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Author Interview: Steve Zell

Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Diane Lunsford is talking with Steve Zell, author of Urban Limit: They are already inside...

FQ: Let me say a heartfelt thank you for such a thrill of a story! Have you ever been compared to Stephen King? Often while I was reading Urban Limit, I found myself periodically drifting back to years ago when I read The Stand.

ZELL: Thank you for your wonderful review! And the comparison is certainly an honor. I have gotten that a few times now - I think King and I both like seeing things through the eyes of kids. Their ability to find magic (good and bad) in the world is fantastic. We also both seem to like taking a “normal” community or family and giving them something terrifying to deal with.

FQ: In line with question 1, I’m curious to know what inspired you to conjure up such a dark and entertaining tale.

ZELL: I can’t help seeing connections in seemingly unrelated things or events. Of course, a lot of Urban Limit’sinspiration just came from living in Oregon. As gorgeous as it is, it’s a place where a family can take one wrong turn on an autumn mountain drive and be found by hikers late in the spring. Right out my front door I’ve seen all four seasons in one April day – the weather here can change that fast. It’s a tough enough proving ground that we have our share of Olympians – both famous and infamous – and, yes, we have our share of illegal pharma going on in the mountains and forests. The title comes from Portland’s obsession with urban growth boundaries and limits – which I can’t help but read as, “that place where civilization ends.”

On a side note with regard to inspiration – the idea for my first novel, WiZrD, came from something I saw while stuck in traffic in LA…but that’s literally another story…

FQ:  The motherlode of a storm that changes the Carroll family’s lives forevermore was quite fantastic. Your description in setting the scene at the onset and the propensity in which it raged on was fantastic. I see you traded Southern California and Arizona for the Portland, Oregon area. What is the most horrific storm you have weathered in that area of the country?

ZELL: So far (knock on wood) I haven’t been in a storm here nearly as frightening as half the earthquakes I experienced in LA – but the ice storms that come with Oregon snow storms can be brutal – especially in the higher elevations. We lose hikers and mountain climbers on Mount Hood every winter. The worst snowstorm I’ve weathered was actually on my way home from school in Schenectady, NY, in eighth grade. I literally trudged home 2 miles from school through a blizzard in my school clothes with a light sweater and leather dress shoes. I know that sounds like a typical “dad” story…

FQ: You are quite descriptive when addressing not only the evils of the meth camps in the mountains of Oregon, but also the tie-in of the element of Isis setting up shop. What drove you to tie these two themes of the story together? 

ZELL: It made sense to me that a terror group looking for a way to smuggle personnel and deadly cargo into the US would choose a partner with a strong illicit-cargo smuggling network already in place. MS-13 would be a solid choice. Hopefully the DHS is thinking the same way…

FQ: The ‘super fortress’ Ken Carroll built for his family seems like it could withstand just about anything that came its way. Without too much of a spoiler, do you suppose we humans have become far too reliant on the modern technologies at hand to provide a false sense of security as a result?

ZELL: It was fun coming up with a “high tech” design for removing snow from the Carroll’s roof that isn’t any more “high-tech” than a dog shaking water off its coat. But yes, sadly “self-reliance” doesn’t carry much value anymore, in fact, it’s largely ridiculed. Convenience is king. A world full of self-driving cars with hackable software at the wheel is scary as hell to me. At the same time I do love technology – I draw/paint my cover-art on a digital tablet and much of what I did as an animator and instructor was teaching traditional cel and stop-motion animators how to move to digital tools. I haven’t used actual paper and canvas for years. We make trade-offs, but I do worry about that.

FQ: I like the nuance toward the all American, Olympic contender you painted in the development of Kristi’s character. Yet, when exposed to the contamination of the meth leeching into the pristine mountain streams she drank from, it was clear her life was spiraling out of control. What made you take that detour with her character?

ZELL: With world-class athletes - so driven to compete with the best and win – I think a lot of them are looking for an edge. It comes down to integrity, emotional and physical cost. Kristi has a lot of integrity and her case is special – she isn’t juicing willingly, and by the time she realizes what’s happened to her she’s already hooked. I think it would be a really, really difficult choice for anyone at that level – and when it’s her family’s life or death, not a medal she’s fighting for, she’s forced to make a tragic choice.

FQ: This is a wonderful story of good versus evil and I applaud you for not ending it with ‘… and they all lived happily ever after…’ Did you find the more invested you became with the axis of evil, the more the story took on a life of its own? If so, what was that like? If not, have you experienced this euphoria in this or any of your previous works?

ZELL: Thank you for that. I’m definitely not tied to happy endings. I was bullied enough as a kid to learn you have to fight back to end it – but no fight comes without pain, even loss. You need to be ready for the pain, and for failure, without letting that stop you. I know that the ending to WiZrD shocked some folks when it came out while Running Cold has an ending I’ll just call, “quirky.”

FQ: In line with question 7, how do you overcome those moments when you transition from a pen that flows to a pen that is forced? How do you get back on track when you feel you are forcing your pen?

ZELL: When I wrote WiZrD I took the time to write an outline before I started – and wound up throwing most of that away as the characters interacted with each other and grew. If the fight is between what you’re planning for a character to do, and what that character actually would do in that moment you’re looking through their eyes, the character has to win that battle. The only hard & fast rule I have is knowing how the story ends before I start writing. If my characters come up with a better ending along the way, that’s great! As long as they’re in charge, I’ll go with it – but I have to have a strong ending in mind before I begin.

FQ: I noticed in your bio that you were an animator and digital animation tools instructor while in Los Angeles. What was your most memorable project while doing this line of work?

ZELL: Hah! The most memorable could actually be one of the worst ever. I was a lead animator on The Nuttiest Nutcracker, which was meant to replace the stop-motion classic, Rudolf the Red-Nosed Reindeer, as the Christmas favorite. I came to the production late and you won’t find me in the credits, which is likely a blessing. During the final weeks of animation (what we call “crunch time”) the director brought all the animators together in one room and drew a pile of steaming poo on the white board. The very next day we had a new director. I still have a production shirt from that show which reads, “F’it, Ship it.”

FQ: Again, I want to thank you for delivering such a fascinating (and thrilling) tale. What’s next? Are you able to give us a teaser?

ZELL: Thank you again – and yes, I’m working on four stories bit by bit (one of them is a sequel to Urban Limit) – but the next book out, hopefully by the end of 2018, features two characters from Running Cold. I won’t say more now than it’s a thriller/murder mystery with supernatural underpinnings. I have the title (and the ending of course), but I’ll wait till I’m a little closer to publishing before I get that out there…

To learn more about Urban Limit: They are already inside... please read the review.

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