Halo! Welcome to Interview FoxSeat with guest author M. J. Lau
M.J. Lau was born and raised in York, PA. He has spent much of his adult life pursuing his dual goals of being a teacher and an author. He has been teaching English in Lancaster County for the past five years and is now an author with the publication of his first novel, The Buried Few.
Book sample: The Buried Few
Genre: Science Fiction/Dystopian
Synopsis: Imagine a future where over-ambitious wars leave a generation of Americans without parents. Imagine the remaining citizens doing their best to raise grandchildren, cousins, or neighbors as their own. Imagine every child being overseen by the government, a paper trail following them from birth to adoption and beyond.
Now imagine being involved in none of that… until you find a baby, abandoned but alive, in a park. Daniel Allingham, a computer security specialist, is faced with just such a decision. Despite his efforts to wash his hands of the whole problem, he finds himself — and those close to him — further and further entrenched in a struggle against a relentless government agent.
While the personal, technological, and political issues grow more and more complex, the heart of the matter remains deceptively simple: a child, a man, and the lengths to which he’d go to set one thing right in a world of wrong.
Excerpt: CHAPTER 1: Lost and Found
“There you are…”
Three hours of staring at a screen and Daniel had finally isolated it: the bug in the code that kept letting government info leech out to some foreign server. He worked up a patch in a few moments, but sent a dozen of his latest beneviruses through before sealing the wound; they would track the stolen data and turn it into jumbled pictures of kittens. Daniel wanted to smile at himself for that, but he was still salty about there being a hole in the first place. He had built that firewall only six months ago, and someone already managed to batter their way through it.
His head felt hot. He rubbed the back of his neck, and his hand wandered instinctively to the tiny nodule behind his ear. Was that bump always there? Was it something vital, like a lymph node or a salivary gland or a Eustachian tube? (Is that even in the ear area? He’d have to Wiki that.) He wanted to avoid thoughts like tumor or clot, but the more he tried to keep those ideas away, the more they teased the fringes of his mind. Whatever it was, it stirred up something deep and heavy inside him, but he couldn’t put it into words. Or rather, he couldn’t condense it down from the thousands of words that ricocheted around his head any time he tried to make sense of it.
When Daniel first noticed the lump a few days ago, the droning of his office suddenly became muted. The buzz and clack of computers faded out, his co-workers pantomiming conversations. He turned his head and thought he heard the faintest sound, like when it’s so quiet your ears catch something on the farthest horizon of noise, and you wonder if you heard your name, or if someone just breathed too loud, or if there was really any sound at all.
He snapped back to the moment, scanning the dim, cavernous office area again, the blank faces of a hundred computer screens staring back at him. Only his nondescript corner was faintly luminous, the soft blue light glowing like a child’s tablet under a sheet. He shook his head in annoyance at himself; he knew no one else was there now. The noise was in his mind. He had to stay focused on his work. And what exciting work it was: improving network security for every business bigger than a car wash. It paid all right, and he had enough rank to have some flexibility about where and when he did his work, but still, the day-to-day of it was hardly stimulating mentally.
At least he knew he would always have a job – everyone wanted more and more virtual safety measures, from the government to grocery stores. Normally he just crunched code and collected the paycheck, regardless of the client, but this job was different. When he was tasked with improving the encryption for the local Collection Agency, he was torn about mentioning a conflict of interest. The rules didn’t outright say he shouldn’t do the job, and he figured half the guys in the department would be equally conflicted, so it might as well be him. Besides, he wasn’t supposed to be anywhere near the client records, so there wasn’t a legitimate reason to recuse himself. Still, how could he resist a quick glance at his own info? It wasn’t like he’d see anything he didn’t already have a right to know.
