Author Charles O’Donnell visits my blog today promoting his novel, Shredded: A Dystopian Novel, which came out earlier this year.
Tell us a bit about yourself.
Last year I retired to write full-time after thirty-five years in engineering and manufacturing—three and a half decades during which almost all of my writing output consisted of technical standards and email. While my career did require a certain facility with language, neither plot nor character development earned me any praise. Not a total loss, though—dealing with people from diverse cultures in all manner of situations gave me insight into human nature, which I try to bring to my writing. And the time I spent in faraway locations such as China and Italy inspired the settings for The Girlfriend Experience and Moment of Conception.
What or who inspired you to start writing?
My list of inspiring writers is long! I tend toward more literary works—Inferno, the one by Dante, not the one by Dan Brown, was a favorite when I was a teen, as were The Odyssey and Moby Dick; later A Clockwork Orange and more recently Freedom and The Corrections by Jonathan Franzen made an impression. But it wasn’t until I started reading Dan Brown, John Grisham, Ken Follett and others that I thought I could write a book of my own, perhaps a story as exciting as a Dan Brown thriller if not as literary as Jonathan Franzen. When I got the idea for The Girlfriend Experience about eight years ago, I wrote the first chapter and I was hooked.
When did you first consider yourself a writer?
If you had asked me when I was four years old what I wanted to be when I grew up, I’d have said “author,” although at that age I pronounced it “Arthur.” Through grade school, middle school and high school I wrote stories, both for school and for myself, and then I took forty years off to earn a living. I never actually considered myself a “writer” until one day, when attending a writing workshop at a local college, I asked the workshop leader what advice he would give to a non-writer who wants to write. He said, “Well, first, if you’re writing, then you’re a writer.” On that day, I awarded myself the title of “writer” retroactively to age four.
How much of yourself, your personality or your experiences, is in your books?
As much as possible! A writing instructor once told me “I write to erase myself in the creative act.” For me, that means allowing myself, sometimes forcing myself, to explore every aspect of every situation in my novels, whether or not the result of that exploration makes it into the final draft. Since the author reveals to the reader what he or she thinks about the world, the act of writing forces the author to actually think about the world, often with surprising results. I think that’s what makes writing such an intensely personal experience. The hazard, of course, is that the author, by injecting his or her viewpoint into the story, may intrude on the reader’s experience, rather than leaving the reader alone with the narrative. Avoiding that intrusion is one aspect of writing that I find most challenging—one wrong word, one ham-handed exposition, one preachy moment, and the spell is broken.
Please tell us about your current release.
Shredded: A Dystopian Novel went live in April, 2017. This is my first full-length sci-fi novel, set in the not-too-distant future, a time when almost all human activity takes place in Virtual Reality and privacy is nonexistent. It’s the story of Grace, a recovering drug and sex addict who’s managed to stay clean for four years since being shocked straight, having lost custody of her son Dylan to her sister Donna. She’s determined to get herself respectable, to win Dylan’s respect, but also to regain control over her life, never again to become a slave to her addictions.
One day Grace discovers that her life data—words, images, and events recorded indelibly in the Worldstream—have been woven into a lifestream, a full-immersion VR experience. It goes viral, with millions of perverted stream riders are getting their thrills reliving Grace’s sordid past. The thought of her life being invaded by strangers offends her need to be in control, but worse than that, Grace discovers that Dylan is experimenting with riding lifestreams, and is only days away from stumbling onto the past that Grace has so carefully kept from him.
Grace finds a shredder, an expert in the ways of the Worldstream, to remove her lifestream, deleting every last bit of her life data since the day she was born. Her life will be hers again, but she’ll be outside of the Worldstream, a non-person, cut off from Dylan and everyone else she cares about—and she can never go back.
What inspired you to write this book?
Technological and social trends seem to be toward a society in which we interact less and less with one another in person, while paradoxically sharing more and more intimate details of our lives with utter strangers. At the same time, with the rapid development of augmented and virtual reality, we may be only years away from virtual experiences that are indistinguishable from real life. Might we see a future, not too far off, in which the virtual world is the venue not only for leisure, but also for work and social interaction? And in such a world, how would we protect our privacy, when all of our actions, words, perhaps even our thoughts, enter the virtual reality stream? While I’m excited about the possibilities, I fear the side effects. Shredded is my exploration of the promise as well as the hazards of these trends, which seem unstoppable.
