Today, I continue our irregular series of interviews with international indie writers and welcome K.S. Augustin a.k.a. Cara d’Bastian to the Pegasus Pulp blog. K.S. Augustin’s indie publishing venture Sandal Press celebrates its second anniversary in August.
1. Tell us a little about yourself.
I’m of Portuguese Eurasian descent, born in Malaysia, although I am an Australian citizen. (Not a Real Australian(tm) mind you, just a citizen! 😉 ) I’ve been in publishing, one way or another, for more than twenty years, although I only seriously began writing fiction six years ago. After working in Australia, the USA and Singapore these past few years, we’ve now settled in Johor, which is at the southern tip of peninsular Malaysia and only ten kilometres from Singapore…less if you can swim!
2. Tell us a bit about your works
My first love is SF. I grew up on SF, I owned an SF&F bookshop, we have hundreds, if not a couple of thousand, SF books and books on SF. So, I write it, as simple as that. The book I’m most proud of is War Games, a political SF romance. The book that I think is the most fun is Quinten’s Story, a space opera with romantic elements. I’m working on the sequel at the moment (Quinten’s Revenge), so I suppose Quinten’s Story is the one that’ s uppermost in my mind.
3. What was the inspiration for Quinten’s Story?
It was the response to War Games from literary agents. “Oh,” they said, en masse, “it has lesbians in it… Yeah, interesting story and all that but (shrug) we can’t sell lesbians.”
And I thought, why should it make a difference? Okay, the story touches on two people falling in love on an alien battleground, but why should it matter whether they’re heterosexual or not? To me, it was irrelevant, but obviously not to anyone else.
“Have you got anything else?” they asked.
So I sat down and wrote Quinten’s Story, my idea of a rollicking space opera. Surely, that should get a better response, I thought. And they said, “Oh, it has romance! But it’s also SF. But it has romance! And I know it’s SF but…it has romance!” Times have changed, but those were the responses at the time, and it was dispiriting, to say the least.
So I sat on the novel for a while, revisited it, polished it up, sent it to my two editors, and finally published it through Sandal Press in 2012. What seems to have bothered agents hasn’t bothered those readers who’ve been kind enough to post reviews on the two books, so I figure I’m ahead.
4. You write in several genres, namely space opera, SF romance, fantasy, contemporary South East Asian set erotica and non-fiction travel writing, mostly under the same name. According to conventional indie wisdom (Build your brand, write what’s hot, only write in one genre, preferably a series – which BTW is conventional trad publishing wisdom), this is a big no-no. So why did you decide to buck this conventional wisdom?
The stuff under the Augustin name is mainly for adults, whether space opera, erotica or even travel. My sweet stuff, like the urban fantasy series I just finished, is under the name of Cara d’Bastian so that, basically, anyone can read it. I suppose I’m just drawing a line in a different place.
5. Do you see any crossover sales between the different genres that you write in?
6. Have you ever experienced any negative repercussions of writing both erotica and non-erotic fiction under the same pen name?
Well, I’m lucky in that I don’t live in the United States, so I don’t have to worry about *gasp* a work colleague finding out I sometimes write erotica and thus contribute to the decline and/or destruction of Christian civilisation as we know it. Everyone else outside the US that I’ve spoken to, even here in Muslim Malaysia, seems to have a pretty balanced view of my work and what I write. There are some giggles but, so far, no faggots assembled or stakes pounded into the ground, for which I’m grateful.
7. In my experience, indie publishing and the e-book revolution has been a particular boon to international authors such as ourselves who live far from the centres of the English language trad publishing industry. Would you agree?
Oh absolutely, Cora! If indie and digital publishing hadn’t come along, I think I would have ended my life full of regrets and self-recrimination. Right now, I have friends and colleagues across the globe (like you!) and I wonder how I’d stay sane without the technological advances within, and without, publishing.
Just to go off on a philosophical bent for a moment, the very fact that an avenue exists that is outside traditional Western publishing means that many more voices and perspectives can be heard and appreciated. Readers no longer need to only accept what they’re spoon-fed at major chain stores; a radically different read is only two clicks away on their computer or even smartphone.
Where I think things haven’t equalised is in the area of language itself. As much as I would love to release Finnish or Spanish or Chinese versions of my work, there is an equally tough road for those authors who don’t know English in trying to reach a bigger audience. I wonder if the rise in digital and independent publishing means that, in the end, we will (globally) settle on a de facto language standard. At the moment, that looks to be English but, whatever it is, I think that people’s knowledge of each other can only benefit from being presented with greater, rather than fewer, points of view.
