Q&A with… Dan Marshall

Dan MarshallDan Marshall is an author, musician, photographer and all-out geek living in Portland, Oregon. His debut cyberpunk novel The Lightcap was released in 2013. I reviewed it here.

Hi Dan! Can you introduce yourself?

Hi there, Richard! Thanks for giving me some space on your blog. It’s much appreciated. I’m a 33-year-old science fiction author, musician, photographer, and rare/vintage/collectible hunter living in Portland, OR, USA. I have a crazy dachshund / great dane mix dog and two long-haired black cats who keep me company.

How long have you been writing and when did you start? What was your inspiration to start?

I wrote my first song at the age of four on an old organ. I wrote my first science fiction story in the fourth grade. Before that I had a long-running Superhero character story I would act out in my free time: Powerful Daniel. All kid stuff of course, but I’ve always had a strong imagination. After high school I started writing and performing songs for real (you can hear some of my music at http://music.IAmDanMarshall.com), with some spoken word thrown in for good measure. I have blogged online for over 15 years under various names. The Lightcap is my first long-form fiction work. I’m inspired to write by the age in which we live, a world that is far more strange than past generations could have ever imagined!

What sort of writing do you enjoy? Which authors come to mind as notable, to you?

I love writing political blog posts. There are many terrible things happening in our world, and I want to make sure people know about them. I love writing fiction too. It’s a perfect vehicle for satire and imagery relating to current events. Some notable authors for me would include Kurt Vonnegut, Philip K Dick, Isaac Asimov, JRR Tolkien, Neil Gaiman, William Gibson, and Neal Stephenson. I’m a bit of a nerd.

How would you describe your novel, The Lightcap? What’s your pitch for it?

Imagine a device that could save you from stress in the workplace. You wear it at work and take it off when you’re done, ensuring you never take worries from your job home with you. After wearing this device, Adam Redmon begins to have terrible dreams involving acts he’d never commit under his own free will. Are Adam’s nightmares symbolic or repressed memories? Is he a pawn in a larger game?

What inspired you to write The Lightcap? What works do you feel were an influence on your book?

The basic premise (a device that makes the wearer docile, controllable, and has an amnesiac effect) was something that came to me during a bad day at work. The thought process was as follows: “Man, it would be great to be able to put on a hat when I come to work that makes me forget everything once I take it off and go home. No wait, that’s a fucking terrible idea.” I no longer work there, thankfully. As a dystopian novel, The Lightcap has similarities to 1984, Snow Crash, and more contemporary works such as Little Brother.

How did The Lightcap change during its journey from concept to finished product? Were there parts you had to change? Are you satisfied with how your concept was executed?

I came up with the idea for the lightcap device before anything else. At first I thought it was a comedic concept, but I quickly realized the type of world that would lead to such a device is probably not a world I’d wish to experience. Then I started to build the kind of society that would accept or even welcome something like a lightcap. While there are a few things I’d do differently if I rewrote the book, I’m very satisfied with the final outcome.

Was the dystopian future portrayed in your book based in any way on real life? Do you foresee real life and your universe converging; if so, how?

Aspects of it were based on real life, and I have no doubt many other things in the book will be reality in the near future. We’re already captured on multiple cameras when we leave the house, governments and corporations know intimate details of our everyday lives, and we are constantly expected to give up more of our individual freedoms in exchange for societal safety (which may or may not be wholly illusory). In the book, self-driving cars are augmented with wearable technology (mind drive, AKA dome) donned by the car’s passengers. This tech assists the AI in the car, further reducing already low accident rates, and as such anyone in a self-driving car must wear a dome. I can see similar arguments being used to force adoption of new technology. Real life and the world of The Lightcap will certainly converge in some ways, as life and fiction inspire one another. Some specifics–self-driving cars, more networked devices, increasing debt–are obviously in our future, but others–overt corporate takeover of government, brain-manipulating technology, America splitting into four regions–will hopefully be left to fantasy . . . though time will tell.

The Lightcap is heavily based around a new generation of ‘wearable technology’ – do you feel the nascent rise of such devices in reality (Google Glass, smartwatches etc) could echo the story you told?

Absolutely. There’s a passing reference to Google Glass in the book, suggesting that such devices were outlawed in Metra Region due to safety issues. (Of course, that may just be what Metra citizens are told, and such devices may have been outlawed to allow a competitive advantage for Adaptech’s Mind Drive product. Just a rumor, I’m sure.) Back in the real world, I am curious to see what happens when people have a HUD over reality. Can humanity chew gum (or be glassholes) and walk at the same time? What abuses and exploitations will we see, and how will others find positive uses to make the world better? Good or bad, we’re all in for a very interesting ride.

Do you feel the new era of wearable technology and augmented reality is something society is ready for? Is current society constructed to handle the social implications of such technology, for instance?

We are most definitely not ready; it’s coming anyway. Truly wearable tech will revolutionize many aspects of society, but there will be growing pains during the process. Rules and laws are already being made to stop people from wearing devices like Google Glass. I find it bizarre that people are so touchy about being filmed by a stranger but don’t seem to give a second thought to the surveillance state pervading almost every aspect of our society. For now it’s obvious when someone is wearing Google Glass. What happens when Google Glass becomes Google Contacts, or Google Brain Implant? Since there seems to be little we can do to stem the tide of surveillance and data mining undertaken by governments and private corporations, sousveillance seems the best way to respond. I hope the proliferation of this technology will lead to a more honest, just, and egalitarian society, though if history and human nature are any indication it’s safe to say there will be many abuses along the way, if we get there at all.

