6th April 2018
Interview with William F Aicher
Good afternoon Mr Aicher. Thank you very much for giving up your time for an interview to talk about your recent book and about your writing technique in general. For any readers who aren’t already aware of you as an author, how would you describe your published works?
Generally I refer to my work as “philosophical fiction.” It sounds a little pretentious, and I don’t particularly like that description, but I think it’s important for readers to know my work is written to ideally make the reader think a bit about themselves or their place in existence. It’s escapism fiction, for sure, but I also want there to be some kind of point to my work – something that takes the reader to a place where they are going through some sort of journey of self through reading.
It’s definitely not meant to be preachy, and I try to shy away from forcing any certain perspectives. Which is why a lot of the time my characters can be morally gray. But I do ask people to question reality and the rules and roles society places upon us. Above all though, I want people to question their own understanding of who they are and hopefully come to a better understanding of self through the journeys I take them on.
Do you subscribe to any particular schools of philosophy yourself?
I tend to most closely relate to existentialism, but I’m also a bit of a determinist and utilitarian as well. In my view, we exist here on earth, and there’s not really any reason we’re here. There’s no grand scheme all planned out and honestly none of us has any purpose. But we’re also thrust into a world with its own set of rules and society and obligations, and for us all to be able to get the most out of our lives we need to work within those rules. For a lot of that, it requires being fairly utilitarian, in that we should be asking what value we as individuals can bring to the table. Now, some people may argue that since there is no purpose to life, then we really have no obligations to each other – but I argue that this might make our obligations all the more important. After all, each of us exists regardless of whether we asked for it or not, and future generations will continue to exist. I would prefer my life to be as “pleasurable” as it can be (i.e. free from suffering), and I assume others would prefer the same thing, so therefore it is my duty to do what I can to further that freedom and pleasure for others and future generations.
The determinism part comes in where I believe we really don’t have any real choices to make in our lives, but instead every choice we make is already predetermined to be the choice we ultimately make, due to all the events that occur in our lives and reality up to that specific point. For example, I choose to partake in this interview, not because I made a decision that I wanted to, but instead because of all the things I’ve done and the world I’ve inhabited up to now predisposes me to be the person who answers an interview. Somewhere along the way I was influenced to be a writer, and then somewhere else I was influenced to write The Unfortunate Expiration of Mr. David S. Sparks and then somehow we crossed paths and then somehow you asked me if I was interested in an interview. I didn’t have any specific say in any of this, it’s just the culmination of events. And I could have said no, just as much as I could have said yes, but here I am, being interviewed by you. So somewhere along the line I was put on the path where I would be answering these questions.
I explore this considerably in David Sparks in the parts where David’s past existence is being reconstructed for him. In essence, that simulation is as close an exact digital recreation of the world David inhabited when he first lived his life. All the pieces are put together, the chess board is set … and everything that happens from there unfolds logically as one small thing influences another and David becomes the person he is.
Would you say then that there was that defining experience that influenced you towards writing?
Well, that’s the thing about determinism, isn’t it? There really isn’t just one thing that defines who we are, what we become or what we do. It’s a combination of every event in our lives that leads us to where we are. Still, if I had to look back at key moments, there are three in particular that I feel were highly influential, and they were all from my childhood.
The first was when I was in the second grade. We had an assignment to write a story about a made up Care Bear of our own imagining. I invented a bear I called “Adventurer Bear” (he had a pickaxe and lantern on his stomach) and my teacher enjoyed the story so much that she sent it in to whatever company it was that made Care Bears. They sent back a letter saying they don’t accept solicitations due to legal issues, etc. but they gave me tickets to see the Care Bears movie and a poster and a nice letter. It definitely was encouraging.
The second was another time in grade school, I can’t remember exactly when, but an author came to talk to our class. I thought it was amazing to get to meet someone who wrote stories, and she was very encouraging to us youngsters in her proclamation that someday we too could be authors. That stuck with me.
The third was a few years later, probably around fourth grade, where I entered in a contest our local newspaper ran each year for “scary stories” around Halloween. I won first place in my age group and that really cemented the confidence that maybe I might be good at telling stories. I don’t remember what I won, and I don’t remember what the story was about – but I bet my mom has a copy of it somewhere in her files. Perhaps someday I’ll dig it up and throw it as a curiosity bonus feature in one of my books.
You recently published your most recent novel -The Unfortunate Expiration of Mr David S Sparks. Could you sell it in a sentence?
