Interview with Ken Decroo, author of Almost Human

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Almost Human, a deliciously suspenseful action novel, is ready to be gobbled up by monster-loving readers everywhere!  To quote the back cover, this book is described as “a thriller where creatures with the enormous strength and power of a chimpanzee and the intelligence and size of a human are sought out and discovered in a remote compound in equatorial Africa.”  The cast of characters includes the curious combination of men and women with letters behind their names, experience in their professions, and secret agents hot on their heels.  University research professors joining with skilled animal trainers in a search for a fabled human/chimp hybrid species, leftovers of pre-World War II experimentation, leads them to encounters with circus performers, Hollywood movie personnel, shipwrecks, guns, and scary people you wouldn’t want your daughter to date.

Don’t worry, no spoilers here, but something even better!  Blogger and author of Almost Human, Ken Decroo, gives us a blog post interview about his book, his blogging career, and life in general.

DLJ: Ken, the back cover of Almost Human says that you “truly believe you must live a life worth writing about.”  Even a quick perusal of your blog site, http://bajamotoquest.com/ , makes that pretty obvious.  For example, your description of the primates’ behavior is so descriptive that your experience with them is evident.  What other life or occupational encounters did you draw from for this novel?

KLD: Certainly my experience in the movies. People ask me how I ended up working in the film business. It was by accident, actually. A chimp had injured me while working on a research project. She bit my kneecap in half. So, I had temporarily left the project to recover.  

I had done my research and dissertation at California School for the Deaf in Riverside.  It was a socio-linguistic study of American Sign Language (ASL). While visiting the Superintendent a call came in from a film company doing a CBS movie of the week with Linda Gray. They were looking for an expert who could teach some Hollywood animal trainers American Sign Language. The Supt handed me the phone. I went to work for them for a few days, which turned into a career.   

That adventure took me into the very special world of working animals of all kinds and later stunt work in the movies. Many of the characters in Almost Human are drawn from that world—a world of movies, circuses, rodeos, carnivals and so on.  

My work in education was the bases of chapter 2. I have taught at colleges and universities. Dr. Turner’s lecturer style is very much me or is it the other way around. J 

I also served in the US Army assigned to Military Intelligence. Much of my experience in that world served as the foundation for some of the scenarios and characters in the later part of Almost Human.

DLJ: Again, your writing of the movie sequence with the chimps is very real.  What experience did you incorporate into this scene?

KLD: I first started out working as a chimp trainer in the movies. Later, I learned to work big cats, other great apes, reptiles, elephants, etc. From training I went into technical advising. Later, I became a stuntman.  

I married a film director, at one point, and became a producer as well. One of the characters is based that experience.  

Later I was in front of the camera as a guest to many talk shows such as the Late Night with David Letterman, etc.  

I became intimately familiar with the film business and draw on those experiences.  

I feel it is important to write what you know for it to ring true. I think readers can tell if it is real even if they are not familiar with what you’re writing about. I have a huge respect for my readers. They’re very intuitive. The keep you grounded and honest.

Also, it’s a chance to revisit parts of your life in the wee hours while sipping a good Irish whiskey or homemade moonshine.

DLJ:  Can you tell us a little more about the backstory of Almost Human?  Please tell us more about what encouraged you to put it together and write in down?  (Oops!  Showing my age…I mean, type it in.)

KLD: Nothing wrong with paper and pen. I still block out my work that way. I think writing the old fashion way slows your pace and allows you to think about what you’re writing. That can be insightful when writing description.

I was working as the technical adviser and chimp trainer on a movie that starred Karen Allen and Armand Assante. One evening we were out relaxing after a long day of filming on location in Albuquerque, New Mexico. After a few drinks Armand commented on how human-like my chimp, Mike, seemed. I put on my university professor hat and began pontificating on all the traits we humans shared with chimps including my work as a linguistic research assistant on a project in Reno that had successfully taught chimps to communicate using American Sign Language (ASL) as used by the deaf.

That evening after the bar closed I went home and wrote the second chapter where Dr. Turner is lecturing about the similarities and differences of chimpanzees in a University lecture hall at the University of Nevada, Reno. I had worked there on the signing chimp project. I wrote that chapter in about 1984 or so, on an old Royal typewriter. Just before dawn, as I finished writing, Gordon Lightfoot’s “The Wreck of the Edmund Fitzgerald” played on the radio. I put another page in and wrote the first chapter before going to work.

DLJ:  Are there any authors, classic or contemporary, that you feel have influenced your writing style?

KLD: I love Steinbeck’s vivid characters and descriptions. The Log From the Sea of Cortez especially his essay “About Ed Ricketts” is some of my favorite writing. It sent me off adventuring. Right after reading it, I took an old Indian Motorcycle (didn’t have a boat at that time) and headed south into Baja. I ended up on the mainland in Chiapas near the Guatemalan border before running out of money. I was 16.

I love the economy of language in Hemingway and certainly Michael Crichton’s technical side.

DLJ: What’s more challenging in writing this story—plot development, character development, pacing, description, (staying up late at night with too much coffee…)?

KLD: For me, it’s plot. I get so wrapped up in the scene and characters I have to remind myself that the story needs to move on! My editor gave me some quality advice when I was struggling to move this novel to an ending. WRITE THE ENDING FIRST. If I hadn’t done that, I think I might still be writing this book. At least this worked for me. I needed to have a destination to give my plotlines direction.

I have written the ending for my sequel, More Than Human, and it has made all the difference in not getting bogged down and blocked. I hope to complete the rough draft in a few more months.

When it comes to pacing, my formula is to write longer establishing chapters and shorter ones as the action picks up. I believe this accentuates the pace. 

