Member Spotlight: Phil Geusz

1. Tell us about your most recent project (written or published). What inspired it?

Early Byrd coverI completed the final edits on The Byrd books– Early Byrd, Nestling Byrd, Jail Byrd, War Byrd and Angry Byrd— probably sometime late last August; they took me about eighteen to twenty-four months (interrupted by two bouts in the hospital with heart issues) to write and edit. Four of the five have now been published, with the last one due out any day now.

The Byrd series, though set sometime in the near future, is based on history that dates back to and just before the reign of Augustus Caesar. During this period the Romans were suffering from interminable and expensive border raids undertaken by the tribes of what is now Germany. While the Romans during this era were invariably able to beat back the raiders after the fact and even undertake powerful punitive invasions, their political and military system wasn’t up to the challenge of taking and holding the (to them) cold, alien forests. So, in an attempt to bring about a better cultural understanding and relationship that might lead to the development of Germany as a sort of self-ruled Roman client state and better neighbor, after one of their more successful punitive raids the Romans demanded that the tribal “kings” of Germany turn over their sons to be raised by high-ranking nobles back in Italy essentially as Romans themselves, with the intention that they eventually be restored to their German thrones as “uplifted” barbarians worthy of trust and properly appreciative of all the good things that Roman civilization had to offer.

Things of course didn’t turn out at all as planned, either in my books (where aliens play the part of the Romans) or in actual history…

I’m very proud of the Byrd books; though they’re only marginally furry. (The aliens, who play major roles throughout, are best visualized as anthro wolf-bears both physically and mentally.) While the Byrd books are essentially ‘escapist’ or ‘fun’ stories and never aspired to be Great Literature, they mark a major turning point for me as an author in that despite many failed efforts I was never been able to write convincing aliens before. This time I think I succeeded at long last, and have the skills I learned writing furry stories to thank for it.

2. What’s your writing process like? Are you a “pantser,” an outliner, or something in between?

Somewhere in between is the best answer, though no truly sane person would ever approach writing the way I do.

I began writing in a serious way on the Transformation Story Archive Mailing List (TSA), and I owe all of what success I’ve had as an author– and many other Good Things in my life– to my fellow members there. This background deeply shaped my techniques. There, I gradually developed the habit of writing a story-part (usually 1-2k words) pretty much every day in a disciplined manner. I soon learned that the best way to attract and hold readers– and receive highly-prized feedback– on the TSA is not only to post near-daily, but also to make sure that each and every story part leaves the readers eagerly awaiting more. This is a very high– sometimes impossible– standard to meet in Real Life, and particularly so in longer works. Yet, it’s clearly what’s not only what’s called for in order to succeed in a mailing-list environment, it happily also results in a finished book with that “impossible to put down” quality that suits the action-adventure genre so well. Therefore, in pursuit of these goals I developed a sort of hybrid ‘in-between’ approach to story planning that still serves me well. On the one hand, it’s absolutely impossible to plan ahead a hundred or so “mini-cliffhangers” to hold a reader’s interest during a book’s multi-month writing process. If anyone were to attempt plotting out or outlining a story in such detail, well… I think it’d be easier to just write the thing and be done with it. On the other, you can’t do proper justice to things like plot arc and theme without at least the broad strokes of a master plan. So, I spend weeks and months and sometimes even years thinking about a book– usually while simultaneously writing one or more others– thinking about not plot details but rather the grand sweep of things. For example, before writing Freedom City I spent weeks thinking about and mentally probing the limits of all the major aspects of human freedom I could think of– political, economic, social, sexual, scientific, and (being at heart a transhumanist) physical form. Then I thought some more and came up with a plot and setting where I could explore them in depth. In the end, the exploration of each of these forms of freedom became its own subplot, parts of a greater whole all “singing together” as part of the larger theme.Freedom City cover

(By the way, I’d like to note here that though many interpret Freedom City as a political novel, it was never for a moment intended to be anything of the sort. I created the setting solely because it was the best place I could come up with to explore to the limit all the freedoms listed above. Am I a Libertarian? Yes, in many though not all ways. And this certainly colors what the final novel became. But Freedom City never was– and isn’t now– a personal political statement. I meant to create art, not an Atlas Shrugged-style rant. One of my greatest regrets as a writer is that it’s so often taken as such.)

3. What’s your favorite kind of story to write?

The quick, easy kind that makes lots of money!

In all seriousness…

The vast bulk of my work was written solely to divert the reader’s tedium and entertain, because that’s mostly what I personally seek as a reader. It features lots of action, potent imagery and outright violence in world-shaking quantities, all structured over what I hope is a thought-provoking exploration of provocative concepts and irresolvable moral dilemmas. I happen to like to think and to confront new ideas, you see, and assume my readers feel the same way. But what gives me the greatest satisfaction of all is to attempt a genuine piece of literary art, a story that stands more on craftsmanship and symbolism than big ideas and ray guns. I’ve written only a handful of these, and less than half of this handful are furry. When the attempt is successful– and it isn’t always– the resulting stories actually give me a sort of “artistic high” for days and even weeks afterwards.

