Interview with James R. Bottino – Author of The Canker Death
James R. Bottino is a self-admitted computer geek and a creative writing teacher rolled into one. He earned a BS in English Education from Illinois State University and taught high school English in a suburb of Chicago for several years. After teaching all day, he studied creative writing in graduate school at Northern Illinois University. All the while, though, in the deep corners of the night, when no one was looking, he led a double life hacking and building computers and networks.
Eventually, unbeknownst to him, word of his activities leaked out, and employment offers started coming in. In the end, he switched his hobby with his profession and became a senior computer / networking administrator for a scientific research laboratory. Just six months into this position, however, tragedy struck when, at the age of 31, James was diagnosed with cancer. Given ten to one odds of living out the year and knowing that his infant daughter would never remember him if he died, he began the fight of his life, enduring massive doses of chemotherapy that killed the cancer but nearly killed him as well.
After years of struggle, he survived, but only after enduring systemic nerve damage from the treatments that left him permanently photophobic, phonophobic and with frequent difficulty in using his hands. These events focused his efforts and helped him to prevail in his dual goals: being a father to his daughter and completing his first novel, The Canker Death. James currently lives in a suburb of Chicago, with his wife, daughter, two Australian cattle dogs and far, far too many books and abstruse computers.
James R. Bottino can be contacted at: “nokinis(at)thecankerdeath(dot)com”
Thank you for this interview, James. Do you remember writing stories as a child or did the writing bug come later? Do you remember your first published piece?
A: Thank you for having me. I definitely wrote stories as a child. I remember writing stories in school and found that it came easily to me, possibly because I was always making up stories in my head anyway. As time went on, I fell in love with writing because of the challenge. At some point I recognized that, unlike imaginative play, once I had written something, it was “real” or unchangeable and that any additional event that might happen in the story had to correlate with what had already happened. In imaginative play, you can quickly say “forget about that part” and keep going, but I found that when I wrote stories I had to find ways of making the story continue without breaking what had come before.
While I wrote a good deal of sketches or beginnings of stories or poems over my school years, the first time I wrote longer, more ambitious stories was probably when I was in late high school or early in college. The first thing I ever had published was an extraordinarily silly story called “Beauty, eh?” (the title of which was absolutely influenced by the ’83 film Strange Brew). It was published in a local magazine. I later learned that the story was the editor’s top pick for that issue.
Is The Canker Death your first book? Would you tell us about it?
A: It is my first full-length novel. It’s an adventure story about a reclusive, cynical computer geek who finds that one of his own servers has been cracked late one night and gets far more than he bargained for when he decides to track down the perpetrator. What his search uncovers thrusts him, unaware, into a mad shifting between worlds, time and alien minds.
From the start the story was inspired by a real hacker who managed to crack into one of my servers, and from there the story evolved into something that is an unusual cross between a Heinlein/McCaffrey sort of adventure coupled with a flavor of Melville and Dante. As a former creative writing teacher and a current computer/networking professional, my tastes in literature spans this spectrum and more. What The Canker Death became is the novel I always wanted to read but couldn’t find.
The Canker Death sounds like a book you wouldn’t want to put down. Take us back to the initial inspiration for the story.
A: There were a number of inspirations for my debut novel, The Canker Death. On the factual plane, the inspiration came from the fact that an FTP server I was running on one of the old Unix systems in my basement got hacked. I have a collection of unusual computers that run esoteric operating systems. Where most people’s computer knowledge ends is where mine begins. This fact alone gave me the idea for a main character who was based quite a bit on various facets of people I know – computer geeks, that is. But, I didn’t want to write a novel that was only tailored for sci-fi lovers. I wanted to write something that was accessible to everyone, so I worked hard to make sure that the technical stuff was accurate and true, but that understanding it in any detail was not at all required for enjoying the novel.
Additionally, as I was getting started, I made a number of decisions about where the book was going to go. I had been a high school English teacher for about a decade, and, while my main area of expertise was the teaching of writing, specifically creative writing, I whole-heartedly enjoyed reading and teaching the classics: Melville, Shakespeare, Hemingway and the like. I loved how classic authors could take an often simple story and layer it with allegory so that everything represented not only itself, but an entire higher plane of story that was comprised of allusions, themes and symbols.