DLJ: I’ve read that writing a book is like carrying and birthing a child (and having three children, this seems like it could be acutely accurate….) What encouragement can you give to first time writers concerning persistence and—this is a good old-fashioned word—fortitude?

KLD: Writers write, no matter what. Write every day. Write at lease 3 pages a day. Many days that will be a struggle, than there will be those golden days when it just flows and 3 pages can grow into 20 or more. Get the story down. Don’t let the attempt to get it perfect interrupt the flow. Expand and fill it in later.

Before you do serious editing, let your work rest for a while before revisiting it. Like good whiskey, it needs to age to give up its subtleties.  Writing is magical. You have an idea and begin the process of getting it on paper and at one point it takes on a life of its own. On good days, a story writes itself.  

Oh, and yes, you do get very attached. The first edition of this book had copyediting errors that were hard for me to accept. It was as though my baby had been born with defects. I had some hard conversations with my agent. The 2nd edition is cleaned up and I am happier. I love my baby!

DLJ:  Not asking for any trade secrets here, but generally speaking, what have been some of the roadblocks to publishing and promoting, and again, do you have any suggestions for new or aspiring authors in this area?

KLD: Find other serious writers and network with them. I was very lucky in being invited to a writers’ group of published authors. I had attended a writers’ workshop at the University led by an award winning, bestselling author. Later, she invited me to here private group.  As I mentioned, I was the only unpublished writer in the group. This was not a mutual admiration society but a group of brutally honest, competent writers who pulled no punches. I grew as writer from that experience.  I learned about my craft AND the business.

Read. Read across many genres. Pay attention to style and craft as you read especially what makes dialog ring true.

DLJ:  I know you have a terrific blog site at   http://bajamotoquest.com/ .  What other types of writing/reading are you personally interested in?

KLD: Occasionally, I write for a local newspaper and other magazines. Non-fiction really helps my practice overall by forcing me to us another part of my brain. I write about education, motorcycling, Baja and my other passions.  Also, I give lectures on those subjects. That practice pulls on yet another part of the brain. All of this distills into my style.  

But more importantly, it is storytelling that plays the biggest role in my creative effort. We have two homes in Baja that are totally unplugged. So to stay entertained my friends and I tell stories around the campfire. That is from were my inspiration and style really come.

DLJ: Your book is all adventure and suspense, but I’m also seeing several underlying themes I wonder if you could expound on.  The first is the question of identity—what does “being human” mean to you, and in keeping with that definition, what is our responsibility to the rest of creation?

KLD: Let’s for the moment see creation as reality. Out of all the reality that exists, we as humans only perceive a narrow band of it; a world of static vision, color and a narrow range of sound, smell and touch to mention a few. I don’t want to get too metaphysical here!

Training and working different species requires us to experience a completely different set of perceptions. It is like seeing through different windows of perception, opening up more reality. When you’re in sync with an animal, it is a form of meditation; a very special kind that words fail to describe.

I see all animals as beings, non-human beings that are very special and need to be respected and protected. They have much to teach us. 

DLJ: Another very interesting theme you bring out in your book is the idea of language and communication, both of which take practice and patience.  I also love the comment earlier in the book about the silence between the two friends, which at time can communicate more than words.  Any additional thoughts on language and how it relates to relationship with animals (and humans, for that matter)?

KLD: It is important to remember that language is only one part of communication. In fact, it can sometimes get in the way of communicating. Having worked for so many years with primates and other animals, I have learned that non-verbal communication often tells us more than what actually being said. I am very aware of kinesics and proxemics.

DLJ: What level does trust effect your communication with animals, and how did you learn to engender that trust in your experiences?

KLD: Training is basically a form of communication when done right. And the basis of communication is the ability to form a relationship of mutual trust, love and respect.   

I am very suspicious of people who tell me that they love animals but hate people. That mindset is not conducive to effective training. How can one functionally form a relationship with another species if they are unable to form one with their own?

DLJ:  Here’s the big question—can we expect more from the pen of Ken Decroo in the future?

KLD: Yes. I’m well along on the sequel, More Than Human. It will fill in many of the questions I purposely left unanswered in my Almost Human. There are few surprises coming. J I learned a lot from writing my first novel which has made this all less daunting.

DLJ: Author Ken Decroo, thanks so very much for taking the time for this interview!  Do you have any other thoughts before we let you get back to your motorcycles and storytelling? 

KLD. Thanks, Dawn, so much for this little chat. I very much enjoy your blog and appreciate your perceptive questions. I haven’t thought this much about my craft since I first decided to tell this story.

I would say to anyone out there struggling with there first novel. Live a life of experiences that are worth writing about. The rest will follow and tell stories with or without a campfire!

For a brief review of content, Almost Human is a fun read, but the reader should be aware that it’s also no picnic in the park.  Ken What happens when the line between ape and man is blurred?makes it clear that even when trained, these “cute little animals” can do horrific things when we neglect to treat nature with the respect it deserves. (You would take your kids to the zoo, but you would also keep them behind the fence.)  And, yes, of course there is vivid communication between the humans, which is at times quite colorful.  (You would take your kids to the circus, but probably shield their ears from what happens outside of the main ring.)

Oh yeah, and one last VERY important quote from the book:

“I dedicate this book to my loving wife, Tamara Lynn Decroo, who believed in me and this story from the start.  This book would not exist if it were not for you asking me to tell just one more story.  I love you.”

What more needs to be said???

Almost Human, by Ken Decroo.  Check out his book on Amazon HERE.

Author: dawnlizjones

Tends toward TMI, so here's the short list: guitar and banjo (both of which have been much neglected as of late), bicycling (ibid), dogs, very black tea, and contemplating and commenting on deep philosophical thoughts about which I have had no academic or professional training. Oh, also reading, writing, but I shy away from arithmetic.

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