August 21, 2008
Review and Interview: What If . . .? by Steve N. Lee
I always get a little bit nervous when I get a book directly from an author. What if it's horrid? What if I hurt their feelings? What if I write a negative review and the author retaliates? I mean, you hear about things like this and this and this happening, and that's just not cool. So I think that I read books I get from authors a little differently than I read books I get from publishers or publicists... I read, perhaps, with a little more trepidation.
Most of the time, though, that trepidation is entirely in excess. I talk to authors and they are nice. I read their books and the books are good. Occasionally I even ask for interviews, and those are consistently interesting (to me, anyway). I'm always glad when things work out that way.
But of course, when I was offered What If . . .? by its author, Steve N. Lee, I was sceptical. I was mostly sceptical because of the title, let me tell you. I still am, in fact. I think it's a lousy title. The cover in general is pretty lame; readers are treated to a somewhat bluzzy picture of the creation of Adam and a title with drop shadows. It's a little bit awful. But fortunately, the rest of the book more than makes up for it.
What If . . .? is a fairly fast-paced thriller with political, religious, and environmental overtones. It was described to me as an "eco-thriller," but I hold that such a description is not entirely accurate. Environmental issues do come into play, but What If . . .? is also a legal drama, a mob story, a medical mystery, a romance, and a quasi-religious human rights treatise. It's also quite difficult to talk about without spoiling the whole thing -- and there's a lot to spoil.
There's a lot that keeps you guessing, as well: things like the true identity of the hero, and of course, what happens next. One of the blurbs on the back raves that the ending is "remarkable and not to be read first!". (Of course, I immediately wanted to turn to the back and read the last chapter. But I am perverse.) I didn't read it first, but when I got to chapter 30, I thought I knew what the blurbist meant. And then I got to chapter 40, and I thought I knew what the blurbist meant. And then I got to the last chapter. Ka-bam, what an ending! It was remarkable ... and not to be read first, as counter-productive as such warnings might be.
I'm having a very difficult time trying to talk about the book without saying too much, and I think that I'm probably erring on the annoying side of vague as a result. I thought it definitely worth the read, though -- I give it a solid 4/5.
Want to know more? Steve Lee will tell you:
Tell us a little about yourself.
I live in Yorkshire, England with my partner, Ania. She's a teacher for kids with special needs (and, coincidentally, the great granddaughter of a writer: Wladyslaw Reymont, the winner of the 1924 Nobel prize for Literature.). I enjoy a cold pint of cider, backpacking to explore the world, rock music, and TV shows like House, Lost, Heroes, 24. I'm also lucky enough to have a successful blog, lionsledbysheep.com, on which I discuss environmental, conservation and human rights issues.
What were the sparks of What if . . .?? How did this novel begin?
The ending just popped into my head one day and I thought - ‘WOW! What an incredible climax to a story.' All I had to do was work backwards and discover what circumstances could thrust the hero into such a fantastic ending. And that's where the problems started.
A powerful ending needed a powerful story, and I simply didn't have one. So for years - literally - I brainstormed possible storylines that could do the ending justice. Of course, I could've gone with an earlier idea and produced a decent book but I didn't want a decent book - I wanted a great book. Finally, the bits and pieces started falling into place and, once I started writing, the ideas gelled and just came flooding out.
It was an incredible amount of hard work, but from the feedback it all seems to have been worthwhile.
Do you, like the hero, think that we can change the world? Or do you see our future as more dire?
The world can change, yes, but I'm worried it won't. People are too hung up on living a luxurious lifestyle to sacrifice too much for the sake of strangers struggling in countries they've barely even heard of. Add to that the power craving of politicians and greed of corporations and it's easy to see things carrying on pretty much as they are well into the future. That might seem depressing and cynical, but since when did anything ever change quickly because it was the right thing to do? (Unless there was a quick buck in it for someone!)
This is why I thought it would be a great story that readers would love to explore. If someone came along who had the power AND inclination to literally change the world, what would happen? Would they succeed? Or would the power-mongers try everything possible to stop them? And if so, who'd win?
That's the main reason it's set during a presidential election - it creates a whole other level of tension, fear and power-manipulation. And it's realistic, too, in that it paints quite a revealing picture of U.S. politics and corporate America.
Of course, there are all the traditional thriller elements, too - shootouts, conspiracies, car chases, double crosses, mystery...
Are you working on any more writing projects right now?
Yes. I've plans for at least one more thriller but the next project is a comedy. It's in its final stages, but it will be a while before it's completed and published because there's still so much to do with What if...?. For example, the possible movie deal I'm discussing with a European production company - I'd love a crack at the screenplay.
It might sound strange to go from thriller to comedy, but I'm determined not to get into the rut of having to churn out formulaic genre stuff that some writers unfortunately get trapped in, so the easiest option is to write something different immediately, then I won't get labelled ‘thriller writer'. That said, I'm not just writing a comedy for that reason, but because I've got a cracking story. My editor said it's the funniest thing he's read in years - let's hope he proves to be a fair judge!
What do you think is the biggest problem that the world faces right now?
Apathy. We're all horrified when we see Ethiopians starving to death on our TVs and yet, without skipping a beat, we'll jump straight into cars that do 20 to the gallon to go shopping for another Gucci purse, or dash to the drive through for a cheeseburger. Even when we see it's all related, we turn a blind eye to it because we believe it's simply too much effort to do anything about most of the issues we face, these days.
Changing things by acting responsibly would mean disrupting our luxurious lifestyles so it's never going to happen without a drastic shift in mindset, both at grassroots and government level. We're like kids in a sweetshop (candy store) - just grabbing anything we want with no thought of the consequences.
I explore all this kind of thing - the environment, human rights, conservation - on my blog Lions Led By Sheep.
Can you point out any good resources for people who'd like to learn more?
That's easy. There's my blog, for a start. Plus, I did a ton of research for What if...? and communicated with people all over the globe - England, America, Canada, France, South Africa, Australia... Links to many of these people/organizations are on my website, steve-n-lee.com/links.htm. There's everything there from Buddhism to rainforests to whales to origami!
The research was a lot of work - a LOT of work - but these issues had to be explored for the central character and the story to be believable. I knew just the kind of images I wanted to create in the reader's mind of what we're doing to the world but as What if...? is mainstream fiction not a textbook on ecology, I needed to create those images in as few words as possible so they added to the thriller aspect as opposed to slowing down the story. I wanted quick, slap-in-the-face mental images. It was absolute murder finding the info to do that but it was twice as hard making all these issues fit seamlessly in with all the car chases, double crosses and everything ‘thriller'. I struggled on till I did it, though, because I knew it would add an incredible depth to the story that would set it apart from other thrillers.
Is there anything else you'd like to add?
I'd just like to thank you, Christine, for giving me this opportunity and to thank your readers for their interest in my work. I hope you enjoy What if...? and if you pop by my blog, be sure to say, ‘Hi' (I try to reply to every comment posted).
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