Some Thoughts with … Daniel Sonderling
Daniel Sonderling is a writer, consultant, and occasional human currently surviving the Apocalypse in the American Midwest.
1.- What made you decide on self-publishing?
It’s funny, a lot of the story elements were sort of knocking around my head for about a decade, and I tried many times to write it down, without success. I think it was a combination of several things, including troubling national and world events and a parent’s death, that gave me a sense of urgency to see this through and actually finish it. I don’t mean to seem melodramatic, but I felt rather as if the world might end, and I wanted to have “finished something” if it did; plus, and this sounds ridiculous, but I felt guilty that an interesting story and characters had come to me and I had never done them the honor of writing it all down.
In retrospect, I had no idea how freaking hard (can we swear here? I forgot to ask!) it would be to not only self-proof the manuscript but to learn how to format it, upload it, choose which websites to sell on, and then try to market without help. As in my real life, I learned an awful lot from some truly horrifying, time-consuming mistakes; maybe the best lesson was the value of a professional copy editor (who helped polish the revised edition that readers can enjoy as of 2022). Equally important was the value of the lovely, kind online writing community on Twitter, Goodreads, and Instagram, led by Douglas Lumsden, who is not only something of a best-selling legend in the self-published community but a genuinely awesome guy and mentor to countless young authors. (His books are pretty damn great too).
2.- Dreamshadow has a peculiar structure, substituting chapters with parts. Could you tell us more about why did you take this decision?
It’s strange, but I have almost never been able to think, or to write, in traditional chapters. Whether I’m creating or experiencing a story, it happens like a movie in my head, in scenes, and I am simply trying to write down as much as I can as fast as I can. When I get stuck with writer’s block, that’s often when I feel like I’m relying too hard on contrivances, and “plotting” and so forth (though experience has taught me that there is a place for outlines and other tools). Anyway, chapters have always felt artificial and contrived for some reason (though some authors do use them well). Not to over-quote Sir Terry (as if one could even do such a thing), but we don’t experience life in numbered chapters, so why should our characters be forced to?
3.- What inspired you to write the world that is part of Dreamshadow?
You have good questions! You know, in his great book On Writing, Stephen King argues that virtually everything an author says about their own worth is nothing more than “ill-informed bullshit.” I’m not sure whether I’d go THAT far, but I do love the way Madeline L’Engle put it: “most of the best things in writing happen by accident.”
I remember raging debates in university courses on literary theory about where stories come from (with “death of the author” essays and xeroxed copies of Road to Xanadu, yikes!) For me, I think that life feels very dreamlike and confusing, often nightmarish (certainly for troubled young people starting out, which is something I very much relate to poor Marcus on). Beauty, ugliness, pleasure, pain – dancing on the edge of darkness and light, I have always been mesmerized by that concept of chiaroscuro thanks to our friends the Italian painters, the notion that the greatest beauty is often perched at the tip of the greatest pain. I know what it’s like to grow up in a bizarre religious movement, and to leave it all behind later on, so I sometimes wonder whether Dreamshadow wasn’t a subconscious attempt to try to convey, in some small measure, what it feels like to lose everything, including your faith, your family, your god, and the person you thought you were and wanted to be – and to come out on the other side. Because I think the kind of hope that faces down the deepest darkness imaginable, that is really the message, of good horror, of good art, of life itself – like Bill Hicks said, it’s a ride, dammit, and in some sense, it is what you make of it, and you actually do get a say in whether you spend your time on the merry go round in misery or enjoying yourself. I think people twisted it, but I do love that quote, “Now abide faith, hope, and love; and the greatest of these is love.” Strip away religious nonsense and that’s powerful stuff. The best things in art and life seem often to be done, in some sense, “despite the universe,” a phrase that has echoed in my head for a long time.
I’ve had a strange journey, and I’ve seen glimpses of some of the very best and very worst that humans can be and do to each other; one of the things that deeply impressed me (and which partly grew into this world) was a passage on Schopenhauer that I read at 19 about his obsession with the notion as the will as the center of the universe. Lots of other elements are there in Dreamshadow, true: From multiple universe theory and nonlinear time to easter eggs, like the nod to Leonard Susskind’s classic lecture on the phylogeny of bubble universes, along with theories of Consciousness as the center of physics. But the single, great theme, I think, grew from the concept that (as Takuri says) “the will is supreme.”
I’ve also always been fascinated by the notion of life as a dream and dreams as life, along with the charming notion that every dream is a full, real, lived lifetime. You see it in world literature all over the place, from the Butterfly Dream of Chuang-Tse to famous stories by Borges and wonderful short fiction by Neil Gaiman (one of my other great heroes, by the way, and a master of dreamlike art). Since childhood, I was plagued with recurring nightmares, and I loved the empowering notion that perhaps, with practice, one can influence or even change the nightmare; and maybe (just maybe!) that could be true of life itself.