“Cheetah’s Win”, which is both furry and an attempt at “high art”, was perhaps the most satisfying writing experience of my life to date. Certainly, in literary terms it’s the most “perfect”.

4. Which character from your work do you most identify with, and why?

Birkenhead omni coverThat’s tough, for several reasons. I write mostly in first person, which I suspect means I “live in the heads” of my protagonists more completely than most. Plus I’ve been writing in a serious way for almost twenty years, having finished over twenty-five books and god only knows how many novellas and short stories along the way. I’m very much not the person who wrote Transmutation Now! (my first novel) circa 1997 anymore, but at least in certain respects I certainly was then. Each and every protagonist I’ve ever written— and most of the supporting characters as well— contains an element of me, from the washed-up action-adventure actor Jack Strafford (who, like me, was confronting middle-age and then found new meaning in a new life– his physical transformation into an anthro-rabbit was a metaphor for my own discovery of the furry fandom) to David Birkenhead (whose struggle against evil and prejudice was fought as much against his “friends” as his putative enemies, and which reflects my own hugely-frustrating career working for a Big Three automaker and experiences in UAW politics) to Lawrence Hightower, a homicide detective who loses his soul in a society where it’s absolutely unavoidable that absolute evil be employed to fight absolute evil. (He also reflects my experiences in UAW politics– this was not a fun time in my life.)

Identity being such a mutable thing– and as a transformation fan I’m of course obsessed with hacking the concept of self-identity— the correct answer to your question has to be “Whatever protagonist I’m writing on any particular day.”

5. Which authors or books have most influenced your work?

I was raised on a steady diet of unsteadiness. As a boy I’d read literally almost anything, from the car and gun magazines in my grandfather’s barber shop to my mom’s (for the day) racy murder mysteries to (allegedly) non-fiction books on everything from economics to unexplainable mysteries and UFO-men building the pyramids to mainstream best sellers to the entire 1968 World Book encyclopedia. I mean, anything! From about age eight to age twenty-two I averaged reading a book a day (counting a newspaper or magazine read cover-to-cover as a book-equivalent, and allowing two hundred pages as a “book-unit” as well. (Thus, the Lord of the Rings trilogy counted for about eight books, if memory serves.)

But what I loved best fit into several distinct categories, all of which are reflected heavily in my own work. The books I cherished most of all and spent the most time with were either Golden Age SF, especially Clarke, Niven, Bradbury, Asimov and Robert Heinlein (who was probably Influence Number One, though I freely grant that Clarke had the better novel concepts, as a rule, and that Bradbury may well have penned the finest prose ever written.) Outside of Golden Age stuff, C. S. Forester and some of Kipling’s works— especially parts of the Jungle Books— are faves. I probably spent– and still spend today– even more time reading twentieth-century military history than on fiction, especially personal memoirs of World War II. I also, in order to better understand these memoirs, read enormous amounts of stuff on World War IImilitary hardware, strategic concepts, and (most rewarding of all) how these concepts came to be developed. (It’s revealing that most anticipated book currently awaiting my attentions is an obscure work on the development of USN fleet logistics— supply and repair services, in other words— in the Pacific theater of war.) While I still read a little of everything, this latter category makes up about nine-tenths of my consumption today, at least in large part because for some strange reason on almost the very day I began authoring novels in a serious way I lost the ability to enjoy almost all fiction. For some strange reason, with rare exceptions any story written after about 1940 feels like broken glass in my brain. Reading such fiction is actually painful no matter how good it is— I recently experienced this phenomenon with a Hemingway novel— and the harder I try the worse it gets. If I wait about ten months between books I can usually read one– and only one!– long modern work without much “pain”, and these days I generally save this for a work by a fellow furry author.

For what it’s worth, I consider my early wide and voracious reading to be a treasure beyond price. I draw upon its width and breadth quite regularly as a working author, and being mostly an action-adventure writer it’s been enormously useful to understand the difference between a sichelschnitt-style blitzkrieg and kesselschalct, for example. Or, more pointedly (to those who’ve read what is perhaps my best-known work) it’s been very beneficial to be at least passingly familiar with how a Graves Registration unit approaches and goes about its deliberately-quiet business. Too many authors write unconvincingly about war, in my opinion. And they also ignore all the really interesting bits. This is most often, again in my opinion, a reflection of their deep ignorance of the subject. It’s been my avowed goal to do better.

6. What’s the last book you read that you really loved?

I hate to admit it, but whatever it was– if you mean “last novel” and I suspect you do– it’s been a very, very long time. In fact, what really stands out in my memory is a re-read of Lucifer’s Hammer (1977) by Larry Niven about two or three year’s back.

Historically, the books I’ve loved best combine a compelling plot and memorable characters with Big Ideas. As examples, take Clarke’s Childhood’s End, Heinlein’s Orphans of the Sky, Bradbury’s Something Wicked This Way Comes, and Niven’s older Known Space books, taken as a body. These were the fodder of my youth, and they all share something two important things in common.

