Sunday, 24 February 2013

Jamie Fessenden's Casting Couch Interview

 Jamie Fessenden set out to be a writer in junior high school. He published a couple short pieces in his high school's literary magazine and had another story place in the top 100 in a national contest, but it wasn't until he met his partner, Erich, almost twenty years later, that he began writing again in earnest. With Erich alternately inspiring and goading him, Jamie wrote several screenplays and directed a few of them as micro-budget independent films. His latest completed work premiered at the Indie Fest 2009 in Los Angeles and also played at the Austin Gay and Lesbian International Film Festival two weeks later.

After nine years together, Jamie and Erich have married and purchased a house together in the wilds of Raymond, New Hampshire, where there are no street lights, turkeys and deer wander through their yard, and coyotes serenade them on a nightly basis. Jamie currently works as technical support for a computer company in Portsmouth, NH, but fantasizes about someday quitting his day job to be a full-time writer.

How did you get started in writing? What made you decide to submit your first story and what was your experience with that? Who was the first person you told when you got your first contract? What was their reaction?

I’d actually been writing since I was a teenager.  I was published in my junior high school literary magazine and got a lot of encouragement from teachers, but it wasn’t until I hit 40 that I realized I’d never followed through on my dream of becoming a published author.  My husband encouraged me to submit some of the stories I’d been working on and I picked Dreamspinner as the best fit for the kind of story I had at the time—a gay Christmas Regency.  While I was waiting for their response on that, I noticed an open submissions call for a Christmas anthology in two weeks, so I decided to give that a go.  That short story about Vikings was accepted first and later published as “The Meaning of Vengeance.”  My Christmas Regency novella was accepted about two weeks afterward.  And of course my husband was the first person I told!  He was very happy for me and has been encouraging me to turn my writing into a career.

Where does your inspiration come from for your books?

Anything and everything.  I’ll often think to myself that I haven’t seen a particular genre, such as cyberpunk, done (or done more than once or twice) with gay characters, or I’ll look at the popular novels in a genre and think, “I’d really like to try a slightly different approach to this subject.”  I might listen to a song, or even a piece of orchestra music, and have scenes start flashing through my mind.  Several stories have been inspired by my studies of ancient Norse (Viking) culture and mythology from around the world.

How do you make the important choices when it comes to writing your stories? Point of View? Voice? Theme? Title?

I’m not sure I do chose the point of view or the voice, when I start a new novel.  Somewhere in the early planning stages, these things are settled in the back of my mind, before I even write the first line.  Third-person, going back and forth between the two main characters, is a good point of view for romance novels, but I tend to like first person for mysteries, because it keeps the reader firmly grounded with the “detective,” as he’s figuring things out.  I don’t like to know what the suspects are thinking in a mystery.  The theme tends to develop as the story is written.  About halfway through, I’ll start to get a sense of some of the symbolism and metaphor in the story, and then I’ll begin to develop it, sometimes going back to tweak things along those lines.  But title for me is a total disaster.  I often ask other people for help coming up with titles, because I’m terrible at it.

Are your characters purely fictional, or do you sample from people you’ve met in real life? Which one of your characters is most like you? How so?

They’re often based upon people I’ve met.  I made a short film a few years ago and went so far as to tell one of my actors to follow this guy around at a party, because his character’s mannerisms and way of speaking were based on that guy.  And I once asked a coworker how tall he was, because I was using his appearance for a character in a novel.  Of course, I don’t actually put these people into the stories.  I just tend to use something about them as a starting point, and then I create an entirely new character from there.  The guy at the party, for instance, is nowhere near the homophobic jackass in the film.  He simply has a way of talking I liked.  As far as which character is most like me....  The character whose appearance was based on a coworker—Jonah, from By That Sin Fell the Angels—is otherwise very much me in high school, but bigger and more likely to get into a fight.  And Jeremy, in my upcoming release Murderous Requiem, is very much like me now.

What do you consider your greatest accomplishment as a writer?

By That Sin Fell the Angels is my exploration of teen suicide and teens dealing with being gay in a fundamentalist community.  I think it turned out to be one of my emotionally affecting stories and the approach I took to the tired old arguments about homosexuality in the Bible is, I think, a bit more honest and fresh than I’ve seen in other works.  I’m also proud of the fact that reviewers have commented that the “villain”—the fundamentalist pastor whose son commits suicide in the prologue—isn’t a stereotype, but a fully fleshed-out character readers can identify and sympathize with, even as they fume about his narrow-mindedness. 

If you could co-author a book with any other writer, who would it be?

That’s a tough one.  I tend to like going it alone with novels, and I’m not sure how I’d handle telling my co-author if I didn’t like something he or she wrote.  But without meaning to snub anyone I don’t name, there are a number of authors who have strong voices that I think I could work with:  Rick R. Reed, Shelter Somerset, Madeleine Urban, Amy Lane, J.P. Barnaby, Connie Bailey....  The list could go on for a while.

