Welcome to 4F1H, Anthony
By Jeff Salter
I’m delighted to host another Guest Hound today… and especially to host another author from the marvelous, talented stable at Dingbat Publishing. Patricia Kiyono was the colleague who tipped me off to the arrival of Anthony by saying, “You’ve got to interview this new guy!”
I did and I’d glad because his responses to my two dozen interview questions are fantastic. Without further ado, here’s Anthony, followed by his book, and finally the interview.
Anthony W. Eichenlaub writes novels as a way to endure frozen Minnesota winters. His latest, Grandfather Anonymous, follows an aging hacker braving the elements to fight an out-of-control biotech corporation.
Anthony’s shorter works can be found in the anthologies A Punk Rock Future and The Community of Magic Pens as well as in the publications On Spec Magazine and Little Blue Marble.
In his free time he enjoys woodturning, 3D printing, and long walks with his lazy dog. During his days he works on artificial intelligence as it relates to healthcare and research, which keeps him up to date in all kinds of fun new technology.
Find more of Anthony’s works at https://anthonyeichenlaub.com
Amazon page: https://www.amazon.com/-/e/B00FM1IPEU
Facebook page: https://www.facebook.com/AnthonyWEichenlaub/
Ajay was one of the best hackers in the world when he retired from the NSA, and a lonely life in a heavily surveilled Minnesota town hasn’t dulled his skills one bit, thank you very much. When his estranged daughter knocks on his door with her two daughters in tow, he hopes it’s his chance to become part of her family again.
But she needs more than just a sitter for Ajay’s two willful granddaughters. She needs someone to keep them safe — from who, she won’t say.
Before, Ajay failed at being a father so badly that he’s afraid he can never make amends. Thrust back into a world of secrecy and cyberwarfare, Ajay now must uncover what makes his granddaughters valuable — and dangerous.
Grandfather Anonymous: https://www.amazon.com/gp/product/B085BFF18B
- Do people call you Anthony… or Tony? Do you care either way?
[ *** AE *** ] — I like the rhythm of Anthony W. Eichenlaub as an author name, but in my real life I’ve always gone by Tony. Really, whenever someone calls me Anthony I feel bad for taking up more than my fair share of syllables. I hope nobody’s keeping track.
- Raised in southeast Minnesota, across the Mississippi River from Wisconsin, you’ve certainly been in a climate that many southerners would imagine as “arctic.” Describe what the winters are actually like in Red Wing.
[ *** AE *** ] — The mention of winter to me dredges up memories of high school when my car wouldn’t start because the Fahrenheit and Celsius scales were attempting a merger at -40. It’s the burning pain of toes thawing the one year I played hockey when nobody thought it might be a good idea to cancel outdoor games just because it was too cold to breathe. It brings back the feeling of the slow-motion car wreck that totaled my first car. I can remember the dreadful realization that my brakes would do absolutely nothing to slow me on that black ice. This was my Renault Fuego, the first car my dad ever worked on in his garage. He was a drivers ed teacher, so the story of that accident became a cautionary tale for years.
There are good memories, too. I enjoy nothing more than discussing the Halloween Blizzard with anyone even marginally interested. When enjoyed from indoors, there is nothing more breathtaking than the winter landscape. The beauty of a fresh layer of pure, white snow really can’t be understated, especially if you don’t need to shovel it.
- What made you decide to attend Iowa State University instead of a Minnesota school?
[ *** AE *** ] — Distance. I know it should have something to do with scholarly pursuits, but really it was all about distance. At the time I wanted to get into graphic design, and Iowa State had a decent program for it. A lot of places had that, though. What really made the difference to my high-school brain was that Iowa State was three and a half hours away. Too far to come back often, but close enough to come back sometimes. South because, I mean, come on, I’d just endured the Halloween Blizzard.
It also worked out pretty well that it was a big college. When I realized that graphic design wasn’t going to pay my bills there were plenty of options. Computer science has done very well for me, and Iowa State was a great place for it.
- Have you ever watched the excellent old TV series, “Coach”, which was set in the fictional Minnesota State University?
[ *** AE *** ] — I remember it well. It might even be worth a rewatch if I can find it streaming somewhere. It’s one of those shows that I bet holds up well.
- When you lived in Ames Iowa, you were just north of Des Moines, a city I visited several times during the middle 1960s, when I lived for a year in Mt. Pleasant. In Mt. Pleasant, what I most remember were miles and miles of hybrid corn fields. What was your impression of the area around Ames?
