A Conversation With Adam Connell

by Claire E. White
The Internet Writing Journal, August 2004
A lifelong science fiction fan, Adam Connell could always be found with his nose in a book
Photo of Adam Connell
when he was growing up. He loved genre books, especially Dune, which he calls a "literary landmark." Dune showed him how speculative fiction can "[bring] new context and meaning to age-old human issues. By that I mean without the constraints of our current social and technological climate. For the author of genre fiction, there are millions of ways to dissect humanity." Adam began writing science fiction at age fifteen, and since his graduation from college in 1995 he has written six novels. However, "the first three have been completely destroyed to save me from future embarrassment," he says.

After graduating from New York University with a degree in English, Adam took a job in finance. But during his seven years on Wall Street, he was never entirely happy. After being laid off from his job (along with 200 of his co-workers) as a result of a mega-merger, he decided to try his luck in a different field entirely: publishing. He walked into New York publisher Phobos Books for a job interview and walked out with a publishing contract instead. Strangely enough, he had been considering a career change -- the merger just gave him that necessary impetus to follow his true passion: writing.

His first published novel in a two book contract is Counterfeit Kings (Phobos), a gritty and action-packed novel which explores the themes of individualism, responsibility and the powerful effects of the choices we all make in our lives. Set in the future, the book could be classified as speculative fiction. But there is more than a touch of the "mean streets" in Counterfeit Kings; those who gravitate towards hardboiled detective novels and thrillers will find much to enjoy in the adventures of the anti-hero Horrocks.

We spoke with Adam about Counterfeit Kings, his move from the world of finance to the world of books, and the one punctuation mistake that is guaranteed to kill any novel.

What did you like to read when you were growing up?

Anything and everything. I started with comics, which for me was a gateway drug to SF. And I mean that in the best possible way! At a very early age comic books exposed me to the wonder and freedom of speculative literature. I graduated to the SF section of my local library while still in my single-digit years, where I was pulled -- willingly -- into the fascinating worlds of Asimov and Herbert and Zelazny.

Whenever someone tells me comics are bad for children, or if they malign comics out of ignorance or superiority, I just want to scream at them.



Was there anyone in your life that encouraged you to read or to write fiction? Was there anyone in particular who inspired you?

I have to confess, I'm a compulsive reader. I never leave the house without a book. I'm always reading something. This tendency manifested itself pretty early, and it had my parents worried. They were afraid that I was reading way too much -- too many comics and too many books. Afraid this might be bad for their son.

They called on our local librarian, a remarkable woman named Ms. Mulligan. I'm forever in her debt. She assured my parents that what I was doing was not only healthy but important. Too many children don't read enough, she told them. They read what's assigned in class, the absolute minimum required by school, and that's all. Most children, consumed by video games and cable TV, etc., they don't read for pleasure. Ms. Mulligan told my parents that as long as what I was reading wasn't R rated, let him read as much and whatever he likes. Readers are to be cherished.

So my parents could have gone the other way, could have stifled my inclinations, but they heeded Ms. Mulligan's advice. Thankfully.

In terms of writing fiction, there's no particular person who inspired me. It's a driving force within me that, I have to say, wasn't really encouraged by anyone. It wasn't discouraged, but it wasn't nourished either. It's such a strong force, so much a part of my makeup that it didn't need encouragement. But it is very much related to my reading habit, so I guess I have Ms. Mulligan to thank for that as well. God bless her!

I'd like to talk about your new novel, Counterfeit Kings. What was your inspiration for this story? What sparked your imagination?

Cover of Counterfeit Kings by Adam Connell
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That's almost impossible to say. I don't know myself well enough to say where my ideas come from, and I guess I like it that way. I do know where the idea for the counterfeit kings, the Ringers, came from. It was a Shakespeare course I took in college. I forget which play -- maybe it was Henry V -- but there was an extremely vivid battle scene where one soldier says to another, "I've killed the king six times already." Or something similar to that. See, the leader of the opposing army had dressed his lieutenants in his royal armor so that, during the fight, no one could be certain which man was actually the leader.

