Monday, April 25, 2016

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Jeff Musillo, Author, Visual Artist, Actor, and Director

Jeff Murillo, Author
Reviewers describe Jeff Musillo as a “prolific and eclectic author, who has the ability to surprise his audience with something completely new every time.” His latest novel, THE ETERNAL ECHO, is about a boy raised strictly with technology who turns into a “murderous monster—” a story without humor, because, Musillo says, he couldn’t fit any in. He both likes and dislikes technology.

In addition to writing novels, Musillo is also a visual artist, actor, and director. His paintings have been exhibited at more than twenty shows in NY and presented in a number of publications. His various films have premiered at several film festivals. He takes advantage of the benefits of each art form to express what he’s feeling. He’s currently working on a new story about the return of Jesus who no one knows is Jesus, resulting in his being treated as if he’s a homeless person. Musillo lives in Broklyn with his wife and family.

Q: Your latest novel, THE ETERNAL ECHO, described by reviewers as “both chilling and eye opening”, tells the story of a boy raised strictly by technology with disturbing results. How did you conceive of such a plot? Do you dislike and/or distrust technology?

Jeff Musillo: I have moments where I both like and dislike technology. I suppose I sometimes distrust it too. I usually find myself liking it though. There are plenty of positives with technology. Technology can be used to help spread the word on small businesses and artistic projects. It can help connect people from all over. It can also help shed light on areas that are contending with terrible struggles and deserve more attention. But then there are moments when I’m walking down the street and I keep getting bumped into people who can’t stop playing candy crush or something. Those are the times when I hate technology.

But with this book, at first, I wanted to make a story that was a bit more lighthearted. It just didn’t stay on that course. The more the protagonist developed the more he took control and guided the story to where it was supposed to go, which is into darkness and horror. It just so happened that the darkness and horror were connected with the misuse of technology by a complete madman.

Q: A reviewer says THE ETERNAL ECHO is “perfect balance between fiction/story telling and realism.” How do you assure readers that your story is credible, or believable? Does it matter?

Jeff Musillo: Believability is important to me. It’s what gives the reader something to truly clutch. With writing, the most important thing to me is making the characters recognizable and convincing, which in turn makes the entire story authentic. I think that starts with the language. It might be occasionally difficult, but it’s always best for a writer to dump their ego when they’re working on a story and do what’s best/normal/exciting not for themselves but for the actual character(s). By doing so, a writer might be taking themselves into unfamiliar and sometimes startling places, but it will be a place of genuineness.
Q: “Both main characters in this story are deeply flawed, and in them I see a lot of myself, especially with my own up bringing.” What makes your characters relatable in THE ETERNAL ECHO?

Jeff Musillo: Making relatable characters is all about how a writer approaches his or her story. I once heard Bryan Cranston in an interview talk about Walter White and, when asked about dealing with the sometimes contemptible nature of that character, Cranston said something about how it’s not his job to judge Walter White, but that it is his job to bring the character to life and maintain his existence in a way that Walter White would actually exist. It’s the same thing with creating and writing literary characters. The writer shouldn’t judge. The writer should ask, What would this character do next and why would this character do such a thing? By doing so, characters become fuller and more human.

Q: When you write, are you intending to strictly entertain your readers or do you want to deliver a message or two? Similarly, is your visual art intended to say something?

Jeff Musillo: It’s a little of both. When I write and when I paint I am the first audience member for the particular project. So I start writing and painting things I’d like to visualize. And then the story or the painting takes itself where it wants to go and I just follow. But I do believe someone who works in an artistic way is usually trying to say something – sometimes they’re saying something silly, sometimes they’re saying something significant. And sometimes, when everything is clicking, delivering a message and entertaining a reader can go hand in hand.

Q: THE ETERNAL ECHO is your fourth published novel, and you are also a visual artist, actor, and director. Do you prefer any of these creative outlets more than the other? Or does each of them produce a different sense of satisfaction?

Jeff Musillo: I boil everything down to Storytelling. There are of course different ways to tell a story. Through literature. Through film. Through visual arts. But I still look at it all simply as storytelling.

I view the brain as a cabinet. Somedays I want work on the novel, so I open that cabinet drawer. Other days I want to paint, and on those days I open the necessary drawer. This way it’s pretty much all part of the same thing, but it’s still separated and situated neatly.