OK…this should only take a second. He searched for his data number, and his screen became filled with dates, contributions, regular selections. He was due for another contribution any day now; better this way than the alternative, he figured. What a humiliating situation: a year ago, his whole life seemed to be right on track. Now he found himself stuck in this program, probably forever. At least he had the career he wanted, even if it meant working on things like this every once in a while that reminded him of –
A vibration shot up his thigh, spurring him to his feet. Prickling with sweat, he retrieved his phone from his pocket and checked the message: “First Saturday Creator Mixer – Heywood Resort 9p-2a. Drinks, DJ, Prizes – Guaranteed Connect! Register ASAP!” His thumb declined the offer.
Exhaling, Daniel laughed at himself and put his fingers under his glasses to rub his eyes. He needed to get away from all this. He smoothed the hair down at the base of his neck, consciously stopping himself from feeling for the lump, which of course made him think about it and set the thought-storm churning again. Weary and irked, he shut his computer down, slid his papers in his courier bag, and took the long walk down to the lobby. The guards down front weren’t in their usual sociable mood when they did their standard security checks, and Daniel wasn’t much up for banter either, so they all just slogged through the motions.
Stepping outside, Daniel paused for a moment to let his eyes adjust to the brightness. Daylight always made him self-conscious; he was hoping it would be dark by the time he left work. Daniel sported the stooped frame, undefined midsection, and sallow complexion requisite for his field. His black-rimmed glasses were fashionably retro, and his only nod to nonconformity was his lip ring, along with everyone else.
His lenses darkened after thirty seconds, but the sun still glowered faintly behind the tree line of Mordecai Park. The fields and playgrounds across the street seemed like a distant world, a place forgotten behind the sea of concrete and waves of driverless cars before him. He stepped up to the curb and summoned a vehicle to pick him up. When he felt the warm afternoon breeze, though, Daniel decided to forgo the ride and reacquaint himself with an old habit. It had been months since he’d taken that shaded path through the park, back when he took walks all the time with–
“Excuse me, could you hold this?” a woman asked, holding a large bag up to his chest.
Daniel looked over the heavily burdened woman, and then shook his head into the present. “Of course, yeah,” he said, gripping the handles. “Oh, I didn’t–” he cleared his throat. “Go ahead,” he said, gesturing toward the waiting car.
He felt deeply relieved to have his hands occupied, because he felt completely awkward standing there, watching this woman slowly positioned her very pregnant person, one angle at a time, near, beside, and then into the idling vehicle. He tried not to stare at her red cheeks, the strain on her face, her quick breathing. She waggled her fingers at him. His heart raced. He forced a smile: “No, thank you, I’m walking.”
His membership to self-contempt renewed itself. “Right. Sorry,” he said, handing her the bag and then closing the door for her. He waved to her to complete the awkwardness trifecta.
He drove his fists into his pockets and crossed the street hurriedly, then replayed the last two minutes over and over in his head a few times. He was never a distracted person before, but ever since he lost Renee… no, he wasn’t going to bring that up again. Just push that thought to the back of your mind, Daniel. Right back there by that weird lump – he sighed heavily. He was not going to win this battle.
Not that he would truly put Renee out of his head if he wanted to – that’s probably why his jerk brain kept bringing her to the surface. Still, he asked himself, what was the point? What conversation could he ever have with her that he hadn’t had a hundred times already, just like this? It seemed strange that he could still have so much to say to her, after how much talking they’d done on evenings just like this, strolling through the park, or eating dinner at home, or fighting after he washed her dry-clean-only jacket. He laughed in spite of himself. During better times, he would consider that a sign of their bond; now such thoughts were fresh lye in old wounds.
As the path began to slope up, the sounds from the playground began to carry from the top of the hill ahead. Daniel looked up and saw children running around in the distance, little creatures climbing and tumbling and laughing. Daniel thought of the crowds of parents inevitably watching soccer matches and couples cozied up on benches just over the hill. He decided to cut left through the woods to avoid even the possibility of such sights.
