I made some great friends at the Santa Barbara Book and Author Festival last week and preserved many great memories. One of the panelists at the Thriller/Mystery panel discussion I moderated was a fascinating young author by the name of Peter Balaskas.

Born in Brooklyn, New York from Italian/Greek descent, Peter discovered his niche as a speculative fiction writer and editor and co-founder of Ex Machina Press. He received his BS in Chemistry and his MA in English from Loyola Marymount. Peter’s fiction and poetry have been published internationally. His gothic horror novella, The Chameleon’s Addiction¸ was a semi-finalish in the 2004 Glacier Press Writing Contest and is now published online by Bards and Sages Publishing, who also published his short novel, Grandmaster, a supernatural thriller that takes p lace during the Holocaust. Peter has also just completed his first short story collectioin, In His House. Peter also serves as a reviewer for the Literary Magazine Review. After finishing In Our House, Peter is beginning his second short story collection, Out Through the Exit Door.

Peter Balaskas discusses thrillers with New York Times bestseller Gayle Lynds before Thriller/Mystery panel.

I caught up with Peter briefly after the festival to find out what makes such an energetic author and businessman tick. Please, see his interview below for great thoughts when it comes to writing fiction and getting it published. To learn more about Peter or to talk to him personally about Ex Machina Press, feel free to check out his Web site at: www.peterabalaskas.com/

1) Why are you such a huge fan of the bizarre and astonishing as it relates to story-telling?

I think my love for the bizarre and the fantastic, as well as its connection to my passion for story-telling, comes from what I like to call, “The Two Rays.” I was a lover of films before I became a bibliophile. When I was very young, my parents use to take me the movies a lot, most significantly, films by the special effects pioneer, Ray Harryhausen. It was THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD and I was amazed how such creatures—genies, cyclops, dragons—could be summoned by the imagination of one man. I soon wanted to see all his movies: the SINBAD sequels, JASON AND THE ARGONAUTS, and many others. I also got hooked on the old 50’s science fiction and horror films, where the acting and special effects were considerably cheesy, but they served as an addictive tonic for my own odd imagination. The spectacle of these films didn’t scare me at all; it only fueled my love for the fantastic.

However, it wasn’t until I entered high school that I explored my interest a little deeper. I wanted to know about what was going on in the actual story. While growing up, I discovered that these movies had three basic parts: the creatures would invade and eat the humans, the good guys would come to the rescue, and the creature dies in the end. But when I was in my teens, I wanted to understand the concepts of the war between good and evil. I started delving into the horror films by Hammer Studios, which featured different and oftentimes provocative mythologies of Frankenstein and Dracula. And then came the horror films starring Vincent Price, especially those based on the works by Edgar Allen Poe. I was entering a frightening realm where you see how tormented individuals fight the evil they face, both on a physical and spiritual sense. I saw this sort of character development and complex plotting with Alfred Hitchcock films, horror films such as THE OMEN, ROSEMARY’S BABY, and especially THE EXORCIST, and even science fiction films during the 60’s and 70’s like 2001: A SPACE ODYSSEY and the original SOLARIS, where I was focusing less on the spectacle of the fantastic—horror, fantasy, science fiction—and more on how these circumstances affect the characters and plot of the story. And since I do believe in the supernatural, that sense of wonderment and curiosity became intensified. All of these thoughts helped me understand the importance of character and plot when it comes to storytelling in general.

2) Who were the biggest influences on you as far as writing is concerned? And what made them such huge influences on you?

The second “Ray” that played an important role regarding my love for speculative fiction, both as a reader and writer, was Ray Bradbury—who, ironically enough, is good friends with Harryhausen. Although I began to read at three, my appetite for the written word really blossomed in high school when my English teacher assigned Bradbury’s short story collection, The October Country. It was as though a curtain from the real world was pulled away, revealing a long dark hallway that had many doors, all of which lead to a fantastic and oftentimes horrifying world. One of those doors was the horror genre and the keyhole to that door was Bradbury’s short story, “Skeleton,” a creepy tale about a hypochondriac’s efforts to cure every health malady he supposedly had, resulting in his entire skeleton being removed from his body, leaving a living mass of flesh and organs behind. When I asked my teacher how such a thing occurred, she simply answered with one word, “Magic.” And it was at that point that I became enchanted by the power of the written word, allowing my own imagination to provide the “mental picture” as to what was going on within the story.

