Tuesday, October 2, 2012

Author Interview #120: Skybound by Aleksandr Voinov

SkyboundOur interview today is with Aleksandr Voinov, co-founder of Riptide Publishing and author of the critically acclaimed Dark Soul series and the cult classic Special Forces. His newest book, Skybound, was released August 20, 2012 from Riptide Publishing. Before we get to the interview a quick book description of Skybound: Germany, 1945. The Third Reich is on its knees as Allied forces bomb Berlin to break the last resistance. Yet on an airfield near Berlin, the battle is far from over for a young mechanic, Felix, who’s attached to a squadron of fighter pilots. He’s especially attached to fighter ace Baldur Vogt, a man he admires and secretly loves. But there’s no room for love at the end of the world, never mind in Nazi Germany.
When Baldur narrowly cheats death, Felix pulls him from his plane, and the pilot makes his riskiest move yet. He takes a few days’ leave to recover, and he takes Felix with him. Away from the pressures of the airfield, their bond deepens, and Baldur shows Felix the kind of brotherhood he’d only ever dreamed of before. But there’s no escaping the war, and when they return, Baldur joins the fray again in the skies over Berlin. As the Allies close in on the airfield where Felix waits for his lover, Baldur must face the truth that he is no longer the only one in mortal danger.

Author Interview with Aleksandr Voinov

1. What was unique about the setting of the book and how did it enhance or take away from the story?
The setting of Skybound, my newest release from Riptide Publishing, is in a wider sense Germany in early 1945. In a narrower sense, it’s an airfield near Berlin— the base for a wing of German fighter pilots defending Berlin against Allied bombers just before Hitler’s suicide and the German capitulation.
It was not easy to research, or at least a great deal less straightforward than you’d imagine; how exactly does an airfield look like in 1945? Can I go with Berlin-Gatow, or should I go with a different one? For me, the big thing is to know all this when I write, especially with a historical piece, so I turned into a research nut, watched historical newsreels, went to modern-day airshows (to get the sound and movement of these historical planes right) and spend a fortune on reference books and memoirs. So, the setting was the primary challenge, but setting is enormously important for this story, so it was vital I got it as right as possible.
2. What specific themes did you emphasize throughout the story? What did you try to get across to the reader?

