Interview with Brett Armstrong
About the Author
From an early age, Brett Armstrong had a love for literature and history. At age nine, he combined the two for his first time in a short story set in the last days of the Aztec Empire. After that, writing’s role in his life waxed and waned periodically, always a dream on the horizon, till he reached college. At West Virginia University, he entered the Computer Engineering program and spent two years pursuing that degree before an opportunity to take a creative writing class, for fun, came along. It was so enjoyable, he took another and in that course he discovered two things. The first was the plot for a short story called Destitutio Quod Remissio, which the others students really seemed to love. The second, he realized he absolutely loved writing. For him, it was like the proverbial light bulb coming on. In the years since, describing that epiphany has been difficult for him, but he found the words of 1924 Olympian Eric Liddell are the most eloquent expression for it: “God made me fast. And when I run, I feel His pleasure.” God gave Brett a passion for writing, and so feels His pleasure when writing.
After a few years passed, Brett got his Computer Engineering degree, but also completed a minor in each of his real passions: history and creative writing. In 2013, he began graduate school to earn an MA in Creative Writing. During that time he completed the novelization of Destitutio Quod Remissio and entered the 2013-2014 CrossBooks Writing Contest, which won the contest's grand prize. As of March 2015, Brett completed his MA and is presently employed in the West Virginia Division of Infectious Disease Epidemiology as a programmer analyst.
Brett lives in Saint Albans, West Virginia, with his beautiful wife, Shelly. In the summer the pair gardens together, and each day Brett continues writing his next novel.
1. What inspired the idea for Day Moon?
There were a few different sources of inspiration that converged for Day Moon. While I was an undergrad at West Virginia University, there were some controversies in the sports world where the achievements of some athletes and coaches were overturned because of things they had done more recently and it felt like the organizations revoking those achievements were erasing history to an extent. I didn’t think the wrongs that had been committed should be ignored, but it struck me as very wrong to try to re-write history.
Somewhat contemporaneously, in my undergraduate creative writing capstone course, the professor asked us to go on a writing "scavenger hunt". We were to go around the campus looking for certain people, places and events and write notes and build a short sketch from it. But soon after we set out, it began raining so I went to sit under the portico of the English hall on the campus. I had a pretty good view of the downtown campus and the library directly across the road in particular. I started writing about a student doing the same thing. The library became of focal point of attention in the scene and I asked the question, why? That's when the "revisions" of history and the question of the library's importance began to meld and the basic premise of Day Moon coalesced within a few days. I didn't start writing it in earnest till two years later, though occasionally I thought about it and some details were added along the way, so that when I started I had a good idea of who the characters were and what the high points of the story would be. Then as I was writing, I began to research some tech trends and Facebook misinformation became a regular aspect of life, both of which further refined and reinforced that initial inkling I had.
2. What does your writing process look like?
Probably not prettiest to those looking in on it. The first thing that has to take place is I have to be seized by an idea. Really gripped to the point where I'm seeing a scene in my mind's eye and it is so rich and intriguing I can't stop thinking about it. I begin asking questions and trying to find my way to where the threads of the story lead. I often relate that writing a novel is a bit like being mountaineer. You see the peaks (story beats) in the distance and then have to go down into the valleys, across rivers, and through forests to get where you want to go. So once I have that first peak mounted and I can see the others in the distance, then I start following along through the lowlands.
I said my process isn't pretty, in part, because my time for writing is very limited. I have a full-time job, a toddler at home, and a wife; all of which deserve my focus in turn. So I fit writing in on breaks and lunch at work and when I'm home, I wait till my little one and wife are asleep and then write, usually between 10 PM and midnight. I navigate the story "valleys" in a rather direct fashion, except for the occasion when I have to take a break from a story for too long or am just stuck as to how to render a particular scene. Then I might jump to a clearer point in the story and then write in both directions from that point till all the pieces meet up.
I try to do spot revisions as I'm writing a passage and then wait until large portions are fully drafted before going back and trying to do more serious revisions. I suppose I've bought into the notion that you need to get down that first inspiration as close to when you have it as possible. It just feels like you capture the beauty of a moment more aptly when it is fresh than if you wait and ponder over it and try to reason about it too much. Some really great and beautiful moments can come of revision as well, but for me at least, I have to have some of them down right away to anchor me to the story and keep me writing it. Even Day Moon, with its two year break, falls into this logic, because for those two years before starting in earnest I had that first scene down. I had a tether to the story that I couldn't break and kept me coming back for months and years after.
3. Did you always want to be an author? What is the story behind this?
In sixth grade, we had to make a book about who we were that moment, in ten years, twenty years, and so on. Being an author was in that book and I got my start when I was nine years old. That's when I wrote my first original story. I had been reading about the Aztec Empire and decided to write a story about a slave from a rival people group who had been captured and was going to be offered as a sacrifice by the Aztecs. He escaped and nursed a plan of vengeance, gradually rising through the ranks of Aztec society till he overthrew the Emperor. It was five handwritten pages long and eventually became a three part series that I put in a folder with cover art for each part in the series. I even added a mock-publishing house logo to the back.
