March's Interview - Mikel J. Wisler
Q. Okay, I’ll begin with your latest news. Tell us about the new release, Sleepwalker.
My latest novel, Sleepwalker, is a near-future cyberpunk thriller based on a lot research into where human augmentation, nanotech, and neuroscience might be headed. Riley, a woman living as a nun who teaches science at a catholic school in Brazil, South America, is cornered by an American man who insists her whole life is a lie. She’s been reprogrammed and stashed away for safe keeping because the repressed knowledge in her brain is too valuable to a sinister project in the United States. Unwilling to trust this man, Riley begins her own research and is confronted by a woman who claims that she and Riley were going to blow the whistle on this corrupt project before Riley had her entire personality reprogrammed. Pursued from all side, Riley has to choose who she can trust as her whole existence is thrown into chaos. She must also fight a battle deep within her mind to recover what was lost even if doing so mean facing oblivion.
Q. So you recently had a book signing for Sleepwalker. How did that go? How did the day pan out, what was the best part and how would you describe the experience as a whole?
I had the chance to have a book signing at Barnes & Noble in Hingham, Massachusetts. It was a fantastic experience. They know how to really make authors feel welcome and I had a great spot near the front door. I got a lot of foot traffic as people walked through the store. It was a busy Saturday at Derby Street Shops. Many people stopped by my table and checked out my book, asked questions, and had me sign a copy for them. I was really pleased with the interactions and sales. One of my favourite interactions was with a gentleman who asked me who he’d be reminded of when reading my novel. “Michael Crichton,” I said immediately. I’ve been heavily influenced by Crichton as an author, though I recognize I tend to take a more character-driven approach than he did. That conversation was great and that man and his teenage son picked up a copy of Sleepwalker. I’m hoping to line up more signings at more B&N stores and independent book stores in the New England area.
Q. You seem to have been writing sci-fi for a number of years and this isn’t your first book. What kind of sci-fi writer are you? Do all your books follow the same pattern?
Sleepwalker is only my second novel. My first one, called Unidentified, is actually a blend of sci-fi and horror—think The X-Files meets The Conjuring. It was a lot of fun to write, but I do think I’m more of a hard(ish) sci-fi writer. Certainly, if you look at the short films I wrote and directed in my previous life as a narrative filmmaker, there was a lot of character-driven sci-fi with an effort to make the scenarios plausible or based on actual scientific research. I’m definitely diving into more Michael Crichton-esk sci-fi with my next novel, which I’m currently polishing.
Q. What’s more important for you, the philosophy of a story’s theme, or the science part; or are the two related?
Well, I’d say that logic is critical for me. I can’t get myself excited about story ideas that strike me as illogical or implausible. Because of this, I’m always geeking out over research. I enjoy doing a bit of my own myth busting by digging for information that will help me build a more unique sci-fi story that is plausible and internally consistent. That doesn’t mean I don’t tackle some impossible notions in my fiction. My next novel is about time travel, after all. But being able to take plausible ideas and then speculate from there about what if… that’s what I enjoy.
I do have a particularly philosophical approach to sci-fi in that I see the genre as being uniquely equipped to wrestle with metaphysical and existential questions. In fact, I blogged a while back about the specific reasons I feel sci-fi is the most philosophical genre available to us. Interested readers can check that out here. It is in the very essence of science fiction to ask profoundly philosophical questions about the nature of reality, personhood, knowledge, and more. In that sense, an idea might strike me from a philosophical front (What if an alien AI chose to have a conversations with a theology professor?—the plot of a short story I’m hoping to publish soon) or from a scientific front (What will happen when we gain the ability to manipulate the human brain to such a degree that artificial memories can be implanted in unsuspecting people?). We’re living at a point in human history that the philosophical questions are just sitting there all around us in every new article or NPR report about new tech and scientific developments. It’s just a matter of pausing to really contemplate the potential implications and appreciate the diversity of world views that inform the way humans approach technological and scientific progress. Because of this, science fiction can only become more relevant as a genre.
Q. So what are the essential ingredients of a good sci-fi? Do you have a favourite sci-fi book/movie?
Contact. Both the novel and the movie perfectly illustrate what I see as sci-fi at its very best. It is plausible, imaginative, populated by three-dimensional character, and profoundly introspective on everything from the intersection of science and faith to where we fit into a vast universe we barely understand. I love it when sci-fi dives into the scary, intimidating, and haunting questions of life and what it means to be human. The movie Contact was the first thing I ever saw that legitimately gave me some sense of the scale of the universe compared to a single human being trying to seek out an existence on this amazing oasis in the void we call Earth. And it nearly shattered me.
I also love Arthur C. Clarke’s Childhood’s End and Allen M. Steele’s Arkwright for similar reasons as they both place human existence in a much grander context than naturally comes up in our day-to-day living. In many ways, the ingredients for a great science fiction come from asking a really good what if question and then following it up with a thoughtful, “and then what?” A lot of smarter people than me point to Merry Shelley’s Frankinstein as the very first science fiction novel. It’s definitely a favourite of mine and I think all the basic ingredients for solid sci-fi are there. Shelley asked an interesting and highly speculative question (What if various parts of corpses could be assembled and brought to life again?). But that’s only the basic premise of the plot. Shelley went on to ask the truly important questions (And then what happens? Who is this being? Who are we in relation to it?). All great science fiction is filled with profound speculations about the consequences of choices we make in light of pushing the boundaries of what currently is into what might be, what could be, what maybe shouldn’t be.