[ *** AE *** ] — So much corn. Most of my travel was on I35, and there really isn’t a lot to look at there. Sometimes I would get off the beaten path, though, and there are little hidden gems all over Iowa. Sometimes we’d find small towns with nice little diners or campgrounds with some gorgeous wildlife. One thing was always for certain, though. It’s hard to get lost in that part of Iowa. Everything is in a grid.
- You said your family travels a lot, with one significant trip each year. What was your most impressive destination? Would you like to return there? Which location, if any, disappointed you. Why?
[ *** AE *** ] — One year I took a trip with the whole family, and on the way back Delta wanted volunteers to take the next flight. They offered $600 per seat, and since there were four of us, we took it. That was $600 of free flight anywhere. The best part was we only added a half hour to our total travel time. But where would we go?
When I looked, the craziest place we could get with that ticket price was Belize and it was an amazing trip. We spent half of the week in a rainforest visiting Mayan temples, exploring caves, and swimming under waterfalls. The second half we spent in an island resort sipping drinks, eating pancakes fashioned in the shape of Mayan temples, and swimming in the ocean. It was a great adventure, and I would definitely do it again.
To cap it off, Delta ended up having trouble in Atlanta on our return flight. They gave us each a couple hundred dollars because of the delays. It didn’t get us anywhere as fun as Belize, but it did come in handy for the next year’s trip.
- I know many people who are fanatical about one – or possibly two – hobbies. You say you “collect” hobbies. I gather that means you dabble in one from time to time, depending upon mood… and then drift to other activities as the notion hits you. Is that an accurate description? If not, tell us what factors seem to shift your time and attention from one activity to another… instead of always honing in on one predominate hobby.
[ *** AE *** ] — I move from hobby to hobby based entirely on a whim, and it’s rare that I give up a hobby entirely. For instance, I love making pens in my woodturning shop, but when I make those pens, I would really like them to be adaptable to certain kinds of manga nibs. It’s a flexible kind of nib that lets the drawer create a line that varies by how much pressure they apply. How can I make that work with the pen kits I have? Well, by picking up some free 3D modeling software I was able to design the nib holder that fit in the pen hardware. I printed dozens of models on my 3D printer before landing on a design I liked. It worked, but it also proved to me that I could make things with modeling software. This got me interested in some cool things I could do with 3D printed miniatures for tabletop gaming. I spent some time learning how to model my own minis. Once printed, that got me back into painting miniatures, which I haven’t done in years. It’s a nice hobby for me, though, because unlike woodturning I can do it while watching bad tv. I never did get around to using those manga nibs, but I’ll get there eventually.
- Wood-turning sounds like a hobby that requires a lot of precision and patience. Any idea why you were drawn to such a hobby?
[ *** AE *** ] — Woodturning actually came almost directly from my writing. When I write short stories, I like using fancy pens. Typically, I’ll write with a fountain pen and then develop the story as I transcribe into a computer. This lets me write without the distraction of a computer and it lets me bring a notebook and pen on all those vacations I love so much. Well, it turns out fancy pens are pretty easy to make. I took a community ed class and discovered how deeply satisfying woodturning is. Soon after, I had my own lathe (it’s a tiny one) and now I’ve made more pens than I know what to do with.
- You also mentioned photography as one of your hobbies. What’s the most spectacular “shot” you’ve captured? How (and when) did that moment occur?
[ *** AE *** ] — My favorite shot is from a trip to Yellowstone. It’s a sunrise over a perfectly still lake, and I learned a lot taking that shot. First, I learned that way up there in the mountains it gets pretty cold at night, even in the middle of summer. Second, I learned that I’m not really very good at judging when the sunrise is going to happen if I don’t have access to the internet. Third, I learned that even though I arrived a full hour and a half early, sitting out there in the freezing cold was absolutely worth it. As great as the shot is, the live view was so much better.
- You’ve worked with computers a lot, it seems… with a focus on Artificial Intelligence. In popular culture – especially movies – A.I. often gets a negative rap as a portent of doom for humankind. Would you share your perspective on A.I. — pro and con?
[ *** AE *** ] — In my day job I work at the intersection of A.I. and medical research, which has been very interesting these past few months with the pandemic. The amount of information getting published right now is absolutely staggering, and no human can possibly read it all. A.I. can find the connections in all that scientific research, which helps researchers make the discoveries we so desperately need.
