WarrenJakIntroducing a three-part interview of writer/publisher Warren Ockrassa conducted by Jak Klinikowski.

Part One
Warren’s writing methods as well as his motivations and themes for BofD and A.N.

Warren Ockrassa

Jak Klinikowski  


by Warren Ockrassa

Reviewed by Jak Klinikowski

Part 1 of a Three Part Interview with Warren Ockrassa will follow the Review.

I don’t normally read Science Fiction. I generally find it slow going and hard to follow, not to mention overtly ridiculous. This is not the case with two sci-fi novels I recently read by Warren Ockrassa, THE BEAST OF DELPHOS (BofD) and ALLASNU NOMU (A.N.). Ockrassa’s ability to weave a richly textured narrative around well developed three dimensional characters transcends the genre in a most fascinating and readable way. While time and place are total fabrications, the essence of these novels basks in the warmth of real human emotions and relationships, inviting some insightful comparisons between our own culture and history, and those found in the books.

BofD takes us to the lush but unsettling slave world of Delphos, and introduces, Barris, an underling slave working in a mining camp. Barris’s sharp mind and strong work ethic do not go unnoticed by his superiors, and when he saves the life of an off-world freeman, whose space transport crashes in the jungle close to the mine, he is given an unprecedented opportunity for advancement as a machinist apprentice. As an added bonus, Barris is allowed to bring along his bunkmate, Allis, to his new quarters, as his bondsman. The two youths have been sharing pleasure (sex) for many cycles (seasons) and kindle (love) one another very much. Barris is overwhelmed by his good fortune. He immediately begins his studies under the guidance of Theossa, an older but equally promising slave.

When Barris’s efforts to kill one of the “Siren” beasts (a monster with the ability to lure men through overpowering sexual enticement) that inhabit the jungle proves successful, he comes to the attention of his owner, Kellis, who chooses him to be a siring stud for his breeding operation. Barris’s eyes are opened to the planet's society at large, and he soaks up as much knowledge as possible. Knowledge however, can be a very dangerous commodity for a slave to possess, as Barris learns through the course of several cycles.

In A.N. we jump several decades into the future to join Adessa, a cultural anthropologist, from a now totally free Delphos, as he begins his studies of the diamond core planet known as Allahu’akhbar. Immediately upon debarking from a space transport at Ma-kah’s (the world’s primary city) starport, he is approached by Massoud a boy of perhaps twelve or thirteen seasons. Massoud is anxious to take Adessa back to his family’s home. Hotels are horribly expensive and impersonal, and Massoud insists Adessa at least give the alternative accommodations a try. Realizing that the best way to observe the planet’s culture is by living with a native family, Adessa decides to stay, and very quickly develops a strong bond with Massoud.

Allahu’akhbar’s is an extremely religious society where marriage is a commitment that must be renewed or dissolved on a yearly basis. Homosexuality is not an issue, and mates may be chosen of either sex. Through the extended period of Adessa’s stay, Massoud develops into a fine young man, suitably of age to marry. As the reader has imagined they would all along, Adessa and Massoud fall in love and Massoud chooses Adessa to be his first yearmate. Thus Massoud accompanies Adessa on his planetary explorations. But the rest of the planet’s residents are not as accepting as the population of the large city of Ma-kah, and trouble soon plagues the couple.

Both novels are exceptionally well written, and powerfully involving. Ockrassa convincingly provides his readers with disturbing yet mesmerizing worlds to behold, beautifully realized and gratifyingly complete. His writing harkens back to the wonderful styles of greats like Frank Herbert and Robert Heinlein. I enthusiastically recommend both books to sci-fi aficionados as well as all others.


Recently, Warren Ockrassa agreed to allow me to interview him on line. I sent him ten questions concerning his writing regimen and his two novels, THE BEAST OF DELPHOS (BofD) and ALLASNU NOMU (A.N.). Warren’s responses greatly exceeded my every expectation, and the INDEPENDENT GAY WRITER is proud to publish his remarkable interview in three parts. Part 1, in our current issue, concerns Warren’s writing methods as well as his motivations and themes for BofD and A.N.