I remember sitting in class, thinking, What an incredible tool, what a great ploy. I knew I'd eventually use it in a story at some point and deposited the idea into my mental safety-deposit box. About ten years later, as Counterfeit Kings started to emerge from the fog of my imagination, the Ringers became an integral part of the plot. Bodyguards surgically altered to look identical to their king. Counterfeit kings. The Ringers also undergo severe behavioral training so they'll act like the king as well. For all intents and purposes, they become perfect surrogates.

Tell us about your road to publication.

"I have to confess, I'm a compulsive reader. I never leave the house without a book."
A twisty, windy road indeed. I graduated from college an English Major and wound up working in finance. That's a great conversation starter, but it's not something I ever really felt like talking about. I was always perplexed by my co-workers' fascination with the history behind my employment. Really it's pretty simple and not much of a conversation at all -- the job kind of fell into my lap.

There were no late nights and there was no work to take home. The best part was this left me with plenty of time to write. That was most important. For seven years I'd come home from work, write at night all night and on the weekends.

But it was a struggle. The stifling atmosphere of my office just depleted me. I didn't really fit in. I was known as "the sci-fi guy" or "Adam Who's Always Reading Books With Weird Covers". They didn't, couldn't understand my obsession with books. And for years I had no understanding of myself. I'd wake up and -- Am I a writer? Am I a Wall Street lifer? Can I be both? Am I kidding myself?

Maybe I was, but I managed to keep these two worlds separate enough that I was able to write a book every year or so. It was my dirty little secret. No one I worked with had any idea. They thought I was strange enough, but add "writer" to the mix and I would've been a complete pariah.

Then the best and worst thing to ever happen to me came in one phone call. That's right, I was laid off over the phone. While on vacation. On my sister's birthday. I am not making this up. I can tell you, her party was pretty somber.

A couple years before that birthday my firm was taken over by a Wall Street behemoth. I was laid off with about 200 people, nearly all my old co-workers. I decided to become an editorial assistant, something I probably should have, in hindsight, done right after college. I thought that my educational background plus my passion for books plus my professional experience would add up to the perfect editorial candidate. Only the publishing industry didn't quite agree with me.

I spent nine months pounding the pavement -- well, pounding the internet, the phone, my head against the desk. I went on interviews, sent out cold letters. I extolled all the ways my experience in finance was vital to the publishing world. Multitasking, grace under pressure, all that jazz.

Then I had a phone interview with Sandra Schulberg, publisher of Phobos Books. We had a nice conversation and she said, "I see on the bottom of your resume" -- and I almost didn't even put this there -- "it says you write novels."

I told her yes. She invited me to her office a week later to discuss the job opening, and asked me to bring along two of my best manuscripts.

The job actually never opened. Someone was planning to leave the company but didn't. Sandra loved the books I brought. Counterfeit Kings is one of them.

I've told this story at quite a few conventions, and I'm always met with wide eyes and disbelieving stares. If it didn't happen to me, I'd have a hard time believing it myself. But I always stress that this happy event was preceded by fifteen years of diligent writing and a lot of sacrifice. The actual circumstances of my road to publication are sensational, granted, but I had the material at hand to make the most of it when it happened.

The hero-or anti-hero-of the book is Horrocks, a man who has thought he has left behind the profession of bodyguard, but who is dragged back into court politics when the king of the colony disappears. What was the greatest challenge in writing Horrocks? Was there anything you were particularly trying to avoid with him?

"One thing I assiduously tried to avoid, and I think I succeeded, was making Horrocks too sweet, too much of a hero. That would have been a mistake. This story needed a hard, unyielding protagonist. Too many times I'm reading a book where, early on, the writer tells me this hero is tough, he's been through hard times, he's seen some you-know-what, he has darkness in his soul. But that's it -- the writer tells me all this in one or two paragraphs, but never actually shows me."
Horrocks was the king's bodyguard before the advent of the Ringers, so he retained his face and identity. He's fiercely independent, but also has this strange residual loyalty to his former boss, the king. Horrocks is temperamental and angry, but also quite tender when it comes to his wife, Sari.

