A.G. Riddle, author of the series The Atlantis Plague, spent ten years starting and running internet companies before retiring to focus on his true passion: writing fiction.
Loren Kleinman (LK): Your books explore the complexities of humanity, specifically understanding the basis of evolution and possible extinction. What initially attracted you to exploring these themes? How much does your own humanity come into question (or curiosity) when writing the Atlantis series?
A.G. Riddle (AGR): I started with a scientific mystery that has always fascinated me: 70,000 years ago, the human race almost went extinct. A supervolcano at Mount Toba created a volcanic winter that reduced the total human population to as few as 10,000 (with only 1,000 viable mating pairs).
In the 70,000 years that followed, we’ve gone from the brink of extinction to 7 billion people, conquering the globe as no species has before. To me, that’s the greatest mystery of all time.
We know that at the time of Toba there were at least three other hominin species (Neanderthals, Denisovans, and homo Floresiensis). There could be half-dozen others we haven’t found yet.
Genetically, these other humans weren’t that different from us. In fact, we were more of a fledgling upstart subspecies. But after Toba, our branch of humans (homo sapiens sapiens) developed some incredibly important survival advantage. We marched out of Africa and took over the planet. All the other human subspecies died out.
So I started with the core mystery, how we survived the Toba supervolcano and subsequently flourished, and tried to spin a good yarn around it. There’s a lot of science and history in the novels, and I enjoy that a great deal. The larger themes of human survival (and the costs in times of crisis) I find intriguing, but I have to admit that some of the scenes were hard for me to write and other scenes that I had planned, I simply threw out because they were too dark.
LK: You spent ten years starting and running Internet companies before retiring to focus on writing fiction. How did you make the leap from corporate to creative writer? What have been the challenges? The victories?
AGR: I started my first internet company in college with my childhood friend, and we started one after another for ten years. What I loved was building things–the creative process. My interest level plummeted once we launched the product and my days turned to meetings and generally “running the business.” It just wasn’t for me. I loved sitting alone, envisioning the product, and pecking away at the keyboard to make it a reality.
About three years ago, I decided I wanted to do something where I could focus more of my time on the creative process (I wasn’t all that good at the business side anyway). I had always wanted to write fiction but had never gotten serious about it. The biggest challenge for me was learning patience. As a writer, I was starting over. I was good at creating web-based applications, but when I began writing, I knew the output wasn’t nearly as good as the story in my mind. It took me two years of practice and reading books on writing, and repeating again and again to reach a point where I was proud enough of The Atlantis Gene to release it. I’m still working on that book.
AGR: Definitely. For the first novel, I actually felt less pressure. I wanted to release it to see if the world thought I had any talent. There was no one to let down but myself.
I love writing. I had decided that I would either write as a hobby or as a career–depending on how sales panned out. I have to be building something every day to be happy. Writing is a wonderful outlet for folks like that.
I started the second book with a lot of momentum. As the first book grew more popular, I did feel a lot more pressure. I think and hope it made me a better writer (and made for a better second novel). I think the pressure can make you better, and I think it can hold you back. It’s about balance, and it’s really hard to do.
LK: Do you see yourself in any of your characters from your stories? Who? Why?
AGR: Oh yeah, although, I think the characters are a lot cooler than I am. But… every time they geek out and launch into a long tirade about science or history or something that happened “in the year…” That’s probably a little bit of me.
LK: Are there any new writers that have grasped your interest?
AGR: Tons of them. Too many to list. Rysa Walker’s debut novel, Timebound, is a YA time-travel mystery that’s a lot of fun. It’s probably criminal to stop there. I did a blog post with some of the debut authors I’ve traded emails with this year.
LK: What is the one book that you think everyone should read?
AGR: That’s a tough one. Depending on where you are in your life, Mindfulness in Plain English by Bhante Henepola Gunaratana could be a good way to spend a few hours.
LK: What else do you love to do outside of writing? Do you have another passion?
LK: If you were stranded on a desert island, what writer (from the past) would you bring with you and why?
AGR: This feels like a sort of Rorschach test for writers, as if my answer will reveal a part of my soul or something. I’ll opt for H.G. Wells. I’m going to need some help building a time machine to get off that stranded island (assuming the island has an airport or cruise stop in the future). And if that doesn’t work out, he was prolific, so maybe he won’t talk too much.
LK: Where do you see the literary community/landscape headed in the next five years?
AGR: I don’t know. I’m still really new to the scene and learning the landscape. I just hope more folks are reading.
LK: Respond to this quote by Somerset Maugham: “If you can tell stories, create characters, devise incidents, and have sincerity and passion, it doesn’t matter a damn how you write.”
AGR: I agree.