Q: Your other novels fall into different genres. How do you select what stories you’ll write?

Jeff Musillo: It’s all about mood. This too I try to keep as simple as possible. If I feel like working the poem then I make a point to do so. If that’s not happening, maybe the short story will. I just try to keep my mind open to whatever mood might pop up. This way it always keeps the actual act of writing fresh and amusing.

Q: How valuable is humor to telling your stories and/or creating your characters?

Jeff Musillo: It’s funny, if you asked me that before I wrote THE ETERNAL ECHO I’d say that humor, even in trace amounts, is always essential to a story. I still believe that, for most stories, finding something funny to work with is not only enjoyable but also provides a major advantage to the story as a whole. While I was writing my other novel – THE EASE OF ACCESS – I found it important and entertaining to locate humorous moments. However, there is absolutely no levity in THE ETERNAL ECHO. I just couldn’t find any opening for a laugh. I don’t believe the story called for it. I suppose each story calls for its own thing. If a story should be dark, make it dark. If it should be funny, make it funny. But never force anything because that push will be obvious to the reader.

Q: Adjectives such as “unique,” “different,” “surprise,” “new” are used to describe your written works. What makes you look at the world askew and off center?

Jeff Musillo: See that’s the weird thing. I honestly believe I look at things in a normal way. And in conversations with others, I often feel like I’m the boring person. But when it’s all said and done, ever since I was kid, I’ve known what really interests me and all I can do is pursue those interests. I’ve never really thought about whether those interests are unique or typical. I’ve always just pursued what felt right.

Q: What’s next?

Jeff Musillo: I’m currently writing a story about the return of Jesus, but in this story no one knows he’s actually Jesus, so he’s treated almost as if he’s homeless as opposed to supernatural. I’m not sure yet if it’ll be a novel or a novella, but I’ve been having a good time working on it.

Q: Tell us about Jeff Musillo. What do you like to do when you’re not writing, painting, acting, or directing? I mean, what do you like to do for fun (assuming you have time)?

Jeff Musillo: That’s honestly it for me. That’s who I am. When I’m not doing those things I’m working a day job so I can eventually do those things. If you add hanging out with my wife and my family members to writing, painting, acting, directing, then you’ll get the whole picture. That’s everything there is to know about me.

About Jeff Musillo

Jeff Musillo is a writer, visual artist, actor, and director. He is the author of THE EASE OF ACCESS (2013), CAN YOU SEE THAT SOUND (The Operating System, 2014), SNAPSHOT AMERICANA (Roundfire Books, 2014) and THE ETERNAL ECHO (Strawberry Books, 2016). His paintings have been exhibited in over twenty shows around New York, and have been showcased in magazines in both the U.S. and Europe, including The Menteur in France, Arrow Magazine, and Aesthetics Magazine. His paintings were also in the feature film, In Case of Emergency. His work in film, as a screenwriter, director, and actor, has premiered at The Hoboken International Film Festival, The Jersey Shore Film Festival, and The Katra Film Series. His screenplay, In The Ring, is currently in pre-production and will be directed by Aaron Latham, who wrote Urban Cowboy and The Program. And he was recently cast in the HULU pilot, Shelter. He currently resides in Brooklyn, New York.

THE ETERNAL ECHO is a terrifying story, equal parts literary and horror. Doctor David Ravensdale is a madman who conducts an experiment by adopting a baby and raising him from infancy to adulthood, strictly by use of technology. The Good Doctor believes he is attempting to discover the key to the human psyche, and conducting one of the most significant experiments known to man. In actuality, he’s raising a murderous monster. THE ETERNAL ECHO is a millennial mix of Frankenstein and American Psycho. You will never look at your computer the same way again.


Monday, April 11, 2016

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: K. E. Mullins, Author

K.E. Mullins, Author
K. E. Mullins brings us the second book in her Team Ice series, featuring DEA Agent Anita Johnson, IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS. Mullins writes her characters to engage readers by making them people they can “relate to.” In addition to creating an entertaining story, Mullins remarks that she does intend to deliver a message, “You never truly know those around you.”