By the time I was thinking about college applications, I was trying to be practical about my future vocation and a friend talked me into engineering. As it happened, while muddling through my engineering courses, I had a hole in my schedule for a class. So I took a creative writing class. I had a lot of fun so I fit another class into the next semester's schedule. That's when two things happened that set me on the path to being an author. The first was the feedback I received from a short story I wrote titled Destitutio Quod Remissio. It was about a Roman senator who was a Christian in secret during a time of persecution and his secret was betrayed by someone he trusted. When he discovered who was behind the betrayal, he had the dilemma then of choosing to forgive as his faith directed him to or to lash out in vengeance. Much to my surprise, my peers enjoyed it thoroughly. They threw around words like "beautiful", "cinematic", and most of all, many of them offered to help me make the short story into a novel because they believed it absolutely needed to be one. That was the first and only time I heard the lattermost sentiment expressed and I carried that around in the back of my head. Sometime close to the end of that semester, when I was faced with saying goodbye to serious writing again, I was walking to my car after class and just stopped in midstride because I had an epiphany. To write, purposefully write, felt like no other activity in my life ever had. I'm good in math and science, but engineering certainly never felt that way. I enjoy reading history and drawing immensely, but it wasn't the same kind of sensation. In that moment I understood the meaning of what 1924 gold-medalist Eric Liddell is attributed saying, "God made me fast. When I run, I feel His pleasure."
So, I wrote one novel, then another, my third was the novelization of Destitutio Quod Remissio. It kept its title and won the CrossBooks Writing Contest in 2014 and became my first published work. By that point, writing was already an integral part of my daily life and now is so interwoven into it, I can't imagine what I would do apart from it.
4. When you are not writing, what hobbies do you enjoy?
When not writing and not chasing my little one around the house, I like to draw, though I rarely do now. Most of my drawings now are ones I do regularly as gifts for my wife. I've done them for her since our first Valentine's Day as a couple. She was still a senior in high school and I was three hours away as a freshman in college, but I wanted to give her something. I had never ordered flowers before and didn't trust myself to get that right from so far away and I didn't know if she would think a bigger gift too much so early in our relationship. I also remembered she had told me she didn't like getting flowers, because they always die too quickly. So I drew her a flower, knowing it would never wilt or die and needed no special care. I drew her a group of tiger lilies (her favorite flower) and sent it to her in the mail. Ever since, when a major occasion comes around, I draw her a picture of some kind. An astute reader will note that Elliott picked up a similar habit for Lara in Day Moon.
Some other hobbies are gardening, playing board (favorite is Clue) and video games (everything from Mario to Fallout 4), and watching movies (there are too many to list on my favorites list). Oh yeah, and reading, that occasionally happens too...
5. Do you have a day job? If so, how do you balance your day job and writing, as well as any other commintments you may have?
During the workweek 8 to 4, I work at the West Virginia Division of Infectious Disease Epidemiology as a programmer analyst. In brief, I manage/maintain their disease surveillance data system, maintain/develop their website, and am generally on-call for all forms of IT related issues. It's a fairly rewarding job and it has regular hours, most of the time, and rarely requires bringing work home with me. Which is helpful, because as I alluded to in describing my writing process, free time is a precious luxury. As soon as I get home I go from programmer analyst mode to dad mode and have a blast spending time with my little one. He takes me on runs around the house and yard (or conversely runs as I "chase" him), we watch "Daniel Tiger's Neighborhood" together (he often tells me precisely where to sit while we do), make artwork together (he's pretty good with a paintbrush), and any number of other things his toddler heart desires. There's also a brief period in dad mode where I wobble between chef mode, cooking dinner, and dad mode-usually dependent on the little guy's interest in a given "Daniel Tiger" episode as I cook. After this comes husband mode. I love my beautiful wife and rarely get to spend enough time with her. We both play with our little guy, but the time we have to just be close and "us" together is dear to me. When she goes to sleep (usually by 10 PM since she is a school teacher and is up early), I wander over to my computer and get to writing. It doesn't give me much time to write (about two hours usually), but during fifteen minute breaks and lunch at work, I manage to squeak in a bit more writing.
I count myself blessed to have this kind of schedule. My day job provides for my family and I try to be present with them as much as I can, but at the same time I do not ever lose hold on writing. I feel like it also gives me the flexibility to be more generous with the proceeds of writing. Since I don't live off the income from the things I write, I can give back that money to charity and missions work. It makes the whole experience that much more fulfilling. Really, I think before I had all my time so demarcated I tended to waste it, because I've found my productivity as a writer has seen some improvement. For instance, the lion's share of Day Moon was actually written in those late night hours, break times, and stolen moments during our little one's naps. To be able to produce something meaningful and deep like Day Moon, while being a father to my son, a husband to my wife, and dependable employee-God has been very good to me.
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