Personally, I don’t like pressing “messages” or a “moral” on my reader. As a very low-key romance, Skybound is obviously about love—mostly expressed as brotherhood and loyalty between two men in a world that is quite literally about to end.
Both men are in danger yet they dare to hope and love. It’s a story of hope, ultimately; looking at Germans as “people” rather than the Nazi caricatures that are more prevalent in genre literature these days, but obviously without glorifying Nazism or excusing anything. There are other themes, but love and hope in war and destruction are the main things. Then again, it’s really a short story, so the focus is tight by necessity.
3. Can you relate to the characters’ predicaments? To what extent do they remind you of yourself or someone you know?
Being German (living in the UK), I’ve grown up with the echoes of the Second World War. My home city, Essen, was the location of huge steel works (Krupp Stahl), was one of the primary targets for bombing raids, so the very area I grew up in still bears the memories of that.
When I began travelling, I realized that not all cities were built-in the fifties and sixties, for example, that many cities are far older and less destroyed (and hence looked completely different). I studied history then and began asking questions. What did my family do during the Third Reich? I eventually realized that many things that are weird and twisted in my family on my mother’s side were due to my grandfather’s posttraumatic stress syndrome that he brought home from Russia (he escaped Stalingrad before the 6th Army was encircled, otherwise I’d very likely not be here to tell the story).
Germans of my generation are deeply ambivalent about our history, trapped forever between the crimes and wanting to move on. We grow up with Hollywood movies where the good guys are Americans and the Germans are invariably evil Nazis. I researched this a lot, and, while fully accepting the scope of the war crimes, I feel that there are other stories that happened in that time and that deserve to be told.
For Skybound, I wasn’t writing about faithful National Socialists, but non-political ground crew personnel of the German Luftwaffe. For two gay men, the Third Reich is a dangerous place all in its own, and the isolation and horror and pressure is even harder to bear. They don’t have wives or partners that can help them deal with the darkness. Nevertheless, Skybound is a story of hope and of making this connection through love.
4. Did certain parts of the book make you uncomfortable? If so, why did you feel that way? Did this lead to a new understanding or awareness of some aspect of your life you might not have thought about before?
Researching Nazi Germany is uncomfortable in the extreme. I’ve been researching this in depth for nearly three years, and I’m only starting to wrap my head around what actually happened. The scale and size of it, the human cost (dead, traumatized, lost, emigrated) is unimaginable, and the echoes are still reverberating through our world.
I’d say, the Second World War created our modern world. On one hand, it’s all understandable and is logical, on the other, I can just stare in wonder and try to piece the big picture together for myself. Reading about the Great Depression and how it created the situation during which the Nazis could come to power while trapped myself in our huge present-day financial crisis was a stark reminder for me that this can happen again. Following the news on how Assad’s regime is waging war against his own people is a chilling current-day example of the madness and ruthlessness of dictators. I’m looking at the news with a different eye now.
5. What research did you have to perform to back up your story? Any research which really opened your eyes or gave you new respect for a topic or profession?
I have a great respect for the little people. Felix in Skybound is not a fighter ace, he’s a mechanic, a guy who gets his hands dirty and who doesn’t win combat medals. He’s not a hero, he’s not particularly brave, he focuses on his job because he’s terrified of the future and he has that deep sense of loyalty to the man he loves from afar.
It’s those small, quiet stories (and as a gay man in the Nazi Germany, you have to be really quiet), the everyday heroism, that I find the most touching. And in his steadfast loyalty, he inspires the flashier, more outwardly heroic fighter pilot, Baldur Vogt. I do believe the whole is greater than the sum of its parts, and never more so when we find love and kinship.
6. Where do you see the future of publishing going? How have the changes in the publishing industry affected you?
I think we’re at a point in time where the rulebook is being re-written. Print authors, who used to laugh at e-books, are now self-publishing e-books. Fanfiction writers, who’ve always moved in a legally dubious area, are responsible for the biggest bestsellers. It used to be that you needed an agent to be heard anywhere, but now publishers actively trawl new sources. Other authors are more successful as independent authors than they were in print. In essence, nobody knows what’s going to come next.
Another thing is that authors are taking their fates into their own hands now. We’ve never before spent so much time giving interviews to blogs, spent so much time chatting to readers on Twitter or Facebook, or had so much control or freedom. Personally, the “e”-volution of publishing has come at a perfect point in time for me. I used to be print-published in Germany (two books with Heyne, which owns Random House and three more with a fantasy/sci-fi specialist publisher), I landed an agent, but I couldn’t write “to market”. I failed writing the potboiler historicals that were en vogue at the time. My agent considered me “too clever and poetic for the mass market” and “not strong enough a stylist to attempt to be in the literary crowd.” In other words, I was destined for sales hell, and that made me a very hard sell in Germany and in the German-language market. A print publisher will not take a risk on a new voice that they can’t market to anyone.
So I gave up. Literally gave up trying to land that big, happy-making print contract and instead wrote for myself. At roughly that time, I left Germany and moved to England, and I was beginning to lose my language. Double blow. Not only couldn’t I write what people thought might sell in Germany, but I suddenly felt like I had to compete in the English-language market—with native speakers, in their own language. So I gave up. There was no point. No chance.
