interview by Michael McCarthy
On Monday we published part one of our two-part interview with Jason Werbeloff, one of the most exciting sci-fi authors to emerge during recent years. His series Defragmenting Daniel had me binge reading, immediately going from one book to the next, and I’m normally a slow reader. So, that just goes to show you how gripping it was. I literally couldn’t stop flipping through the pages on my Kindle. Who would emerge victorious in the series’ cat and mouse game, private investigator Kage or organ scrubber Daniel? Kage needs to catch Daniel to land a nice bounty and get back on his feet after an expensive sex change operation that requires him to take pricey hormones so his body won’t reject his new member. Meanwhile, Daniel is out to reclaim the organs that were taken from him simply because he was born in the poor part of town, otherwise known as the Gutter. As the book goes on, you’re likely to find yourself confused about who you should be rooting for, which is exactly what Werbeloff wants to happen. With a phd in philosophy, the author loves it when his books make people think. Even after I’d finished Defragmenting Danie, I still wasn’t sure who I wanted to win. Sure, the book reveals who does, but I’m still trying to decide if it ended the way I wanted it to. And I love that about it. I think you will, too. So, read on and get to know more about its talented author.
As with part one of our interview, the music herein was selected by Jason himself.
MM: How does your phd in philosophy help with your writing?
JW: It helps and it doesn’t. It certainly helps with my content because I’m a science fiction author and one way of understanding what philosophy is is seeing philosophy as just a series of thought experiments. Philosophy is really imagining what if the world was this way? What would the consequences be? For example, if we want to know what makes an action writer wrong I would look at thought experiments like the Charlie Problem. The Charlie Problem is you’ve got a train on the track and the train is going to hit a fat man. They always use a fat man as an example. Or the fat man is on the side of the track and the train is going to go hit this group of school kids playing on the track. Now if you pull a lever the train will switch direction and go on the track with the fat man. It will kill the fat man, but it won’t hurt the school kids. And the question is, should you save the five school kids by pulling the lever so the train hits the fat man or should you leave it to hit the five school kids? Cases like that are called a Charlie Problem case. It’s a thought experiment. It’s never happened exactly like this, but it’s a thought experiment and it reveals interesting information. If you say that you should pull the lever then you think that the consequences are what matter. In other words, you should save the five children versus killing the one man. If you think that you shouldn’t pull the lever then you think no matter what happens you should never intentionally take a life. Cases like that are meant to illustrate what our underlying morality is. Without those thought experiments we would have a difficult time to find real-life cases and what’s very interesting about science fiction is that really it’s a bunch of thought experiments. So, all of my books are thought experiments meant to explore philosophical issues, although I never discuss the philosophy explicitly. Occasionally, one of my characters will ask a philosophical question, but they’ll never discuss it explicitly. And so all of my books have philosophy buried inside them and the worlds I create are from philosophy thought experiments, but readers won’t feel like they’re having a philosophy lecture when they read my books.
MM: Well, that does tell me I should read more philosophy. What would you say are the top three philosophy books that you’d recommend to writers?
JW: That’s a very interesting question. No one has asked me that question. So, there’s one called Reasons and Persons by Derek Parfit. And Derek Parfit recently died. He was a wonderful philosopher. I think he was from New York University and Reasons and Persons is excellent. Basically, it’s a book all about what personal identity is. And he goes through a series of thought experiments. For example, he says, do you think you are your body? If you think you’re your body imagine stepping into a Star Trek teleporter. It parks your body in one location and teleports your mental state into another location and creates a new body and puts it in there. It seems like you would survive that, but your body doesn’t so you can’t be your body. He goes through a series of these kind of thought experiments in the book describing who you are. Your personal identity, your body, your memories. So, that’s a very good one. Another two? Let’s see.
