This week we’re getting to know the quiet, but eloquent Mark J. Engels. He’s the author of the paranormal sci-fi thriller Always Gray In Winter, the first book of a planned series. If you love shape shifters and all things paranormal, you’ll love this exciting tale about werecats and their feuding clans.
The modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats is torn apart by militaries on three continents vying to exploit their deadly talents. Born in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood following her family’s escape from Cold War-era Poland, were-lynx Pawly flees underground to protect her loved ones after genetically-enhanced soldiers, led by rogue scientist and rival werecat Mawro, overrun her Navy unit in the Gulf of Oman. Pawly’s family seeks her out in a desperate gambit to return to their ancestral homeland and reconcile with their estranged kinsmen. But when her human lover arrives to thwart Mawro’s plan to weaponize their feral bloodlust, Pawly must face a daunting choice: preserve her family secrets and risk her lover’s life or chance her true nature driving him away forever.
Boyhood interests in trains and electronics fostered Mark’s career as an electrical engineer, designing and commissioning signal and communications systems for railroads and rail transit agencies across the United States. Along the way Mark indulged his writing desire by authoring articles for rail and transit industry trade magazines. Coupled with Mark’s long-time membership in anime, manga and anthropomorphic fandoms, he took up writing genre fiction. Growing up in Michigan, never far from his beloved Great Lakes, Mark and his wife today make their home in Wisconsin with their son and a dog who naps beside him as he writes.
Mark is a member of Allied Authors of Wisconsin, one of the state’s oldest writing collectives. He also belongs to the Furry Writer’s Guild, dedicated to supporting, informing, elevating, and promoting quality anthropomorphic fiction and its creators.
- Tell us a little about you and what you’re working on.
I geeked out over trains and electronics as a boy growing up. That’s the main reason why I work now as an electrical engineer designing and commissioning signal and communications systems for railroads and rail transit agencies across the United States. But I’ve been every bit as long a part of media fandoms like anime, manga and anthropomorphics (“furry” writing and art.) So I came to enjoy creative endeavors like role playing games, acting, and, of course, writing. I was born and raised in Michigan, never far from the shore of one or another of the Great Lakes. Kept that trend going through moves following college to Minnesota and Indiana. Now I live in Wisconsin together with my wife and son. And a dog who keeps my favorite spot on the sofa warm until I sit down to write.
My recently published book is a paranormal sci-fi thriller featuring the modern day remnant of an ancient clan of werecats torn apart by militaries on three continents vying to exploit their deadly talents. Born in an ethnic Chicago neighborhood following her family’s escape from Cold War-era Poland, were-lynx Pawly flees underground to protect her loved ones after genetically-enhanced soldiers led by rogue scientist and rival werecat Mawro overrun her Navy unit in the Gulf of Oman. Pawly’s family seeks her out in a desperate gambit to return to their ancestral homeland and reconcile with their estranged kinsmen. But when her human lover arrives to thwart Mawro’s plan to weaponize their feral bloodlust, Pawly must face a daunting choice: preserve her family secrets and risk her lover’s life or chance her true nature driving him away forever.
You As A Reader
- When did you first fall in love with books?
In kindergarten I came to realize I lacked the physical stamina and hand-eye coordination other boys my age possessed. Sports and other rough and tumble physical activity were decidedly not my strong suit. My mom signed me up for the Weekly Reader Book Club, I never turned down an offer to visit the library, I walked out with an armful of books following each Scholastic Book Fair. I longed to be left alone so I could immerse myself in my favorite authors’ words—and their worlds.
- What’s your favorite book from your childhood?
Adventures of a Two-Minute Werewolf by Gene DeWeese. How do you think I came to love shifters like my werecats? In it a young man learns not only is he a werewolf, but his family had kept their secret from him until after his first transformation. And then he must learn how to cope with that and growing up at the same time. Might have a lot to do with the premise of my next book, in fact…
- Of the books you’ve read, which one changed you the most?
All Quiet on the Western Front by Erich Maria Remarque. In which the (spoiler alert!) “good guys” all die. It was the first book I recall reading, early in my high school years, where the protagonists didn’t end up with the “happily ever after” I had been led to expect everyone did. This wasn’t a book intended to entertain. This was a book intended to graphically, viscerally showcase the horrors of war and the fortitude of men who stood together in the face of madness. To make a statement about our world and the people in it.