What is the one book that you think that very few people have read but everyone should read? What are you reading right now?

Somebody else’s book, you mean?  Hmm.  I’m not sure about the “few people have read” part, but Victor J. Banis wrote a wonderful short story about his dogs called The Girls, which will tear your heart out.  I also really loved The Rule of Sebastian by Shelter Somerset and Gravitational Attraction by Angel Martinez.  Currently, I’m reading a rather mediocre adaptation of the game Baldur’s Gate and a novel by Rick R. Reed that I started to read a year ago, but something distracted me from it before I finished.  The latter is called A Demon Inside and so far it’s excellent.  Don’t bother with the Baldur’s Gate novel.

What do you find the most difficult part of the writing process?

Getting from place to place in a story.  I love writing the emotional moments and the dialog, but I often struggle with the stuff in between.  A character can’t simply hop from location to location and jump from one dramatic scene to the next.  Something has to happen in between. Sometimes, of course, you can just skip it.  If you’re bored writing it, chances are good that the reader will be bored reading it.  But there are times when it’s necessary for continuity and making it interesting can be a challenge.

What is a typical working day like for you? Where do you write? Do you wait for inspiration? Do you set certain writing goals? Are there any specific tools you use to help you write?

I don’t wait for inspiration.  It’s too easy for that to turn into making excuses not to write.  Besides, if I start writing, usually the inspiration will come.  If not, I like to think I’m a good enough writer that I can at least get the core of a scene down on paper to go back and improve later.  Inspiration comes in rewriting as much as it does in writing.  I write whenever and wherever I can.  At work, I write on my lunch break.  In the car, I write on my iPad, since my laptop is too unwieldy.  At home, I write in the evenings after work or in the mornings before work, or on the weekends.  I like to shoot for between 1,000-2,000 words a day.  Other writers do more—often a lot more—but that works for me.  The only specific tool I use right now is Dropbox.  It allows me to switch back and forth between home and work and my iPad easily.  It’s a vast improvement over the thumb drives I was constantly losing or forgetting to back things up onto.

What is your greatest guilty pleasure (literary or otherwise)?

I like to read light, “fluffy” books in between the “serious” fiction.  It sort of cleanses the palate, so to speak.  Christmas romances (especially the regency short story collections put out by Signet); anything and everything about virtual reality, such as the YA NetForce books; Murder, She Wrote mystery novels; and juvenile science fiction from the fifties, like the Tom Corbett: Space Cadet series.  I wouldn’t say these books are bad, exactly, but nobody would accuse them of being “literature.” 

And…last but not least: What are you working on now and what can we expect to see from you in the coming year? 

Murderous Requiem is in editing right now and should be out sometime in April.  It’s an occult mystery that takes place in a free-love style commune in northern New Hampshire, where people study ceremonial magic from medieval and Renaissance texts.  I’ve submitted a psychological drama/mystery called Billy’s Bones, which I’m hoping will be published this year.  I’m also working on parts two and three of the cyberpunk series I began with The Dogs of Cyberwar.  They’ve been a long time coming, but hopefully I’ll finally get those finished and released this year, so readers can finally see how things work out for Connor and Luis.  After that... who knows?


Jeremy Spencer never imagined that the occult order he and his boyfriend, Bowyn, started in college as a joke would become an international organization with hundreds of members.  Now a college professor with an expertise in Renaissance music, Jeremy finds himself drawn back into the world of “free love” and ceremonial magick that he’d left behind, and the old jealousies and hurt feelings that separated him from Bowyn eight years ago seem almost insignificant, now that they are together again.

But Jeremy is beginning to wonder if the 500-year-old manuscript he's been asked to transcribe hides something sinister.  Something has begun to cause strange behavior in the local birds, strange fogs have descended upon the Temple grounds, and they've receive a cryptic warning from the spirit realm during a séance.   As the performance of the music in it draws nearer, Jeremy realizes that the manuscript may hold the key to incredible power—power that somebody is willing to kill for.


(In this scene, Jeremy is hunting down Christopher, a young man with an angelic singing voice who is supposed to perform the solo in the music he’s been transcribing.  Christopher has issues dealing with people, however, having been severely abused as a child, and he frequently runs off to commune with the ravens on the temple grounds.)

He was standing in the middle of at least a hundred of the squabbling black birds, tossing bread scraps at them from a stash he had in a fold of his robe. Last I’d heard, there weren’t supposed to be as many as a hundred ravens in all New Hampshire, but… well, apparently there were now.

Christopher looked up at me as I climbed the hill, ravens croaking indignantly as they scattered out of my path, but he made no move to run away.

Instead, he smiled. “I knew you’d come looking for me.”

“Did you?” I asked, making no attempt to hide my annoyance. “Did you think it would be amusing to make me chase after you?”

