An Interview with Jeff Altabef

1. First, please tell us a bit about yourself, anything you’d like from your favourite food, to what you like to do in your free time.

I’ve always been a big reader, but I started to write seriously when I changed jobs in 2009. All of a sudden I had ample free time on my hands and a fifteen-year-old daughter who loved reading. We wrote my first project together, a young adult fantasy novel, and I’ve been hooked ever since!

I was spoiled at an early age by my mom’s cooking, so really any type of Southern Italian food is my favourite. My wife once asked me what I would choose if I had to pick between pizza and writing. A Sophie’s Choice if ever there was one. I almost choked on my third slice!

I’m a big Knicks fan, which means I become unreasonably optimistic during pre-season, and then go through long periods of melancholy during the regular season. Forty-two years is a long time to wait for a championship. I volunteer at the Writer’s Center at my local community college and author a column for The Examiner focused on writing.

2. Shatter Point is the second book you’ve written, and makes reference to your first book Fourteenth Colony do readers need to read the first book to understand the second?

I started writing Shatter Point after much good-hearted pestering from readers of Fourteenth Colony. They wanted to know what happens next, so I used some of the same characters in Shatter Point, but it definitely stands on its own. I wrote it specifically as an independent novel, so absolutely no familiarity with the Fourteenth Colony is necessary to enjoy it. The best thrillers are stand-alone novels even if they’re part of a series.

That’s interesting, it’s great that you can read one without the other. That’s something a lot of readers look for before choosing to read a book, and it’s awesome that there are links without it being necessary to read the other book.

3. You’re a new author at Evolved Publishing, can you tell us a bit about working with a small publisher, and why you chose them?

Evolved Publishing has a reputation for high quality, award-winning books. That’s important to me. The company you keep is critical in building your own brand as a writer. With them, I’m part of a great team.

Working with Evolved on Shatter Point has been great. I don’t think I could have gotten a better team at any other publisher – large or small. Megan Harris and Lane Diamond are truly talented editors that not only made this book better, but helped me become a better writer. Mallory Rock is an extremely gifted artist. She took my rambling thoughts and made art out of them. I’m very pleased Evolved was silly enough to take me on.

4. In Shatter Point, you develop a dystopian world that doesn’t require a big suspension of reality to be believable. Could you help our readers understand the difference between a dystopic universe, a science fiction one and a fantasy universe?

Shatter Point as a psychological thriller with some near future dystopian elements. Wow, that’s a mouthful, but the plot and characters drive the story more than the setting. Set roughly twenty-five years in our future, the novel takes a dystopian view of America—basically income/wealth/political inequality have concentrated in the wealthiest few to an alarming extent. Few people have a problem believing this future for us, which in itself is very depressing.

I enjoy books that make the reader think, not just about the characters or plot, but about other themes. Shatter Point is full of those themes, and by setting the story twenty-five years in the future, I can show what our country might look like if we ignore inequality issues.

Good science fiction usually takes place far in the future, involves great leaps forward in technology, and has some element of space travel. I always think of Isaac Asimov when I think science fiction. Fantasy universes are simply worlds involving the mystical where all of the rules of nature don’t apply–think witches or dragons or vampires. I think Game of Thrones is correctly characterized as a fantasy series. You can mix the two like in Frank Herbert’s Dune series, which I think is more fantasy than science fiction but others might disagree.

5. Writing thrillers isn’t an easy task. They have to be complicated and convoluted enough to confuse the reader who is always trying to figure out the ending, and they have to be cohesive enough to flow between characters and settings. How did you keep all the characters and scenes straight while writing Shatter Point.

I never outline a story before I write it. I usually start knowing where I want the plot to get to at the middle and the end of the story, but I let the characters figure out how they arrive at those points on their own. Often, I’ll think through a scene and discover my characters want to take the story in an unexpected direction. As weird as it sounds, I love those moments. It makes writing exciting and the story fresh. The plot unfolds as I go, which means it’s never predictable for me, or the reader!

My writing is always character driven. Before I start writing, I make sure I have a strong understanding of my major characters: who are they, what makes them tick, their background, their strengths and weaknesses. You’ll find my characters, whether protagonists or antagonists, are always multi-faceted. People are never black and white, and my characters usually struggle with their faults.

How do I keep track of the twists and turn? My mind just works that way. It spins like a top. Some times it comes in handy, but mostly it’s annoying!

6. You’ve reached out to a vulnerable population through Covenant House, can you tell us more about their work, and what drew you to helping them in particular.

Covenant House is an international charity headquartered in New York City that helps homeless children between 16 and 21 years of age. A good friend of mine is on their board. When I signed a publishing contract for Fourteenth Colony, I wanted to start my new career by benefiting others and fell in love with the people and the good work Covenant House does every day. There’s over 23,000 homeless youth in NYC alone. Covenant House takes in kids, gives them a safe place to live, hope for the future, education, job training skills, medical assistance, and unconditional love. I donate half of my proceeds from Fourteenth Colony to Covenant House and will also use Shatter Point to help support them.

7. In the past you’ve written for The Accidental Writers, and you also blog on your own. Many of the posts on The Accidental Writers deal with how to start writing, why to write and tips for new writers. Who helped you start writing, and why did you choose to reach to other potential writers by blogging?

When I finished my first manuscript, I had no idea what to do next. A good friend of mine had been an editor at Harper Collins, so I sent her the manuscript with the hope that she would be honest. She loved the story and helped me edit it. Her encouragement gave me the courage I needed to pursue a career in writing.

So many people I meet have stories in them they’d love to share with others, but they just don’t know how to get started. I use my blog and my column to demystify the process so storytellers can also become writers.

8. Now for a fun one. If you were woken up in the middle of a large city locked in an experimental lab, knew no one, had amnesia and had no idea what was going on. What personal possessions do you always carry that you’d hope to wake up with, what’s the first thing you would do and who is the first person you would try to contact?

If I’m in an experimental lab, I’m looking around to discover what type of super power they gave me. Hopefully nothing lame, but something cool like telepathic abilities or invisibility. That would be awesome. I’d check to see if the gold cross my grandmother gave me is around my neck because with her help (she passed over fifteen years ago) I’ll probably be okay. No one was tougher or smarter than my grandmother. When I’m feeling low or face some daunting hurdle, I often think of her and the trials she overcame in her life. Once I picture her mischievous grin, I realize whatever I’m facing is manageable.

I’d contact my friend Reese. He’s used to getting out of jams and we have an agreement. Enough said about that!!

9. Do you have a favourite place or space to write in, and any quirks or things you like to keep with you for inspiration while you write?

I have a “writing chair” where I like to slouch while I create. I never edit in that chair, but it works for creating. The weird thing is it’s not comfortable in the least. My second favourite place to create is the local Starbucks while waiting for my youngest daughter to finish her dance classes. Something about the energy and the time of night works for me. But don’t tell her!

10. We noticed that you have a few books lined up for the future, and that you’ll be co-writing a series with your daughter. Have you started writing with her yet, and can you tell us a bit about what that process is like?

My next published book from Evolved will be Chosen: Wind Catcher, which is a young adult fantasy/thriller I’ve co-authored with my youngest daughter Erynn. We developed the idea for the story while on vacation in Sedona, so the book has great Native American themes.

The overall process has been awesome. She’s so talented. Erynn reads first person YA veraciously and has really made our voice extremely authentic. We usually talk about what we want in a chapter first. I’ll take a stab at writing it and she’ll tell me what’s wrong with my draft and how to improve it. I love spending time with her, and this is really a great way for us to do it. Plus the book will be amazing, if I do say so myself!

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