Author Interview: Mark J. EngelsOctober 19, 2017 0 By mattdoylemedia
Hi Mark! For those that aren’t familiar with you, can you tell us a little about yourself and your work?
As a boy growing up, I geeked out over trains and electronics. That’s why I work now as an electrical engineer designing and commissioning signal and communications systems for railroads and rail transit agencies across the United States. But I’ve been a member every bit as long of various anime, manga and anthropomorphic fandoms so came to enjoy creative endeavors, too. Like role playing games, acting, and, of course, writing. I am an American citizen, born and raised in Michigan never far from the shore of one or another of the Great Lakes. Kept that trend going through moves following college to Minnesota and Indiana. Today my wife and son and I make our home in Wisconsin along with a dog who warms my spot on the sofa until I sit down to write.
After having several articles published in rail and transit industry trade magazines a few years back, I somehow got into my head I ought to take up writing genre fiction. My paranormal sci-fi thriller ALWAYS GRAY IN WINTER, first in my werecat family saga series, was the result because it couldn’t not. It was an itch I couldn’t bear not to scratch.
Always Gray In Winter is your debut novel, and was released through Thurston Howl Publications. How did you come to work with this particular publishing house, and how have found the publishing experience so far?
I racked up nearly ninety rejections querying literary agents and submitting to publishers’ editors, causing me to question whether I had a problem with my craft or with my concept. Though I was eager to improve my craft, my concept was non-negotiable. The modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats torn apart as militaries on three continents vie to exploit their deadly talents—I had decided back in the fall of 2013 that’s what I was going to write about or I wasn’t going to write at all. Though I first began my publication quest at the Furry Writers’ Guild’s “Novel Markets” page at the end of 2015, at that time none of the three presses listed were accepting novel submissions. One fine day the following summer, reeling after dozens of rejections, I checked back with the Furry Writers’ Guild web site on a whim to find several new publisher listings! I queried a couple of them including Thurston Howl Publications. After comparing offers from two markets, I signed with THP. And sent a copy of THP’s contract to the Furry Writers’ Guild with my application to satisfy their requirements for full membership.
The people I’ve worked with at THP have demonstrated their commitment to me and my book time and again. From editing to production they all dug in and worked with me. Recently THP added some marketing support and I’m seeing more things happen in that area too. Like my novel’s newly available ebook, for example…
The book blends a couple of different genres. What inspired you to mix these different elements? Was it something that you always intended, or did it just evolve naturally while you were writing?
I wouldn’t say I had intended it. Or that it even evolved. It just sorta, you know, happened. Because I don’t know what else you’d call it when I set out to tell a story where I share so many of my own experiences and interests. Mostly to enshrine those parts of my past I myself don’t want to ever forget.
Like growing up amongst Polish-Americans near Detroit. Or my love of Great Lakes lore and legend. Staring out at the passing countryside through a rig’s windshield. Practice in and appreciation for traditional Korean fighting arts. And, most importantly, my thirty plus years in various anime, manga and anthropomorphic fandoms (which I’ll discuss further in a moment.) These form the essence of my characters and the world they live in, the modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats forced to live alternately in the shadows and in plain sight.
There were a lot of different things that stood out for me with the book, such as the very natural feel of the character interactions, but I wanted to place some focus on the military aspect for a moment. This comes off as very authentic. Did it take a lot of research to get this particular aspect up to scratch?
Many are surprised when I tell them I am not myself a veteran. But then again, neither was Tom Clancy (best-selling author of the classic submarine warfare thriller THE HUNT FOR RED OCTOBER.) He did, however, have a passion for learning everything he could about naval tactics, submarines and the sailors who crewed them. And indeed he did! To great effect, at that.
My passion began with interests in Great Lakes ships and the cutters of the US Coast Guard’s Ninth District watching them sail up and down the St. Clair River from my grandparents’ back yard. A college internship at the Soo Locks for the US Army Corps of Engineers (likely the best job I’ll ever have) allowed me to get up close and personal with them while serving aboard the Corps’ floating plant. My fellow civilian employees’ interests in maritime lore and legend fostered my own. Ever since, my study into the lives of men and women serving both afloat and ashore in the US Navy, the US Coast Guard and the US Merchant Marine has been a labor of love. And their stories helped me best tell mine.
Throughout the book, you introduce a large cast of characters. For me, Pawly, Mawro and Hana became favourites quite quickly, and for very different reasons. As the author though, who were your favourite characters to write, and were any of them based on real people?
