Spencer Baum‘s novels are densely plotted thrillers with sci-fi and horror elements.
His first novel was used as a textbook in a Harvard classroom and was optioned for a movie by Brand New Productions in Hollywood. His second novel was an Amazon Breakthrough Novel Award Semifinalist. His Girls Wearing Black novels have been fantasy and suspense bestsellers on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and iBooks.
His audiobook podcasts have more than 300,000 downloads. He is the author of four transmedia Story Runs for the Runtastic app, including a tie-in for The Scorch Trials movie, produced in partnership with 20th Century Fox and James Dashner.
He lives in Albuquerque, New Mexico with his wife and three children.
How did you get started writing fiction?
Like most people who end up doing this, I started it when I was young and just couldn’t stop. I was the kid in elementary school who always had a notebook of stories going. I’ve been reading and writing pretty much nonstop since 3rd grade. When I got into college, I tried to force myself on a different career path because writing fiction seemed like a fantasy job for dreamers who were destined for failure, but I just couldn’t get away from it. Even as I was studying for a degree in economics with my eyes aimed at a practical career, I was already at work on the story that would eventually become my novel The Demon Queen and the Locksmith. By the time I was 22 I knew this was what I would be doing, and set myself to a routine of writing in the morning and at night, and working a “day job” in between. I did that for 13 years before the writing was making enough money that I could do it full-time.
What draws you to the thriller/ horror genre?
I’ve often wondered if it was something innate about me that drew me to Michael Crichton and Stephen King when I was in middle school, or if it was the act of reading those authors at an impressionable age that forged my interests. Those dynamite reading experiences you have when you’re young, those nights staying up late in your bed and reading with a flashlight because you just can’t stop — for a writer those are the defining experiences of youth, and for me those experiences were about Michael Crichton and Stephen King. The Stand, It, Congo, Jurassic Park, Carrie, The Andromeda Strain–and even Crichton’s thrillers that were squarely aimed at adults, like Rising Sun and Disclosure–I had such a ball reading those books in middle school and high school that I think I’m always trying to capture that experience in my writing. I remember starting Disclosure by Crichton one night after dinner and staying up all night, finishing it right as my dad was waking up to go to work. My goal with every book, the goal that’s on my mind in every writing session, is to give that kind of experience to my reader. Those authors, more than anyone else, taught me how to write, and so it became inevitable that my books would be Crichton-style thrillers with monster horror in the vein of Stephen King.
Your newest book, The Tetradome Run, is about a reality show that, according to your website, “puts convicted felons on a series of obstacle courses that are filled with death traps and genetically engineered monstrous creations.” What message did you want to convey with this book?
I started Tetradome Run with intent to write a hyper kinetic thriller where the characters were always running. I had a vision of a book with an exhausting rhythm and momentum that came from the fact that the characters were forced to run until a monster caught them. And the final version of the novel is held together with 5 big action set pieces, one of them stretching over 200 pages, where the characters are running nonstop. But during the writing of this, the dystopian aspects of the novel grew in significance as well. The novel is a dystopia set in the present, one where there is a Hunger Games-like sporting event dropped right in the America of 2018, where Facebook and Twitter and Instagram act as major means of communication among the characters, and also as a clear analog to the Soma of Brave New World. The message that started to emerge in the writing was one rooted around my main character’s struggle to live an ethical life in a world of crumbling institutions and polarizing partisan hate. In The Tetradome Run, a dystopian death race becomes a stand-in for the nonstop reality show that always plays now on cable news and Twitter, and though the death race is very real in the confines of the story, readers will have no trouble viewing it as a symbolic representation of the cacophony of our current media environment.
You put a lot of effort into this latest book, with over 20 drafts in four years. What makes this book special?