Retired from the Navy, Mullins currently lives in Gainesville, FL, where she works as a Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (NJROTC) instructor. In addition to IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS, she has also published a book of poetry THINKING ALOUD: DIMENSIONS OF FREE-VERSE and the first Agent Anita Johnson novel, THE FRIENDS AND FAMILY CONNECTION: GET UNPLUGGED. When she’s not writing, she is passionate about running and has completed two marathons. Her current goal is a triathlon, and she is working on the swimming. She expects to publish the third book in her trilogy in late 2016.

Q: IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS is your second book in the Team Ice series. What inspired you to create your protagonist, DEA Agent Anita Johnson, and her partner and boss? Do you have experience with the DEA?

K. E. Mullins: Yes, Joyce this is the second in the series. I was inspired by my first job after retiring from the Navy. It was a property management firm, privately owned and it had a lot of interesting people in the company. So, after I left working there, I decided they would make a good story. Anita was inspired by a good friend of mine that worked there, but she wasn’t a DEA agent. Chloe is my alter ego and her boss, well let’s say he’s just a combination of good looking intelligent guys I’ve come across over the years.

Q: How do your characters engage your readers? What will make readers care about your characters?

K. E. Mullins: My characters engage the readers because they are people they can relate to in some way or another. Anita is a type A personality. She never rests and is always thinking of ways to catch Gabrielle and the crew. She can be better described as the girl who’s first in the office and last to leave.  Elle on the other hand is ruthless and is all about her.

Q: Does the concept of hero versus villain apply to your story? Is your DEA agent a hero? What makes a hero? What makes a villain?

K. E. Mullins: My story does have heroes and villains, but not in the sense Anita is the good guy and Elle and Gabrielle are the bad guys. Although, Anita is the detective or good girl. Ellen plays a part in here and she is bad, but she in essence is good by eliminating a person in Chloe’s life. I don’t want to give it away. You’ll have to read the book to see what I’m referring to. So, to answer your question a hero can save the day and be viewed as good or bad. It depends on how you interpret their actions.

Q: Did you write IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS strictly to entertain, or did you embed some key messages in it for your readers?

K. E. Mullins: It was written to engage the readers and send a message. We are always in the company of strangers. You never truly know those around you.

Q: Were you able to use the setting in Washington, D.C. to help tell your story? Would it have been a different story if set in a different city?

K. E. Mullins: D.C. helped because it is fast paced and a lot going on. So, it helped the reader see the movement. As opposed to Gainesville, Fl or a smaller city. It wouldn’t propel the story or show the action as much.

Q: How helpful is humor to tell your story or create your characters?

K. E. Mullins: Humor helps lighten the mood and take the reader away from stressful situations taking place.

Q: What makes your story credible? How important is plausibility to engaging readers? What will make a reader stop reading a detective story?

K. E. Mullins: My story is fiction, however, there are a lot of facts that do take place in the story. It’s a combination of stories or events that have taken place in some setting or place. I do extensive research on subjects that are not my expertise such as drug rings. Additionally, most places that are in the stories I’ve lived in, which helps in the plausibility of the story.

I believe a reader will stop reading a story if they’ve been to a place and they find the areas described in a story incorrect or the actions taken by characters unbelievable.

Q: You have written and published poetry as well as your novels. Do you prefer one over the other? Are you able express yourself in different ways with the two approaches?

K. E. Mullins: I have written a book of poetry also. I prefer writing novels, but poetry is easier. But…I have to be in the mood to write poetry. I can’t sit down and write poetry for hours like I can do a fiction novel. For poetry, I have to have an event or mood to inspire me. In writing fiction…I become the characters. So, it’s easier to get them on paper.

Q:  What’s next?

K. E. Mullins: The final book in the Ice series.  I plan to complete it this month. I’m still stuck at the computer with Chloe.

Q: Tell us about K. E. Mullins. What do you like to do when you’re not writing?

K. E. Mullins: K.E. Mullins is an avid runner. I love doing races, my favorites are half marathons. I’ve done 2 marathons (the Marine Corps marathons), but I have no desire to do another. My ultimate goal is a Triathlon now, but I’m still working on the swim. Other than running…I’m busy with my Navy ROTC kids at school. They keep me busy throughout the year.

