Rusted Synapse (Author Interview)

Rusted Synapse looks like an exciting story.  Can you tell us a little about it?

Sure. I like to think Rusted Synapse is what you might get if you tossed two of my favorite films, Oceans 11 and the 1995 version of Ghost in the Shell, into a blender and then sprinkled a bit of the Robert De Niro action film, Ronin, on top. It's a healthy mix of intrigue, twists and turns and kinetic action scenes that hopefully combine to help the existential philosophy discussion hiding in between the lines go down smoothly.

If we’re talking plot, Rusted Synapse is a techno-thriller set in the far flung future of 2140 where we follow one Viviana Rodriguez, a woman left for dead as an example after she was caught stealing from a powerful drug cartel. As she waits for the end, her life is spared by a shadowy organization when she agrees to join a clandestine mission to abduct a valuable prisoner from the closed state of China in exchange for her greatest desire: enough money to become human again.

You see, there’s not much left of Viviana that’s still human. In this vision of the future, the world has been stricken by an endemic disease known as “rust” that, before the events in the novel, required Vivi's body to be replaced with a human looking prosthesis to survive (think robot arm, but it's just about her entire body). Unhappy with her empty feeling life in prosthesis, Vivi engaged herself in all manner of illegal activity in order to afford a pricey clone body, which ostensibly will allow her to be human once again.

Unfortunately for Vivi, her path to humanity remains locked behind this dangerous job where she's forced to work as part of a team that includes the man who left her for dead in the first place. So, unsure of who she can trust, what at first glance appears to be this straightforward heist, unfolds into a web of conspiracy when it becomes clear someone or something doesn't want Vivi and crew to complete their mission alive. She’ll need to decide what's more important to her: her humanity or her life.

I did my best to craft a brisk reading cyberpunk tale that would be more accessible to newcomers than say Blade Runner while also still being enjoyable for anyone who's already steeped in the rain-slick streets and endless nights the genre is known for.


That’s a bit of a different take, having a cyborg character desiring to be human. Isn’t it usually the other way around?

Right? I wanted to do something different. I think there’s a really weird trend in the cyberpunk media where many times the characters in these stories are obsessed with, I don’t know, chopping off a limb and replacing it with a rocket launcher arm or something.

And, you know, as cool as I think rush hour would be if I had a rocket launcher for an arm to clear the road, I have absolutely zero desire to cut off one of my arms for the ability. I’m going to go out on a limb and say that’s probably true of most people.

Which isn’t to say I don’t like the idea of cool, futuristic robot body part replacements as an aesthetic, but rather I wanted there to be a good in-universe reason why so many people in my book would be sporting them. This is why I invented the “rust” disease for the novel. It’s a kind of antibiotic-resistant leprosy that eats body parts.

The haves in my book can afford to have new organic body parts grown for them. The have-nots (like our protagonist) can only afford mechanical prosthetic replacements.

In that manner, while my book is placed very far into the future, I tried to make it as grounded as possible in terms of the technology on display.


So, no flying cars?

Well…there might be flying cars. But only a few. Probably.


Can you tell us a little more about Viviana?

So, when we meet Vivi she's probably having just about the worst month you could want. She's slowly dying in this rather rundown VA hospital after having been left for dead during a heist gone wrong. She's missing all but one of her limbs and the rest of her artificial body is broken to the point that it’s barely able to sustain her life while being plugged into a wall outlet. But probably worst of all, she's being charged exorbitant prices by one of the hospital's orderlies to satisfy her insatiable smoking habit, which she’s somehow been able to keep up despite her dilapidated state.

Personality wise, Vivi has this rather lackadaisical, devil may care temperament about her; but after all that's happened before the novel, to suggest she's a little moody about her state of being may be a bit of an understatement.

I like to describe her characterization as “I just can't even with you people”. She's quite sardonic with a caustic wit, and is very direct, never mincing her words when confronted. This combination of flippant attitude and biting tongue make for some fun situations as her words and actions tend to ruffle the feathers of some of the more serious characters on her team.

