At the Bar with Bret Sweet

Because the Bar is (still) celebrating National Author's Day, I'd like to introduce a new Patron of our humble establishment. Bret Alexander Sweet is a California-based author who was kind enough to agree to an interview with me.  He gave me the skinny on Among the Veils, the first book in his series Paper Thrones.

It’s so great to meet you! I always have to ask artists who reach out to me: how’d you find me?

I was reading through blogs and forums looking for "black science fiction". I saw your name come up a couple times. Then I read your reviews and a couple posts you made and decided, "Well, she seems approachable". One thing that I am learning, is how insulated and "clique"-oriented these online communities can be. You had such a friendly tone to your call for submissions I thought I would reach out. Plus your name told me we had a similar love for Kemetic culture so I figured we would hit it off.

You thought right!  Tell us a few things about yourself.

I am currently a Director of Digital Media Management at Cogswell College of Silicon Valley. It is a regionally accredited hands on university for animation, gaming, engineering and audio. My programs teaches the intersection between starting one's own business, project management and digital arts. I got here after teaching entrepreneurship for a decade or more. I started by teaching youth from lower income communities as a way to get them out of the street life. This involved into using entrepreneurship to get these kids into college. Then it evolved into me teaching high school teachers, professors and non profit managers how to teach like me. In addition, I have clients who pay me to do strategy or creates businesses for them which I use the funds for to incubate businesses that will create jobs in working class neighborhoods. I enjoy the sweet spot between community organizing, economic development, advocacy, entrepreneurship, social enterprise and human rights. I found the target right after I started business school which turned into a MBA in Entrepreneurship and a MBA in Marketing. This was a dream of mine that I started when I got my first job after high school as an intern at Polygram Group Distribution right before it turned to Island Def Jam. I was meeting these deep brothers who knew a lot about business and they told me they learned it in their "MBA program". The internship came as a result of a high school entrepreneurship program that I used to form my own record label my senior year of high school. A year later, I was charging people's credit cards to download my label's albums through AOL. 3 years before Napster, 6 years before iTunes. Not a Parker, not a Jobs. A Sweet. I went to San Francisco State and got a B.A. in Radio and Television Production from their BECA program. I took a tremendous amount of Black Studies classes. The only reason I bring up the degrees and education is because I was once a kid who believed he was terrible at school. I really did not enjoy high school. I was too interested in trying to stay alive and protected than enjoy learning. Plus I was extremely intimidated by math. Thankfully when I got arrested, there were some exceptional role models in the form of very conscious street brothers with emergency teaching credentials teaching at my high school. They taught me how to love mathematics. It helped me figure out how to know myself and turn things for the better. That is why I do what I do with young people. I was that kid in the back of the room seeing the world different and not being able to succeed. If I can do it, if I can learn to love school, if I can adapt and overcome a weaknesses of mine, then I have to find ways to do help others do the same. It's just the right thing to do and its where I came from.

So, you reached out to me about your book series (very grateful, by the way). As you can tell, I have a soft spot for scribblers. How long you been writing, Bret?

I believe I started writing before I started talking, maybe when I was somewhere between age 3 and 4. My parents got divorced when I was three. It was difficult for me to process and I spent a lot of time on the road traveling between parents' houses. At that time, it was important for my mother to help me express myself. No matter where we went, there was always a pad of paper for me. My first attempt was my own version of the Hobbit, a remix if you will. In my version, Gollum gets shot because I found the character so creepy and he gave me nightmares. My mother thought it was a great story so I always stuck with writing as my first medium to get things out of my head. I tend to take in a lot of information, my brain is a computer. As much as I wish it had more space, it does fill up. Writing is my method of cleaning off my hard drive. As I got older, writing assignments in school became where I excelled. I would play a lot of role playing games in middle school and would write stories based off the characters. When high school came around, I fell into hip hop. My writing turned into becoming a battle mc and writing songs. I would write stories here and there but I thought they sucked. It wasn't until a few high school teachers read the stories to the class that I considered there might be some talent in there. When I wasn't writing songs, I knew how to write plans: business plans, marketing plans, fund raising pitches, etc. When I did as much as I wanted to do with hip hop, I stepped away. I know longer had the same desire to write music but my income was derived from the business skills I learned. I gradually found my way back to writing for fun and realized that was a terrain I felt very comfortable.