JW (CONT’D): There’s a very good article – a very good essay – by a philosopher named Thomas Nagel and it’s called What Would it Be Like to Be A Bat? Or what is it to be a bat? And that’s excellent. He says imagine being a bat. Imagine living in a cave and hanging upside down from a tree branch all day, living in the dark and seeing the world through sonar instead of eyes. Now, as humans, it would be impossible to imagine what it’s like to be in the world as a bat. What it’s like to see the world using sonar. It would be impossible to imagine this. He says you can take a bat and dissect a bat. You can have a look at its brain and see where the sonar is generated from, but that still won’t tell you what it’s like to see the world through sonar. He establishes this idea that there’s a subjectivity to our consciousness or our awareness or our experiences. There’s a way of seeing the world that each species has that we can’t access. I really like this idea of the subjectivity of experience because I think the role of a writer is to try to capture a certain perspective on the world. A certain character’s experience. What is it like to be that character? And try and put someone in their shoes even though it seems impossible to do that one thing. I think the role of the writer is to do that one impossible thing. And a third book? I’m trying to think what else a writer… I can’t think of a third book right now. Those are the two I’d select.
MM: When you were writing Defragmenting Daniel did you know you were going to release it as a trilogy or a serial or did you only decide that after finishing the 120,000 plus word manuscript?
JW: I knew from the beginning that I wanted a series. Primarily for marketing purposes. I’d written a few stand-alone books, The Solace Pill, Hedon and Obsidian Worlds. And I found it extremely difficult to market a stand-alone. Primarily I was marketing them through freebies, as you mentioned earlier. I put them on KDP Select and tried to move as many copies as possible during those five free days and hopefully [through] word of mouth. or being on the charts. or also boughts on Amazon, the book would suddenly start selling when it comes off those five free days. And most of the time I wouldn’t even make my money back from the promotion of those five free days. I found that very frustrating and very difficult to see a way forward. So, I thought if I have a series of three books and I give the first one away free then people will buy books two and three. So, that was really my thinking when I started writing and the intention was always to write three books.
MM: Would you say that reasoning is paying off?
JW: Well, no. So, I put book one of Daniel on permafree for a while and other times I did five-day free promos. And what I found was no matter how many copies I gave away there weren’t enough read-throughs to books two and three. I didn’t feel it was the quality of the writing because I was getting good reviews. I started to investigate the stats on this. And what most writers say is that if you give away a free book and you get one in 20 people to read that, that’s a lot. So, a 5% read of free books is high. Usually, I make like four or three percent. And of those, only a small percentage are going to buy books two and three. So, it’s actually a very small number. That’s why your read through rate is going to be so small.
There’s also another thing I’ve started to realize that has changed my mindset on Amazon and that is this: people who download free books are a totally different market than the people who download paid books. A lot of people are freebie seekers. They’ll go and download book one for free but they won’t go on to buy books two and three because they have no intention of buying a book ever. They’ll only download free books. So then what I did is I started pricing book one at 0.99 instead of free then using Amazon ads to push book one sales. That did work. I did get good read through then to books two and three. A much higher percentage read through rate. But still not high enough. So, my current strategy that I started experimenting with as of a few weeks ago is to put book one on for 2.99 and put books two and three also for 2.99. My current thinking is that the 2.99 market is a different market than the 0.99. Someone who buys a 0.99 book is not necessarily going to buy a 2.99 book. If I can attract the right readers to buy book one then I’ve got a much better chance of them buying books two and three if all three books are the same price.
MM: That’s interesting. Definitely. When you started writing Defragmenting Daniel did you know you were going to end each book at a cliffhanger point?
JW: Yeah, the cliffhangers in Daniel one and two are not excellent cliffhangers. I don’t think they sell the book well. Writing a good cliffhanger is incredibly difficult. I thought that I had resolved enough of the plot to not even call it a cliffhanger, but all my reviews said, oh, there’s a cliffhanger at the end of book one. I learned a lot from that. My goal was to say Daniel has seven organs that he needs to regain. At the end of book one, he’s regained organs one and two. Book two will look at organs three, four and five and book three will look at organs six and seven. That was the plot structure. And readers were not fully satisfied with that. They felt that there wasn’t enough of a plot resolution at the end of book one. And at the end of book two. So, in my next series, I’ve done it quite differently. There’s more of a resolution at the end of book one and at the end of book two. But still enough of a hook that I hope they’ll move onto the next book.
