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Interview with Jason Offutt

If you read my interview with N.S. Winston last week, you know that I’m a science fiction nerd. You know that I love time travel and alternate dimensions. I love Mystery Science Theater 3000 and strong female characters and witty banter and references to Dungeons and Dragons. So, in summary, I really enjoyed So You Had to Build a Time Machine by Jason Offutt. The novel is totally zany, totally unique, completely and utterly a homage to the geeks and the nerds. It’s an adventure, it’s a comedy, it’s science fiction. Really, it’s the escapist fiction that we all desperately need right now.

My experience reading this book was really special. My boyfriend has been deployed for a few months now, and I miss him like crazy (hello, dear, when you read this). He’s originally from a small town that just so happens to be near Peculiar, Missouri (the novel’s setting). He’s a huge supporter of my reading, reviewing, and writing, a nerd, and a proud Missourian. When I told him about the book, he was so, so excited. He texted his family, and they texted me asking about the book that mentions repeatedly their little-known part of the state with genuine accuracy. I haven’t had the pleasure of travelling to Missouri yet, and it was absolutely fantastic to connect with his family over this ARC a couple of months ago. I feel a bit spoiled being from New York because Long Island is represented so frequently in the media.

Jason was a pleasure to speak with because of his passion, his enthusiasm, his quirkiness, and his compelling stories. From anecdotes about his days as a reporter to chilling tales about Missouri’s most haunted places, Jason’s conversation with me was thoroughly entertaining. It is with great pleasure that I introduce to you a reporter, a novelist, a college professor, and a proud nerd.

If you had to describe yourself as an ice cream flavor, what would it be and why?

I don’t do a lot of sweets but rocky road because you’re not really sure what you’re going to get with each bite.

What have you been reading recently, and what are some books that have inspired you as a writer and a reader?

Recently, I’ve just started The Body by Bill Bryson. Bill Bryson is very funny in a subtle kind of way, so I like that. Books that have inspired me…I’ll have to include The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings because I’ve read them every two years since I was twelve years old. The Hitchhikers Guide to the Galaxy: one of the things that really inspired me for my writing is that you can be really intelligent and silly at the same time. God, there’s so many books. Catch-22 for its humor and grimness, and I really like On the Road by Jack Kerouac because it starts and just goes. There’s no stopping point. You just go until the end.

Tell me a little about your inspiration for So You Had to Build a Time Machine!

I’ve always been fascinated by time travel. When I was little, my first love was time travel. I watched the original Star Trek series on reruns. My favorite episodes were always when they time travelled. One of the first books that I read was The Time Machine by H.G. Wells, and I was fascinated by time travel. I always wanted to write a time travel book.

I’m a big nerd. This is going to show what a big nerd I am. Myself and my friends were making references like the ones in the book in casual conversations. So, writing it like that with all the love to Lord of the Rings and Star Trek and Star Wars and everything else I dropped in there was just how I talk. It drives my wife crazy sometimes.

Cord (one of the main characters in So You Had to Build a Time Machine) owns a house that people had been murdered in, and he runs it as a fake haunted house. Before I wrote my first novel a few years ago, my first few books were nonfiction haunted house stories. My first one was Haunted Missouri. It’s kind of a tour guide to all of the haunted places in the state of Missouri. I love ghost stories, and that’s where that all came about.

I used to work in newspapers. I remember a girl who worked for me who was really excited because there was a book coming out based on her hometown of Hiawatha, Kansas. She got the book to review it, and she was so angry throughout the book because obviously the guy had never been to that town. All of the references he made—those places weren’t there. I don’t want to disappoint anybody. If I’m mentioning a real place, I will have wanted to have gone there and painted the most realistic portrait I could.

Tell me about your writing routine.

Generally, when I’m working on a novel, I’m not a morning writer. I’m not a morning person even though I have to get up early for work. I usually write later in the day. I found years ago if I write at the same time, in the same place, with the same conditions (like a cup of coffee or tea or whatever I’m drinking at the time), the same lighting…all of that gets my head programmed that it’s time to write. I also listen to music. Generally, when I’m writing a fight scene, I’ll have heavy metal on. If I’m writing something that I hope to be fast-paced, I have some fast- paced music on. I’ve found that if I have all the conditions right, my head is trained to start writing. I like to do 2,000 words a day, but if I do 1,000, I’m happy. I don’t like to go over 2,000 a day. If I get to a point where I don’t know what’s going to happen next, it’s harder to start the next day. If I churn out 3,000 or 4,000 words, I’ve depleted the ideas that I had, and it’s hard to start the next day.