This is my favorite question. Thanks for asking it! I began Tetradome Run right when my career as an indie author was just starting to take off, and I intended to write and publish it quickly to capitalize on the success of Girls Wearing Black. But a few months into the writing process, I knew I was onto something special. I remember telling my friend on the phone one day that it felt like I might have stumbled into my life’s work and I needed to give it, however, much time it required to get it right.
Over the past 15 years, I’ve been honing a particular style of thriller, one where I interweave a puzzle-like plot with big action set pieces. With each of the Girls Wearing Black books, I found myself getting better at this structure, and during the writing of Tetradome Run, it became clear to me that I had reached a point in my skills where the sky was the limit for how far I could take this. Could I write a thriller with a plot so dense and complicated that every single sentence in the novel counts? Could I carry the reader through a wildly complex plot in a way that they were excited to do the work of keeping up and never got lost? Could I do it all inside a structure of these action set pieces that carried Girls Wearing Black?
Two years into the writing on Tetradome Run, I felt like something really special was happening, but the novel was 1,200 pages long! And that’s when the real fun began. For 18 months, I worked at turning a 1,200 page novel into a 500 page novel without losing any of the plot. And that final step of tightening up the novel in a way that I’ve never tightened up a novel before is what really makes it sing. The Tetradome Run moves back and forth through time, combining a Gone Girl-style plot of backstabbing, deceit, and revenge, with a dystopian death race. The story is really two interconnected novels, and in order to make it work, both of them had to be so tight they always feel like a guitar string ready to snap.
Your Girls Wearing Black series of four books is enormously popular. Did you have any idea when you wrote the first, The Homecoming Masquerade, how successful it would become?
The success of Girls Wearing Black was the best kind of surprise, one that I wish for everyone at some point in their lives. I remember watching the sales numbers when Book 2, Festival of the Moon, came out, and realizing it was finally happening. I’d been trying to make it as a writer for 13 years at that point, and though the sales on those books were far less than a big name author gets, the thought that thousands of people were reading my books was an absolute dream come true. I go back to the memory of that feeling all the time. Whenever I don’t want to sit down and do the work, whenever I’m disillusioned at how crazy competitive this space is, whenever I have to face the uncertainty of trying to make money as a writer, I think about those days when Girls Wearing Black became a word of mouth phenomenon in the Kindle market, and I feel overwhelmed with gratitude.
You describe your books as “social novel written as thrilling, pageturning supernatural genre fiction.” What kinds of social themes do you explore?
In Girls Wearing Black the vampire nest in Washington was (very) thinly veiled symbolism about the corrupting nature of power. Girls Wearing Black was about rich families in the DC suburbs who not only turned a blind eye to mass murder, but purposely put their children close to it in hopes of reaping a windfall themselves.
In The Tetradome Run I’m exploring how our glowing screens have allowed the unscrupulous to monetize our basest instincts, particularly hate and outrage. The villains in this novel are motivated by money, power, or (in the case of one character) a demented expression of nihilism, and in every case, they see digital media as the ideal means to achieve their aims. The dystopian death race at the center of Tetradome Run, where people cheer on as monsters tear humans apart, is a fictional embodiment of the worst parts of the digital realm in 2018.
And once that metaphor is established, I’m able to explore the harder questions surrounding our addiction to outrage as fed to us by social media. Questions like: How far should you go in your fight against a perceived societal wrong? If you are engaging in acts of aggression towards “the bad guys,” at what point does your own aggression make you the bad guy? The main character of The Tetradome Run struggles deeply with these questions. She is a member of a group of activists opposed to the Run, but the activists are not in agreement about how far they should go, and how much of their own lives they should give to try and bring the Run to an end.
Your writing is known for being especially complex. How do you go about organizing such writing?
