Today, Feathered Quill reviewer Amy Lignor is talking with Steve Zell, author of Running Cold.
FQ: How did Running Cold come about? I know you love Jerome, AZ (which I am a huge fan of, by the way), did that play into the landscaping of the novel?
ZELL: The idea of something as fun as creation going terribly wrong is always on my mind. With a quiet, German engineer dad, and a gregarious Italian mom, I identify with Michael’s (main character in Running Cold) “half-halfs.” I was the first interdisciplinary studies graduate from the University of Arizona where Chemistry and Fine Arts were more or less my majors. I love creating, and I really love using technology to do it! But creation is always an experiment, and experiments don’t always yield predictable results...
As far as Jerome goes – I have a story that might explain the direction I’ve taken in writing. When I was a kid, a lot of Jerome was still abandoned – you could walk right into the old buildings and explore. I was combing for souvenirs inside a crumbling, old hotel where the only light came from broken out windows and holes in the walls. In one of the furthest rooms in, someone had scrawled a message on the far wall, “Stop me before I kill again.” Scared the hell out of me.
Jerome & Tombstone, AZ, and Bodie, CA, all figure more into my first novel, WiZrD – where the town of Pinon Rim literally cycles through periods of euphoric boom and deadly bust – but La Vista in Running Cold is also a place that “use to be” something other than what it seems to be when Michael and Brit arrive.
FQ: It would be interesting for readers to hear about “A Day in the Writing Life of Steve Zell.” What is that like? Music in the background? Prefer to write outside or inside? Is writing time set aside each and every day, or do you just sit down and begin?
ZELL: The day always begins with coffee – loads of it! My favorite place and time to write is in a coffee house before the sun comes up. I like to write while I’m still partly in a dream state, which keeps the images flowing and I don’t tend to edit my thoughts, and I like the chatter in the background. I wrote quite a bit of Running Cold in a great little coffee house called Sponda in Hermosa Beach, CA, which, sadly is gone now (the coffee house, not the town – I guess I need to be clear on that...). A lot of Sandy’s dialogue actually came from the surfers who were regulars there – and one in particular, whom I picture when I see Sandy. If I write in my office at home, I tend to have Steely Dan playing. I tend to jump back and forth between drawing, music, and writing.
One other odd bit about writing in coffee shops. I love to build computers out of odd things like briefcases and paint boxes, and use those to write with. I’ll try to include a picture or two. The only bad thing is they don’t run on batteries so I need to be near an outlet to use them.
FQ: What is the best ghost town you’ve ever explored, and why? Will it (or has it) appeared in one of your books? Is there one ghostly location you are dying to explore, like your own “Overlook Hotel” that King made so famous?
ZELL: Tombstone is great (go there in October for Helldorado Days – they recreate the shootout at the OK Corral) – I was the cartoonist for The Tombstone Epitaph while at UA. Tombstone was famously, “too tough to die” so it probably never was technically a ghost town, although a lot of people were killed there for really dumb reasons (including mishandling a package at the post office). I’d say my favorite so far is Bodie, CA. I haven’t been there in a while, but the townspeople left in a hurry - there are still books sitting on the desks in the schoolhouse – it really IS a ghost town.
Part of the actual Overlook from Kubrick’s The Shining is Timberline Lodge here in Oregon – and I’ve yet to go through it. I understand it’s been remodeled which is sad. What I’d most like to do at this point as far as haunted experiences go is spend some time in Gettysburg at night. The ghosts of the Civil War must have a lot to say.
FQ: Your resume is long and varied. Can you tell readers about being the “Voice of Doom” for Baywatch? Can you also share a bit about the Intel Audio Alliance and the work they do?
ZELL: Yeah, if a lifeguard died or had a bad day for whatever reason, you’d hear me singing the sad rock ballad in the middle of the show while they ran a montage of his/her Baywatch life. In one of the more “famous” situations, Mitch (David Hasselhoff) fell in love and proposed to a character who contracted and died of cancer within two episodes. I’m singing over a montage that includes Mitch kidnapping her from the hospital and carrying her to the Santa Monica cliffs for one last sunset. I’ll include the YouTube bitly link for that one YouTube). The set on Will Rogers Beach was fun, and the people (and food) were great! These were the Pamela Anderson, Yasmine Bleeth, Nicole Eggert (whom I’d first met when she was a kid while warming up the audience on the Charles In Charge set days), and it was pretty lively. Robin and Judithe Randall were the songwriting team and they did really nice work there and in general. I sang their original demo for a song called, “Tomorrow Doesn’t Matter Tonight” which was the third single on “Knee Deep in the Hoopla,” the Starship album featuring, “We Built this City,” and “Sara.” That song sadly “stiffed” (quit rising up the charts) when the payola scandal hit the industry.