That was the greatest challenge with Horrocks, balancing these inner conflicts while presenting them believably. I mentioned my time in finance. In many ways, there are bits of Horrocks' personality and history that are very much autobiographical. But not in the sense that I've been to Jupiter or can fly a spaceship. All kidding aside, I suppose I was writing down my own struggle with identity, of Writer versus Finance. In Horrocks, this dichotomy is represented by his violent past (as a drug mule and bodyguard) versus with his current, tamer job of mine foreman.

One thing I assiduously tried to avoid, and I think I succeeded, was making Horrocks too sweet, too much of a hero. That would have been a mistake. This story needed a hard, unyielding protagonist. Too many times I'm reading a book where, early on, the writer tells me this hero is tough, he's been through hard times, he's seen some you-know-what, he has darkness in his soul. But that's it -- the writer tells me all this in one or two paragraphs, but never actually shows me. He tells me this in one or two paragraphs, and spends the rest of the book showing me the exact opposite. This "tough" hero acts all the time like a stock hero with no moral conflict whatsoever. I feel cheated when that happens.

Some stories demand gritty protagonists, but don't deliver. Counterfeit Kings demanded such a protagonist, and I firmly believe it delivers. So that was the real challenge. Making a tough, scarred character sympathetic without compromising his values.

Horrocks' wife, Sari, is a fascinating character. She is very strong, but she has her demons. How did you create Sari? What went into your decision to have her be pregnant?

Sari is one of those characters that pretty much came to me fully formed. She's not based on anyone I've met or any other character I've read, and I didn't tool around with her very much to make her fit into the story more. She just WAS. She is an organic product of the Counterfeit Kings environment, and she just appeared in my head one day and said, "Okay, you know this book won't survive without me. I'm a major part of what's going on here. When do I start?"

In many ways, she's an extension of Horrocks, and he's an extension of her. They both have bitter pasts, but whereas Horrocks is more open to acknowledging his history, Sari would sooner forget it. So there are some textured parallels there.

They've been married for ten years. I thought it would be interesting to have a loving-and at times belligerent-couple as the book's center. We don't see enough of these complicated relationships in SF.

Her pregnancy was one of those few minor things I added after she'd come to me. The pregnancy is a symbolic landmark. They've been married all this time, but never had a child because their lives were too dangerous and chaotic. They're finally at a place where they can safely raise a child, and then they're submerged in the havoc of the king's disappearance. Now this child's in grave danger by circumstance. The stability of this region is in grave danger because of the king's disappearance. So if Horrocks and Sari want to raise this child, if they want to keep everything they've worked so hard to attain, they must find the king and restore order. Sari's pregnancy was a provocative way to underscore the stakes involved.

Guilfoyle and his ship, the Honey Locust, are truly repellant, yet fascinating. How did you create Guilfoyle?

Guilfoyle is my favorite character in the entire book. He's sleazy and dangerous, at times vain and self-destructive. I wouldn't want to run into him in a dark alley, but those chapters he's in were the most fun to write. He has no shame, and is going to do everything he can to find the king before Horrocks.

That's pretty much how I approached Guilfoyle, as a character who's willfully shameless. Someone who's been beaten by life, who has nothing left to lose and therefore everything to gain. He does some truly despicable things throughout the course of the book, but they don't bother him in the least. One fan told me that reading about Guilfoyle was like driving past a highway accident. A little gruesome, yes, a little morbid, but you just can't peel your eyes away. And that's exactly the effect I was going for. Guilfoyle has suffered so much but hasn't stopped fighting for himself, and I think that's what makes him a sympathetic villain, a villain you can root for without feeling dirty about yourself. Yeah, he's my favorite.

Kitsis, sister to Guilfoyle, is another strong and complex female character who provides an interesting counterpoint to her brother. How did you approach writing her?