Jak:You write at a ferocious pace (A.N. in 53 days according to the back of the book). Could you please describe your writing regimen for our readers?

Warren: [n.b. I think you might be referring to BofD here]

First rule: Tea. Tea, tea, tea, the blacker the better.

Oh, all right, no. The first rule is isolation. It's much easier to pull off that kind of clip if you can minimize distractions.

BofD was an amazingly short write by most standards, particularly given that it's over 80,000 words. For that book I spent a tremendous amount of time developing threads the old-fashioned way: Imagining scenarios and seeing what happened, in splendid solitude.

Characters, to me, can take on their own lives and motivations, and that means (again, to me) putting them in circumstances and seeing how they respond. It's possibly a slightly crazy way to do things. Rather than think to myself, okay, I want to make this point and so I'll create this scenario and have some guy react to it like this, what I tend to do instead is have a general idea of what I want happening in the story but let the characters respond in ways that seem reasonable from their points of view.

What's surprising about that is that it seems to work. Well, usually. Generally I get this interesting range of responses from the characters, not necessarily ones I would expect, and that can do a lot toward controlling where and how the story goes next. I don't really do plot-driven stories, or the plot isn't the key focus in my writing. It's the people that really interest me.

What I mean is that BofD, as an example, was not meant to be a story about a slave-based culture, the social conventions that emerged around that culture, how freemen in that society treat their slaves, or how slaves affect and are affected by Delphan ways. It was really, when it began, a story of one youth into whose life we were allowed to look for one episode — when he dealt with a particularly nasty critter.

You ever set up an entire box of dominoes on end, and then tip the first one?

See, I had to develop some backstory in order to explain how he got into the predicament he was in, and then I had to develop — flesh out, really — his relationships and friendships. Then, in order for his character to take on more depth I had to let him learn. And in order for that to happen an infrastructure and apprenticeship system had to come into being. So this one little slave made me construct an entire damn world. (As well as a working fusion reactor.)

And of course his owner (yep, had to invent him too, since a slave pretty much has to be owned or … uh, he's not a slave), on discovering how prodigious this slave was, would have to respond in a sensible way for a profiteering freeman, so there was the way that had to play out.

That left me needing closure, a way to end the story with a sense of completion, one that did not compromise the integrity of the story or the Delphan system itself — one that was logically consistent with the world that was made — but also one that did not insult the intelligence of the reader. Deus ex machina is fine for Greek plays, but storytelling has somewhat progressed in the last two and a half millennia. So some things that I wanted to happen simply could not. The characters that came into existence wouldn't have permitted that.

In order to let all this take place, though, I use quite a lot of isolation and quite a lot of visualization, as much as possible anchored in the concrete, the plausible. I like to keep the technology realistic; for instance interstellar travel is outrageously expensive, so much so that interplanetary war is effectively impossible. I won't be doing epics where Delphos attacks a nearby planet for some reason (or vice versa), because the costs and the risks of interstellar travel make war an unprofitable endeavor.

Oh, well, and because "nearby" might be something on the order of a hundred or so lightyears. A little too far to rationally care much about what's going on over there. Think Earth circa 1300, particularly regarding ocean journeys, and you'll have an idea how risky and expensive space travel will be for a very long time to come yet.

So, no pitched space battles. I don't have — nor will I — a nasty old Empire with big triangular battlewagons trying to keep a chokehold on interplanetary commerce. And I also don't have government controlled transport; the craft that move from world to world are privateers.

This, of course, opens the possibility of piracy.

Heh heh.

So the dominoes are still falling: All that is there, tappable and accessible for later stories, partly because of my interest in SF as a genre and partly because of my interest in human history as it's happened so far. What is lovely about SF is that it lets us see ourselves in all manner of unexpected ways, or at least the good stories do, while at the same time remaining utterly true to human feeling, reaction and response to the world.

