities to “press the flesh” – no autograph sessions, limited readings, and almost no ability to meet new faces. “Best laid plans,” no?
BWG: Your first published work was the fantasy novel Pindlebryth of Lenland. Is there a sequel in the works? If not, will you return to fantasy at some point?
CDO: Yes, there is definitely a Pindlebryth sequel – and prequel – in the works. I only wish my other writing projects wouldn’t keep pushing them onto the back burner.
BWG: What’s your next project? Where do you see your writing going next?
CDO: Just one? Surely you jest!
Firebringer Press is weeks away from releasing Meanwhile in the Middle of Eternity, which contains my short fiction “If These Walls Could Talk.”
Bubbling in the cauldron are two sci-fi/horror novels: “There’s No Place Like Home” ponders if the universe itself conspires against Mankind; “Sentinel of Eternity” is a creepfest I like to describe as “gho-o-o-o-osts i-i-i-in spa-a-a-a-ace!”
On the short fiction scene, I’m working on a paranormal detective series targeted for a fantasy periodical. If it’s accepted, there might even be another novel in the works.
And of course, there’s “Man of His Word,” my first murder mystery, which will appear in BWG’s next anthology, An Element of Mystery.
BWG: You are not only a storyteller on the page, but also for ear, as a member of the Lehigh Valley Storytelling Guild. How does your work as a storyteller inform your written work?
CDO: LVSG was my test laboratory for If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep. When a tale was ready, I told it to a live audience, including storytellers both amateur and professional. If it got a good reaction from the audience, I wrote the short story.
My favorite instance of this methodology was when I told “The Troll of Helenbak.” At the reveal of the Twilight Zone twist ending, an audience member curled up into a fetal ball and exclaimed, “Oh, god, I didn’t see it coming!” Now that is job satisfaction!
One last note: Because of the “telling” style of IICSYCS, the foreword advises the reader to read the stories aloud, be it around the campfire or before naughty children’s bedtime.
BWG: Of the many short stories you have written, do any stand out as your favorites?
CDO: That’s always a tough question, as I wouldn’t write a story until I loved it enough to write it in the first place. That said, two are especially close to my heart.
“Granpa’s Dream House” from If I Can’t Sleep, You Can’t Sleep drew inspiration from my own “impossible room dreams,” where I would be visiting my grandparents’ homes and discover a door I had never noticed before. When passing through the door, I would get lost exploring rooms that were larger than the house, undiscovered balconies that were invisible from the rooms below and other structures that could not possibly exist.
“Ride of His Life” from BWG’s Untethered has a special meaning for me. Into that tale I incorporated vignettes from my father’s stories of his youth. I consider myself fortunate that I was able to read that story to my Dad and make him laugh and cry before his passing.
BWG: You not only write, but you also design book covers and other types of illustrations. Talk about how you developed the ideas for your own book covers, such as Jackson. What’s the most challenging part of a cover?
CDO: I am a visual person. I adore films with superlative cinematography (e.g., Citizen Kane, and any film by David Lean or Stanley Kubrick).
So it’s natural that my visual sense extends into my writing. I must see the movie roll in my head before I can write it well. It is therefore not surprising that a few readers have commented how vivid my imagery and action is.
As for my own books, I quite often incorporate elements of the story into the cover art. Sadly, despite my previous occupation as a CGI artist, I’m still learning that particular craft. As a result, my ability cannot yet faithfully reproduce what my mind’s eye sees.
BWG: As an author, are you a plotter or a pantser? Why?
CDO: I’m definitely a plotter. Whether or not I actually write an outline first depends on the length and complexity of the story. For short stories, I can hold the whole thing – characters, plot, environment – in my head and go directly to writing.
When I cross the line from novella to novel, the plotter instinct drives me to write an outline and character descriptions, and draw one or more of: character relationship graphs, maps, architectural drawings, magic item sketches and descriptions, etc… The switch-over point is determined by the number of relationships, number of plot twists, or just sheer number of minutiae. Putting pen to paper to craft all these items is an absolute necessity when the story requires world building.
I’m also a punster. Oh, that wasn’t one of the options, was it . . . ?
BWG: Hah! Thanks for the interview, Chris. It’s been a pleasure to talk with you.