Author Interview with Nicholas Conley

Recently I had the pleasure of reading Pale Highway, a novel by Nicholas Conley.  Nicholas has been a longtime follower and supporter of The Eye-Dancers blog, and I am thrilled to feature him here.

In this season of thanksgiving, I am reminded of all the wonderful virtual friends I’ve made since launching this website over three years ago.  As I’ve said several times in previous posts, when I began The Eye-Dancers blog, I wasn’t sure what to expect.  I’d never blogged before, and was a neophyte in ever sense of the word.

The great people of WordPress welcomed me right from the start, and it’s been a pure joy to be a part of this very special community.

Nicholas was one of my earliest followers, and it’s an honor to interview him today.

If you haven’t visited his blog, I highly recommend that you do so, and his latest novel, Pale Highway, is a fantastic read and an impeccably crafted work of literature.

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I hope you enjoy the interview!

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1. I’m always fascinated by titles. I know, for me, sometimes a title comes before I even write the first word of a story. Other times (as with the WIP I am writing now), titles are elusive, shy, hiding in the literary underbrush and daring you to find them. How was it with Pale Highway? It’s a wonderfully evocative title. Did it come to you early on in the process? Or did it come much later?

I know what you mean, I love titles. For me, I can’t even start writing a story until I know the title, because so much of my central narrative is always framed by whatever concept the title evokes. When I first started researching for Pale Highway, I spent a long time pondering possible titles, most of them relating to Gabriel’s dementia, but nothing felt like it quite captured it. Then, there was one night where I just got this lightning bolt to the head, and this title—Pale Highway—came to me out of nowhere. When it did, it was the first time I truly understood what the novel was about, and the message that Gabriel’s story had to say about the human condition.

 

2. In a similar vein, each individual chapter has its own title. Did that prove to be a challenge at all? Or did the chapter titles flow easily throughout the process? Did you name each chapter prior to writing it, or did some of the chapter titles come later?

Chapter titles I tend to play around more freely with, changing them as I go, and seeing what jumps out at me. Since I tend to use shorter chapters that are focused on a single idea or moment, the chapter titles will often pop out to me midway through writing the chapter.

 

3. It’s interesting to hear how writers tackle a long work of fiction. Before you started Pale Highway, did you have a detailed outline of each chapter? Or–did you have a more general outline, with major plot points and perhaps an ending in mind? Or did you have essentially very little idea where the story would take you, and just decided to enter into the project without any concrete or firmly predetermined plans?

I’m the sort of person who always has to-do-lists, reminders, alarms and all of that stuff, so I’m definitely a detailed outliner. I outline a long time before I even start writing, usually on a chapter by chapter basis. Once I start writing, I do give my characters and story room to break free from the outline and do what they want—which they often do—but having a basic road map helps me stay focused, and keep the narrative tight.

 

4. Sort of a follow-up to the previous question, but, during the writing process, were there things that occurred that greatly surprised you? For example, did a character say something or do something, almost out of his or her own volition, that you just didn’t see coming? Was there ever a twist in the plot that just “happened,” on its own as it were, and afterward, you thought to yourself, Where did that come from? In short, how many surprises did you experience during the writing of Pale Highway?

Oh yeah, those surprises are one of the best parts of writing! The plot itself stayed pretty on track all the way through, but Gabriel himself often surprised me with his cunning insights, his occasional sardonic cracks, and the decisions he made. Victor, the rather strange fellow resident who Gabriel befriends, surprised me many times as well.

 

5. The novel is wonderfully written and beautifully layered. It flows so well. How long did it take to write, from beginning (first-draft stage) to end (ready for publication)?

Thank you, it’s amazing to hear that. After putting so much work into it for such a long time, that sort of comment makes my day!

I started coming up with the story ideas that would lead to Pale Highway back in 2012, even before The Cage Legacy came out. These concepts went through a lot of transformation after that point, but as a whole, Pale Highway was something that I worked on for the better part of three years. I’ve been anticipating its entry into the world for a long, long time.

 

6. The novel explores scientific and medical ideas–they are integral to the story. How did you balance the need to provide sufficient scientific details but at the same time not inundate the reader with too much information? It would seem this is like walking a tightrope. You need enough to make the material resonate but not so much that readers’ eyes glaze over. Pale Highway accomplishes a perfect balance. Was this something you consciously “game-planned” for before writing the first draft?

You said it perfectly, about how it’s like walking a tightrope. In order to explain the scientific ideas that impact the story—and on a character level, to demonstrate what kind of person Gabriel Schist was before Alzheimer’s, as his ideas were the most defining aspect of his persona—it required that I put in just enough information about his theories to explain what they were, while also not doing a massive info dump that takes the reader out of the story. I hope that I struck a good balance.

 

7. The novel, through the point of view of its protagonist, Gabriel Schist, explores several fascinating theories about the immune system. Prior to writing Pale Highway, did you need to perform a lot of research on the immune system? Or was it a subject you already had studied and pursued previously?

The Alzheimer’s aspect of the novel was one that I had already researched with my own experience, working in the Alzheimer’s unit of a nursing home. Gabriel’s theories about the immune system, however, I needed to do an insane amount of new research about in order to understand. I can’t even begin to tell you how many books, essays and articles I read on the subject.

I saw it like this: if Gabriel was the kind of man who was defined by the world as a “mad genius,” then it was important that I had a good understanding of what his work was about. I also figured that in this sort of alternative reality that Gabriel lives in—a world in which he found an AIDS cure back in the 1990s—Gabriel’s theories were going to have to be unconventional, strange, something that isn’t usually explored by the establishment. Once I started reading about the work of Humberto Maturana and Francisco Varela, something clicked, and I knew where to focus my studies on.