The Lightcap features one mega-corporation having a dominating monopoly on a technology that becomes ubiquitous and proceeds to use that user base for its own nefarious deeds. Do you think private companies should have monopolies on the information of people’s lives? What do you think are the dangers of big companies storing too much personal information about individuals?

I’m not a religious person (in fact, quite the opposite), but one of the most misquoted verses in the bible is, “Money is the root of all evil.” The actual quote is, “The love of money is the root of all sorts of evil.” The primary goal of a corporation is to enrich itself and, by extension, its stockholders. What sort of actions do you think that goal typically inspires? I firmly believe corporations already have more influence and control than they should, and it’s a trend that shows no signs of abating. Companies like Facebook and Apple have access to technology that could be used to build a facial recognition database containing a good portion of the citizens in developed nations. Where does that end? Where should the line be drawn? In The Lightcap I present a world in which it never ended and no lines were ever drawn. Metra Corp is only one large corporation, controlling just one region of what used to be the United States of America. In the sequel, Cloud Runners, you’ll see more of the other three regions and the corporate players who operate within.

How in-depth was your world-building for The Lightcap? How did you approach creating the universe your book takes place in?

It was piecemeal. I started with the idea of the device, and then started building a world that would allow such a device to be made. After that it was a matter of considering technology and social structures of the present day and imagining how much better or worse they could be in seventy years.

Do you feel any of your characters reflect on people you know? Is the protagonist, Adam, a semi-autobiographical character? Were there any particular inspirations for certain characters?

Aspects of the characters were based on real life and people to some degree. Nate Taylor, for instance, is modelled from a boss I had at a job several years ago. He’s a good guy who will almost always wave the banner as he’s told, but he’s more perceptive than most think and when given a chance to help he will do what he can. You need subversive influences within the system you wish to reshape. The force of change cannot be entirely external. Adam is partially autobiographical in that some of his fears and idiosyncrasies are my own. In other ways he’s completely different.

What drove you to self-publish The Lightcap? What do you feel are the advantages over “traditional” publishing? Do you feel it has been a success?

Impatience, hubris, and plain old bullheadedness. Joking aside, I went the indie publishing route because I like having control over my story from start to finish (besides input from my editor on the grammar, flow, and plot consistency, and a great graphic designer who created the cover). Self-publishing is a growing movement, and I’m happy to be a small part of that.

What role does social media play in promoting your work? How important do you consider it? What social media do you find most effective?

I am incredibly lazy about promoting myself. Most of the time when I do it’s fairly organic. I’m pretty active on Reddit, Facebook, and Twitter. I’d say of the three I use Twitter most often for promoting stuff, but that’s mainly because I don’t use Twitter all that often in general. I have a Facebook page for my book and it has a couple hundred likes, but I don’t think every person who’s liked the page has bought a book. Imagine that, right? I had an amazing reception in the Cyberpunk subreddit during a couple free promotions. They’re a great group of people.

As a writer, what would you say is the most challenging aspect of the craft?

Getting my ass in a chair and actually writing. I was fired from my day job in May after I tried to form a union, so I’ve been busy trying to make ends meet and pay the bills. It’s not conducive to getting myself in the chair and getting words on the page.

What’s your writing regime? How do you prepare or get into “the zone” for a session?

I use Scrivener, so when I open a file I have all my notes and everything in front of me. That said, I’ve barely scratched the surface of what the program can do, so I’ve been running through some tutorials over the past couple of weeks. It’s a really powerful application, allowing for timelines, hyperlink references, tagging, and all kinds of other neat tricks. To get into “the zone” I usually require coffee and lyric-less music while writing. If a song has words it’s usually too distracting. I listen to a wide variety of instrumental music while writing, from classical, jazz, and dubstep to other weird electronic noises.

Do you have any other work or areas of interest for your writing?

Lately I have been learning the ins and outs of InDesign. I started a micropublisher, Prose City Books, with which I hope to help raise the bar of quality for independently published books. Using these skills I released updated paperback and ebook copies of all the works of Robert Peate, an author whose fiction is provocative and ideologically appealing to liberal heathens such as myself. In the future, I hope to partner with more authors whose work I admire, helping them release professional paperback, ebook, and audiobook products under the Prose City banner in all available markets.

Finally, what advice would you give to a new writer just starting out?

Be disciplined about actually writing (do as I say, not as I do), and don’t be afraid to ask questions or put yourself out there. I met a really nice guy and talented author named William Hertling because he did an AMA about self-publishing on Reddit. When I noticed that he also lived in Portland I messaged him and asked if I could pick his brain about indie publishing. I’ve met a lot of people through social media, including great people like the guy running this very blog. You’ll have to put forth a little bit of effort to make those sorts of connections, but it really is just a very small amount. You will find many people in this field who are happy to help and share what knowledge they have, and you might even make a new friend or two.

Big thanks to Dan for being cool enough to answer my questions! You can find his personal website here, Twitter feed here or visit The Lightcap’s dedicated webpage here!

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