What inspires you? How do you get in the mood or what puts you in the mood to sit down and churn out a few chapters?

People and the planet around me inspire me. There is so much going on every day. Our ego tells us we know what is going on and we have the power to process it all. That is quite far from the truth. As humans, we can only take so much. Anyone who has spent any time around their mother or grandmother has probably heard the famous phrase: “that’s just too much”. Our elders hold a lot of wisdom. Now we live in a world of internet, smart phones and social media. The good ole’ information age. It is possible to become obese with too much information to the point your mind puts on weight the way your body does if you do not eat right and exercise. I choose to steer into the skid.

Kanye has this great line in "Gorgeous" where he says: “I thought I chose a field where they couldn’t sack me”.

That’s how I feel when I write. Even if I am facing such unfair obstacles, writing is an arena where I define the rules and therefore I find a sense of empowerment. I don’t mean that in a tacky Freedom Writers or teenage girl writing poems in her room either. For me, writing is a beautiful challenge to make a little bit of order out of a large amount of chaos. Therefore I am ALWAYS in the mood to write. I find the beauty is in transitioning the emotions or the feelings I can sense around me into words on a page so a reader can be right in the moment with me. I take a lot of joy in placing the reader at the center of the story so they feel like they are the most important character throughout a tale. As an artist, I don’t think there is a greater joy than working over some pages to eventually run into somehow who witnessed the art and hear them say “I got that!”.

I also recognize I have this glorious team around me who really love me and need me to win so they can derive some inspiration. For example my parents. Even though my father is not here in the physical, there is a deep connection we share; it has gotten even stronger after he passed. There are many moments when I write, where I know he is near and I am proving to him, “I get it, sir….I get it now”. It becomes a feedback loop which I talk about a lot in Among The Veils. My mother also really inspires me because her whole life has been about fighting bullies and knocking them out when they think she is wounded. It gives me an endurance that many people won’t understand. My writing is a tribute to her, a way of me jumping into the melee, throwing my hands up and saying “What did you say to her?”. As we all know, talking about someone’s momma is fighting words and usually doesn’t end well for the one saying the insults. My wife also is a huge inspiration. She reads about 5 books every two weeks, all at the same time too. I’m not really sure how she does it, but I just use it as proof to her that she is smarter than me. There are times when I retreat from the world a bit and give in a little to doubt. My wife will remind me how much she reads, who she reads and then explains she would list me as the best author of all time even if we had never met or been married. Some might take it as pressure. I thrive under it. I refuse to embarrass my wife (chuckle). If she’s says I am killing the game, then I push myself past my comfort zones to prove her right. That’s why marriage is so old and celebrated. It can really bring out the best in people if you let it be about partnership. Finally, a huge inspiration is my students. There are a lot of young people in this country starting their first job after college. Most of them claim they wouldn’t have applied to college if they hadn’t met me. I’m not sure I believe that, but if you talk to these young people, they believe it. It’s a huge trust and loyalty they have placed in me. I have no plans of letting them down since everyone else already has. A lot of times when I write, I look for a place to inspire people to unlock their own potential and throw away the conceptual prisons placed on them by society and stereotypes.

That's quite a support system you've got there.  Do you set deadlines for yourself or go with the flow?

