Interview with Ted Kosmatka, author of The Flicker Men
20 Aug 2015
Tell us a little bit about your new release, The Flicker Men.
The Flicker Men is a physics thriller that explores some of the weirder implications of quantum mechanics and the nature of consciousness. I’ve always felt that the best stories, no matter the genre, have at their heart some kernel of mystery, and to me, there is no greater mystery than the wave/particle duality of matter. To my mind, it’s the fundamental mystery of existence. It speaks to the nature of everything around us, and everything we experience.
The story follows an unstable quantum physicist after he’s had a breakdown and is trying to get his career back on track. He’s given one last chance, but instead of pushing forward with new research, he chooses to replicate a very famous foundational experiment in quantum mechanics—but with his own twist. That one small change leads to a startling revelation that creates shockwaves in the physics community and the world at large. Soon there are forces aligned against him that will stop at nothing to keep their secrets hidden.
What’s the best “dirty” job that you’ve had (á la the Discovery Channel show)?
That’s a tough one. Before I worked as a writer of video games, I worked in a lab. And before I worked in a lab, almost all my jobs were dirty. I was a house painter, a zookeeper, a corn detassler, and a dishwasher. My dirtiest job, though, had to be as a sinter plant laborer at a steel mill. The sinter plant made sinter, which was used as a raw material by the blast furnace. My job was to shovel raw materials—like flue dust, iron pellets, and lime—onto conveyer belts. I remember when I was hired at the steel mill, they told me I was going to the blast furnace department. The guy who hired me said that the blast furnace was dangerous, “but at least it’s not the sinter plant.” The next day, there was a paperwork change, the jobs got reshuffled, and I got switched to the sinter plant. The air was so thick with particulates that you sometimes couldn’t see more than a hundred feet inside the building. You had to wear a mask just to breathe safely. The black dust fell like snow. At the end of the day, when you left the job, you looked like a coal miner—coated in black grime that got into everything and was difficult to wash off. I’ve often wished that the “Dirty Jobs” show would do an episode on working in a sinter plant. I’d love to see that.
BAM! You’re a superhero. What’s your superpower?
I’ve always liked the idea of superpowers that seem fairly pointless, and then the trick is to find out how to use them in a way that’s effective for you. In this way, it’s much like real life. We all have talents. The key is to not let them go to waste. My completely useless superpower is the ability to hold my breath for a freakishly long time. I’ve never met a person who can beat me in real life, which isn’t to say those people don’t exist, of course. I know I’ve seen people on TV who break records at that sort of thing, and I’m not on their level at all, but for just a regular dude walking the street, I’m still something of an anomaly. This ability has done me absolutely no good in life, I want to stress, though I suppose if I’d been born into a family of divers, I might have been able to do something with it. If my life were a movie, I’d see a car go off a bridge with a group of nuns inside it, and I’d jump in the river and finally use my superpower to save somebody. As yet, this hasn’t happened.
Which book from your childhood or teenage years has stuck with you as an adult?
Jurassic Park is one. Pet Sematary. Mutiny on the Bounty. Ben Bova’s Orion. I loved Anne McCaffrey’s dragon sci-fi. I grew up reading lots and lots of science fiction—a lot of it in magazines like Asimov’s, Fantasy & Science Fiction, and Analog. I really loved the short story form. Some favorites were writers like James Tiptree, Jr., Theodore Sturgeon, and Philip K. Dick, whom I share a birthday with.
What’s the best advice you’ve ever received?
You need a plan B. (And a plan C, and a plan D.) And mostly you’ll be working those plans while you’re still chipping away, trying to make plan A happen. I would have starved to death a hundred times if I’d only been writing. Never give up on your plan A, but know that you need to put food on the table until it finally happens. Follow your dreams, but have contingencies.
How do you like to spend a rainy day?
Mountain biking. I love biking in the rain. Something about getting totally drenched while the wheels are spinning, flinging water and mud everywhere. I love it. Also, there’s a solitude in the rain that I really like. When you are out and about in the rain, even if there are other people around, it’s like you’re alone, because the rain hems you in. The rain is a kind of barrier.
What’s the coolest video game you’ve helped create?
Dota 2 is the coolest video game that I helped create. I love that game. Writing dialogue and backstory for the characters was some of the best fun that I’ve had as a writer. I still play that game every single week. Playing pubs is a lot of fun, and sometimes when I’m killed, a hero will taunt me with a particularly scathing line, and I’ll feel the burn and think, wait a second, I wrote that line. And now it’s being used against me!
I play a pretty mean Spirit Breaker, and I’ve been known to do okay with Chaos Knight as well. I’m also partial to Dragon Knight and Enigma.
What’s your favorite quote from The Flicker Men?
I really liked some of the lines about using an electron microscope. “Zooming in is like falling. Like you’ve been dropped from orbit, and the ground is rushing up to meet you, but you’re falling faster than you could in real life, faster than terminal velocity, falling impossibly fast, impossibly far, and the landscape keeps getting bigger, and you think you’re going to hit, but you never do, because everything keeps getting closer and sharper, and you never hit the ground—like that old riddle where the frog jumps half the distance of a log, then half again, and again, and again, without ever reaching the other side. That’s an electron microscope. Falling forever down into the picture. And you never do hit bottom.”
Do you have a motto, quote or philosophy you live by?
That’s a tough one. There have been different mottos, I suppose, at different times in my life. The one I’m going with now is “trust your gut.” It’s funny, but the times in my life when I’ve made dumb mistakes don’t bother me too much. Or, at least, they don’t bother me more than they should. I’m human, so I’ll make mistakes, try to improve. But the times when I made a mistake against my own instincts—those mistakes end up bothering me a lot.
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