I’m not sure if this is a yes or no question. So, to answer it as a yes or no question, my answer is no, I can’t. It’s a complicated book. There’s the story of what happens, and then there’s the question of what it all means, which are two very different things.
But if I had to do it in one sentence?
It’s the story of a man who finds himself thrust into a possible future version of earth, where we’ve pretty much screwed ourselves, with no idea of who he is, why he’s there, and if his purpose is his alone to define or if it’s all predetermined ahead of time.
Without giving too much of the story away, you use transitions between sleep and consciousness to give the world of The Unfortunate Expiration a dreamlike quality. What made you choose to do this?
First off, spoiler alert.
A lot of that dreamlike quality is because in the book I’m really dealing with multiple levels of consciousness, and when it comes to the past consciousnesses, you aren’t really sure of what is real and what isn’t. For the first part of the book David is literally jumping consciousness between two separate instances, and since in the rules of my world, you can’t have a consciousness simultaneously exist in two separate instances, he’s hopping from one existence to another each time he goes to sleep.
But the story itself is told as an attempted reproduction of the events that actually happened, so what you’re seeing unfold is a new attempted instance of several past instances that occurred. Not only are those “memories” of the current day David taking place in an artificial environment as they are being rebuilt, but the entire sequence of the book is another rebuilding of David’s consciousness. So, what you see happening leaves a lot of room for interpretation, both by David and by the reader.
In the end, the basic events that happened did happen. But how and when they happened is not exactly the truth. There actually was another version of the book that had more explicit explanations of what really happened, that were written as notes from an observer of the experiment, and then blacklined like a real government document, but it just got too confusing (and also pulled the reader out of the story too much). To simplify things, I pulled that level of distance from the writing and stuck to just telling the story as it unfolded.
It sounds interesting, even if you decided that it wasn’t the right approach in the end. Some of the imagery you used in the Unfortunate Expiration was particularly evocative - a particular favourite of mine being the scene where the characters traverse a field growing synthetic eyeballs - the Eyefields. Where do your ideas like this come from?
Honestly a lot of it comes from music, movies, articles I read, etc. There’s a line in a song that says something about “eyeballs float in wet green grass” and though I have no idea what the song was necessarily referring to, I got this visual in my head of all these eyeballs growing. And with all the recent experimentation being done in growing new organs (and artificial meat etc) I thought, “why wouldn’t they start growing organs as a crop?” I mean, if it’s something that’s necessary, and can be made in mass quantities, it only makes sense to mass-produce them. As eyes are so organic, and there’s this tie between how the earth won’t support us any longer and what it’s doing to us, it only seemed fitting we would would start co-opting the earth to force it to do the opposite of what it’s doing to us.
In the world of the Unfortunate Expiration, the Chemical Wars have devastated much of the environment through a toxic blend of chemicals applied to fields. Is environmentalism a particular interest of yours?
I’m not a huge environmentalist, but I do care a lot about our planet. I don’t march or even have my own grocery bags. But I do think that the planet is something we need to be taking care of. I grew up doing a lot of camping, and I am absolutely fascinated by what the natural world has created – so much that at one point in my college life I considered going into zoology.
But what I think is most interesting is that we have this world, and while we can kind of do what we want with it, we can also seriously mess things up while we do so. We have all this power that other life forms don’t where we can manipulate our world to work in our favor, but there are limitations as well.
For example, I’m not against GMOs and I’m not against pesticides or any of that, because if we want to be able to have as many people on the planet be able to live their lives, we honestly need to be able to support them. But then you get into a kind of Catch-22 where you have to feed these people and take care of them and we keep making people live longer and longer, and in order to do it we have to do things that could ultimately be bad for us all. I’d much rather live a life where I only eat organic food and I don’t have chemicals going into my body, but the world can’t exist in that state for everyone – at least not with the way our population is continuing to explode. And then it comes down to a question of do you take care of the people, or do you take care of the planet. Finding the balance is extraordinarily difficult.
Do you have your books planned out in detail before you start or do you let the characters guide the story?
I’m kind of halfway in the middle here. Usually when I start a story I have a really good idea of what the story is that I’m trying to tell, thematically at least. Like I knew David Sparks would be about definitions of what makes a person a person, and how we exist within a world that starts to become more than we as a species can handle. I knew the ending, and I knew I’d be dealing with multiple levels of existence. It’s the ride to get there that I don’t necessarily know when I start out.
