Name David Lee Summers
Where are you from
I’m originally from Southern California. I moved to New Mexico for college and have mostly lived there since. I have a degree in astrophysics and started work on a doctorate, but found myself lured by telescope engineering and support. Currently, I operate telescopes at Kitt Peak National Observatory. My wife and I live in Las Cruces, New Mexico and we have two daughters.
Fiona: Tell us your latest news?
I just released my tenth novel, The Astronomer’s Crypt. It tells the story of gangsters, scientists, ghosts, and a monster from ancient history colliding at a remote astronomical observatory during a terrible storm.
Also, the first novel in my Clockwork Legion steampunk series, Owl Dance, was just released as an audio book. You can find it at audible.com and audible.co.uk. The third novel in the series, The Brazen Shark, was voted best steampunk novel of 2016 in the Preditors and Editors Readers Poll.
Fiona: When and why did you begin writing?
I began writing seriously during my high school years. I loved science, and NASA’s Voyager probes had just flown past Jupiter and Saturn. Everything I was learning at the time threw my imagination into overload and I needed to give my ideas form. I’ve been writing ever since.
Fiona: When did you first consider yourself a writer?
The moment I first really thought of myself as a writer was back in high school. I was lucky enough to meet Ray Bradbury when he came to speak at one of the schools in my town. After his presentation, I had a chance to speak with him personally and I told him that I’d been writing some stories. He looked me in the eye and said, “Submit your stories to a magazine now!” I figured if Ray Bradbury considered me a writer, I must be a writer!
Fiona: What inspired you to write your first book?
I read Time Enough for Love by Robert A. Heinlein and The Magic Journey by John Nichols back to back. Both novels echoed elements of stories I’d heard from my family who homesteaded in New Mexico around the turn of the Twentieth Century. Heinlein’s novel was science fiction and Nichols’ novel was magical realism. I began to think I could tell the story of people who settled an alien world and the struggles they faced. That story ultimately became my first novel, The Pirates of Sufiro.
Fiona: Do you have a specific writing style?
Most of my novels are told in a limited third-person, “over-the-shoulder” viewpoint. Because I like stories told from multiple perspectives, I tend to write scenes from the viewpoints of several different characters. My two Scarlet Order vampire novels take a somewhat different approach and are told from more of an epistolary approach, telling the story through first person accounts, letters and diary entries of the characters.
Fiona: How did you come up with the title for your most recent book?
The title The Astronomer’s Crypt popped into my head very early in the outlining process. Of course, it’s a horror story set at an observatory, but it also occurred to me that there are many telescopes where astronomers are interred in or near the observatories they founded. For example, Percival Lowell’s mausoleum is right outside the 24-inch telescope at Lowell Observatory and James Lick is buried in the pier of the Lick Observatory 36-inch telescope.
Fiona: Is there a message in your novel that you want readers to grasp?
One of the things I try to convey in all my books is a sense of wonder about the world around us. In The Astronomer’s Crypt, I lift the curtain and give readers a look behind the scenes at an astronomical observatory and the people who work there. In the process, I show that while they can be tempted to perform desperate and deplorable actions, they can also rise to great heights of heroism.
Fiona: How much of the book is realistic and are experiences based on someone you know, or events in your own life?
The Astronomer’s Crypt is based very much on experiences I’ve had over the course of a thirty-year career in astronomy. The observatory in the book is fictional, but it’s also an amalgam of several real facilities around the southwest. In much the same way, no person in the book is directly drawn from anyone I’ve known, but I have known people over the years who have exhibited traits of the characters in the books. Ghosts and drug cartels are thankfully not part of my nightly work life, but working at night, in the dark, in buildings that sometimes include literal crypts, ghost stories are common. What’s more, many of the observatories where I’ve worked aren’t that far from the United States’ border with Mexico. We certainly hear a lot of news about the cartels in this part of the country.
Fiona: What books have influenced your life most? a mentor?
As I mentioned earlier, Ray Bradbury had a very profound impact on me early on. We actually corresponded a few times after that initial meeting and visited in person a couple of times after that, so I do think of him as something of a mentor. Although Ray Bradbury is often thought of as a science fiction writer, he wrote several spooky and eerie tales that had a strong impact on me. Of particular note is “Gotcha!” which is one of the scariest short stories I’ve read from any author. Of course Stephen King has been a big influence on my horror work. In particular, elements of The Shining strongly influenced The Astronomer’s Crypt. Other books that have influenced my horror include Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Anne Rice’s body of work.
