Coming at Greatness Sideways: An Interview with Chris Pourteau and a Stroll Through the Future of Michael Bunker’s Pennsylvania

Chris Pourteau is a talented writer and the mastermind behind the upcoming Pennsylvania fanfic anthology. He was kind enough sit down and answer some questions about writing, life, Pennsylvania, and football.


So, the worst kept secret in indie sci-fi is now general knowledge: a fanfic anthology set in Michael Bunker’s world of Pennsylvania. I have it on good authority that the project was your idea, and that you’re managing it for Mr. Bunker. Can you tell us how it came about?

Sure. I read Pennsylvania and thought it was a really unique take on a genre standard. At its most basic, it’s a Luke versus the Empire story, but it’s so much richer than that. The Amish perspective in the story is such a fresh take on the genre, Michael is credited with founding a whole new genre of sci-fi. So anyway, I just saw this very rich canvas there, and while Jed’s perspective and story were really cool and original, I saw the potential for a lot more. New Pennsylvania’s a big place, right?

I’d also just finished reading the 13 outstanding time-travel stories in Synchronic published earlier in the summer. That reintroduced me to an appreciation for short stories I hadn’t really had since graduate school. You can sit down, engage with a whole new world and set of characters, experience a story in totem, and hopefully come away with an emotional connection to a new author and characters, all in one sitting! Who has time to sit down and read a novel like that, from cover to cover, these days? So anyway, after I finished Pennsylvania, I thought, why not suggest an anthology that does the same thing for that world that Synchronic did with the time-travel theme?

As far as managing the project goes, I was bitten by the volunteer curse. “Oh, this is a great idea. Thanks for bringing it to the table. And since you brought it to the table…” 😉

I’m extraordinarily fortunate in that I’ve had the opportunity to read several of the stories that will be in the anthology (bragging a bit here)—How were the authors who are participating chosen? You’ve got stories from established indie stars like Peter Cawdron all the way to relative newcomers like Lesley Smith. Assembling so much talent is a great achievement—how did you do it?

I’m glad you’re liking what you’re seeing! We really do have a talented group contributing stories. Michael suggested most of them, though I brought a handful of names to the table too. A number of these folks were in the Synchronic anthology with Michael, and I got to know them a little as an ARC [advanced review copy] reader for Synchronic and during the chats for that anthology’s launch party. So, Michael gave me about half a dozen names, I had three or so of my own, and then we added a few more after that. Basically our only criterion was, “Is this author a good writer?”

Since we’re talking about this, I want to mention that Michael was totally blown away by the reception our overtures got. I sent an initial query email to the folks he gave me, along with my handful of prospective contributors. Michael was like, “OK, when these folks say no, I’ll come up with some more names and we can approach them next.” Not a single person said no! We sent eleven queries out [there are 13 total stories in the anthology, including one each from Chris and Michael], and every writer we contacted wanted to contribute. Think about that: how busy each of these folks are trying to establish and develop their own independent author careers (writing, blogging, doing interviews ;-)), and they all agreed to stop what they were doing for a bit and write a story for the anthology. Michael felt very humbled by that, I think.

One brief anecdote, since you mention Peter Cawdron specifically. We got an email from him that started something like, “My schedule’s going to be very busy over the next few months…” Before I read any further, I thought, “Oh, man. Here’s our first ‘no.’” But he continued, “…so attached is my story. Hope you like it.” Within a week of being asked, he’d already banged out a first-class Pennsylvania story! Now that right there is a testament to how much people appreciate the world Michael’s created, and their respect for him as an individual too, I think. They want to be a part of it, however successful they’ve already been on their own. And Peter’s been very successful.

Great Fan Fiction is rapidly becoming (as it should) a recognized genre. Where do you think the future of fan fiction is going? 

It’s only going to grow and become better established. If the person who created the world isn’t worried about copyright infringement, there’s almost no downside for anyone involved.

Let’s take Pennsylvania and the anthology as one example. Michael Bunker writes this great, innovative sci-fi story. It sells like gangbusters (I think he’s sold something like 25,000 copies this year alone). I’ve looked it up for this interview, and—if you add together numbers for the omnibus plus its five component parts, which were individually published—Pennsylvania has garnered over 500 reviews at alone, and they average about 4.7 out of 5 stars. So—talented writer, original take on an established genre that obviously has traction with readers, and the quality of both story and writer are recognized by the critical mass of reviews.