The Intel Audio Alliance was a great group of folks. I was hired at Intel for my experience with 3D animation and I began our Dreamworks partnership. What I found was that although video was being taken seriously, audio was being ignored on the “serious” workstation side despite being recognized as important on the consumer PC side. I had to argue that animators didn’t animate in silence – we almost ALWAYS animate to audio cues. I found a couple like-minded folks in different divisions, cobbled together a budget, and worked with my friends at Cakewalk, who created music software that ran exclusively on Windows-Intel based machines at the time, and put together the Intel Audio Alliance with their help and the help of Rory Kaplan – an amazing keyboardist who worked with Michael Jackson among others. We essentially went everywhere from Skywalker Ranch to Zoe Thrall’s Las Vegas, Studio at the Palms, with folks like Billy Bob Thornton (who roadied for Blood, Sweat, and Tears as a kid and is actually an accomplished songwriter and drummer), Graham Nash, and some amazing engineers and producers – convincing folks you didn’t HAVE to use Apple machines to make music! Eventually even Apple converted over to Intel based processors (I’m not saying we did that – but we played a part). And...the Intel Audio Alliance was responsible for one of the greatest nights in my life – after an incredible music video party/demo at Zoe Thrall’s studio, I spent an amazing night at the V-Bar with Billy Bob, Graham Nash, Billy Gibbons, Rory Kaplan, Lisa Roy...and a bottle of Grey Goose.
FQ: You write music, blog, run your own publishing company...where do you get the time? If you had to choose, is there one artistic path you like more than the others? Or is it nice to get a break from one to do the other?
ZELL: The truth is, I never have enough time, and likely won’t. When I was also working full time I literally felt as though my instruments and workstations were under twelve feet of water – and I could only use them as long as I could hold my breath. That feeling hasn’t completely left me.
I really do love doing anything I can creatively – and yes, I jump back and forth. It helps keep things fresh for me. It’s also the great thing about technology – you can easily hop from one activity to the other without a lot of extra setup (although I’ve built separate workstations for each thing I do, have named them, and I treat them more or less as pets). I really have fun “painting” the covers for my books – but I haven’t actually used physical paint or a pencil to draw in a couple decades. Not sure what the policy is on links here, but I’ll include one more to a song called Hero I wrote right after narrating, Running Cold ( http://bit.ly/ZHero). Narrating is fun too – I love acting and I do community theater whenever I can here at the Hillsboro Artists Regional Theater (HART) – but producing audio is a major chore! That song is a good indication of my state of mind while editing audio (combined with all the craziness in the country right now). Getting better at audio production…but it really is more necessity than fun at this point.
FQ: Along those same lines, when it comes to music, you offer up a lot of ‘odes’ to the Beach Boys in your books; is this your favorite band? What about their music speaks to you?
ZELL: I love their harmonies, and the painfully innocent and heartfelt lyrics. Songs like Warmth of the Sun, In My Room, and God Only Knows, in particular, still break my heart. My favorite band, hands down, is Steely Dan. I find something new in their songs every time I listen – so glad I got to see them live once! Very sad that Walter Becker is gone, and happy that Donald Fagen continues to create! More often than not, they’re playing in the background while I write. One of the coffee houses I wrote at quite a bit would even switch to Steely Dan while I was there.
FQ: A cartoonist is also a part of your background. Where and when did you become interested in animation? Are you still involved in that area?
ZELL: I’ve actually been interested in animating ever since I first saw Felix the Cat on a black and white TV as a kid. I’ve always drawn and sung. Writing came later. I used to try to copy John Romita’s style of Spiderman, and drew my own comics as a kid. I became interested in computers through what began as a temp job that became permanent at Digital Equipment Corporation, and when computers hit the animation world it was as if the heavens had opened for me! I got my first animation job (actually as a digital animation tools instructor for traditional cell and stop-motion animators), literally because one of the heroes of the industry, Ray Feeney, found me passed-out (I had pneumonia) at one of his workstations. He knew I was sick, but gambled that I was dedicated and not insane – and offered to teach me for free if I would then teach other artists.
I own a seat of Maya (an Alias, now Autodesk, 3D modeling and animation software package), and still work with it from time to time – but I’m very rusty. The griffon silhouette on the cover of Running Cold is a 3D model I built in Maya and then rendered flat.
As a side note, the eyes on the cover actually belong to my daughter...it still creeps her out whenever she looks at it…
FQ: What is next for Steve Zell? Can you tell us what projects are on the horizon for 2018?
ZELL: I’ve got three novels that I’m working on right now in degrees, with one that has most of my attention. Without giving too much away, it does have parallels to Running Cold. I’ve already begun working on the cover. On the music side, I’ve been producing (if you can call it that...my keyboard skills are limited at best) an album – hope to have that out in early spring with the next novel to hit in December 2018 or early in 2019. I’m also resting up to narrate WiZrD – lots of characters...aaiiieeeEEEE!
FQ: Last, but not least, readers like to know...If you could sit down with one writer or musician for a chat, who would it be and what is the one question you would love to ask?
ZELL: Man – there are quite a few. I’d love to sit down with Flannery O’Connor before she became gravely ill, and just let her talk. She had to be a hoot!