Mike Shel: Author Interview Series

Posted by

Hey guys! Mike Shel is one of my favorite authors, his main character is just the kind that I love to read about. Older, has a lot of issues, and is a decent person trying to make it in a not so decent world. He was an Spfbo finalist and his books have amazing audios to go with them. Highly recommended! Lets get on with the interview!

Your bio lists “Pathfinder RPG adventure designer.” Would you like to expand on that?

I’ve told the story before about my early forays into the RPG world (recounted here for posterity). It’s what led me eventually to Aching God, originally pitched as a stand-alone adventure module for Paizo Publishing. I owe it to James Jacobs, who gave me a chance to get back into RPG writing after an 18-year absence, and other fine folks at Paizo who held my hand and taught me how to manage big projects: Adam Daigle, Rob McCreary, Mark Moreland, and Wes Schneider.

There’s a listing of all my RPG work on my website, but it was my gateway to writing novels. 


You’ve got a nifty map, how long did it take you to come up with the geography?

I have always been a bit of a map nut, going back to my teen years when I first discovered fantasy—Middle Earth, Melnibone & the Young Kingdoms, Lankhmar, I was always hungry for more detail of those worlds. Much of my RPG projects began by fiddling with a map. When I started designing the world of Iconoclasts, I wanted to do something a bit different. While the world has a heavy western medieval/renaissance feel, my goal was to avoid a straight European analog geography. The idea of an empire situated around a vast, turbulent sea intrigued me and came rather quickly, with the seat of the empire an archipelago at the bottom of that sea. Thinking about just how many hours I spent laboring away with my meager Photoshop skills getting the final thing together for the publication of Aching God makes my neck hurt. And, of course, I haven’t been able to leave it alone. Since then I’ve created a larger map of the known world which includes Azkaya and the mysterious southern continent.


Your bio on your blog says: “Mike has an advanced degree in clinical psychology and has practiced as a psychotherapist for over twenty years, specializing in cognitive therapy for panic and anxiety disorders. He has also worked with clients struggling with addiction, mood disorders, psychosis, and survivors of trauma.” Your characters certainly exhibit symptoms of PTSD and anxiety disorders. I’ve always felt like they were particularly well portrayed. What made you want to get into this field?

If I had followed my dreams when I was younger, I would have pursued creative writing, but I was convinced that I couldn’t make a living at that. When I went to college I hopped around from major to major (including English education, sociology, philosophy/religion, speech) before finally sticking with psychology. (At this time, all graduates with a bachelor’s in psychology are chuckling at the notion of making a living with that degree.) I found the various areas of the field fascinating, especially social/personality and clinical psychology. But before heading on to graduate school, I worked on inpatient psychiatric units as a tech to make sure I wanted to work in mental health. Turns out I did. Anxiety disorders intrigued me most of all, perhaps because we have effective means of treating them. I spent four years in grad school doing research on panic attacks.

The old adage “Write What You Know” played a role in including a protagonist with prominent PTSD in my first novel. Portraying it accurately in a fantasy setting was a major focus.


You have Dune listed under your scifi “likes”  – are you looking forward to the show or dreading it?

I assume you’re referring to the film directed by Denis Villeneuve that’s supposedly slated for late this year. I am on pins and needles! Villeneuve is one of my favorite working directors. Arrival and Sicario are both brilliant films, the former being my favorite movie of 2016. I’m confident he’ll do the book justice, because: 1) He managed to pull off an amazing sequel to Blade Runner, one of the most revered SF films of all time; 2) He’s a true fan of Herbert’s book since his teen years; and 3) Though it’s irrational, the fact that he’s in the same age-cohort as me makes me trust he’ll have proper reverence for the original material.

David Lynch’s Dune was such a gorgeous train wreck, I’d love to see what he would have come up with had the studio suits not meddled and fussed with his process the way they did. The 2000 miniseries wasn’t a bad stab at it, but I really think Villeneuve has the chops to really do it justice. His ability to tell a story, his visual style…I can’t wait.


On your blog, you have a page dedicated to music you enjoy – Beck, Radio Head, The Lumineers, Tom Waits, Florence and the Machine to name a few. If your life had a theme song, what would it be?

OK, this is a weird selection, because I’m not a priest, nor am I Catholic any longer, but let’s offer up Vito’s Ordination Song by Sufjan Stevens, just because I love the emotion the music and lyrics create in me. The entire album (Greetings From Michigan, The Great Lake State) is one of those rare perfect records in my opinion.

