Interview: January 28, 2011
A songwriting techie and a first-time novelist, Daniel Palmer is the author of DELIRIOUS, a stunning debut that follows the sudden demise of an up-and-coming electronics star, who finds himself wanted for murder when someone starts eliminating his former employers --- and his only hope for salvation is his schizophrenic brother. In this interview with Bookreporter.com’s Joe Hartlaub, Palmer sheds light on some of the things that inspired DELIRIOUS, reflecting on his unconventional protagonist and the similarities between Charlie Giles and himself. He also speculates on what sort of gadgets the future has in store for us, reveals why he can never listen to The White Stripes the same way again, and explains why, more often than not, crafting a well-written story is just like coming up with a really good song.
Bookreporter.com: Charlie Giles, the protagonist of your debut novel, DELIRIOUS, is one of the more unusual characters I’ve encountered. He is undeniably driven and wonderfully creative --- and kind to his dog. But he is somewhat lacking in the people skills department, at least when he is first introduced to us. As much as anything, this is the story of how he gradually rejoins the human race. I couldn’t help but notice that Charlie shares a number of your interests and skills. How much of him is based upon you or people you know?
Daniel Palmer: There are certainly parallels between Charlie’s experiences and my own. We both cut our professional teeth in the world of high tech start-up companies and left those jobs to join larger, more established firms. Charlie is an amalgam of personalities and people I’ve encountered throughout my career. However, I based his work ethic on my personal experiences in the start-up world. The decision to make Charlie a musician was influenced only in part by my being a musician as well. I use music throughout DELIRIOUS to highlight the central conflict between Charlie and his schizophrenic brother, Joe. Because the brothers are at opposite ends of the emotional spectrum, it seemed fitting to make Charlie a proficient jazz guitarist, and Joe a rock and roll drummer.
BRC: Giles is at the top of the world at the beginning of the book, yet it isn’t long before his world falls apart, seemingly irrevocably. I was very impressed by the manner in which you dismantled Giles; I’ve tried to impart to my children the idea that the rise to heaven is slow and difficult, while a fall from grace can happen without warning. Certainly, the book illustrates this better than I ever could. Is DELIRIOUS a metaphor for an event with which you are familiar, or perhaps a fear of what might happen in your own life?
DP: I knew from the get-go that I wanted to write a “pride-before-the-fall” story. I’m a big believer in redemption and second chances. I think we all have moments when we fail to be our kindest, most empathetic and better selves. I also think there’s a fear in all of us that we could one day just “lose it.” The idea of going crazy is something that people can relate to on a very primal level; the notion of not being who you thought you were strikes at the heart of our most sacred sense of security.
BRC: A condition known as musicogenic epilepsy affects Giles’s brother. I had never heard of this and was surprised at the wealth of information available on the subject. How did you become familiar with it, and what prompted you to include it as such an important element here?
DP: My uncle, David Grass, is a neurologist. A few years back he bought an Infiniti G37, and was showing me all the bells and whistles of his new ride. That was my initial inspiration for creating Charlie’s game-changing product, InVision, a promised revolution in in-car communication/entertainment systems. In discussing my premise for the book, David educated me about this unusual neurological condition, and suggested ways in which it might be used to advance the plot. I have since discovered that it is extremely advantageous to have really smart relatives in your corner.
BRC: You, unlike Giles, have had a successful career in music, commercially licensing a number of your compositions. The song “So What” by Miles Davis is an important element of DELIRIOUS. Do you listen to music while you write?
DP: I actually can’t write if I’m NOT listening to music. When I was first starting out, I’d listen to the same album over and over again as I worked. As I result, I can no longer hear songs off of Elephant by The White Stripes without being reminded of certain passages of mine. I vary my listening habits a lot more now that I’m writing full time. I’m a big rock fan --- I love bands like AC/DC, Zeppelin, The Clash, The Stones, etc. Lately, I’ve been hooked on Sirius XM Online. They have a wide variety of music channels that appeal to my various musical tastes. I mostly switch between heavy rock, alternative, singer/songwriter, ambient, jazz, classic rock and pop, depending on my mood. I’m also a big country music fan. I think there’s great storytelling in those songs.
BRC: You have had a very successful career in computer technology and e-commerce. At the heart of DELIRIOUS is a new product called InVision, which sounds like the next big thing that I somehow managed to live without until now, but need to have immediately. Is InVision, or something like it, on the drawing board? And, if so, have you had a hand in creating it?
DP: When I started writing DELIRIOUS, there was nothing quite like InVision out in the market. I created it simply by imagining the features I’d most want to have in an in-car navigation/entertainment system. My background is in product management, so thinking up cool features and product design details wasn’t too big of a stretch for me. By the time the book had sold to Kensington, Ford began advertising a product called SYNC that has a lot of similarities to InVision. I suspect a product with InVision’s full capabilities is not that far off in the future.
BRC: On a related note, you have had a great deal of success building commercial websites for companies and products. What guided your career choice toward web design? Was this an area to which you gradually gravitated, or did you come to it from another path?