So my writing process is a bit iceberg-like, I suppose. The fraction you see in a novel is there because there's a massive sub rosa bulwark holding it up. It appears to happen quickly, but that's the writing part. That does happen fast, mostly because when the time comes to deliver the baby, it's happening no matter where I might be.

The actual gestation, though, can take time, and it's usually in the form of me having tea parties with imaginary friends. Not (usually) literally, but the spirit is much the same. I spend an extraordinary amount of time visualizing things that never really take place. A classic case of head in the clouds (or someplace else moist, but I'll leave that for now).

Jak: You are a publisher, as well as an author, which part of the process to you prefer, and why?

Warren: Well, I've never been partial to business, which goes with the publishing, but it's not so bad. Editing can be very interesting. Cover art … well, it's a must, and by and large I like it.

Writing is heavy lifting. It's almost agony. That might be why authors seem to like working with me as an editor; I know what they've gone through already, and know what it's like to have to squeeze out a well-crafted story. Not just technically, either; there's a lot more to good writing than an understanding of the mechanics of language. It takes heart and commitment, labor and cold sweat.

So that's the hardest part, definitely, for me. Writing is painful sometimes. But it's also spectacularly rewarding when it works right, when the flow is there and you're really the medium, the communication link between your people and the outside world, when you can hear their voices and you're just taking dictation. That's magnificent.

What I like about the publication side of things is helping compelling authors see a little daylight. There are some very good, very strong voices out there that a lot of major publication groups won't want to pick up because they need runs in the thousands to make a title profitable, and there are risks involved in picking up a new author, as well as accepting edgy, independent-minded manuscripts.

Small presses don't have those sorts of issues; I don't need to sell 2,000 copies of a title for it to break even. It's more like ten percent of that. That means that I don't have to focus so much on looking for a runaway bestseller as whether there's a tellable, readable tale.

I have always liked really edgy fiction, titles that push the brain into all sorts of new and sometimes painful shapes. I like not liking things about a story, particularly if the book is engaging overall. If I don't like parts of it in the right way, it means the author has succeeded in getting me to look at my own assumptions in a new way, to question myself, to think about why I think what I think.

I love that stuff but hey, let's face it, most people don't seem to. It's the books that pander to the current sense of social order that always seem the most successful — either spy stories where the US is always the good guys and the winners; or stories that feature morality tales about the wages of sins such as adultery. Or, in the SF genre, space opera. Stories where no one's current worldview is shaken, where it's assumed that what we consider ethical today will always exist in all societies, where everyone is safe, both in the sense of being predictable and in the sense of coming out of the narrative alive and, often, unchanged.

I don't want stories like that.

I guess in a way I'm suggesting that my motivations are purer in that I don't want a mass-production novel that reads and acts like all the others; and I'm not driven by a pure profit consideration. That's probably an astonishingly arrogant presumption, but I'm prepared to live with that label. If arrogance means that I continue to bring to light some strong and compelling voices, that I am allowed to write my own material and also give a platform to others whose ideas are courageous, unusual and unique, well, I think I can live with being arrogant.

Go to Column 2

Jak: What were your motivations for these two novels and what contemporary (or non-contemporary) models did you use?

Warren: The motivation was to tell the stories. That seems obvious, a pat and almost insultingly simple answer, but it's really the core. I liked the imaginary people that floated through my head, and I liked what they did and said, and I thought it would be nice to write about them.

Basically when I write it's to offer stories that I'd read if someone else wrote them. Since no one has, uh, well, I do.

I've never taken on a book with the conscious idea of making a political or ethical point. (Honestly.) Of course that's what ultimately happens anyway. Books are the products of minds, and minds are the products of the cultures in which they are immersed. Therefore any book is an act of expression of a culture, and it can also be an act of subversion of that same culture.

Totalitarian governments are aware of this; that's why some truly great Russian authors were largely unknown in their native country for many years.

