I’d like to welcome B.R.A.G. Medallion Honoree James Cardona today. He has won multiple awards for his young adult science fiction and fantasy novels including the gold medal from the Wishing Shelf Awards, honorable mention from Reader Views Awards, and the Independent Book Readers’ Appreciation Group Award, all for Community 17. He has also been a finalist for the Wishing Shelf Awards and received the Independent Book Readers’ Appreciation Group Award for Santa Claus vs. The Aliens and been a finalist for the Wishing Shelf Awards for Under The Shadow Of Darkness. He is planning on writing many, many more.
James received his Bachelor’s degree in Computer Science from the University of Delaware with a minor in Religious Studies. He lives in Southern New Jersey and works as a Senior Test Engineer for the Laboratory and Testing Services group of the Public Service Electric and Gas Company.
James, how did you discover indiebrag?
Goodreads. Indiebrag is one of the book awards sites that independent authors have been boasting about on the Goodreads forums. While there is a plethora of book awards for writers associated with the big five publishing firms, unfortunately not much exists for indie authors. Goodreads is such a great information sharing social platform not only for readers but also for writers. It has been a pleasure dealing with Indiebrag and now I have become one of those boasting authors.
Tell your audience a little about your story Community 17.
Let me start with the book’s blurb:
In a dark future, Jessia and Isaias, two pleb teenagers scraping a living by selling metal out of the dump, want to program, become citizens and escape the fetid slum lanes of Community 17. But if they don’t both make it, they will be eternally separated. Can Jessia share her feelings with Isaias and risk their friendship? Can she allow herself to love a man that might remain a pleb forever? Can he?
Living in Community 17, Isaias is exposed to a constant push-pull struggle. He wants to escape the fetid slum lanes by becoming a citizen—if he can only pass programming. He has a dream: a small home in the city, married to Jessia, surrounded by his children at his knees. Is that life even in his grasp?
So in the world of Community 17, some cataclysmic event has destroyed the earth and a large number of people are living—quite well, in fact—clustered in a heavily defended city. The people of the city expel their trash, their criminals and any foul, unwanted citizens out of the city forever. Additionally, people fleeing the wasteland have accumulated outside of the city’s tall, concrete walls, forming trash-strewn communities, living in homes constructed of found items, refuse, plastic sheeting, rotting wood and cardboard. It is in this backdrop that Jessia and Isaias live.
The City Women have a charitable program that allows children and teens of the communities to become citizens if they complete an arduous classroom-style training called Programming. It is every plebs hope and dream to pass programming and this hope is something that halts outright rebellion. But almost no one has passed programming and those that have were never seen again.
All Jessia and Isaias want to do is escape the slum lanes and become citizens; they desperately want the dream to be true. Quite a number of other characters seem to have completely different ideas for them.
The book is dystopian, but not in the style of the current crop such as The Hunger Games or Divergent or even The Maze Runner. I like to think Community 17 is more “classically” dystopian, like 1984, Brave New World or even A Clockwork Orange in that it is a critique of societal norms and, hopefully, makes people think and perhaps even—gasp!—change.
Please tell me a little about Jessia and Isaias.
Jessia and Isaias are two teens born and raised in the fetid slum lanes outside of the beautiful, walled city. They both dream of achieving the rare feat of passing programming, becoming citizens with a home, a job, nice clean clothing, and edible food. The two are best friends and certainly have strong feelings for each other, but at some level don’t want to become too close because, in the back of their minds, they know there is a strong possibility that one of them won’t advance and they will be separated forever.
Isaias lives alone with his mother since his father had been taken away to be Harmonized by the Agency Men some years ago. If only he had kept his mouth shut and his eyes pointed down at the oil-soaked ground! Isaias no longer sifts through garbage at the dump looking for scrap to sell. Now he attends programming in the city where he learns about citizen’s values. They even give him food pellets! He sneaks a few out each day so his rail-thin mother doesn’t starve. His mother says he must program; he must go on, live his life, even if it means leaving her behind. She says she’ll be able to make it without him. He is not so sure.
Jessia is one of the few teens in Community 17 to have both her parents. Their shack sits close to Sewage Lake. It smells dreadful there, unnatural, chemical, but the sunset across the shimmering, mercurial, translucent orange-green haze is beautiful and if you scrape the cancer cysts off the fish, they don’t taste half-bad. Her parents are Freethinkers and take her to secret meetings where they can speak their minds, openly and honestly, without fear of being rifle-butted and dragged away by the Agency Men. They are a smart, cautious and careful people. They’ve seen too many taken to be Harmonized, never to be seen again. Jessia has a lifetime’s experience living such a guarded life under her parents’ watchful eyes.
Jessia’s parent’s hopes and dreams rest with her. She is the one who is supposed to make it. She is the one who is supposed to get inside so she can change things and somehow, some way, save her parents from dying in the filth. She knows better than to risk everything. Especially for Isaias.
What is the mood or tone your characters portray and how does this affect the story?
I like to think Jessia and Isaias behave as would any teen today who was thrust into such a situation. The two are cautiously optimistic that they will pass programming and one day become citizens yet they also see the reality of not making it and how their future could abruptly end. It’s as they are straddling two worlds.
