Exclusive Interview: Clifford Royal Johns, author of Velocity Blues

By Matt Switliski

Clifford Royal Johns has published stories in anthologies and magazines such as Shimmer, Crossed Genres, Mystery Weekly, and Electric Spec. “Forget Me Not” was a 2008 finalist for the Derringer Award, which recognizes short mystery fiction. Grand Mal Press released his first novel, Walking Shadow, in 2012. Velocity Blues, his forthcoming novel from Vernacular, mashes together noir, genetic engineering, and parkour, also known as free running.

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Tell us about the genesis for the novel—the characters and setting, sure, but also the ideas and themes you’re exploring.

My first novel, Walking Shadow, addresses how your memories can define who you are and is derived from my oddball memory (look up Severely Deficient Autobiographical Memory) and how I forget all the unpleasant things that have happened to me over the years. I also forget the good things. The main character, Benny, gets memories explicitly removed by a memory-removal company, and this is the theme and driver for that novel.

Similarly, lack of focus is the primary issue for Zip in Velocity Blues. I have always had this quirk where I work for fifteen minutes, get up and walk around, then work for another fifteen minutes. I have trouble being creative or studying for longer time periods than that. I don’t have ADHD, but some of the symptoms match up pretty well. Sustained focus has always been difficult for me. Sometimes I just feel too antsy, and this novel explores the results of the protagonist feeling exceedingly antsy all the time.

The more subtle themes in Velocity Blues, coming of age, isolation, and finding a new family when your birth family fails, came out during the writing process. I can’t write a good story when I start with a theme in mind or a point I’m trying to make. Rather, I tell a story and find out what themes seems to be inherent in the story, then I work to bring out or expose those themes just enough to engage the reader and make them think about what they just read.

Can you elaborate on how you started writing the novel? What did you imagine first? What difficulties did you encounter along the way in developing the story?

First, I write spontaneously rather than planning my novels. I plotted out a novel in detail once, but then I had no interest in writing it because I already knew the story, I knew the characters, and I knew how it ended. If I already knew the story, then writing the novel would just be filling in the scenes, meaning all the organic spontaneity and energy would be sucked out of the writing. Writing then starts to feel like work. Nor do I develop character sheets in advance, that is, I don’t define the characters up front. I let the story and each character’s decisions and actions in the story define who the character is. Doing a character sheet before writing the novel feels like I’m restricting the character before they even start to develop, and it restricts the story since the characters are pre-limited in their actions and reactions.

Velocity Blues started out as a rudimentary character, Zip, with a problem, the box. I knew Zip had trouble focusing on a task and was hungry all the time, but that was about it. As the plot of Velocity Blues developed, Zip developed into the full character he is in the novel, then I had to go back several times to make sure everything was consistent.

As a result of writing this way, I sometimes wrote myself into a corner. This is when my engineering background came into play. I can’t stand to have a problem I can’t solve, so rather than go back to make the situation more tenable, I found a solution, and consequently the story took turns and surprises I never expected. That’s the most fun I have writing—when I surprise myself and yet the situation and character responses feel natural and even inevitable in retrospect.

Zip is a hyperactive character who usually acts without thinking, who doesn’t sit still. Was he a difficult narrator to write?

Zip is a science-fictional exaggeration of some teenagers who have trouble sticking with the plan, who can’t focus on consequences long enough to avoid them, who do the first thing that pops into their head. Channeling an erratic teenager’s mindset is easier than you might think—at least it was for me, especially since that’s exactly how I write, not sticking to a plan and so on.

Velocity Blues served as the thesis for your MFA. How did the book change between that earlier version and what readers will see in the final publication?

I wrote my draft of Velocity Blues with guidance and critique from four mentors during my MFA, each of whom had their own take on the book and their own advice. 

For example, Aaron Hamburger, one of my mentors, had me focus on sentences. On his advice, I retyped a good deal of the book, because that made me look at every sentence I was about to type and think about it.  Then I made each sentence in the whole book a paragraph by itself which again made me think what each sentence was doing for the scene and if that sentence was in the right place and was it a good sentence. 

Jim Kelly had me focus on the plot and defining Zip by the actions Zip takes.

These are widely different areas to focus on, so when I was done, although I was pretty close to what I wanted, I needed to go back through the novel to make the whole thing flow and feel cohesive in story, mood, theme, character, and writing style. I wanted a reader to feel like I wrote the whole story in one sitting. I had a good deal of refinement and honing to do to achieve that smooth telling.

Who are your influences generally as a writer? What sources would you say Velocity Blues is most indebted to?

Narrowing down my influences to a small set of authors is challenging, but I’ll give it a go.