My steampunk writing has been strongly influenced by work I read as a kid, which again includes Bradbury and the stories he wrote which look back lovingly at his youth. Books like 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne and A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs also kindled my interest in retrofuturism.
Fiona: Are there any new authors that have grasped your interest and who is your favorite author and what is it that really strikes you about their work?
It’s hard to say she’s a “new” author because she already has an impressive set of television and comic book credits, but Erika Lewis’s debut novel Game of Shadows is a great fantasy, but what really caught my attention was the twist at the end, which she set up perfectly, but still made my head spin. I’m now waiting anxiously for the sequel to find out where she takes the series.
Fiona: Name one entity that you feel supported you outside of family members.
My co-workers at Kitt Peak National Observatory have been extraordinarily supportive of all my writing endeavors. Most understand my passion for the art and many are even enthusiastic readers of my work. A few have even been beta readers. I really feel blessed at how both of my careers have come to complement each other.
Fiona: Do you see writing as a career?
Absolutely. I’ve been writing professionally now for over twenty years and striving to get better with every short story and book I write. I refer to astronomy as my “day” job. The quotation marks because, of course, that’s work I do at night! What’s more, I actually spent eight years as a full-time writer and editor. I returned to astronomy because I was asked and I feel it’s important work.
Fiona: If you had to do it all over again, would you change anything in your latest book?
Because The Astronomer’s Crypt is so close to my astronomy career, I regularly find myself second-guessing decisions I made about characters and events in the book. Even so, I haven’t convinced myself an alternative approach to those elements would have made a better book. I was fortunate enough to have a great editorial team who really helped me polish the writing, get rid of the wasted text, and highlight the emotional intensity.
Fiona: Do you recall how your interest in writing originated?
When I was about nine years old, I came across a book titled The Trouble with Tribbles by David Gerrold. It told the story of how he wrote the Star Trek episode of the same name. The book enthralled me and it was the first time I really realized “writer” was a job a person could have and I started toying with it as something I could be. I didn’t actually write a lot until high school, but I drew a lot and told stories about my drawings.
Fiona: Can you share a little of your current work with us?
Here’s an excerpt from the prologue:
The wind wailed as it passed by the telescope’s dome, a half-sphere a little like a cathedral–or more like a factory, thought Mike, with large cranes overhead and tools for servicing the motors and instruments. Observatories were a fascinating blend of bulky, industrial equipment, needed to move the huge mirrors around, and delicate precision instrumentation to view objects invisible to the naked eye.
Mike whistled to distract himself from the wind’s howling while he circled the enclosure. Pleased to see no water drops on the equipment, he gathered heavy, insulated gloves to prevent frostbite and a fifteen-gallon container of liquid nitrogen. The nitrogen cooled the advanced digital camera mounted to the telescope.
Mike hooked the liquid nitrogen fill line from the bottle to the camera and spun the valve next to the safety vents. Too much pressure and the liquid nitrogen could explode. His thoughts drifted to the caves he’d hoped to explore. Mike’s co-worker, Stan Jones, had told him about several caves with many ancient Apache artifacts. There were arrowheads, pots, and tools that could easily be sold to collectors for a little extra money. Mike wasn’t interested in selling things to collectors, but he’d still enjoy seeing the ancient sites–and if he found something cool, he didn’t think it would be a big deal if he snatched it for himself.
Just as that thought crossed his mind, a tremendous bang echoed through the cavernous dome. Whipping his head around, he wondered if something had hit the enclosure–perhaps a chunk of ice or maybe something as benign as a pinecone from a nearby tree.
He turned back again and his mouth fell open in shock.
On the dome floor, next to the telescope, stood a grotesque figure resembling an unholy merging of a predatory dinosaur and some kind of alien creature from a sci-fi movie. Its body crouched atop long talons that looked as though they could easily rip the tiles from the floor. The creature’s nose consisted of two slits above a sharp, beak-like mouth. But it was the eyes that froze Mike in terror. Dark. Mesmerizing. They were like black holes in space. Mike had no idea where the creature had come from or how it managed to get into the dome. But he did know one thing for certain. It wanted to kill him.
The creature hunched low, its obsidian eyes probing into Mike, leaving him weak and nauseous. It seemed to swallow not only light and heat, but joy as well.
