Science Fiction Writer, Technology Consultant, CEO and Spoken-Word Performer
JMW: Hello, this is Jean Marie Ward for BuzzyMag.com. With me today is award-winning writer, editor, technologist, and spoken-word artist Mark L. Van Name. Welcome, Mark.
Mark L. Van Name: Thanks for having me, Jean Marie.
JMW: Thank you for joining us. The mass market edition of No Going Back, the fifth science fiction novel featuring soldier of fortune Jon Moore and his intelligent assault vehicle Lobo, hit stores this month. What have our guys gotten themselves into this time?
Mark L. Van Name: Well this is an interesting book because Jon is continuing to try and find his sister who he’s been searching for since he was 16 years old. But this book has both present day events and flashbacks. And people have teased me for a long time that Jon never gets lucky with girls, he’s really terrible at reading women, which he is. And in this book, as I put it in the contract with my publisher as the tentative title, Jon Gets Laid. Only it first occurs in the past, so we meet a bunch of characters from his past. He ends up picking up some clues to his sister. As always happens with him a lot of things go wrong. And by the end of the book, he’s made a lot of really significant changes in the way he’s gonna approach things. The whole universe sort of tilts for him and the next book’s gonna be a very, very different beast indeed because of what’s happened in this one.
JMW: Is this one somewhat lighthearted or is it going towards the dark?
Book 5 (2012) Jon and Lobo No Going Back
Mark L. Van Name: It’s heading towards the dark, although it has a lot of funny moments. Because there’s a lot of him being extremely awkward with girls, which is something I have a lot of familiarity with. So the young Jon is clueless about dealing with women and he is very much…we see him in that mode when we see him. He’s about 28 years old in some sections of the book. But in the end, the book does turn toward the dark.
JMW: You’re immersed in computer technology in your day job. How has your experience in the field influenced your fiction?
Mark L. Van Name: Well I spent more than the last 20 years, actually going on the last 30 years, working with cutting edge technology. Sometimes as a journalist, sometimes for a publishing company, building software called benchmark software that helps measure how well the products do things, and for the last 13 plus years in a company that works with technology marketing for new products. So it’s given me a lot of experience with seeing what’s coming next in technology. And that’s a great background for writing science fiction because I spend all my day time thinking about what’s coming next in technology, what’s happening, what are the cool new products. And the books, which I tend to work on in the evenings let me do the same thing on a much further out scale.
Book 1 (2007) Jon and Lobo One Jump Ahead
JMW: Was Lobo inspired by anything particular in your day job?
Mark L. Van Name: Lobo was actually a few different things. First was, if you turn the letters a little bit you get Bolo, which is a tribute to Keith Laumer’s giant tanks that were disused soldiers. They were his metaphors for veterans being treated badly. And in fact one of the most powerful Bolo stories, I forget the title, but it was about a broken down machine trying to save things in its area. And in the first Jon and Lobo novel, One Jump Ahead, there’s actually a scene where Lobo is in a town square. And he is disused and broken. But it was also because, in the tradition of mystery characters and mystery novels, the protagonist has a lot of concerns. He has morals, he has heartbreak, he’s trying to do things. But he frequently has a friend who will do whatever it takes.
So Spenser, the great Robert B. Parker’s creation, has Hawk who will do whatever needs to be done. Jon has Lobo who is always like, “Can we just save some time and kill them all?” And Jon’s going, “No, no, no. Let’s not do that.” But it is handy to have a very powerful friend who has very few qualms about doing whatever it takes. Yeah, Lobo is both the sidekick and the one who will do anything but he also lets me write really snarky dialogue. He is a very sarcastic character, and that’s just great dialogue to write. I absolutely love writing him. And I’ve told many people, in my dream casting Bill Nye, he would be his voice because he has that beautiful dry, British sarcasm. And he’s the voice I hear in my head whenever I write Lobo’s dialogue.
JMW: Oh how cool! Getting back to the day job, though, what is Principled Technologies ?
Mark L. Van Name: Well Principled Technologies is a company that my business partner, Bill Catchings, and I own. It’s in its 14th year and we focus on technology marketing. But we started the company with the radical idea that the best way to sell products was to tell the truth. So what we do is actually prove any claim we ever make. So rather than try to work on branding or make a claim that, “Oh, trust us because we said so,” anything our company says is something that we have backed up by hands-on testing with products the same way users do it. And it’s also, though, and this is something we’ve talked about in some of our materials online, it’s a bit of a social and business experiment.
One of the things that we’re trying to do with Principled Technologies is rethink the way business should operate. So when we started the company, we tried to think about everything that a business traditionally does. And then say, “Is that necessary? Is that a good idea?” So for example, we thought about maximizing shareholder value, which is the goal of every public company. And we decided that even though we two are the shareholders, that would never be a priority. In fact quite the opposite. Our priority is to do great work for our clients and to be a great place to work for our staff. So we maximize those two things, not what we individually make.