8. Did you ever pursue traditional publishing? And if so, what were your experiences?
Yes, I did, as I mentioned earlier. I got personal replies from literary agents, telling me to keep in touch with them. I got requests for fulls. I even got a contract from a respected small press.
What I didn’t like about the agents’ way of doing business (and I separate that from the agents themselves, who appeared to be nice enough) was that it was obvious they were after low-hanging fruit; in other words, quick wins, fast money. If a book straddled genres (as mine tend to do), then they weren’t interested. They wanted “pure” sf or “pure” romance; Quinten’s Story got rejected by several agents purely because of the romance in it. Agents liked my writing, liked my style, liked the pacing, but hated the “romantic elements”. I think that’s changed with the incredible recent rise in popularity of SF romance (and SF “with romantic elements”) but that wasn’t the case even three short years ago.
As for the trad press contract, it was abominable! Really, I’m surprised they didn’t ask for my first-born along with the manuscript! It was really really tough but, in the end, I turned down the contract. That was for War Games, which ended up being my first Sandal Press release (2011). It meant losing money short-term, but I figured I’d gain more long-term. Give me a few more years and I’ll tell you if I was right!
9. One of my most striking trad publishing experiences was that it was very difficult to sell fiction set outside the US or “approved” foreign countries such as the UK, especially if said non-US/UK set fiction does not match common US clichés about the country in question (i.e. Germans are allowed to write about Nazis and maybe fairytales. We’re not supposed to write anything else). However, several of your books are set in South East Asia. So how did traditional publishing react to those books? And how did readers?
Without a doubt, the digital-first publishers are much more open-minded regarding non-stereotypic conventions, compared to the traditional publishers. Let me say that up front. I didn’t even attempt to shop my Asia-based urban fantasy around the trad pubs because, from the controversies that raged at the time about whitewashing covers and difficulties with major protagonists being non-white, I knew I didn’t stand a chance. (There’s only one white character in the series, and he’s a ghost!) I also knew that a digital-first house would take it. But I wanted more! And, because basically I have a huge ego and tend to psychologically resemble a steamroller at times, that’s how Sandal Press was born.
The reaction to my books from readers has been very positive, I’m glad to say. Of course, a whole swag of people absolutely hated the way I’d end each of my Check Your Luck books (the urban fantasy series) on a cliffhanger, but prevailing opinion is more positive than negative and now that I’ve finished that series, I’m a lot more relaxed about it.
I could talk about how capitalism automatically (yes, automatically!) leads to the commodification of culture, and the pitfalls inherent in such a model regarding artistic creativity or even risk-taking, if we wish to generalise, but shall desist.
10. At the moment, there is a heated debate going on about sexism in the science fiction and fantasy community. One of the strands in that debate is the place of SF romance in the genre and how some men feel that female writers are polluting the rational purity of SF with their romance cooties. As someone who writes both space opera and SF romance, what are your thoughts on this?
In general terms, I find men much more sentimental and frivolous than women (seriously, it’s one of the things I love about them…women are just so damn serious in comparison!), so this view emanating from a bastion of maleness is quite amusing. I suppose they sit around and talk about how butch they are and it all ends up being a self-supporting fantasy, bless their black cotton T-shirts.
A German counter-terrorism expert (back in the days of the monthly airplane hijacks by every secessionist/activist and their pet ferret and the inevitable landings in Munich, Berlin or Beirut; do you remember those, Cora?) used to instruct his teams to shoot the women terrorists first, because they were much more ruthless and focused than the men. If we go back even further, to the Indian and Arab epics and even in Celtic mythology, we see women respected and, to some extent, feared for their unflagging energy, determination and appetites both in, and out of, bed.
Of course, I remember those hijackings, including the bit that the women terrorists were supposedly the most ruthless. The same was said of East German border guards ironically.
With this in mind, the idea of “a man” as some strong, fearless individual with no emotional ties whatsoever and SF as a channel through which strong, fearless men with no character, eternally stoic and aloof, Go Have Adventures is so asinine, it’s laughable. And I can prove it!
Let’s say that a male writer of certain prejudices (and I know their criticisms, and I know the writers, and I’ve read their books) sits down to pen an SF novel. Obviously, the protagonist is a man. The hero only deals with men, usually involving fists or blasters first, followed by a bonding Aldebaran ale between them. His best friend is a man (platonic, of course). Even the (important) aliens he meets are male. The writer tells everybody around him that this isn’t some kind of germ-ridden romance but “real SF”. Well, in that case, shouldn’t the protagonist be a robot?