I have an older sister, and I'm ashamed to say that a very, very, very small part of the Guilfoyle/Kitsis dynamic is based -- in tone only -- on my childhood. Most younger brothers will probably know what I mean. My sister and I would fight over the most insignificant things, and I can't explain why. Genetics? Why can brothers and sisters behave so much like proverbial dogs and cats? We're the best of friends now, but back then… So I took some of that sibling hostility, multiplied it by a thousand, and channeled it into Guilfoyle and Kitsis.

I think the Guilfoyle/Kitsis dynamic is universal, which is probably why so many people have responded to it. A lot of readers have never seen it portrayed quite this way, but they recognize part of their childhood in Counterfeit Kings. The Guilfoyle/Kitsis scenes are also the funniest in the book.

How do you approach the research necessary for this book?

That's a great question. I knew the story needed a leader, some kind of king. So I thought it would be an intriguing parallel to set the book near Jupiter, the king of planets. The Galileo mission was in full swing when I started writing. I dug up everything I could find, from NASA and elsewhere, about that incredible mission.

The Jovian moon Io kept tugging at my sleeve. Really, what could be more fascinating than a moon being wracked by hundreds of active volcanoes? With plumes shooting hundreds of miles high? I researched Io quite a bit. I knew I was going to need an unusual power source, a commodity this colony could export, and I came up with floating mines called "Furnaces" that harvest power from Io's plumes. That entailed more research on volcanology, sulfur, excavation techniques, etc.

But I don't want to give everyone the impression that the book is all about future tech. It's not. This technology is really the pivot around which the characters collide. Because for me, story is character in motion. And characters in conflict. With their environment, yes, but more importantly with each other. That's what I'm interested in, so naturally that's what I'm drawn to as a storyteller.

All of your characters have some pretty heavy psychic scars from the past. What attracts you to characters who are damaged in some way?

Damage is interesting. Damage is much more interesting than unmarred and whole and pure. I'm so tired of Hero Goodheart who's destined to save the galaxy and who makes all the proper choices.

Damaged characters have more meat on their psyche. There's more to play with as a writer, and more to enjoy as a reader. More opportunities to find in these characters a reflection of the human condition.

Your characters all have myriad choices to make, some of them are better at making choices than others. What fascinates you about the choices that people make in life? What draws you to this theme?

I find it fascinating to explore bad choices, specifically, because they can lead to so much conflict. Horrocks made a choice a long time ago, a choice of probable safety over probable risk. Sari feels he made the wrong choice, that they should have gone the risky route because their lives would be better now. Of course, back then there was no way of knowing this for sure.

This strife between Horrocks and Sari was, perhaps sadistically, quite enjoyable for me to explore as a writer. Kind of like probing a festering wound. But this strife was a necessary part of the story, a wound that needed probing. Bad choices are, for me, innately interesting. The way bad choices can reverberate through the years and paint you into a corner. Everyone I know has made bad decisions. How they've dealt with the repercussions defines who they are. So from the standpoint of a writer, bad choices can be quite good.

The future you've laid out in Counterfeit Kings is certainly no utopia. In fact, it's pretty run-down. What bothers you about the beatific view of the future which has everyone in lycra bodysuits, living in glass skyscrapers and a pristine environment where there aren't any germs -- and the water is clean?

What bothers me, foremost, is that it's so clichéd. We've seen that version of the future a thousand times. If the Counterfeit Kings environment had been this pretty, I'd have lost interest twenty pages in, and the book never would have gotten finished. I also don't think the future will be as clean as some expect. At least not in time for the Counterfeit Kings era, say 100-150 years from now. I just don't think we'll have our act together that quickly. So, for me, the homogenized and stale and shiny future is unrealistic. And what I was striving for in Counterfeit Kings was a very realistic future, one removed from the current state of things but also palpable, tangible. That's why the ships and mines are a bit run-down, their filtration systems aren't always working, there's grease and dirt and smells. That's real. For me, that's part of our future. Also, I do enjoy stories where the setting mirrors character. As you pointed out, the characters in Counterfeit Kings are damaged, and so is their environment.