But sci-fi doesn’t always have to be done on an epic scale like in Contact and Childhood’s End. It can be done in more intimate settings too. I just re-watched Ex Machina and I feel like both in terms of visuals and storytelling, that film is damn-near perfect. And the questions it raises about what we might create when it comes to artificial intelligence are profoundly relevant (and mirror that original sci-fi tale by Shelley). Another great example would be the movie Her. In such intimate stories there is still a sense of the larger implications even as we watch a specific story unfold and specific characters interact, react, fail, and grow.
Q. I see you are a filmmaker yourself. What can you tell us about that?
Ah, filmmaking. These days, my day job is being a documentary series director and editor for Votary Films, a fantastic company out of central Massachusetts. I get to explore storytelling in a very different form in doing documentary work and it’s awesome. Prior to switching gears into documentary work full-time I spent years writing and directing narrative short films, a lot of which were science fiction. I got into some festivals and even got some awards and nominations, which was really a huge honor. But narrative filmmaking as a career is a really, insanely, tough nut to crack. At this point I have felt it is best to hang that up and focus on other great opportunities, like my day-job, that have come my way which I would have said no to if I were still focused on becoming a narrative feature film director. Of course, I still have this profound need to create original fictional stories. Because of this, I keep chipping away at writing short stories and novels in my free time. And I still have that love for cinema as great storytelling medium, so I draw a lot of joy from great films.
Q. Because you are both a writer and filmmaker, does this mean your stories are more visual? Also, does it effect the way you plot scenes?
I think it does affect how I write prose. Ironically, one of my favorite negative reviews of my first novel was from someone complaining that they could tell a screenwriter had written it. At the same time, I’m working on growing as a writer of prose and so I am actively investing in my writing style and voice to help it flow and be an enjoyable experience for readers. But, to answer your question, yes, I do think visually and tend to describe the world my characters inhabit and the way things transpire in a manner that hopefully is evocative and paints vivid mental pictures.
Having a background in screenwriting and directing also means I do have a very strong focus on three-act structure, character arc, and the importance of not drawing scenes out unnecessarily. For my first novel, Unidentified, I had written the feature-length screenplay of it before I wrote the novel. That was a fun experience because writing the novel was a bit like directing the film without any budget constraints. I had this amazingly detailed outline to work off of, the screenplay, and I could really expand in areas I wanted to. Given how much I love exploring the inner lives of characters, I could do so in the novel in ways that are just not available to the filmmaker. I also loved the freedom to make little adjustments that on paper are no big deal but on a film set are incredibly costly, such as making it rain during a crucial scene in the novel.
Sleepwalker was more traditionally outlined and written as a novel. But my next novel, Stop, also had its first iteration as a screenplay. I am curious to see how readers will feel about the different novels and if their various origins seem to affect the final products.
Q. Your latest work, Sleepwalker is set in a cyberpunk world. In your own words, what is cyberpunk?
Cyberpunk has certainly become a bit of a broad term. I’m a long-time fan of Blade Runner and that certainly has laid the foundation for a lot of cyberpunk, which was then reinvigorated by The Matrix. I think, for a lot of people, cyberpunk is far out there, flying cars everywhere, everyone’s part or mostly cyborg, and the lines between reality and virtual reality are quite blurred. But I want to push back on that notion a little. I think the essence of cyberpunk, the blurring of the lines between the biological and the digital, is already the air we breathe every day. That is what I wanted to explore with Sleepwalker. So in many ways, the world of the novel is not all that different from ours. At yet, the merging of our biological bodies with technology is happening and having unpredictable consequences. I wanted to dive into a cyberpunk story that was more or less at the front end of the transition into the transhuman culture we are most definitely headed into. And I wanted to ask: Are we thinking about who is leading that charge and why?
Q. Just out of interest, some of my favourite cyberpunk comes from Japanese anime. Are you a fan of the genre?
Yes! I am a big fan of the original Ghost in the Shell movie as well as the later series. In fact, one of the characters in Sleepwalker is named after a character in the anime series, Serial Experiments Lain, as an homage to how influential that series was on me. I saw Akira in theatres as a kid and that futuristic cityscape really stuck with me. I sometimes walk through Boston street on a gloomy night and get the same sense of both awe and alienation I got while watching Akira. And I’ve really loved watching through Cowboy Bebop, Trigun, and Neon Genesis Evangelion.
Q. Okay, I feel that we should end this interview by going back to Sleepwalker’s story. I’m interested in the hero (or rather, heroine) of the novel. Obviously she has a lot to deal with; would you say she is a special character or that the trials she has to face are what force her to become stronger?
Riley as we know her in the beginning of the novel is very much an ordinary person living in an ordinary world. She has longings, internal conflict, and questions like anyone. But her life is pretty low key. The journey of transformation she goes through in the story is very much in line with The Hero’s Journey Joseph Campbell outlined years ago. She’s offered the opportunity to dive into a special world that challenges her and tests her very essence. She grows throughout the story in her ability to trust, to call into question deeply help assumptions, and to trust her instincts. She also grows in her ability to recognize the sacrificial love of the woman who was her previous personality’s lover. At the same time, Riley is also rather special due to circumstances outside of her control in that she never chose to be reprogrammed and the knowledge her previous personality held is essential to bringing to a halt this corrupt project. But the choice that is before her is one of self-preservation or self-sacrifice.
Thanks for the interview and great answers.
Sleepwalker is available here from amazon. For more information, check out Mikel Wisler’s webpage here.