In a sudden flash of movement, it sprinted forward.
Mike stumbled backwards and fell hard, the wind knocked out of him. Wheezing and shaking with fear, he thrust his arms in front of his face in a feeble attempt to protect himself. The clacking of claws on the tile floor pounded in his ears as the creature launched itself at him.
Mike thought of Bethany, and closed his eyes, praying his death would be over fast . . .
And, then. Nothing.
Everything was quiet once more, except for the howling wind.
Mike slowly lowered his hands and opened his eyes. All he saw was the nitrogen tank connected up to the camera, spewing liquid onto the floor. The camera was full.
“Jesus! What was that?” Mike burst into bewildered laughter. He’d really thought he was a goner–that some freaky creature had somehow found its way into the dome and was hell bent on devouring him for breakfast.
He must be over-tired, working too many long, winter nights. The unrelenting wind sparked his imagination to run wild, that’s all. He scrambled to his feet, and brushed off his pants. That’s when he realized that he had fallen over something.
The corpse of a mangy coyote lay on the floor at his feet. “How the hell did that get here?” The smell from the carcass was strong enough that Mike had to suppress his gag reflex. He eased around to the nitrogen tank and shut it off. As he disconnected it from the camera he thought the coyote must have sought shelter from the cold and somehow found its way into the telescope’s enclosure. As he wheeled the nitrogen bottle to its storage place by the wall, he wondered how he was going to get rid of the carcass.
He turned back to the dead coyote and got his second shock of the morning.
The animal stood up and shook its shaggy coat, sending up a spray of rain and blood. Mike couldn’t believe what he was seeing nor what happened next.
The coyote’s mouth fell open, as though the tendons no longer held it shut. “Beware the caves,” the coyote said in a deep, raspy voice. “They are the portals of mankind’s doom . . .”
With that, the coyote turned and ran straight for the wall . . . and vanished.
Fiona: Is there anything you find particularly challenging in your writing?
One of the biggest challenges for me is being disciplined about my writing. A lot of writers recommend that you write every single day and I’m finally learning why that’s really good advice. When you write every day, it starts becoming second nature and it’s a lot easier to make small blocks of time effective. If I take a few days off to do something else, I waste a lot of time stressing out about my writing instead of actually writing. I’m learning that if I only have an hour to write, I need to write. If I wait until I have a day where I have three or four hours to write, there’s a good chance I’ll waste an hour or two getting into the “writing zone” and then only actually write for an hour or two after all. It helps that I’m learning that I can often get 1000 or 1200 words written in an hour. Each block like that is another 1000 or 1200 words toward a new story or novel.
Fiona: Do you have to travel much concerning your book(s)?
When possible, I like to travel to the locations in my books to get a sense of the setting. In the case of The Astronomer’s Crypt, that was easy. I just drew on my experiences from my observatory job. In my steampunk books, again the settings are largely the southwestern United States and places I travel through regularly.
I try to get around to conventions and events where I can promote my books as much as possible, and that involves some travel as well. I like to meet and interact with readers. My budget for event travel is limited, so most events are again in the southwestern United States. However, I have made a few trips further afield and have recently done a book signing in New Orleans, Louisiana and was a panelist at a convention in Baltimore, Maryland.
Fiona: Who designed the covers?
Most of my covers are designed by a very talented Denver-based artist named Laura Givens. I’m fortunate that she works for both of my publishers. Our level of collaboration depends on the publisher’s specifications, but she does a great job of reading my mind and creating places and characters on my covers that are very close to the way I imagined them. You can check out a gallery of Laura’s work at http://www.lauragivens-artist.com/
Fiona: What was the hardest part of writing your book?
The hardest part of writing The Astronomer’s Crypt was imagining horrible deaths for characters who reminded me of people I’ve actually worked with. Even when those characters had flaws that made them unlikable, it was difficult. It’s a little like imagining horrible fates for your family. It’s just not something you want to do, no matter how difficult a family member might be at a given time. I actually gave myself some nightmares writing this book and they came back to haunt me when I worked through my editor’s notes.
Fiona: Did you learn anything from writing your book and what was it?
Writing horror taught me to appreciate those people around me and reminded me not to take my loved ones for granted. It also helped me really dig down and get to the emotional core of my storytelling.