About K. E. Mullins

K.E. Mullins is retired from the Navy and currently works as a Navy Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps (NJROTC) Instructor in Gainesville, FL. She graduated from National University with an MBA in Finance and University of Central Florida with a Major in Marketing. Ms. Mullins is a Jacksonville, Florida native and has enjoyed reading and writing since her early childhood. She began her writing career while in the Navy by venturing into poetry.

 Her first poetry piece, “My One Last Cent,” was published in a literary journal, “Amistad,” in 2007 at Howard University. Currently, Ms. Mullins has published a book of poetry, THINKING ALOUD: DIMENSIONS OF FREE-VERSE; and two novels, THE FRIENDSAND FAMILY CONNECTION: GET UNPLUGGED and IN THE COMPANY OF STRANGERS (TEAM ICE Book 2) available on Amazon in paperback or Kindle.  She is currently finishing the last book in her fiction trilogy and expects the third novel, “Another Name for Revenge,” to be released by late 2016. Ms. Mullins was a winner of the NanoWrimo 2015 completing just over 50,000 words in 30 days. In addition to writing poetry, she has done spoken word venues in Urban Grind, Atlanta, GA, Busboys and Poets in Washington, D.C., and the Thomas Center, Gainesville, FL.

Detective Anita Johnson, the DEA agent from THE FRIENDS AND FAMILY CONNECTION: GET UNPLUGGED, is back—along with her partner Chloe and boss, Tseudo. Anita is close to capturing the suspects in question, Gabrielle, the alleged mastermind of the criminal operation, along with her team of ruthless prospects. They will have you in for the ride of your life as they weave in and out of scenarios avoiding the DEA, the local police and the FBI.





Twitter:  @jazypoet

Monday, April 4, 2016

WHAT THE EXPERTS SAY: Sarah K. Stephens, Author

Sarah K. Stephens, Author
"Boys" in Five on the Fifth
Updated December 16, 2016:  Sarah K. Stephens has just released her first novel, a literary psychological thriller, A FLASH OF RED. In the following interview published here in April, she describes both her short story, BOYS, IN FIVE ON THE FIFTH published in Literary Magazine as well as A FLASH OF RED, which concerns the effect on intimate relationships of the inability to separate what we want versus the reality of our lives.
She is currently working on her second novel, Dear Heart, set in the suburbs of northern Pennsylvania and Riga, Latvia in Eastern Europe. She also has several short stories underway, and values both novel and short story media.

When she’s not writing, Stephens enjoys spending time with her husband, playing cards with her children, traveling and baking cakes. She also is “addicted” to podcasts.

Q: What caused you to write your short story, Boys, recently published in Five on the Fifth Literary Magazine?

Sarah K. Stephens: The beginning idea for this story came in response to students sharing their experiences of sexual victimization. As I was encountering more and more cases in my professional life as a university lecturer of young people describing their inability to complete coursework or function on campus as they coped with the effects of a rape or sexual assault, universities around the US were coming under scrutiny for their failures to adequately address these issues as part of remedying an unbalanced and, too often, unsafe campus culture. Boys was written in direct reaction to what I saw on my own university campus, along with those across the country. 

Many universities, including my own, have instituted an emergency alert system where all subscribers receive messages of emergencies on campus.  I signed up assuming it would be used in the case of campus threats, but from 2012 on it primarily became a medium for the university to notify subscribers that a sexual assault had occurred on campus. Rather than being a mechanism for addressing sexual violence on campus, it appeared to function solely as a reporting tool. As the messages piled up in my inbox, I started to worry, first, about the victims and what was being done to prevent sexual assault and to help survivors, but also about the potential for these messages to desensitize subscribers to the issue of sexual violence.  It felt like a superficial attempt to address a very serious issue of safety for students.

My story is a commentary on this reporting system and its potential for harming the cause of ending rape on campus. It examines three young men who proceed to kidnap a woman walking home from the university. They believe this woman witnessed them committing a minor traffic crime, and the plot proceeds from there, the alert system playing a major role throughout the story.

Q:  What can you tell us about A FLASH OF RED?  In what genre is it?

