Interview with Eliot Baker, author of THE LAST ANCIENT

Eliot Baker lives in Finland. He teaches communications at a local college and runs an editing and translating business, but would be content singing for his heavy metal band and writing novels full-time. He grew up near Seattle, got his B.A. in World Literature at PitzerCollege, and got his M.S. in Science Journalism from BostonUniversity. He was an award-winning journalist at the Nantucket Inquirer and Mirror, and before that he wrote for the Harvard Health Letters. He spent four years pursuing a career in the sciences while at the HarvardExtensionSchool, during which time he spun old people in NASA-designed rocket chairs and kept younger people awake for 86 hours at a time in a sleep deprivation study. He likes good books, all music, and bad movies, and believes music and literature snobs just need a hug.

His latest book is the supernatural thriller/historical mystery, The Last Ancient.

Visit his blog at

Can you tell us what your book is about?

Absolutely. Around Nantucket Island, brutal crime scenes are peppered with ancient coins, found by the one man who can unlock their meaning. But what do the coins have to do with the crimes? Or the sudden disease epidemic? Even the
creature? And who--or what--left them?

The answer leads reporter Simon Stephenson on a journey through ancient mythology, numismatics, and the occult. Not to mention his own past, which turns out to be even darker than he'd realized; his murdered father was a feared arms dealer, after all. Along the way, Simon battles panic attacks and a host of nasty characters -- some natural, others less so -- while his heiress fiancee goes bridezilla, and a gorgeous rival TV reporter conceals her own intentions.

Why did you write your book?

It was time to put my keyboard where my mouth was. After failing to publish a different novel a decade earlier, I’d reached that magical triple point of creative inspiration, financial stability, and an irresistible wedge of time. It all came together after moving with my family to Finland.  One day between classes (I’m a teacher, amongst other things), I opened up my laptop and stared out at the encroaching Finnish winter and thought back to my time on Nantucket as a reporter, some of the best years and experiences of my life. I thought about one of my first field assignments, shadowing a deer hunter at dawn, and how the island sun rose all red and raw to a chorus of gunfire. I got nostalgic. I typed, “Gunshots bark across Nantucket.” It was like an incantation. A portal opened to another world.

Can you tell us a little about your main and supporting characters?

Growing up the son of a dangerous arms dealer (amongst other enterprises), the protagonist, Simon, developed a host of anxiety issues, including intense panic attacks, while being defended by his best friend and body guard, George the Greek. Simon has deeply conflicted feelings about his father, of whom Simon wrote a prize-winning expose before his father was assassinated. Judy, Simon’s Manhattan debutante fiancee, is a fellow Ivy League overachiever and elite tennis player. Cecilia Rodriguez is much more than just a sexy celebrity TV reporter covering Simon’s story—she’s a brainy girl of humble origins who finds herself hopelessly entwined in Simon’s story. But none of these characters are what they seem. And then there’s the creature, which is perhaps in its own right the most dominant character.

Do you tend to base your characters on real people or are they totally from your imagination?

Ultimately from imagination, but my characters are like mosaics, or DJ samplings, of different people: celebrities, historical figures, friends and acquaintances. I mix wide-ranging traits into a single character, but the combinations of personality ingredients often surprise me. For instance, I took pieces of the best people I know and carved them into some arch villains to make them more interesting and sympathetic. It’s like real life filtering into a dream. It’s unavoidable, not a conscious decision. But of course other people will think your character signifies something or someone else you hadn’t even considered. If I do find that a character is too obviously like a real person, I flip some combination of the character’s gender, race, sexual preference and age.

Are you consciously aware of the plot before you begin a novel or do you discover it as you write?

Ah, the Great Question! Yes, I’m highly aware of the plot once I put pen to paper. I have to be, to stay on course. I believe plot is the soul and backbone of a story. I always map out a beginning, some of the middle, and definitely an end– and then let the book take on a life of its own. The rules and logic of the world achieve their own sentience. I admire people with an engineer’s approach to constructing a novel—hard chapter-by-chapter outlines, never deviated from, with exactly five good pages written a day, and so on-- but I can’t do that. Not completely. Just sucks out all the joy of discovery for me. So I write down a strong outline and then open up my mind to whatever the little voices tell me. I find that after tons of thinking about a world, and kilotons of research and preparation, the keyboard becomes like a Ouija board for channeling the world onto the page.

Your book is set in Nantucket.  Can you tell us why you chose this city in particular?

I fell in love with the Grey Lady (Nantucket, not the New York Times) after I spent two years as a reporter on the island. There’s nothing like it—the natural beauty, the swanky high society, the history, the isolation, the collision of classes. It’s a place of extremes, and once you’re there you can feel stuck there, which is just delicious when you throw in a few assassins and a killer mythical beast. While I wasn’t sure what my first (published) novel would be, I knew where it would be set. 

Does the setting play a major part in the development of your story?

Oh, absolutely, as much as a setting can. Nantucket is a main character of The Last Ancient. Being stuck on a small island thirty miles out to sea with a murderer and a creature begs the tagline: “On Nantucket, no one can hear you scream.” Also, the history-heavy coded message within the ancient coins Simon keeps picking up at crime scenes has a nifty pay-off concerning Nantucket as a location.

Open the book to page 69.  What is happening?

Simon, fresh off of having just witnessed a grisly murder scene, tries to grab a cheeseburger but is pestered by the town Sherriff, who insinuates he knows something about Simon that makes him not only in danger, but a danger to the island. Simon responds by threatening to publish a story about a shady land deal the Sherriff has been involved in—which serves as the tip of the iceberg for the great conspiracy unfolding on Nantucket before  Simon’s eyes.

