Aaron Starmer is the author of DWEEB, The Only Ones, and most recently The Riverman, the first volume of a trilogy. He was born in northern California, raised in the suburbs of Syracuse, New York, and educated at Drew University in Madison, New Jersey. He currently lives and works in Hoboken, New Jersey.
Thanks very much for participating in this interview Aaron, let’s get to it!
So, can you tell me how you got started writing fiction?
I was always a storyteller. And luckily, many of my first teachers encouraged that. I remember my first assignment in first grade was to write and illustrate a book. I couldn’t believe they let you do such things in school. I’ve been writing ever since.
Did you set out to write Young Adult? Was that a genre you had in mind or was that just the genre that fit your work?
I set out to write anything that people would read or watch. I tried screenwriting and playwriting during and after college, because that’s what I knew best, but I could never get anywhere with it. My writing was too, I guess, bookish. So I wrote a novel for adults over the course of two years in my mid-20s. It was a bit of a mess and agents weren’t interested, but the best parts were about a group of 13-year-olds. So I thought I’d try to write about younger characters for a younger audience. I didn’t know anything at the time about Middle Grade and Young Adult books. I just wrote the sort of book that I would have wanted to read when I was 11 or 12. It ended up being my first published novel, DWEEB.
My wife and I recently read The Only Ones, and we really enjoyed the story. I mentioned it in an earlier blog and in describing it I said, “Think Lord Of The Flies meets end-of-the-world Science Fiction with an extremely likable young protagonist.” Do you think that’s an apt description of the novel?
I think that’s an apt description. A lot of people refer to it as dystopian, but it’s more about rebuilding civilization than civilization gone wrong. And while I was writing it, I was thinking a lot more about self-contained stories, things like fables and the Twilight Zone, than I was about epic depictions of the future.
Reading The Only Ones, I was reminded of The Road by Cormac McCarthy, The Hunger Games trilogy by Suzanne Collins, and The Lord Of The Flies by William Golding. Did these works influence you in any way?
Lord of the Flies is an obvious influence. It was perhaps the first serious novel I read, back when I was about 11 or 12 and it’s had a lasting effect. But I was very conscious about not making my book a sci-fi retread of it. The power struggles are similar, but it’s much less of a survival story and more a story about faith. The Road certainly informed the beginning, when Martin ventures out into an empty world, and it was a big influence on the father-son relationship. But again, I was less interested in issues of survival than ones of belief. Plus, The Road for Kids is a tad too depressing (though I appreciate depressing). I think I read The Hunger Games while I was writing my book. I wanted to make sure I wasn’t writing something similar. Though both books include children dealing with death and violence, I wanted my book to be about the emotions and consequences surrounding such things. Collins’s book is political and mine is not, or at least I don’t view it that way. Very different.
Dystopian story-lines are somewhat of a hot topic in novels now-a-days. When writing The Only Ones, was that a cognitive decision you made regarding the story setting – or was that just the story you wanted to tell?
It’s apocalyptic story, no doubt. But again, I don’t see it as dystopian. Things go off the rails, but that’s because of personalities and fears and blind faith. I think you need an organized, oppressive force to be a dystopian story. That said, I think the book has benefited and suffered because of the dystopian trend. It has found new readers who think it might be something similar to, say, Divergent, and those readers are (often pleasantly, sometimes not) surprised that it’s very different. I also think a lot of people avoid it, dismiss it as “just another one of those.” I hope they discover it someday, though. The one thing everyone assures me is that this book is “different.”
What challenges did you face as you wrote The Only Ones?
The main challenge was the logic. For the story to work, the logic needed to be tight. Some people don’t understand the ending, or misinterpret it, but I can tell you that I (along with my editor) went to great lengths to make it logically sound. It might take multiple readings for people to see all the pieces. But I put them there. At least I think I did. People have told me they’ve found holes in the logic about how the machine works, but they haven’t told me what those holes are. So for now, I’ll pretend there are no holes (or, at least, only a few itty-bitty holes, pinpricks really).
How do you feel now, looking back on your published works?
I don’t look back. That’s the key. I don’t re-read anything I write after it’s published, with the exception of the occasional short passage at a book event. If I did re-read, then I’d notice all the things I’d want to change. It’d be torture. But I will say that I know I’ve become a better writer with each book I’ve written. I’ve been more disciplined, less tolerant of lazy writing.
Writing essentials: when you sit down to write, what must you have with you?
Not much. A computer, because my handwriting is awful and my hand will cramp up within seconds if I’m using a pen. A mug or two of coffee. And a few quiet hours, preferably in the morning.
Can you tell me a bit about your process? Do you work best at a computer or are you a pen and ink kind of guy? .
Computer. Computer. Computer. If there was a world-wide power outage, there would be no more books from me.
When you aren't working as a wordsmith, what are you up to these days?
I do some freelance writing and editing projects for the travel industry. It’s the industry I used to work in before I was published. And I try to travel as much as possible. Hike, ski, kayak, lots of outdoorsy stuff, though I’m not too intense about it. Mostly, though, I’m getting to know my new daughter, who is just turning 7-months-old in a couple of days.
Congratulations on your new addition!
Lastly, as an aspiring author (I get one selfish question…right?), what advice do have for writers trying to get their debut novel out there? Particularly, what advice can you give in landing a literary agent?
Research! Even if your novel is amazing, many agents and publishers will pass on it, just because it’s not their interest or specialty. You need to find out what particular agents are selling before you submit to them. If you’re writing a dark mystery, don’t submit to an agent who deals primarily in cheery picture books, and vice versa. Check agent websites, check Publisher’s Marketplace, check Twitter. Make a focused list. Write focused, ungimmicky letters for each agent. Give them your hook, the reason you think the book could be successful, and why that agent is the right one for the project. Be confident but not egotistical. Be pleasant but not cloying. Be concise. I know it’s easier said than done, but work on the letter like you would the first or last chapter of your book. That’s what I didn’t do for years, and guess what, no agent! When I finally did, it I got my first agent. I submitted to six very specific people. I wrote six very specific letters. I received responses from two. I got represented by one. Oh, yeah. One more thing. Write a good book.
Thank you very much agreeing to this interview, I appreciate you taking the time. I am looking forward to reading The Riverman trilogy. Thanks for writing and for entertaining us.
My pleasure. Thanks for reading The Only Ones and best of luck with your writing endeavors.