Suddenly, a series of beeps resonated from his pocket. Daniel pulled out his phone and automatically punched in his data number. His SafCom app indicated that he wasn’t taking his usual route home and offered to redirect him. He entered his override code and set the maximum delay – fifteen minutes – before it would check for his coordinates again. He rolled his eyes at the need for such safety precautions, but felt comforted that someone, if only a device, showed concern for his whereabouts. They had a joke at the office: If you ever felt like no one cared about you, just let your SafCom warnings go unanswered.
He ambled down the path into the thickest part of the woods – or as close to woods as you can get in downtown San Francisco. Once he reached a fully shaded stretch, Daniel felt a surge of relief. A faint dampness eased around him, and the cooler air loosened his muscles. He began to remember why he used to love coming to the park in the first place – the daily walks always unknotted the worries of the day, and the sight of other people, even from far away, used to make him feel less alone.
Around the towering trees he felt so small, like he was a boy again, and more than once he let his boyishness possess his gait as he wandered around the trees. Once fall came, he would gather a small pile of leaves with scuffing footsteps until his shoes were buried, and he would pretend he was a tree growing out of the ground, ageless and wise, unable to be uprooted. Lost in the daydream, he only vaguely remembered a world going on outside the surrounding trees. Everything beyond a few feet seemed muted in a calm and timeless way. Muted? Daniel thought. Wait a minute… where did all the sounds go?
His eyes searched their peripheries. His fingers fluttered at his sides. He didn’t even hear his inner monologue. Slowly cocking his head to the side, he tried to pick up the distant trills of children’s laughter and stock encouragements from half-attentive parents, rhythmic jogging banter and the quarrelsome tittering of birds. Instead, he heard only the faint keening of silence, like a TV left on with nothing on the screen.
He looked up at the trees arching above him. The breeze that had been stirring the branches faded. The subtle chafing of the foliage had stopped. The sun knifed around the thick limb above him, streaking out at angles but somehow still stinging his eyes. He raised his hand reflexively, stepping back into the crunch of leaves behind him. The sound startled him, but then just as quickly calmed him, since he momentarily feared he had gone deaf.
He looked down at the leaves enveloping his shoe, and he smiled to himself unconsciously. He kept his foot planted there a lingering moment, admiring now the stillness of the air, and enjoying the embrace of the quiet woods.
Just then, Daniel heard a faint noise, like a stifled cry. He paused and looked toward the sound, but saw only trees, leaves, grass. A breeze moving through branches. Maybe a kid fell at the playground. He shrugged it off.
The lilt of a birdsong drifted through the air as Daniel resumed walking. After a few steps, he heard it again: a half-whimper pierced the silence, sounding closer than before. Daniel held his breath. Waited. Nothing. The quiet clutched at his chest—where was the sound? He looked uphill through the trees toward the clearing; he could make out people flying kites and walking in twos and reading on benches, only they seemed farther away than before. Much too far to match the nearness of that last quivering whine.
Daniel swallowed hard. He stepped off the path, toward the noise. He reached a clearing where a breach in the canopy let some light filter down to the thin underbrush.
A choked gasp. He froze. From seemingly nowhere, he heard a staggered sob—the unmistakable staccato cry of an infant.
That was not some voice, he told himself. That was not in your head. Daniel’s skin tingled, and the cool air made his throbbing skull ache. He heard a struggling breath, and a longer, more ardent wail. His heart began to hammer in his chest. He looked around, but nothing was close enough to match the intensity of the sound.
Hunched over, Daniel crept across the clearing, feeling completely ridiculous. Another cry rose up, higher pitch and nearer yet. He shuffled his feet violently through some leaves, thick around the nearby trees, but turned up nothing. The sobbing gained momentum now, muffled but steady. Every way Daniel looked or moved, the crying grew closer, more impassioned. The gasps came in ragged pulls. The silences between stabbed deeper at him every time.
Sliding to a stop, Daniel could now feel the ground beneath him trembling with the forcefulness of the crying. He unslung his bag and fell to his knees. Clutching at leaves in wild fistfuls, he cleared the ground and clawed at the dying grass and damp loam near the foot of a towering birch tree. The crying sounded so close it seemed on top of him. Or that he was on top of it.