Another motivation for me, though, is just to explore other societies. Human history is filled with many many social experiments, some of which have done well, others of which have not.

For instance our current (American) culture is still far too young for us to judge its success. For the overwhelming bulk of historical time and societies, monarchies have controlled lives. Democracy has surfaced occasionally but has a depressing tendency to vanish, self-destructing or transforming. If you look at history impassively, democracy is really a fad that pops up here and there, but then goes away again. And it's interesting to me to look at how other systems might be, and how it might be to live in those worlds.

As for models, BofD wasn't really influenced much by any one particular story (that I'm aware of!), though I wanted the language to be different enough from what we use conventionally today that the sense of alienness was pervasive. I wanted it to feel as much as possible like a totally different world and time and place, and language was one of the key elements of that.

BofD feels very strange for that reason, with one foot very much in the future but the other in a rich English heritage. Its syntax is almost classically slanted; there are passages that could possibly have come from the last century or earlier in terms of vocabulary and structure. Yet the story itself is set perhaps two millennia hence and on another world, not at all a duplicate of Earth nor any society we have today.

Even in the settings there's a juxtaposition of the baroque with the ultramodern; slaves, for instance, man all the control consoles at fusion reactors. Computers could do the job much more efficiently, but since slaves would have to learn computer programming to maintain the systems, and the ability to write software is not something you want to give to a potentially-subversive slave, it's actually much safer to the interests of the freemen to keep everything manual. Every once in a while a fusion reactor probably explodes because of lack of attention, but that's better than having spacecraft guidance systems being attacked by slave-written viruses.

Besides, it's just slaves that get blown up, so who really cares?

The language was inspired in part by Samuel R. Delany's voice, which is singular in the field of SF and which is genuinely enrapturing to me. Other authors whose use of language I particularly admire include Joyce and Faulkner, and the poet Hart Crane. Interestingly, though, I also like Hemingway, because his economy, his parsimony are in themselves beautiful. How many writers, for instance, could retell Moby-Dick in a novel perhaps 1/20th the size? (Oh my, now I've gone all pedantic, right here in front of everyone. How embarrassing.)

A.N. was another thing entirely, and in its way was influenced by world events. At the time I was developing it a lot of anti-Muslim hatred was sweeping the US, and it was frustrating to me because I felt that a lot of the religion's practitioners were being bashed over something that could be a sustaining and positive social influence.

The problem is that Islam has not really had a reform like Judaism or Christianity. All three of those religions originate in more or less the same part of the world and there's a commonality among them that is striking. Monotheism is only the most obvious, not necessarily the most significant.

If you look at practitioners of fundamentalist Christian sects you begin seeing things that are similar, frighteningly so, to what you see in Islamic extremism. Particularly in messages that imply in-group members are superior and have license — even divine mandate — to spread their beliefs, even if that means killing those who oppose them too rigorously (consider the lunatics in the US who bomb, shoot or otherwise abuse abortion clinics, their staffs and patrons).

So with A.N. I wanted to try to see how an Islamic culture might work if the religion had in fact undergone reformation, and the way to let it happen and be a peaceful theocracy would be to have it take over an entire planet. That meant Allahu'akhbar, while it would be open to offworlders (almost synonymous with nonbelievers), would have to stand unopposed, and there would have to still, I felt, be real iron to the laws. There couldn't be much leeway given to offworlders and their mistakes.

There's a lot of content in the book that is recognizably Islamic but I've also taken extreme liberty with parts of the Koran, and definitely with the way it's interpreted today. Certainly the things I present would not be considered valid by a modern practitioner of the religion. But then, this is another story set a couple thousand years ahead in time. There's plenty of room, temporally, for Islam to grow and change.

As I was writing A.N. I was aware that there are some parallels between it and other stories as well as world events; it's been mentioned that the novel is reminiscent of Dune, though not because there are sandworms or a total lack of water.