Absolutely. I most certainly set deadlines. Being an author in such a public setting is probably the newest or latest thing I’ve done. Before any of that, I am professional. I hold myself to a high standard. When I was growing up, one of the most important things I learned was the concept of my word being my bond. I don’t see that anymore in young people so I try to enforce it but it’s hugely important. If I can’t own up to my own promises and commitments to myself, how can anyone else trust me? Accountability is an internal mechanism. I make myself accountable and therefore I have the ground to stand on to make others accountable. When I started my record label at age 17, I didn’t know what an entrepreneur was. Once I learned the term and it’s in and outs, I knew I never wanted to be anything else. If I have learned anything on my journey as an entrepreneur it is these two things: 1) set deadlines that you will meet and 2) keep a very healthy sense of humor. They go hand in hand. If there is no end goal in sight with dates and deliverables, you will lag. If you lag, you will never start. If you never start, you will blame others. If you spend all your time blaming others, you are not being honest with yourself. The importance of deadlines is that creates parameters. Parameters really help innovation. Most people don’t realize the cool decorations in their home only exist because the home is defined by walls which are parameters. When you don’t meet the deadlines, you have to ask where the break down happened. I prefer to handle all my commitments so that when I look at the process, I can understand what stopped progress. You can’t control other people, only yourself. That’s where the sense of humor comes in. For example, I am working on editing toward a second edition of Among The Veils as well as cleaning up the second book. Each has deadlines. If I handle my end and someone else drops the ball, I will just laugh it off with a few jokes. You can’t have that laugh if someone is chasing you for your deliverable.

How did you get published?

If you believe in luck, then I was lucky. If you believe we create our own opportunities, then we can say I jumped in a lane I created for myself. Many years ago, I was in grad school. I gained a mentor who was really impressed with my writing. He made me promise to consider writing for publication one day. Again, I am a man of word so I said I would but I struggled to decide what needed to come out first. Once Paper Thrones was done, I was convinced I was going to self-publish; the independent rapper and entrepreneur in me told me not to sign a contract to anyone. I went to this mentor to get a foreword to introduce what you guys now know as Among The Veils. It was my way of showing him that I took my promise to him serious. I walked into the office, dropped off the manuscript of the first book and expected a page endorsement a month later. A week later I was back in the office and my mentor was explaining how he owned a publishing company. To keep it honest, he laid out what it would mean for me to self-publish, the pros and cons. Then he shopped me around and we looked at some bunk contracts. With all the numbers on the board, it was pretty clear what the path was to take. I signed to Lexingford Publishing a week later.

Any authors in particular who influence your work?

I think it would be disrespectful not to mention J.R.R. Tolkien. I can’t say I’ve re-read the LOTR series as much as other books. However, Tolkien’s Hobbit got me reading and writing on my own at a very young age. The two people I hold in very high regard are Roger Zealzny and Andrew Vacchss. If you don’t know him already, get familiar with Roger Zealzny. It’s criminal that his Amber series has not become a Hollywood movie series. The way Roger writes is ill. In my mind, he is the god father of science fiction and fantasy. Urban fantasy, urban science fiction, paranormal romance, all these “genres” come out of the forces Roger weaves. If he wrote only fiction without any supernatural elements, he would probably be held up higher than Hemmingway or Salinger. Unfortunately, he is placed in a little box because the spine of his books say “science fiction fantasy”. As the owner of Dark Carnival books said to me, “Zelazny worst stuff is better than most people best stuff”. I agree 100% Zealzny knows how to make you feel at home in universe that you don’t understand.

Vacchss I fell into a young age through my older brother David. His dialogue and descriptions really speak to me as someone who grew up in the 80’s and lives in a large city. Vacchss understands how to describe subcultures that rise up as an answer to persecution whether it be ethnicity, class, or gender. You look at pictures of the guy or hear him speak, you might not think much of his topics. Then read his Burke series. He gives this voice to the survivor culture within New York City that is incredible. He understands people without giving into a single pre-conceived notion about who they should be. When Steven King writes about black folks over 60, I cringe. When Vacchss does it, I smile and nod. Despite his demeanor, Vacchss cares about people doing better for themselves, especially children. He also shares this connection to a “family” that may not be defined by blood with Zealzny. Family is a huge theme with me.

I think Octavia Butler should get props to. I didn’t know black folks could write science fiction until my AP English teacher dropped her in my lap. I loved the Patternist series. A lot of folks love her for the Parable, Xenogenesis or Kindred stuff. Personally, I really dug what she did with the Patternist series in terms of making psychic abilities seem as tangible and real as learning coding from a youtube video.

