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Interview with Eliot Baker, author of 'The Last Ancient'

Today’s guest is Eliot Baker, author of the supernatural thriller/historical mystery, The Last Ancient. Eliot teaches communications at a local college and runs an editing and translating business, but would be content singing for his heavy metal band and writing novels full-time. He grew up near Seattle, got his B.A. in World Literature at Pitzer College, and got his M.S. in Science Journalism from Boston University. He was an award-winning journalist at the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror, and before that he wrote for the Harvard Health Letters. He spent four years pursuing a career in the sciences while at the Harvard Extension School, during which time he spun old people in NASA-designed rocket chairs and kept younger people awake for 86 hours at a time in a sleep deprivation study. He likes good books, all music, and bad movies, and believes music and literature snobs just need a hug.

Thank you for this interview, Eliot. Can you tell us briefly what your book is about?

Absolutely. Around Nantucket Island, brutal crime scenes are peppered with ancient coins, found by the one man who can unlock their meaning. But what do the coins have to do with the crimes? Or the sudden disease epidemic? Even the creature? And who--or what--left them?

The answer leads reporter Simon Stephenson on a journey through ancient mythology, numismatics, and the occult. Not to mention his own past, which turns out to be even darker than he'd realized; his murdered father was a feared arms dealer, after all. Along the way, Simon battles panic attacks and a host of nasty characters -- some natural, others less so -- while his heiress fiancee goes bridezilla, and a gorgeous rival TV reporter conceals her own intentions.

Why did you choose your particular genre?

As a devoted reader of genre-mashes, I think genre mashing—particularly fantasy, thriller and mystery--will be the wave of the future. As a science journalist, I find the real world really weird. Reality would make a lot more sense if mythical gods and practitioners of magic were actually running things behind the scenes. And it would be comforting if those same gods and alchemists had a good plan for after the dust settles from all the mean things we humans do to each other. I’ve been drawn to the fantastical my whole life, largely because my mother, Sharon Baker, was a science fiction author in 1980s. But I’m a disciple of science, and I’m heavily interested in the politics and economics of war. So combining reality with the fantastical in dark urban fantasy is in my blood, and mystery is something I’ve learned to appreciate as an investigative journalist playing hunches to find the truth.

What was your greatest challenge writing this book?

Remember how Keanu Reeves had to first decide which pill to take to enter the Matrix? And once he’d made that decision, he then had to learn how to fight and fly and teleport and choose the perfect black leather and sunglasses ensemble? Writing The Last Ancient was kind of like that: swallowing the pill was pretty easy, but dealing with the consequences was really hard, requiring tons of effort and training that were absolutely necessary and infinitely rewarding.

I’d never designed a mystery before. At times I felt like I was juggling flaming machetes. So much research, so many interlocking subplots and historical anecdotes. And yet the characters always spoke to me and the story always flowed. I rarely got burned or cut and never dropped the blades. How? I found the sweet-spot between hard research and outlining, and creative release. You see, I’m a natural pantser who’s reformed into an outliner. I’d set aside days – sometimes weeks – for research and outlining, while dedicating other time blocks for hard-core writing, often in a secluded cabin away from all my soul-sucking electrical gadgetry. Cliché, yes, but it worked.

Are you published by a traditional house, small press or are you self-published?

I went the small press route. I pitched my novel at the Pacific Northwest Writers Association conference pitch session in 2012, and got interest from some New York agents and indie publishers. BURST Books was the one house who wanted my book as-is, no substantial changes please, and they praised my writing and story right off. The larger houses were worried the book was too long and combined too many genres. I went with the house that believed in me.

Was it the right choice for you?