If the writer is serious about not having anything to do with yucky emotion, about somehow being “above” that, then why write about a human male character at all? But, somehow, we don’t get a robot protagonist, do we, despite the fact that the complete lack of any characterisation would seem to indicate one as the top choice. We get a tall, handsome, self-sufficient human with iron self-control, quicksilver reflexes, an incredibly high pain threshold, and a metabolism that enables him to punch out the villain while still in the throes of a debilitating space fever while recovering from being riddled with lasers, pumped full of hot shells and suffering the occasional hangnail. Younger (and they’re always younger) women adore him but he ditches them the minute they get needy/hysterical/irrational, while he himself either tups everyone in sight or has to hide himself away lest Teh Sexyness overcomes the entire female population of Deneb VII and they commit mass suicide due to the unassuaged yearnings in their weak, needy loins. Seriously, the only reason we don’t get any romance, or realistic emotion for that matter, in the story is because the hero is already so full of it, there isn’t room for any!
These are the guys who want to keep women away from SF? Give me a break!
11. Space opera has got something of a bad rap in the SF community as escapist and scientifically inaccurate fluff, even though space opera is the subgenre that the regular population most associates with SF. Why do you think is space opera so derided in the SF community? And what can we space opera writers do about it?
Yeah, it’s a bit like Yanni, isn’t it? Nobody admits to buying his concert tickets and yet he’s sold out all over the world! Bwahahaha!
I don’t know how to answer that question. I absolutely adore space opera, and I never listened to anyone who criticised it. It’s as simple as that, I just never listened to anything the critics had to say. The thing is, when you look at the top sellers at Amazon, right now at this moment go on go look!, space opera rules! Okay, a lot of it is Marty Stu stuff — or appears that way — but they’re still hitting the top positions with, for better or worse, fantastic reviews. Under those circumstances, I don’t think space opera writers need to do anything! Instead, I’m more likely to turn around to a critic who derides the genre in front of me (and that’s the only way I’d notice, tbh), and say, “Who the hell are you to say such things? Justify your position”, and see where it goes from there. My thought would be that the wheels would fall off their argument in short order. (Yeah, like Clive Cussler or even Salman Rushdie isn’t escapist. And “scientifically inaccurate”? Go tell Alistair Reynolds!)
12. At the age of ten, I spent four months in Singapore and Malaysia and one of the things I liked most (aside from being able to go swimming whenever I wanted to) was the food. So what’s your favourite Malaysian dish?
LOL. Yeah, you’re right. We put in a small spa pool recently, and I can barely lever the kids out of it on a daily basis!
As for the food, I blogged about this a couple of years ago. I said that one reason I am able to keep my weight more or less stable is because…I don’t eat the food! There are only so many noodle dishes you can face before it palls. And not only is the food incredibly unhealthy and full of sugar (Malaysians have the highest incidence of Type II diabetes in the world), but too much raw produce comes from China. Because it’s cheap, the restaurants of course buy it and so, of course, I try to avoid the restaurants as much as possible. I’m more interested in raw ingredients and there just isn’t a culture here for fresh, top-quality produce. Chicken pieces that are turning green sells! So does meat that has hair and pieces of wood mixed into it! I wouldn’t believe it, except I’ve seen it for myself. I hate my grocery trips because there’s so little of anything of quality to buy. I tackled this issue as well in a blog post and residents who chimed in agreed with me.
Having said that, when we left California, I missed the Mexican cheeses and ingredients. When we left Australia, I missed the quality and abundance of its meat. In Singapore, when Carrefour still catered for expats, I loved the imported French cheeses (alas!, no more). I daresay when we leave Malaysia, I shall miss some of the local ingredients, such as the different types of sugar (palm, rock, red, etc.) and the abundance of fresh spices. And imported Iranian pistachios are the best I’ve tasted anywhere!
13. Is there anything else you want to tell our readers?
Yes! Here’s my big moment of self-marketing…um…er…nope, my mind’s a blank. I would like to thank you for having me at your blog, though, Cora. It’s always fun being as obnoxious and opinionated as possible! And best of luck with your own venture, Pegasus Pulp!
KS Augustin’s website: www.KSAugustin.com
KS Augustin’s blog: blog.KSAugustin.com
Sandal Press website: www.SandalPressOnline.com
Sandal Press blog: blog.SandalPressOnline.com
Sandal’s Twitter account: @SandalPress
From the first to the eighth of August, Sandal Press will be holding a birthday sale. Every release not already free will be reduced to 99 cents! For one week only! The stores participating are: Amazon, Kobo, OmniLit/AllRomanceEbooks and Smashwords. Thank you.