The only way I can do what I do with these books is to put a lot of time into the writing. I write drafts of novels knowing full well I won’t keep most of the work. I have found that I don’t really know what’s most compelling about an idea until it’s written as a scene, and I don’t know what scenes are most compelling until they are written in the context of a full story. I’ll write a draft of a book and decide that the only thing that’s really working is a single character, usually one who just came out organically in the writing and was never planned on. I’ll write another draft, one that’s a completely different story, based solely around that character, and decide that some subplot I inserted just for fun is more interesting than the main plot I’m working with. I’ll do this again and again, over and over, and along the way, usually 5 or more drafts in, some connecting threads between everything I’ve written will start to form in my mind. The subplot about a funeral scene from Draft 2 will become exactly the plot point I need with what I’m doing in Draft 8. With Girls Wearing Black, I noticed that the more I just explored and wrote like this, the more amazing and deep and complex the world became, so with Tetradome Run I decided to really push the boundaries. I kept going and going. Every major character in this novel has huge extended backstories that play out in drafts that live on my laptop, never to be seen by anyone’s eyes but mine (and occasionally my wife’s). Working this way means that my finished product, which presents itself to the reader as a single novel, lives in my mind as an expansive universe of many interconnected novels, and by the time it’s done, I’m able to use that expansive universe to create the kind of complex plot I love to read.
What challenges do you face as an indie author and how do you handle them?
When you’re an indie author you get to keep far more of the royalties per sale, which means you can make a living selling far fewer books. The reason this is possible is because it’s just you and the retailer sharing the pie. An author working with Random House must share the pie with an agent, an editor, a printer, a sales staff, a bookstore, a marketing department, a copy editor, and on and on and on.
The challenge of being an indie author is that, if you want to compete head to head with Random House, which I do, then, for your book, you must do all the work that all those previously mentioned people do. I spend a couple hours every day marketing. I was up late last night doing page layout changes for the paperback. I am deep in the process of recording my own audiobook, and to sell that audiobook, I’ll be making my own web site for it, and making the landing pages for the social media marketing I’ll be doing for it. It’s endless. And in truth, with Tetradome Run, I was hoping to find an arrangement with a publisher that would take all this work away from me. But I couldn’t find anyone willing to give me an advance on sales that’s bigger than I can expect to make selling this myself. It’s one of the fascinating truths of where publishing is at in this age of digital disruption. If you’re big enough to get your book in the grocery store and Costco and Target, you’ll make more money working with one of the big houses. But if you’re one of the writers that used to be called a “midlister,” particularly in genre fiction, for most of us it is more profitable to go it alone.
Your books seem to mostly fit into small niches. Does that affect how you market the books?
Yes. More and more, I market to a targeted group whose reading interests are close to mine. When Girls Wearing Black was just beginning to take off, many of the bad reviews I got were all along the lines of, “This book is weird because it’s about vampires but it feels like something you’d read in a humanities class.” Those bad reviews are actually quite helpful to me and my readers because they push away people who wouldn’t like these books but draw in exactly the kind of reader who connects with my work. For Tetradome Run I will advertise to a wide swath of readers on social media, but the marketing message itself will quickly send away those who wouldn’t be interested. The wide swath will get a marketing message like “Gone Girls Meets Hunger Games.” But then if they click on the ad, they’ll see content that makes clear this is a hard book that will demand their full attention, the kind they might expect to have assigned to them in a humanities class.
What authors have most influenced your writing career?
I’ve already mentioned Crichton and King for their influence on me when I was a kid. The other big one for me is Frank Herbert, specifically his masterpiece, Dune. When I talk about finding my kind of reader, the one who likes a monster thriller that gets taught in a humanities class, I’m often looking for someone who loves Dune. Dune, more than any other novel, is the book that made me want to be a writer. Those three authors are the big influences from my youth and in many ways I’m always chasing some ideal vision of a novel that combines what they’ve done. Of more recent novels and writers, Justin Cronin, author of The Passage, is a big influence. I read The Passage when it came out and had a real moment of clarity that was like: This is the kind of novel I want to write. This is the ideal I want to strive for. And whenever people finish my books and ask what other books are like mine, I point them at The Passage and its two sequels.
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