Allahu'akhbar is more or less a desert world, but it has oceans and fish and such and no Fremen trying to overthrow evil baronies. The similarities exist mostly in how Herbert adapted Islam in his own way to his own story (the cues are there; for instance the names of the planets correspond to Arabic names for stars in the sky now, and then there's that whole Butlerian Jihad thing), not so much in social conventions or cultural constructs.

Personally the part of Allahu'akhbar's culture I was most taken by is the idea of annual marriage, which I did not see coming for some time into the story. (Really.) This is something that lets couples choose to renew their vows each year and remain married or, if they opt not to, to part and marry others, or even take a year or two off. (Same-gender marriage is permitted as well.)

I think it would be cooler than hell to see something like that set up in a modern society somewhere. It's a very practical answer to things like a 50% divorce rate and the fabled seven-year itch.

Jak: Do you consider BofD and A.N. to be "gay" novels?

Warren: That's not the easiest question in the world to answer, at least partly because it depends on what one's definition of "gay" is. (No, I'm not channeling any former presidents.)

The slaves on Delphos are kept in same-gender enclaves almost exclusively, so it can easily be argued that the sex they have is homosexual by compulsion. Since there are no women available, they turn to what's there.

But at the same time there's at least some evidence that some male slaves, given a choice, prefer male company … and yet it could be argued that the reason they align that way is they are more comfortable with it. Familiarity tends to be a factor in influencing many of our behaviors, after all. (Look at how a young child reacts to new foods. The resistance is usually intense, much more so than one might expect, and often results in deployment of mops and such.)

This actually harks back to a question that was fairly prominent in the early 1990s and seems to resurface periodically — whether there is a genetic factor in homosexuality. (Obviously a genetic link would likely be recessive.) The question can be asked like this: "Is homosexuality a choice, or is it a trait over which one has no determinative power at all?"

I think a much more important question is: Who wants to know?

For instance a psychiatrist or geneticist might have very legitimate reasons to ask that sort of question. A church leader probably doesn't, nor would most laymen. (I'd say proximally no politicians should even begin wondering.)

Why? If I'm asking whether being gay is a choice, I probably want to know if it's a behavior over which gays have control, or one that I can claim they can control. That means that, if I'm anti-gay, I can assert that since it's a choice it can be overcome. (This is why I detest the term "lifestyle choice", by the way. It is very politically loaded in a very subtle way.)

If, on the other hand, I am pro-gay and discover that it's not a choice, I can argue that there's no way to overcome the behavior. But that opens the floor to the possibility of finding the "gay gene" and, if it's present in utero, eliminating it as "undesirable" — something I have heard some gay people actually say they would favor.

People, gay sex is not a sickness to be eliminated. It's a damn good way to spend time with your friends.

My own take on homosexuality is that it's a behavior, not really a choice or a biology issue except by the sexual nature of our species itself. I should probably illustrate what I mean by that.

We appear to be, as a species, hardwired for language. If there isn't one we'll create one; there are striking examples of this among populations of deaf orphans that have not been formally trained in sign language. These kids invent a language of their own, and the languages contain nouns, verbs, tenses and full functioning vocabularies.

Language is something we do, something we have to do, a means of expressing information. It is obviously a positively adaptive trait — that is, it is something that allowed our forebears to survive in prehistory. (Being able to shout "Hey Groog, look out for the leopard!" is generally a benefit.) It is deep in our natures. As such language is a behavior. We must, we absolutely must, have it. It is built into our brains. It's part of the package.

However what language we speak is a different matter entirely. There is no such thing as an innate tendency to speak English as opposed to Japanese. The language we use is entirely a cultural phenomenon, not a biological one; accident of birth or circumstance of education, are the factors that influence our mother tongue.

We can learn other languages, we can become fluent in them, and we tend to prefer one more than any other (and it's usually the one we're immersed in most, which is no surprise). But to assert that there is an "English gene" is to state the patently absurd.