Ooooh, that’s like asking a parent “which one of your children do you love most?” All of my main cast are my favorite, though each in different ways. Some—Mawro especially—I love because they’re quite like me, allowing me to process my own foibles and regrets through the things they do (or don’t do.) Others are a sort of wish fulfillment on my part though not so much in a typical Mary Sue/Gary Stu sort of way. More like the kind of people I wish I had known. Or the family I wish I had had. Hana is one of these.
But Pawly, my female werecat main character, encounters them all. She must put them all into context, especially when the story leads her to challenge her assumptions about who and what she is. Pawly tops my cast of favorites, simply because she was the first of my characters to reveal herself to me. Late one night testing signal systems on a rail transit job site, Pawly showed up in my subconscious and began slashing at the inside of my head without even the decency to introduce herself. Jerk.
I tossed and turned all day long at the hotel trying to ignore her, but fangs and claws help a werecat make a very convincing argument. She wanted out! And to do that, I had to tell her story. So I did.
To whether any of my characters are based on real people, I give only the standard disclaimer “any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, is purely coincidental.” Though I’d be remiss not to admit that, much like Peanuts creator Charles M. Schulz, each of my characters reflects one or more facets of my own personality. So maybe they are based on real people after all? But only one person in particular. Me. For better or for worse.
As a story, Always Gray In Winter has plenty of complexities to it. How did you come up with this particular tale? Was there a set influence in place from an early point, or was there a plotline revelation that you had when you started to write?
From the outline for a different story, actually, one featuring an all anthro cast. When I couldn’t use it for the purpose I had originally intended, I re-cast some of the characters as human. To help resurrect my original storyline the remaining characters became werecats, their struggle driving the story’s conflict—hostages in their own bodies and societal outcasts forced to hide in plain sight on account of their Affliction.
So, notes in hand, I drafted a series outline detailing the travails of three generations of Pawly’s family from the height of the Cold War to the present day. Incorporating all those fine things I mentioned earlier. Pawly has an important role in this book’s narrative, along with the ones to follow. It’s her family’s character arc which forms the foundation of my series, how none of its members are ever the same after we first meet them. Much like the rest of us, in fact.
You state in the afterword that you’re working on two other books. Can you tell us a little about these? Are they part of the same world, or different stories? And if they are follow-ups to Always Gray In Winter, are you looking to branch out into other series too once they’re complete?
Friends who first reviewed my series outline strongly advised against me trying to cram the entire thing into one book. Unless I wanted a War and Peace-sized tome that could double as a doorstop! They also strongly advised the story had legs, told me it was fresh and frenetic and forceful. So I wrote the first book and started writing the second while shopping it around. The second book is actually a prequel, depicting Pawly’s life as she and twin brother Tommy were Growing Up Werecat. Then the third book (and maybe a fourth if my narrative runs longer than accepted publishing conventions) picks up after the end of ALWAYS GRAY and carries the family’s character arc to its conclusion.
The second book’s draft should be completed by the end of this year. Huzzah! Maybe by this time next year it’ll be ready for release? Publishing is a fickle enterprise so it’s hard to say. Would be grateful for you and your readers coming alongside to help see me through. Knowing fans are waiting for more really helps keep me going! Because right now I’m driven to obsession to share these stories with the world as Pawly and her family deserve nothing less. Though when I finish a couple years from now, I’ll gladly go on with life knowing I’ve accomplished what I set out to do. If I write, fine. If I don’t write, that’s fine too. My muse has been mute on that point, so I’ve concluded she’ll tell me when she’s good and ready. Much like what Pawly herself would do, in fact.
You’re a member of both the Allied Authors of Wisconsin and the Furry Writer’s Guild. What led to you joining both groups and have you found being a member useful in your development as an author?
I had spent a long time writing anime and manga fan fiction before I began writing my book. After about a year later I finished and sent the book around to my prereaders. That’s when I realized—reading their feedback!—how ill-prepared I’d been to write a novel. An introduction by the leader of my men’s Bible study to his novelist son scored me an invitation to Allied Authors. I know the members’ feedback from nearly two years’ worth of chapter readings at our monthly meetings helped me tell the best story I could. It wasn’t easy to separate myself enough from my work to look at their suggestions objectively, but the effort proved eminently worthwhile.
You’ve read already how the Guild helped me along my path to publication even before being eligible to join as a full member. Not only have I made a lot of new friends, but they’ve also been helpful in marketing and promoting my book (like they’re doing right now for #FurryBookMonth.) I’ve attended several FWG-sanctioned events at furry cons already and intend to do more. Now newer writers are coming along behind me! FWG’s members and forums have been key in helping me help them find their own way.
What has been the most surprising thing with publishing for you so far?
