Author Interview: Zachary Bonelli

Insomnium CoverThis interview with Zachary Bonelli marks the first time I’ve interviewed a talented author, who writes book episodes, and when I read his kickstarter campaign about his new project, I couldn’t help but tirade him with questions about his ambitions and concepts. I’ve always been intrigued about Book Serials, as they can offer so much to their readers; a concept I’d never dare approach myself, so hats off to Zachary for giving it his full attention. They’re almost like TV Episodes I guess, with the reader ‘tuning in’ next week to carry on and see how the lives of the book’s protagonists progress.

Zachary Bonelli’s Insomnium is due out later this year, and here is the blurb:

Nel Hanima lives in Seattle of 2089, a citizen of the newly organized Western Union. Life has stabilized since his childhood, when he lived with his parents in the Queen Anne community bunker. Government has been reestablished, and order restored. Famine and disease no longer run rampant, and the economy has stabilized. But still, the trees and grasses grow browner. The Sound continues to rise, swallowing up neighborhood after neighborhood of Nel’s youth.

Even though life has never been better, Nel can’t help but feel his life is somehow worse, without purpose or meaning or hope.

One night, he falls asleep in his apartment and awakens in the City of Nowhere, an impossible conundrum world of inhuman citizens, where time and space are an illusion and paradoxes run rampant.

As Nel explores the city, he meets Giniip Pana, Rev Merveille, and Drogl Belgaer, humans from alternate versions of his world. Together with his new friends, Nel works to unravel the mysteries of Nowhere, to learn how he came to be there, and discover not only a way to return to Seattle, but also the purpose and meaning his life has lacked.

Insomnium is a twelve episode serial about the adventures of Nel Hanima in the conundrum world of ‘Nowhere.’

This sounds completely original doesn’t it? After reading Zachary’s story, I couldn’t help but feel interested in his view on illustrations and cover art – which you can see influencesZacahry Bonelli his own profile picture.

Zachary grew up in a small town in northern Illinois, west of Chicago. After graduating high school, he dual majored in English Literature and German Language at a small, Midwestern liberal arts college. After undergrad, he turned his eyes towards exploration, and spent many years in Japan, Thailand and Hawaii, although nowadays, he lives with his partner near Seattle, Washington, where he works as a web developer.

He loves stories and has long been fascinated by video games as a storytelling medium, as well as exploring different cultures, discovering the different underlying stories that different groups of people tell themselves, the stories that define who they are and how they perceive the world.

He contributes frequently to the Science Fiction Writers Google+ Community and his previous serialised work, Voyage, is still continuing to grow!

  • Tell us a little bit about Insomnium and where the ideas came from.

Thank you for having me on your blog, Dan. It’s great to be here.

I cobbled Insomnium together from various ideas I had floating around my head earlier this year. The first component that came to my mind was the City of Nowhere, a place completely strange, where even the laws of physics and the nature of reality can change from moment to moment.

The main characters came to me shortly thereafter. The lead character’s name is Nel Hanima, and he’s a resident of Seattle in the year 2089. His life’s kind of a mess, and worse, he has no idea how to pull himself out of his rut. One night, he goes to sleep and awakens in Nowhere. He meets three other people from Seattle, but not his Seattle. Each comes from a different alternate reality Seattle. Insomnium takes off from there.

  • I’m really intrigued about this ‘City of Nowhere’, a dream-like city that sounds like things aren’t necessarily what they seem; what can readers expect to find in this almost parallel universe?

Early on, Nel and his new friends discover that Nowhere actually is a dream, but they’re not told whose dream it is, nor how to wake up. That discovery is the focus for most of the novel, and the reveal actually creates more problems than it solves.

The City of Nowhere is divided into districts called wards. Each ward is ruled by a governor, a fantastical being with unique powers. Many of them are hostile, and all of them are self-absorbed.

Even the structures and composition of the landscape change drastically within each ward. Nothing in Nowhere is ever static or remotely predictable.

  • What genre would you say Insomnium fits into? I’ve read that it’s going to be serialised into episodes – what inspired you to take that route instead of the ‘complete novel’?

My Voyage serial is firmly rooted in science fiction. Though I may stretch the rules of physics and basic chemistry on occasion, I provide at least some resemblance to reality.

Insomnium stands in stark contrast to the very nature of our universe. In fact, the reason I found it so compelling was that Voyage had me itching to break away from the rules of science and keeping alternate reality physics remotely sensical. If I had to give it a genre, I’d call it “new weird” or “slipstream.” Though “product of my bizarre imagination” is probably the most accurate descriptor.

As far as serialization is concerned, I conceived of Insomnium in discreet episodes, and that’s how I understand its components. Serialization for me is neither a marketing ploy, nor a monetization scheme. I think serials offer unique opportunities for narrative structure, world building, and character development, and I think that readers will enjoy the serial format for these elements as well. I’m not saying I do any of those things perfectly, by any means, but I do give it my best shot.

  • Would you say you were influenced by comic books growing up, or is that a completely different avenue? Perhaps it was certain authors that inspired you?

I like comic books, but I’m not a big reader of them. My favorite is Atomic Robo. It’s amazingly well written and illustrated. My comic book adventures are limited though.

In terms of serialization inspiration, I am, however, hugely indebted to 90’s science fiction television, Babylon 5 in particular. I loved how J Michael Stracszynski wove multiple story arcs together into a single compelling narrative, and how so much of the late series was foreshadowed early in the series. He’s a real inspiration for me, and I strive for that level of detail in my serials as well.

