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Interview With an Author: Tal M. Klein

Daryl M., Librarian, West Valley Regional Branch Library,
book cover of punch escrow and author photo of Tai M. Klein

Tal M. Klein was born in Israel, grew up in New York, and currently lives in Detroit with his wife and two daughters. When his daughter Iris was five years old, she wrote a book called I’m a Bunch of Dinosaurs that went on to become one of the most successful children’s book projects ever on Kickstarter — something that Tal explained to Iris by telling her, “your book made lots of kids happy.” Iris then asked Tal, "Daddy, why don’t you write a book that makes lots of grownups happy?" Tal mulled this over for a few years, and eventually wrote his first book, The Punch Escrow, which won the Inkshares Geek & Sundry Hard Science Fiction Publishing contest. It is also the first book published on Inkshares’ Geek & Sundry imprint. Tal recently agreed to be interviewed by Daryl Maxwell for the Los Angeles Public Library. 

What was your inspiration for The Punch Escrow?

Back in 2012, I was complaining to a co-worker about J.J. Abrams' over the top use of lens flare in the Star Trek reboot, when all of a sudden our CEO interrupted the conversation by shouting “It’s BS!” It would turn out that he wasn’t talking about the lens flare, but Star Trek‘s transporters. He was an expert in quantum physics, and went on to explain that nobody in the right mind would ever step into a transporter if they knew how it worked. I guess something about that stuck with me. I started researching teleportation and other future tech, just for kicks, really. Then, in 2015 we were going through a real estate transaction, and my real estate agent explained the escrow process to me — and somehow that lit a bulb over my head, it was my eureka moment. I figured out that the problem with teleportation was an anthropological issue more than a scientific one, meaning the issue with teleportation wasn’t the science of it — that would inevitably come — but rather the marketing of it. The rabbit hole goes deeper from here, but you asked for the inspiration, so there you have it.

How did the novel evolve and change as you wrote and revised it? Are there any characters or scenes that were lost in the process that you wish had made it to the published version?

As an anecdote to answer the first part of your question, my publisher, Inkshares, has plagiarism software they run against all books before they publish. Just for kicks, they compared the first draft I submitted to the final and found there to be only a 7% overlap! In other words, this book can hardly be accused of plagiarizing its own first draft — that’s how much it’s changed.

The first draft was written almost stream of consciousness. I had done about three years of research prior to setting pen to paper, and I committed to writing 1500 words per day until the thing was done. The final outcome read as sloppy as you might imagine.

The second draft came after I received my first editorial note from Robert Kroese, my first developmental editor. He’s also one of my favorite authors, and I asked him to give it to me straight. He provided some great feedback on the underpinnings of the story, which led me to rethink the “secret of how teleportation works.”

The third draft came after I won the Inkshares Geek & Sundry Hard Science Fiction contest. I received my second editorial note, this time from Matt Harry, my assigned developmental editor at Inkshares. This draft was a complete rewrite from the ground up. We flushed out each character's arc and — yes, I did have to kill some of my darlings, but it was worth it. The story was broken up into “beats” and we honed in on capturing the protagonist’s “hero’s journey” in three acts.

The fourth draft came after Inkshares released the third draft to Alex Hedlund (then head of development for Legendary Pictures), Greg Silverman (then president of Warner Brothers), and Howie Sanders (head of books for United Talent Agency). The three of them gave me bulleted notes on story structure that helped round out the cinematic appeal of the book. It’s likely because of this round of edits that the book became so appealing to Hollywood.

The fifth and final draft was mostly copy editing and proofing, with the implementation of some light notes from beta readers and fellow authors. 

Is Joel Byram inspired or based on a specific individual (or group of people)?

Joel Byram is based on two real people and two fictional ones. The two real people are myself and my friend John Hannon. We’re smartasses with an uncanny capacity to absorb and spit out trivial knowledge (often as the least useful times). The fictional characters I used to round him out are Scott Meyer’s quintessential slacker hacker Martin Banks from his Magic 2.0 series, and Alexandre from the 1960’s French film Alexandre le bienheureux, a sort of happy-go-lucky semi-sociopathic jack-of-all-trades.