MM: I liked the cliffhangers in Defragmenting Daniel. As soon as I finished one book I had to immediately buy the next one.
JW: Good, good. I’m glad you liked them.
MM: The chapters in Defragmenting Daniel all have names instead of being numbered. Was that your plan from the beginning? And, if so, at what point did you come up with the chapter names?
JW: What I did initially was I labeled the chapters chapter one colon and then the title you see. My editor had a look at it and she said a lot of the names are quite long and with the chapter one, chapter two it was very long. She said to me just take out the chapter, chapter, chapter and just include the names. And that’s what I did. Thinking about it in retrospect, it worked quite nicely because it’s a serial rather than a series. So, if you have chapter one to 13, say, in book one, what do you do for book two? Do you start again at chapter one or do you start again with chapter 14? I found that awkward. If I started again at chapter one it would seem like they’re stand-alone books, which they weren’t. And if I started at chapter 14, that felt weird to me. It felt jarring. So, I liked the idea of separately naming them.
MM: In Defragmenting Daniel real organs are for the rich, who live in the Bubble, whereas cybernetic organs were for the poor, who live in the Gutter. What were your sources of inspiration for the Bubble and the Gutter?
JW: I’ve written a few books where there’s a split. And if I look at all my writing, there’s always a split between the wealthy and the poor. But in Defragmenting Daniel that split is enormously magnified. I live in a country in South Africa where the disparity between the upper class and the lower class is enormous. And we have a history of ostracizing one social group and prioritizing another. We have a history of apartheid where anyone who was not white was segregated from everyone who was white. And white people were given privileges that non-white people were not. So, I’ve grown up in that environment and gone through the transition.
So, in 1994 the apartheid government ceased and the ANC government, which was a democratically elected government, came into power and in a sense that bubble popped. Now today there’s still an enormous amount of debate and discussion about whether that bubble really popped or whether they’re still continuing social disparities and inequalities. And I’m not convinced they are in the sense that some people think they are. But I’m very interested in societies where there are obvious disparities. And the Bubble seemed like a great way of illustrating that. So, there’s a literal barrier between the poor and the wealthy. And hashing that out in terms of organs was really interesting to me. Organs are so personal. They’re under your own skin. So, you might see the Bubble as a skin that covers a city. It’s supposed to mirror the skin that covers you. Reaching into you as someone who lives in the Gutter and removing your organs is totally penetrating that barrier. So, the organs are a way of providing commerce between that wealthy world and that poor world and producing very interesting dependencies. The wealthy depend on the poor but in so doing they destroy the poor. They reach into their bodies and remove their organs. I’ve found exploring those themes really interesting.
MM: The thing that surprised me, though, is that the rich wanted the real organs because I would think the cybernetic organs would last longer and be easier to repair and not get cancer and such.
JW: I started writing about that when I was writing a book called The Solace Pill, which was my first novel. So, the idea in The Solace Pill is that instead of getting an organ transplant you would reprint that organ. You’d reprint it using a 3-D printer. I took that to kind of its logical conclusion, which is instead of fixing your own body in any way, you would reprint your whole body. You would reprint your whole body with the effects of the pill already in your body. Let’s say you wanted to take a nap. You’d take your body and reprint it having already taken the nap. Or let’s say you wanted to take a holiday. Instead of taking a holiday and taking the time and expense to do that you’d just reprint yourself with the brain state and the mental state of someone who’s taken the holiday. With those memories. So, I looked at this idea of what would happen to society if we no longer had any faith in physical body parts and the physical body. In other words, [take an] authentic experience and authentic parts of who you are and move completely over to a digital and printed age. In The Solace Pill the world falls apart because of this and it’s a dystopia. I wanted to look at the idea in Defragmenting Daniel that there’s certain authentic parts of who we are which technology has not caught up to yet. Technology has not given us a satisfactory replacement for those organs. And the organs represent authenticity and trying to get back in touch with a non-technological part of ourselves.