In the realm of mystery and suspense, I’d include Raymond Chandler for dialogue and world-building and Ross Macdonald’s Archer books for plot and character development through action. I’d also include Walter Mosley as an influence. He does what Chandler and Macdonald do, and then he adds a depth to his protagonist Easy Rawlins—a fullness that Macdonald’s Archer and Chandler’s Marlowe protagonists don’t have.

From a science-fiction perspective, I would have to say Philip K. Dick is a strong influence, because he thinks outside the normal, or the extrapolation of the normal, and William Gibson because he starts his stories simply, in a way that feels organic, with a character who has a problem. Also, both these writers create a separate, small world that they focus on within a larger SF world.

I would add James Patrick Kelly to my influences, because he knows how to leave just the right things out of a story, allowing the reader to develop the idea themselves, that is, he influenced my willingness to be subtle.

Honestly, I could go on all day, because in truth, every story I read influences me on one level or another.

What are you reading right now or have been reading lately? Any recommendations for writers and/or work you’d like to draw more attention to?

For many years I have been reading as a writer. That is, I read fiction and non-fiction that I think will help me become a better writer. Being in a writers’ group and working with other writers in my MFA program means that I acquired a mode of reading that isn’t really reading for pleasure but mostly for the education.

A couple years ago I joined an SF book club. It’s been an eye-opening experience to see how readers (who for the most part aren’t writers) read a book. Reading an SF novel for the group each month, a book that I didn’t necessarily choose, has broadened my SF reading, and I am enjoying reading as a reader again. 

As a writer, being in a book club reminds me that half the book is what you write, and half is what the reader brings to it.

That said, I especially liked The Ten Thousand Doors of January by Alix E. Harrow for its multi-world-building. A Memory Called Empire by Arkady Martine deals in an interesting way with memory, which is a favorite subject of mine. The Murderbot stories by Martha Wells are all enjoyable because of their sheer energy. Six Wakes by Mur Lafferty is a great SF murder mystery—right up my alley.

I would also like to mention that SF readers should read Beloved by Toni Morrison. It’s some of the best fantasy/horror you’ll ever read, and it might get you to read more Morrison, which isn’t genre but is all extraordinary.

You’ve published work in different genres, and the novel reflects that experience. What do you find most exciting about writing mystery? Science fiction? What’s challenging about combining the two?

I tend to think of SF as the setting and as an enabler for interesting stories, characters, and that sense of wonder. I tend to think of mystery as chiefly a plot driver, a reason to tell or read the story—to find out not only what happens next, but also what happened in the past, to have that ah-ha moment when the revelations occur. As a result, I find the combination comes naturally to me. My previous book was an SF/mystery crossover, too. The mystery keeps me writing. Even as the writer, I want to know what happened in the past and also what will happen in the rest of the book.

A few of my SF short stories are not combined with mystery, but I find writing SF without adding in mystery to be more challenging. Although it is short, one of my early stories, “Dog Thinks Ahead” (Shimmer #3), was difficult to write because I couldn’t rely on plot to drive the story. I couldn’t write it by figuring out what happened next to resolve any mysteries. Instead, I had to write it discovering more about the main character in ways the reader would find fascinating without a mystery to hang onto other than “Will this guy resolve his issues (with the help of a dog)?”

Tell us about your experience writing novels versus short stories.

As a kid, I read novels. In college, I read a variety of short stories for English classes, including a class in science fiction, but it took me a few years after that before I really liked reading them, so the first thing I wrote was a novel (not published).

When I started reading more short stories and understood the structure and the advantages of the short story, I started writing them. I also viewed writing them as a way to get some publishing credits, because I really wanted to write and sell novels. Eventually, I grew to enjoy writing short works too, and I’ve had some success at it.

Walking Shadow started as a short story, became a novella, then a novel as the story, world, and characters developed. Sometimes a short story just doesn’t do the concepts of the story justice, and it feels wrong, like there’s too much missing. Velocity Blues was intended as a short story, too. I even submitted it a few places, but it didn’t feel right. When I was accepted into the Stonecoast MFA program, I decided to give it a go as a novel, which worked out well.

Without spoiling anything for readers, what three novels would you compare yours to and why?

I write what I can’t find elsewhere to read, so I have trouble with this kind of question. Still, if pushed, I’d say All Systems Red by Martha Wells because of pace, touches of humor, and the protagonist’s peculiar sense as an outsider, William Gibson’s Virtual Light based on plot similarities, the noir mood, and the world within a world, and finally, Nancy Kress’s Beggars in Spain. In her novel, the genetic engineering worked in all the ways that it didn’t work in Velocity Blues—a similar start with a very different story, protagonist, and outcome.

What are you working on now?

I’ve finished another novel which is a murder mystery with an uncertain metaphysical aspect. It’s not strictly SF, but there is a talisman in the story which may or may not have mystical properties.

I’m not sure what will come out on paper next. Maybe a sequel to Velocity Blues? Who knows?

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