Are you the kind of writer who has a roadmap of where your story is going to go, or does your story surprise you?

I’m a “pants-er.” I go with characters. Plot is important, but the most important part of any story is the character. You gotta have an interesting character, you gotta have a likeable character. Even if it’s a villain, you gotta have a character that the reader likes to hate. I try to make my characters first. I create them in my head as thoroughly as possible and let them go do things. I have a general idea of what I want them to do, but they take their own journey there. I really like finding out as a reader would what these people would do.

I’ve tried an outline, but it was much too rigid. I didn’t feel like I could go off of it. I like to be surprised.

How did you go about publishing your story?

It’s a really crazy world in the publishing industry right now. There’s so many options right now. I’ve only gone the self-publishing route once, and that was for a book of short stories because generally unless you’re Stephen King, you’re not getting a book of short stories published. I probably won’t go the self-publishing route for any of my other books because I want to write on something else. If I go self-publishing, I have a lot more work to do than if I go with a traditional publisher. I don’t want to have to worry about all that.

Generally, after I’m done writing a book, I let it sit for a few weeks. A month or a couple of months would be best, but I’m impatient. I let it sit so I can look at it with fresher eyes and notice some of the problems more easily. I read through it once, then I read through it a few more times to edit. At that point, I go to my beta readers and take their input. If it works, I use it. If not, I don’t. Usually they give good advice. Then, I start shopping it around to publishers and agents at the same time.

This time I had read an article about a new publisher (CamCat Books). I approached them with the manuscript, and I absolutely loved what they had to offer. They have been absolutely terrific with me, and I’m really happy with my choice.

Are you working on your next story?

Remember how I talked about putting myself in the same situation to write every day and the words just come out? That’s if I have something that I’m invested in. Right now I have a few ideas, and I don’t know what I want to do. I’ve started working on both of them, but they’re just not coming together. The two ideas I’m flirting with: one is a plan to terraform Mars. I ran my terraforming idea by my friend who is a physicist. I teach at a university, so there’s actual scientists I can be friends with, which is really neat. He said my ideas are actually workable. The main character got stuck there. It’s silly because he just had a bad breakup and thought to himself, I’m going to sign up to go to Mars. As one does. He regrets it ever since he gets there. All he wants in life other than to get back home to his ex-girlfriend is some coconuts so he can make a rum drink.

Another idea is a man who has memory lapses, and he figures out why. He’s dying of a brain ailment. He goes on a walking journey to go back home to eat an ice cream cone from a place that he used to go to as a kid. He meets all sorts of weirdness on his journey. I like that one a lot, but it’s not coming together. It will at some point. I didn’t get the character solidified in my head before I got started, and that’s what’s holding me up.

How do you go about sketching out the characters in your head?

I think every author, to some extent, bases characters on somebody they know. The character of Skid in So You Had to Build a Time Machine is based largely on my sister. My oldest sister has always been tough, always been one to say what’s on her mind. She’s that clear and open. My first novel, A Funeral Story, is about a guy who seems pretty normal, but he likes to pick up strange women at funerals. I based that on my uncle. At his mother’s funeral, he was hitting on somebody. He came out as a character in one of my books. Everybody’s got one of those uncles who does weird things, I think.

As a professor, do you take all of the advice that you give your students about writing?

Most of it. Because my students are just starting out. I don’t care what accolades they got in high school, it’s a different world when you get to college. Every writer is still learning. I’m still learning, everyone’s still learning. I’ve learned more than them at this point. Knowing how the rules work, it’s easier to break them in the right way. There are things that I’ll tell them never to do that I’ll do.

What’s a piece of advice that you would give to a new or struggling writer?

The first bit of advice that I give to every starting out author is you have to have a thick skin. Period. I tell my students that I was the best writer I knew in high school. In my head, at least, I was better than the other people in my creative writing classes. Then, I realized after graduation that I really sucked. One of the main reasons was that I was so cocky in high school and college that I never worked to get better. The best advice that I like to give writers is to realize that you suck. Realize that there are people who know more than you do and listen to them. Incorporate what works for you and realize that you’re always improving. Every step of the way. It doesn’t matter if you’ve published thirty books and are seventy-five years old, you can still get better. Your craft can still improve. It wasn’t until I started working in the newspaper industry that my writing really improved because it had to.

