Interview with Joe Klingler, author of suspense novels Mash Up and RATS

Novelist and software developer Joe Klingler, in conversation with Synchronized Chaos Magazine:

What makes RATS and Mash Up unique? Why should someone read them when there are so many sci-fi and thriller books out there? 

Writers essentially have a sort of living fingerprint that they bring to their work based on their personal experiences, insights and attitudes constructed over years of seeing the world from their unique perspective. This they share with us when putting pen to paper.

My own work tends to be layered; not because I plan it that way, but because I see life to be interconnected in that way. In Lean Manufacturing (sometimes called The Toyota Way) there is the Five Whys that require asking Why five times in order to reach the root cause of a problem. The Whys is one method for digging down through those layers of interconnectedness.

For example, in RATS Claire Ferreti is a young sniper trying to do her job. When her mission goes sideways, she is faced not only with the physical challenge of staying alive, but also with challenges to her core beliefs. At the same time, her prey is on his own mission based on events that took place decades ago, and his personal conclusions about what needs to be done about them. Fine so far. But these two exist in a world of RATS (multiple kinds, but none with four legs), where a hawk versus dove political battle rages for the Presidency, with the 600 billion-dollar United States defense budget at stake, while a young boy’s curiosity pulls him into this larger world. While following the action and wondering what will become of Claire, a reader who is interested in such things might think to themselves: this isn’t about the past, it’s describing a possible future—this could really happen. So RATS can be read, and I hope enjoyed, on several levels.

Mash Up has at least as many layers, though the players are college music students, Silicon Valley executives who think greed is a sacrament, software engineers, YouTube, and computer viruses in a world that shifts between cyber and physical reality. There is a horrible crime, its aftermath, a new crime, and two detectives: Qigiq (the Alaskan detective from RATS) and his new partner Kandy Dreeson (who strikes fast and takes no prisoners) on their first case together trying to sort it all out.

What’s the attitude towards technology in your book? Where do you see our inventions taking our society? There’s the potential for wrongdoing obviously, with cybercrime and thefts and piracy made possible over the Internet. But technology can also be interesting, save lives, motivate creativity, etc. How do we as a society accentuate the positive and protect ourselves from the negative? 

We live surrounded by technology we barely think about. I once had a conversation with a composer about electronic music technology in which I said, “Computers are just the latest technology to make music. Look at the technology in an orchestra, or even a piano.” She responded: “I never thought of an orchestra as technology.” Advanced mechanical technology of wood, string, brass, reed; not to mention playing technique. And the technology of writing scores in common music notation so everyone can play together. All of this had to be invented. And is quite young in the scheme of things; we’ve only had the piano since about 1700.

Now we have text messaging, a wonderful, efficient way to communicate that exists somewhere between the delays inherent in email, and the conversational intimacy of a phone call. It’s fabulous. But it also interrupts the receiver at the whim of the sender. People grow angry if they don’t get immediate replies to their texts. People anger their friends by texting when they should be talking. And it kills approximately 4,000 people a year because some people text while driving. How do we balance this? Consider how society handles alcohol, a simple technology for altering mood. Look at the laws in place to regulate it in an effort to minimize traffic fatalities and addiction. Society needs to look at emerging technologies the way it looks at the non-digital things people do, and respond accordingly.

Consider why technology gets invented: solve a problem, entertain, educate, make money, for fun. That doesn’t mean you can necessarily improve your life with it, although that’s typically the marketing pitch. Many (maybe even most) people think harder about what they want for dinner than how best to utilize the smartphone in their pocket that can be a freedom machine, ball and chain, or tracking device.

The attitude toward technology in my books varies with each character: Qigiq, in Mash Up, is trying to understand it well enough to predict how criminals will use it, so he can catch them. His partner Kandy understands it well, but finds it slow and limiting and just wants to collar bad guys. Mash Up is constructed around the challenges that fast, flawless copies have brought to society, a challenge that has only begun to alter how we produce and consume digital media. The man with many names in RATS uses advanced technology in a clandestine way to serve his objectives, but so does the Army General who is concerned about maintaining funding for his war machine.

Since we’re talking tech, my next book Missing Mona, the first in the Tommy Cuda Mystery series (due out this summer), is built around this question of when technology enhances his life, and when it ruins it. Lifesaver or destructor? Readers will likely figure out what I’m up to in the first chapter—and I hope they’ll want to know how it plays out for Tommy.

Social scientists say war sparks a lot of technical innovation and gets us out of economic depressions. Do we need conflict and violence and the threat of crime/the ‘Other’ to some degree as an impetus to get creative? 

