Thursday, 21 July 2011

Interview with Philip Chen

Philip Chen has been called a renaissance man, just because he can't seem to hold down a career.  In his professional life, Phil has been an ocean research engineer, environmental and energy engineer, a trial attorney, financial securities attorney, investment banker, corporate executive, private equity fund manager in Africa, strategic consultant, cartoonist, website manager, and author; doesn't everybody?  He has degrees from the University of Virginia, Stanford University and the University of Minnesota.

1.     Tell us about ‘Falling Star’.

Falling Star is a highly realistic science fiction thriller about the accidental discovery in 1967 of mysterious, but mute, objects buried deep in the ocean and what happened when they woke up in 1993 and began sending messages to outer space.  Mike, pulled from his opulent office high over Manhattan to finish a job he had started as a young navy ensign decades earlier, is strangely attacked by gangs of what looked like ordinary Americans.  Though conditioned by his years in the clandestine agency to deal with such inexplicable events, Mike is also confronted with the death of a revered friend, an event that shakes him to the core.  Will the death of this friend mean that the secrets of the submerged objects will remain forever buried in the silt and muck of the ocean bottom?

Many readers of this novel often wonder if, "this story might not be fiction at all, but something very real and very disturbing."  Noted book critic Alan Caruba says, "If you read just one novel in 2011, make it Falling Star."

2.     Why did you write this book, and what do you hope to achieve with it?

In 1990, I had a series of very troubling nightmares in which gangs of what looked like ordinary Americans roamed the landscape killing people and burning buildings.  In these vivid dreams, I saw skyscrapers collapse in flames and people dying horrible deaths.  When I wrote this novel in 1991, it was as though a heavy burden was lifted from my shoulders and the dreams stopped.  I tried for twenty years to get this story published, but was resisted at every step by ‘legacy’ literary agents and publishers. 

On September 11, 2001, as I saw the Twin Towers explode and then come crashing down in flames.  I was shocked.  When it came out that the terrorists had lived among us as they trained to attack the very country that had welcomed them, it was chilling.  Some were here for decades as they learned engineering and other subjects from prominent universities.

As Paul Harvey used to say, "Page Two".

For almost six years, during the 1980s, my various offices were on the 100th to 106th floor of Two World Trade Center.  In fact, the office that I described in my novel from which Mike is abruptly pulled back into the clandestine agency is almost an exact replica of my office as a managing director of Lehman Brothers.  Second, my story described terrorists who lived among us for decades as they plotted to attack America.

Following September 11th, I rewrote my novel to take out references to 2 WTC from my novel.  I did not want people to think that I was trying to capitalize on that disaster.  In the original text I had Mike's office on the 100th floor of that tower.  Thereafter, Mike's office was described as being in an unidentified office tower in lower Manhattan. As Paul Harvey always said in concluding his broadcasts, "Now you know the rest of the story."

This is a very realistic story, which uses real events and real science to draw the reader into a tale of intrigue.  By using details, I hoped to have the reader experience the action, not as an observer but as a participant.  Mr. Caruba pointed this out in his strong recommendation: "This novel stands out for the way you are introduced not just to the characters, but the physical reality in which they live, the sights and even the smells."

3.     Is there an underlying message in ‘Falling Star’?

Though classified as a science fiction thriller, there are several messages that are delivered through the pages.  One is that this is a self-discovery book, in which the things that occur to the characters propel them to take actions that they might not have normally chosen.  In this novel, moral dilemmas also play a force in certain characters as they struggle with what they are doing and what will be the outcomes of those actions.

4.     You are an environmental and energy engineer, holding a U.S. Patent for an underwater mooring system. Has this specialist experience and knowledge helped you to create this work, and if so, how?

From a general sense, my technical capabilities helped me in describing the details that I believe make this book unusual and believable.  Specifically, my role as an ocean research engineer, who had worked with deep-sea submergence systems, provided me with a rich background for the scenes that are at the beginning of the story.  In fact, I worked as a test program engineer on a free swimming vehicle very much like the fictional submersible Squid in the story.

5.     Of the characters you’ve created, do you have a favourite? If so, why this particular character?

Mildred.  Mildred is a sweet old Norwegian grandmother who lives in Crookston, Minnesota, on the banks of the prehistoric Lake Agassiz.  She is the proprietor of a very popular Scandinavian hobby store.  Mother to four lovely daughters and countless towheaded grandchildren, Mildred enjoys her retirement from her days as a researcher for the U.S. State Department.  However, Mildred has a secret, something so unnatural that she hides it from everyone, including her long-suffering husband.

