Dean Ocean on telling his own story, and an excerpt from *Holbrook Academy*

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Growing up is hard. Growing up in a society that silences anyone different is next to impossible. In 1925, the quiet, artistic Paul Blakely is turning seventeen and still hasn’t figured out what he wants to do with his life. His childhood at the prestigious Holbrook Academy is drawing to an end. Together with his friends Freddie and Emmett, he struggles to fly under the radar of schoolyard bullies who target them because they don’t fit in. Paul coasts through life a constant observer, never taking part—until he meets William Coleridge II.

Bold, good-looking, reckless Will is the only son of a hero from the Great War. In other words, he’s everything Paul is not, so when he tries to make friends, Paul is suspicious… but Paul can’t hold out against Will’s charm forever. As they grow closer, Paul finds himself discovering who he is, what he stands for, the meaning of friendship, and the true power of love. Knowing Will helps Paul answer questions about himself he didn’t know how to ask, but can he trust his heart to someone so impulsive?

My name is Dean Ocean. I am from Idaho. My favorite hobbies include anything I can do with one of my (several) dogs. In another life I was Daryl Dixon, in this life I’m a horse trainer, turned dog trainer turned author (because college was expensive and I should probably make use of that paper).

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Q: How important are character names, to you, and how do you go about naming them? What about titles?
A: I go back and forth on this subject. I know most people talk about their process like it’s a sacred art, and how characters “speak” to them in their subconscious. I am not one of those writers. I don’t take myself, nor my characters and by extension work, that seriously. I get asked a lot what I write about, or why I write what I write. And the only answer I can give is “I don’t know, it’s just an idea so I write it.” That sounds a lot more zen then it actually is.

I wanted it clear though, that my writing process isn’t so much about truth in art, or any such thing. I am the guy who has an idea, so he sits down and writes it. There’s no mysticism involved. However, that being said, Names have power. It’s an idea prevalent in almost all religions to date. And certainly is carried through in our culture where names can be a form of social branding (re: celebrities.) But I believe Jim Butch[er] put it best when he wrote in The Dresden Files when he said that names have a certain power to them. When I first read that it stuck with me. I had always been particular about naming characters, but mostly because I felt that certain names carried with them certain ideas, certain preconceptions. And I wanted the right preconceptions to go along with each character. And then upon reading that idea through Butcher’s work, I became very aware that what I was considering a preconception, by another turn could be called power.

So the simple answer is that; yes, I take naming characters very seriously. And put a great deal of thought and effort into figuring out those names. In fact in my first novel, Holbrook Academy, if you pay close attention each characters name has a Literary connection. It doesn’t impact the story one way or another if you catch it, or don’t. It’s simply there for my benefit, and for those like me who obsess over subtext.

Q: In what locale is your most recent book set? How compelling was it to set a story there? Do you choose location the same way every time? How?
A: Holbrook Academy is set in 1925 England. At a prestigious boarding school that shares a name with the title of the book. The school is located in a renovated castle in the English countryside, just north of Wales. The bulk of the book takes place in and around the school. For me the most significant part of all of this is the time. I needed a built in class system that was endemic in its use and still controlled much of the world the characters would be living in. It made perfect sense for this to lead me to England. My mother was born in England, and the bulk of her family still resides there. It’s a country I have visited, and have maintained a long distance love affair with for years. And at this time in England’s history she was recovering from the first World War. This was a time when a lot of things were changing in England. The old and new worlds were colliding and as society changed, and the ideas of the monarchy and aristocracy were slowly ebbing away there was a weird period of in-between. The emphasis on blood and old versus new money were being erased. This makes it a socially interesting time to set a story about growing up and figuring out who you are. Because England was in essence doing the same thing. And while there is little mention of it in the book its self, to me the historical context of that day in age played a very important part in Paul’s, the main character’s, ideas and decisions.

Q: How much power do you give your characters in steering the story line?
A: This goes back to my whole approach to writing. I don’t see the characters are having their own powers/identities. To me, it isn’t about “oh this character was speaking to me”, in fact I find that kind of phrasing rather off putting from other writers. Because it’s not a sentiment I can relate to in anyway. I pride myself on having fully fleshed out and developed characters, who are as real to the readers as they are to one another, but they are just figments of my imagination. Like I said before, I do not believe what I do is mystical, or in anyway some sort of spiritual experience. I get an idea for a story I want to tell, and I tell it. Often during the writing process the ideas flesh out, change, take a different shape as I become more invested in what I am doing, but none of this has any sort of magical persona about it. I am a writer because it’s what I do, not because it’s some sort of spiritual calling.