 

8. There are several flashback chapters expertly placed throughout the story that show different sides of Gabriel, and at different periods of his life. I found it interesting (and highly effective) that most of these flashback chapters were presented in points of view that were not Gabriel’s. The chapters, therefore, not only allow us to see Gabriel at various points in his life, but they also allow us to see him through the eyes of others, rounding out our perception of him. When did you make the decision to write these flashback chapters in different points of view? Was that something you knew you wanted to do right from the start? Or did that come about later in the process?

You got it. I knew early on that for the main story line—Gabriel being an Alzheimer’s patient in a nursing home—I wanted to keep it in Gabriel’s POV, to show that world through his eyes, to show what a nursing home looks like when one is a resident suffering from a neurodegenerative disease. But on the same token, I also knew that I wanted to tell the flashbacks from the perspective of others as much as possible, so that we could get to know Gabriel as a young man in the same way that others would encounter him—brilliant, quiet, introverted—while also having that slice into his older mind, so we’re able to understand him, form a full mental picture, and hopefully relate to a character somewhat outside the norm.

 

9. Pale Highway is a multi-layered novel, tying together medical themes, the plight and care of the elderly, not to mention various metaphysical and even theological ideas. It is also an in-depth character study. How did such a layered idea come to you? The novel is a mosaic of so many themes. Was this an idea that came to you all at once, or did it evolve, piece by piece, over a period of years?

I knew back in 2011 that I wanted to write a book about Alzheimer’s, and with that in mind, I started piecing together what kind of book I wanted to write. Once I knew who Gabriel Schist was, I knew that the central narrative had to be centered on his final attempt at redemption, a quest to do one more meaningful thing in his life. With him being an immunologist, this meant that the clear thing to do was have him try to cure a bizarre new disease, and so the book became science fiction.

The idea of writing this book as a literary novel, or even just a sci-fi novel, seemed limiting to me. It would have prevented me from delving into the more metaphysical aspects of what I wanted to express. Because while Pale Highway is about Alzheimer’s at its core, it’s also about death, life, and what it means to be a human being. Finally writing my way to the third act of this novel, and delving into these issues, was one of the most cathartic experiences of my life.

 

10. What did you find to be the most challenging aspect of writing Pale Highway?

The research was the hardest part to start with, but by the time I started writing I had a good handle on that. Writing about the traumatic experiences that Gabriel goes though, as more and more pieces of his brain fall away, was painful. By the time that Gabriel’s Alzheimer’s symptoms begins to worsen, I’d developed such a connection to him that it felt much like watching a friend with Alzheimer’s, and knowing that I couldn’t do anything to help him.

 

11. What did you find to be the easiest aspect?

Writing about the nursing home itself, with all of its flaws, problems, humorous moments, and overall this pervading sense of bittersweet tragedy. In all honesty, I could’ve written at least 30 books about Bright New Day, the residents there, how it all works. I never see nursing homes properly represented in the media, so it was great to put that out there.

 

12. Who are some of your favorite authors and literary inspirations?

So many. I always say Stephen King first, primarily because reading his Dark Tower books as a teenager was one of my most inspirational experiences, and I don’t think there’s ever been another book series I’ve been so enveloped in. I also love Richard Matheson, Kurt Vonnegut, Cormac McCarthy, and Philip K. Dick.

 

13. If you could offer just one single piece of advice to an aspiring author, what would it be?

It’s all about perseverance. Inspiration is the electrical charge that powers your work, but perseverance is the cord that connects it to the wall.

 

14. What are your future writing plans? Are you currently working on a new project?

I have multiple works in progress, all in various different states of development. Part of my writing process, after finishing a first draft, is to put it aside for at least a month and then come back to it with fresh eyes, so I’ll often write another first draft between these two drafts. There’s one novel in particular that’s rising to the top right now, so I’m pretty sure that’s going to be my next book.

 

15. Where can readers find and download your work?

You can find me on www.NicholasConley.com, and my blog is linked to from there. You can also follow me on Twitter at @NicholasConley1. Always happy to meet new readers! I wish I could send complementary coffee cups over the net, but unfortunately technology has not yet advanced to that level. Someday, maybe…

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Nicholas Conley’s passion for storytelling began at an early age, prompted by a love of science fiction novels, comic books and horror movies. When not busy writing, Nicholas spends his time reading, traveling to new places, and indulging in a lifelong coffee habit. In order to better establish himself on the planet Earth, Nicholas has currently made his home in New Hampshire.

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To learn more about him, take a stroll over to www.NicholasConley.com.

 

Thank you, Nicholas, for a great interview, and thanks so much to everyone for reading!

–Mike

 

12 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. Mary J. McCoy-Dressel
    Nov 27, 2015 @ 19:06:29

    Hi, Mike and Nicholas. This is an interesting and informative interview, Michael. It’s always intriguing to read about how other authors work at their craft. Glad you shared Nicholas with us. Happy Thanksgiving (weekend).

    Reply

  2. teagan geneviene
    Nov 27, 2015 @ 19:47:04

    Not just a talented author, Mike — you’re also a skilled interviewer! Nice to meet Nicholas. Hugs all ’round!

    Reply

  3. renxkyoko
    Nov 28, 2015 @ 07:21:19

    I bought the book The Cage Legacy……a story that’s right up my alley.

    Reply

  4. Ste J
    Nov 30, 2015 @ 10:48:19

    Great writers both, top interview.

    Reply

  5. Today, You Will Write
    Dec 05, 2015 @ 20:09:55

    Reblogged this on Today, You Will Write and commented:
    Check out Nicholas Conley’s Pale Highway, and read his interview with Mike, from the Eye-Dancers!

    Reply

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