That there is no one right answer. To anything. Except to say that whatever you want to do, it’ll be more complicated than you ever thought possible, take longer than you ever believed it would, and cost more than you could ever budget for. I guess I know enough now to, you know, know I don’t know enough. For a guy who makes his living as an electrical engineer, having no established nor current codes, standards and acceptable industry practices to follow in my creative endeavors is more than a little distressing. No matter how much research I do into how to format a manuscript, how to write a query letter or how to, you know, write a friggin’ novel someone is always going to suggest I’m doing it wrong. Because all of writing and all of publishing is subjective. I’m still trying to settle in to a comfortable stride again after that harsh truth caught me completely flat-footed.
I am of the view that there’s always more to learn, especially when it comes to creative ventures. That being the case, is there any advice that you’d give to upcoming authors trying to get a footing in the industry?
Identify and solidify your authorial intent. By that I mean figuring out not only what you’re doing but why you’re doing it. The book you have in your heart to write may well not be the book any one person has in their heart to read. This became clear to me when agent and editors posted No vampires! No werewolves! in big bold print within their submission guidelines. I learned the hard way: they were saying no shifters of any kind, they didn’t want to read such a story in this post-Twilight world in which we live, they believed the reading public wouldn’t either. Though paranormal romance imprints were still taking shifters, they too rejected my book. Why? Not enough romance, natch.
So I had a decision to make. “Trunk” my novel and write something else? Oh, no no no. Pawly, brandishing fangs and claws, wasn’t about to stand for that. My writer tweep Hannah R. Miller (@HRuthMiller) boldly proclaims on her profile “I didn’t write these stories to become an author. I became an author to tell these stories.” From that point on my main consideration for agents or editors at publishers was are you going to help me get my story to its audience or aren’t you? I suggest every writer look at them in the same way, too. What if you can’t find any who share your passion? Hire those people who’ll bring their own (especially a cover artist, a layout designer, a proofreader and maybe even a freelance editor) and self-pub yourself one kickass book. I might well want to read such a one myself.
Also, “cast not thy pearls before swine.” Discern carefully to whom you entrust your work and your fragile ego. And, even more importantly, to whom you don’t. Feedback on your work is crucial to help you improve, but take care to seek out good feedback from quality people. Avoid those who coddle you and those who beat you down for reasons that have more to do with themselves and less to do with your work. A critique partner, a beta reader, each member of your writer’s group—think of them like you would a coach or a teammate. You depend on them to identify and reinforce what you do well, to call attention to what you don’t, to suggest resources and strategies to address same.
Lastly, for the love of all things holy, do not take any one person’s success story as gospel. What worked for them/there/then may well not work for you/here/now. The same is true for whatever advice they give you. I believe it’s in one’s best interest to solicit and take in feedback, like that offered by members of critique groups (which I recommend every author join, whether virtual or in real life). But what suggestions one acts upon—and what one doesn’t—needs must be filtered through one’s authorial intent. I’ll sum up with Bruce Lee’s wise words: “adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.” Your authorial intent is both the measure and the final arbiter with which you can do just that.
Moving away from writing, you’re a fan of anime and manga. Is that a long-term love, or is it something that you came to more recently? What is it that draws to you both?
I mentioned before I’ve been in various anime, manga and anthropomorphic fandoms for decades. So yeah, it’s a long-term love. It was really the first animated medium I can recall that featured a running narrative—characters and their relationships to one another and the world around them matter, leading to a climatic end. Shows such as Harmony Gold’s Robotech left a lasting impression on me. These were the first examples besides books where I’d seen seemingly regular people deal with extraordinary circumstances. The brutality of war. The minefields of one’s own heart. Many of my favorites depict some strange characters in fantastic circumstances, but it is their intrinsic humanness and the relatability of their struggles that draws me in. Then as now.
Do you tend to watch anime based on manga you’ve read, and vice versa? If so, do you find yourself naturally showing a preference for one medium over the other, or does it vary depending on the series?
No, I think for me it has more to do with the characters and the story than the medium itself. Several of my favorites like Princess Nine and Gurren Lagann I’ve only ever seen as an anime. Another, Battle Angel Alita, known in Japan as “GUNNM”, stuck with me because of the manga (the single anime based on same was, well, just “okay”.) Others I’ve enjoyed both the anime and the manga regardless of which came first, like Neon Genesis Evangelion, Crest of the Stars, Oh! My Goddess, Tenchi Muyo, El Hazard OVA and Gunsmith Cats. Though I tend to prefer manga in general. I’ve found the medium lends itself well to allowing the creator to tell a much richer story with so many more interesting moving parts than anime, which I attribute to the much lower production costs involved.