Then e-publishing happened, and with it, many small, specialist publishing houses. I submitted some of my work; they liked it, they published it. I kept writing, kept publishing small e-things, short stories and novellas (which in Germany have no paying market at all), then novels. One by one, I gained readers. Who, gasp, paid for my books. No agent involved, no paper involved—just a small, active, incredibly vibrant scene of queer romance writers, readers and publishers. It was a tiny, brilliant, dynamic ecosystem.
Three years later, I’m making more from my e-publishing than I’ve ever made from traditional print. I have control over my covers and the editing, I talk directly to my readers, I tweet and Facebook and hang out on Goodreads, and this is simply fun. None of this was possible back in the pre-ebook days. And to add insult to injury, my paper books are out of print now, while my e-books are basically forever. Maybe, another three years from now, I might be able to go part-time at work or even stop working. This would never have even been an option with the old print model, on what, 5-7% royalties? I now make at least 35%, and ideally I want 50%.
I believe there are many authors like me—people who have a smaller readership and can slowly grow under their own steam and by their own strength. Back in the old days, I wasn’t attractive to publishers, but now I am. Unfortunately for them, I’m now happy where I am. I might sign a contract with a big print publisher, but it’s no longer my most desperate dream. I can succeed with or without them.
7. You’re a publisher as well as a published author. Tell us a little about when, how, and why you made that leap, and what it’s like to work from both sides of the desk?
Well, to truly be the master of my own fate, I had to find the best way to deliver my stories to my audience. I’ve worked with many publishers, and I know what I want: good royalties, good covers, good editing, AND good marketing support—I’m full-time employed, so I have very limited amounts of time to devote to marketing, and efforts there cut into my writing time. No publisher I’d worked with offered all of these vital components. While discussing options with my business (and sometimes writing) partner Rachel Haimowitz (who previously worked in ‘Big Six’ publishing) we realized we had all the skills needed to start our own publishing house in GLBTQ romance and fiction. We founded Riptide Publishing based on everything we’d ever wanted and not gotten from other publishers, and officially opened our doors in October 2011.
Riptide is a publishing house with an uncompromising vision in terms of quality. We only publisher authors who are at the top of their game, and we support them with everything we have. It’s emphatically not a self-publishing vehicle, however— Riptide’s editors have turned down my own submissions (though they liked Skybound), and any acquisition needs a full “yes” vote from the team. This is so that we never compromise on quality simply because the author is a co-owner. We built Riptide as our “dream home” in terms of contracts, royalty rates, support, and more. This month marks our one-year anniversary, and the amazing achievements of the past year have proven that we succeeded in laying down a solid foundation for what is truly the publishing house we’d been dreaming of.
As one would expect, transitioning from author to publisher/author—while continuing to write—is quite a balancing act. One of the biggest challenges can be to keep writing. With my day job, I already struggle to find time to write, and because Riptide is a start-up business, it’s all hands on deck, all the time. I’ve found, however, that publishing with Riptide has actually helped me find time for my own work. We have a unique perspective: as authors ourselves, we know what authors want and we know how they think, and Riptide is built very much around an author’s needs. We know that good editing and good marketing are absolutely crucial to sales, and Riptide delivers those 100% of the time. We have an extensive editorial team and a dedicated marketing department who work round the clock to oversee the success of each title. Personally, since signing with Riptide, I’ve seen my sales grow steadily, and I know it’s because the Riptide staff is actively working behind the scenes to promote each title and author they sign. This means that I can focus my “free” time on my writing, instead of struggling to self-promote. Huge relief.
Being so author-focused means Riptide is also naturally very reader-focused. Our very model is built around helping authors deliver top-shelf stories to their fans and readers— books they’ll remember, books that entertain them and make them think, books they’ll read again and again. By pounding the quality drum so relentlessly on the publishing side, we’ve shown readers that when they purchase a title from Riptide, there’s no risk of wasting their money on a shoddy book. Many reviewers have actually commented that our authors make a leap in quality when they join us. This is because we invest tremendous resources into editing our books— not something every independent publisher can afford or chooses to prioritize. As an author, however, it’s immeasurably satisfying to know that your finished product, the story you worked so hard on, is one that you’re truly proud to share with longtime fans and new readers alike.
About Aleksandr Voinov:
Aleksandr has been published for twenty years, both in print and ebook. He has ten years’ experience as a writing coach, book doctor, and writing teacher, and he works as a financial editor in the research department of a pan-European investment bank.
After co-authoring the M/M military cult classic Special Forces, Aleksandr embarked on a quest to write edgy, dark, sometimes literary M/M and gay fiction (much of which is romance/erotica)—the only way he can use his American Literature degree these days. He’s been published with Heyne/Random House, Carina Press, Samhain Publishing, Loose Id, Dreamspinner, Storm Moon Press, and others. In 2011, he co-founded Riptide Publishing, seeking to fill a critical niche in the LGBTQ market: quality books, pristinely packaged, that satisfy readers’ desires for rich, plotty, well-edited stories they’ll want to read again and again.
Links for more information:
Riptide Twitter: @RiptideBooks

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