Q: What is the most satisfying element for you in writing gay relationships, and why?
A: As a mostly gay man, I find writing gay relationships more or less something I can relate to. I was always told growing up when writing that the best works come from writing what you know. So naturally, writing gay romantic relationships would be what I know, on a personal level. On a more intellectual level, for me, the idea is to portray a relationship as real as any other. I don’t like the notion people and society have that some how gay relationships are different from heterosexual relationships. Either less or more significant. They aren’t. They are exactly the same. They are comprised of people. People who make mistakes, care too much or too little, say the wrong things, lie, tell too much of the truth and generally go about making one another whole and tearing one another apart at the same time. The genders behind any given relationship are irrelevant, it’s about people, not sex.

Q: Are readers involved in making your fiction—do they suggest stories or say what they’d like to read?
A: Readers? None at all. I don’t give my audience any control over what’s happening. It isn’t their story I am telling, it’s the one I came up with. I am sort of a control freak like that. However close friends have a huge impact on my work. I often look to them for feedback on pieces, just so I can see if what I want to come across, is actually making it through the text (when you’re as fixated on subtext as I am, this matters a whole lot.) And by turn I indulge these same friends to make suggestions to current projects, or for new ones. I feel it’s the least I can do after harassing them during the early stages for feedback. And in general for tolerating my weirdly needy and alternately distant behavior.

Q: Describe the ideal relationship between author and readers.
A: I have no idea. To be honest I’ve never given it much thought. I’ve always felt like “here, this is my story. Take it or leave it.” But as I am now attempting to make a more proactive use of my eduction, I feel like I can’t simply throw things out to the Universe and hope it sticks. And for me, personally, I strive to make the reader see the story from my perspective. I want them to see it, feel it, and experience it the same way I intended. This is probably due in no small part to being a control freak at my core (but I think at our cores, all writers are – after all we’re manipulating whole worlds and lives for our own amusement.) For me, I think the relationship I want with my readers is one of mutual respect and loyalty. I will continue to write things they want to read, and they will in turn continue to hopefully support that habit. But should I ever be lucky enough to warrant speaking at panels, or conventions (or meeting any readers through any other means, even at Starbucks) I would like it if my readers felt like they knew me, as a person. I’m not interested in being any one’s hero, it’s not a job I am in anyway qualified for. But I would really enjoy it if my readers approached me and talked to me like I was their friend. I was someone they’d want to have a beer with, and if they are buying all the better!

Q: What do you find useful about reviews?
A: For me reviews are kind of a double edged sword. A good review can elevate my sense of self esteem, and my confidence that I am making the right steps in my career. A good review can carry a lot of self-confidence boosting goodness in it. A bad review on the other hand I don’t think is useful. Constructive criticism from editors and friends goes a long way to helping me look at my work from a different perspective. But for me a negative review would be difficult to stomach. Mostly because I have one of two reactions to negative reviews: “You don’t know what the hell you’re talking about” or “Crap, I’m screwed.” Usually the latter eventually boils down to raw anger like the first, and I end up right back at “well you have no idea what you’re talking about.” So for me the negative reviews aren’t constructive, they just stir up a lot of negative emotions, and determination to force the person to eat their words. For some writers this might be a good thing, for me awakening any sense of malice tends to be counter productive, or end poorly for whomever I’m writing about. I avoid reviews of all sorts for that very reason. Fanmail on the other hand I absolutely love. But who doesn’t?

Q: I’m well known for demanding to know an author’s opinion about which of their characters is the sexiest, and I’m making no exception for this group. Who, how, and why?
A: I suppose that depends on your personality type. For me the two main characters in Holbrook Academy are so vastly different from one another, that they fall into two categories. While on the outside, physically I suppose Will is the more attractive. He’s better built, oozing with charm and confidence. Which naturally translates to a sort of magnetism. Will is bold and outgoing, which sometimes overshadows the introverted, quiet Paul. Paul is the consummate observer. He’s intelligent, with out having to boast about it, he’s talented and thoughtful. Physically he’s different from Will, with dark hair and bright blue eyes. Which aesthetically is a combination I find highly appealing. But Paul is shorter than Will, with less muscle tone and narrower shoulders. If I was told I had to date one of them, I’d likely date Paul. Will is too much like myself for us to get along for an extended period of time. We’d end up in a fist fight in short order.