Do you have any favourites you can tell us about?
Gee whiz, how much time you got? Maybe better to show you and your audience rather than tell you:
Allow me to list several creators of my many favorites instead, as most have extensive bodies of work: Hayao Miyazaki, Rumiko Takahashi, Ken Akamatsu, Yuu Watase, Kenichi Sonoda, Leiji Matsumoto, Hiroyuki Morioka, Yukito Kishiro, and Yoshiyuki Sadamoto. Please note, however, this is nowhere near an exhaustive list. A special shout out to Ben Dunn, creator of the long-running “American manga” comic Ninja High School, whose co-leading lady Asrial of the series original story arc influenced my writing greatly. My book featuring a blonde badass fighting woman who changes back and forth between human and animal forms is hardly by coincidence.
Being a member of the FWG and writing a novel about werecats, I would think that it’s safe to assume that you’re a part of the furry fandom. Would that be right? How did you first become aware of the fandom and what drew you to it?
I was part of the furry fandom even before I knew what is was. Or that I was already in it! Disney’s Robin Hood, Osamu Tezuka’s Kimba the White Lion, Robert C. O’Brien’s Mrs. Frisby and the Rats of NIMH, Gene DeWeese’s Adventures of a Two Minute Werewolf—all of these fostered my interest in humanoids with animal features yet human-type experiences and issues. To me, the characters seemed more relatable and more human because of their non-human traits rather than in spite of them.
When you look at it, a lot of kid’s shows from years gone by had a distinctly furry edge. I remember growing up loving shows like Bucky O’Hare, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Biker Mice from Mars and so on. Then, when you look at gaming, there were always characters like Sonic the Hedgehog and Sparkster the Rocket Knight. For me personally, I’ve remained loyal to a lot of old franchises like that. Do you have any old favourites that have stuck with you through the years?
Kimba the White Lion, for certain. Though in my teen years I’d come to love Thundercats (if for no other reason than because Cheetara was hawt). As I entered college I discovered Steve Gallacci’s Erma Felna, EDF and Birthright. Stan Sakai’s Usagi Yojimbo. Waller/Worley’s Omaha the Cat Dancer. And Eastman & Laird’s Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles. All favorites of mine to this day. Interestingly enough, though many furry fans grew up with Brian Jacques’ Redwall series, I myself wouldn’t come to read and enjoy his books until well into my adulthood.
And what about now? Are there any newer furry books, shows etc. that you can recommend?
The above have inspired a couple generations now of talented and passionate furry creators. Some of my current favorites include the Twokinds webcomic by Tom Fischbach, Tracy Butler’s webcomic Lackadaisy, and the Dreamkeepers graphic novels from David and Liz Lillie. I read and enjoyed Sheryl Nantus’ paranormal romance series Blood of the Pride as I was looking for “comps” for use in query letters because it featured two of my favorite things—werecats and Tim Horton’s! (BESTEST COFFEE EVAH.) Soon I believe mainstream audiences will come to understand and appreciate how favorably furry novels’ themes and plotlines compare with their favorite genre fiction. Among the vanguard are Watts Martin with his most excellent spacefarer’s novel Kismet. In that same genre I liked Sasya Fox’s Theta and my Thurston Howl brother-in-publishing Joel Kreissman’s Pride of Parahumans. Standouts from other genres include Jako Malan’s reWritten, R. A. Meenan’s Zyearth Chronicles, Amy Fontaine’s Mist, and Stephen Coghlan’s GENMOS: Gathering Storms (the latter two both Thurston Howl stablemates, I am proud to say.)
Brett A. Brooks deserves special mention for branching out into several different genres all at once with his furry books, including high fantasy (Harmonia and Child of Shadows from The Champions of Elan series) and crime noir (Red is the Darkest Color and The Devil Was Green from his Pussy Katnip series, a reimagining of its obscure namesake heroine from the comic industry’s Golden Age.)
And while not a furry show per se, an “anime-esque” French series Wakfu features a number of anthro supporting characters. I found merchantess extraordinaire Miranda and the Pandawans especially noteworthy and enjoyable.
Growing up, you had an interest in trains and electronics, which all led you working as an electrical engineer, designing and commissioning signal and communications systems for the US railroad system. That must have been a long journey in terms of education. Did you realise early on that you wanted to work in this industry, and how did you go about gaining the necessary skills and knowledge for the job?