We’ve actually been writing a book about this, we’re in the third draft, called Limit Your Greed, which is about the notion that we can all win if we decide when we do things like starting businesses that maybe we don’t need to take as much. We still do well. I make a great living, I can’t complain. But maybe we don’t need to take as much and we can all share. We’re all in it together. So at PT for example, just to give you some of the ideas that are different, we have no org charts, we have no titles. No one at PT gets a bonus unless everybody gets it. So either we all win or we all lose together. And we are very benefit-centric. Sorry, I started to say benchmark-centric. We do a lot of that too but we’re very benefits-centric and benefits-heavy. So we take care of each other and that’s a key part of the way the company works. The differences go on and on.
Book 3 (2009) Jon and Lobo Overthrowing Heaven
JMW: Well, that sort of eases into your fiction again because one of the themes that I noticed in everything that I’ve read about your fiction is the focus on helping people in need. And was that intentional in your fiction? I mean obviously you put it into your day job, you put it into Principled Technologies . But was it something you intentionally put into the stories of Jon and Lobo? Or did it just happen that way?
Mark L. Van Name: I think the things that come out strongest in my fiction or any writer’s fiction are the things that they are most passionate about. They’re not necessarily the things we try to hammer home. I think when you try to write a polemic in fiction, inevitably you write a boring story. And what you should do is write the stories that you care about, and whatever’s inside you that you care about will come out. For me, taking care of people comes I think from growing up fairly poor, growing up with a single mother, and being taught by her that we have to take care of each other, that the world is a tough place and people need a hand sometimes. And I think that that’s true.
This is a tough world. Even in what I think is the best country in the world, we are not good to all our people. We do not take care of each other enough. And so in the small areas where I have influence, I try to make sure that we take care of people. And if you read the Jon and Lobo books, there are two themes I think that come out. One is alienation, which is a natural…that’s my normal state of feeling is fairly alienated. And the second is that we need to try and take care of each other.
JMW: And you do that with the books as well by running charity events in connection with all your books. Could you tell our viewers a little bit about that?
Book 4 (2010) Jon and Lobo Children No More
Mark L. Van Name: Well the big thing I did was with the fourth book, Children No More, I spent some time in my youth, and I’ve written about it on my blog, in a paramilitary youth group. It was a pretty brutal thing. Not a good place. Nothing that a kid should have ever been in. I learned a lot of really bad things there. But I also came away with a deep conviction that we should be doing a better job taking care of children. So taking care of children affected by war was something important to me.
So when I wrote this book, which Publishers Weekly called a page turner, but is almost entirely about taking care of former child soldiers, I decided that I was going to give everything I made from it to a charity that works with children affected by war. The charity is called Falling Whistles. And so I’ve never made any money off the book, I just give it away. I make a decent living. I don’t need to…better than a decent living. I don’t need to make every cent. So I’ve donated that money to try and help, in this case, particularly children of the Congo.
JMW: Very, very good. I don’t know how to top that actually. So why don’t we go in a different direction? What is a spoken word artist?
Mark L. Van Name: Think of it as storytelling plus standup comedy. Easiest way. So I don’t do one-liner jokes, for the most part. I hardly ever do that, but I do story-based standup comedy. So in some ways closer to Henry Rollins than Henny Youngman. So I tell stories, I try to pick mostly on myself. Sometimes people in my family and if you stay around me too long you can end up in the show. You’ve got to be really careful about that because everything’s grist for the mill as they say about all writing. But it’s a chance to perform in a different way. To tell stories, make people laugh, and also I hope get across a few important things along the way. But mostly it’s just entertainment to make people laugh. There’s something beautiful and powerful about making a room full of people laugh.
JMW: It’s the best medicine, after all.
Mark L. Van Name: It is. And it is tremendous fun. The dark side is if you’re standing up on stage, and I’ve premiered several shows at Balticons in the past, and I’m premiering a new one here on Saturday, when you stand up on stage and you’ve got 2, 3, 400 people, and they’re all laughing it’s fantastic. And then if you miss and if the joke bombs suddenly it’s a dead quiet room and it’s just you on stage. And that is one of the worst feelings on Earth. So you have to kind of recover quickly when that happens.
JMW: What are you working on now?
Mark L. Van Name: I am, embarrassingly, multiple years late on my next book which is currently called All The World’s Against Us. And it’s the sixth book in the Jon and Lobo series. I also have been…took a break to write with Bill the first few drafts of the book, Limit Your Greed, which is gonna be a business book. And then I wrote a story once for a collection, [inaudible 00:12:09] my first two novels, called Lobo, Actually, which was a Christmas story told by Lobo that you can read as a Christian or as a non-Christian and enjoy it either way. It refuses to come down on either side of that issue. And it got me thinking, and so I have the beginnings of and will eventually finish a second Lobo Christmas story. And then I also have a third of a mystery novel, a pure mystery novel, started.
JMW: Cool! Cool! Well, we’re just coming to the end of our show and we always ask our interviewees or our victims as the case may be, is there anything you’d like to add?
Mark L. Van Name: Just keep reading. And whatever it is, not me, anybody. Just keep reading.
JMW: Cool. Thank you so much, Mark. And thank you for BuzzyMag.com.
Jean Marie Ward writes fiction, nonfiction and everything in between, including art books, novels (2008 Indie Book double-finalist With Nine You Get Vanyr), and short stories such as WSFA Small Press Award finalist “Lord Bai’s Discovery” and “Personal Demons” in the award-winning anthology Hellebore and Rue. Her videos include author interviews and tutorials.