The book left such an impression on me that a crusty old soldier named Stanislaus Katczinsky, the protagonist’s mentor whom everyone knows as “Kat”, became the archetype for one my novel’s most influential characters. And the namesake of my protagonist’s family (though I did transpose a couple vowels.) His name and mannerisms imply he’s an ethnic Pole, which is in part why my werecats’ clan hails from Poland.
- What’s the last book you read and your current favorite?
Last book I read was A Look Behind the Derleth Mythos: Origins of the Cthulhu Mythos by John D. Haefele. My current favorite is Red is the Darkest Color: a Pussy Katnip novel by Brett A. Brooks.
- If you could meet any author, alive or dead, who would it be?
Phil Vischer, author of Me, Myself, and Bob: A True Story About Dreams, God, and Talking Vegetables. His behind the scenes exposition of Big Idea’s rise and fall with Veggie Tales was a compelling read. Despite the cost to him and his family, he soldiered on through company bankruptcy and litigation. He continues to be creative and affirming in everything he does to this day. I’d love to compare notes about falling down staircases, moaning a while, and picking oneself slowly up again.
You As A Writer
- When did you first know you were a writer?
I don’t know! Frankly, I’m not really sure I am one now. I meet so many people who tell me “I can’t not write!” and “I’m not going to stop until writing becomes my day job!” To them I say, “more power to ya.”
I can state with conviction that but for my werecats, I wouldn’t be writing at all. And when I finish the final book in their family saga series, I’ll be quite glad to never write again if my muse deems so fit. Why? Because I will have accomplished what I set out to do. I don’t just want to write stories, you see, I want to write these stories. My werecats’ stories. Then when time comes for me to lay down and die, I’ll take solace in having one less regret.
Maybe I’m not a “writer” after all? I’m just a guy who writes. Note the difference between a professional house painter and a homeowner painting his garage. Both use similar tools and processes, both do good work, both enjoy the fruits of their labors. But the answer to their “why?” questions are markedly different. One wants to make a living, the other wants to see something done.
- Do you remember the first story you ever wrote? If so, what was it about?
HAH. I still have it on a shelf in my toolroom. My first long-form genre fiction, based on my college-era campaign notes from Paul Kidd’s Albedo Anthropomorphics RPG, itself homage to the furry spacefarers of Steven A. Gallacci’s Erma Felna, EDF and Birthright military sci-fi stories. Featuring a woman protagonist (see a trend developing?) Printed on tractor-feed paper courtesy of the school’s computer lab with a nine-pin dot matrix printer and bound in a three ring binder held together with duct tape on the spine.
It’s barely half-finished. Just as well because it’s hideous. Nearly makes my eyes bleed reading it today. Though I do from time to time to remind myself Hey, this was the best you could do thirty years ago. What you’re doing today is so much better. And what you’ll do tomorrow, incrementally better than that. Then I get back to reading and researching and editing and writing.
- What has been the most difficult part of your writing journey? The best part?
Hardest for me was identifying and remaining true to my authorial intent. By that I mean figuring out not only what I was doing but why I was doing it. I came to accept a difficult truth—the book I had in my heart to write may well not be the book any one person has in their heart to read. That became abundantly clear with “no vampires, no werewolves” posted in big bold print all over agent and publisher submission guidelines. What they were really saying was “no shifters of any kind.” I concluded they didn’t want to read a werecat story in this post-Twilight world in which we live, concluded they believed the reading public wouldn’t want to either.
Paranormal romance imprints were still taking shifters, though. Only trouble was several had rejected my paranormal sci-fi thriller too! Why? Not enough romance, natch. So I had a decision to make. “Trunk” my novel and write something else? Oh, no no no. My muse she be a werecat, you see, and she wasn’t about to stand for that. Claws and fangs help make for a very convincing argument, too.
Hands down the best part of my journey has been the friends I’ve made. I met and came to love several great supporters, critique partners, and con hangout pals via the online query contests and Twitter “pitch parties.” We each have our burdens to bear when it comes to putting down words on the page or the screen, but we need not journey alone. Nor ought we, in my opinion. Even now I’m smiling because my writer pals will read this interview and be so geeked for me!
- Of all the writing advice you’ve received, what helped you the most?
I don’t know if it’s writing advice per se, but a line credited to martial arts legend Bruce Lee has stuck with me throughout my creative life cycle: “Adapt what is useful, reject what is useless, add what is specifically your own.” Because there are a lot of people out there telling everyone how they did their thing, which may or may not be useful to you doing your thing. Or to me doing mine, for that matter.
