Welcome to my weekly Author Spotlight. I’ve asked a bunch of my author friends to answer a set of interview questions, and to share their latest work.
Today, Michael Scott Phillips – I’m an author, graphic designer, and oil painter. Mainly, I write space opera, though I don’t feel bound by any particular genre and tend to write whatever idea thrills me. I also enjoy film photography, SF television shows, classic films, and developing alien languages and symbols—such as my semasiographic language, Astivian.
My debut science fiction novel, When Morpheus Overslept, is due out in February 2021. It’s a space opera about a brilliant physicist who is trying to develop a faster-than-light drive system but instead crash-lands on a distant planet in the far future. Cornered by a terrifying alien in a ruined city, he discovers that telepathy is the key to escaping and saving an entire star system of peaceful insectoid aliens.
I also wrote Quite Quite Fantastic! The Avengers for Modern Viewers, the definitive book on the classic television shows, The Avengers and The New Avengers. My articles on cult television have been published in the magazine Chromakey.
Torc Books and GR|OWL Books are my fiction and non-fiction labels, respectively.
Thanks so much, Michael, for joining me!
JSC: When did you know you wanted to write, and when did you discover that you were good at it?
MSP: I started out very left-brained in many ways. I think I wanted to do something respectable that would pay well. My first ambition was to be a scientist, but a real curmudgeon of a science teacher in the eighth grade killed that notion and made me think I would be terrible at science. (The irony is that I was a student in her final class. She retired at the end of that year!) Ultimately, I changed to computer science, mainly because of the explosion of video games and the movie Tron, and that led to an early career in computers. However, at some point in my life, it dawned on me that I’d always been a creative person, was full of good creative ideas, and had always secretly wanted to create things. The revelation came because of my chronic health issues, which often make one rethink one’s life. I’d had a long period of disability and had come out of it, and I started to think about what was really important to me and how my early career interests had morphed from computer programming to graphic design and web design. And, more importantly, I was tired of good ideas getting wasted in my head: ideas for paintings, ideas for movies, television shows, books, etc. I started oil painting and became relatively good at that, but by 2014 I had a good idea for a novel that I desperately wanted someone to write for me. After asking around and trying to get some people interested, I finally realized no one was ever going to do it but me. By 2017, I was in the middle of another round of chronic health problems and decided to push through and just write it. That’s when I wrote When Morpheus Overslept. It was hard, but I got it done. And that led to wanting to write a sequel and plan a whole series—which I suppose makes me a writer. And I suppose I’m pretty good at it too.
JSC: What was your first published work? Tell me a little about it.
MSP: Fiction? When Morpheus Overslept. [Non-fiction, that’s another story.] I guess it was inevitable that my first written novel would be the first published one. I know that’s not the case for everyone. I know that most writers probably write several before they get one published. But I subscribe to a philosophy perhaps unique to the middle-aged: I don’t have much time left! I don’t have decades to try and write ten-plus novels before I finally decide to publish one. So I just bent over backwards learning all I could, writing and re-writing it until I got WMO to a stage I thought might be something that people would find interesting. I only briefly queried it before I decided I would self-publish it and present it to the world. At a certain age, one develops a degree of courage that youth lacks. I’m no longer too intimidated to at least try—my self-esteem be damned! I always say, there’s no ego in it for me; I just want to create, and I’m happy if people happen like what I do.
When Morpheus Overslept is about a physicist who leads a mission to build the first colony on another planet during an agricultural crisis on Earth. Simultaneously, he is trying to prove out his theories on superluminal navigation that will allow faster-than-light travel, but in order to do so he needs to travel lightyears at relativistic speeds capturing data along the way: directly observing the effects of time dilation, in other words. This requires decades of travel in a sleeper ship, and when they finally arrive at the planet, crazy stuff happens. There’s already a ruined civilization there, and somehow his own wife, who was traveling on a separate ship, arrived first and has become a kind of ghost that haunts the ruins. She advises him on how to survive, but there are strings attached. Also, there is a bizarre Cthulhu type alien involved, an insectoid race, psionic powers, space battles, psychopathic villains. It starts small, kind of like The Martian, and spirals into a big, bold space opera—very classic.