Steve Perry and the Matador series needs to get some love to. Toni Morrison’s Song Of Solomon pushed me to spend a summer in Florida understanding where I came from. Ralph Ellison’s Invisible Man made a huge impact on me as well. In my mind, Ellison started the circular, non-linear narrative that directors such as David Fincher and Christopher Nolan use. I also really enjoy Ishmael Reed. He gives a personality to Oakland and the city needs some love. Finally I would have to shout Frank Herbert. He is probably the best at teaching the reader without making it appear like a text book. Dune brings together politics, economics, evolution, ecology, religion and post-colonial thought in a very sneaky package.

I also get very inspired my brother Enitan Bereola. He wrote How To Be a Gentleman - Bereolaesque: The Contemporary Gentleman & Etiquette Book For The Urban Sophisticate. We are close friends, allies and spend a lot of time on the road together doing speaking tours with the crew we started called The Kings Of Culture. We are in completely different lanes but it’s good to trade drafts and ideas to have a fellow writer give you feedback. It reminds me of my skill building days in hip hop where you freestyle with your crewmates. Steel sharpens steel. What I love about Bereola’s writing is he really baby steps things for his audience in a way that is exceptionally practical. He constantly pushes me to do the same with my writing like, “Make sure you spell everything out for them, big homie.” We have great chemistry when we speak to audiences but he is always reminding me that my writing has to be twice as effective as my speaking.

So let’s talk about this series of yours, Paper Thrones. What’s the inspiration behind it?

Paper Thrones came to me based on a few premises that I was exploring at the time. The first premise was ideas can take a life of their own and almost gain sentience. Take for instance any brand you may buy into. Many of my friends love Apple products, I try not to put too much into any one brand. The lore is that Apple was named as a tribute to Apple Records, which was the business face of the Beatles. You a bit more digging and you can see the symbolism of an apple in of itself. An apple can be the border between good and evil as seen in the Bible. An apple can be a catalyst for the gods to compete among one another using human pawns as seen in The Iliad. An apple can be an artifact for instant creation and destruction as explored in the Assassin’s Creed series. My point is, Steve Jobs knew what he was doing when he named his company "Apple". As an idea, the apple has its own sense of influence. We can see these symbols all over the place. Most courthouses have Greek gods in front as statues. I was trying to determine what it means if ideas in of themselves have power.

The next premise I was working with was what would happen if these ideas started competing. What does it look like when the California state bear is working against the Nevada state bighorn sheet? To what end? What are they after? Who wins? Who loses? The premise became ideas at wars with one another. The two premises led to a third one which is almost more of a guiding principle than a premise. I ran across the concept of a paper tiger back in the late 90’s. It tickled me as a term because at its start, it was an insult for American imperialism by Mao Zedong in the 50’s; a comment about appearing fierce but unable to resist the water and wind that come over long periods. Considering where China is today, there is some irony in the statement. More to the point, in the early days of the dot com bubble, performance artists, activists and tech folks were using websites to send petitions. These got dubbed Paper Tigers which is a reclamation and reuse of the term. Something that was supposed to be timid was actually pretty effective. Despite the dot com boom and bust, these networks of activists using the internet to make social change survived and evolved. Now look at social media and how people can create apps to give people rides or help them find somewhere to volunteer. Paper Thrones is about the evolution of ideas and digging into how concepts go from paper to dominance or even ownership.