The story is also a bit of an indictment of the awful things men seem to predominate in doing to women and children, along with an examination of the slippery slope of violence as a solution (as with many questions posed in the story, I still don’t have a good answer, but I think it’s important to ask those questions anyway).
4.- Since the first scene, the sense of disorientation and hopelessness is particularly strong. Did it bring challenges while writing?
Looking back, it’s easy to see this as a parable of human suffering and the agonizing problem of free will (well, and the “problem of evil” or theodicy, or as C.S. Lewis probably more artfully put it, The Problem of Pain). Art imitates life, and I definitely felt a lot of confusion and helplessness as a young person; in that sense, it was almost easier to write parts of the story because, while in a fantasy world, I know what it feels like to be a person who feels utterly trapped. Maybe the story was a note in a bottle to other people who feel that way.
I was deeply moved by a very old essay by a young Bertrand Russell, where he argued that human life is basically a long confusing march across a muddy battlefield in the dark, and the greatest service we can give is to make each other feel just a little less alone, even for a while. Dean Koontz also has a great passage in one of the Odd Thomas books about a character who was frightened as a child and whose mother would come to him and hold him, and by singing to him, “she made the dark small.” I think both writers were getting at the same thing, which is at the core of great horror (and other genres): “Me too. I get it. You’re not alone.” I also think some of us are plagued by a need to “understand” and to “figure everything out,” and we can torture ourselves trying to get the universe arranged into a nice, neat model in our head (which is where an awful lot of really good physicists have broken down, including poor Einstein and his famous macro/micro dilemma). But it’s sadly not like that – at some point you have to embrace the yucky or the confusing stuff along with the rest of the experience. One of my favorite quotes of all time is adapted from Voltaire: “Uncertainty is uncomfortable – but certainty is stupid!”
One of the smartest people I have met once told me that if you want to understand the universe, you have to embrace paradox. Whether or not that’s true, I love how Qoheleth puts it in Ecclesiastes: don’t be too wise, don’t be too foolish; don’t be too righteous, and don’t be too wicked. Otherwise, you will go nuts! Or, like Takuri and a lot of our own historical leaders, you might become a super-villain. “Balance in all things.” (Except chocolate. Chocolate requires excess.)
5.- Which one was your first contact with the horror genre (film, book, etc)?
Oh, that is a tough one! I had a pretty sheltered childhood, so I think the first really scary movie I saw as a kid was Peter Jackson’s Lord of the Rings trilogy, what with the orcs and monsters. I was a late bloomer and didn’t properly fall in love with the genre until my mid to late teenage years. I think something about the way Jackson portrayed chiaroscuro, the contrast between darkness and light, between beauty and ugliness, really spoke to my soul. Later I found the joys of the zombie genre (print and film) along with countless other ones (from John Skipp’s anthology, some of whose authors I remember emailing, to World War Z). Through the journey, I’ve always felt strongly that horror is one of the most inspirational genres, because it isn’t afraid to show the deepest ugliness of the world and of humans, but it also shows people standing up to that darkness. To adapt Terry Pratchett (a great hero of mine) in his forward to Good Omens, the ultimate point is not the horror itself, but horror’s defeat. I really feel that great horror (like life and any good art) may well plunge us into the deepest depths of unspeakable darkness, but at the center is resistance, a journey that aims to get through that darkness or (failing that) to be a spark of rebellious light for as long as possible, spiting the dark by warming those around us. I am not religious, but I have a stubborn and irrational faith that the universe moves towards light and beauty, humor and hope, and like C.S. Lewis once said, good art tells the truth about the universe. The kind of juvenile horror that revels in sadism and gore solely for its own sake, or the kind of sneering horror based on the idea that there is no hope or meaning – that stuff always kind of bothered me; it felt like it was “telling lies about the universe.” I often suspect that hope and fear are self-fulfilling prophecies, rather like the art we use to convey them.
6.- When did you start writing? Why did you choose the horror–sci–fi genre?
Oh man, I think I was around seven years old and my dad showed me my first “word processor” on his raggedy old Compaq computer, I’m talking the old, tan CRT monitor with the stereo speakers on each side, and it glowed green and went BZZZT when you turned it on. I think it was Windows 3.1, though we eventually got FANCY and got Windows 98. Anyway, I was entranced, and I simply could not stop hopping on the computer at every opportunity to type nonstop. And they were the most bizarre, outlandish stories you can imagine. I believe my first ever story was about a boy cutting the grass when alien land and starts walking towards him; but the suspense is endless, because the alien is very short, so he keeps walking, and walking, and walking. I think I had a full page of “and he kept walking,” over and over. I laughed and laughed, and my siblings thought I was crazy, but that set the lifelong pattern for amusing myself with stories and cartoons in my head (or clinical insanity, or both).
7.- Which horror element is your favourite and why?
That’s a tough one!
In terms of raw moments, Marcus seeing his new face for the first time is powerful for me, among a few others, but I think Takuri’s soul might be the honest answer.
