Today I’m welcoming Sam T. Willis to talk a bit about his new book, The Volunteer and about his writing in general. Hello Sam, thank you for joining us today!
- Tell us a bit about your new book. Where did you find the idea, what inspired it?
It took me a long time to figure out how to approach a sequel to Beaten, my first novel. I was bumping up against the main shortcoming of writing in first person: I wanted to talk about a bunch of things that happened when my main character wasn’t around. Then I started thinking about the insider perspective: what does a company, which appears to be malicious from the outside, look like for its employees? How do the people who work there feel about what they do?
- Who is your intended audience? If you had to summarise in one sentence, what would be the “unique selling point” of The Volunteer.
Conspiracy fans. News junkies. Introverts and government functionaries. I think it’s a fun, gripping read that a wide variety of people can enjoy. As to my unique selling point—I’m terrible at this part, and at sales in general—The Volunteer shows you what a conspiracy looks like from the inside, and what it feels like to realize you’re complicit in something terrible, something you may be powerless to stop.
- If The Volunteer was turned into a movie who would play the main character?
Probably Dev Patel, but we’d have to go back in time a few years to make it work. He’s too dashing and charismatic now. I’d need him from around when he was in The Newsroom. The nerdy awkwardness is pretty key to Abhi’s image.
- Do you listen to music while writing? Do you maybe have a soundtrack for The Volunteer?
Music while writing? Heresy! I’d never get anything done. At least not if I was listening to anything with words. Best case scenario, I write in perfect silence. Being the father of two young kids, though, silence is hard to come by unless I wait for the whole house to fall asleep. Usually I settle for a soundtrack of kids playing.
I do like to listen to music when I’m outlining or trying to figure out plot issues, though. As much as it makes getting the words of the story itself out, a good song can break down the barriers between me and the broad strokes of the plot I’m trying to set up. When working on The Volunteer I listed to a lot of Dave Van Ronk’s music. The guy packs a lot of emotion into some very low-key songs. I’d recommend “Luang Prabang” specifically. I had that sort of intense, throaty bitterness in my head when I was building the structure of The Volunteer. It really helped form the idea of being a single actor that’s part of a larger, unstoppable machine.
- What was the hardest thing about writing your latest book?
Besides deciding whether or not to write it at all? Deciding to keep my main character, Abhi, Bengali-American. It’s the way he’s been in my head the whole time, but I really struggled with the idea that I was going to inevitably miss some parts of understanding the experience of a minority in my depiction. I went back and forth on it a lot, and I wound up reading a lot of advice on writing characters from different backgrounds/ethnicities than your own and a bunch of books by Bengali authors to try to hone in on an authentic presentation. I like to think I got it right, but I guess we’ll see what people think. I thought it was important not to take the easy way out and whitewash the story rather than putting the work in to try to get it right the way it appeared in my head.
- A bit about the man behind the stories: Are you a full-time writer or do you have a “civil job” on the side? Do you think the different jobs you have had inspired/influenced your writing in any way?
I’m a Systems Engineer: I take real computers and make them into imaginary computers. I’ve worked in some pretty crazy places over the last decade or so, mostly while I worked as a federal government contractor. Those places have definitely been an inspiration for me. One of the first images I got in my head when I was coming up with Beaten came from walking down a long, straight basement hallway in the government lab where I used to work. The décor looked like it had been frozen in time in the sixties, with the kind of greenish lighting that you only ever see in movies when something terrible is about to happen. I used to joke that I worked in the setting for the next Resident Evil game, and I really wanted to work that combination of eeriness and neglect into my settings.
- What genre do you write in? What drew you to it and is there any genre you would never try?
All the stories I’ve published so far have been some variation on the suspense thriller. Beaten has more of an action-adventure bent to it, whereas The Volunteer and The New Program plunge deeper into the conspiracy genre, and Break is definitely a psychological thriller. I honestly don’t know how I wound up writing thrillers; I actually didn’t start reading them until after I started writing them. I’ve always been more of a Sci Fi/Fantasy/Postmodern fan than anything else.
As far as genres I would never try go, the easy answer is Romance. Being socially inept, and with my Catholic upbringing drilled into the deepest corners of my psyche, I don’t think I could ever write something like that. The only romance I’ve had in my real life (with my current wife) developed by accident, thanks in large part to my complete inability to recognize social clues. I did write an implied sex scene in one of my stories once, but wound up cutting it. I can write a graphic depiction of one person murdering another with a piece of broken glass, but anything beyond kissing is too risqué for me.
Thank you very much for your time and answers.
A late-night phone call…
Abhinav Howell is one of a few neuroscientists being transferred from the now-defunct Special Security Project Operations division of the Department of Homeland Security to Washington D.C.. Abhi gets a promotion, a big raise, and zero answers.
Normally, he loves his job. He loves being steeped in the inner-workings of the human brain, decoding the complex reactions that go into each decision people make. Testing on live, human subjects is the only thing that gives him pause. But they’re all volunteers. They know the risks.
And then a man with all the symptoms of a volunteer appears on the streets of Baltimore, injuring a dozen people or more. A man who never volunteered for the SSPO. A man who, it turns out, was at Hamlin the night Director Hall disappeared.
As Abhi tries to find his footing in the new department, the doubts creep in. Perhaps the tests aren’t so carefully administered. Perhaps the test subjects aren’t really volunteers. Perhaps he should stop asking questions before he puts himself in danger. Perhaps he can’t.Author bioSam T Willis writes stories like ninjas skulk around in the dark: constantly. Most of them disappear into that place where short-term memories go instead of becoming long-term ones, but occasionally he manages to pin one down before it escapes. When he’s not pursuing an endless procession of characters and scenes through the catacombs of his brain, he’s chasing two diminutive demons (his son and daughter) through the recesses of their house in Schenectady, NY. When these two worlds collide, one question arises: “Daddy, how do you make up this crazy stuff?”
You can get The volunteer here.