Which of your characters is your favorite? Do you dislike any of them?
I really enjoyed writing Grace—generally speaking, I enjoy writing female characters more than male characters. In The Girlfriend Experience, it was Gina, the call girl who gets tangled up in a web of espionage; in Moment of Conception, it was Ronni, the brilliant and beautiful political operative. Grace is the first female lead character in any of my books, and I’m happy with how she came out—she’s strong, complex, and likeable. All that said, if I had to pick a favorite in Shredded, it would be Raúl, the cynical Worldstream master. I put a lot of myself into him.
The only characters I dislike are the ones that I’ve written as unlikeable. Andrew, Donna, and Joan from Shredded fit that description. But I don’t dislike all my unlikeable characters!
Can you tell us a little about the black moment in your book?
In chapter 35, “Empathy Setting,” Grace has reached an impasse in her attempts to shred her life. Seemingly out of options, Grace makes arrangements for the distribution of her belongings after her death, and records a final message to Dylan. Climbing to the roof of her building, she approaches the edge, contemplating her own destruction. Grace’s tortured conversation with herself, imagining the impact that her death will have on Dylan, is a portrait of a woman determined to master her own fate, who nevertheless is at the end of her rope.
If this book is part of a series, what is the next book? Any details you can share?
Shredded is the first book of a planned three-book series. Shredded tells Grace’s story, from the time she discovers that her life has been hacked to the time she resolves that crisis. The second book, with the working title of Shade, continues Grace’s story as she navigates through the secret world of the Shade, outlaws who have cut themselves off from the connected world. In the third book of the series, we can expect Grace to reassert herself in the connected world to champion the cause of personal liberty and the right of individuals to choose what to share and what to keep private.
Do you have an all time favorite book?
Just based on the number of times I’ve read it, that would have to be A Clockwork Orange by Anthony Burgess. I read it for the first time when I was nineteen, and I read it again for the fourth time last September. But the book that made the deepest impression on me was Moby Dick. I’m still not sure why, other than the brilliant writing and visceral imagery, and I’ve only read it once, but when asked to name my favorite books, Moby Dick is always at the top of the list.
What book are you reading right now?
I’m working my way through the canon of virtual-reality-themed fiction, starting with Ready Player One by Ernest Cline, and Snow Crash by Neal Stephenson, both of which I enjoyed but found a little too tech-heavy. I’m reading William Gibson’s Neuromancer, in the same genre but distinctly more literary than either Ready Player One or Snow Crash.
Tell us a random fact about you that we never would have guessed.
I’m the eighth child from a family of fifteen. Whenever I mention that fact, the reaction is astonishment followed by a long and predictable list of questions. I have them printed out, with answers, citations, and cross-references, on a handy laminated sheet.
How do I erase my existence from the mind of God?
Grace, a civil servant with a sordid past, wakes up one morning to find that she’s a viral sensation: her life has been hacked, woven into a lifestream, a full-immersion, 3-D, virtual reality experience. Knowing that she’s powerless to keep thrill-seeking stream riders from reliving her life, fearing that her teenage son, Dylan, might stumble upon her explicit lifestream, Grace finds a shredder, an expert in the ways of the Worldstream, the infinitely detailed record of every event, person, and thing. He’ll erase her lifestream and all of her data since the day she was born. Her life will be hers again, but she’ll be outside of the Worldstream–and she can never go back.
About the Author
Charles O’Donnell writes thrillers with high-tech themes in international and futuristic settings. His works include The Girlfriend Experience, an espionage thriller and the first book in the Matt Bugatti series; Moment of Conception (Matt Bugatti #2), a political and medical thriller; and Shredded: A Dystopian Novel, a cautionary tale about the potential for technology to either augment reality or to replace it entirely, and about the erosion of privacy in a world in which everything is shared online, and nobody reads the terms and conditions.
Charles recently retired from a career of thirty-five years in engineering and manufacturing to write full-time, drawing on his years of experience leading technology teams in many countries on three continents to create compelling settings in faraway lands.
Charles lives with Helen, his wife and life partner in Westerville, Ohio.
You can find out more about Charles on his website.
You can purchase Shredded on Amazon.