Portrait of T. R. Schumer

T. R. Schumer

Author, Screenwriter

August, 2017

Interviewer: You’re in an unusual place today.

Schumer: (laughs) Yes, very...

Interviewer: I’ve never seen Vanuatu before, what’s it like?

Schumer: This is one of those spots on our planet where the deepest legacies of human existence still dominate society.

Interviewer: That doesn’t sound like a typical guide book description, what does that mean?

Schumer: I think most people would answer by saying it’s primitive, but I find that dismissive. I prefer the more descriptive word legacy because to me it better defines the value of the experience we’ve had during our time here. We’ve been sailing around these islands for the past two months. This is a pacific culture that solidly bridges the present with the past in a vivid and authentic way.

Interviewer: What does Vanuatu look like?

Schumer: Early explorers would still recognize these islands, that’s how little they've changed in the past eight hundred years. Everything’s covered in thick jungle, or planted in cocoanut palms— they farm them here. There’s very little in the way of visible infrastructure. Many of the villages are built using traditional methods, and people still get about using handmade dugout canoes.

Interviewer: Anything else?

Schumer: As a rule, the people here are extremely polite—shy, but also kind and generous. They’re sincere in their intentions. If you offer a man something from your boat, like a spool of fishing line, or batteries—a bag of rice, he’ll insist on returning with vegetables, or maybe some grapefruit from his garden, or an octopus he’s caught.

Interviewer: I guess this is a good time to mention that you’re currently living aboard a sail boat.

Schumer: This is a fact. We’ve been slowly circumnavigating for the past three years, which has been an amazing experience. The beauty and adventure of traveling by sea is why we’re out here, but the most incredible part of the journey is connecting with other ocean travelers, and people all around the world. You quickly realize that the differences you found so solidly definable at home fade to mist out here.

Interviewer: So where is she anchored at the moment?

Schumer: At this moment we’re anchored off an island called Uliveo. It’s located in the Maskelyne chain, which is slightly north, and midway up the whole of Vanuatu’s archipelago. Last night we saw this magnificent orange glow in the sky, and at first it looked like a sunset, but it was the glow from an active volcano.

Interviewer: How many islands are there in Vanuatu?

Schumer: Eighty-seven, and they speak more than one hundred distinct languages here— it’s actually a very big place.

Interviewer: All this and you’re working on a new book.

Schumer: (laughs) Nice segue…

Interviewer: Thanks, so what’s the title? What’s it about?

Schumer: The title is HUM, and, do you want the full logline? Or just the hook?

Interviewer: Whatever you’re willing to divulge—go ahead and pitch me.

Schumer: “Cool…” (Clears throat) A veteran computer programmer is struggling to meet a hard deadline because she suffers from the Hum, and it nearly kills her before she manages to recover, but in the process she discovers that she’s gained telepathic ability.

Interviewer: Sounds like a kind of paranormal tech-thriller.

Schumer: You could say that, but this story doesn’t fit precisely into the mold of that genre. For one thing the sci-fi element is extremely soft, HUM is set in present day. The technology is also present day, or very near future. The computer programming element; the stressful nature of software development and design, the intense competition, and the huge amounts of money that can be made or lost—this is all presented in a realistic way. The code itself is one of the story’s antagonists. Real software developers working in today’s tech industry will recognize parts of themselves in this story—they’re the heroes.

Interviewer: Sounds intense, but how does the telepathy part fit into it? And what’s the Hum?”

Schumer: The Hum plays an interesting part in the story. It’s one of those quirky kinds of things that fascinate me. I’ve known about it for close to twenty years, and I ruminated on the idea of doing a story around it for some time before I found the courage to take it on. The Hum is a very real, yet, still unexplained phenomenon that occurs all around the world. People just wake up one day hearing it, and once you start to hear the Hum, there doesn’t seem to be any way to stop hearing it.

Interviewer: Sounds a lot like tinnitus.

Schumer: That’s the standard diagnosis, but the Hum is something else entirely. For one thing the sound itself is low frequency instead of the high-pitched whine associated with tinnitus. Sufferers often describe the Hum as sounding like a diesel engine at idle. The Hum also tends to be more pervasive and intrusive than tinnitus. It produces other physical symptoms such as intense headaches, and it’s incurable. During my research I read the personal accounts of sufferers. They’ll often describe it, not so much an ailment, but rather a kind of curse.

Interviewer: That’s scary… you’ve just made me nervous.

Schumer: Yeah, well, you’re not alone. It is scary, and it’s actually real—you can look it up.

Interviewer: So how does telepathy fit in to your story?

