How A Writer Confronts the eBook

Thomas S Roche - author of the zombie crime novel The Panama Laugh

As the holidays roll around, I remember my friends. I don’t want to sound like Charlie Brown, but it is a good time for some extra warmth and sharing. So today I’m sharing a special personal glimpse into the life of a professional writer — the rest of the interview with my friend, Thomas S. Roche!

He’s been working as a professional fiction writer for nearly 20 years — and just published his first novel under his own name. (A bracingly original zombie novel called The Panama Laugh.)

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Q: I was really surprised to hear you’ve actually been reading e-books for more than eleven years! That’s a lot longer than most people…

THOMAS S ROCHE: I was an early adopter of e-books; I read a couple hundred e-books on the Palm Pilot, before anyone had ever heard of a Kindle. I used to read books on a tiny monochrome display using the Pluckr ereader! I am a big fan of e-books and always have been.

Q: So how do you feel about the Kindle and the other new digital readers, and the way e-books look today?

TSR: My main gripe about e-readers in general is that is that I don’t like it when manufacturers and publishers try to make them seem like books!

E-books are not books, and I feel like the big problem with e-reading in general is that I learned how to use a certain amount of functionality with e-books very early on, and made it work for me. Then the industry changed it, and changed it again, and changed it again, and keeps changing it. This is all supposedly in the interest of providing greater functionality to the user, but it’s not; it’s about providing marketing control to corporations.

I still think that e-books should not attempt to imitate a five- or six-hundred-year-old technology (books). The people who say “But I like the way books smell!” have one perspective, and I don’t believe you’re going to win them over by providing a “page” that “turns.” E-books are something different than books, a new form entirely — the same way that online magazines are not magazines, but a new art form.

Q: But does that change fiction?

TSR: Books are not stories; books are books. The fundamental, underlying artistry of writing a novel or a short story or a nonfiction work doesn’t change when you take it out of manuscript form and typeset it. The experience of reading does, and I’m somewhat baffled by users who want to try to duplicate the experience of turning a page, when what they’re doing is nothing like turning a page.

That said, I use my Kindle a lot. And I’ve finally gotten used to the e-ink’s tendency to black out when you turn pages. I don’t need a tablet computer, so the added expense, weight, etc. wouldn’t be worthwhile for me. I prefer to have a straightforward, simple, easy-to-carry e-reader so I’ve always got a book with me, and the Kindle has satisfied that need in my life. I’ve also tried the Nook and I’m fairly impressed with its most current forms, and I’m a fan of the Sony Reader — though that platform seems to be on its way out.

Q: I know you recently bought one of Amazon’s new $79 Kindles. So what exactly do you when it’s time to read?

TSR: In addition to reading a Kindle book a week or so, I also read books quite frequently on the Kindle app for my iPod Touch. It’s advantageous because if I get caught without a book or without my Kindle, like waiting in line somewhere when I wasn’t planning to, the iPod Touch can always be in my pocket — something that the Kindle isn’t, just because of its size and its relative fragility.

However, the advantages of the Kindle are still huge, so I use it all the time. The weight, profile and contour, the small size of the data files, and ultimately the screen are all advantageous. I hate the e-ink technology’s tendency to black out between pages. But while I’m reading a single page, I’m quite happy.

Q: You’ve been a professional fiction writer for nearly 20 years. Do you remember how you felt when you first realized that someday books might be delivered in a digital format? (And were you skeptical at first?)

TSR: I read articles about the coming wave of e-books in Isaac Asimov’s Science Fiction Magazine, way back in the ’80s. I was only skeptical about individual platforms. I hate cell phones, and I hate smartphones…

When I finally gave up my Palm, I started using the iPod Touch as an e-reader, and it worked okay, but just didn’t satisfy me as a full-time reading device… That’s still my stopgap measure when I don’t have my Kindle.

Q: I should probably ask you how you feel about the future of the local bookstore, and Amazon.

TSR: I think it’s dangerous for publishers and readers to put all their eggs in one basket. Local bookstores are cultural treasures. They’ve been beaten out of existence not just by competition from Amazon — which was explicitly devoted to putting them all out of business from the get-go — but by a community that values convenience over building local community.

However, this is not unique to bookselling. It’s the symptom of a huge corporatist migration, which is incredibly dangerous for many more reasons than just putting local booksellers out of business.

That’s a lot of what The Panama Laugh is about, in fact — the elevation of private business above community infrastructure, with catastrophic results.

Q: I’ve read it! And I was just a tiny bit disappointed that you live in Sacramento, but there’s not a scene in your novel where a zombie throng marches through, destroying all the local businesses and taking over the state legislature…

TSR: There was a first draft of the novel that was about 100,000 words, that involved a road trip from Corpus Christi to San Francisco in a Bellona Industries armored personnel carrier. Not a single word of it got used in the final draft… It involved a trip through Sacramento, including a huge zombie attack in Lathrop and a tank battalion approaching the Bay Bridge from a (fictional) Army base in Fairfield. I don’t know if it’ll see the light of day.

Q: Fair enough. But how exactly is it that you know so much about using weapons on zombies?!

TSR: I’ve always read obsessively about guns. My father — and his father — were both seasoned hunters, and I was taken to the range as a kid. But I’m not a hunter. I could never shoot a deer, or probably even a pheasant, unless I really had to. In which case I’d probably apologize to it — which might not be a bad idea. However, guns are expensive, and shooting is an expensive hobby

Q: And at the end of the book you even acknowledge a local coffee shop where you wrote the manuscript — Temple Coffee on 28th street in Sacramento. I find it almost mind-boggling that people are in there ordering their muffins and scones, and you’re writing descriptions of the writhing undead feasting on the flesh of the living…

TSR: It just never seemed that weird to me. It’s what I write about, and if I’m at home instead of in public, then like any reasonable person I go lie down and take a nap. I have to be in public when I write, because otherwise I get so isolated I can’t stave off the depression, and I never get anything written!

Q: Spoken like a man who’s just written a 315-page zombie apocalypse story. Happy holidays, Thomas!

Click here for a free sample chapter from Thomas’s new zombie apocalypse, The Panama Laugh

Thomas S Roche - author of the zombie crime novel The Panama Laugh