No, it took some while for me following college to commit to this career course. After earning a bachelor’s degree in electrical engineering technology, I designed factory automation. Later I built automated testing equipment for safety-critical embedded systems like those used in implantable medical devices and avionics. Getting to know engineers in the avionics systems group made me realize what I was lacking in my work—passion. Those folks ate up anything to do with the airframes we worked on, and many were themselves multi-licensed pilots. When people asked me “why don’t you work for a railroad?” I told them “I make too much money.” Though I really wanted to.
Roll the clock forward to September 11. The avionics industry impersonated a lawn dart soon after and I was let go. But that afforded me the opportunity to “go railroadin’” (albeit taking a substantial pay cut.) I hired out a signal construction gang for one of the big US railroads, starting out in the time-honored tradition as an apprentice climbing poles and digging trenches. Having had college summer jobs driving truck and still carrying a commercial driver’s license, I was able to hold a spot as a boom truck driver. Upon attaining journeyman status I was a “signalman”—a combination electrician, pipefitter and millwright to install, commission, maintain and test railroad signal system equipment.
I hold a withdrawal card as a “member in good standing” of the Brotherhood of Railroad Signalmen (AFL-CIO). My experience prior to railroading came in handy as I worked as a signal maintainer for a different railroad and later a signal & communications supervisor. I left the railroad but continued in the discipline as a circuit designer and commissioning specialist, first as a self-employed contractor and now for one of the big national architectural/engineering/construction management firms. I wouldn’t trade my time in the trenches for anything, because those experiences give me insights which make me a better designer. I won’t ever forget that any system I design will installed, commissioned, maintained and tested by some poor slob out there. And said poor slob might well one day be me.
Helps that the money I gave up during my career transition has all returned, bringing many friends with it.
Do you have any other interesting hobbies or skills?
I mentioned being a truck driver before, though that’s as interesting as one wants to make it. Me, I liked boring—boring routes, boring loads, boring itineraries. Because any excitement there might result in one appearing on the six o’clock news some night. Or jagged twisted burning metal strewn out along the Interstate somewhere. Boring suits me quite fine, thankyouverymuch.
I’m not a “camera-totin’ railfan” like I was before but still maintain a connection to the hobby. My grade-school age son and I volunteer on the track gang at the Riverside & Great Northern, a 15-inch gauge “live steam” operating tourist railroad which rolls along the picturesque banks of the Wisconsin River just north of Wisconsin Dells, Wisconsin.
A friend and fellow signalman brings his son, nearly the same age as mine. We wile away the day pounding spikes and tamping ballast before retiring to our favorite pizza joint to put down a pie nearly the size of our table! My hope is by the time my boy leaves home he’ll know well how to use a shovel, for I labor under the delusion a young man who does will hardly ever find himself out of work.
Over on your website, you have the option to subscribe to your mailing list. What can subscribers expect if they do? Do you send things out on a regular schedule, or do you send out messages on an as-and-when basis?
I send out an update to my email listers once or twice a month. Maybe more if I’m plugging an event, like an in-person book signing or convention appearance. Contents vary by what I’ve got going on. It’s a way to keep my friends and fans appraised of what’s happening related to this first published book and forthcoming novels in my werecat family saga series.
Finally, I wanted to thank you for dropping by and taking part in this interview. Did you have any final message for readers? And whereabouts on the web can everyone find you if they want to know more? Feel free to link to anything you want.
THANK YOU, Matt, for reading and reviewing my paranormal sci-fi thriller Always Gray in Winter. And THANK YOU to all reading this, especially if you’ve already read and reviewed my book! If you haven’t, I hope you’ll consider doing so. It is my way of giving back to the anime, manga and anthropomorphic fandoms from which I’ve experienced so much joy and made so many wonderful friends. I’ve enjoyed so much content created by others, now I hope others will enjoy the content I’ve created. You can purchase my book from my publisher’s swank new storefront:
which will feature my book at a sale price from time to time (including now through the end of October to celebrate #FurryBookMonth.) Other online outlets for trade paperback and ebook forms:
And please leave a review at Amazon and Goodreads! They’re like currency for my publisher and me. They need not be long but should be honest, conveying something you liked (or perhaps did not) about the characters and their story. Your review goes a long way to help author and publisher get a book out there in front of eyeballs that may really enjoy it. Who otherwise might not ever have had the opportunity to do so.
More on me, my characters and my book can be found on my web site:
There you’ll also find a contact form and links to my various social media. I enjoy making new friends in the fandoms and always appreciate hearing from readers and fans. You can also opt-in to my email list there as mentioned above. Thanks again, Matt, for having me. And look forward to meeting you all too!
If you enjoy my content, then please consider making a one-time donation of $3 to me through Ko-Fi! All money received goes towards keeping the site running. Thank you.
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