Schumer: This is a key element of the plot, and I had a huge amount of fun with it. I mean, think about it? You suddenly realize you have the ability to read other people’s thoughts, which is pretty interesting on its surface. But our protagonist, her name is Lilly Hoffnung, well, Lilly quickly realizes that being a telepath just presents a whole new set of problems. For one thing, it’s an ability that demands tremendous skill and mental discipline to manage. Lilly’s an expert computer programmer who can write code in a dozen different computer languages, but she’s a complete novice at being a telepath, which leads to some disastrous consequences. In a lot of ways, gaining telepathic ability just screws up her life even further.

Interviewer: You’ve just hooked me.

Schumer: Thank you.

Interviewer: I understand that you do a lot of intensive research before you start a new book, how did it go this time? I mean, how difficult was it to present the computer programmer side of the story?

Schumer: Researching a new project is something I really enjoy because, for me at least, each new story really begins as an unanswered question. This leads to an interest, and something I want to learn more about. For HUM the research was incredibly intense and demanding, and to be honest, it scared the hell out of me.

Interviewer: How did you work through that?

Schumer: A lot of reading. I also spent a huge amount of time with my technical advisor for this story, and then a lot of time spent cross-checking to be sure I got it right. I also rely on my editor—he’s a tough fact-checker.

Interviewer: Tell us about your tech-advisor?

Schumer: Amazing guy, and someone with a huge wealth of knowledge about the industry. I was extremely fortunate in that department. He’s a real tech veteran, a career software developer and program manager who really can write code in a dozen languages—going all the way back to IBM 360 Assembler. When he started out, the famous names everyone knows were just ordinary geeks like he was. It was a small circle back then, and we’re talking thirty-five years ago when everybody knew everybody. The best part is that he’s stayed current. He’s still active in the industry, at the moment he’s mostly writing in Ruby, also Java, but he’s always picking up on the latest stuff—this is his passion.

Interviewer: Sounds like someone who’s worked for the big names.

Schumer: The biggest.

Interviewer: Where are you in development of your manuscript? I mean, how far along are you?

Schumer: This one is going to finish out at seventy thousand words, and I’m currently in the final stages of revision before the manuscript goes to my editor.

Interviewer: How long have you been working on this one?

Schumer: Aside from the preliminary stuff? I wrote the first line of the first draft back in January, so I’m seven months, about fourteen drafts into this one.”

Interviewer: I’ve heard other authors say this is the toughest part of the process— how do you deal with it?

Schumer: I would have to agree with that, I mean, I like to think of the first draft as this passionate love affair, but by the time you’re editing drafts, six through ten, it’s a marriage. When I first start out, everything’s just so fresh and virginal. So I’m writing, and there’s so much of the story yet to discover and so much of it that shocks and surprises me. It’s an incredible thrill, and I get this superb rush when I’m in the thick of that first draft because it’s all new for me too.

Interviewer: That’s an interesting perspective, so how do you keep it fresh?

Schumer: Once you really get to know someone you find out there’s so much more to that person than what’s on the surface. As the story progresses I pay closer attention to my characters. I listen to them, and to what they need to say. Early drafts are really raw, but they’re also loose and flexible. It’s a constant challenge to give the characters lots of room to grow by allowing the story to keep moving and not get boxed in. It’s an organic thing for me, and I work hard to keep my early drafts from settling into concrete. I like to stay open to possibilities I wasn’t anticipating. I like to let the story breath its own life. For example, I’ll hit up against a scene, and I know it’s just not working— it’s crap to be honest. It isn’t fully fleshed out, it needs revision, so a lot of times, rather than bang my head, I just move on. Later there’s gonna be all this other stuff flowing in, and something just clicks, and that previous scene is now a big sore thumb, but now I have the ammo, so I go back to that weak spot and bring it up to speed.

Interviewer: Can you give a more specific example?

Schumer: Okay, sure…So at the moment I’m working on revising a scene in one of the later chapters, and it’s mostly dialog. Two people are riding along in a car, and the dynamic is that they don’t get along with each other, even though they've just had an intimate sexual encounter. It’s supposed to be this edgy banter, but I can see it’s just flat and not working. The reason it's not working is because there’s too much exposition in the dialog— it’s gumming up the works. So here’s the editing problem; how do you keep the dialog moving in a way that still advances the story without letting it show? So I’m staring at this exchange between these two characters—he says this, and she says that, and even visually it doesn’t look like dialog to me. What she says is key, and a major plot point, but her point gets lost because it’s buried inside this big, boring paragraph of exposition.

Interviewer: So how did you solve the problem?

Schumer: I cut the entire paragraph and replaced it with just one word.

Interviewer: Did it work out?

Schumer: Turned my dialog back into dialog.

Interviewer: When will Hum be published?

Schumer: Early 2018 is the target, but the way things are going, it could possibly be sooner, but don’t hold me to that.

Interviewer: Thank you for taking the time to speak with us today.

Schumer: You’re very welcome, and thank you.

Interviewer: We’ve been speaking with T. R. Schumer, the author of the Fearless Trilogy, and the soon to be released suspense thriller, Hum thank you for joining us.