The Cyclone Release
by Bruce Overby
(‎ Madville Publishing LLC, November 15, 2022)

Interview by Ellen Birkett Morris

Driven by the adage “write what you know” and drawing from his own experience living and working in what is now known as Silicon Valley, Bruce Overby offers an intimate look into the exciting world of tech and the personal lives of the people who drive that world. He shares his journey writing The Cyclone Release here:

AUTHORLINK: Tell me about your apprenticeship as a creative writer. Did you have a mentor who offered advice that has stayed with you that you can share with us?

OVERBY: In the MFA program at Queens University of Charlotte, I had truly remarkable instructors, but the one who shone through most brightly and eventually became perhaps the strongest influence on my writing life was Elizabeth Strout. She was my thesis advisor, and I can tell you that the summer of 2007, during which I was sending my stories to Liz and receiving her feedback, all through snail mail, was one of the greatest summers of my life. I graduated from Queens in 2008, the same year Liz’s book Olive Kitteridge won the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction.

The most indelible advice I got about fiction writing came, not surprisingly, from Liz. She began a workshop at Queens with about 10 minutes of essential writing instruction, and I often say I learned more in that 10 minutes than I have in all the writing seminars and workshops I’ve attended combined.

“The reader participates more fully in a literary story…”

Two things will stick in my mind forever: First is the concept of positioning the reader. Liz described this as taking the reader by the hand and gently leading them through the story, and all you have to do is read one of her books to see exactly what she means by that. Positioning the reader securely in the story gives them the confidence to do all the things you want them to do: explore the characters, experience the drama of the story, enjoy the story, and, of course, continue turning the pages. This is something, I think, that is very important in literary fiction, which typically doesn’t feature the tropes, twists, and turns of plot that genre fiction does, and therefore requires a deeper foundation to keep the reader engaged. The reader participates more fully in a literary story, I think, and therefore needs to know where they are at all times. The second thing Liz drove home is the concept of authority—the need to establish the competence, proficiency, and savvy that enables you to be the author of that particular story. This doesn’t need to be didactic—you don’t need to hit the reader over the head with it—but you need subtle cues that establish authority with the reader, and again, give them that confidence they need, that trust in the characters, places, and events you’re portraying in your story.

AUTHORLINK: James Dickey said the idea for Deliverance came to him as a vision of a man standing alone on top of a mountain. His job was to get the man off the mountain. Where did the idea for The Cyclone Release come from?

“…I felt the need to demystify Silicon Valley and make it real.”

OVERBY: The foundation of The Cyclone Release is autobiographical. Not only did I work in an incredibly successful startup company from 1999–2001, I was actually born and raised in Santa Clara Valley—the place people now call “Silicon Valley”—and I worked in every manner of a high-tech company, large and small, throughout my 35-year career. In developing the idea for the book over several years, the place came to me first, the characters second, and the plot last. Like most people, I feel some level of loyalty and fidelity to the place where I was born—and, in my case, the place where I’ve lived my entire life. Seeing this place caricatured, lampooned, and, in my opinion, misrepresented for years in the news and popular media, I felt the need to demystify Silicon Valley and make it real. It’s a unique place, to be sure, but it’s also universal—a place where everyday people toil away at jobs that are sometimes unforgiving—and it’s a place with its own distinct history and culture. That’s where the idea came from, and the deeper dimensions of love, loss, and belonging that are central to the story came along gradually during the course of the writing, as I fleshed out the characters and got to know them better.

AUTHORLINK: This is a story of transformation of place. Late 90s Silicon Valley is a very particular place with its own language and rules. What drove you to explore this place and its transformation from a peaceful area to a bustling tech mecca?

“…I found myself wondering what all that frenetic activity and distraction was doing to us.”

OVERBY: I was at the halfway point of my Silicon Valley career, and was therefore starting to reflect on the wide range of experiences I had had, both good and bad, in my professional life. So, there was just this flood of memory and reflection happening, and it all happened to coincide with my first serious foray into fiction writing. And this led me to start exploring the question of how all this mercurial change was impacting the human condition here in the valley. There was lots of frenetic activity, lots of innovation, and, of course, lots and lots of money, but those newly rediscovered long-term memories were painting a picture in my mind of something close to true happiness, and that picture didn’t look anything like the Silicon Valley that had sprung up around me. Even as I was enjoying a rewarding and lucrative career, I found myself wondering what all that frenetic activity and distraction was doing to us. Was it creating true happiness? Was it usurping or supplanting true happiness? Was it subsuming true happiness? And whatever answer you come up with, you have to also ask, what is the cost? What is the cost to our families, our identities, our communities, and our culture? There are no simple answers, of course, but the beauty of fiction writing is that you can explore questions like these by shining a light on them, and that’s what I’ve tried to do with The Cyclone Release, and with my short fiction as well.

AUTHORLINK: You nailed the corporate lingo and mindset. Talk about your research/prior experience. What surprising things did you discover during research?

OVERBY: First, I lived and worked in this milieu for 35 years, so I’ve seen several generations of the Silicon Valley corporate lingo come and go. My novel is a textbook example of the adage, “write what you know.” And what many people don’t know is that the lingo is actually a pretty constant topic of derision among a certain subset of Silicon Valley denizens, including technical writers, and that’s something I try to capture in the Lucent meeting scene on pages 31 and 32 of The Cyclone Release. Second, I tend to have a pretty keen ear for sound, accent, slang, and inflection, and during my Silicon Valley career, I reveled in the many opportunities I had to immerse myself in the vernacular of whatever sub-group I was thrust into, whether it be crusty old engineers, bubbly marketers, wide-eyed twentysomethings, or the jargon-spewing executives readers meet in that Lucent meeting scene. So that’s probably more than you wanted to know about the “lingo” part of your question.