JSC: How long do you write each day?
MSP: It completely varies. During the times I’ve been writing, I’ve not been working a regular job because of health issues, so I’ve had plenty of time as long as I can stay conscious and muster the effort—which is not as much time as you might think because my stamina is typically low. As a result, when I’m actively writing something new, I’m writing about 4-5 hours a day and I usually will get between 500-3000 words done in that period. On a few occasions, I’ve hit 5000. (My goal is to get a rough draft done in three months, which I insist is totally doable for most people. Then, I can spend the next few years fiddling until it’s perfect!) I write like I’m on fire when I write, and I’ve definitely written whole chapters in one sitting. Much of my work is done in the setup anyway (since I’m a plotter), and the rest is somewhat of a formality and involves what I consider the easy side of improvisation. I go by the philosophy that one sentence always leads to another. It’s like a conversation, and sometimes finding a moment to stop is the hardest part. Regardless, the muse has a way of abandoning me periodically, forcing a stopping point, but the worst is when you have to stop because the body is weak while the mind wants to keep writing as you sleep!
JSC: What is your writing Kryptonite?
MSP: Writing synopses for querying. I utterly hate them. I think they’re useless. There, I said it. I’m sure I’d change my mind if I were an agent, but the problem is that it’s nearly impossible to inspire anyone with one of them, so you’re more likely to reduce your chances of getting a submission request than increase them. After you’ve reduced your carefully-crafted, sprawling space opera or epic fantasy down to a single page, it has all the dramatic flair of reading a resume for an entry-level job at an accounting firm. God bless any writer who can write one of those wretched things and make it exciting and not a tired blow-by-blow account of every plot point. Personally, I’ve yet to master the talent.
JSC: Do you ever base your characters on real people? If so, what are the pitfalls you’ve run into doing so?
MSP: I work by the philosophy that virtually everything is channeled from one’s own experience. Thus, virtually every character I write is based on someone, or part of someone, I knew. However, they tend to be such mélange of traits that I doubt anyone would recognize any of these people. It’s all a synthesis of different experiences and people.
JSC: What do you do if you get a brilliant idea at a bad time?
MSP: Some of my best ideas come while I’m sleeping. In fact, I’ve dreamed whole pages of dialogue at times. It’s a real tragedy in some cases. I dreamed up a whole short story idea one time that I couldn’t remember sufficiently when I woke up. I now keep a small journal and pen on my nightstand. That helps.
JSC: Are there underrepresented groups or ideas featured if your book? If so, discuss them.
MSP: Yes, lots. In particular, I feel it important to include LGBTQ characters in my works since there is so little representation, especially in SFF. I also include as many BIPOC characters as possible, though there are special considerations there: tropes and whatnot that need to be avoided. And, agents, please give special consideration to the works of LGBTQ and BIPOC people. They need it.
JSC: Who did your cover, and what was the design process like?
MSP: I did it myself. I’m an old hand at graphic design, though I’m not really an illustrator per se. Despite my background in painting, I’m terrible at figurative work—mostly because I’ve never really done it—so most of my cover design work tends to be graphical with a tendency towards 2D, classic, and textural. I had an earlier cover which I eventually got cold feet about. It was a concept I just didn’t have the ability to execute satisfactorily. So, the final cover was done within a week or two in a final flurry of last-minute inspiration, and I love it. It captures the essence of the story in an abstract way while featuring all of the usual aspects of my style. The background is very subtle, with details that might not reveal themselves until closer inspection, while the main icon in the center grabs the eye at a distance. I also did all the interior layout for When Morpheus Overslept, and this is something I’m expanding into gradually as a sideline business. If anyone wants me to design and layout their book, I’m available. Please check out my website at michaelscottphillipsauthor.com.
JSC: Name the book you like most among all you’ve written, and tell us why.