Although the setting is miles away from old England, I definitely got a Shakespeare-like feel of grand tragedy and drama from the story. Are you a Shakespeare fan? Did you delve into the classics when you were young?

You can't overstate Shakespeare's importance. You just can't. He's a constant inspiration to me. So are Aeschylus, Homer, Sophocles, Euripides. I was an English Major, but I also Minored in Greek Classics. The themes and situations from ancient Greek drama are in many ways still relevant today. I didn't delve into those classics when I was young. It wasn't until High School that I was formally introduced to those plays and myths, which is probably just as well because by that time I was mature enough to grasp them. Any earlier and I may have defensively dismissed them out of ignorance.

I'd like to talk about the day to day process of writing for you. Will you take us through a typical writing day for you?

It's pretty mundane, I'm afraid. I write from 9-12 in the morning, have lunch for about an hour, then I'm back at the keyboard from 1-5. Usually I finish about 3 or 4 pages a day. I write in my office. I'm not one of those stolid writers who can crank out a novel in their local Starbucks. I guess writing is kind of a secret, private ritual for me. Every writer's different. You have to go with what works. This is what works for me.

When you start a new novel, how much of the plot do you know in advance? Are you an outliner, or is the process more organic for you?

I use a loose outline. I find that if I don't know where I'm going, I won't know the best way to get there. Before I start page 1 I spend 4 or 5 months hashing out the plot, listening to what the characters are telling me. Brainstorming, daydreaming. Filling up notebooks with relevant ideas.

I use a loose outline but believe it or not the process is still very organic. While writing, things do change, characters go off in different directions that I hadn't anticipated, and I let them. It doesn't happen often, because they've been living in my head all those months, doing what they wanted and needed to do anyway. But the core story remains close to the original outline. Some fellow writers don't understand how I can work from an outline, and I don't understand how they can work without one.

When you're not writing, what are your favorite ways to relax and have fun?

Reading is, for me, immensely relaxing and immensely fun. And satisfying. And educational. And so many other things.
"I don't want to give everyone the impression that the book is all about future tech. It's not. This technology is really the pivot around which the characters collide. Because for me, story is character in motion. And characters in conflict. With their environment, yes, but more importantly with each other. That's what I'm interested in, so naturally that's what I'm drawn to as a storyteller."
I also love going to the movies, and watching movies at home. I'm a story junkie, as you probably already guessed. Now here I go again, admitting something I'm almost too embarrassed to tell you, but I love the old AIP Arkoff/James H. Nicholson pictures. Midnight Movies, so to speak. See, I'm the kind of person that could watch Lawrence of Arabia, and then immediately afterward I'll chase it with Planet of the Vampires. I've never turned my nose up to particular directors or films or writers. Some of the best stories to be found can be found in the so-called "gutter". I'm also an avid cook and an occasional runner.

Can you give us a sneak peek into your next book?

Glad to. I'm putting the finishing touches on Cold Tonnage, an Arctic naval adventure. It takes place on the cusp of a new ice age, and follows a multinational convoy of icebreakers on a mission to retrieve two ships from a doomed Arctic expedition. It has a heavy quotient of psionics, a field I don't necessarily believe in but find fascinating nonetheless. Cold Tonnage is a stand-alone, and has no relation to Counterfeit Kings. I'm not a big fan of sequels.

What are some of your pet peeves in life?

Noisy people. I abhor noisy people who have no consideration for the comfort of others. At a restaurant, in the theater, on the train. Wherever. Other than that, I'm an easygoing fellow.

What are your pet peeves when you read SF (or any other genre)?

My biggest pet peeve when reading SF is technology over character. I can't understand why so many writers feel that nifty tech should take precedence over character. Stories are about people, no matter the genre. Yes, SF stories require technology as its ramp, but if you don't care about the people surrounding that technology, why read further? That's when SF loses its primary function as FICTION, and instead becomes a textbook.