Sarah K. Stephens:  A FLASH OF RED is a literary psychological thriller.  It examines how our intimate relationships are affected when we lose the ability to discriminate the reality of our circumstances from what we desire our lives to be.  A Flash of Red revolves around three main characters: Anna and Sean, who are young married professionals, and Bard, who is a university student in one of Anna’s courses. Each of them struggles with their own personal disconnections from reality—Anna’s and Bard’s stem potentially from mental health issues, whereas Sean’s is a coping tool to deal with his crumbling marriage to Anna.  Throughout the book, these characters become further intertwined until all three must face the truth of what their lives have become, and the part they each played in destroying what they once had.

Q: Do you prefer writing short stories or novels? Do you see an advantage to both?

Sarah K. Stephens: I enjoy writing both.  Often, after working on a novel manuscript for a while my mind needs a break from the extended threads of characters and plot that are necessary for writing an engaging novel. I have a notebook where I write down ideas that come to me, and many of these are small observations about human connection or the complexities of navigating our social world.  These ideas might not lend themselves well to a full novel, but are approachable in the shorter format of a story. Short stories offer a way for me to express an idea without the commitment necessary for a novel. It’s a joy to be able to switch between both modes, depending on what is inspiring me that particular day.     

Q: How relevant is your career as a development psychologist to your stories?  Is fiction a helpful method to explain psychological issues or problems that you see?

Sarah K. Stephens: I feel as though my training in psychology plays a foundational role in all of my writing.  Not necessarily in regards to mental health, although that is certainly a strong current in A FLASH OF RED, but also just in the powers of observing human behavior.  I am a behaviorist by training, which means that my skills are focused on examining reinforcement and punishment experiences and how those shape our interactions with each other and our environments. Being able to step back and see how our relational history can shape our future behaviors certainly helps me in creating whole and rich characters, along with a driving plot. Humans are the products of our developmental pasts, and I enjoy using my writing to examine how what happened yesterday, or a year ago, or in our childhood even, shapes our future choices, both as individuals and as relationship partners.  

Q: Do you use humor either in your short story or novel to help develop your characters or tell your story?  How helpful is it?

Sarah K. Stephens: As a writer, I think the humor I use is subtle and rather dry. There is definitely a sardonic atmosphere to Anna’s character, who has strong opinions about her own achievements and how they compare to those of her colleagues, her husband, and her friends.  Within my short stories, so far at least, the humor I offer is more often one that shares an alternate side with sadness.  Some of my characters seem to use humor as a way to distance themselves from the discomfort they’ve created in their own lives—it becomes a protective technique, rather than one of celebration. 

Q: Why will readers engage with your characters? Does the concept of heroes vs villains apply to your stories? Does a villain have to be a person or can mental illness itself be classified as a villain?

Sarah K. Stephens: Throughout A FLASH OF RED, all three characters fluctuate between ethical and unethical behavior in their interactions with each other and with others.  I think Anna, Sean, and Bard all represent the complexity of human nature—how we can be empathetic one moment and then flip into an entirely selfish repertoire the next.  Anna in particular prides herself on her ability to care for and be considerate of others, but often this compassion is fueled by self-interest.  I feel this pressure to reconcile our self-focus with our love for others is a conflict most human beings struggle with. Within my field of developmental psychology, there is a long-running debate about whether humans can ever engage in a truly altruistic act—that our actions are always seated in some form of self-preservation. In that sense, we all function as heroes and villains at different points in our daily lives. 

As for mental illness, I wouldn’t classify it as a villain any more than I would classify a more traditional physiological ailment as villainous.  Mental disorders are a fact of our neurology and are often grounded in our genetics and/or the physical functioning of our brains. I suppose I am most interested, not in the villainous tendencies of ill individuals, but rather in how our state of mental health (or lack thereof) can shade our interpretations of our daily lives, and ultimately contribute to poor and sometimes dangerous judgments in our actions.       

Q:  You have described A FLASH OF RED as a literary thriller. How do you create the suspense to deliver a thriller? 

Sarah K. Stephens: I think one of the main facets of a compelling thriller is to give the reader enough information to make predictions about what is going to happen in your story, but not enough that they can solve the puzzle too early on.  I’m a huge fan of P.D. James and, although she wrote mysteries and not thrillers, her ability to pepper her decadent prose with hints for the reader made her novels feel like a treasure hunt.  Every time I began one of her mysteries, I told myself I would figure out the ending before she revealed it.  And I never did!

