An Interview with Biff Mitchell

An Interview with Biff Mitchell, author of Murder by Coffee and other works

Biff Mitchell lives in a hovel at the edge of the world. He has no life. He has no friends. Neighborhood children throw stones at his hovel. At night, Biff throws stones at his hovel.

Someday Biff plans to write a book about a man who lives in a house that is stoned daily by neighborhood children who—through some magical twist of events—turn into snowmen.

When Spring arrives, the man’s house melts.

What is your favourite dragon in literature?

The only dragon I like is the one I keep in my refrigerator.

I’m not going to be reviewing your newest novel, but from your other published novels, is there one that is your own personal favourite?

My second novel, Team Player, is my favorite. It was the easiest of all my novels to write and the most fun. It’s a satire on the IT industry in which a man who lives in a tree in his office helps 30 naked pagan women save the universe. I work in the IT industry so I had lots of ammunition for this one.

I wrote Team Player so long ago that the illegal software the bad guys want to put on everyone’s computers is a reality and it’s not illegal. We call it malware or any other name that makes it seem like a minor irritant. But when I wrote the novel, I was certain that anyone who would plant something like that would go to jail.

Also, apparently neutrinos have mass. They didn’t while I was writing the novel.

Everyone has a ‘first novel’, even if many of them are a rough draft relegated to the bottom and back of your desk drawer (or your external harddrive!). Have you been able to reshape yours, or have you abandoned it for good?

I burned my first novel because it was so bad. I had some second thoughts almost as soon as it started peeling off ashes, but it was written on a typewriter with no copy, so I just stared at the flames and tried not to think about what I was doing.

I might try to re-write is some day. It’s a hippie story…so…maybe I’ll just leave it as is…ashes.

Over the years, what would you say has improved significantly in your writing?

I’d have to say that my writing style became more relaxed as time marched on and I no longer gave a damn what people thought of my writing. The relaxed style goes well with the sardonic humor and all the nasty things that happen to the characters unfortunate enough to be in one of my stories.

I have heard of writers that could only write in one place – then that cafe closed down and they could no longer write! Where do you find yourself writing most often, and on what medium (pen/paper or digital)?

I do almost all my writing in coffee shops. As soon as I sit down, slurp some coffee, and turn my laptop on, I start writing because I’m in the place where I write.

The only thing that bugs me is people talking on their cell phones. They don’t talk, they yell. This is why I take an expensive pair of Bose noise cancellation headphones with me when I write. They’ve saved so many annoying cell phone addicts from getting a coffee stir stick in the eye.

I even put together a workshop on writing in coffee shops and it’s free here (link).

Before going on to hire an editor, most authors use beta-readers. How do you recruit your beta-readers, and choose an editor? Are you lucky enough to have loving family members who can read and comment on your novel?

I spent several years as a quality assurance specialist so I do my own editing. BUT…I put the finished manuscript away for up to a year and no less than six months so that I’m coming into the script as fresh as possible.

This isn’t really what I should be doing though. It’s what I tell my writing students not to do and there’s a price to be paid for doing this.

My novel, The Weekly Man, was rejected by 5,309.05 agents because of a typo type error on the first page where I wrote, “he noticed noticed that.” I didn’t notice the double “noticed” but the agents did, and that’s when they stopped reading.

I walk past bookshops and am drawn in by the smell of the books – ebooks simply don’t have the same attraction for me. Does this happen to you, and do you have a favourite bookshop? Or perhaps you are an e-reader fan… where do you source most of your material from?

I like the convenience of my Kindle reader. I can carry as many books as I want anywhere in the world and it comes in handy when I’m waiting for a dental/doctor/shrink appointment.

I get nasty glares from people with their heads buried in their cell phones. It’s like they’re saying: “Who the hell do you think you are? That’s not a phone! Put it away! Be us!”

At which point, I double down on the reading and sometimes read aloud and see if I can make their teeth grind louder than I’m reading.

I used to find myself buying books in only one genre (fantasy) before I started writing this blog. What is your favourite genre, and have your tastes changed over time?

I’ve always been attracted to speculative fiction in all its many strange forms, but not just science fiction and fantasy. I like the stuff that dips itself into an impossible story and drowns itself in a barrage of magical realism and humor.

I’d mention my favorite writers but then you’d buy their books and not mine and I’m just not that big-hearted.

Social media is a big thing, much to my disgust! I never have enough time myself to do what I feel is a good job. What do you do?

I use social media until it drives me crazy. I was already pretty far gone before social media taught me to swear like the world was on fire, which is probably will be soon.

I have a main website that’s sort of a portal to everything else. I have website specifically for my writing. I have 1, 2, 3, 4 blogs at WordPress and one somewhere else that I can no longer locate, but the blog is still there. I also have a Facebook page for myself and for each of my novels and my writing in general. Facebook just changed its interface and put me back a year or two.

I also use other social media to promote my writing; for instance, Tumblr, Instagram, Twitter, LinkedIn, Reddit and Pinterest. It never stops and it’s merciless. They change the interfaces and they change the rules.

It drives me just a little bit crazier every day. In fact, I can’t believe I’m writing this without swearing and jumping up and down on my laptop.

A word of warning: If you’re going to use social media to market your books, start with one or two and get to know them inside out before going on to others. Or, just jump right in and go crazy like I did.

Answering interview questions can often take a long time! Tell me, are you ever tempted to recycle your answers from one to the next?

Every single word here has been recycled from hundreds, maybe thousands, of interviews I’ve done. Unfortunately, those were all done for my photography, so some of the words might not make sense in the context of writing. But it saves time.

About Biff’s latest novel

We live in a world teetering on mass extinctions, including humans. Blowing Up dives into both the good and the bad in this out-of-control world with a big dose of surreal situations and dark humor. The book begins with Sleeping in Ditches, the story of a man who epitomizes our increasingly fatalist attitudes towards life in the 21st Century. He attends cocktail parties, office talks in the lunch room and anti-abortion rallies (for the free food). At night, he sleeps in ditches:

“I’ve slept in ditches full of needles and condoms and barking spiders. I wear two wide swatches of red on my back from a slick of bubbling something-or-other at the bottom of a ditch by a chemical plant. I’ve seen small things flitter and flap in the darkness around rusted tin cans while they debated whether to leave me alone or eat me.”

The collection gets its title from the story 100 People, 10 Bats and 1 Car Blowing Up. This story gets into the minds of the people, the bats and the cat in that instant in which they’re blowing up in a nuclear holocaust. Their thoughts are sometimes more disturbing than the explosion:

“There were no walls, no windows, no floor. It was certainly a much different environment than it had been a few minutes before. Chloe’s Coffee Crisp bar was gone before she’d had a chance to finish it and she felt a little ripped off by the timing of things. The nerve: blowing a city up before people have a chance to finish their chocolate bars.”

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