What topics did you write about as a reporter?

I wrote about everything. Things as boring as city council meetings. They’re awful. I warn my reporting students how awful city council meetings are. The most exciting meeting I ever went to was a school board meeting where two of the members almost got into a fistfight. For anybody wanting to go into journalism, it doesn’t pay well, but it’s fun. I made sure I developed a great rapport with as many people as I could, especially police. I would get a call at ten o’clock at night, hey Jason are you doing anything right now; do you want to come on a meth lab bust with us. Yes, I do want to go on a meth lab bust. A county’s version of a SWAT team is they busted open a door, they surrounded the house, threw in a concussion grenade, and we rushed in. Following around the police as they combed a government building for a bomb threat that was called in—the exhilaration of doing things like that is worth the crappy pay.

I worked in the industry for 17 years. The company I worked for wanted to start an entertainment magazine, and I got to head it up. It was a lot of fun because I got to be a little more creative, but there comes a time in every profession where you hit a wall and can’t offer any more. At that point I’d always wanted to teach and figured that it was the perfect time. I went into teaching and am starting my fifteenth year at the university.

Do you think you’d ever make a sequel to So You Had to Build a Time Machine?

Yes. That book was a science fiction and time travel story. What I was thinking the other day was that it would be great to put these people in a horror story with ghosts and goblins and shadow people. How would they handle that sort of situation? Instead of references to Star Trek and Lord of the Rings, we’d have references to Friday the 13th and Nightmare on Elm Street.

What’s your favorite Star Trek episode?

Let’s go to Star Trek the original series. I think Amok Time would have to be it because Mr. Spock was always my favorite character. Amok Time takes the viewer to planet Vulcan and a look inside Vulcan culture. That or Doomsday Machine; it’s a fun story.

What media have you been consuming recently?

The family and I are almost finished with Season 2 of The Umbrella Academy. They have done everything right with that show. I’m also trying to push my way through Dirk Gently’s Holistic Detective Agency. I love the books, and the TV show that came out a couple of years ago has Elijah Wood in it, but the show is a bit difficult. I’ve been listening to a lot of true crime podcasts. As one who teaches journalism instead of going out and doing it every day, I’ve realized that I miss crime. Covering crime is a lot of fun. As for movies, my wife and I try and watch a bad horror movie every Saturday night. I love watching Mystery Science Theater 3000. On Zoom you can change your background; I’ve got the two robots in the theater as my screen.

What is the scariest haunted place and your favorite haunted place in Missouri?

The Lemp Mansion in St. Louis didn’t scare me, but a couple of things happened while I was there. I was on the third floor, and back when I was there in 2006 nothing had been done to it for a hundred years. I was walking through one hallway and there wasn’t air conditioning and it was in the 90s outside. I was sweating buckets, and I got to one spot that was so cold that I immediately stopped sweating and got goosepimples all over my arms. I stepped out of the spot and was hot again. And I stepped into it and was cold again. There was no vent! That was cool enough, but a couple of my friends were waiting for me downstairs, and they didn’t know the story of the place. The dog was killed in the mansion, and people will hear the dog bark. My friend felt a dog brush up against her legs, but of course there was no dog. In the hour or so that we were there, two things happened that were unexplainable, which was cool.

As for the most haunted, I don’t get afraid when I go to haunted spots. I’ve spent from 10PM until 2AM in the spot where a woman committed suicide in the 1880s. I was waiting for her ghost to show up like it supposedly does. I was waiting on that spot in the dark in a Victorian mansion and nothing happened. That sort of thing doesn’t bother me. I was in the Savoy Hotel in Kansas City, and before I interviewed anybody, I was walking throughout the entire place taking pictures. On the fourth floor I got off of the landing and walked down a hallway and immediately got hot, started breathing hard, and had pressure right in the middle of my chest. I felt the fight or flight hit me. As soon as I got on the stairwell, I was back to normal. When I interviewed people who’d worked there a long time, they said that a ghost of a girl is in that hallway. Maybe I ran into her, and she didn’t like me there. The paranormal is cool as long as it’s happening to someone else.

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