Brian Reeves, whose novel A Chant of Love and Lamentation is one of the contenders for this year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award (ABNA), talks about his approach to writing and his plans for the future.
What inspired you to write A Chant of Love and Lamentation?
The full answer to this question is very long, but I’ll see if I can manage a short version. I moved to Hawai`i in my early 20s and was very naïve about what to expect. I left after only a year, my illusions shattered, but Hawai`i had already had an impact on me. It was in my soul. I undertook a self-directed education to unlearn my mainlander preconceptions, and as a result came to love Hawai`i for what it actually is. Along the way I read From a Native Daughter, a book of essays by the amazing Haunani-Kay Trask, which discusses the way the Hawaiian kingdom was stolen at gunpoint (literally), how racial and cultural stereotypes pervade everything we “know” about Hawai`i, and why there is a legitimate legal case for return of the islands to Hawaiians. As someone who is deeply concerned about justice and human rights, I found this to be disturbing and impossible to ignore. At some point, I began to wonder what it might look like if Hawai`i actually did gain independence, one way or another. This book began as my way of envisioning that possibility.
Have you had much reaction from readers?
Prior to becoming a finalist in the Amazon Breakthrough Novel Contest, I had little by way of reaction. Now I’m getting reviews from strangers, and they’ve all been positive. To me there’s an X-factor, though, and that’s how it might be received by Native Hawaiians, especially those in favor of some form of return of Hawaiian self-determination. It’s important to me to do right by them, because I believe in the cause with all my heart and want to spread the word.
Why do you write? Is it something you’ve always done, or always wanted to do? Or is it something that you started fairly recently?
Another million dollar question… I have found over the years I write to tell a story to others. I don’t write to chase down fame and fortune, but to share a story with people and have them enjoy it. I’ve been a “storyteller” in some form or another since I was a child. Back in elementary school I split my creative time between drawing and writing. In my teens I found drawing to be more satisfying, but that flipped somehow just after graduating and I pretty much abandoned art to focus on writing. I wrote my first novel when I was 20 years old. (That one will remain blissfully unpublished!)
Do you remember the first piece of fiction you ever wrote?
I believe it was in 2nd grade. One day the class was assigned to take a couple of sheets of paper and draw a picture, write a story related to the illustration, then share it in front of the class. While everyone else’s stories were about their dog, their family trip to Disneyland, or race cars, I drew a storm-wracked sea upon which a ship was wrapped in the coils of a monstrous sea serpent. The story involved a lot of drownings and screamings and swallowings-whole. Incidentally, this also marked the first time a teacher accused me of being too creative for my own good.
Are there any authors who inspire you?
There are plenty, and in different ways. I am inspired mostly by Ernest Hemingway, because he lived what I consider an ideal writer’s life (suicide notwithstanding). I also find his spare-but-powerful prose inspiring. Travel writer and fellow Peace Corps volunteer Paul Theroux also inspires me for his ability to write riveting stories about other places in the world. Robert Olen Butler, my former grad school instructor, inspires me for his ability to tap into the powerful emotional core of a character and bring it to life. And there are many more.
How do you write? Do you make yourself write a certain number of words per day?
I’ve always wanted to keep a schedule but lacked the discipline. Recently, I’ve become much better about it, making myself write every single weekday (and weekends if I can) during my 21-month-old daughter’s naptime. I write pretty fast once I’ve shaken off the rust. I find I need a quiet space, some privacy, and at least an hour if I want to do my best work. Also: caffeine.
Did you try to get a conventional publisher or agent interested before you opted for self-publishing?
Yes, though in all honesty I didn’t try as long as most people. I shopped A Chant of Love and Lamentation for about a year before the idea of self-publishing finally became palatable. As a member of academia, I’ve been long conditioned to seek peer approval in order to be a “real writer.” Then, several discussions with my friends Dave Dickerson, Willy Hobbs, and of course, my wife, led me to start seeing self-publishing as a way of taking control of one’s own art. It works for musicians and painters!
What goals have you set yourself? Do you want to sell a certain number of books in 2012? Is there some way you measure success, on your own terms?
Though I enjoy self-publishing, I do have a career goal of seeing at least one book of mine — any book — for sale on the shelves of a retail bookstore. I would also like to publish some shorter fiction. I have a short story, Wild Horses, being published with the Sand Hill Review this summer, and I’d like to do more of that.
How have you marketed your work?
Upon first publishing A Chant of Love and Lamentation, I marketed it a little bit — a dedicated Facebook page, some “tweets,” a web page. I contacted a few blogs that I thought might be interested. But then I switched my focus over to my other writings. If I don’t win the ABNA award, I’ll probably get back on the horse with Chant and try to market it some more.
Do you worry about Amazon gaining a monopoly in the ebook market?
I worry about any company gaining a monopoly in any market. But I see e-publishing as a sort of new Wild West, akin to the gonzo era of publishing in the early part of last century. I think we’re a long way from knowing how it will all play out.
What’s next? Do you have anything new coming out in 2012?
Right now I’m focusing on the ABNA contest, but very soon I would like to start another novel. I’m sure it will be nothing like Chant, though hopefully it won’t take another ten years!
A Chant of Love and Lamentation is available from Amazon, and you can vote in this year’s Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award by following this link. You can also visit his website and follow him on Twitter.