All are classic examples of golden-age style SF. And all were written before about 1980.


The sad fact is that something’s gone very badly wrong, and I’m not sure exactly what or where. But circa 1993 or so, I finally gave up on what I loved most in the world– reading SF novels– and abandoned it utterly for lack of good, readable books. It wasn’t for lack of trying– at that time I subscribed to both Analog and F&SF, and continued actively reading them out of sheer hope and stubbornness long after their contents turned into (to my taste at least) highly-concentrated crap. I also continued to buy and read SF novels long after I found them to be worth actually reading, mostly out of sheer force of habit. But they kept getting worse and worse and worse, and….

Well, the truth is that I haven’t read a truly excellent or compelling novel– one that hit me with new, important ideas or really gripped me and made me lose sleep because I couldn’t put it down– since about 1988.

Honest. Really. Swear to god. And you wouldn’t believe how badly I miss the experience!

Perhaps it’s a matter of age– I’m fifty-five now, and it’s been said that the real Golden Age of Science Fiction is about twelve. Or perhaps it’s a matter of profound cultural changes– I was a huge original-series Star Trek fan as well, yet can’t stand the Next Generation or anything else that’s come along since. Recently I read a Golden Age-style furry short story in a book I reviewed, and liked it very much, perhaps at least in part due to decades-long starvation for the stuff. Yet when a “real” SF-person who apparently likes the more modern approach also reviewed the same work, he referred to it in essence as obsolete.

So maybe that’s the problem– I’m obsolete and completely out of touch with current literary (and nearly all other, though that’s not relevant here) styles, trends and conventions. (How odd for a member of the age-cohort that invented the generation gap!) But the simple truth is that the complete dearth of what I consider to be ‘readable’ books was a huge factor in persuading me to try my own hand at the art. I told myself that I certainly couldn’t do any worse, because by the time I started (in 1996 or 1997) mainstream SF had decayed so badly (in my own eyes, at least) that ‘worse’ was virtually impossible.

By the way, if anyone knows where the daring godlike visions, fearless uncompromised characters and unlimited dreams that defined Golden Age SF and made it an artform worthy of respect wandered off to, can you please drop me an e-mail or something? I’ve been looking for decades now, and the hole in my life grows ever-greater…

7. Besides writing, how do you like to spend your free time?

For most of my writing career, I didn’t have a lot of free time because I was pumping out almost two books a year on the average, plus a whole boatload of short stories, etc. Writing was my free time, you see, as I also had a full-time job and a house to maintain. I retired about a year ago, however, and am finding that, as much as I’d like to, I just can’t spend any more hours per day writing than I did before—the limiting factor is Good Ideas, and they don’t come any more often just because I’m not working forty hours a week. So today I travel more frequently. My most recent trip– a once-in-a-lifetime affair, given the cost– covered most of the Pacific Northwest, plus Colorado and a few other places coming and going. It was costly as hell, but worth every penny. Go see the Northwest— you won’t regret it, and the places you stumble across by accident are best of all!

I’ve always made time for furcons, as well. I’ve been attending Mephit Furmeet since about 1998, and have been to four RainFurrests, two Anthrocons, at least five MFFs and I don’t know how many smaller events. As an aside, if I’ve learned one thing about cons it’s that “who” is a lot more important that “what” and “where”.

8. Advice for other writers?

Be tough and stick to it. I got lucky and published my first novel, but most writers don’t. The more you write, the more you learn. That’s true no matter what level you begin at.

Also, don’t listen to discouraging voices. Everyone and their brother will tell you that you’ll never get published or get likes or follows or whatever else it is you’re after. The only sure thing is that if you listen to them and give up, they’ll be right for sure.

9. Where can readers find your work?

lapism coverI’m fortunate in that I not only have a very rare last name, but have chosen to publish under it as well. So, searching “Geusz” with the engine of your choice will get you everywhere you need to go. In addition to my published works, available at Amazon and most other online outlets, you can find my earlier, unpublished stuff online for free. It’s not as polished as my “commercial” work, largely because I learned the craft of authoring “on the job” as I wrote it. But (among many others) I wrote at least twenty-five stories of varied lengths in the mostly-furry “Blind Pig” storyverse, most of which I still consider readable, that are available for free online. (I consider several of them to be among my best work, period, though I never get around to editing them because it’d eat up a lot of time that I’d never be paid for and keep me from working on New Stuff.) I’ve also written numerous non-fiction columns (mostly on writing and the furry fandom) for the defunct TSAT and Anthro online magazines, as well as several for the still-very-much-with-us Adjective Species. Those can all be found the same way, and are free too.

10. What’s your favorite thing about the furry fandom?

Absolutely the people! The simple truth is that I’ve never met such an unreservedly fine group of human beings (or whatever) in my life as I have among the fandom. While some critics claim my work isn’t anthro-centric enough to be considered truly furry– though I beg to most energetically disagree!– I’m a fur to the bone and, based on my experiences so far, wouldn’t want to be anything else.

Check out Phil Geusz’s member bio here!

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