The same is true for feedback, which I encourage all writers to seek out from critique partners, writers’ groups, etc. All feedback is valuable, but not all feedback is actionable. Because it frequently tells the receiver more about the offeror than it does the work itself. Every bit of it needs must be filtered through the lens of our authorial intent. Then we can set to editing and incorporating feedback in a way that hones our creative edge instead of dulling it.
- Tell us about your current project and any others you’re working on.
Like I mentioned earlier, my recently published book is the first of a werecat family saga series. I’ve completed the draft of the next one—a prequel—and have just begun my edits. In it, teenaged Pawly learns she and her twin brother Tommy are both werecats after she unexpectedly morphs for the first time. This is her story, coming to terms with Growing Up Werecat. She shares the spotlight with her Uncle Ritzi in his frantic bid to complete her grandfather’s research so their family might “manage” her and her brother’s ascendant bloodlust. Following Grandpa’s deportation, an investor approaches offering to fund their endeavors. Pawly and Ritzi will both come to learn the hard way that he is no angel.
Fun Stuff About You
- Besides writing and reading, what are some of your other interests?
I’ve talked about most of them already—trains, electronics, anime, manga, anthropomorphics. In addition to trains and electronics being my day job, my grade-school age son and I volunteer pounding spikes and shoveling ballast on a track gang for a nearby 15”-gauge “live steam” tourist railroad (like one might find at an amusement park or a zoo.) Fandoms around many of my “old school” favorite anime and manga have long gone quiet, though I’ve enjoyed contemporary franchises such as RWBY and Wakfu. I was thrilled to see the Thundercats reboot and look forward to diving in to the new Voltron. Loved Princess Allura’s redesign almost as much as I loved the “new” Cheetara!
Readers of my books can look forward to seeing my other interests on display, too. Including ice hockey, Korean martial arts, “big rigs”, and Great Lakes maritime lore and legend.
- If you could become an instant expert at any one thing, what would it be and why?
Not a damn thing.
No, seriously. There are too many Karate Kid influences and expectations in media and culture already, and I don’t want to add to them. An apprentice becomes a journeyman for a reason; he or she is on a journey to learn what they need to learn and how best to put it into practice. This is an arduous, time-consuming and sometimes messy process, but one that I don’t think anyone is well served trying to shortcut. Nor should they want to. I apprenticed in the trades and wouldn’t give up those experiences today for anything. They fashioned me into who I am, in my “day job” and in my personal life. And I apply the same methodologies to my creative process.
Besides, I believe there are far too many “instant experts” out there today anyway. They’re convinced having read a few books or web sites on a given topic that they can speak with authority. And social media gives them bully pulpit with which to do just that! Having grown and changed throughout my own journey and continuing to do so, I never want to be an “instant expert” in anything.
- You’ve just won an all expenses paid trip to anywhere in the world. Where would you go?
Why, Poland’s Białowieża Forest of course! BECAUSE RESEARCH. (Which ought to elicit a chuckle from all who read my book.) With side trips to Szczecin, Gdansk, Warsaw.
- How can people connect with you?
Join me on my creative journey, friends; I desire not to tread this path alone. Those reading these words are just the kind of people whose company I’d like to have along the way. Reach out and know me better, please.
For more on me and my book (including promo art!), to send a note or to sign up for my mailing list, visit:
I’m also active on social media (mostly Twitter), so feel free to reach out to me at any of these venues:
- Anything else you’d like to tell us?
For those who read my book—reviews at online venues like Amazon and Goodreads are so helpful and so very appreciated! Prospective buyers use them to help decide whether or not my book is a good fit for their specific tastes. They need not be a “book report” either. A few sentences will suffice describing what you liked, what worked for you (or what didn’t), how the book made you feel. More reviews helps a wider variety of people make a well-informed purchase, which helps me and my publisher both. It’s the best way you can support me, friends. Aside from, you know, buying my book in the first place.
And for all of you writing: Write the story that is in your heart to write. Write the book you wanted to read but couldn’t find, just like I did. Because it’ll be just the sort of book I want to read myself.
Thanks for sharing a little about you! Pawly is an instant favorite for me, so I can’t wait to read more of her story. Now if I could just find the time.
Are Mark’s werecats your kind of thing? Check out his book on Amazon.