It’s kind of like I have a maze, with a start and an ending, and along the way it organically starts to map itself out. As I write I’m not really making things up as I go, since the further along the story I get the more major plot points I have all mapped out. For example, in the book I’m working on now, I know all the major points along the way to where the story ends, and I have the next few chapters pretty much outlined. But beyond that, what happens between those chapters and the very end … other than the major stopping points, I let the story take me where it takes me. And oftentimes that’s someplace that’s much more interesting than anything I could have mapped out in the beginning.
Do you feel that this approach benefits the evolution of the characters and the flow of the story?
I think it does, as the characters start to do things that you perhaps hadn’t imagined in the beginning. It’s not like they truly exist, but as I’m writing them I do my best to imagine I am them, and have them react to the events that unfold in a way that would be organic to it, which until you’re writing the events out, you don’t exactly grasp. Things shift around, and people grow into who they are based upon the events and surroundings, and as that is created while I’m writing, so too are the characters and the story.
What gets you up in the morning to write?
I just like to tell stories and hopefully make people think. Above all, I want people to realize that all those weird, crazy thoughts they have about life are pretty normal – and hopefully along the way help them to better understand who they are and what their part is in in all of it.
What authors inspire you?
Obviously from David Sparks you can tell Philip K. Dick is a pretty big influence on me, as well as Brian Aldiss. They did an amazing job of taking what was reality and expanding upon it to a world that could be completely believable, but utterly frightening at the same time. To that point I’m a huge fan of Aldous Huxley (and not just Brave New World) because he did such an amazing job diving into a lot of the general questions of what makes us human, and the differences between reality and what we perceive as reality.
Do you have a particular favourite work of Aldiss or Philip K Dick?
My personal favorite of Philip K. Dick is Flow My Tears, The Policeman Said. For Aldiss it would probably be the short story “Supertoys Last All Summer Long,” which inspired the movie, A.I. (a personal favorite of mine, flaws and all).
Others like Faulkner, Steinbeck, Camus, Sartre and Dostoevsky also inspire me greatly, as their exploration of what it is to be a human and our responsibilities (or lack thereof) to other people is hugely important in the way I view the world. This whole question of self and place in society and if we have moral societal obligations or not fascinates me, and there are so many ways to argue in either direction. Just being aware that these aspects of life and existence are part of who we are is eye-opening, and expands our consciousness in ways that I feel are important for any of us who are trying to make sense of our place here on earth.
You mentioned earlier that you were currently working on something new. Are these themes something you’ll be exploring in this as well?
The book I’m currently working on is actually something I’m writing particularly for my children. I have three boys, ranging in age from 4-10 years old. So what I wanted to do was to write a story they could read and enjoy. So it’s a bit of a fantasy adventure type story, written for them, but also ideally written for anyone to enjoy. It won’t be a children’s book, but it also won’t be as adult as some of my previous books have been.
As for the themes, I absolutely expect to bring them into the story. As I see my boys grow, I see them each grasping for identity for themselves, as well as how they fit into family and social structures. There’s a lot of self-discovery that goes on in our younger years, and a lot of that defines who we end up being as we grow up. Those questions, questions of self and identity, are going to definitely be explored as this story is told – but hopefully in a way that is fun for everyone to read, maybe throws a little fright in here and there, and ultimately helps any reader better question who they are and who they are capable of becoming.
Do you feel that being a family man provides any particular benefits or challenges to your writing? I know for myself that time suddenly becomes very precious, both with them and in front of a keyboard.
One thing I know for certain is that I would never be able to tell the stories I am able to tell now without having lived the amount of life experiences I’ve had. David Sparks’ family life was considerably easier to write when I could look back at little bits of life that I can remember from having children of my own. And like I said, the new book is written particularly with my children in mind – and a lot of that takes me being able to see the world through their eyes as best I possibly can. I couldn’t do that without being a father.
That said, having a full-time career, a wife and three boys, and being an independent author all at once does take a lot of juggling. The writing is usually the one to suffer the most, as much as I love it, it doesn’t support me or my family like my “real job” and I try to give my family as much attention as I can as well (while still pursuing my own dreams too). So the writing happens usually late at night when I find time, or if I’m lucky and I get a few hours on a weekend when my wife and I trade off parenting duties.
But yes, the time is extremely precious. And when you throw in the need to just unwind and play some video games or watch a movie, it becomes even more so. Thankfully I have a family who supports and encourages me.
Again, thanks very much for your time Mr Aicher.
William F Aicher can be reached at:
web site: www.williamaicher.com
His most recent book – The Unfortunate Expiration of David S Sparks – can be purchased through Amazon, along with his other published works – The Trouble with Being God, Starving the Artist, A Confession and the Creepy Little Bedtime Stories series.