At the Bar with Dennis R. Upkins
~ Special Edition Post ~
Dennis R. Upkins is a beloved regular here at the Bar, though here he prefers to go by the nickname "Neo-Prodigy". A brilliant, observant, and deeply insightful bookworm, Dennis is an accomplished writer and self-professed nerd. It was an immeasurable delight and privilege to complete this interview with him on May 22, 2011, in honor of his debut novel Hollowstone.
What's the premise of the book, and how did you arrive at it?
It’s the the story of Noah Scott whose life changes drastically when he is accepted to Hollowstone Academy, one of the most prestigious boarding schools in the country. Set in the mountains of Eastern Tennessee, the saga takes place in the small fictional town of Newton. It’s there at the illustrious school that Noah meets his roommate, the charming and enigmatic Caleb Warner. In a world of the privileged, it doesn’t take long for the pair of best friends to find themselves in all kinds of trouble.
Tragedy strikes when Cal is brutally murdered in a hold-up. But when Noah is visited by Cal’s ghost, he soon discovers that the random act of violence was in fact a premeditated one. And when he begins receiving prophetic dreams, Noah also quickly learns that greater supernatural forces are at play. In a race against time, Noah must solve Cal’s murder and get answers before he’s the killer’s next victim.
Ever since high school, I always wanted to write a story that was at least in part an homage/modern day retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The high school I graduated from was a prestigious private school, and being from a working class background, I could relate to Nick Carraway entering this strange new world of the elite and the upper class. However for the novel, I decided to base Noah (the Carraway of this piece) on three of my high school buddies.
I began toying with the idea of Hollowstone during my final quarter of art school. I was taking a film noir class at the time and I had completely fallen in love with the genre. Not surprising, many noir elements permeate throughout the novel.
The idea continued to flourish, one thing led to another and before I knew it, I had a finished novel on my hands.
What was the creative process behind Hollowstone? Where did you find inspiration and motivation to write the book?
Shortly before writing Hollowstone I was at a crossroads of sorts in my career. This was back in 2007. Man, I can’t believe it’s been a few years now. Anyway, I had been writing short stories and non-fiction articles. While I had achieved some success, I was ready to take my career to the next level and venture into penning a novel.
That year I learned about the National Novel Writing Month challenge which takes place annually in November. The idea is that with 50,000 words, you’ve either completed a novel or have written a good portion of it. Famous novels that are roughly 50K include Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Great Gatsby.
The plan was simple. Write 2,000 words a day. That way I would have a buffer in case something happened and I couldn’t write that day. At the time, I was working two jobs and was in the process of moving. So yeah, I had a lot going on. LOL!
The interesting thing for me is that I almost always do a rough outline with every story before I write it. I found that’s been most effective in working out any potential logistical problems with the plot. It also helps because when I sit down to write the story, it’s simply a matter of fleshing out the outline. Of course, the one story that requires so much intricate detail, I decide not to do one for. Yeah, the stress of working out the plot and details in my head didn’t take 10 years off of my lifespan. LOL! I pride myself on being an overachieving perfectionist and an alpha who can meet any challenge so I was determined to win NaNoWriMo. I’m proud to say I did and I even surprised myself.
How long did you work on Hollowstone? Whom did you consult with and who's your editor?
I worked on Hollowstone for the entire month of November for NaNoWriMo. After hitting the 50K mark and winning the challenge, I actually walked away from the story for a few months to rest, reset and work on some other projects. I returned to Hollowstone the following February and completed it around April if I’m not mistaken. So overall it took me about four months to finish the initial rough draft. From there, I revised and edited Hollowstone and shipped it off to two beta readers: good friends, both of whom are published novelists, to critique and edit the novel.
Once I got the critiques back from them, I did another revision/edit and after that, I began shopping the novel around.
Tell us about your publisher. What drew you to this company and how did they work with you?
As a novel, I strongly believe that Hollowstone has many things working in its favor: an engaging plot, strong prose, a diverse and compelling cast, a very marketable concept. But because the story features a black teen as its chief protagonist and several queer characters, I knew that would slam many doors as far as publishers and markets go and that’s exactly what happened. Sadly even today, the publishing industry is a very bigoted one which regularly discriminates against people of color, LGBTQs and stories featuring us.
Gay writers and gay stories are regularly rejected and the constant white-washing of stories and book covers featuring protagonists of color is simply business as usual.
So I definitely began searching for markets that didn’t just tolerate marginalized voices but welcomed and celebrated them. And that’s how I came upon Parker Publishing. Their tagline is what sold me: Quality Fiction For Readers Of Distinction. Parker is a company that targets black and other readers of color and believes in not only producing stories featuring minorities but exceptional quality stories featuring minorities. They have some amazing talent on their roster including L.A. Banks.
I remember when I submitted to Parker, I kept saying to myself, if I get picked up by a publisher, I truly hope it’s someone like them. Because I believed in their mission statement. And it’s a mission statement I believe Hollowstone epitomizes.
Nearly a year had passed and I hadn’t heard anything from Parker or anyone else. I was at another crossroads of sorts. I was unhappy with the job I was in at the time, I was stuck in a town that I desperately wanted to escape and my writing career wasn’t where I wanted it to be. I wanted to travel abroad, I wanted to gain new experiences and some new skills. I wanted to make a lot more money and save up in the hopes of leaving the states for good. I was looking at the military with the aims of becoming an Air Force officer. Approximately two weeks before I was scheduled to sign my enlistment papers, Parker contacted me and informed me that Hollowstone had been accepted and they wanted to publish it.