Raking at the soil with his fingers, he created a few shallow furrows in the dirt. He soon formed a hole, gouging at the earth with each shuddering cry. He worked on widening the fist-sized hole, scratching against the edges. He caught a fingernail on a hair-thin root, tearing the nail half off his middle finger.
He cursed through gritted teeth, shaking his left hand vainly to dispel the pain. He clamped his hand against his right side with his arm, his mind racing. Another SafCom warning beeped from his pants, trilling relentlessly this time. He fumbled for his pocket, grasping clumsily for the edges of his phone. Another cry shook the ground at his knees. The phone fell free from his side, and he tried frantically to enter his code with his off-hand. He failed twice, sending the beeps up several octaves. Panicking, he ripped the battery off the back and tossed the parts aside.
The cries continued, but he was barely getting anywhere. He needed to dig faster. He rifled awkwardly through his bag for something he could use. What was he going to dig with, his laptop? A highlighter? He threw the bag aside in frustration. It landed near a mossy log, where he then spotted a sturdy, pointed stick. Daniel seized it and began hacking at the ground. The edges grew by choppy degrees, now as wide as a cabbage, now as deep as his forearm.
Must. Dig. Faster.
One vicious swing struck at an awkward angle. Daniel pitched forward and quickly caught himself. He stopped for a second, trembling from his frenzied state. He didn’t hear anything coming from the ground now. What if I gouged too hard and hurt whatever was crying? he thought. Wait… do I really think something is underground?
He held his breath a moment. He wanted to make sure the wailing hadn’t stopped. That he wasn’t hearing it just because it was etched in his thoughts. Just then, a quaking breath was drawn, and a desperate shriek reverberated up through the hole. Daniel threw the stick aside and dug back in with his hands, unflinching as more soil went black with his blood from every scoop.
Soon the dirt began to feel looser beneath his fingers. He clawed across the bottom of the elbow-deep hole, and the rich, dark soil moved in telling clumps, as if there were space just beneath. Daniel forced his fingers through like a blade and drew back a mass of loose earth, the ground breaking all around his hand into a small cavity below.
He looked into the dim opening, straining to make out its secrets. Nestled in the black and crumbling recess beneath the tree, it was just barely visible—pink, warm, and impossibly alive: a naked and utterly transfixed baby boy.
Why do you write? I write for many of the same reasons as everyone else – to get something off my chest, to organize my thoughts, to explain, to entertain. I’m a teacher, so I write a lot for my job, and I try to impress upon my students that writing is a life skill, not a specialized art that only a select few people actually perform. Ultimately, I am most driven to write because writing helps me feel like I matter, like I have a voice, and that I can make an impression on the world if I just put my thoughts out there and connect with others through my stories.
When did you decide to become a writer? I’ve thought about being a writer since I was about 14, when my high school English teachers started to notice I had some talent with words and encouraged my creative flourishes, however misguided, when I wrote for school. I wrote for fun, too, but mostly for my own amusement, like comics about my day. Once, I wrote – and attempted to film – a movie with a friend right after graduating high school, but we never completed it. In college, I wrote several short stories, poems, and even a historical research article that were all published; several poems won prizes, and I earned a writing scholarship for my academic work. So the thought of becoming a writer has been bouncing around my head for about twenty years, but only recently did I actually decide to commit to becoming a writer rather than just thinking it would always be some unfulfilled dream.
How long does it usually take you to complete a book? Considering that I’ve only completed one book, and it took me five years (off and on) to do so, my average isn’t looking very impressive right now! I do have several other novels started, though, and I project that I will finish my second book within a year, and perhaps produce more books at a roughly annual rate.
Do you work to an outline or plot or do you prefer just seeing where an idea takes you? My stories usually start out when I get an idea and just start running with it. I eventually hit a point where I either lose steam or realize the story needs more coherence for me to continue. That’s when I start mapping out the plot and trying to connect the random dots I sketched out. I’m frequently surprised by how I manage to tie together various scenes or concepts that weren’t necessarily related initially.