6.     How is writing science fiction or fantasy different from writing other genres?

My novel is science fiction, based on science fact.  As such it is not as different from writing in other genres as one might think.

7.     What did you find most rewarding in the writing process?

My nightmares went away.

Eagle Spaceship

8.     What did you find most challenging in the writing process, and how did you overcome it?

The writing process was easy.  It almost seemed that the characters lined up to tell me their stories one-by-one.  The hard part was getting the hide-bound agents and publishers of the legacy ‘Dead Tree Book’ industry to buy my story. 

For twenty years, no one wanted to read my story about foreign spies hiding in plain view for decades in America.  My spies married innocent Americans, raised children, bought homes, held mundane jobs and stole the identities of dead babies.  I could just hear these defenders of literature laughing their heads off about how preposterous my story was.  Spies hiding in plain view in our country? That could never happen; not in America!  Until, of course, it did in June 2010, when Russians were found to have been doing exactly what my fictional spies had done for twenty years.  The only difference was that my spies did not grow hydrangeas.  One of my spies was even a gorgeous female posing as a financial consultant.  That is when I decided to self-publish, which I did on August 4, 2010.

I realize that the foregoing sounds far-fetched and detractors will claim that I wrote my story between June 2010 and August 2010, (would it be that I was so prolific).  If anyone is curious about my claim, please refer to my account where I started posting excerpts from Falling Star in May 2009.

9.     What have you done to promote and market your book, and what advice would you give to other authors?

When I launched my book on August 4, 2010, I knew absolutely nothing about self-publishing.  I had to learn as I went along.  Luckily, I chanced onto a great site called the KindleBoards where they have a forum called the Writers' Café.  The members of the KindleBoards are the most helpful group of people you will find on the web and are always willing to give advice and suggestions.  Through the KindleBoards, you can also learn about review sites and other opportunities to market your book.

Some of the things that I have done have been to seek out reviewers, participate on various forums, conduct giveaways, support other authors, and generally be a participant in the process.  The toughest part of self-publishing is marketing your book.

Robots Take Over

10.  Who, do you imagine, would be your ideal reader?

My ideal reader is someone, male or female, who likes to participate in the story.  I am truly surprised at the wide range of readers, who have self-identified as not being fans of science fiction thrillers, that genuinely like Falling Star.

11.  What advice would you give to help others build the confidence required to write their first book?

Just do it.  There is no time like the present and the barriers to entry are non-existent.  Do not fear failure.  You will survive and do better the next time around.

12.  Would you like to see your book adapted for the screen? If so, do you have any aspirations, or reservations, regarding this?

Many reviewers have commented on the visual aspects of my book and how they feel that it would be ideal as a movie.  My greatest fear is that once the movie industry gets a hold of your book, what comes out is never what went it. 

13.  Tell us a little about a good science fiction or fantasy book you’ve read recently.

Passengers to Zeta Nine by Peter Salisbury, a British author, is one of those stories that will stand the test of time.  The reason that I say this is my belief that good science fiction will tell you about places to which you can never go.  Great science fiction is when the author tells you how to get there.  Peter's story is of the latter sort.  I highly recommend it to any one who wants to read a story that will be a future classic.

Fuel-Efficient Cars

 14.  What are you doing now?

In addition to Falling Star, I recently released the inaugural collection of cartoons from my cartoon blog, There is Strangeness in the Universe ™.  This cartoon series is based on a real astronomical theory that a parallel universe filled with strange matter must exist in order to maintain cosmic balance in ours.  Without formal art or cartoon training, I started exploring this parallel universe at the tender age of 63.  My cartoons have been favourably compared to Gary Larson's "Far Side".  You can check it out at

At this moment, my wife and I are moving from New Jersey to Michigan to be closer to my daughter's family.  Once settled, I expect to take up finishing the sequel to Falling Star.

15.  Describe ‘Falling Star’ in one sentence.

Falling Star is a highly realistic science fiction thriller about mysterious objects buried in the ocean and what happens when they wake up.

16.  Where can we find you and your book?

Falling Star is available as a Kindle and a Nook book, as well as a paperback. 

Summer Clam Bake


Puget Sound Speaks (Home of the Independent Authors Forum)

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