As for research, again, the settings and characterizations were familiar territory for me, so my research was really limited to just making sure I got the details right, and in that, the surprises came in the form of real events that dovetailed so nicely into the lives of the characters I was creating. Two examples are the tragic crash over San Diego of Pacific Southwest Airlines Flight 182 in 1978, which became a childhood trauma for my fictional character Maureen Gramercy, and the 1998 murder in San Jose of Dinh Dong, the father of a former Vietnamese gangster, which served as a shocking cautionary event for my fictional characters Cuong and Phil Nguyen. I only discovered these real events, tragic as they were, as I was drafting the novel, and the way they just sort of dropped into the timeframe I had chosen for my story was a nice surprise, and really helped me drive tension and deeper emotion into the narrative.

AUTHORLINK: Without giving away the ending talk about the pressure that secrets exert on the protagonist Brendon and how this influenced the direction of the narrative.

“…my approach to writing is to create characters and let them lead me through the story…”

OVERBY: I love this question because The Cyclone Release is, indeed, a story of secrets. And it only occurred to me on seeing this question that early in the novel, there’s a bit of misdirection there as Brendon, during his job interview, blurts out on page 10, “Gerhard, my wife was killed,” thereby revealing something he had kept secret up to that point. The fact of Sadie’s death—Brendon’s wife is named Sadie—hovers over the story, and over Brendon through the entire span of the novel. She is there in spirit observing him, judging him, affecting both his mood and his actions. And, of course, that secret takes on additional weight as the story progresses. Without intending to do so—my approach to writing is to create characters and let them lead me through the story—I had imbued the story with dramatic irony, and in retrospect, I think I did that because that is something I really enjoy as a reader. Secrets concealed from the characters and revealed to the reader do a wonderful job of creating tension and engagement, but then the question is, how, as a writer, do you handle the revelation of those secrets. I will admit that there were some moments of anxiety as I faced that challenge, but in the end, the characters led me to what I feel is a very authentic conclusion. Perhaps not satisfying for some readers, but authentic to the characters, I think.

AUTHORLINK: What were the greatest challenges when writing The Cyclone Release and how did you overcome them?

“The greatest challenge is that I just tried to do too much with the story.”

OVERBY: The greatest challenge is that I just tried to do too much with the story. After working on it through the pre-dawn hours every day for about eight years, I had a large 160,000-word manuscript that I really loved. I pitched it to 20 or so agents, and I received a few kind notes in response, but for the most part, the agents either declined or just ghosted me. Then a couple of kind agents, Jennifer March Soloway of Andrea Brown Literary and Lucy Carson of the Friedrich Agency, clued me in to the fact that, unless you’ve written The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay, 160,000 words is way too long for a debut novel, and most agents would stop reading as soon as they saw that word count in your query letter.

AUTHORLINK: What advice would you offer to apprentice writers?

“… always be your own best champion.”

OVERBY: My first bit of advice is something that came to me while I was doing a podcast interview a few months ago, and it’s rudimentary, but I think it’s worth saying: Pay close attention to your sentences. Like I say, it’s pretty fundamental, but the more I think about it, the more I think it bears repeating. In all the units of language writers work with—letters and punctuation, words, phrases, clauses, sentences, paragraphs, sections, chapters, parts, and books—I think the sentence is the most elemental. All the impressive word choices, flowery phrases, and emphatic clauses in the world are useless if the sentences don’t both sing and say what you want them to say, and without good sentences, you’ll never build engaging and resonant sections, chapters, parts, or books. A lot of writers will think that’s all pretty stupid, like, “duh,” and maybe it is, but for me, the sentences are where all the fun is. I probably write, re-read, edit, re-read again, and rewrite each sentence four, five, maybe six times before I move on to the next one, and to the extent my writing is any good, I think this is perhaps the biggest reason why. The second advice I would give is to always be your own best champion. Writing can be a brutal slog, and no writer has ever achieved success without enduring a lot of rejection. And the vast majority of us don’t have adoring fans or literary agents or editors who will be with us through thick and thin. But we always have ourselves, so I advise writers to always act as their own compassionate and supportive cheerleaders no matter what comes their way.

AUTHORLINK: Discuss what you are working on now.

OVERBY: I’m working on a sequel to The Cyclone Release in which the secondary protagonist, Maureen “Mo” Gramercy, takes center stage. This sequel picks up the story almost immediately after the end of the first book, featuring both Mo and the main protagonist, Brendon, and some of the other familiar characters, but also reaching out into the lives of a few of the very minor characters.

Publisher ‏: ‎ Madville Publishing LLC (November 15, 2022)

Language ‏: ‎ English

Paperback ‏: ‎ 258 pages

ISBN-10 ‏: ‎ 1956440089

ISBN-13 ‏: ‎ 978-1956440089

Answers in this interview:

Write what you know.

Pay attention to your sentences.

Position the reader.

Develop strong characters.

Literary approach creates engagement.

Endure rejection of your manuscript.

Have confidence in yourself and your writing.