Sunday, October 21, 2018

Interview with James R. Bottino - Author of The Canker Death

Credit: James R. Bottino
Book cover image from author being interviewed

An interview with author, cancer survivor and all-around nice guy James R. Bottino

Hello, Mr. Bottino, and welcome to Broowaha. Would you please briefly introduce yourself to the readers here?

A: I am a self-admitted computer geek and a creative writing teacher rolled into one. I earned a BS in English Education from Illinois State University and taught high school English in a suburb of Chicago for many years. After teaching all day, I studied creative writing in graduate school at Northern Illinois University. All the while, though, in the deep corners of the night, when no one was looking, I led a double life hacking and building computers and networks. Eventually, unbeknownst to me, word of my activities leaked out, and employment offers started coming in.

In the end, I switched my hobby with my profession and became a senior computer / networking administrator for a scientific research laboratory. Just six months into this position, however, tragedy struck when, at the age of 31, I was diagnosed with cancer. Given ten to one odds of living out the year and knowing that my infant daughter would never remember me if I died, I began the fight of my life, enduring massive doses of chemotherapy that killed the cancer but nearly killed me as well.

After years of struggle, I survived, but only after enduring systemic nerve damage from the treatments that left me permanently photophobic, phonophobic and with frequent difficulty in using my hands. These events focused my efforts and helped me to prevail in my dual goals: being a father to my daughter and completing my first novel, The Canker Death. I currently live in a suburb of Chicago, with my wife, daughter, two Australian cattle dogs and far, far too many books and abstruse computers.

You’re currently on the virtual road, so to say, promoting your new release The Canker Death. First, give us the gist of what your book is about.

A: It's both an adventure and a journey of self-discovery for the main character, Petor; a top-notch computer geek who gets more than he bargained for when he decides to track down an anonymous hacker who managed to break in to one of his personal servers. What Petor's search uncovers forces his consciousness to shift between the minds of beings from other worlds where he struggles to both cope with his past and to understand what is happening to him. As the story unfolds, Petor gathers clues in a twisting mystery that leaves him embroiled in the upheaval of a clandestine society that transcends life, itself.

The Canker Death isn’t exactly a book that fits into any one genre. Did you set out to write a novel that flirts with so many genres?

A: I did, actually. My reading tastes are pretty diverse. I love classic literature: Melville, Shakespeare, Hemingway and the like – the sort of stuff that is taught in schools. This isn't too surprising since I was a high school English teacher for many years. I love how classic authors can take an often simple story and layer it with allegory so that everything represents not only itself, but an entire higher plane of story that is comprised of allusions, themes and symbols.

Coupled with this love of classics is a love of entertaining stories, frequently of the fantasy or sci-fi genres. I adore fun, fantastical literature. Fast-paced stories with cool ideas really grab my attention and hold it. I can usually read two or three such books to one classic novel. Interestingly, this love of rather disparate genres became my inspiration for The Canker Death. I wrote the book in an effort to marry these two forms into one.

You found out at just 31 years old that you were very likely going to die. What kind of influence, if you can name it, has that had on your writing?

A: Great question! I’ve thought a good deal about this over the years. In the end, I think surviving that ordeal has had two main affects. Like many people who survive life-threatening or near-death experience, it made me contemplate and examine what, exactly, the most important things in my life are. My wife and daughter are first, after this, my own dreams. I spent years wanting to be a novelist, studying to be one and teaching others how to write. So, when my symptoms had subsided to a manageable extent, I started to write The Canker Death.

When I began writing it, my chances of survival were still poor, so there was no certainty that I would ever be able to finish. Given this situation, the first influence the situation had on my writing was providing a real sense of urgency to write the book, there and then; it gave me the motivation to keep going and to keep it interesting. Who wants to spend their last days writing something droll?

Second, I was freed from spending overmuch thought on marketing, genre, and the like. If I was going to live long enough to finish the novel, it might be the only one I ever got to write, so I decided to write the novel for which I’d spent my life searching.

The cancer treatments left you with some damage afterwards and you’ve had to overcome difficulties to get your novel written. Would you care to share about that part of your journey?

A: I don’t really have a problem with talking about this, at least not anymore. First, I have difficulty with my hands; I have an unusual type of nerve damage. I’ve had surgeries, but they haven’t helped. Basically, I can’t hold anything for very long, and it’s extremely difficult for me to type. So, after lots and lots of research, I found a keyboard (a dvorak-enabled Datahand) that makes it possible for me to write and to work. I work in IT and, with this keyboard, am able to type both day and night.

Second, I have trouble with light. I experience pain in my eyes whenever I’m in a normally lit room or in sunlight. Dark glasses help, but most of the time I work in areas where I can control the amount of light around me. While you might not think that being sensitive to light would be a hindrance to writing, it can definitely interfere with research.

In addition to the difficulties you might expect, I’ve experienced a fair deal of … well, prejudice and suspicion from people who don’t know any better and think I’m, I don’t know, “up to no good,” or something. These experiences always end up in one’s writing, somewhere; there’s no avoiding it.

What’s next for you?

A: I don't want to say that I'm the sort who does something once and then moves on to something else – because it's not true, most of the time – but I know that, in addition to future novels targeted at adults, I want to write young adult and children's literature too. To that end, the novel on which I'm currently working is targeting the young adult market. It's no coincidence that my daughter is entering the target age for the book I'm writing. I have to have an ideal reader in mind as I write, that one person who I really want to love the story. For The Canker Death, that ideal reader was my wife. For my next book, as yet untitled, my ideal reader is my daughter.

Where can people find out more about you and your book?

A: Ah, well, not counting computer geeky stuff, the usual places … Facebook, Twitter … here’s a quick list:

Thank you your time and this interview.

A: Thank you for having me. It’s been a pleasure!

About the Writer

JaimeM is a writer for BrooWaha. For more information, visit the writer's website.
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