Then, you get folks writing fanfic in that world. These are enthusiasts themselves, right? People who loved what they read, became invested in the characters and world, and wanted to explore it for themselves. So, they write a story, publish it, and let’s assume (a big assumption, I know), they do all the right things to market it, and it does pretty well. But why would it do well? Michael Bunker didn’t write it; there’s no name recognition. But it’s the world, not the author, that’s selling it to readers. This has been true in fanfic for years. Whether fanfic will do well in the case of Pennsylvania is all theoretical, at this point, because none has been published yet to my knowledge. But look at Hugh Howey’s WOOL. Writing WOOL fanfic has established several independent authors’ careers; Michael would agree, I think, that it’s tremendously helped his own.

Readers these days are voracious for good material. When they find a world like Pennsylvania they love and finish one story about it, they don’t want the experience to end. Have you ever finished a great book by an author, particularly one in a series, and wanted the next one immediately? It’s like that. Television provides us a great model for how I think fanfic can play an important role in where digital publishing is going. For example, think about the model Netflix has adopted. Netflix releases whole seasons of TV shows at once now. I remember thinking recently, “How, ten years ago, did I ever watch 24 one week at a time and sit through all those commercials each week to boot?” Compare that experience to today, where with several mouseclicks (and instant download, in the case of digital material), I can get anything I want when I want it. I finish a story I liked and click-click-wait 10 seconds for the wifi, and boom! I’ve started the next one in the series. We live in a time of epic convenience!

Even Michael, known as “The Grinder,” by the way (for his ability to write quality fiction fast), can only produce so much at a time. Fan fiction writers do what a world’s primary author can’t; they supply readers, on a massive scale, with content and characters from a world that both have a lot of affection for. I read a piece of fanfic first and like it well enough to check out the source material. Or I like Pennsylvania so much but don’t want to wait for its sequel, Oklahoma, to come out, so I go out and find that piece of fanfic about Pook’s backstory because I REALLY liked that character. Fanfic content reflects back on the original (hopefully in a good way, if it’s quality fanfic), and vice versa. The two sources cross-pollinate and create one big self-reflexive marketing model for “the world,” not the author. Everyone wins. The author benefits from increased awareness of his or her work; the fanfic writer gets the opportunity to show off his or her talent to readers they might not otherwise have connected with; and the reader’s demand for new material is met.

You yourself are an incredibly talented author. Your novel Shadows Burned In is the best indie novel I’ve read this year. You broke my heart, made me cry, and reconciled me to the future. Where did that book come from, and can we expect more from you?

First, I’m very glad that SBI touched you in that way. To me, that’s the point of being a writer. Connecting with readers that way, sharing an emotional experience with someone you don’t even know personally (but maybe know a little bit about through shared human experience) is what art, whatever the expressive form, is all about, in my opinion. So, thank you for that.

I actually wrote SBI way back in the twentieth century—the late 1990s, in fact. Not to bore your readers with too much personal detail, but I was in my mid-30s and going through what’s usually referred to as a mid-life crisis. Concerns over mortality, questions over whether or not I would ever (or should ever) have children, that kinda thing. I think maybe one way of looking at the mid-life crisis is that your perspective does a 180-degree turn. When you’re young, you’re always looking forward—growing up, getting a driver license, going to prom, going to college, graduation, getting married, having kids. At some point, you start to look back instead of forward. You notice the clock is ticking louder and LOUDER and you wonder what you’ve actually accomplished with your life because death is just around the corner and no one wants to just turn back into dust and be forgotten. Psychology calls it “having an existential crisis,” or looking for meaning for the life you’ve lived. That’s what being 36 was like for me. Also, my father had just died, and that was a complicated relationship, in a nutshell. I had things to resolve for myself. So I wrote Shadows. I tried the traditional publishing route (a long story unto itself), failed, and shelved it. When the opportunity to independently publish it myself came along, I published SBI in September 2013.

As for more–well, I’m in this AWESOME anthology of fanfiction set in Pennsylvania! 😉 Also, I’m writing a series of Pennsylvania fanfic stories about a group of TRACE fighters during the war with Transport. The first of those will be out this month. (I’m being cryptic because I haven’t revealed the title publicly yet; stay tuned!)

Beyond that, I have a cool Bombo Dawson idea I want to co-author down the road with Michael. And a dystopian sci-fi world of my own that, so far, is only in my head, but involves an over-the-hill assassin who talks too much and becomes targeted by the syndicate he used to kill for. So, stuff all very different from SBI to be sure!

And lastly, the Aggies are looking pretty good after one game. Do you think they can beat Bama, or shall I drink your tears now?

After last Thursday’s game against South Carolina, I wouldn’t bet against the Aggies. And in the Gamecocks’ own house, too! You might want to put an alternate source of hydration in your fridge for October!

From Ellen’s Booklist

This book is something more than sci fi, and more than coming of age. It’s a richly complex, beautiful story with something for everyone. It’s a wonderful read.