A throne denotes a ruler. A hierarchy. The series is about how a once very powerful family learns to accept that they are no longer needed or in charge. Originally, the whole thing, all five books, were one manuscript called Paper Thrones. When Lexingford got a hold of it, they were like “this is great but we have to spend time introducing the first book”. Among The Veils is the introduction into Paper Thrones by setting up the rules of world Clay lives in and his journey to learn these rules. In 2004 my mother had a herniated disc in her neck that paralyzed her. In 2005 my father was diagnosed with an aggressive form Alzheimer’s and given about two years to live. I was ready to drop everything to take care of them but my parents needed me to have my own life. Even though they had long been divorced, lived in different houses and didn’t speak, neither parent wanted me to stop living out my dreams because of them. I made some transitions then. I retired from my career, went back to school, started consulting and spent the rest of the time being a caregiver. My father stopped talking a year later and he got sicker, so it was harder to diagnose him. We spent a lot of time in the emergency room, say four times a week for ten hours at a time. I needed to talk to him while he was there so it comforted him. After a while you feel like you are talking to yourself and you run out of stories. Plus I had a lot on my plate, I was extremely stressed out. I didn’t feel like writing any songs so I tested myself by writing in my head. I used to do business documents that way and I remembered my homie MURS used to write entire albums that way. So I wrote Paper Thrones in my head and said it out loud to my Dad to give him something to pass the time in those cold-ass emergency rooms back in 2007. I wanted to bring together the topics, genres and works of art my father loved so much. He was into buying properties and fixing them up. He was a huge architect of the civil rights movement in the Bay Area. He loved his family deeply. He loved the Good, Bad and Ugly; he could somehow explain every situation in life with that movie. He loved spy novels I think because he thought he did espionage on behalf of poor people. He loved ancient mythologies and cultures. My dad would never buy me some new Jordans or a gold chain, but he sure did make sure I got to ride a horse and touch a pyramid. His idea at the time, not mine. He loved strategy and ancient battles. In fact, he always made me recite how Rome fell to the Vandals and Visigoths as well as why the strategy worked. I took all those elements, boiled them down to what I thought was great about storytelling and wrote Paper Thrones in my head so I can say it out loud to my Dad.

Astounding.  What can you tell us about your protagonist, Clay Durward?

Clay Durward is a composite of a lot of people I know or have studied from afar. He originated from my curiosity about an archetype I see a lot. In every hood across United States, there is a Clay. Maybe that’s not his name, but I will call him that. This guy is highly educated for his age and not in underwater basket-weaving either. The cat is super smart and makes a grip of money yet he refuses to leave the hood. His house is neither broken down nor really nice. You would expect him to live next to doctors and lawyers in the suburbs or near a campus. Instead he lives on the thin line between middle class and poverty in your local black neighborhood. He rides public transit even though he makes more than enough to drive in to work. You might run into him at a comic book shop and think he is out of place in a suit. He seems to be the guy who is coasting through life. He is deliberately avoiding making waves despite his potential. The “cool guy” we wave at on our way to work but we couldn’t tell you his name.

Clay lives in San Francisco where he is he works with young people who have been through a trauma. He is invited to a crime scene where the only survivor is a child and Clay is asked to help the child out of the scene without scaring him. Clay decides to work further with the young person and learns that the child he is talking to is being hunted by a number of deities from Greek and Egyptian mythology. Advocating for the young person, shakes Clay’s entire sense of reality as he struggles to understand how the child he is guarding sees the world.



Why did you choose to go with Ancient Egyptian deities?

I have an affinity for ancient East African civilization. I learned it from my parents, I suppose. My dad was very big into making sure I understood human migration patterns out central Africa, into East Africa and beyond through a variety of different sources. My mom was good at explaining mythologies from all over the world but she made the Egyptian sound the best. Much like many young men in high school, I was after power, more so out of fear for my safety than for anything else. This led me to getting myself arrested. In my generation, hip hop was entering is “golden era” and there was a culture of “each one teach one”. Some of us were taught a culture where we were asked to know ourselves. I was exceptionally fortunate to have teachers who opened my eyes to Kemet (Egypt) and I fell in love; not just with Kemet but with myself for once. This love grew and I took upon myself to study the culture in context. In college, I got the incredible opportunity to study under some masters for a time which is why I shouted them out in the book. I fell in love with it all over again once I saw the scientific applications for a lot of the lore. To answer your question, they say write what you know right? (lol).