If I can add something else, writing Vivi's dialog was an absolute joy from start to finish. She's a whole lot of fun. I hope readers have as much fun reading her as I had writing her.


Speaking of writing, how long did it take you to write Rusted Synapse?

From the first keystroke in February 2021 to the last in November 2021, the initial draft of Rusted Synapse took almost 9 months to the day to complete. Polishing that draft into something that was ready to be published took an additional 11 months. So a total of 20 months give or take.

As this is my first novel, what's really surprised me is how much better the story became through the lengthy beta testing and editing process. The actual through line and theme of the novel really didn't shine through until my eighth major revision despite the basic structure of the story remaining largely unchanged from the first draft to the final draft.


Any plans to turn it into a series?

Ha! Yes. Much to my wife's chagrin, as I started writing the sequel before she finished reading the first draft, and we still hadn’t decided if we were going to go through the process and expense to have it published or not. Though, while I started writing the sequel almost immediately, production on it took a backseat to editing the first book once my beta readers started submitting feedback to Rusted Synapse. The sequel has been lying mostly dormant ever since.

Now that the first novel is published, I've been focused on trying to deliver the sequel in a reasonable time frame. I rather feel George R. R. Martin's pain, as it turns out, sequels are not easy endeavors.

I'm sure I'll regret saying this later, but as of right now, I'm not planning on making this a trilogy. 


What inspired the idea for your book?

Unfortunately, I can't really talk about what inspired the book without giving away a massive spoiler that would absolutely ruin the middle of the story. What I will say is that I was searching the internet for methods of securing PHP code in a server when the internet drug me down a rabbit hole and I came across a scholarly article that piqued my curiosity and planted the seed of the story that would eventually grow into Rusted Synapse.

Of course, there was one other major inspiration for the book: the COVID-19 pandemic. There's just no way I would have sat down to write a book if the pandemic had not obliterated my social calendar. It's very interesting looking back at the plot I wrote now, since you can kind of tell what I was missing the most when I wrote it: travel.

Writing the book allowed me to vicariously travel the world with Vivi and crew, which was something I desperately needed after a year of being stuck at home with the world locked down. 


Did anything stick out as particularly challenging when writing Rusted Synapse?

Coming up with the ending was easily the toughest part of writing the book. When I sat down to write Rusted Synapse, I had the beginning of the story and the middle of the story in mind, with nothing in between, and I just started writing one day and the pieces of the puzzle started filling themselves in as I went. Everything went smoothly until I finally arrived to the middle of the book. It was here that, like the characters in the novel, I didn't have a plan on where to go from there.

It was the first time I'd really experience writer's block. Day after day of just staring at a blinking cursor during my lunch breaks (which was frequently the only time I had to write by the time I made it to the middle as my evenings were occupied with helping care for my second daughter who was born mid 2021). My story sat untouched for weeks.

My breakthrough, believe it or not, came while hanging over a toilet with just about the worst hangover I've ever had the displeasure of having in my entire life.

Some friends took my wife and I out for our first child-free date night after my second kid was born to this strange bar where you pay to make candles of all things while you enjoy libations brought from home. Anyway, in between rounds of throwing up, the end of the book just kind of magically materialized. The second I was able to pick myself off the floor, I literally cloistered myself in my office and belted out two chapters in short order. The rest of the book practically wrote itself.

I'm not sure if I'm advocating inducing a hangover via the mixture of candle making and alcohol as the best cure for writer's block, but hey, it worked for me.


What do you like to do when not writing?

First and foremost, I'm a husband to a wonderful wife and a dad to two young girls, but beyond that I'm a voracious consumer of movies and videogames, I'm an avid runner at the 10K distance, I dabble at digital painting and I'm also heavily involved in my local music festival scene, where I help produce several free music festivals.


Where can readers find out more about your work?

I'm currently on Instagram at @stilteddialog (link). I'm also findable on Goodreads (link) and Facebook (link) as Elwood Stevens.