MSP: The book I like the most is called Beyond the Empyrean. It started out as the sequel to When Morpheus Overslept, and while it is definitely set in the same universe and has some plot connections, it turned into its own series with its own unique character. That story is very close to my heart, and I’ve been querying it since 2019. If an agent decides to represent that book, they’ll be forever my hero, because the book is one that represents my soul bared to the world. Readers probably wouldn’t know or understand how that is the case, but it would mean the world to me to see the world read it. The main character is very much channeled from my own experiences and represents how I’ve felt in my current situation for the last fifteen years or so. He has superpowers which I don’t have, but he bears many of the same burdens nevertheless.
JSC: What are you working on right now?
MSP: Writing-wise, I have several irons in the fire right now. I have a m/m time travel romance novel that I’ll finish one day. I have the basic structure for a dystopian, near-future science-fiction/fantasy mashup lined up, but I have yet to write an actual draft on that. I’m still querying Beyond the Empyrean—which takes a lot more time than one might think. And I’ve decided to branch out into small press and publish public domain titles, which I never thought I’d do because I never wanted to do all the publishing stuff, just the writing, but I needed to create a new income stream of some kind. You might think that there are enough people trying to publish public domain works, so why throw my name into that hat, right? The truth is that there is a bunch of lousy junk out there: poorly laid out, terrible spelling and grammar issues, typos, tiny unreadable fonts jammed into walls of text, because they love to cram in as many words as possible so they can maximize profits. So, if you want to read the classics, the options aren’t as good as you might think. I figured I could do better. I’ve just finished the interior layout and covers for the first four Sherlock Holmes books, and I’m in love with them. They look beautiful and very classic. They should be available by the 3rd of May on Amazon, and I expect to roll them out to Barnes & Noble shortly. The new small press will be an extension of my Torc Books label—Torc Classics.
And now for Michael’s latest book: When Morpheus Overslept:
Brilliant physicist Henry Sullivan attempts to colonize TRAPPIST-1e in order to prove his superluminal theories, but is instead marooned and trapped by a terrifying alien in a ruined city and haunted by the ghost of his wife.
When he discovers the true nature of her existence and its connection to his own latent telepathic powers, he realizes that this is the key to destroying the alien and saving a distant star system from an army of the inhuman Gorathkai.
The lift door swished open. The door to the lab stood ajar in a suspicious silence; a thin glow emerged from inside. Neerav eased forward quietly and peeked through the narrow gap.
Inside, Mark stood with his mouth agape, his eyes wide, caught mid-scream as if a wild animal frozen in the flash of a camera trap. Valehtelia stared at him from only a few handspans away; lamp-like, her eyes emitted a pale beam like that of a lighthouse.
An ice-chill dread sunk into Neerav’s spine. His mouth fell open in imitation of his friend. Petos sauntered over, stuck his lips to Neerav’s ear, and a whine pierced Neerav’s temples.
A voice spoke in his head. He wasn’t meant to see this, the voice said. For his own safety, he should forget. The torc pulsed against his fingers in warning—a friend offering a hand to save a falling man—but raw terror greased his grip on reality, and he fell into agreement quickly.
The scene reset in Neerav’s mind; time reversed a few seconds. The lift opened.
Greeted by a peel of high-pitched laughter, Neerav pushed the lab door aside to see Mark drinking a clear golden liquid from a fine glass with one arm around Valehtelia’s waist; Petos held a decanter, clearly eager to pour more. The top of his sister’s skin-tight suit was pulled down to mid chest, exposing a nipple. Mark drank and then kissed her neck.
They had converted the lab table into a serviette of sweetmeats the likes of which Neerav had never seen before: large purple fruits much like apples; a bowl of disc-shaped slices cut from a green vegetable, red stripes radiating from the center of each one; strange, round yellow cakes as well. Petos drained his own glass and then refilled it, giving Valehtelia a peck on the cheek as he did so. He smiled at her, and she smiled back.
Mark looked up as Neerav entered the room. “Neerav, you have got to try this stuff. It’s wonderful.” He looked back at Valehtelia and smiled. “Everything tastes great.”