MM: Did you know how Daniel and Margaret’s story would end when you started writing the novel?
JW: No. Margaret was sort of an ad-hoc character initially. You talked earlier about how you’re a pantser, you sit down and you write. I wrote Daniel that way. I knew how I wanted it to end. I knew how I wanted it to start. But I didn’t know who any of the characters would be, who he’d encounter along the way. He just happened to encounter Margaret one day while I was writing. And she happened to be an android. But I didn’t know how their interaction would end. Margaret then became a larger than life character. Many of my readers have said that she’s their favorite character.
JW: Yeah. So, I really started cashing in on that. I wrote a prequel story called Manufacturing Margaret. It’s how Margaret came to be and my next series is a sequel with Margaret as the protagonist. Or, rather, Margaret is the antagonist. So, she’s one of the point of view characters, which is very difficult to write because she has a very bizarre way of looking at the world. It’s all about what happens to her after her final scene in Defragmenting Daniel.
MM: There’s a popular organ replacement drug called Rejek in the books. Was that inspired by a real-life drug? I know we don’t have something exactly like that yet, but do you know of anything similar being developed?
JW: No. I didn’t find any research that suggested there was this magical drug, but in the story, it sort of performs this magical role. So, Rejek is the fantasy element of this book. I do think a drug like that could be developed and I know there are drugs constantly being developed to improve our anti-rejection responses in the body. But I needed an element for the plot that would allow the whole thing to be more realistic. Because rejection is the big problem, of course. You stuff one organ into another person and they’re going to reject that organ unless they’re really well genotyped. So, I needed something that would prevent that and I needed it to play a number of plot points. It needed to prevent rejection, but also it needed to speed up recovery and prevent any kind of infection. And I needed it to play all those roles. So, it was very convenient for me, but it’s one of the weaknesses in the book and I don’t provide any hard sci-fi about it. In other words, I don’t explain how the drug works.
SPOILER ALERT: Scroll down to the random questions without reading anything in between if you haven’t read Defragmenting Daniel yet.
MM: I’ll have to put a spoiler alert before a couple of these, but did you know Margaret was going to kill Odin at some point?
JW: Yeah. That I planned quite far in advance. And I wanted to kill Odin from the beginning. [Both laugh] I mean, I didn’t want to kill Odin, but I knew I had to kill Odin because Daniel goes through a series of moral dilemmas throughout the book in the way he relates to various characters, including Margaret. And I needed something – some very tangible event – that would change his opinion of Margaret and really turn him against her. I needed two things to happen. I needed Daniel to change his mind about her in a very concrete way and I also needed the reader to no longer sympathize with Margaret in any way. And that event where she kills Odin, that performed both those functions for me.
MM: It made me sympathize more with Daniel because here’s poor Odin, being dissected, and he doesn’t like that. And it makes him re-think what he’s been doing.
JW: That’s right, that’s right. Odin being dissected is what he’s doing to everyone else.
MM: One of the things I liked about Defragmenting Daniel is how he comes across as the protagonist even though he’s really acting like an antagonist. At the same time, the private investigator, Kage, is the good guy, really, but we see him more like the antagonist. So, it sort of plays games with your head as you read it. Was it your intention for it to be interpreted that way? How did you expect people to understand it?
JW: Very much so. I think you’ve accurately described that. I’m interested in that because of my background in philosophy. I used to lecture on ethics. And a lot of my philosophy is around ethics. I’m very interested in the fact that although most of us have very pre-defined notions about what right and wrong are, if we create these thought experiments where there’s bizarre things going on our intuitions might be very unclear. So, what a lot of reviewers said about the books is that they first sympathized with Daniel, and then they sympathized with Kage, and then they sympathized with Daniel, and eventually, they weren’t too sure where their sympathies lay. And that, for me, is great. I love to hear that, as a writer. Because I’m trying to muddle people philosophically. Philosophically, by the end of the book what I really want people to do is to ask what is right and wrong? What should happen? Why is he really doing the wrong thing? I’m not sure. And was Kage the good guy? I want their minds and their perspective to be shifted back and forth. Backwards and forwards, over and over again. Possibly, with each shift in perspective.