The other important rule to keep in mind is to never underestimate your reader by using clich├ęs and common tropes in your writing.  Thriller audiences are going to feel belittled if you don’t present a fresh and unique plotline—so much of writing a thriller is knowing how you are going to captivate the readers with something unexpected and, although dark, also delightful in its unpredictability.  

Q:  What makes your stories plausible and credible? Did you need to do any research?

Sarah K. Stephens: Being a development psychologist, I feel many parts of this story emerged out of my professional training.  I have long been fascinated with the human mind and the complexity of our social relationships—which is undoubtedly why I chose a career devoted to these topics—and so it isn’t surprising that my creative writing often examines how our connections to each other can go wrong.

For A FLASH OF RED I reviewed scientific publications related to the symptomatology, prognosis, and treatment of schizophrenia.  It’s a complex and multifaceted disorder, with a great deal of variety in its expression from one individual to another, and I wanted to make sure my representation in the novel was as accurate as possible. Reading Elyn Saks’s memoir, The Center Cannot Hold, provided a window into the personal experience of schizophrenia and the system of treatment many patients encounter.

My interest in de Clerambault’s syndrome began, not from my training, but upon reading Ian McEwan’s novel, Enduring Love. From there, I read the scientific literature that is available on this somewhat obscure disorder in order to incorporate facets of it into my own writing. It’s a great fit, given my interests--the syndrome is truly an archetype for love gone terribly wrong.

My research for my short story, Boys, revolved more around understanding the system of reporting Sexual Assault established at my campus and at universities across the country, along with organizing my knowledge of the Title IX investigation of over 50 universities and resulting responses to these investigations.

Q:  Do you plan to continue writing? If so, what are you considering next?

Sarah K. Stephens: Definitely.  I have several short stories in the works or in a state of seeking publication, along with a finished draft of my next novel, Dear Heart.  This novel alternates between the suburbs of northern Pennsylvania and Riga, Latvia, in Eastern Europe.  It focuses on a Russian Orthodox family who is seeking to adopt an older child, and the family secrets that are revealed during that process.   

Q: Tell us about Sarah K. Stephens. What do you like to do when you’re not writing or teaching?

Sarah K. Stephens: I enjoy good food, healthy exercise, and travel.  An ideal day-off for me would involve a nice long run in the morning, baking a cake in the afternoon, and playing cards with my children and husband in the evening.  I’m addicted to podcasts (Serial, This American Life, and TED Radio Hour being some of my favorites) and can often be found with a good book and a glass of wine curled up by the fireplace.  

About Sarah K. Stephens

Sarah K. Stephens earned her Doctorate in Developmental Psychology in 2007 and teaches a variety of courses in human development as a university lecturer. Although Fall and Spring find her in the classroom, she remains a writer year-round. Her debut novel, A Flash of Red, will be released in Winter 2016 by Pandamoon Publishing.  Stephens’s short story, Boys, was recently published in the March 2016 issue of the literary journal, Five on the Fifth 


What happens when you can’t tell the difference between desire, obsession, and reality? Thanks to her husband, Anna is about to find out.

Psychology professor Anna Kline and her architect husband, Sean, are a young couple in a fractured marriage, each struggling with their own misperceptions of reality. Sean seeks solace from his perfect wife in the cold intimacy of love and sex offered online, while Anna copes by offering her own oppressive version of devotion. Becoming an ever more tangible presence in their weakening marriage is the question of Anna’s mental state and whether she will follow the same path as her now institutionalized mother.

When Bard, a student of Anna’s with a family history of schizophrenia, discovers Sean’s addiction, Bard’s admiration for Anna morphs into a delusion of special intimacy. Guilt-ridden with his own past failure to protect his older sister, Bard’s skewed mind begins to see Anna as another woman in need of rescue.

As Sean and Anna’s marriage becomes a battleground of manipulation, Bard privately crafts a strategy to save Anna from her husband, sending their three worlds spinning out of control with irrevocable and deadly consequences. A Flash of Red's driving plot and multi-faceted characters detail the destruction that ensues when mental illness attacks our most intimate relationships.

Purchase Links A FLASH OF RED
Barnes and Noble

Author Links
Facebook Page Sarah K. Stephens
Short Story  Boys featured in Five on the Fifth literary magazine March 2016 Issue
Publisher’s Announcement of A Flash of Red