Each morning they walk through the checkpoint and step into the city. They see the beautiful city, the buildings covered in glimmer-glass, the flying cars, the gorgeous women wearing white pencil skirts with bright red painted lips, the rose gardens and the bright, clean streets. It seems as if it is there, in their grasp, for the taking. It’s not so much the city itself but opportunity. The possibilities seem endless. It is a future. It is hope.
At the end of the day they leave the city and return to the fetid slums and reality comes crashing down around them. If they don’t make it, they will be trapped there forever. They can see it in the slack-faced adults lying in the gutters getting blind drunk on poisonous moonshine, in the people missing fingers and limbs caused by small cuts at the dump, people with no medical care, in the jealousy, venom and mistrust in everyone’s eyes.
Can they make it? Can they turn their backs on everyone they ever loved to save themselves? What are they willing to do to save themselves? Are they willing to become that which they hate to escape the slums?
What are the emotional triggers of your characters and how do they act on them?
Isaias loves his mother deeply and with his father gone he feels it is his responsibility to protect her, no matter how bad she verbally abuses him. So it is insanely difficult for him when his mother pushes him to do things that he patently feels are wrong.
Isaias is more of an idealist, I think, than Jessia. He wants to do what is right. He wants to believe the Agency has the plebs best interests in mind; he wants to believe the propaganda even though, deep down, something in the Freethinkers arguments ring true. Yet, he can’t trust the Freethinkers, either. They’re murderers, after all. If he could only keep his mouth shut, only just close his eyes and blind himself to the chaos and strife all around him, just go to program and one-day escape. Maybe then he wouldn’t have to choose; he wouldn’t have to do something to sacrifice all his ideals; he wouldn’t have to become like either the Agency Men or the Freethinkers.
Jessia has never really been alone, like Isaias. She never had to take a patriarchal role and provide for someone else. She has always had both of her parents. And her friends—Jessia has lots of friends. But life in Community 17 is tenuous. People die. People disappear or are Harmonized. If they return—and that’s a big if—they seem… different, very different, indeed. As Jessia becomes more and more alone, she starts to see her world unravel and comes to the point where she needs to make a decision. It is this decision that could change everything.
Describe the fetid slum lanes of Community 17.
When my eyes scan across the landscape of Community 17, I see shanties loosely constructed of found material, cobbled together with rope and tape and nails. Galvanized sheet metal and plywood if they are lucky; cardboard and plastic sheeting if they are not. They are mostly one room affairs, stacked upon each other and sharing adjoining walls and packed thick with people. The rooms are tiny, overcrowded, dark and hot. It burns like the devil in there; the air is stifling. Everyone stays outside, crowding the narrow, zigzagging, mud-filled streets.
In Community 17, you must be careful what you say. A thin plastic sheet separates Isaias’s shack from another’s and the old hag there and her eight children have big ears. A secret, a bad word about the Agency, a good word about the Freethinkers, any word, even a lie, is worth a day’s meal if sold to the Agency Men. Even if it isn’t true. Even if it gets someone Harmonized.
The raked-dirt slum lanes are rutted and puddled with oily water and trash. Still, everyone is outside. Children play in them. Eppo’s wild runtling pigs charge down them, squealing, chasing the rotten food he feeds them. The place is thick with black flies. Still, everyone is outside.
I see drunks lying, strewn face down on the ground, sleeping off the effects of the dark yellow moonshine that made several men go blind, an oily concoction sold from a hut two doors down from Sewage Lake. Still, everyone is outside.
I see old women arguing as they cook in the hard-packed dirt over small fires built between two stones; I see young girls flirting in the fetid slum lanes, their faces dirty, their hair caked with mud; mothers bathing their children in washbasins; men tending goats; others squatting in the curb to gamble coins at card games; boys playing pelota. And still, everyone, everyone is outside, crowded into the dirt lanes.
Community 17 is not without its conveniences, though. Some years ago, the Agency Men installed a single metal pipe and some few hours a day clean, cold water flows from it. They never know when, so there is always a line of people with an assortment of plastic containers and old whiskey bottles waiting anxiously for the Agency to turn on the water from the single Community 17 pipe. They wait for hours. They wait every day. Wait. Wait. Wait. Always waiting, them.
The Agency also built a wooden platform that extends out onto Sewage Lake, bless their hearts, so the fishermen could fish and those feeling the need could relieve themselves without wading out into the water.
In order to maintain order, the Agency installed cameras and screens throughout all the communities and even in each home. Each night, the plebs are expected to watch the report, to nod at the proper time, to sing the praises of the Agency. Then, each night, potential citizen candidates record their video diary, a vlog, into the screen. A teen disappeared the other day, Harmonized, Malekai had said, because she didn’t use exactly the right words. The Agency had questions, he said. Maybe she will return.
What was the inspiration for your story?
I spent six years in the military, served in the war, and visited many countries that have levels of poverty that would be deemed completely unacceptable in the United States. Living in the so-called first world, many don’t realize that this kind of poverty exists, poverty that is similar or even worse to that described in Community 17.