MM: And in the end, Daniel has his organs given to Kage and he becomes mechanical, which is the exact opposite of what he originally wanted. Did you plan for him to do that 360 originally or is that something that came later in the writing?
JW: That was planned from the beginning. So, before I started writing, I had that ending in mind. Now, interestingly, that’s not my ending. I have a very good friend named Mark Reece and he reads some of my short stories as audiobooks. I was at a writing retreat and he was there and I was telling him about the story before I started writing and he suggested that as the ending. And I loved that as the ending. I thought it was perfect because it really encapsulated this idea of how the reader’s morality shifts backward and forwards and so does Daniel’s. I really liked that as an ending and book three has the highest rating of all the three books on Amazon and Goodreads. People’s seem to enjoy that ending very much. Did you find it satisfying?
MM: Oh, totally. It made me think and I like books that leave me thinking.
MM: I saw that you published the short story about Margaret and I know The Crimson Miniscus says it’s sci-fi stories from the Bubble, which begs the question, do all of your books take place in the same world?
JW: From Daniel onwards, yes. So, Daniel was the beginning of that world. And subsequently, everything I’ve written has been in that world, including all the short stories in The Crimson Meniscus and, actually, just this afternoon what I’ve done is set up a series page on Amazon where the three Defragmenting Daniel books represent book two of The Bubble Chronicle. I’ve called the series The Bubble Chronicles and book one is all the short stories that are in The Crimson Meniscus.
MM: And is your next series the third part?
JW: That’s right, yeah. The next series will be about popping the Bubble. So, the Bubble then comes down. It pops and then there’s this interplay between the Gutter and the Bubble. And because of the way it’s popped, it creates disastrous consequences and they have to leave earth. So, the next series is about leaving earth and finding another home.
MM: Name three or more of your all-time favorite music albums.
JW: One of my first music albums is one of my favorites and that’s by Queen and it’s Queen’s Greatest Hits. Second favorite, that’s a good question. I really like Billy Joel. It was also a Greatest Hits album, but it was really around “The Piano Man,” that song “The Piano Man,” and the third favorite would probably be The Beatles, also a Greatest Hits album.
MM: What was the first book you ever bought with your own money?
JW: That’s a good question. It was Dune by Frank Herbert.
MM: If you could resurrect one writer from the dead, who would you bring back?
JW: Ray Bradbury.
MM: I take it you’re a big fan of his?
JW: I am. I really like his writing. The Martian Chronicles is excellent and I’ve named The Bubble Chronicles after that. I like that a lot of his work has a horror element to it. It’s science fiction, but with a horror element. And he was really one of the first science fiction writers to get rid of a utopian feel. So, he’s got these short stories of people exploring Mars and committing suicide on the journey into space. I find that sort of writing – that gritty science fiction writing – really inspirational.
MM: What are three things from your bucket list that you have yet to do?
JW: [Laughs] So, I have never gone hand-gliding. [Laughs] I think I want to do that one day. That’ll be the last on the list. I’m trying to think what else is on my bucket list. I want to teach English in Asia and slow travel in Asia. That’ll be number two. And let me think of a third… Um, I’ve done a lot of the things I wanted to do like buying the chicken farm. I always wanted to do that. I’m trying to think what’s still left. You know what I really want more than anything – I know it’s not a typical bucket list item – what I really want, more than anything, is to be a self-sustained author. Self-published author. More than anything. It would make me so happy.
Connect with Jason:
Amazon author page: http://www.amazon.com/author/jasonwerbeloff