A previous entry included a review of Richard Ellis Preston, Jr.’s first novel. He agreed here to talk about his time at Waterloo, and his post-graduation experience.–JLH
JLH: What made you choose Waterloo?
REP: That was quite easy, actually. My father was a geography professor at Waterloo (emeritus now) and so the combination of a family tuition discount and familiarity made it an easy choice. I was scribbling on the chalkboard in my father’s Waterloo office when I was in the third grade.
JLH: What still sticks with you as your time as an English undergraduate?
REP: The years 1982-1986 seem like a long time ago now but I have wonderful memories of my professors and classmates that still stick with me. I remember being shocked at how big my first year psychology 101 class was. I spent of a lot of fun times at campus centre movie screenings and down at the Bombshelter, which was the only campus pub then. One strong, odd memory: I loved the long hours of sitting up high in the library in the wintertime, camped out inside one of the little cubby stations with a stack of research books while a blizzard raged outside. I’d occasionally fall asleep there and wake up with drool on my arm or on a book. Many of the books in the library are probably drool-stained by cramming, sleep-deprived students. Not very sanitary. I really enjoyed my time at Waterloo.
JLH: Can you fill us in a bit about your post-university career trajectory?
REP: Well, that’s one winding road! I guess we all have one, right? After completing my English BA at Waterloo I worked for a year and then attended the Radio and Television Broadcasting program at Algonquin College in Ottawa. I figured that I needed a skill to go along with my humanities degree and I was interested in journalism. After graduation at Algonquin I was employed as a CBC news cameraman and as a freelance cameraman, but I soon realized that I wanted to do something more creative. I won a talent scholarship for a year of studies in the film program at York University, but I after that I’d had enough of undergraduate schooling. I backpacked around England, Scotland and Wales that summer, and returned home with the idea of pursuing the thing which I wanted to do most, which was writing. I moved to Los Angeles (I am an American citizen, though I grew up in Canada) and worked on a screenwriting career. I worked at Universal as a script reader and eventually got a Hollywood agent. I never sold a major script, but I spent a lot of years writing medium-budget movies and television episodes for outfits like HBO, USA, TNT, Animal Planet and Fox Kids. After burning out on screenwriting, I decided to plunge back into poverty and take up penning novels, which, in the end, is the thing which suits my temperament the best. I’d also like to add that I had regular day jobs of various sorts throughout most of the years I was writing.
JLH: The first two books in your Chronicles of the Pneumatic Zeppelin series, Romulus Buckle & the City of the Founders and Romulus Buckle & the Engines of War, appeared fairly close to each other: how long have you these actually been in the works? I know you’re working on another series as well. Can you tell us a bit about it, and how you achieve balance between the different universes?
REP: I am actually working on three series now, all in various stages of progress. The initial series you are referring to is a trilogy set in Russia during the Second World War. I have been working on it off and on for 8 years and it is an epic, sprawling mess. I traveled to Russia in 2007 to research museums and battlefields and interview surviving veterans. The books are based on a true story and I am trying to make them as accurate as I can. That said, the project is certainly historical fiction because there is very little information available about the original people involved so I must invent interior lives for them. The conflict between Russia and Germany was a terrible, terrible period in human history. I needed to take a break from the bleakness, so in the spring of 2011 I wrote the first installment of my steampunk Romulus Buckle series. Buckle was fun and lighthearted and written in the spirit of The Adventures of Robin Hood and Indiana Jones and I had the first book ready to send out to agents in the fall of that same year. My intention was to return to my writing cave and the Russia project while peddling the Buckle manuscript in the meantime. Lightning struck and I was picked up by a literary agent quickly (November, 2011) and a two book deal quickly (March, 2012) so the writing of the second book came right on the heels of the first. I am currently outlining the third Romulus Buckle book (awaiting a new series-extension contract from my publisher, hopefully) and also writing the first book in a middle-grade series, and chipping away at the Russian behemoth. Too much! As for achieving balance between the different book universes, I’ve never had trouble writing more than one thing at the same time. That ability could have been birthed in agony while I was writing multiple essays due at the same time at Waterloo, I don’t know. I was often involved in different stages of different projects while I was screenwriting as well. I find the movement between multiple projects keeps me fresh and I sometimes stumble on great ideas for one story while researching or writing another. The main issue is prioritizing and time management. When I really get in the swing on the first draft of one book I do tend to focus all of my energy on that one story, however.
JLH: What do you know now that you wish you knew right after graduating?
REP: Big question. I was never one of those people who knew from kindergarten what they wanted to do – I didn’t know what I wanted to do even after I graduated. I was always casting about, trying one major after another, one career after another, until I finally realized that I just had to be a writer or I was going to be miserable for the rest of my life. I am glad that I never let my life stall out—I had my ‘relaxed’ periods, sure—but I always tried to attack new things even if I didn’t know what the results might be. I do wish that I had designed a life plan, a one-year life plan and a five-year life plan, even if I erased and changed them daily. I think that forcing myself to continually reassess my progress and re-think my fluctuating goals would have saved me from some unnecessary flailing around and time wasting. But in the end, I am happy where I ended up.
JLH: And just for fun: what books are you currently reading?
REP: I am keeping such a rigid writing schedule right now I find it difficult to set time aside to read. But it is important to keep reading, because when I read it fires up my imagination and I learn new things from every author which I can apply or keep in mind when I practice my own craft. I am sort of leapfrogging between two books at the moment: The Silver Sickle by Ellie Ann, and The Emerald Atlas by John Stephens, both of which are wonderful. I am reading The Emerald Atlas to get a sense of a popular middle-grade book series. Coming up on my docket are The Cat’s Table by Michael Ondaatje (he is one of my heroes) and Time to be in Earnest by P.D. James.