Simply because there is trickle down does not mean there is no other way to make progress. War creates tremendous demand for innovation to solve the problem of survival. At the same time it consumes resources at an alarming rate, so the economy must step up to provide the supply. The government spends like crazy, and there’s little talk of “profit” during wartime; it’s all about making sacrifices because of the special circumstances. That, of course, doesn’t stop many firms from making huge money during wartime, and with the technical advances that were made, after the war. One could simply say: war forces us to invest. Why not invest anyway? And possibly in technology that better serves human needs.

Your second question could be restated: Necessity is the mother of invention. I’d like to phrase it as: Desire is the mother of invention. Humans will find creative solutions to problems they find worth solving. Create Facebook so people can socialize. Create Google so they can find information. Create DuckDuckGo so they can find information without being tracked. Create Amazon to consume from your couch. Create a public education system (needs work I know) so education is open to everyone. There are a myriad of problems to solve without war: how to build a society so everyone can enjoy life would be high on my list. Ending pain, suffering, disease, hunger, baking the perfect pizza, building a better piano—all great objectives.

However, all problems fall second to an immediate physical threat: someone is attacking me and I must defend myself to survive. So as a species we must first solve the problem of conflict resolution without war before we can get on to more interesting things. This we have not done. There’s a book by Jared Diamond called Guns, Germs and Steel which posits that the society with the best fighting technology evolves, and everyone else dies or is assimilated. It’s difficult to convince yourself to stop developing war technology when put that way. So we should build autonomous robots to kill people—RATS, I might have let the cat out of the bag a little there.

Do you think technology is making us more or less ‘human’? We can substitute ‘authentic’ or ‘natural’ to account for alien or other sensitive species. We can communicate with and form friendships around the world, and travel much more easily and safely…but we also have drones now that kill without human input, and text rather than having a conversation. 

That depends on which technology you are thinking of, and what you mean by “more human.” How about advances in yoga (yes, it is an active field of inquiry) and meditation, and breakthroughs in neuroscience? I think these areas are developing tools that make us more human: more compassionate, kind, peaceful members of an active robust joyful community, one person at a time.

If you mean Guns, Germs and Steel-style capability of destruction, then I think technology, in particular drones, is allowing us to be one step removed from the killing fields. This distancing risks making us apathetic towards war, because the machines are off waging it.

If you’re asking, is technology bringing us together or pushing us apart, I choose the computer science inclusive yes: it is doing both. The development of the automobile let us build suburbs, which destroyed old communities and created unprecedented pollution. Now it doesn’t matter as much where you live, a large part of your social network can be geographically diverse thanks to the Internet. We can now do things we never did before: have friends all over the world, read joke posts anytime of the day or night, post selfies. But it comes at a price. Every hour on Facebook is an hour not at the coffee shop chatting directly one on one, or playing music with friends, or reading a book (hint). Sherry Turkle’s book The End of Conversation examines how we’re moving from conversation to a sort of tweet-like sound-bite publishing mode of communication. Are we better or worse off? That’s a question each person should be asking themselves as they construct the story of their lives, rather than just letting it happen to them because the geeks in Silicon Valley shout: this is the next big thing to enhance your life.

Why did you make Claire in RATS a woman? What was writing from the point of view of a female, and of an indigenous person in Mash Up like, for you? People criticize the lack of diversity in the tech and sci-fi worlds- were you trying to be more inclusive or did the story just happen that way? 

I strive to write what the story needs; though in general, I think stories should be inclusive because the world at large is inclusive. In the case of RATS, I had two ideologies that needed to collide, so I wanted to get the two people close together. Claire (who shoots people) has to interact closely with the man of many names (who destroys things). Making them of the opposite sex was one way to achieve this.

When I decided to use a sniper, the idea automatically presented itself to me as a woman. A woman can go places that are difficult for a man; because the man is seen as a threat by others. Whereas, a woman is often seen as an opportunity (at least by men). Claire ends up inside several triangles that couldn’t have happened otherwise.

Mash Up exists because of RATS. When the storyline of RATS moved to Alaska, I wanted a detective to oppose the General. It seemed obvious that a detective in Alaska might have at least some native American heritage. That worked out okay. But as I wrote, I found this detective popping up in other places in the story. After I finished RATS, he started asking for his own future, and made me wonder what a guy like him—who’s a little bit of an outsider from his heritage, his remoteness in Alaska, and his slight paranoia of technology—would do in a different setting. Mash Up begins to answer that question.

How do you think your work in the tech field influences the way you think, and the way you write? Do you think like a software engineer when you write? (I’ve done some programming and figuring out how to write in Java reminded me of my writing process, having to tie up every plot thread and not leave anything hanging). 

I stare at a computer all day and write a language that defines entities that communicate, interact, and are going to be experienced by a single person in a solitary environment on a tablet computer. Everything must fit together in a proper structure or the product will fail. Am I writing an app or a novel?

I also do what might be considered alpha and beta testing of my books with a set of readers who provide feedback before the book is published. That too, is very much a software process. And engineering an eBook is a software process, since they are essentially a specific kind of HTML/XML document.

My technical background in developing end-user applications also taught me to try to think like the person running the app: What are they experiencing? Am I confusing them? Is the app doing what they expect? How else might I achieve the same effect to make life easier for them? So now I try to put myself in the chair of the reader as I did for the app user, and provide the most satisfying experience I can create.

What was your process like in writing this novel? Did you work with a writing group or some sort of creative community? How and where can we find creative communities in the Bay Area? 

I write like a mad person until I finish the first draft. I’m a fan of Wallace Stegner’s advice: write seven days a week, six if you must, but not three or four. This keeps the story in your head, since you have to live in two worlds: the one of your novel, and the one you breathe in. Going back and forth takes time, makes your brain hurt, and you can lose valuable ideas on the commute.

Once I have a first draft, I take a vacation, then come back and edit it into something coherent. Then I give it to my first reader. Then do another draft. Then have alpha readers read it. Then do another draft. Only then do I give it to my professional editor. I highly recommend finding a professional editor. Yes, this will cost, but like a rock band works with a good producer to help shape their sound, find an editor who understands your work and what you’re trying to achieve. Then listen. Don’t do everything she says, it’s your book, but consider everything she says. I found my editor Robyn Russell in a topsy-turvy way through the Mystery Writers Conference at the Book Passage in Corte Madera, CA.

Once I get the manuscript back from Robyn anything can happen based on what she says, but I always do another full draft, and may have fresh (beta) eyes read it to be sure I didn’t break the continuity of the story.

Along the way I stare at a quote from Michael Crichton: “Books aren’t written, they’re rewritten. Including your own. It is one of the hardest things to accept, especially after the seventh rewrite hasn’t quite done it.” He also talked about the need to maintain enthusiasm at the eleventh draft. So that means remaining enthusiastic about your work through: Write. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite. Rewrite.

In seeking a community I’ve attended the San Francisco Writers Conference, the Mystery Writers Conference several times, and lurked at the Squaw Valley Writers conference where they let the public attend afternoon and evening sessions. All were excellent opportunities to hear writers talk about how they faced their challenges, and to interact with other writers working on their first novel.

Several things about the Mystery Writers Conference set it apart and keep me going back. It’s small, fewer than 100 people; and everyone eats together, which makes for good conversation. But there’s something very special they offer. For a modest fee, one of the writing faculty (you get to pick) will evaluate a 20-page sample of your work and sit and talk to you about it for thirty minutes. If you’ve never done this, I highly recommend it as an eye-opening experience. I have no idea how else one might get that level of access to such successful writers.

Do you feel that living in the Bay Area influenced you as a writer? In terms of writing your book, or marketing it or finding readers? The SF Bay Area has a long reputation as a big area for cultural creativity, especially writing and technology…do you think that’s still true of this area?

The biggest influence from living in the Bay Area is the incredible diversity of the people who move here to build a life, seek their fortune, or just be near the ocean. Want to talk to surfers: head over to Half Moon Bay or south to Santa Cruz. College students: the City, or Stanford, or cross the bridge to UC Berkeley. Financial wizards: Sand Hill Road. Motorcyclists from most any country: Alice’s Restaurant on Rte-35 on a sunny Saturday. It’s as if the whole world lives here some days. Interesting conversations seem to fall out of the sky.

I think the Bay Area is still incredibly creative (and well-funded). There are so many startups in San Francisco it’s beginning to rival Silicon Valley, which has been the epicenter of newness for decades. Living in this area for over 15 years, I don’t think I can separate my writing from my experience of the Bay Area: deals, startups, failures, technology shifts, more deals, layoffs, buzz of newness on the streets and in restaurant conversation. This area exists to be a change agent. One could say it has a tradition of change. The density of the commute traffic along the peninsula on I-280 even correlates with the state of the U.S. economy.

One last thought: Read his blog: The Newbie’s Guide to Publishing. He’s been through the ringer on publishing models and reading his blog from 2009 to the present is a thriller in itself. Unlike many authors, he shares exactly what he’s tried, how well it worked, how much money he made, and what he did next. I’m not saying you can emulate him, but it’s a graduate course in marketing to understand how he became successful self-publishing, and why he thinks it’s the preferred model for the future. Reading Mr. Konrath helped persuade me to self-publish, and thus far I’m glad I did. The fact that today’s digital technology allows an author, at near zero cost, to make their work available wherever eBooks are sold, and paperback in most places (including Amazon) via CreateSpace or IngramSpark, is nothing short of magic.

If you decide to try it, visit my blog at and read the entry: The eBook you really want if you’re going to publish an eBook. It’ll save you a lot of time. While you’re there, please join my mailing list so we can keep in touch.