Q&A with Mark Shamlian, author of The Legend of SqueezeboxSqueeze

Our next book of the week is The Legend of SqueezeboxSqueeze, which we published a few months ago. You can purchase it here in the Written Dreams store, and visit the author and illustrator, Mark Shamlian, at his website.

In this interview, Mark offers his insights on character design and what it’s like to be both an author and illustrator.

About The Legend of SqueezeboxSqueeze

Will Cheng Lee ever be the same after he’s taken on a wild, miraculous, earth-shaking adventure by the unlikeliest musical superhero?

Cheng Lee, former inventor, physics professor and one-time pioneer in quantum-mechanics owns an accordion shop in London, England where he works as an instrument repairman. His business is failing, his beloved wife has passed, and he may soon be evicted. Now old and broke, all seems futile for Cheng.

One morning a small package arrives, launching the shopkeeper on a crazy, magical journey. It’s not all easy, though, and Cheng faces some hard decisions. When a constable knocks on the shop’s door, his world turns upside down. He’ll need more than luck to get out of this precarious situation.

Along the way, Cheng, his apprentice, and a group of magical, musical cohorts learn the meaning of loyalty, faith, heroism, and the power of believing. But what will this new perspective do to Cheng Lee?

About Mark Shamlian

Mark Shamlian is a freelance illustrator, portrait painter and designer. He resides in a semi-rural area outside of Boston with his wife, Gina. With his debut novel, The Legend of SqueezeboxSqueeze, he combines his love for illustration, music, and writing. When not engaged in the creative process, he lives an unremarkable life, enriched by various hobbies, humans, and animals.

The Interview

Q: What was it like to illustrate the characters you wrote about? Difficult? Easy?

A: Some of the characters I fleshed out visually before writing the book. A couple of years prior to writing my book, I and two other partners, composer Andrea Green and Paul Green (based in London), worked on developing a children’s character-based platform for music education and entertainment. I created visuals of the characters and helped in the development of their personalities and stories.

I happened to have a dream in the midst of a flu episode. In this dream, some of the characters that we had developed, plus a number of new ones, appeared to me in a fairly vivid adventure. Over the course of the next couple of nights in a semi-awake, fever state, I filled in many of the gaps in the arc of the tale. 

The original shopkeeper in our Mr. Rogers-like education program was an old world Italian character. But in my dream, he was an elderly Chinese man with a background in physics. The accordion hero character in my book has superpower abilities. He can fly with the aid of his accordion/jetpack device. Other characters unique to the book are the old sage, Ling, the crotchety landlord/banker, Mr. Banks, the mob enforcer, Big Ernie Smalls, Archie’s parents, Chairman Hou, the courtroom characters, Eunice Tuttle, Shirley Dunnfor, Judge Higginbottom, Thaddeus Swaggert III, Lady Ima Werthaton, Count Avery Schilling, plus a host of other minor figures. 

It was fairly easy to illustrate the new characters as they were presented in vivid detail in my dreams and imagination. 

Q: Why set SqueezeboxSqueeze in England versus the United States?

A: In our related entertainment project, the music characters resided in a London music store. This was Paul’s idea, I believe (he is English). As my mother was British, I liked the idea and wanted to retain it in the book.

Q: Are you writing any sequels to The Legend of SqueezeboxSqueeze?

A: I have ideas for two sequels outlined. At this point, I would like to see if this tale goes anywhere. I genuinely think the characters should live on and I believe the world needs a musical superhero. Let’s see. 

Q: What do you do in your free time when not writing or illustrating?

A: These days, I freelance as a designer/illustrator. Although my education background was fine arts (MFA, painting, Boston University), I spent most of my life in the commercial design field: stores, museums, trade show exhibits, visitor centers, corporate events, displays, etc. It paid the bills. I rarely paint these days except for the interior and exterior of my house. I miss it. Other than that, I enjoy playing music. I’ve been in bands my whole life, mostly as a drummer. I was raised in a musical family and studied piano, trombone, oboe, flute, and percussion. 

Recently, I started playing again with some older guys like myself, and may be ready to go public again soon. No more bar gigs, though, which wrap up at 2am—that ship has sailed. 

Most of the time, I’m happy to hang out with my wife at our home in central Massachusetts, tending to our gardens, enjoying nature and the company of family and friends. Things are pretty low-key these days, which is fine. 

Q: Who is your favorite character and why in The Legend of SqueezeboxSqueeze?