Another part of it is I wanted to talk about where I live which is the San Francisco Bay Area. That’s part of the United States. The USA is highly influenced by Egyptian culture. It’s so obvious you take it for granted when you hear Transamerica Pyramid or Memphis, Tennessee. Therefore you would have to have Egyptian deities here when their name and images are so part of American folklore. I can’t really see them anywhere else, even present day Egypt. I also wanted a certain audience to identify with it. I would like as many people as possible to try out Among The Veils, but the first iteration of the book was to make something both my students from the youth programs and my dad would want to read. I wanted something besides Harry Potter for the little black skater thug boys to read. Not hating on Potter but there’s two black people in the series and they looked shocked when they meet like, “They allowed two of us?” Meanwhile I had young Latina/Chicana girls who dressed chola but carried Twilight books. Again…who is it in the woods full of vampires and werewolves that you young ladies relate to? When I asked, the kids told me I should write something for them that they could relate to. Therefore, you have Egyptians, Aztecs, Greeks and Chinese in the book. They are all in there together in some kind of community somehow.

Furthermore, I’ve seen other interpretations of Egyptian mythology for young adults and frankly they offend me. There are some class misrepresentations people fall into when discussing ancient Egypt and it is very important for me to tell a more accurate story. I used to be a battle emcee. I used to be very good until I stopped caring. When I write, I care. Me with a pen is how I battle now. There is a series out there that is young adult fiction about Egyptian deities in modern day. I am not going to say the name or the author. I am just going to say that I am going to body that other series especially since the book came out the same year my Dad died. It’s very important that young people know about Kemet.

I know exactly what you mean.  Our kids need something other than what the mainstream provides, so good lookin' out.  I remember some drama a while back about whitewashed covers on books about POC which leads to me wonder...the cover for Among the Veils is gorgeous. Whom do we have to thank for that?

There were a lot of young people that were really into Among The Veils when it was still in production. Nishant Vats was one of the first. He took very little direction, only needed a few keywords and that kid did something special. He did that design from India. I can't really speak on it any further than this but wait until you see the next covers. Nishant is incredible and he really deserves to be recognized. I hope he blows up as an artist. That's another one of the very powerful and sentimental feelings around this project. I am incredibly blessed with talented young people that go really hard for me, the book and earnestly want me to win. Most of the character art and diagrams for the discussions were Taylor Davis. Taylor also did the throne on the webite. My little brother Roman Diaz did the website and the animation. The Isfet came from Cara Ricci.  Khoury did the classroom lecture slides. All young people who basically said "I want to help this project reach people". I am shouting them out because what they did is great but I also want them to have the hundreds of thousands of dollars I think they are worth too.

What’s next in the series?

I don’t want to get ahead of myself too much. Going back to the deadlines you asked about earlier, I am finding that getting the first book out and into the hands of people is a huge task all by itself. The good news is everyone who has read Among The Veils has come back with really delightful feedback and support. I thought folks might like the series but I was surprised at how many really love it. I feel I still have a lot of ground to cover to get more eyeballs on this book. Even for those who have already finished the book, they tend to go back and re-read once they discover all the tools on the website such as the soundtrack, the artwork and the glossary. Once we hit our target of really getting the series anticipated, I will release the second book which I am calling Sanctuary of The Veils. That’s the working title right now. It may become something else when we get to that milestone. Whereas book one was exclusive to the San Francisco Bay Area, book two will stretch across California into Los Angeles. In addition, the reader will see more inner workings of the factions, become acquainted with additional members of some of the pantheons and go deeper into the Paper Thrones world through Clay’s eyes. There will also be another soundtrack for the second book.

Bret...it was an immense pleasure getting to know you.  Thank you so much for stopping by the Bar.

No problem. Keep the questions coming. You are a great interviewer!

Comments

  1. Listening to his responses and learning what motivated him to write the book already has peeked my interest. I haven't clicked the hyperlink yet, but the picture alone is very powerful. If possible and if he ever wants to begin a series on West African deities I can send a link with some very striking pictures that tell a story just by themselves. This book sounds super interesting.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope he has a long and successful career, and I sincerely hope this series takes off.

      Delete
    2. Amanda,

      I would love to see those pictures. There are reference to Yoruba Orisha in the first book but they will be explored more in the second novel. You can hit me at:

      author@paperthrones.com

      Delete

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