So, I knew I wanted to write something that echoed back to those writers, something that I knew would take years and years to create. Coupled with this, though, was my love of fun, fantastical literature. Fast-paced stories with cool ideas really grab my attention and hold it. I can usually read two or three such books to one classic novel. Often times, these fast-paced, page-turners have nothing more to offer than a quick escape from reality. They’re just entertaining stories.
So, the challenge of taking these two somewhat opposing styles of writing and blending them together was what really inspired me. When I combined a main character I felt I knew well with the goal of writing a novel that combined these disparate genres, and then added all that to the beginnings of a plot I had stewing wherein a computer hacker, himself, gets hacked, I knew I had all the pieces I needed.
Can you share a short excerpt?
A: We flew on; the clouds below us became our floor, more random than the ocean, curling here in wisps of smoky fluff, rambling there in thick mountains of crumbling avalanches tumbling eternally in the white light of the invisible sun. Despite his intentions Nanzicwital’s emotions returned, swirling like those clouds, twisting between remorse and vengefulness, anger and despair, contemplation and lassitude, sorrow and joy. Ever more and more, though, they ended in bliss. We sailed on through trails of mist, a restorative of white vapor, each minuscule drop of wetness washing away pain, anger and fear.
Time was meaningless; I had no way to track it, even if I had cared to do so. Trapped within another breathing, feeling, alien body, with my ability to physically assert myself subdued – still, I too soared through those clouds. I too felt every passion of my host. Every emotion washed over me as it did him. Reason’s grip had slipped away just as gravity’s had, and though I could not read the reasons for the feelings that flooded through us, I felt them as strongly as if they were my own. As I gasped in wonder at the sights swirling in the clouds, an ever evolving sky of gaseous constellations, it seemed almost as if Al was gradually becoming aware of me, like a traveler nodding at a passer-by — acknowledging but not engaging me, viewing me merely as a part of the scenery, caring not so much for the destination as for the journey itself.
On Amazon alone, you have received all five star reviews. That’s fantastic! Care to talk about the reviews you have received?
A: Well, it’s incredibly gratifying, that’s for sure! When I sat down to write the work, I set a number of challenges for myself – all the way down to choosing the point of view for the story. In each case, when I saw an easy way to do something and a difficult, challenging way to do the same thing, I always chose the most difficult path.
While this can really pay off if it’s done well, the chances for failing are obviously much higher. When I see reviews like these, first I’m truly touched that people feel this way, and, second, it makes me feel like all that extra effort really meant something to readers.
What is one thing about your book that makes it different from other books on the market?
A: Well, as I’ve said before, I worked to combine the subtle depth of the sort of classic literature that I spent years teaching with the action and mystery of the fast-paced, page-turners I read when I was “off-duty.” I wrote it just as much for people who just want an escape as I did for the literary audience.
Consequently, I’ve heard from both the “high-brow” sort of readers who picked up on the underlying themes, and from the much larger audience of readers who simply want to be entertained. In addition, I’ve heard from readers who tell me that they normally wouldn’t read anything that was sci-fi or fantasy, but that they really found themselves drawn in and enjoyed The Canker Death. There aren’t many books that have successfully spoken to such different audiences.
Tables are turned…what is one thing you’d like to say to your audience who might buy your book one day?
A: Happy reading! Uh, I dunno…let’s see… Hey, you! Yes, you! Buy a copy today; it’s guaranteed never to smell, melt or rust! Get one for your friends! Act now before it’s too late! (Annoying, canned infomercial music fades…) I wrote the book to be read and enjoyed, first and foremost. But, unlike most fiction, it’s not the sort of book that is easily classified; my editor, himself, called it sui generis.
So, if you’re the sort of reader who wants something out of the ordinary, something that keeps you guessing, something that keeps changing at every turn, or, as one reviewer put it, something capable of ”entertaining us with the ‘full monty’ of sex, drugs, rock ‘n roll and stuff that explodes” then buy The Canker Death! I’d love you to actually read it too, but if I have to pick one, well, I’m just saying…
Thank you for this interview, James. Good luck on your virtual book tour!
A: Thank you so much for having me! It’s been a pleasure!