There are a lot of references to 80s movies/music in The Punch Escrow. What’s your favorite 80s movie? Television show? Band?

Movie: The Princess Bride

TV show: Kidd Video (I was a kid in the 80’s, cut me some slack!)

Band: Talking Heads

If the type of teleportation you describe in The Punch Escrow became available today, would you use it?

It’s not about the tech. I think if you asked someone in the 18th century if they’d agree to fly in a pressurized metal tube in the sky whether they would do it, most would likely say no. The key is that a few would say yes. I don’t think teleportation would simply become everyone’s preferred method of transport overnight, but it would start with a few intrepid volunteers and, if all went well, grow from there. So, to answer your question, I wouldn’t be the first guy to teleport, but I might be the millionth.

What inspired your use of mosquitos in the world of The Punch Escrow?

Everyone loves the mosquitoes! I actually cut the mosquitoes in the third draft of the book and the beta readers freaked out on me, so I put them back. The reason the mosquitoes are there is because I wanted to solve for air pollution but in a very messy, human way. Humans tend to prefer “band-aids” to “cures,” I think it’s because we are a breed largely driven by the pursuit of instant gratification. My original approach was to use methane eating bacteria, but the fume eating, water peeing mosquitoes won out.

What’s currently on your nightstand?

I read two to three books at a time. Right now I’m almost done with Yuval Noah Harari’s Homo Deus: A Brief History of Tomorrow, and Robert Kroese’s Aye, Robot. At the top of the pile is Adam Sternbergh’s The Blinds— it just got here today and I’m looking forward to digging into it tonight.

What was your favorite book when you were a child?

Larry Niven’s The Magic Goes Away series. I loved his spin on fantasy; using a hard science approach to explain how magic worked.

Can you name your top five favorite or most influential authors?

Larry Niven, Scott Meyer, Douglas Adams, Terry Pratchett, and, because The Martian undeniably catalyzed me to write my book, Andy Weir.

What is a book you've faked reading?

Any book by the Bronte sisters. I … just … couldn’t do it. CliffsNotes to the rescue!

Can you name a book you've bought for the cover?

Pierce Brown’s Red Rising. Incredibly iconic.

Is there a book that changed your life?

Yes, without a doubt Douglas Adams’ Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy. It changed my entire perspective of science fiction and what a novel was (or could be).

Can you name a book for which you are an evangelist (and you think everyone should read)?

Yes! Scott Meyer’s Master of Formalities. One of the best, funniest, thoughtful, most underrated science fiction stories of our age.

Is there a book you would most want to read again for the first time?

Neil Gaiman and Terry Pratchett’s Good Omens. Probably the best book ever written.

What is your idea of THE perfect day (where you could go anywhere/meet with anyone)?

I’d wake up around six thirty a.m., fumbling around for my phone on the nightstand by the bed. After sleepily rubbing my eyes, I’d scroll through my Twitter feed to learn that Michelle Obama had been sworn in as President of the United States. Smiling, I’d click on one of the links to watch video of the swearing in ceremony. Doesn’t matter what else happens afterwards because it’ll be THE perfect day.

The ending of The Punch Escrow seems to hint strongly at a follow up novel. Will there be a sequel? If so, is there anything you can tell us about the new novel? Will this turn into a series beyond these two books?

I’ve committed to delivering two more books in The Punch Escrow universe. Heck, I’ve got almost a book’s worth of footnotes that didn’t make it into The Punch Escrow. That notwithstanding, there’s a lot of Taraval’s story that hasn’t been told. He’s a much more complex and layered character than I think comes across in the published draft of the novel — because there we see him at his wits end, with the world closing in on him. I also think we’ve only scratched the surface with Sylvia. I’ve often wondered how the same story might be told from her perspective. And then there’s the world of salting, and the Last War. Anyway, I have lots of good stuff to choose from in authoring these next two books. Though I don’t know if they will necessarily be a linear progression of The Punch Escrow’s story.

What are you working on now?

Other than The Punch Escrow stuff, I’m in the early stages of developing a novel from my short story, Morcom is here. It’s an alternate history tale to do with Alan Turing, love, and the singularity.