Fiona: If any of your books was made into a film who would you like to play the lead
If The Astronomer’s Crypt were made into a film, I’d love to see Karl Urban play the telescope operator, Mike Teter. I find he brings a very relatable charm to characters he’s portrayed. He could make you feel for the character as he encounters the story’s supernatural horrors, but you would also believe it when he rises to the challenge and confronts those same horrors. By the same token, I’d love to see Adam Beach play Mike’s boss, Jerome Torres. Jerome is a Native American who is both strong and possesses a big heart, much like Jim Chee, a character Beach played in adaptations of Tony Hillerman’s Navajo Tribal Police series.
Fiona: Do you have any advice for other writers?
When you’re not writing, read. Read anything you can get your hands on. Read your genre of choice, but also read other genres. Read the best books you can lay your hands on, because good reading begets good writing. The use of language will wend its way into your brain and help you develop your own prose style. You’ll see how different writers solved problems you might be facing. By reading in genres outside your preferred genre, you likely will come up with new ideas, or at least new twists to familiar ideas so your writing doesn’t feel steeped and bound in the tropes of your genre.
Fiona: Do you have anything specific that you want to say to your readers?
I appreciate each and every one of you. You have a lot of choices for how to spend your time, and you chose to go on a journey with me and the characters who live in my head. Thank you for devoting that time to my work and I hope you had an enjoyable journey.
Fiona: What book are you reading now?
I’m currently reading Everfair by Nisi Shawl. It’s steampunk set in Africa and a nominee for the Nebula Award given by the Science Fiction Writers of America. It imagines what would have happened during Belgium’s colonization of the Congo if the native peoples had learned about steam technology earlier than they had.
Fiona: Do you remember the first book you read?
The first chapter book I remember reading all on my own was Pecos Bill: The Greatest Cowboy of Them All by James Cloyd Bowman. Pecos Bill was a colorful subject of tall tales, a Texas-sized legend who could change the course of rivers with his hands and ride cyclones like they were horses. This fantastic vision of the American West no doubt paved the way both for my love of Wild West Steampunk and stories of supernatural creatures in remote places like observatories.
Fiona: What makes you laugh/cry?
The journey that is life makes me both laugh and cry. I cry when I think about those loved ones I’ve lost along this journey. Despite that, life is full of joyful and goofy moments that make me laugh out loud.
Fiona: Is there one person past or present you would want to meet and why?
Lafcadio Hearn was a reporter who moved from Ireland to New Orleans and ultimately to Japan in the nineteenth century, collecting and sharing stories along the way. He wrote beautifully and gave us writings as diverse as the first cookbook of Creole cuisine and a collection of spooky Japanese tales. The more I read his work, the more he inspires me and I would have enjoyed a chance to hear him talk about his adventures firsthand.
Fiona: What do you want written on your head stone and why?
“We are transcendent beings of mysterious origin.” The vampire Lord Draco describes vampires this way in my novel Vampires of the Scarlet Order, but I think it’s true of humans as well and this line from my subconscious reminds me that death is not an ending, but a transition.
Fiona: Other than writing do you have any hobbies?
I enjoy cooking and travel. I also like building model spaceships from favorite movies and TV shows.
Fiona: What TV shows/films do you enjoy watching?
I’ve been a Star Trek fan about as long as I can remember. I’m really excited to see the return of Mystery Science Theater 3000, which has long been a favorite TV show. I’m a long-time fan of science fiction anime such as Space Battleship Yamato and Captain Harlock. In that same vein, I love the movies of Hiyao Miyazaki. I’m a big fan of classic horror films such as Bride of Frankenstein and Nosferatu. Over the years, I’ve amassed a pretty big DVD collection of science fiction, western, and horror films.
Fiona: Favorite foods / Colors / Music
I’m all over Mexican and Cajun food. There’s a joke that steampunks are goths who discovered the color brown and I think there’s a certain truth in that for me because I’m drawn to shades of brown. As for music, I have very eclectic tastes, but they’re largely centered around the rock music of the 60s through the 80s.
Fiona: If you were not a writer what else would you like to have done?
Given that I already have something of a dual career, it’s likely I would have thrown myself more thoroughly into astronomy or astronomical engineering. That said, I dabbled with acting and musical theater in college and might have pursued that more, though I’m not sure whether it would have become more than a hobby.
Fiona: Do you have a blog/website? If so what is it?
Amazon Author’s Page: https://www.amazon.com/David-Lee-Summers/e/B003LLIC3C/