The timing of it was too significant to be a coincidence. It was as if fate was intervening and informing me of my calling to be a writer, an artist and a storyteller.
Editor Kymberlyn Reed and Publisher Miriam Pace have been absolute godsends and I couldn’t have asked for finer people to work with.
One of the advantages of a smaller independent press is that the editors and the publishers work more closely with the author to produce the best content possible. I’ve had some excellent discussions with both of these ladies about the importance of representing minorities and telling our stories with respect.
I knew I was with the right publisher when Kymberlyn expressed joy in how Noah is a positive and accurate representation of African-Americans and that he debunks so many racist perceptions and stereotypes regarding blacks. In fact, said racist perceptions and stereotypes gets called out more than once in Hollowstone. Many publishers would’ve either erased the realities of that “icky racism stuff” or would’ve simply made Noah white to make the story more “marketable” and “universal.”
So it was a huge blessing and a relief to know that my publisher and I were on the same page about the vision for Hollowstone and the views on representing marginalized people.
And while romance is Parker’s primary staple, they have been actively working to branch out into other genres such as speculative fiction and YA. Hollowstone is one of the novels that fits the bill on both fronts.
The cover is absolutely gorgeous, by the way. Who did the artwork and what was the inspiration behind it?
Actually, I did the artwork. I have a BFA in media arts & animation. I did everything from taking the photo, adding the sepia to choosing the fonts. This is another advantage for working with an independent press. Because usually authors have no input whatsoever on the design of the book.
Because Hollowstone Academy is the setting and in many respects the central silent character in this saga, I wanted a cover where the school was prominently featured. But it couldn’t simply be any school or structure. I wanted something from the romantic period. Most southern architecture during that time possessed a strong gothic influence which would lend itself nicely to the paranormal elements and darker tone of the story.
The idea was further cemented months after I finished Hollowstone. While I was in a bookstore, I happened upon Robert Cormier’s The Chocolate War. Not only did the premise of the novel (which shares similar elements with Hollowstone) catch my eye, but the book cover was impressive. It took had this massive ominous school in the background which encapsulated the tone of the novel. And the cute blond in the Catholic school boy uniform didn’t go amiss either, LOL!
I was filling out a media packet for Hollowstone and one of the things it asked was what I envisioned for the book cover and I used Cormier’s cover as an example when I gave the description.
The editors were very receptive and created a great cover that was what I had asked for. While studying the cover, the artistic wheels began churning and I kept flashing back to when taught design in college and I had my students create book covers for a project. I decided to take a shot at it and I’m pretty pleased with the result.
This is quite a triumph for you. What advice do you have for other writers like yourself trying to accomplish something similar?
A little over a year ago, I was in Seattle and was having lunch with my good friends Cherie Priest and Catilin Kittredge. They both discussed some of the challenges of being a professional writer. I asked them if they had any advice and what they told me has stuck with me to this day. The ones that make it are the ones who don’t give up. And as obvious as it may sound, there is a deeper fundamental truth there that I can attest to from firsthand experience.
Writing is not for the faint of heart or the thin-skinned. No matter how talented a writer you are, you will receive rejection. Endless amounts of rejection. There are multiple paths to being published and sometimes you have to forge a few yourself.
At times it can be a cutthroat business and other times, you will encounter individuals who can be less than professional to put it mildly.
But you don’t give up. If this is your dream and this is your passion, keep fighting for it. It may take some years. If that first manuscript doesn’t sale, put it aside and write another one. Just keep fighting.
Don’t be afraid to look at smaller indy presses while you establish yourself and build an audience.
Market heavily. You can’t advertise enough. And know your market. For instance, if your story features a queer or POC protagonist, look at queer and POC markets. They are out there and they are looking for your stories.
Network heavily. I’m very active in writing and social justice circles online and that has paid off for me in regards to generating buzz and interest for Hollowstone. And that’s one of the beautiful things about the internet. For media it’s become the great equalizer and has allowed upstarts to compete with giants in many respects.
And to my POC and LGBTQ writers out there, please, I humbly beseech you to share your stories. Whether it’s through publishing or posting your works on a free blog for all of the world to see. We desperately need your voices. Especially in a world that works tirelessly to erase us from existence.
But lastly, a mantra that has served me well over the years both professionally and personally is: Stay Hungry, Stay Humble.
Stay Hungry: Always strive to raise your A-game. Always hone your craft. Be the best you that you can possibly be each day and then tomorrow be better, do better.
Stay Humble: Be appreciative of the blessings you receive, no matter how great or how small. Be it an interview on someone’s blog with a readership of 6 or a six figure advance. Because you didn’t have to receive that blessing and the same people you see on your way up will be the same people you see on your way down. Stay humble enough to remember that you’re a work in progress and always strive to do better and be better.
Stay strong, keep flying and I look forward to reading your work.
And we look forward to reading yours. Neo, er, Dennis...thanks for stopping by the Bar.
Hollowstone will available in ebook and paperback formats from Amazon.com and Parker Publishing on June 17, 2011. Readers can enjoy excerpts here.