After spending some time trying to understand why things are so, I realized there is a (human) tendency to subjectify others. So much so that we even do it to ourselves! People who are in such a condition, living in slums, sifting through garbage to find food or a few scraps of aluminum to sell, diseased and infected, even label themselves and embrace such a lot in life as if it were preordained. It is almost as if division and classification of humans is part of the natural order of things.
Of course, it sounds as if I am trying to raise the alarm of the condition of the poor. Those who have read the book know that is not exactly the case. I am also sensitive to the needs of government, scarce or limited resources and the need for order. Just because a city is surrounded by the poor and destitute does not mean that they have the means to do something substantial about it. The current refugee crisis occurring in the EU is a prime example. There are countries who have accepted refugees equal to ten percent of their population. How can they be expected to take more? If a city of one thousand was surrounded by millions who are starving, what can they do but be selective about who and how many they let in?
These are the types of issues I like to raise and the types of things I want people to discuss. Inciting dialog, then, is my first and foremost goal. I like to present both sides of an argument, fully and thoroughly, and let the reader think about what he or she would do in the same situation.
This is but one of the subjects I wanted to address with the book. Controlling influences in human relationships is another thread that flows throughout the book.
Truly, If I have been successful, at the last page the reader closes the book, stunned.
How did you get in to writing Science Fiction?
I have always loved to create. In fact, I do not so much call myself a writer or an artist as a “creative.” I have always drawn, painted, made music and the like. I also like nontraditional forms of creativity such as building robots and writing computer code. It is only in the last ten years or so that I have pursued prose writing.
I still create graphic art, but instead of painting with a brush or drawing with a pencil, I use Photoshop and DazStudio. For me, writing is just another outlet to attempt to create something beautiful, deeply meaningful, something that resonates in the soul.
What were the Science Fiction books you read growing up?
I was a voracious reader as a young kid. Mainly I read whatever books my parents had around the house. Mom was into both romance and horror-suspense, so I read all of her Stephen-King-type books but none of the Harlequin stuff. Dad was sci-fi junkie but also read spy novels. I read both the classics and the pulp: Heinlein, Asimov, PKD, John Le Carre, Len Deighton, Ian Fleming, and the like. I especially liked the robot short stories that Asimov penned.
My auntie was a librarian, which was convenient because whenever Mom went to visit her sister I could run around the cavernous, two-story, Lorain Public Library. It seemed like great things, secret, hidden things of great value were lurking undiscovered everywhere in that building.
As a teen and young adult, I started buying my own books. I grew up lower middle class—maybe poor, I don’t know—so I always felt like my school system was sub-par and I was under-educated. In retrospect, I am not sure if that was true or, at least, one might say that about a larger swath of America’s education system. Anyway, I had decided I was going to do something about that and bought pretty much every book in the classic literature section of the B. Dalton’s bookstore and plowed through them. Funny how so many of the recurring themes and insights in classic literature appear prominently in the best science fiction.
I think if I had to pick my favorite authors, they are ones who write “hybrid” books that people tend to classify as literature set in a science fiction world or perhaps science fiction written with a literary lilt, authors such as Ursula Le Guin or Margaret Atwood. I love a great science fiction tale, but if it does not address the human condition, I am typically left feeling empty. I guess I aspire to be like those two. Who knows? Maybe one day I will be.
What is up next for you?
I have an assembly line sort of work ethic to my writing, so I always have about three or so books in the pipeline: one in the editing-releasing stage, another being written, and another that is more or less in the idea stage. I expect to published the third book in The Apprentice Series in the next month or so. The Worthy Apprentice follows several apprentice magicians as they battle giant spiders, try to track down a murderer, and attempt to uncover a plot to steal one of the most powerful magical stones in all the lands.
The draft for the fourth book in the same series, Into Darkness, is nearly finished being written and I am just fleshing out the plot line for a new science fiction novel called Rebirth. I am super-excited about that one. For a taste, one of the Laws of Rebirth states:
HUMANS. We look like them. We act like them. We live among them. But they can never, ever know.
Into Darkness should publish in late 2016 and Rebirth maybe sometime in 2017.
Where can readers buy your book?
I am currently exclusive to Amazon with almost all of my books. Readers can buy my books in print or ebook there. Just search by my name. Also, readers who have Kindle Unlimited can download my books for free.
Additionally, I am currently working with a British company that formats books for the visually impaired, so those versions should be available soon. Check my blog at Goodreads or my website for updates.
If your readers are curious about any of my books or if a student might like to write a book report on me, please check out my website. In addition to detailed information about me and my books, you’ll also find some of the graphic art that I created depicting scenes from my books. You can also contact me there.
A message from indieBRAG:
We are delighted that Stephanie has chosen to interview James Cardona who is the author of, Community 17, our medallion honoree at indieBRAG. To be awarded a B.R.A.G. Medallion ®, a book must receive unanimous approval by a group of our readers. It is a daunting hurdle and it serves to reaffirm that a book such as, Community 17, merits the investment of a reader’s time and money