  • I’ve also heard that the book deals with life, purpose, tragedy and loss. Did you find it a challenge to fit these deep themes into episodes? And also, would you say that in books of this nature, the themes are perhaps just as important as the lead characters?

Insomnium started with these themes at its core. Nel’s life in Seattle is clearly in trouble. He’s safe, he has enough food, and the tumultuous years of his youth are behind him, when his society was practically falling apart. But even though order’s been restored, he’s just drifting through life, and he hates it.

The friends who he meets in Nowhere all bring their own baggage with them, too. In the process of confronting their individual personal problems, they will solve the mystery of how they got to Nowhere and how to leave.

What I strive to accomplish is to have all elements, the setting, the characters, their adventure, everything, tie together into the central themes. I’ll leave it up to my readers to tell me how well I’ve accomplished that.

  • How do you think Insomnium differs from your previous serialised work Voyage Along the Catastrophe of Notions? Did you learn any valuable lessons along the way that you have implemented in your writing today?

Voyage Ep1 coverVoyage is still ongoing. It’s a huge, sprawling epic of a serial seventy episodes in total, spread over five fourteen-episode arcs.

Insomnium is much more concise, at twelve episodes for the entire series.

Whereas Voyage is set in 2178, Insomnium is earlier, in 2089. Besides just the usual experience gained from the act of writing, I think the biggest benefit has been in exploring the events that helped shape Kal’s Earth of 2178. Readers of both works will be able to catch the little details that link the two stories.

  • In your Kickstarter campaign, you admit that books need great covers, and you plan on using a talented artist. Tell us what it is about Aubry Kae Andersen’s style that you loved and why it fits so well with your work?

I’ve been a fan of Aubry’s work ever since I first saw it. She has a very unique style where she takes hand-drawn illustrations and combines them with cloth textures to create a very distinctive feel. I think especially for my writing, where both characters and reader are never certain about the nature of reality, her art style is a great complement thematically.

Example of Artwork by Illustrator, Aubry Kae Andersen
Example of Artwork by Illustrator, Aubry Kae Andersen
  • Even though your books aren’t graphic novels, do you feel that the cover must also tell part of the story that is hidden within the pages?

I think that visual art greatly adds to narrative art. In the nineteenth century, one of the ways that you could tell a piece of literature was highly regarded was that it came with illustrations. The attitude that only children’s books are illustrated is a product of the twentieth century, and I feel we’re worse off for it. I believe that including the artwork of a talented illustrator (such as Aubry Andersen) greatly improves any written work, whether it’s a serial, short story, novel, or anything else.

I have always known that for me to be completely happy with the end product, Voyage would have to be illustrated. I think that the individual cover illustrations for Insomnium will serve much the same purpose, adding richness to each episode they wouldn’t have otherwise.

  • Apart from the continuous storyline, what connects each episodes together, would you say? Do you end them as cliff-hangers, tempting your readers to ‘tune in’ next week, or are there more detailed devices you like to use?

Cliffhangers are easily my least favorite narrative device for serials, mostly because of how they are abused. They’re often thrown in as a kind of lazy, inverse deus ex machina, relying on chance or circumstance to both provide the danger and resolve it immediately in the subsequent episode.

I think the best narrative structure opportunities provided by serials revolve around characters and world building. When done well, each episode of a serial will stand at least somewhat as its own story, with its own buildup and resolution. This means that we get to explore characters across many story arcs and see how they respond to many different kinds of challenges. And by weaving together details and foreshadowing events to come in later episodes, we gain a form of narrative depth that is not available when following the structure of a standard novel.

Another way I’ve come to describe this: A novel says to the reader, “You can stop at the chapter breaks.” A serial says to the reader, “You should stop at the episode breaks.”

  • With an exhausting schedule ahead (with the weekly instalments of Insomnium to be released across the latter half of 2013 and into 2014), how does Zachary Bonelli relax?

What is this “relaxation” you speak of?

Seriously, my partner and I like to take walks in Seattle, to our favorite cafes and bookstores, and the local library. We’re fans of science fiction TV shows, too. Occasionally we get out into the mountains for hiking excursions.

  • What was the last book you’ve read … did you enjoy it?Railsea Cover Zacary Interview

The last book I finished was Railsea by China Mieville, and yes, I enjoyed it immensely. I’m a big fan of imaginative settings, and everything I’ve read by Mieville has impressed me in that category.

  • What would you hope to have achieved in the next five years?

I would like to have a full series of five Voyage volumes (seventy episodes total) available from Fuzzy Hedgehog Press in all formats. I would like to have released a number of other works too, Insomnium included. And I hope they’re all accompanied by awesome artwork, inside and out.

After I get Insomnium out and I get myself ahead of the game on Voyage once again, I’d like to spend some time on a novel idea I had recently, tentatively called “Alterra.” And I have an idea for a novel that is yet without even a title about a female metaxic explorer some 150 years or so after Kal’s adventure.

Most importantly, with all my writing, I hope that readers get something more from my stories than just entertainment. I aim to not just entertain, but also to enrich.

  • Describe Insomnium in just five words.

Despite terrible malaise—beauty, wonder.

As you can see by Zachary’s responses, he’s very passionate about his work and writing, and he’s desperately searching for people who are willing to donate from $1 up to $250 towards the cost of transforming Insomnium into its finished state. Each donation level gives you a certain ‘reward’ as such, and if you are interested, you can check out his KICKSTARTER campaign and his promotional video. Good Luck with the campaign, Zachary, let’s push forward to see an Insomnium release.


Zachary Bonelli’s Website / Twitter / Facebook


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