But that isn’t the A.I. we usually see in science fiction. I admit that killer robots make for a pretty good story and can be incredible on the screen. It’s a lot harder to deal with the more subtle cons of A.I. There are ethical issues dealing with learned bias and problems with A.I. devastating various job markets. A.I. didn’t invent those problems, but the power it gives can certainly amplify them if we’re not careful. I like to try to deal with these issues in my work–alongside some of the fun stuff, too.
- How would you characterize the genre of your novel?
[ *** AE *** ] — I think of Grandfather Anonymous as a technothriller. Lots of hacking, lots of action.
- Who is your favorite author in this same genre?
[ *** AE *** ] — I’m always in awe of writers like William Gibson and Neal Stephenson, who deal heavily with tech advances, whether they’re more realistic or a little farther out there. A lot of their books fit the kind of genre I’m going for with Grandfather Anonymous. Techy, but also full of action. Ramez Naam is another more modern hero of mine. His book Nexus is fantastic. And, of course, when I’m in the mood for something a little less tech-heavy I dive into some Dan Brown, who maybe doesn’t have the A.I. background, but definitely understands how pacing works in a novel. There’s a lot to learn from there.
- I find the premise of your novel quite exciting. With so much emphasis on “youth” these days, how did you decide to feature a hero who’s of retirement age?
[ *** AE *** ] — A lot of the inspiration comes from my own grandfather. He was a medical doctor and inventor, with a touch of eccentricity and the most astounding pain tolerance I’ve ever seen in another human being. Once when I was in high school he challenged me to a game of tennis. Competitive man that he was, there was no way he was going to just let me win. Near the end of the game he overextended and tumbled to the ground. He came up scraped and bruised, holding two of his fingers close to his chest. With a sheepish look, he said, “Well, I guess we better go to the hospital.”
He had bent two fingers back far enough to disjoint them and tear open the skin. He, of course, popped them back into position without any trouble, but he needed stitches.
As soon as we got home from the hospital – with two wrapped fingers held up in the air like he was giving a peace sign – he said, “Ready to go back and finish that game?”
“You’re supposed to keep that elevated.”
He held his fingers up higher. “I can play like this, it’s my left hand.”
Grandpa had the kind of pain tolerance I expect of the protagonist in a technothriller. He was clever and unbelievably stubborn. He was an excellent inspiration for this book, and thinking, “What would Grandpa do,” got me out of more than a few tough spots while writing it.
- It sounds like your story has a strong emphasis on family. Any thoughts about why you’d feature family as a primary thread?
[ *** AE *** ] — Family makes an appearance as a theme in a lot of my work. One of the reasons here is that in a fast-paced thriller it’s absolutely critical to have stakes that matter. Sure, the end of the world feels like something important, but characters and readers can’t always get their heads around that. Family is something we all have in our lives, so it’s easier to relate to. Making it important in the novel gives more weight to every decision the characters make. Add on top of that some messy, complicated family dynamics and things get interesting pretty fast.
- You’ve indicated your novel begins in Red Wing MN. How important is that particular setting to your story?
[ *** AE *** ] — Minnesota in general was important to me. There’s a large and growing biotech industry in the state with Medtronic and the Mayo Clinic. I wanted to explore the future of technologies related to that industry and placing it in the middle of a beautiful riverside town seemed like a good place to get things started. We explore a lot of the dynamics of that landscape in the book, and that particular location nestled in the bluffs plays an important role in how Ajay avoids the ubiquitous surveillance found in more developed areas.
- Since your blurb indicates a plot thread of cyber-warfare, explain how you tread the perilous line between too much techno explanation… and too little?
[ *** AE *** ] — One of the techniques I use when writing about hacking and cyber-warfare is to think of it as a combat. The weapons are the various techniques and tools of the hacker, which I often only explain by showing how they work. There are always complications in a combat, like when the opposing force figures out what’s happening or automated defenses surprise the hacker. Often priorities change halfway through. Ideally deception and brute force both come into play, and even the very best hackers will run into things they’ve never seen before. Even the best hackers sometimes fail.
At the end of this book, many readers may have learned a thing or two about hacking, but I do my best not to slow the story down to make it happen.
- Do you have, or have you planned, a sequel to Grandfather Anonymous?