DP: I was studying for my Masters in Mass Communication at Boston University in the early ’90s. The Web, as we know it today, was just in its infancy. I took a class called Computers in Communication and was exposed for the first time to website creation, computer programming and the principles of user experience design. I really enjoyed building websites and learning about the underlying technology. I credit BU with connecting me to Barnes & Noble, which started my career in eCommerce and website development.
BRC: One thing that I took away from DELIRIOUS is that technology can be a friend to mankind, but it can also be a deadly enemy --- even the most benign development can be used with bad intent. What do you believe will be the next major breakthrough in computer technology? What about with respect to the Internet?
DP: I believe the era of desktop computing (software for your PC) is nearing its grand finale. Taking its place will be cloud computing, where everybody shares software and computer services that are accessed on-demand over the Internet. We’ll also see an explosion of mobile computing technology and accompanying “apps,” along with a convergence between the Internet and all sorts of electronic devices (TVs, refrigerators, garage door openers, you name it). This technology proliferation is going to pave the way for lots of new high tech criminal opportunities, which I intend to explore in great detail in my future novels. My goal is to write about the hidden dangers of common technologies in a way that will be appealing to computer geeks and technophobes alike.
BRC: What attracted you to the writing profession? While reading DELIRIOUS, I was reminded of Phillip K. Dick in some places, and of Michael Crichton in others. Have either of these authors, or any others, influenced your work?
DP: Both of these authors have explored the risks of scientific and technological advancements and asked themselves the question: Should we ever do this? Even if we can clone dinosaurs from DNA extracted out of mosquitoes entombed in amber, should we? Should we make androids so real they cannot easily be distinguished from humans? My goal as a thriller writer is to ask this “Should we?” question, but for things that have already been invented and are now familiar to us. I guess I’m asking the question: Should we have done this? In terms of other authors who have influenced my work, the list is far too numerous for me to provide it in full. But I can say that I’ve become a different sort of reader and movie-watcher since I started writing fiction. I’m always dissecting the story and the characters in much the same way that, as a musician, I analyze the musical and lyrical choices of a song.
BRC: Before DELIRIOUS, you were primarily known for your short stories. Which do you prefer writing: short stories or novel-length works? What are the advantages and disadvantages of writing each?
DP: I actually love both, but for very different reasons. I think there’s a certain elegance to creating an entire world of characters and situations that are rife with tension and dripping in drama using only a few pages of prose. As a songwriter, I’ve developed a certain appreciation of brevity. My goal with every song is to say something in as few words as possible, without being obvious, unoriginal, or so obtuse that it’s unemotional. In that way, I think a good short story is a lot like writing a good song. On the flip side, the novel offers more space to explore themes, ideas and characters to a much greater depth. By the time I’m finished with a novel, I feel like I know my characters more intimately than I do the ones from my short stories.
BRC: Many of our readers are aspiring authors. One of the most common problems that writers at any stage in their career experience is sticking to a regular writing schedule. What sort of schedule did you follow while writing DELIRIOUS? Did you have to “tweak” your schedule at all to make it work for you?
DP: I was working full-time in high tech while writing DELIRIOUS, and that in addition to keeping up with my responsibilities as a husband and father. Stephen King (my all-time favorite author) wrote in his memoir to the craft, ON WRITING, of how he chuckles whenever a debut novelist dedicates their book to their spouse. This is a lonely profession, and one that often requires tremendous sacrifices without any hope of reward. If my wife hadn’t given me the time, encouragement and support during those years I spent writing on the speculation that something might one day happen with it, I’d have never been able to get this novel published.
BRC: You have been writing professionally for a number of years. Is there anything that you wished you had done differently when you first started writing? On the other hand, is there anything you did initially that, in hindsight, you are happy you did?
DP: Again, I’ll credit Stephen King with the best advice ever given. Writers read a lot and write a lot. There are no short cuts here. I wished I had taken this advice a lot earlier in my life. I believe that I’m a born storyteller, but I was not a born writer. It wasn’t until I was in my 30s that I decided to try my hand at writing a novel. If I could go back in time and do things differently, I would have paid a lot more attention in my English classes. In hindsight, I’m glad that I spent so many years writing songs because, in many ways, it’s proved to be terrific training for writing with emotion.
BRC: Most successful authors are also voracious readers. What have you read in the past six months that you would recommend to our readers?
DP: I really enjoyed Dennis Lehane’s MOONLIGHT MILE. If you’re a fan, you’ll love spending time with Patrick and Angie again. I thought FREEDOM by Jonathan Franzen was amazing. Other recommendations include Stephen King’s FULL DARK, NO STARS, THE REVERSAL by Michael Connelly, and Lisa Gardner’s LIVE TO TELL, which I could not put down. I’d also recommend checking out thrillers from my fellow thriller-writing friends, Brad Parks and Jason Pinter --- both are great guys and great writers. Brad’s new one, EYES OF THE INNOCENT, comes out on February 1st from Minotaur Books. I could keep on going…
BRC: What are you working on now, and when might readers expect to see it?
DP: My work in progress, currently titled HELPLESS, explores the teen phenomenon of sexting and its devastating consequences. In the novel, a match is lit when technology is used to destroy a man’s good name. It is scheduled to be published by Kensington in February of 2012.
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