It was. I didn’t really consider self-publishing because I don’t have the social platform to make that a successful option, and because I wanted the validation of being accepted by a house. So it was a choice between large and small pres for me. There are costs and benefits to each choice. Having the book I believe in out on shelves was the deciding factor for me. I would have had to make a more conventional book to get into a larger house, and that seemed a shame. The one real benefit to a large publisher is the marketing and instant readership you get. My editor, Nikki Andrews, is top-notch, meticulous, creative, and professional, so I don’t think I lost anything there. But marketing is a huge skill to learn and it’s an expensive skill to learn.

How are you promoting your book thus far?

Living in Finland, my efforts this winter have been wholly online. The first thing I did was contact local media around Cape Cod and Nantucket, where The Last Ancient takes place, and see if anyone wanted to write something up. They did! Same with my hometown local paper in suburban Seattle. So that helped give an initial bump. But I’ve been mostly reaching out to reviewers I find on Amazon and Goodreads. This summer I’ll go on a little tour of Cape Cod to visit all the book stores in the region to see if they’ll carry my title. I’m also doing readings and selling my book at the Nantucket Book Festival, Finland’s biggest sci-fi/fantasy convention, FinnCon, and also at Pacific Northwest Writer’s Association conference. This summer is my big promo blitz.

How is that going for you?

It’s great in that I’ve gotten uniformly excellent feedback. It’s not so great in that the feedback hasn’t translated to my book catching fire yet. Which is to be expected. This is a slow process. It’s extremely difficult for a debut indie author to get his name out there. Hopefully my efforts this summer will change my fortunes.

Can you tell us one thing you have done that actually resulted in one or more sales?

Actually, it was meeting people on vacation and telling them I’m an author. It’s cool that people still are impressed with that vocation. For me, the face-to-face has been the most effective way to get people to want to read The Last Ancient. I think my enthusiasm for the book shines out, but I never, ever, never-ever push it on anyone. I hate having someone push their business or music or books on me. A good salesman doesn’t sell the product, they sell themselves. Just by being psyched about literature and being genuinely interested in other people’s book tastes, I would have people automatically download my book to their kindle in the middle of a conversation.

Do you have another job besides writing?

I’m a communications professor at a rural college in Finland. I also run my own small translating and editing business. On top of that I still call myself a journalist, although I barely freelance any more as I’ve devoted my writing energies to fiction.

If you could give one book promotion tip to new authors, what would that be?

Start your promotion efforts way in advance of your title being published. Get your ARCs to reviewers at least two months before publication. And really research the people to whom you query for a review. It’s at the point now where it’s easier to get a manuscript request from a high profile agents than it is to get a high traffic book review site to review your title, so really take the time to find a list of sites and reviewers that are suitable to your title and personalize your query to the review—mention that you know they’ll you’re your book because you saw they favorably reviewed Fifty Shades of Gray and Divergent, and your book is a combination of the two.

What’s next for you?

I’m really excited about a YA horror/fantasy series I’m finishing up called The Golden Crow. It’s about as personal as a fantasy story can get, without being semi-autobiographical. When I was fourteen years old my mother died of cancer and, a month later, a golden crow took residence in our backyard. It stayed there for the duration of my high school years. True story. Dozens of witnesses. The darndest thing. I believe the albino-like pigment defect it had is called xanthrochroism, which is universally rare, and perhaps unprecedented in crows. Anyhow, The Golden Crow is, at its heart, a meditation on overcoming grief and finding meaning as a teen after losing a loved one. The Golden Crow also just happens to involve demons and a New Demon World Order conspiracy launched from a high school in a south Seattle suburb (where I grew up). Five kids from all over the world have all experienced loss and are also all visited by demons; and a golden crow. But what’s its message? Yes, go ahead and sing it: What Does The Crow Say? I haven’t submitted it to anyone yet, but hopefully it will be available early 2015.

Can you tell us where we can find you on the web?

It was a pleasure to be here. If anyone wants to read about some of my experiences and writing-related thoughts, please visit my blog: eliotbakerauthor.blogspot.com and feel free to friend me on Facebook or follow me on twitter @eliotebaker

The Last Ancient is available at Amazon.