A: It has to be the elderly humble shopkeeper, Cheng Lee. I think he has a great redemption story in SqueezeboxSqueeze. He also reminds me of my late father. My dad was a professional musician (London Symphony, Philadelphia Orchestra) who was also a big-hearted, humble man. He reached the height of his profession from the depths of poverty. He never forgot his roots and gave back in the form of free lessons and instrument repair for young musicians of little means. I never heard him utter a negative word about anyone or say anything boastful. With his great talent and the looks of Cary Grant, he could have been excused for being a little arrogant. While in the London Symphony, a famous director at the time begged him to do a screen test. He refused. He just wanted to remain in the background as an orchestral musician. That was his passion.

Q: What advice would you give to other author-illustrators when creating their own books?

A: A lot of it is common sense. First, be very selective regarding which specific passages in a book to illustrate. These often tend to announce themselves, I believe. They may be pivotal points emotionally, unique points of action, or important junctures in plot development. Some scenes are just visually poetic and “ask” to be illustrated, at least in my experience. 

Be aware of maintaining a very consistent style in the overall body of illustrations.  I’ve found that the tendency is to hurry, which sometimes compromises the final results. By placing many illustrations together in close proximity, it’s easier to spot significant differences in style that need to be reconciled. Maybe these differences are in level of detail, line-weight, background treatment, etc. I would suggest from the outset, to have the “look” of your work be consistent. If you use a digital tablet (like me), remember which Photoshop pens you use from illustration to illustration. Remember percentages of grays in shadows and backgrounds if you are working in black and white. Keep a consistent (and limited) color palette when working in color. This will unify things. If you establish these details from the beginning, you won’t have to go back and rework pictures. At least, not as much. 

Also, remember, if you work digitally, to work in appropriate dpi resolution. That is, maintain around 300 dots per inch resolution for the final physical size of the illustration on the page. This is required by printers for a clean output when your book goes to print. 

Lastly, if you have repeated images of characters, make sure they are consistent in all views. You may have to draw a character from as many views as possible before you embark on series of illustrations. Try and really nail down who your characters are visually. It’s easier said than done, though. You don’t want the look of a character to evolve over the course of a book, unless it’s a shape-shifter. 

Interview with Flo Parfitt, author of Sara’s Sacrifice

This week’s book of the week is the newly-released Sara’s Sacrifice by Flo Parfitt! We are happy to present a short interview with Flo about her novel, which is available to order here.

About Sara’s Sacrifice

What would you sacrifice to have your voice heard?

For over 50 years, women sacrificed home, family, wealth and much more for the right to vote. Sara was one of the unsung heroes of the early 20th Century who sacrificed everything for her daughter’s voice.She paid the price for you to be heard today.

The Interview

Q: Women of many different countries and time periods have made great historical achievements–why did you choose the United States suffragette movement as your focus? What about that era draws you?

A: There have been several movies and documentaries featuring the suffragette movement in England and they are very good, but little is said about the women here. It is important that we understand the sacrifices of women here and know why it is imperative for our voices to be heard.

Q: Sara’s Sacrifice is not only about the suffragette movement, but about Sara’s personal life, too, as familial, romantic, and friendship drama helps shape the narrative. Why did you choose to include these other elements as strongly as you did?

A: Personally, I don’t believe that history tells the whole story. In school we read about wars and the men involved in politics. I believe true history is about the people and how those wars and events of history affected them personally. I particularly wanted to focus on women, those unsung heroes.

Q: Who are your personal women heroes and why? Did they play a part in Sara’s Sacrifice either literally or in your writing process, and if so, how?

A: My grandmother had to quit school at the age of 12 when her mother died. There were two younger brothers and a baby sister to be tended to and a farm to run. She wanted to be a teacher but never got the opportunity. She married a farmer who was seriously injured in a farm accident. They moved to the city where she took a job and was the primary breadwinner while raising a family at a time when women’s place was still at home. She was never political, but I always looked up to her. It was because of her that I developed a strong belief in the power of women in all walks of life.

Q: Sara’s Sacrifice is the first in a series–can you tell us a bit about what you have planned for your future novels, with Melissa and Ella?

A: I never intended to write Sara’s story. It wrote itself. Every time I sat at my computer, I just knew what would happen next. I lived Sara. I was Sara. In doing historical research, I ran across many things in the coming eras and of course that involved the “greatest generation.” This was my grandmother’s generation. It isn’t her story, although that would have been a good story in itself, but it was a story of survival and endurance. Who would better experience it than Sara’s daughter Ella?

So, Ella Endures will be my next release. Melissa who is Ella’s granddaughter brings back to life shades of my own life and involvement in the Civil rights cause, war protests, and the feminist movement. This is not my story, but it is an era I lived in. It is a composite of people I knew. Melissa’s March for me is personal. The march brings us to the corollaries of today’s world; the world we now live in.

Q: Where is your favorite place to write?

A: Depends on my mood. I will write anywhere but mostly I sit at my computer away from all distractions in my office. Not even a radio to distract me.