Now you didn’t ask this question, but I’ll answer it anyway. What song would I have play for the trailer if Aching God was ever made into a movie? I’m embarrassed to say, but I’ve had visions quick cuts of scenes of Auric and company scrambling through tombs, sailing the Cradle Sea, dining with a mad duke, and fighting the dead to this amazing song from a record (yes, vinyl) I purchased at Wax’n’Facts in Atlanta, Georgia in the summer of 1986.


What’s your favorite word?

Grotesque, because it’s a beautiful word to describe the opposite.


What’s your least favorite word?

Irregardless, because it’s not a word, dammit.


Can you describe yourself in seven words?

“A life lived very much behind schedule.”


If you lived in the Potter-verse and were given Amortentia, what would it smell like? 

The pages of a freshly printed book, acrylic paint, and a plate of my mother’s ravioli.


I see you rated American Gods a five star on Goodreads – what did you think of the recent adaptation?

Egads. Train wreck. I enjoyed the first season, especially how they handled the Laura Moon story, and that scene with Mr. Nancy on the slave ship (NSFW, even a little)? Wow. So much potential, but wha’ppen? After the weirdly disjointed and pointless second season they just kind of left it in a jumble on the floor and walked away whistling, hoping no one would notice. 


You have a dog named Neko, are they named for something specific? Pictures? 

She’s named after singer-songwriter Neko Case. My wife and I love her music and have seen her perform live three times. Neko (the dog, not the musician) is 11 years-old now, a shih-tzu/Jack Russell mix. She is also awesome.

You can see some pictures of her here (the first as a puppy, the others more recent, but with her far more frou-frou than she normally is).  


Your bio asks, “He has 2 lovely and talented stepdaughters, Haylee (22) and Trinity (17), and a son, Leo (4).  Would you like to see pictures of Leo?   Would you like to watch a brief video of Leo doing something frightfully precocious?” – Yes.

Leo is five-years-old now. 

Here is a brief video of Leo (age about 2.5) saying the alphabet backwards, then forwards, then backwards again. We did not teach him this, nor did he learn it at daycare. We are baffled.

And a more recent picture of him (last summer I believe) eating a chocolate cone at Handel’s Ice Cream, not too far from our home. It is my favorite photograph of anything or anybody of all time. We literally had to hose him down afterwards. 


If you could go on vacation to any fantasy realm, which one would it be?

Can we assume that I will survive this vacation with life, limbs, and wit intact? If so, then I’d probably want to go to Michael Moorcock’s multiverse, starting off with Melnibone and the Young Kingdoms. It was my gateway to fantasy as a teenager and I’d love to explore its shores. 


Do you find that quarantine has made you more or less productive? 

Gawd, less productive. I’m very lucky to have a day job that can be done remotely, but it’s a lot more draining for me than it was in the past, in no small part because I’m doing it while simultaneously trying to manage a five year-old (somewhere in rural Pennsylvania, Quenby Olson is giving me a look of patient bemusement). These days I’m lucky if I get half a day to write each week.


Do you have a set schedule for writing? X amount of words/day or do you write on a whim/muse?

Again, I get maybe half a day a week, Saturday or Sunday. On a good writing day, I do a quick editorial pass on whatever I wrote last session, then pick up where I left off, and can produce about 1500 – 3000 words.


Some authors report hearing their characters’ voices, getting into debates with them, and that their characters do what they want and don’t cooperate with the plot. Do you identify with this? Is your process/experience totally different?

I’ll be honest and say that before I started writing fiction, I thought that old chestnut was a load of crap. Then along came Ilanda Padivale, who I created to make a point in a single chapter of Aching God. I didn’t expect to see her again, but she kept popping up, and as I write book 3 of the trilogy, she’s one of two POV characters. While I do very brief outlines for each chapter when planning a novel, a lot gets discovered along the way. It’s part of the fun of the writing process: seeing where things lead, in spite of whatever my original vision might have been.


If someone were driving through Indiana, where would you recommend they stop?

I ended up here in Indianapolis for my internship through the IU School of Medicine in the summer of 1995. I established connections and never left. If there is one place you should stop on the way through Indiana, make sure you do your travelling in late July, early August, and stop by GenCon, the world’s largest and most spectacular gaming convention. Alas, I don’t think it will happen this year, for the first time in over 50 years.

But I’m from the Detroit area originally and still consider myself a Michigander. So I will focus my recommendations on the Great Lake State. We’ll start with Greenfield Village and Henry Ford Museum, La Pita, Alcamo’s, and New Yasmeen Bakery, all in my hometown. Nearby is the wonderful, underappreciated Detroit Institute of Arts. Head up north through beautifl country to Mackinac Island, Sleeping Bear Dunes, Tahquamemon Falls, and the locks at Sault Saint Marie