Most stories set in New York City happen in Manhattan. But there are four other boroughs in Big Apple, each with their own stories to tell. Which is where we find Alex Shvartsman’s new urban fantasy novel The Middling Affliction (paperback, Kindle, audiobook) — in the “outer borough” of Brooklyn. In the following email interview, Shvartsman discusses what inspired and influenced this story, and why he decided to set in “The Borough Of Trees” as opposed to “Midtown” or “The Home Of Thomas Alva Edison.”
To start, what is The Middling Affliction, and when and where does it take place?
This is a fun, fast-paced fantasy adventure that takes place in a version of New York City very similar to ours, except magic is real and approximately one out of every 30,000 people has the gene that allows them to use it. These people are called the gifted, whereas everyone else are the mundanes.
Conrad Brent is with The Watch, an organization that protects the mundanes of Brooklyn from the malicious gifted and various magical threats and monsters. Except, he’s an unusual borderline case himself. He can perceive magic and use magical artifacts, but has no magic of his own. As Conrad himself explains, “In a secret world filled with superheroes and supervillains, I was the magical Batman: a grumpy and possibly somewhat unhinged vigilante with no special powers, who relied on his gadgets to keep up with the super-Joneses.”
Where did you get the idea for The Middling Affliction, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote it?
Early on in my writing career I penned a couple of stories about Conrad Brent, based on the above premise. At the time my plan was to write a series of such stories, using a title that was a pun on a popular Brooklyn-based book or a movie. (The first two where “A Shard Glows In Brooklyn” and “Requiem For A Druid.”) But the idea gripped me a bit stronger than that, and Conrad demanded that he was worthy of a novel. And thus, The Middling Affliction was born.
So, is there a reason you set it in Brooklyn as opposed to Queens or Manhattan or West Orange, New Jersey…?
I’ve lived in Brooklyn for over 30 years now, and know the borough well. Much of the story takes place in real-world venues, with some of the names changed to protect the not-so-innocent. Which isn’t to say that Conrad doesn’t get ever get out of Brooklyn. Throughout the book you’ll see him visit Queens, Manhattan, and New Jersey, just among the locales you’ve mentioned, and venture much further out. Reluctantly.
Here’s what he has to say at one point: “I don’t like venturing into Manhattan. It is the capital of Weird in the New World. Beings of immense power walk the streets beneath its gleaming skyscrapers. Terrible schemes are hatched behind closed doors in offices with prestigious addresses — and I’m not just talking about the Wall Street financiers.”
So, it never dawned on you that setting this story in Tahiti would mean you could go to Tahiti and write it off your taxes as a business expense?
Where were you with this advice a few years ago?
Seriously though, Conrad does get around quite a bit outside of the United States at some points in the story (which I won’t delve into too deeply, because spoilers.) Suffice it to say, I’ve traveled to over 30 countries and have drawn from personal experience when writing about some of Conrad’s travels. Except I haven’t been trapped in a German morgue. Or near the Chernobyl power plant in Ukraine. But definitely some of the other places.
It sounds like The Middling Affliction is an urban fantasy tale. Is that how you’d describe it?
I feel like urban fantasy is rather perfect, though this subgenre tends to refer to two very different kinds of books. Mine is most definitely not a steamy romance with sexy demons and hot werewolves. It’s a lot more like [Jim Butcher’s] The Dresden Files or [Simon R. Green’s] Nightside series. In the Conradverse, vampires run hedge funds, the fae are unhinged assassins, and dolphins are the absolute worst. And don’t get me started on the size of the troll that lives under the Verrazano Bridge.
Now, unless I’m mistaken, The Middling Affliction is your second novel after 2019’s Eridani’s Crown, though you’ve also written the novella H.G. Wells, Secret Agent and the short story collections Explaining Cthulhu To Grandma And Other Stories and The Golem Of Deneb Seven And Other Stories. Are there any writers who had a particularly big influence on Affliction but not on anything else you’ve written?
When I first set out to write in the Conradverse, I was trying to emulate the style and tone of Simon R. Green, who’s one of my favorite urban fantasy authors. There was also a healthy dose of Mike Resnick-style humor and banter in the mix. I couldn’t have imagined that this book would be published with the blurb by Simon R. Green himself, right on the cover. I’m still geeking out over that.
How about non-literary influences; was The Middling Affliction influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games?
Not directly, but I think watching copious amounts of TV has taught me a lot about tight plotting and the value of sharp dialog. In particular, I think watching Buffy the Vampire Slayer and The West Wing are master classes in writing engaging dialog.
When you say you watch copious amounts of TV, would that include The Watch, the urban fantasy series based on Terry Practchet’s Discworld novels?
I watched the first episode but gave up on it after that one; it lacked the grace and the humor of Terry’s books for me. But actually, The Watch in the Conradverse was originally so named as an homage to the Night Watch and Day Watch novels by the Russian author Sergei Lukyanenko, whose writing I used to greatly admire, but have since given up on because of his social and political stances (he’s actively pro-Putin and toeing the party line in the war with Ukraine).
Along with writing, you’ve also edited numerous anthologies — including The Cackle Of Cthulhu and Humanity 2.0 — and are the editor and publisher of Future Science Fiction Digest. How, if at all, do you think editing other people’s work influenced how you wrote The Middling Affliction?
Editing other people’s work definitely improves one’s writing overall. You tend to recognize problems in other people’s writing and think of ways to improve / fix those problems, which you later apply to your own material.
The same is true for reading submissions. You train your brain to think critically about the story. What about one story has won you over while so many others have come up short? How could those authors whose stories had come close have improved them enough to get from a “no” or a “maybe” to a “yes?” It’s common advice that newer writers should volunteer and read slush (submissions) for one of their favorite zines or anthologies, if they can secure the gig. I strongly agree and endorse this advice.
Speaking of your editing, along with the anthologies I mentioned before, you also edit a series called Unidentified Funny Objects, which is a yearly collection of funny sci-fi and fantasy short stories. Is The Middling Affliction also funny?
It’s hilarious…assuming I did my job right. But the best stories work on multiple levels. There are advance readers who found the book to be very funny, while others said that they appreciated that it was a good story which didn’t try too hard to be humorous. This is because humor is highly subjective — something I learned over the course of ten years and thousands of humorous story submissions. The trick is to write your story in a way where if none of the jokes are landing for the reader, the plot will still keep them engaged and turning the pages.
So, is the humor in The Middling Affliction jokey like in The Hitchhiker’s Guide To The Galaxy or is it more situational like in one of John Scalzi’s novels?
I tend to do best at observational humor that’s steeped in pop culture. There’s very little situational comedy and I use the puns sparingly (though I do intend every one!) Since the book is in first person, I get to turn on the sarcasm and show the story through the eyes of Conrad who is a bit of a rogue and a grifter, but his heart’s in the right place. Ultimately, the greatest compliment and true measure of success will be if the readers identify it as “Shvartsman humor” rather than an emulation of somebody else’s style.
Then who do you see as being the biggest comedic influences on The Middling Affliction?
Crime And Punishment, The Scarlet Letter, and the 10 o’clock news. Getting through those boring, dispiriting, soul crushing examples of fiction and non-fiction helped me develop a sturdy comedic streak as a coping mechanism.
Now, as you mentioned, The Middling Affliction is the first book in a series you’re calling The Conradverse Chronicles. What can you tell us about this series?
I’ve planned out a trilogy story arc so far. The Middling Affliction will be followed by Kakistocracy and then Kings And Queens. Titles are tentative, of course. What isn’t tentative is that I just recently finished writing Kakistocracy, so technically it could be published whenever, though most likely the series will follow the traditional pattern with books spaced out a year apart. This will be up to the publisher. They’ve got to ensure they turn a profit on book 1, first. But I like being ahead on my homework, for once.
After the trilogy? We shall see. Maybe I’ll go write a space opera. Maybe the Conradverse will become so popular that I’ll have to take a decade-long break between books and write several prequels.
Upon learning that The Middling Affliction is the first book of a trilogy, some people will decide to hold off until all three books are out before reading any of them, and maybe even plan to binge the series. But is there any reason why you think people shouldn’t wait? Or should wait but not plan to binge the series? Or should wait and then binge it?
So, based on my previous answer, you can kind of surmise that I dislike it when an author leaves you mid-story, hoping you’ll still remember anything that happened in the previous book a year (or a decade) later. Because of this, I make sure to write each book so that it can work as a stand-alone. The Middling Affliction tells a complete story. Is there a teaser for book 2 at the end? Sure there is. But you get a resolution instead of a cliffhanger.
As I was working on book 2, I sent it to some beta readers who haven’t read book 1. Intentionally. I wanted to make sure that if a reader picked up Kakistocracy they could enjoy it as a stand-alone story. So please, don’t wait; pick up book 1 as soon as you can. I will thank you. My publisher will thank you. Even the UPS guy will probably thank you, because that way they can bring you one light single-book package at the time, instead of the entire series all at once.
And is the plan also to collect the Conradverse short stories one day?
At the moment, there are only three Conrad short stories. The first two, which I’d mentioned earlier, have been slightly reworked and incorporated into The Middling Affliction. The third, “A Dark And Stormy Night,” appears in the Silence In The City anthology, and will eventually be expanded and reworked as part of book 3. So, if anyone wants a very early and mostly spoiler-free preview of book 3, they can pick up this anthology.
I may write more standalone Conrad stories, and eventually gather them into a collection, but this is pretty far down the road at this point.
Earlier I asked if The Middling Affliction had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. But to turn things around, do you think The Middling Affliction could be made into a movie, show, or game?
I think it would work extremely well as a TV series. (Call me, Netflix!) There’s already enough story to fill numerous seasons. Besides, New York City has so many wonderful, weird, and mysterious locations that a show about the Watch would never run out of story.
And if Netflix does call, who do you want them to cast as Conrad and the other main characters?
Oh, it would absolutely have to be someone who can pull off a snarky, sarcastic attitude. Maybe [Lucifer‘s] Tom Ellis (sans the British accent) or [Star Trek: The Next Generation‘s] Wil Wheaton? I haven’t thought past Conrad in terms of the casting choices.
So, is there anything else that people interested in The Middling Affliction should know before deciding whether or not to buy it?
You should buy this book if you’re into snarky characters making snide observations as they save the day. And if you aren’t into that…why the heck not?
Finally, if someone enjoys The Middling Affliction, which of your short story collections would you recommend they check out while waiting for Kakistocracy to come out?
I think Explaining Cthulhu To Grandma is a great place to start in terms of my short stories. The title story is my most successful one to date, as it won an award and has been translated into many languages. The setting is very fun, though less snarky and more kind-hearted than Affliction.