Q: What are the fifty hottest words (approximate the word count) you’ve ever written, in your opinion. (Be sure to include citation).
A: I have no idea. That isn’t a cop out. That’s the truth. I don’t write sex scenes if I can at all avoid it I find them stressful. As a result even when I am told any given sex scene is incredibly hot etc by others, I find them trite and dismal and they often just conjure back up the feelings of stress I went through in writing it in the first place. So I will pass on this particular question, as I truthfully have no answer. For me the sex scenes I write aren’t sexy, they are nothing but stress.

Q: What are you doing now, what do plan to write next?
A: Currently I am attempting to finish a short story for the Talk Like a Pirate day promotional from Dreamspinner. (LS–this interview was completed some time ago by Mr. Ocean. Talk Like a Pirate Day was Sept. 20. If you’re interested in finding the story, contact the author, Dean Ocean.) I also have been working on a WWII epic off and on over the last year that is slowly working its way to completion. And most recently I began work on a Sci-Fi project that has gotten some promising interest though it’s just a chapter or so into the actual writing. I have ADHD, pretty severe ADHD actually. And I am un-medicated (I don’t take medication if I can at all avoid it, so far I am pretty high functioning in-spite of my brain chemistry’s best efforts). This means I tend towards having writing ADHD as well. I jump around working on multiple projects at a time to avoid getting burnt out on any one particular thing. The next thing I will actively have viewable for public consumption will be the short story “Modern Privateer.”

Excerpt from Holbrook Acadamy

Professor Wick began the period promptly at 10:00 a.m.

“Is everyone ready for some algebra today?” he asked. There was a collective groan from the students, followed by the sounds of books being set heavily on old wooden desks.

I sat in the back of class, as always. I sometimes found it hard to concentrate, and when you sat in the back of the class and kept your head down, there was less of a chance of being singled out and humiliated. Professor Wick was not prone to doing this as often as some teachers. The period slipped by slowly, I tried to take notes, but they eventually deviated into nothing but senseless doodles, so I gave up. Professor Wick wrote on the chalkboard hurriedly, and his handwriting, much like his speech, was garbled and made almost no sense. As he almost never turned around to look at the confused expressions on his students’ faces, he didn’t slow down or offer much explanation.

Thirty minutes into class, I had resigned myself to my fate. I had already managed to fill an entire sheet of paper with doodles, including a less than appropriate drawing of a menacing letter A eating the number three. It was at exactly 10:33 a.m. that the class was disrupted. The door to the lecture hall opened and then closed loudly, and in walked someone unlike anyone I’d ever known.

He was tall and lean; he walked casually, as if he wasn’t in any hurry to get where he was going. He had sand-colored hair that was longer than any other boy’s at Holbrook. He wore his tie lose, and the top collar button was undone on his shirt. I could see the tails of his shirt poking out from under the sweater we all wore as part of the uniform. He’d slung his blazer over one shoulder, and it swung behind him as he moved. He headed directly toward the professor, who still scribbled, unaware of anything going on, across the blackboard.

It wasn’t until the whole class had erupted into rumors and whispers that Professor Wick noticed anything was going on. He paused and then turned to stare. His awkward face was scrunched, and when he pushed his spectacles back up his nose it squished some of the longer hairs on his eyebrows. He scratched at his cheek with a chalk-covered finger and left a thin white line of residue behind. He took a folded slip of paper from the new boy’s hand and read it over carefully.

“Very well. Welcome to algebra, Mr. Coleridge. I believe there is a seat available in front of Mr. Blakely.” When Professor Wick pointed at me, I shrank further into my seat.

The new boy, Coleridge, nodded and headed back toward my seat with the same casual stride he’d used before. He clearly didn’t seem interested in hurrying so the lesson could continue. As he neared my desk, I noticed his skin was tan, as if he’d spent the entire summer on the beach. I also saw that his eyes were brown; they were a different shade of brown than any I’d known. They were almost like melting chocolate and caramel—strange warmth came from them. He must have caught me staring, because, just before he sat down, he smiled at me. His smile was different as well—lopsided, as if he only used one half of his mouth to do it, and the side that smiled had a dimple in the cheek.

My face felt hot as I turned my eyes back to my drawing page. I spent the rest of the class with my head down. When I dared to steal furtive glances at the new boy, he didn’t appear any more interested in the science of mathematics than I was. He was sitting back in his seat with one arm draped over the back and the other propped on the desk, with a pencil twirling in his long fingers. Once he glanced back at me and smiled. I stopped watching him after that.

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