Is it hard to get a genre-mashing supernatural thriller/historical mystery/horror/fantasy book published?

Yes and no. Agents I’ve met turn a peculiar shade when they tell them your  book’s genre contains slashes. Which I get. It’s much easier to find an audience for a distinct genre. But I happen to most enjoy books that throw genres into a blender and make them cold and frothy with a good dose of strong writing. The Last Ancient had to blend genres. It’s an intricate mystery that I spent oodles of effort to seem plausible, and then even more effort to make the writing not suck. And it has alchemists. And journalists. And scientists. And arms dealers. And a mythological creature. Oh, my. When you go outside the genre box and make a stack of boxes, it’s always harder to get published.

Is it hard to promote a genre-mashing supernatural thriller/historical mystery/horror/fantasy book and where do you start?

Regardless of genre, promoting represents a mountain range of difficulties for a debut indie novelist to traverse. Just getting someone to read and review my novel for free was a technical climb on slick rock I’d not anticipated. I had to attend conferences and do crazy research to find out about things like book blasts, blog tours, a social media platform, micro-publishing, etc.. I’ve found you need to figure out what makes your book stand out and promote that uniqueness to whoever is your most likely audience (once you identify it, which is tricky with genre-mashing). Conventional wisdom has it that many genres are mutually exclusive in their audiences, such as fantasy and thriller. I totally disagree. American Gods, The Passage, Stephen King – the counter-examples are endless but yes, it is hard to figure out to whom I should promote when it’s not a straight romance or horror novel.

Have you suffered from writer’s block and what do you do to get back on track?

I’ve never had it. I know people who have. It’s really terrifying. I’ve of course had long bouts of lethargy and poor production, but true writer’s block is a real mental issue that requires therapy; two people close to me would sit down and go increasingly insane as they found they couldn’t write a single word without going back over what they’d already written and tweaking that. Four weeks and no new sentences later, they were ready for therapy. I haven’t had that. I’m actually overwhelmed with the opposite problem; I have a menu of twelve novels I’ve outlined, and it’s hard to focus on just one. Or perhaps that qualifies as writer’s block?

What would you do with an extra hour today if you could do anything you wanted?

I would extend my run in the endless Finnish sunshine by an hour! And while I was running, I’d memorize some lyrics to whatever hard rock/metal song my band is trying to cover.

Which holiday is your favorite and why?

I love the summer solstice here in Finland. It’s 24 hours of sunshine, a giant bonfire, lots of sausage, fishing, beer, and guitar playing with friends and family. Racing naked from the sauna to the lake and back again…True pagan goodness.

If we were to meet for lunch to talk books, where would we go?

I think we’d go for a long hike in my native Northwest. No better way to discuss ideas than sweating along a beautiful mountain path. In Finland, we’d do it winter-style, cross country skiing or ice skating, followed by a session in a legendary Finnish sauna. And then we’d go the local bar, Kirjakauppa, which means, of course, Book Store.

What do you like to do for fun?

I’m into singing for my heavy metal band, Sniffing Hyena. It’s sooooo good for the soul to shout into the oppressive darkness of Finnish winter. Outside of music, I am fairly outdoorsy (fair and cold weather), I exercise, I read, and I will watch any movie with anyone as long as I get to hold the popcorn.

Can you tell us about your family?

They are awesome. My kids, four and six, boy and girl, are bi-lingual, which never ceases to amaze me, as a suburban Seattle kid who still struggles with Finnish. My wife is extremely supportive, she’s the brains and organization behind the operation. My mother, Sharon Baker was a sci-fi novelist when she was living. My father is a physician, still working at eighty-three years young. And I have three older brothers who stopped beating up on me a long time ago when I got bigger than them.

What do you like the most about being an author?

Knowing what I am, at a cellular level. Whether you figure it out in grade school or upon retirement, one either is or is not an author, I think. Either you’re willing to embrace the required frustration, rejection, and loneliness, or you flee from it. It comes down to what gets your brain to release the happy chemicals. For me, writing a good sentence makes my brain go, “Oh!” Conceiving and nurturing a whole plot lights off the neuro-fireworks. As a runner, I’ve had runner’s high. Writer’s high is better. Lasts longer. You smell better, too, after four hours of writing than of running.

What is the most pivotal point of a writer’s life?

That moment you acknowledge that you are a writer. I started writing something rather than going out to a party when I was twenty-one. I kept on writing. And writing. And writing. I was just glowing with the thrill of it, the discovery of ideas I didn’t realize I was capable of. I’m not religious, but it was like having a certain kind of light shine through you. I wrote between 20 to 40 pages a day. That first effort (like many people’s first efforts) wound up not getting published, but it was a turning point. I was hooked. Writing is an addiction.

What kind of advice would you give other fiction authors?

Paint a realistic portrait of success. An Indie NY Times best-seller? It could happen, but probably won’t, so if that’s how you define success you’re going to define yourself as a failure--even if you achieve the high honor of publication. Success in writing is personal. Try, in the beginning, to just be happy about completing a short story. Throw a little party for yourself. Embrace the warm glow of creation. Then try a novel. Be okay with writing a crappy first draft--and love every moment of it. Put it away for a month or two. Then read it over. Do you still love it? Yes? Then, and only then, start thinking about publication. Identify your weaknesses, your obstacles to publishing—descriptions, characters, dialogue, plotting, whatever--and start honing your craft. Don’t be afraid if it takes years to summit that mountain. If Frodo turned away from Mount Doom, we’d all be speaking Orc now. You’ll get there. Just keep living, keep writing, keep smiling.