The October Country led to The Martian Chronicles, which is still one of my favorite books of all time. I delved into Homer and The Odyssey, whose mythical creatures made the ones in THE SEVENTH VOYAGE OF SINBAD seem like Smurfs. With regard to the horror and supernatural branch of Bradbury, I was guided back to Poe again, but in this case, it was Poe on the printed page, as well as Lovecraft. And it was at this point that I felt these two authors are truly the masters of First Person Narrative Horror. This led to modern horror writers like Richard Matheson, Peter Straub, and Stephen King. In terms of the Science Fiction genre, The Martian Chronicles led to Arthur C. Clarke, Isaac Asimov, Ursula K. LeGuin, and most significantly Robert Heinlein. It was Heinlein and King that exposed me to the idea about how characters can exist within a literary universe of books, meaning that a character who is the protagonist in one novel can also be a supporting character or even a cameo in another. I loved that idea about how an author’s stories can exist within the same universe he/she is creating. And that is what I am doing now with all of my stories, most significantly my novel The Grandmaster and other Wagner Institute Mythos tales.

But overall, Bradbury is still one of my two favorite authors because of his ease is transcending many different genres: science fiction, fantasy, horror, etc. He is referred to as a fantasist, but I also consider him to be a master in speculative fiction, which incorporates all the previously mentioned genres. My other favorite author is Harlan Ellison. His stories are similar to Bradbury’s in terms of themes. However, there is a vibrant edge to Ellison’s writing that I instantly clicked with. His stories possess a type of “angry, uncontrollable energy” that runs amuck, and because of Ellison’s eloquence, the reader can’t help but grab onto the literary bridle and hang on for dear life until the story’s completion. Both Bradbury and Ellison reveal the wonders of what they see with their creative third eye, while somehow protecting us from certain horrible and frightening elements that are layered within the subtext. I’m both enticed and frightened by their imaginations; but in some form or another they keep me warm and safe—as both a reader and writer of speculative fiction—without being repulsed to a point where I regret reading their works. If you want to use this “warm and safe” feeling metaphorically: Bradbury is like a nice, steaming mug of decadent, hot chocolate; Ellison is like a hard shot of the oldest, finest whiskey ever made by man.

In terms of how all of these authors became such a huge influence in my writing, it all goes back to character and plot for me. They all explore the concept of normal people being placed in extraordinary circumstances. With horror, fantasy, and science fiction, those extraordinary circumstances could be facing the figurative and literal “monsters” which are manifested by their own fears, or perhaps, their own forbidden desires, like addictions or obsessions. I tried to absorb every single facet from these masters of literature, to learn from their works, and apply them to my own writing.

Author Peter Balaskas, far left, addresses fiction writing with audience. Authors from Peter’s left include: Robert Gregory Browne, Gayle Lynds, and Michael Mehas. 
3) Has your MA in English (Creative Writing/Literature) helped you in your writing career? If so, how?

Yes it has, and this is a good segue to this “Creative Osmosis” I hinted in your previous question. I feel that if you are going to enroll in any MA or MFA program, do it for the right reasons. “Learning how to write” should be only one of them, and the creative writing classes can’t teach you that. In actuality, there is only one way to learn how to write: reading from authors you have an affinity with and read from those who you are not familiar with. If you read an unfamiliar author and you love the writing style or the themes they present, excellent. If the author’s work is less than satisfactory, that is still good because you have learned what clicks for you and what doesn’t.

With regard to the Graduate Program at Loyola Marymount University, I took a double emphasis because I wanted to take advantage of the opportunities that were available to me. The literature courses taught me so much regarding diversity: 20th Century American (Fitzgerald, Hemingway, Faulkner and Twain), 18th Century English (Swift), Caribbean (Rhys) and Holocaust literature, which featured novels written by Holocaust survivors. By reading these works, I was exposed to writing styles and themes that somehow became a part of how I approach setting, character, narrative voice, and symbolism. Besides taking classes that were needed for the Master’s Exam, I made an effort to register for those which had a “special creative project” as part of their curriculum. Specifically, the student was required to incorporate the reading material from the class in a unique manner. My novel, The Grandmaster, was a creative project from a graduate class called “Literature of the Holocaust.” Another short novel I wrote called The Chameleon’s Addiction (a gothic horror story which takes place in New Orleans) was a creative project from “Death and Its Images,” which studies how death plays an important part in major works of literature and poetry including Hamlet, Wuthering Heights, and the various poems by Ted Hughes. Both these novels were published by Bards and Sages Press. So, the literature classes at Loyola Marymount University played an important part in my evolution as a writer.

But then we come to the creative writing workshops. I felt there were two benefits from these classes: networking and the skill of editing/critiquing. I met a variety of people during the four years that I attended LMU (I was working as a camera technician on an NBC soap opera called PASSIONS in order to pay for my tuition) and I was truly blessed to befriend professors whose mission was the academic and creative growth of their students. As far as my fellow graduates are concerned, I met my co-founder of my publication company. Ironically enough, Mark D’Anna and I didn’t meet in a class; it was during the last semester where we were in a study group preparing for the Master’s Exam. Besides sharing a love for writing, we worked effectively together as a team during the study sessions and we both passed the exam with flying colors. Now, we are not only friends, we’re co-workers of Ex Machina Press.

