Tony LaRocca is a carbon-based life form, animator, occasional actor, U.S. Army veteran, blogger, karaoke crooner, electrician, and chronic doodler from Basking Ridge, New Jersey. He currently resides with his family in Queens, New York.
What I enjoy the most is when a plot point or idea magically appears, and takes off on its own. It’s intoxicating, because it feels like I’m tapping into some sort of power that’s beyond me.
The worst part is editing: scouring over every little phrase for grammar and usage, reading passages over and over out loud to hear if they sound right, or checking that I haven’t used the wrong word or punctuation mark. This is also the stage where self-doubt and criticism set in. The best way to edit, in my opinion, is to pretend to be that battleaxe English teacher that you dreaded having in high school. Pretend you take a savage joy in seeking out and slashing down that illogical simile, too-often-repeated phrase, or that wrong homonym that spell-check missed.
What was the hardest aspect of writing False Idols? And how did you overcome it?
Though it’s in the middle of the collection, “All Part of Being a Dragon” was the last short story that I wrote. I was well into a completely different story with the same characters (Azrael and Theresa), but I just couldn’t make it work. It was a post-apocalyptic story that took place in the deserts of Arizona, and involved giant biblical locusts. One day, I was stuck on a subway, and I jotted down some of my hatred for the New York City MTA in Azrael’s voice. The complaints fitted his stilted character. I wondered exactly why a reality-shifting cyborg would be riding the E-train in 2013, and the bare bones of a story unfolded.
Who are your biggest writing influences?
My first literary influence was Ray Bradbury. On television and in movies, science fiction is usually a vehicle to debate morality and politics, or a backdrop for adventure. But Bradbury’s wondrous universe consisted of ships with sails gliding across the deserts of Mars. It was a vampire from another dimension betrayed by stained glass, or a self-burying coffin designed solely for revenge.
As I got older, I read more adult fare, like Stephen King and Clive Barker. King is an amazing storyteller who can bring almost any tale to life, while the scope of Barker’s imagination is unparalleled. Philip K. Dick’s reality-bending fiction is another influence, along with Vonnegut’s ability to infuse sci-fi with a heavy dose of humanity.
In your opinion, what are a few of the best science-fiction stories ever written?
A few favorite science fiction short stories are Ray Bradbury’s “—And the Moon Be Still as Bright,” “Revival Meeting” by Dannie Plachta, and Harlan Ellison’s “I Have No Mouth, and I Must Scream.” Philip K. Dick’s Ubik, Vurt by Jeff Noon, and Kurt Vonnegut’s The Sirens of Titan are among my favorite novels.
What is the biggest misconception people have about science-fiction writing?
The biggest misconception about science fiction writing is that the genre is narrow. It can deal with personal and emotional issues, ala Kurt Vonnegut, it can be Ray Bradbury’s tales of wonder and exploration, Douglas Adams’s satire, Robert Anton Wilson’s philosophy, Philip K. Dick’s questions of reality, Frank Herbert’s space operas, Arthur C. Clarke’s nuts and bolts sagas… the subgenres are endless.
How did your time in the armed forces shape you and influence (and/or change) your outlook on life?
To this day, I can’t tell you why I joined. My father is a Korean War veteran, but he always made it clear that war was misery and pain. One day a recruiter called, and said they were following up on a questionnaire I had filled out at the mall. I never did—I’m pretty sure someone gave them my name and number as a prank—but I decided what the hell, I’d take the ASVAB. I was one of those nerds who hated gym, and I signed up for a life of physical endurance. That, and being shouted at a lot. I had to grow up overnight, and become completely responsible for myself. I learned to push my limitations, and what limits couldn’t be broken. In truth, it was a very bad time for me. I felt like I didn’t belong, and isolated from the friends I had left behind.
So what did I learn? I learned that life is confusing. Most of the time I am responsible for what happens to me, but sometimes it’s completely out of my control, and other times, I couldn’t tell you why I do the things I do.
How has growing up in New Jersey and living in Queens influenced you?
New Jersey is a microcosm of the United States. There are well-off WASPs, rednecks, ethnic and religious enclaves, beautiful beaches, and dangerous inner cities. Every one of its eight-and-a-half million residents live lives of their own dramas, joys, tragedies, hopes, dreams, failures, and wonders.
Queens is exactly the same, only smaller.
Technologically-speaking, we’re obviously advancing with each passing day. I mean, everyone now carries around a handheld computer in the pocket of their pants. Where do you, as a science-fiction writer, see things going from here?
That’s a difficult question, because many of the amazing technologies we have aren’t really new, they’re just improvements on what came before. Movies, telephones, radio, television, calculators, typewriters, video games, books, records… they’re all staples of the twentieth century. Modern technology just makes them more convenient. For example, MP4s are movies that can fit in your pocket. People are still the same. They have their happiness and anxieties, their loves and hates, their needs and depressions. The rich still get richer, while the poorer get poorer. There is a dark side of technology as well. Thirty years ago, if you told Americans that everyone would have a microphone in their pocket and cameras in their homes that could be used to spy on them, they would have laughed at you, and said that could never happen here—maybe in the USSR. But get people hooked on smartphones for their work and leisure, and then say years later, “The NSA is spying on you, if you want to still use your phone, then there’s nothing you can do about it,” and they’ll accept it, because the technology is already integral in their lives.
So to answer your question, you can’t change human nature. Life can be painful and imperfect, and some people are going to want to escape that. So if people can ever jack their brains into some sort of virtual reality where they can live perfect lives, they will. Of course, at first this will be only be the prerogative of the Haves. But eventually, the technology will become cheaper for the Have-nots, maybe even seen as a cost-effective form of welfare or retirement. Hardly an original idea, but it is conceivable.
Another possibility is that the war between technology and mother nature will continue. Some scientists predict that because of immunization-resistant diseases, a super-plague is inevitable. Others say that because of irreversible climate change, an environmental disaster is right around the corner. So perhaps, if those threats are realized, all of our technological efforts will go to fighting those catastrophes.
A hostile alien species has invaded earth. What role would you play in the subsequent interstellar war?
I would find out why they would want to invade, and do everything possible to convince them that it wasn’t worth the effort. Are they looking for slave labor? Force feed the population cookie dough until everyone is too fat to work. Do they simply have a lust for conquest? Surrender immediately, so that their victory feels empty and hollow. Do they need a breeding ground to colonize? Fill the airwaves with Here Comes Honey Boo Boo, which will convince them that an intelligence-deteriorating virus is rampant in our atmosphere.
What are you working on next?
I’m editing a novel I’ve been working on for many years. It’s the story of a boy raised in a virtual reality universe by cybernetic monks in a dystopian future, told through the eyes of his artistic mother. And of course, there’s an invading army of armor-plated insects. The novel evolved from a short story I wrote that just kept growing. Every plot point seemed to ask another question, until a detailed world with its own history emerged. So while I intend the book to be a novel that stands on its own, it does leave the door open for sequels, or at least other stories that take place in its universe.
It deals with creation, loss, war, parenthood, childhood, love, and self discovery. It also touches on some personal issues: I’ve always felt much older than my age (and have been told many times that I look it). A child psychologist even once described me as having an adult mind trapped in a child’s body. But I would say it’s main theme is creation, and what limits technology could remove from our minds and selves to make that possible.