I fell in love with Takuri and the way he waltzed onto the set and just took over the story. Most of what he says and does were completely unplanned, and it was like he had a life of his own and just started reshaping the story and the world through sheer willpower. He is such a badass! Talk about Sturm und Drang, talk about your Heathcliff and your brooding, angsty dude! And so cold, calculating, intelligent. Of all my characters, he’s one of my favorites.
Sure, there’s raw violence and eventually scary physical stuff that happens, but what makes him so scary, I think, is that every unspeakable, brutal, bloodthirsty act he commits during his long life is ultimately principled and based on noble goals (on paper, anyway). He thinks he’s the good guy, and the scariest villains always do. That’s why he’s so dangerous, as Kyrrha tells Marcus in the cell: Takuri believes in what he’s doing, with every fiber of his being.
I think the idea of unquestioning, righteous conviction is so scary to me, more so than zombies and demons, because it’s something we all need to be careful of. It’s widespread in the world today, and countless historical horrors were defined by it, from inquisitions and witch hunts to religious conflict and so on. I can’t remember who said that the world is such a mess because self-assurance belongs not to the wise but to the foolish and the cruel, and that really resonates even with today’s headlines. As a character, Takuri poses a core question: what if there are no heroes, nor villains? What if we’re all just people making decisions?
I’m not sure I have the answer, but I think asking that question of ourselves and our leaders from time to time is a healthy exercise. The other thing I like about Takuri is something I wish we all could keep in mind about ourselves when we are tempted to turn ourselves into the villain of our own story by being cruel to ourselves; even at his worst and most monstrous, Takuri not only maintains a shadow of his former motivation (however corrupt), but he saves the girl in the tent from the general. In that moment, humanity shines out of the most twisted soul, as it can do for most of us, and that’s a hopeful thought. Too bad his fanaticism wins out in the end; I think he would have been a fabulous poet and a pretty good philosopher. But then, isn’t that true of some of our world’s greatest monsters?
And that is the other big thing; abusers (particularly the sort of violent men who have made such a mess of the last 10,000 years of history) tend to rely on self-pity, on playing the victim, and of acting as if they have no choice. That’s bullshit; you always have a choice. When you’re tempted to do something awful, it’s so important to remember that you have a choice; there is power and responsibility in that. Even if you find yourself as an undead vampire facing a warm stream of urine from a terrified general – maybe especially then!
(In terms of pure FUN, I love the notion of magic and technology as two flavors of the same juice, and the Valley of the Kings is still delightfully spooky for me.)
8.- Originally published in 2020, you re-edited this book in 2022. Which changes did you introduce in the process?
The main change was realizing that I desperately needed a professional copy editor. I have never been able properly to proof my own work, and I have no idea why that is. I have professionally edited and proofed all sorts of writing by other people in various jobs and industries, but when it comes to my writing, my brain shifts into “movie camera mode” and I am immediately immersed in experiencing whatever the characters do, which is wonderful for making progress in first drafts and TERRIBLE for self-editing. I can’t remember the number, but I think the copy editor made something like seven thousand corrections, everything from inconsistent spellings for characters to commas and my mortal foes, the em-dash and en-dash (I still don’t understand the point of so many variations of a hyphen, to this day, and accept it on faith).
One of the most interesting things I noticed was that I frequently default to British spelling and grammar, despite being American; maybe it was all the British television and books growing up, it’s hard to say. Anyway, Reedsy is a wonderful place for indie authors to find help for everything from copy-editing and development editing to marketing. I was lucky to find the inimitable Karen Robinson, whose services I recommend heartily!
Also, and only because you’re threatening me with a wet noodle, I will confess to a tiny emendation with Kyrrha on the bridge. In the original, when she makes eye contact, there is sad acceptance in her eyes. That never sat right with me, maybe because she is such a strong, fierce, defiant soul, so it made sense that she would be (rightly) outraged in the revised edition.
9.- What can we expect from Daniel Sonderling in the future?
Well, in terms of the bucket list, writing my first novel is done, so I guess that just leaves sky-diving and armed robbery.
I’m kidding! I finished my second novel this past summer. It’s more SciFi and techno-thriller, along with some horror, and is rooted in a lifelong love of Michael Crichton, whose writing deeply impacted me (and still does). I think I got a lot of therapeutic “stuff” out of my system with Dreamshadow, and the new novel was pure fun to write and I still get lost in it now.
I think it was Isaac Asimov who said in a memoir that he could tell if he was onto something by the way he could find pages scattered around the house and still get lost in his own writing as a reader. (Asimov was very important to me, along with Clarke come to think of it). Anyway, I hope fans of Michael Crichton, X-Files, UFO culture, and conspiracy thrillers will get a kick out of it.
I’m facing immense writer’s block with its sequel.
By my side, that’s everything. I just want to thank Daniel Sonderling for taking the time to give these insightful answers; I can only recommend following him and getting Dreamshadow, it’s a unique experience. Just in case, these links may be useful for you: