Interview with disaster, post-apocalyptic, and historical fiction novelist Lou Cadle

gray collectionGive me a brief summary of your life till now (education, work, etc) and how it led you to write.

I’ve had four “day job” careers before writing, most recently teaching college. I’ve lived in eight states of the US and have seen 47 of them and all but the northernmost four Canadian provinces, for I have a serious case of wanderlust. I have quite a bit of formal education but I prefer my self-taught education, following my own passions and interests. I love libraries. They’re the real universities, and you don’t have to put up with campus politics or pervy profs there.

I’m shocked every day that I was ever able to write novels as a job. I’m a hard-headed realist, and as a working-class kid growing up, we didn’t allow ourselves fantasies about doing creative work. We assumed we’d have to work, possibly at unpleasant work, probably underpaid, but that’s what you did to survive. So when I indulged myself in writing as a second job, I was already out of university and employed full-time, and I knew a lot of mid-list F/SF writers, so I knew their financial reality, which certainly wasn’t cause for optimism. I assumed writing would always be a minor side gig for me, a self-indulgence no different than other friends’ wood-working or quilting hobbies. That after 20-odd years of living that reality, I finally won through to making a living from it these past five years still seems as if it must be a dream. I’m grateful to my readers for making that happen.

How did the idea of Gray come to you? Did it inspire your other natural disaster novels? They’re all great stories.

Thanks for the kind words! With Gray, which was the first disaster novel, I’d been reading a lot about the science of (what happened in Gray, the naming of which would be a spoiler) in the late 1990s, and when I quit teaching in 2005 and wrote three books that first year of freedom, it was the idea that called to me most strongly. I’ve always loved natural disaster stories, even the worst of made-for-TV movies about twisters or quakes.

a-dawn-of-mammals-collectionYou’re interested in time travel — what prompted you to choose prehistoric eras? They’re fascinating novels (and on a personal note, I wouldn’t make it five days, much less five weeks, in a prehistoric world).

Oh, neither would I last long in any survival situation! 😆 It’s one thing to fish and live in a tent for a weekend or have a tomato garden for a summer, and quite another to need to do that sort of thing to survive. Give me air conditioning in the summers, please, and cans of spray DEET during mosquito season. On the genesis of the Dawn of Mammals series, I was some years ago casting about for summer volunteer activities with the national parks, focusing on scientific research opportunities. I found a listing for “assistant paleontologist,” applied, was accepted, and there you have it. Five months picking Cenozoic teeth and bones out of canyon rocks, learning about the time period, and it was firmly stuck in my mind. I had, in effect, pre-researched that series.

The bibliography on your website is impressive — you’ve clearly done a lot of research on paleontology, natural disasters, preppers, post-apocalyptic worlds … and World War II spies in France. Tell me more about your research process.

Research is possibly my favorite part of writing. I love to read and I love to learn. I like for the novels I read to be accurate, so I try to do the same favor for my readers. Research is also how I develop some of my characters. By the time I’m done researching, which might include anything from reading 20 books on a topic to eavesdropping online in a professional group’s forum to setting up interviews with various people, I have developed a strong sense of the sorts of people who go into the work of whatever I’m writing about – volcanologists, spies, epidemiologists, police, city planners, or whoever. When I’m done with my second draft of books, I also give chapters to experts in various fields to make sure I haven’t messed up. My helicopter pro, as an example, disabused me of many wrong-headed notions I’d picked up from movies, like helicopters spinning in distress (you have to lose a particular tail part for that to happen, and it’s unlikely in the extreme that you would). Such a moment might look good on film, but so much of what’s in the movies is nonsense, and I’d rather avoid writing nonsense if I can. I’m sure mistakes of fact remain in my novels, but I hope they are few and far between.

code-name-beatrizYou took a decidedly different turn with Code Name Beatriz. What led you to write about World War II and the French Resistance?

Current events. Nazis are evil and their philosophy dangerous, and we must never forget this. My father, who was traumatized as a young draftee in World War II, would not wish I forget it, and I would not have others forget it or render my father’s sacrifice meaningless. I have to live with myself much more than I have to sell another post-apocalyptic novel, and speaking up through fiction is one way an author can try to counter evil in the world. It probably doesn’t do much, but perhaps an accumulation of good deeds by everyone working in her or his own realm will help us avoid a return to fascism, which is frighteningly on the rise again all over the free world.

the-long-road-to-homeYou wrote a novel inspired by your great-grandmother’s experience of being left at an orphanage, The Long Road to Home, under the pen name Rosellyn Sparks. Her mother couldn’t care for her, her sister, and their cousin. It’s a wrenching story. Was it difficult to write?

I’m glad it moved you. No, it wasn’t emotionally difficult to write, but that’s likely because I know there’s a happy ending to Nellie’s story. The orphanage was well-run for the time, and her indentured servant years (which must have been terrifying to enter into, don’t you imagine?) ended up being the best part of her childhood. That side of my family had a big reunion about ten years ago and the grandchildren of the family that held her indentured contract attended as well, 100 years after their great-grandparents pulled Nellie out of the orphanage. They’re still kin, in the most important sense. Sometimes a life is painful and awful, and there’s no happy ending to sorrows, but in this case, the pain and awfulness led somewhere much brighter and to connections with “found family” that have lasted a century.

Digital piracy is a problem you’ve addressed eloquently and directly on your blog. Are there any other ways, other than those you mentioned, to prevent file sharing of stolen work? (

Any anti-theft device that can be invented can be broken. So artists have to rely on the integrity of their readers/listeners/viewers. As with any realm of life, the 5% of people who are criminals and lazy and greedy ruin it for the 95% of people who aren’t. (Something I think about every time I try to fight my way into some packaged food product, locked up like Fort Knox against crazy food tainting schemes.) There’s nothing to do about that because that’s human nature, as much as noble sacrifice and loyalty and kindness and empathy are human nature. And so as an author/musician/filmmaker, you grit your teeth and have to take it, but it really is no different than having a thief break into your house every day and steal food from you while you must just sit there and watch it happen without complaint. It angers me and sucks some of the joy out of my creative life, so I avoid thinking about it often, for why make myself sick over that which I cannot control?

You’re working on a self-sufficient lifestyle. What tips would you give those who want to depend less on the grid?

Learn what skills you can, taking small steps at first. You can break some of your “griddy” addictions on your own. (Do you really need social media more than once a week, or to play that tablet/phone game so many hours per day? Can you put an afternoon aside once a week to make the week’s meals ahead so you don’t have to rely on fast food?) Be curious and learn from people in your community who know these various skills, even ones you’re fairly sure you won’t ever use. (Why not go to that llama breeder’s fair next weekend? You might learn something interesting!) Learn one new skill per year—how about pottery this year? Wild food hunting? Or beer brewing? And build community locally, rather than online. If the electrical grid goes down, you need to know the guy two doors down from you, even if he seems a bit of an oddball, not the stranger in Tasmania (I have met strangers in Tasmania online, and they’re great people, but they aren’t going to help me fell a tree anytime soon, nor will I be helping them put up a fence.) I believe true self-sufficiency is impossible for me and for most of us who grew up in such a techy world. We are utterly dependent on diesel shipping of many goods and on plastics made from petroleum. But perhaps we can get 1/3 of the way to self-sufficiency and teach our children skills, hoping it never comes down to life and death for them, while conscious that at some point in the future, our descendants might well be living a life little different than that of humans living 200 or 2000 years ago.

shed door
Photo courtesy of the author

What will you be working on in the fall?

I have over half of the first novel of the new far-post-apocalyptic series written, though it has some very rough parts. It takes the descendants of my characters from my Oil Apocalypse series hundreds of years into the future, where they’re living a low-tech agrarian life, with all this wonderful tech you and I enjoy today mostly gone—but what’s still there can be either very useful or very dangerous. I’ll return to that when the garden releases its hold on me.

oil-apocalypse-collectionWhat’s your writing routine? Do you have a dedicated office, or do you write at the kitchen table? Do you write longhand or type everything? Do you outline your stories or let the characters take you where they want to go? Do your characters speak to you?

My characters do speak to me, and I’m only ready to start writing when I have distinct voices in my head—their own voices rather than a version of my voice. But I wrestle them into outlined plots nonetheless because I’m working for my readers, not for myself or my imaginary cast, and I want page-turner novels that are tightly plotted and make sense.

I have a dedicated office, and I type on an aging laptop, mostly sticking to an outline, while sitting in a $7 thrift-store find of a badly-sprung yet comfortable easy chair. My usual writing routine is to get up, drink caffeine, and get to work before dawn. I expect 2500 words per day of myself on writing days. I work seven days a week until a draft is done. I take a few days off and then turn to revision—or I have done so these past several years. In the future, I’d like to take a longer break between drafts. I wrote something like seven books in 2016 and six in 2017 and I simply can’t work at that pace in the future. It’s better to let a novel draft simmer for a while, I think, before I return to it for revision.

What writers do you admire, past or present?

I admire anyone who can finish a novel. It’s hard work! It doesn’t matter if it is published or not, if the writer is obscure or renowned, or even if the first draft is very good or not. Just that act of writing 80,000 or so words in a row is something to be applauded. Ditto anyone who finishes composing a whole concerto. Even if I hate the sound of a particular concerto, I admire that they got through such a long work. To more fairly answer your question, I deeply admire the ability to make me laugh in fiction or personal narrative: Dave Barry (his novels), Donald Westlake, Douglas Adams, Dodie Smith, Cornelia Otis Skinner are names that pop to mind, and The Pirates! in an Adventure … comedy series and a kids’ series I love that begins with A Whole Nother Story. I can write mildly amusing lines once or twice per novel, but those writers can sustain much more wit for pages, and it isn’t at all easy to do. I bow to that.

41-days-apocalypse-undergroundWhat do you like best about being a writer? What do you like least?

Best: I enjoying playing with my imaginary friends in my imaginary worlds. It’s as fun as it was when I was four years old and had stuffed animals who talked to each other, or when I was eight and created for us neighborhood kids a complex ongoing war, with castes and shifting alliances and formal battles so on (it was quasi-feudal and involved crab apples as weapons).

Like least: everything involved with making the fun and creative part of writing into a business. So: finding and keeping good proofreaders, tax forms, advertising, accounting, keeping up with shifting external requirements of the business, reading contracts, and the like. All are miserable jobs and no different than any other office day job you wish you could quit. I’m also sometimes a cruel and demanding boss to myself. So the business end of it qualifies as about the worst job I’ve ever had while the writing-the-books part is the best job I’ve ever had.

rock saltWhat little personal quirk would you like to reveal to your readers?

Some people think I’m nothing but quirks! A historical one: when I was a kid, I was a serious salt addict. I’d sneak into this horrible little basement room my folks had, filled with cobwebs and a scary pit that seemed bottomless but actually held the sump pump, to eat the rock salt stored there in the dim light spilling in the door. When the family had finished with a bottle of green olives, I’d drink down the brine. Though the craving went away about the age of 10, thankfully, I was an obsessed salt junkie for a few years.

How are your tomatoes doing? Was the garden bountiful? Have you been canning a lot? Any other preservation methods?

The garden is still going strong, thanks for asking, and I just put in some fall crops to replace onions and carrots I harvested. I grew 30 plants/14 varieties of tomatoes and have about 400 square feet of garden beyond that this year. Yes, I’ve canned and dehydrated quite a bit: ground cherry jam last week, tomato sauce this week, dehydrated soup mix ingredients every week since May’s peas were coming in. Next year I want to—just to see if I can—grow all my own fruits and vegetables, enough to last me a full year. I’ve converted nearly 2000 square feet of lawn to vegetable gardens now, which may be just enough space to feed one person in this climate, not counting some meat/eggs/dairy that I’ll buy. (For making those products on your own, you’d need something like four acres of land to feed two people, most of it in grain and pasture for the animals.)

the pile
Photo courtesy of the author

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