Rob writes funny things. His anti-self help book Unleash the Sloth! sits on my coffee table, where I’ll open it to some random page for a good chuckle. His novels are smart, laugh-out-loud science fiction adventures with lovable characters and whacky plots. I met Rob on a panel at a writer’s conference, and he is as intelligent, funny, and interesting as his books! And his writing journey proves that there are many ways to access the literary world, meet your audience, and navigate the publishing industry. I’m so pleased to welcome Rob Dircks to BCB today!
TL: I’m a big fan of laughter as an antidote for almost anything. When I’m having a bad day, I find a reel of Star Wars bloopers or autocorrect mishaps and laugh myself silly – often all alone. Your book Unleash the Sloth!, has officially made it onto my “laugh resource” list. Where did the idea for Unleash the Sloth! come from and how was the experience writing this book different from crafting your novels?
RD: Unleash the Sloth! was my first experiment in self-publishing. For years, I had noticed myself looking for ways to get more done with as little effort as possible (or to do absolutely nothing and appear to be doing something productive.) I just kind of kept a list, and eventually fleshed it out to that book. Having been an avid self-help reader at times, I loved the idea of gently poking fun at the self-help thing, and basically telling people “you’re fine the way you are, and you can probably get away with doing even less.”
The experience was so much different than the novels – Unleash the Sloth! was basically a string of jokes with a common theme, whereas novels are actual stories, with plots and character arcs, and inner goals, and all that fun stuff. I find the novels so much more satisfying, I’m not sure I’ll do another joke book. Although now that I think of it, I’ve had a title for another anti-self-help book stuck in my head for years: Aim Low. You like it?
TL: Let’s talk about the novels Where the Hell is Tesla and its newly released sequel, Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff. Where did you come up with the idea for these stories?
RD: Well, I’m kind of a sucker for conspiracy theories (just for fun, I swear). So one day I stumbled across this outrageous conspiracy theory article about Nikola Tesla, how he had secret journals that disappeared after he died, that the FBI took them, and that they contained plans for death rays and god-knows-what else. Maybe an hour later, I was still digging down this Internet rabbit hole, finding little scraps of hints and clues, this wonderful bottomless pit of Tesla intrigue, and I said to myself: what if he had something REALLY crazy in those journals? Like an Interdimensional Transfer Apparatus? And what if some slacker security guard found his journal in an old abandoned FBI desk drawer?
The book was supposed to be a standalone (spoiler alert: Chip saves the multiverse), but I kept getting readers asking for a sequel. So I said what the heck, and always loving a challenge, I decided to write my very first sequel, Don’t Touch the Blue Stuff! I had no idea what it would be about, but Chip’s kind of this character that never stops talking, so I just let him start, and away we went. All I had to do was throw in a baby and a by-the-book-FBI-agent Gina Phillips to keep him in line, or try anyway!
TL: The text of Where the Hell is Tesla is essentially thousands of emails from the main character, Chip, who is stranded in alternate dimensions, to his girlfriend Julie, back here in ours. Why did you choose to structure the book this way?
RD: When the very first scene with Chip came to me, sort of amorphous, I actually sat down and typed it as an email to my brother Ken. So the voice was very casual, and the email form lent it a sort of immediacy, like “hey, are you there?” I didn’t pick it up again for months, but when I reread it, I liked the urgency of the email, and how intimate it felt — just one person communicating with one other person. So I ran with it.
TL: With all of your books, humor is a constant thread. In the novels, you mix real science with the absurd, and send your characters on wacky adventures that turn them into reluctant heroes. You also present meaningful themes next to laugh-out-loud moments. For example, Chip realizes the kind of man he wants to be in his relationship with Julie, and has to admit all the ways he’s messed up thus far. Can you talk about some of the more serious moments in the story?
RD: I think Chip kind of represents all of us, how we have these flaws, sometimes glaring flaws, but underneath, we all want to reconcile for the things we’ve done wrong, and find love, and find friendship, and become what we’re meant to become. So in the first Where the Hell is Tesla?, I have Chip trying to do all three: win back Julie by redeeming the stupid crap he’d done during their relationship, be the best friend he can be to Pete, who he’d been basically taking advantage of for years, and find that well of inner courage to save the day and be the best version of him he can be.
One specific serious moment I really liked with Chip was when he realizes what love really is. Here’s his quote: “Love is not just the fun and the good times – it’s the bearing of each other’s bullshit, the wanting to bear that great weight together, the lifting each other up. That’s love.” I think right there he has this epiphany we all have at some point in our lives, about how much we need each other, and how important love is.
Another serious moment I loved was when Chip is called to give a pre-battle speech to the assembled army of Earth Fragment Five. He kind of doesn’t realize until he’s done that he’s actually become a courageous guy. I remember writing that scene and kind of patting him on the back, like “you done good, Chip.”
TL: In your bio, you mention a drawer full of screenplays and short stories. If you could pick one to develop, which would it be and why?
RD: I have this half-written draft of a screenplay/story titled Personal Trainer, a comedy about an out-of-shape guy who has a heart attack, and winds up in an eastern European “health resort” (translation: work camp), paired with a super-intense, five-foot-two, ex-olympic gymnast personal trainer. Why that story? I have this fantasy of writing a Will Ferrel or Seth Rogen screenplay someday, or writing a novel they’d like enough to option for a movie.
TL: What’s your writing process like, and when do you make time to write?
RD: On the best writing days, I’ll get up at 7am, stretch a little, meditate/journal for maybe ten minutes, write down in longhand notes on the scene or scenes for the day, and crank out my target of two thousand words, sometimes even more. On my worst writing days, I’ll wake up at 9am and bang my head on the desk for a couple of hours, then I’ll write 600 crappy words, then delete everything and call it a day. Making time for all this can be kind of difficult with a mostly full-time job, so I squeeze it in in the mornings, sometimes in the evenings if I’m still frosty, and on weekend afternoons.
TL: What are you working on next?
RD: I actually scored a book contract with Audible Studios (holy cow, right?), so I’m writing a new sci-fi comedy about a mission to Mars – think a mashup of The Martian and a reality show. I don’t know if I’m supposed to say more than that, but I think it’ll be out in mid-2018, so mark your calendar!
Then, after that, I have a novel in mind tentatively titled Shut Up And Run, another sci-fi comedy, this time about a lab researcher who discovers something that gets her on several high-level international hit-lists, and to protect herself and her family, she has to take her curmudgeon old dad and her irresponsible younger brother with her on the run.