A pet peeve I have that spans all genres is overuse of the exclamation point. I think there are, maybe, 9 or 10 in all of Counterfeit Kings' 400 pages, and still that's probably too many. When I'm reading a book and I come across 2 or 3 a page, it makes me want to hurl that book across the room. Or into the garbage. Exclamation points lose all their potency when used on every page. They become completely ineffective. A crutch for the writer and an annoyance to the reader. This reader, anyway.

What are some of your favorite SF books, TV shows or films? How would you rate the current state of SF on TV?

My favorite SF book is Dune. Hands down. My favorite book, period. It changed my life. Dune gifts the reader with a complex, fully-realized universe. It's a work of genius. Frank Herbert was a genius.

I also love Eric Frank Russell's Wasp, Simak's Way Station, Bester's The Stars My Destination, Ward Moore's Bring the Jubilee, George Alec Effinger's Budayeen novels -- I could go on and on. Oh, also Lester Dent's Doc Savage thrillers.

On TV, obviously the original Star Trek. The Outer Limits. And Farscape. I loved Farscape and was irate when it was woefully cancelled. I realize it was an economic decision but I still thought it was a travesty, a disservice to the SF community. Farscape was doing so many wonderful things so well, with integrity and honesty and a uniqueness of voice.

As for how I'd rate the current state of SF on TV, I'd say there certainly isn't enough of it. And aside from UPN's Star Trek: Enterprise, there are paltry few places one can go for SF on TV. Aside from the Sci Fi Channel, and they botch things continually. See, for example, their recent Battlestar Galactica miniseries, their dreadful Riverworld pilot, etc. The one thing they got right, Farscape, they managed to cancel. Okay, the two Dune miniseries weren't bad either. My favorite SF movie has to be John Carpenter's The Thing. I could watch that movie every day. My other favorites are too numerous to name, but they include Invaders From Mars, Alien, Starship Troopers, Them!, The Lathe of Heaven.

What's your advice to aspiring writers?

"So, persistence. Don't ever, ever give up on yourself. Too many do give up. I certainly could have quite easily over the past 15 years. I had days when I was afraid I was deluding myself, wasting my time. But these days, thankfully few and far between, were drowned out by the sheer joy of writing. Writing is as important to me as breathing. There are some people who may not understand this, but there are many more who know precisely what I mean. You have to keep hitting the keyboard, period."
One word: Persistence. I have a stack of rejection letters you could use as a highchair, so I'm something of an expert on persistence.

I waited through fifteen years of dedicated writing to actually see publication. Untold naysayers repeatedly advised me that I had no chance, my work was so radically different from what was being put out on the market that I simply had no prayer. I always felt that this appraisal was a positive one. I don't want my work confused with anyone else's. I don't think originality will ever be unwelcome. It may take longer to find a champion for your work, someone brave and bold enough to publish you, but that makes victory all the sweeter.

So, persistence. Don't ever, ever give up on yourself. Too many do give up. I certainly could have quite easily over the past 15 years. I had days when I was afraid I was deluding myself, wasting my time. But these days, thankfully few and far between, were drowned out by the sheer joy of writing. Writing is as important to me as breathing. There are some people who may not understand this, but there are many more who know precisely what I mean. You have to keep hitting the keyboard, period.

Also, one last point. It doesn't matter whether you're writing SF or mysteries or romance or horror, be sure to read outside your field. I'd say only about 50 percent of what I read is SF. It's a certainty that there are great writers outside of your chosen genre, and you're doing a disservice to yourself and to your craft by ignoring these other fields. Raymond Chandler, Roald Dahl, Elmer Kelton, Ellis Peters, Virginia Woolf, V.S. Naipual, Sherwood Anderson -- these are just a few of the writers who've helped shape me over the years, and you won't find their books in the SF section. Explore your local library or bookstore. Great readers make great writers. Go read.

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