Do you design your own book covers or have someone else? If you use someone else would you tell us who/website? I used Fiverr.com to find a graphic designer for my book cover. I went with a woman named Angie (pro_ebookcovers) who had a lot of positive reviews and reasonable pricing. I gave her my “vision”, chose the images I wanted her to incorporate, and provided examples of existing book covers that captured the general style I was going for. She was very accommodating, did as many revisions as I asked for, and produced all the files I need for the print book and the Kindle edition. It was a very fun process!
Do you have any advice for aspiring authors? Yes – read this article by Hugh Howey: http://amazonauthorinsights.com/post/154821781295/so-you-want-to-be-a-writer-by-hugh-howey?ref_=ac_bl_hh.
What is the hardest thing about writing? Finding the time! I did have moments when I wasn’t sure how to wrap up a scene or plot thread, but mostly I just had too many other priorities demanding my attention. I’ve learned to make time for the important things, and writing (usually) makes the “important things” list.
What is your favorite movie or TV show? I don’t have a specific favorite movie, but some of my favorites include Fight Club, The Departed, The Big Lebowski, and The Princess Bride. My favorite TV show is LOST. The writing was phenomenal (for the first five seasons, anyway)!
Which writers inspire you? My favorite current authors are Michael Chabon, Dave Eggers, and Junot Diaz. Shakespeare will always be the greatest, in my mind.
You mentioned you’re writing a new story. How about a teaser? My next novel will be part of a fantasy series. It involves a family that has magic in a recently conquered empire where magic-users are now being hunted down. I also recently started drafting a book with my son, based on this really interesting plot we developed during a car ride. We were batting around the idea of kids being trapped in a video game, which they enjoy at first, but then realize they can’t escape!
If your book were made into a movie, whom would you cast? Great question! When I was writing this book, I often saw it in my head as a movie, so I think about this frequently. My gut answer is that I’d prefer to have mostly unknown actors and actresses, based on their fit for the role rather than on star power. But, just so future casting agents have a general idea, here are some suggestions: Daniel would be played by John Cho (of “Harold and Kumar” fame). Gozzum would be Mahershala Ali. I would really want to get the female roles right, because they’re the most interesting, in my opinion; Renee would be someone cool and edgy like Cameron Esposito. I’d like to see if Q’orianka Kilcher could handle the intensity of Tenebre.
What one person from history would you like to meet and why? I am a HUGE history fan, so this is a question I ponder a lot. I tend to lean toward the obvious – Julius Caesar, Jesus, Shakespeare – but whenever I hear about some unfamiliar historic event, I usually want to go back there meet the people involved. Recently, I’ve wanted to meet Enrique of Malacca, Magellan’s slave during his circumnavigation of the globe. Magellan gets all the credit for sailing around the world, but it’s arguable that Enrique crossed every line of longitude (i.e. circled the globe) before the end of the voyage. Either way, he traveled to exotic places and saw so many lands unspoiled by modernity – just hearing about his experiences would be incredible.
If there was one thing you could do to change the world, what would it be? End global warming so there’s still a world for my future grandchildren to enjoy.
If you could have been the original author of any book, what would it have been and why? Is there any living writer who doesn’t wish they had come up with Harry Potter?
What is one great lesson you have learned as a writer? You have to make time to write. Nobody is going to carve out that time for you – you have to do it for yourself.
What are some of your favorite books and why? My favorite books include The Catcher in the Rye, The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao, The Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, and A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius. The main quality they all have in common is a unique, dynamic voice. Each book is instantly convincing, and spellbinding the whole way through.
Tell us something unique about you. I’ve moved more than anyone I know… 26 times!
Is there anything else you’d like to add? Yes – thank you for taking this time to interview me. Authors need to support each other, and I appreciate you helping me reach new readers!