A Conversation with Author Toby Ball
1) Your second novel, “Scorch City” will be released next week. Is it as exciting as when your first book, “The Vaults” was published?
It's different. With “The Vaults”, I really didn't have much of a sense of how things would go with events, reviews, things like that. So I don't have that same "sailing into the unknown" feeling. In some ways, that makes it more exciting.
2) As the program director for the Family Research Laboratory at UNH’s Research Center, do you find it difficult to reconcile your two very different careers?
I'm pretty strict about separating the time I spend on each career. My UNH time is for UNH, my writing time is for writing, etc. They are different enough that I don't feel like one burns me out for the other. The kinds of concentration and mental energy needed for putting together grant budgets or working on the CCRC website are very different than what I use for fiction writing.
3) When do you find time to write?
Until I reach the end of the editing stages, I work pretty reliably from 8 p.m. to 10 p.m. five days a week or so and sometimes more on the weekend, depending on what else is going on in my life. When I get into the second, third, fourth drafts, I tend to work more, particularly on the weekends. I can sustain editing longer than writing from scratch, which I can only sustain for a couple of hours at a time.
4) “Scorch City” is a sequel to “The Vaults.” You’re also writing a third novel. Did you know there would be a trilogy when you started the first book?
Not really. Getting published is such a long shot that it just isn't realistic to think in those terms. I was really focused on “The Vaults” and dabbled a little with another manuscript when that was finished and I was querying agents. Because I signed a two-book deal, I took a look at what I'd been dabbling and that became the basis for “Scorch City.” When I was writing “Scorch City”, I was clear that there would be a third book.
5) Each book takes place in a different decade—the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Any plans to write about the 70s?
I just submitted the manuscript for my third book, so I've entered a period where I start thinking about what the next book might look like -- which is a long way of saying that I'm not sure. I'm leaning towards writing something contemporary, but could always come back to the City in the 70s later.
6) How was “The Vaults” received? Did it meet your expectations? Did you have any expectations when it was released?
The critical reception was very good. I received starred reviews in Publishers Weekly and the Library Journal. It was hard to figure out what realistic expectations were because so much of it is out of your hands. Reviews in traditional media are a really big deal, so you are in some ways reliant on people choosing your book to review from the hundreds that are published each month.
7) Writers often say their characters end up doing things they, the writers, didn’t plan on; did you find that happening as you were writing?
I hear variations on that fairly often, usually in the context of a character "speaking" to an author or "telling" the author what they would do. My feeling is that until you are actually writing a scene or about a character, it is really hard to think things through in the detail that you need to in order to make their actions/thoughts seem "real." I do run into moments when I thought a character might do one thing, but then when I'm really immersed in the writing and thinking things through from the character's standpoint I realize that, while I would like him/her to do this, it's not in keeping with their personality as I perceive it. It's about the depth of your thinking while you are writing versus when you are "just" thinking.
8) Both of your published novels deal with greed and corruption. Where did these ideas come from?
That's a good question. Without getting too highbrow, Reinhold Niebuhr talks about how people are essentially good, but when they form groups the perpetuation of group goals takes precedence over an individual's ethics/morals. I like to think about how individuals become immersed in groups like municipal government or a business or a political party and the constraints they felt as individuals kind of falls away, replaced by the potential for corruption.
9) Many readers wonder how much of a writer’s life is in the lines of his/her books. Are there any parts in your books taken from your life?
Not really. I've tried to base characters on people I know or write scenes based on experiences that I've had, but it hasn't really worked in the context of the overall book. If I end up writing something more contemporary, that might change.
10) What are your writing plans for the future? Will we hear more from your protagonist journalist Frank Frings, or are you working on another character?
I think I've touched on this a little bit earlier. Frings is getting a little long in the tooth by the end of the third book, so his role would definitely change if that series continues. I have another character in mind for a book/books that would take place in the present day.
Ball will be reading at the following bookstores on the following dates:
Aug.30, RiverRun Bookstore, Portsmouth: Scorch City Launch event, 7 p.m.
Sept. 15, Gibson's Bookstore, Concord, with Brendan DuBois, 7 p.m.
Oct. 4, Water Street Books, Exeter, 7 p.m.