Friday, January 1, 2021

Michael Mammay

Michael Mammay is a science fiction writer. He is a retired army officer and a graduate of the United States Military Academy. He has a master’s degree in military history, and he currently teaches American literature. He is a veteran of Desert Storm, Somalia, and the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan. His debut novel, Planetside came out in July, 2018, and was selected as a Library Journal best book of 2018. The audio book, narrated by RC Bray, was nominated for an Audie award. The sequel, Spaceside, hit the shelves in August, 2019.

Mammay's new novel is Colonyside.

My Q&A with the author:

How much work does your title do to take readers into the story?

The title Colonyside doesn’t do too much—the story takes place on a recently colonized planet, and that’s about it. Another author (Craig Alanson) joked that the title means it won’t be set in a colony, because in my previous books, Planetside took place mostly in space and Spaceside took place mostly on a planet.

I think the most interesting thing about the title of Colonyside is that wasn’t what we were going to call it. My editor thought we should go with a title that didn’t include the word ‘side’ in it, to break the cycle, and I was on board with him. Then we sent it to marketing and they were like…uh, no. It needs to be a ‘side.’ So here we are.

What's in a name?

Absolutely nothing. Carl Butler is just something I came up with when I was drafting a test chapter of the first book in the series, and I stuck with it. The only thing I wanted from it was to be racially ambiguous enough that you could conceivably read the character however you wanted. I never mention Butler’s race or skin tone in three books, and that’s intentional.

I am so bad at names. There’s a character in Colonyside called Moop. He’s the owner and proprietor of Moop’s bar. When I drafted that, I didn’t think it would stick. Surely someone would make me change that name. Nope. It’s in there. It has absolutely no significance beyond my lack of imagination. My biggest thought when naming characters is ‘don’t make too many characters with names that start with the same letter.’

How surprised would your teenage reader self be by your novel?

My teenage self…it would depend on what part of my teens. My younger teen self would be really surprised, as I never really considered writing. At eighteen or nineteen, I’d have been less surprised. In college, I told my mom that I was going to be a writer. Of course I was at West Point at the time, so there were other things in store for me, and I didn’t actually start writing until I was in my forties.

I think I’d have been surprised that I ended up writing science fiction, as I was more of a fantasy fan back then. I did try to write fantasy first—there’s a failed novel somewhere on an old thumb drive. But then I had the idea for Planetside, and that carried me into SF.

Do you find it harder to write beginnings or endings? Which do you change more?

I hate writing endings. With my first book, I didn’t even know how it ended when I started writing it. Now I have to outline my books before I write them (because that’s how I sell them to the publisher), so I have some idea. But I don’t actually follow my outlines—my characters kind of take on lives of their own. So often when I get to the end, the end that I planned doesn’t work anymore.

I love beginnings. If I could, I’d sit there and just write the first five pages of a dozen books. But only if you promised me that I wouldn’t have to think up endings for them. To me, a beginning is so freeing. It’s like sitting down and just thinking, ‘what if this happened?’

That’s how I came up with the idea for Colonyside. It was basically: Carl Butler is retired, but what if a really rich guy (think Jeff Bezos rich) put pressure on the government to have Butler do one more mission? And that’s the book. It all came from that idea. Of course since it’s the third book in a series, I already had some characters and some basics of the setting, so that helped too.

Do you see much of yourself in your characters? Do they have any connection to your personality, or are they a world apart?

I think some people might see a bit of me in Carl Butler. After all, I was a colonel in the army and so is he. Now I’m retired, and so is he—I think those connections are pretty obvious. But that’s really about as far as the similarities go. When someone asks me if Butler is based on me, I’ll look at them very seriously and say, “Yes. I went to distant planets and investigated strange things with aliens. Unfortunately, now that you know that, we can’t let you continue to roam free.”

The similarities do come into play when I get stuck, occasionally. Like if I don’t know what Butler is going to do in a situation, sometimes I think ‘well, what would I have done in that case?’ And that’s often enough to get me started in a productive direction.

But he’s definitely not me. None of my characters are based on real people, but I do try to write characters that are familiar, just the same. For example, Mac isn’t a real soldier I knew, but when soldiers read my book, most of them have known a guy like Mac.

What non-literary inspirations have influenced your writing?

I spent 27 years in the army, and I think that influenced my writing in a couple of different ways.

First, I try to inject a lot of realism into my soldiers and their battles. I try to give the reader the feel of what it’s like to be there, both in combat, and in the interactions between soldiers outside of combat. I think that’s one of the strongest elements of my writing, and it’s what a lot of my fans point to when they recommend the book to people.

Second, having fought in a lot of different places, I have some very strong opinions on war. Without giving away too much, let’s just say I’m not a big fan of it. The impetus behind most wars tends to be a lot less noble than we’d like to hope. At the same time, you’ve got some really decent people trying to do their best with it. And I think that makes for good stories.

What happens when you put a fundamentally decent person into an ugly situation? What happens when a person who wants to do the right thing is faced with a situation where maybe the right thing is well in the past, and all he’s got left is a decision between two wrong things? There are rarely black and white choices in life, and when there are, they’re probably not that interesting.
Visit Michael Mammay's website.

--Marshal Zeringue