I also learned a lot about editing while attending the workshops. It taught me the art of revising a work of fiction, as well as giving and receiving constructive criticism from my peers. Most significantly, it exposed me to the following philosophy: writing is a solitary business, but it doesn’t have to be a lonely one. No man is an island; writers need to stick together to help each other grow within their craft. To think otherwise is egocentric. That is one of the reasons why I created Ex Machina Press: to help writers be the best they can be.

4) Ex Machina Press: What were your goals in founding your own publishing company?

Ex Machina Press came about when I took my first creative writing workshop class, which contained both graduate and undergraduate students. The professor was so impressed with the quality of the writing in the class that he wanted to help finance a fiction anthology containing one story per student, making a total of eleven stories. Two others and I volunteered to be the editorial staff. We edited the works and formatted the book. The professor’s endowment was $500; I contributed $800 of my own in order to give the book a more professional touch. We called the book Ex Machina—“From the Machine.” The moment the copies of the volume were printed, I gave them away to faculty and the English Department staff. It was the first volume, but it wouldn’t be the last.

Two years later, I was taking a graduate writing workshop course and I wanted to create another anthology. I chose a new staff, received funding of $1100, and created Ex Machina, Volume Two. With this issue, I wanted to increase the exposure of the LMU Creative Writing Program by selling it through consignment deals with independent book stores like Vroman’s, Book Soup, and Dutton’s (which closed recently, may it rest in peace). I actually made a bit of a profit selling that volume.

After I received my MA, I realized that a happy accident occurred: I loved being an editor. I loved receiving and proofreading works from various authors and placing them in a certain order where a larger story was being created. But it was the concept of helping my fellow writers be the best at what they can be that drove me to create Ex Machina Press: “From the Machine Press.” After meeting my co-founder and selecting the rest of my staff, I decided to utilize the money I made on PASSIONS to create my publication company and its primary title, a fiction anthology called Silent Voices: a creative mosaic of fiction. We had an annual submission call for short fiction, approximately 600 submissions per year. The purpose of the book series is to publish unknown authors alongside the works by featured or “known” authors, and arrange the stories in such a way where the reader can sense a larger story being unfolded. By doing this, publishing new authors along with professionals, we prove that literary excellence is universal. We have been doing this for five years and Silent Voices—most notably Volume Three, which features LA Times Book Prize Finalists Tod Goldberg and Marlon James—has won many international awards for Best Anthology, resulting in Ex Machina Press being named 2007 Publisher of the Year by the DIY Book Festival in Los Angeles. This was truly an honor because all of us were being recognized for the hard work we have done regarding quality fiction. And that is what Ex Machina Press is all about: to help authors evolve creatively within their craft and to market their work in order for them to be rightfully acknowledged by the media as gifted artists. We just published our first author publication: Mark D’Anna’s short story collection, Big Brown Bag. And our next two projects involve publishing a literary novel by Pushcart Prize nominee Susan Briggs and a thriller—we will announce the submission call for that sometime in 2009.

5) Do you have any tips for the unpublished author on how to get their manuscript published?

It all comes down to patience and perseverance. And they should be applied towards any dream or goal that one is pursuing. I learned that early on during Graduate School. When I was in the early stages of creating the first volume of Ex Machina, it took two years of development and publishing because most of the editing staff quit during the middle of the project and I was involved in a car accident which left me bed-ridden for 3 months. I proofed the book on my back with a special tray holding the pages. I pushed hard for the funding of Ex Machina, Volume Two. I spent a considerable amount of money on Ex Machina Press, suffering a loss during the first two years. My tenacity and my patience (it took five years for Ex Machina Press to produce a profitable year) helped my business grow. And having a truly wonderful and dedicated staff doesn’t hurt, either.

I utilized that same philosophy with my writing. I submitted one particular short story thirty times before it found a home in a literary journal. I pursued many agents and publishing houses before The Grandmaster was accepted by Bards and Sages Press. I waited for the right time and right person to develop my own personal website. But, most importantly, you need that perseverance and patience when it comes to any story you write, whether it’s short fiction or a full-length novel. The perseverance comes by swallowing your fear, sitting down, and simply writing your story. The patience comes when you use your head to edit and revise your work so it can be the best story it can be. After that, perseverance and patience have to be utilized when it comes to submitting your work. I heard Robert Heinlein’s first story was rejected 100 times before it was accepted, and he was one of the pioneers of science fiction. With perseverance, patience…and little faith thrown in for good measure, as well as love for your craft, you will never lose.

Thank you much, Peter, and we wish you great luck with all you do…. 
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