“Don’t raise your voice. It upsets them.”

He meant the ravens. I glanced around at the noisy scavengers as Christopher tossed out another handful of bread scraps. I don’t hate ravens, but I can’t say I’ve ever had any real affection for them either.

I tried again, lowering my voice. “Timothy asked you to come back to the chapel after lunch for a rehearsal, didn’t he?”


“Then why aren’t you there?”

Christopher shrugged and gave me a shy smile that seemed apologetic. “I needed some time alone, that’s all. The sermon really got to me today. I didn’t mean to make you mad, Jeremy.”

“Will you go to the rehearsal, then?” I asked.

“I’d rather not.” He saw me looking displeased at that and quickly asked, “You can work with me out here, can’t you? I don’t mind being with you. I just don’t want to deal with everyone else right now.”

He was manipulating me again, I felt sure—implying a personal relationship between us that didn’t really exist. But I’d brought along his sheet music and my laptop, which would allow me to play him the MIDI version of his part, so I just went along with it.

I handed the music to him. “Do you read music?”

“Not much,” he replied, eyeing the sheets curiously. “Enough to follow along, once I know the part. What are these words?”

“I have no idea what the words are,” I admitted. “They might just be phonetic syllables that Ficino felt resonated musically and magickally, in some way. I’m sure the vowels aren’t correct, anyway, so don’t worry about it too much. Just try to sing the syllables as best you can.”

I sat down cross-legged on the grass, set the laptop in front of me, and flipped it open. While it booted up, I said, “I have a cheesy electronic version of your part on here. You can listen to it and see if you can learn it from that.”

I was skeptical. The notes weren’t really what I would consider to be a melody. In other words, without the rest of the choir to support them, they sounded somewhat atonal, jumping from note to note without any real connection. An untrained singer would generally have difficulty remembering where the next pitch was without a coherent melody line to lead him through the piece.

But Christopher had almost no problems with the piece at all. I was surprised, after playing the first few notes, that he was able to sing them back exactly as he’d heard them, despite a diminished fifth going down followed by an upward leap of a major seventh. Not an easy passage.

“Excellent!” I said, but he just nodded briefly, as if uncomfortable with the praise, so I played him another segment.

Again, he sang it back perfectly. We went through several short passages like that, until Christopher said, “This is kind of boring. Can we just do the whole thing at once?”

“Um…. If you like. It’s pretty long.”

“Just play it a few times and I’ll see if I can remember it.”

So I did. He listened intently, following along on his pages of music and sort of half-singing under his breath. We did that four or five times, until Christopher said, “Okay, I want to try it without the computer now.”

“Go for it.”

He sang it with the phonetic syllables, and once again, I found myself enthralled, not only by the music, but also by the perfection of his voice. There was an indefinable purity and richness to the tone that musicians often call “sweet,” but more than that, Christopher had an instinctive feel for the rhythm of the piece, such as it was. He added crescendos and decrescendos, held notes at just the right moments and paused for dramatic tension. Somehow, he managed to string those seemingly random notes into something coherent and sublime, and the strange phonetic “words” felt as if they were words, as if he were singing of something both magnificent and heart-wrenchingly beautiful.

When he had finished, I found myself staring at Christopher in awed silence, profoundly moved. He seemed to have gone somewhere deep inside himself, and as I watched, he blinked and focused his eyes on his surroundings.

Christopher whispered, “Don’t move.”

I lowered my eyes from the young man’s face and saw what he was looking at. We were still surrounded by ravens on the hillside, but there were many, many more of them than I remembered being there when I had walked up the hill. Now they were eerily motionless, squatting down in the grass in silence, their heads cocked to one side or the other, their pebble-like black eyes watching Christopher intensely. The effect was extremely unsettling.

Then from somewhere far off, I heard Bowyn calling my name.

Startled, the ravens all leapt into the air, and for one terrifying moment Christopher and I were surrounded by a tornado of black fluttering wings, our ears assailed by indignant screeching. Christopher covered his ears as though the noise was excruciatingly painful, pinching his eyes shut and screwing up his face like a little boy frightened by someone yelling at him. I glanced away, uncomfortable, as if I were seeing something he hadn’t meant to show me.

“That was… odd,” Bowyn said as he drew near, looking up at the departing cloud of ravens as if they might suddenly swoop down again. “I thought you were under attack for a minute there.”

“We were fine,” Christopher said. He looked sullen now, all traces of fear gone from his features.

Bowyn glanced at me, but I just shrugged as I bent to pick up the laptop. We were fine, after all.

 Visit Jamie at
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  1. Thanks for the interview, Cate! I would just like to point out that, when I say I write in the car, I mean when I'm a passenger. :-)

  2. LOL! You mean you don't get the voice recorder going on your phone and write that way? (I tried, that kind of failed on me. >.>)

    Great answers, Jamie! :D