Al Past resides in the small town of Beeville, TX, south of San Antonio, and he is currently writing the third novel in the series, due out later this year.
Tabitha: What inspired you to write Distant Cousin?
Al Past: Several things. (1) It was a story I’d been mulling over for 20 years. Suppose some people who were taken from here long ago managed to come back? What then? I couldn’t get that out of my mind. (2) As a teacher of writing, I wondered if I could create a story that I myself could stand. In other words, I could dish it out, but could I take it? (3) I retired from teaching and finally had the time. (4) The immediate inspiration was a friend, a world-class harpsichordist and prize-winning author, Rebecca Pechefsky, who urged me to quit dithering and just start, to take it one chapter at a time. She was right. It turned out to be wonderful fun.
Tabitha: Is there a particular, actual person who inspired your lead character?
Al Past: Yes, many of the characters are composites of different people I know. The lead character, for example, was inspired in part by a young mathematician & astronomer of my acquaintance.
Tabitha: When I read Distant Cousin, images of a blockbuster movie such as Close Encounters rampaged through my head. Have you envisioned what a movie version would look like?
Al Past: I have, yes. I can see the scenes that take place at the Olympic Games on the screen clearly. West Texas is quite scenic too, and there’s a fair amount of action. It’s also why the main character isn’t a six-foot guy with bulging muscles. It needed to be an attractive, vulnerable person that people would be drawn to. That worked nicely, better than I had hoped.
Tabitha: Did you consider other publishers before you selected iUniverse?
Al Past: Yes, I did. An article in the New York Times mentioned iUniverse and several other POD outfits, and I checked them all out.
Tabitha: How satisfying has your experience with iUniverse been?
Al Past: Generally good. They do what they say they’ll do and they produce a handsome, durable product. It’s pricey, but I’m happier than I would be with one of those cheaper, pocket-sized paperbacks that soon split and spill their pages. The face on the cover of Distant Cousin should have been more obvious, but since I sent iUniverse the original picture, they had no way to recompose it even if they had wished to. The only way to see how it was going to look was to print it, and then it was too late to change it. Another thing: thank heavens I can write well enough to not absolutely need an editor! An experienced book editor probably could have honed it somewhat, and iUniverse could have provided that service, but it would have cost me over $4000!
Tabitha: What is the most significant thing you have learned as a POD author? Do you have any advice to offer to new or prospective POD authors?
Al Past: It depends on what your goals are. My original intent was just to get the book into the hands of friends and maybe their friends and see how it went over. POD was the way to go for that. I succeeded! But if your goals are to make big money and/or get famous, then you need to make a more concerted effort, because iUniverse will give you guidance but you’ll have to do it all yourself. I’m a writer, not a marketer or businessperson. I believe there are lots of people out there who would love the Distant Cousin series, and I will work on getting it to them, but I’m not going to sell the farm in the attempt. Others might.
Tabitha: Tell us about the faces that have been carefully integrated into the book covers. Whose face is it? How do the faces key into your intentions for the focus of the books?
Al Past: The face belongs to a young friend of mine who comes from nearly pure Czech stock who very graciously allowed me to use her image. Since the main character’s ancestors came from Eastern Europe, the classic lines of her face were perfect. The idea of superimposing the face over a galaxy was to suggest that the heroine was (1) a very attractive young woman, and (2) that she came from outside our solar system. The face printed more faintly than I had hoped, however, with the result that a lot of people miss it. When it’s pointed out, they think it’s a wonderful, subtle trick...but it wasn’t. It was a mistake. As a consequence, I overcorrected slightly with the face on Distant Cousin: Repatriation. The face on volume three, Distant Cousin: Reincarnation, will be superimposed over a picture of Earth taken from space, to emphasize that Earth is now her home. I can only pray that it will appear obvious yet at the same time subliminal.
Tabitha: Who are some of your favorite authors and books? What genres do you like to read?
Al Past: For me, literature starts with the biggies: Chaucer, Shakespeare, and Mark Twain, in that order. If I were to list the next rank it would soon get out of hand! I also like foreign writers, usually in translation: Andrea Camilleri, Horacio Quiroga, Umberto Eco, Giancarlo Carofiglio...but there’s no point in listing names. I read widely, but seldom by genre, although I do have a love for sea stories (C. S. Forester, Patrick O’Brian, etc.). For recreational reading, I like Robert Parker, Robert Tanenbaum, Tony Hillerman, James Lee Burke, and many others. Shoot, I even read “chick lit” and history, and about music. I guess I’m omni-literate....
Tabitha: What have you been reading lately?
Al Past: A variety of miscellaneous works, like Cuba and Its Music, by Ned Sublette. I liked one recent novel so much I bought a second copy to lend out in case it didn’t come back. I read it twice, in fact: The Hummingbird’s Daughter, by Luis Urrea.
Tabitha: What sort of educational experience do you have, and is it relevant to your writing or the subject matter you have chosen?
Al Past: I have a BA in English and a PhD in linguistics. That’s one reason the main character’s language, not heard on Earth for thousands of years, is from the Indo-European language family. There’s no reason the language couldn’t have been Indian, African, or Semitic, except that I don’t know much about those languages.
Tabitha: What about your work career? Has your choice of profession influenced your writing?
Al Past: I mainly taught freshman English composition for 30 years. The one thing I harped on over and over was that it was the writer’s duty to write for the reader, to write to be easily understood. My students were not headed for careers as professors of literature. They were going to need to be able to communicate clearly for business, technical, or the most utilitarian of purposes. I respect authors who have more complex, artistic strategies, but frankly I seldom read them any more. My books are supposed to be fun. They’re entertainment. People shouldn’t have to work to enjoy them. I think I have used a few semi-colons, though, and I apologize to Kurt Vonnegut for that.
Tabitha: I found a photo of you with a large, antique musical instrument on another website. What would you like to tell us about your musical hobby?
Al Past: I’ve played trumpet since fourth grade. For a while I considered music as a career. I made spending money while in high school playing in dance bands and the like. It’s a tough way to make a living, however, and anyway I mostly preferred baroque music. There are more professional poets in the world today than baroque trumpet players. In that picture, I was holding a piccolo trumpet (actually a modern version of an early trumpet), rehearsing some Vivaldi for a student/faculty recital.
Tabitha: What’s next for Al Past, the writer?
Al Past: I’m currently in the final stages of volume three of the Distant Cousin series, Distant Cousin: Reincarnation, which should be out this year (2007), perhaps this summer or certainly this fall. People love the story and the characters (as do I), and they wanted more. After that, who knows? My second daughter wants me to write a mystery novel containing a Puerto Rican disc jockey in Corpus Christi, Texas. I don’t know about that, but I’ve enjoyed the writing I’ve done so far.
Tabitha: Do you have any final remarks to address to your readers or our audience?
Al Past: Well, speaking as a struggling POD author, first I’d like to thank you and the other legitimate reviewers of POD titles. You folks work a lot harder than most people appreciate (for little or no pay!), but you provide a terrific, much-needed service for the world. Bravo! We know that the digital age has been a great boon to indie musicians, film people, would-be journalists, and others, enabling them to get together despite the 800 pound gorillas of the major companies which control most of what is put before the public in traditional ways. I would remind everyone that the one way that never fails to work is word of mouth: if you try a book and like it, tell someone! Give it as a gift! Hell, even contact the author with a pat on the back! The POD phenomenon will be what we all make it. My vote is to make it the great voice of freedom and diversity.