Q: What is your method for researching your novels, especially writing historical fiction?

A: My first resource is my computer (Google and Wikipedia), but I never trust just one resource. I double and sometimes triple check facts. I like going to the Wisconsin Historical Society site, as well as other historical sites, libraries, and museums. Often I will watch video documentaries and sometimes fictional movies of an era such as “Pearl Harbor” and “Saving Private Ryan” They for the most part follow facts but they also display the human emotion.

Q: What is your favorite genre to read, and who are some of your favorite authors or books?

A: I mix up my reading a lot. I love mysteries especially those with forensics or legalities. John Grisham fits the bill. I love historic novels and one of my favorites is Nightingale by Kristin Hannah. The most recent favorite book is Where the Crawdads Sing by Delia Owens. It reminds me of another similar book I loved: Educated by Tara Westover. I love some of the oldies, To Kill a Mockingbird by Harper Lee and my all-time favorite was Heidi, my childhood gem that I still love today.

Q: Who is the support team for your writing? Family, friends, editors, writing group, etc.

A: I have no shortage of fans among family and friends. My biggest support team is a small group of writers calling themselves Authors and Allies. We critique each other’s work and can be brutal in a supportive way. The group offers suggestions and ideas and are all great friends and promoters of each other’s work,

Q: Do you have any advice for new or young authors, especially women?

A: Look for ideas no one has explored, or choose a different way to explore an old idea. There are a ton of books out there and it can be difficult for even the best writers to be recognized. If it is your passion and you are willing to make it a priority in your life, pursue it. If it is your hobby, enjoy it for what it is. For everyone, but women in particular, don’t give up too soon. I did. After three rejections I decided I was not good enough and gave it up. I realized many years later most of the famous authors today had twenty or thirty rejections before someone took them on. Embrace every rejection, it is one step closer to success.

Interview with Charles DuPuy, author of Say The Word

This week, we had the pleasure of interviewing Charles DuPuy about his new release, Say the Word. The novel is currently available to purchase here on the Written Dreams website. Come learn a little more about his heart-pounding, tear-jerking mystery as Charles shares his process with us!

About Say The Word

When physician assistant Jim Booker “saves” the life of a Mafia don’s son, the young man’s father makes him a solemn promise. Jim remembers it when he runs into an intolerable situation at Serenity, a substance abuse treatment facility in Maine.

The resulting consequences of the don’s actions threaten to land Jim in prison for the rest of his life. He struggles to come up with something, anything that will clear his name. He is helped along the way by Brianna, a counselor who works with Jim at Serenity. They join forces to try and get the tenacious state police detective off their backs, but they’ll face numerous obstacles along the way as Jim tries to prove his innocence.

The Interview

Q: What made you want to write a physician’s assistant type character for Say the Word?
A: I was a physician assistant in Maine for many years. I drew on my experience at a substance abuse treatment program for the background to Say the Word.

Q: What is your connection to Maine?
A: I moved to Maine after becoming a physician assistant in 1983. My first exposure to Maine was as a camp counselor while in college. I have hunted, fished, camped and hiked throughout the state, and enjoyed fishing for lobsters and digging clams. Maine is larger than all the other New England states put together, and it’s chock full of things to do and places to go.

Q: Any words of advice on how to cope for people who have dark demons like abuse or addiction in their lives?
It’s a waste of time and money to offer advice to people who are addicted to one or more substances. They need to reach the point in their lives where the only direction to go is up, and they’re willing to go in that direction. Without their willingness to change, any effort to help them is a waste of time, sad to say.

As for people who have suffered abuse, be it physical, sexual or psychological, a willingness to get past it is key. The most important thing they need to understand is that the abuse was not their fault. Many abused people blame themselves for what happened. That is what keeps them suffering.

Q: Why mystery? Did you find it, or did it find you?
I’ve always loved a good mystery, so writing them came naturally to me. Keeping my readers wondering what’s going to happen next is very satisfying to me. It’s the spark that keeps me writing.

Q: Words of advice to an aspiring young author?
Read everything that interests you, write daily in a diary or a journal, and explore everything in your world. Keep doing it until you know who you are and what you want to say. Then write, write, write until most of what you write satisfies you. Don’t expect everything you write to satisfy you. That’s why good writers edit and rewrite.

Q: Who do you enjoy reading?
I read to learn and to be entertained, so I read a wide range of stuff. Naturally, mysteries grab me the most. It’s likely that Edgar Allan Poe got me started, and Graham Greene, Ernest Hemingway and William Golding caught my eye. Contemporary writers include Lee Child, Dan Brown, Stuart Woods, James W. Hall, Dean Koontz, and yes, Stephen King, a fellow-Mainer. I’m constantly on the lookout for new blood, pun intended!