[ *** AE *** ] — There’s a sequel bouncing around in my head, but I don’t currently have it on my schedule. Right now, I’m writing a sci-fi noir novel and being patient about whether or not Grandfather Anonymous gets its sequel. In truth, Grandfather Anonymous stands well on its own. If it does really well, then it’ll grow into a trilogy. If not–well, there are plenty of other projects that I’m equally excited about.
- What can you tell us about your title that won’t give away too much of the story?
[ *** AE *** ] — The grandfather part of the title is referring to Ajay. He’s meeting his two granddaughters for the first time when his daughter comes to visit after a long absence. The role of grandfather is new to him, and he struggles to resolve that with his other identity–that of a retired NSA hacker. In fact, he’s retired but still quite active in the hacking community under an anonymous handle. That’s the other half of the title, and together it’s a blend of stubborn old age and incredible tech.
- If you were not a writer, can you imagine what else you might do to express the creativity within you?
[ *** AE *** ] — I’ve always been really excited about various visual arts. Drawing and painting are always fun, but, you know I love picking up new hobbies. How about glass-blowing?
- Have you ever encountered people who seem unable / unwilling to comprehend that writing is something you are driven to do?
[ *** AE *** ] — I don’t often, but sometimes I run into people who don’t understand that writing is also hard. I’m driven to do something that’s difficult for me. Overwhelming at times. There’s probably something to that quirk in personality, but I think it’s something a lot of writers and other artists experience. Yes, I’m driven to write. Yes, it’s something I love. Yes, it’s very, very difficult, sometimes causing incredible frustration. Stories are complex, strange things and they’re always a balance of multiple conflicting priorities. Getting them to really come together and work in a satisfying way is often like building a seven-foot house of cards while your kids are engaged in Nerf gun warfare.
But, wow, it feels good when everything works.
Also, it’s pretty satisfying if you can get your hands on one of those Nerf guns.
- If sales (money) and critics (reviews) were immaterial to you, what genre and length would you write?
[ *** AE *** ] — I love the genre I write in, which tends to cover a wide range of sci-fi. My short stories often wander aimlessly into Fantasy, but those tend to be quite a bit more experimental. Really, I think novella length is very comfortable for me. 20-40k words is long enough to get some interesting stories told. Longer than that tends to take exponentially longer to revise, since there’s just so much more going on. Every change made to a novel in revisions can have a butterfly effect on the whole thing.
- Give us one example of someone who has contacted you and expressed how much your writing meant to them.
[ *** AE *** ] — I met someone at a convention once who said she had bought my sci-fi western the year before (she had, I remembered her.) She told me she’d given the book to her dad, who hadn’t been much of a reader for a while. Turns out he loved the book and reading it had rekindled his love of books. She said he’d started reading regularly and wasn’t having any trouble finding great stuff to keep him interested. It made me really happy to hear that my book had made a positive impact on the guy’s life.
- In the conversations (about writing) that you’ve had over the years, what is one writing question which you’ve WISHED had been asked of you… but never has been asked?
[ *** AE *** ] — I wish someone would ask, “How does a person write about a terrible storm like the Halloween Blizzard of 1991?”
- What’s your answer to the question above?
[ *** AE *** ] — Well, I’m glad you asked.
The key to writing about something like the Halloween Blizzard is to not get bogged down by the fiddly details. Don’t dwell on the 37 inches of snow or the absolute standstill to which it brought Minnesota so early in the season. It isn’t really important that the blizzard was so big it would have been Big News even in the middle of a proper snowing month. Which it was not. October is close, maybe, but it’s no November.
No, the important thing is the emotions. The dread parents felt as they tried to convince their kids to stay in from trick-or-treating. The horror as inch after inch after inch fell even as snowblower after snowblower sat gasless in the backs of garages. Wonder at the sheer exhaustion Minnesotans felt looking at the long winter ahead.
Focus on the perverse sense of joy and pride Minnesotans feel having survived such an ordeal. Marvel at the sparkle in their eyes as they realize you’ve opened the opportunity for them to discuss it. For hours.
Then, if you’re feeling brave, mention the blizzard on May 2, 2013, and write about the kind of twisted mind that would live in a place that hates them so much.
Question for readers of today’s blog / interview:
What cool and fantastic stories do you have about your grandfathers? I’ve heard so many great tales from people since Grandfather Anonymous came out, and I never tire of it. Bonus points if it involves the Halloween Blizzard.
[JLS # 489]