I'm very, very sure that sexual behavior is analogous. I think we're born with the ability to respond with pleasure to any form of sexual stimulus, and that sexuality is part of the human package. I'm just as sure that orientation has much more to do with culture and familiarity than it does with anything else.

In that sense one could argue that homosexuality, as an action, is not any more necessary to life than is speaking Dutch. But if one likes it, there's no compelling reason to stop it.

Another question arises as to the purpose of homosexual behavior then. (I am referring here to sex acts alone, not torch singing or Barbra Streisand worship.) How can it be something that helps us as a species to persist? It would seem that homosexuality, if it were genetic, would disappear from the gene pool quickly.

The question betrays a naiveté, though, that implies that we "are" one or the other to exclusion. But if my take on it is correct, we can enjoy any kind of sex, and it's in our nature to do so. Thus anyone might be exclusively homosexual for a lifetime, or drift among the alignments, or align to one but enjoy the other opportunistically.

That still leaves the question of why open until one examines our genetically closest and second-closest primate cousins, chimpanzees and bonobos respectively. The former use sex as a way of asserting social dominance while in the latter it's used as a way to reinforce social bonds.

That is, a male chimp will use mounting behavior to show he is superior to other males while a male bonobo will play around with other males as an expression of friendliness. Since we're behaviorally, in most other ways, somewhere on the continuum between chimp and bonobo, it follows that our tendency to enjoy casual sex combined with our tendency to incline toward same-gender intercourse is a social development, one that helped reinforce early ties among proto-human populations.

So the long and short is that while sexuality is a necessity, homosexuality may well be a choice, but it's well within the range of normal, healthy human and general primate behavior; and it absolutely is natural and, I think, a positive survival trait, something that evolution rewarded for being successful.

Now that I've thoroughly muddied the waters regarding any possible definition of "gay", I can answer your question.  As to whether BofD is a "gay" novel, I'm inclined to think not, but only because the choice factor is lacking. (Of course there's a hell of a lot of male-on-male lovemaking in it.)

By contrast A.N. could very much be seen as being a "gay" novel in that a same-gender choice is made, even though other-gender options are available; and life on Allahu'akhbar has provision for same-gender marriage and those who take the vows are treated with the same respect as anyone else. It's a bit of an idyll. (Well, for that reason, plus all men are socially required to remain nude at all times. My my. See the sights.)

But then there's … well, there are some events at the end of the book that might or might not keep it definable as a gay story.

Certainly neither novel features exclusively heterosexual characters, but I do have a romantic streak, which means I tend to match characters up, and usually if we're looking at someone with gay desires, he's going to end up with a boyfriend, because damn it, that's what he wants.

Another way of looking at this is that same-sex intercourse can be regarded (I think) as a "gay" act if, and only if, it is clearly desired even though other-gender sex is available. If there are no alternatives I think we're looking more at sex of expediency, not gay sex.

(That should make a lot of former Boy Scouts heave sighs of relief and feel a lot better about what they used to do at those all-boy jamborees.)

However it should be noted that in neither book is there any word, term or concept for same-gender-only alignment, which I think is in keeping with human history. It's only in the last couple centuries, and really most strongly in European-influenced cultures, that we see terms like "homosexuality" or "the love that dare not" bla bla bla.

Certainly the ancients weren't so hung up on labels. As wonderfully as they defined so many other things in the world around them, the Greek savants never put a name on the mindset that let men have sex with other men.

Homosexuality could very well be a social phenomenon. As soon as we stop thinking in terms of "gay" and "straight", the distinctions might blur to the point that we see they never really were there to begin with. We only thought they were.



Look for Part 2 of Warren’s interview in our next installment of THE INDEPENDENT GAY WRITER, when the author will discuss the two novel’s sexual issues. 

These and other books can be found at the official site:

nightwares Books

The interviewer, Jak Klinikowski can be contacted by email.

Home • Newsletter Front Page • Newsletter Archives • Article Archives