"The universe is made of stories, not of atoms."
—Muriel Rukeyser

The Cloud: Interview With Author Robert Rivenbark


1. When did you realize you wanted to be a writer?

I made this startling discovery in the sixth grade, when my homeroom and English teacher, Mrs. Lee, a recent graduate of Agnes Scott College, had me elected Program Chairman in our class elections. This was at Sagamore Hills Grammar School in DeKalb County, in the Atlanta metro area. The school practiced an experimental program that allowed teachers to try special activities with gifted students; and Mrs. Lee saw that I was a natural writer. As a result, I became the class playwright and wrote, cast, and directed a couple of plays—bad knockoffs of science fiction and horror novels and movies I loved. I also read my horror short stories aloud to the class. Mrs. Lee (I never knew her first name) changed my life. I’ve been searching for her for decades, and hope that my recent success as a novelist will help me find and thank her.

2. What is your latest book? Please tell us something about it.

I’ve recently published The Cloud, a speculative fiction novel set in a future society where 24/7 neural surveillance and virtual reality addiction are mandated by a corrupt ruling corporate regime, The Cloud, headquartered in Hong Kong. In this future world, China and North America are a single empire fighting endless wars against the Caliphate. The male protagonist is a VR programmer named Blaise Pascal VII. He has a horrendous past as a lieutenant in the Cloud army who committed atrocities while fighting against the Caliphate in Nigeria. Blaise tries to escape his guilt and PTSD by using his brilliance as a VR programmer to create award-winning VR series that attract the attention of his psychopathic boss, Minsheng. Minsheng offers Blaise a big promotion and eternal life in exchange for Blaise coding a new VR series that will drive the Slag underclass—considered expendable—to commit mass suicide. Blaise finds himself caught in a romantic triangle with Mitsuko, Minsheng’s cunning and seductive daughter, and Kristina, a psychic hacker who recruits Blaise in a conspiracy to bring down The Cloud with a computer worm Blaise has the security clearance to upload. Blaise’s struggle between his hunger for eternal life and his moral horror at participating in mass murder are the novel’s central dramatic thrust.

3. How long does it take for you to write a book?

I spent 4 ½ years writing and editing The Cloud, because I was working full-time as an advertising copywriter for several Fortune 500 companies. I had the good fortune to work with Elizabeth Lyon, one of America’s greatest book editors, on the novel’s first draft. Then, after The Cloud won First Place in the Science Fiction category in the 27th Annual San Antonio Writers Guild Writing Contest in 2019, Hollywood literary manager/producer Ken Atchity signed me to an exclusive contract for representation. Under Ken’s guidance and feedback from his script doctors and fellow film and TV producer colleagues, I slogged through seven thoroughgoing rewrites of The Cloud over the next three years. It was published in August 2022.

4. What do you think makes a good story?

As my literary manager Ken Atchity told me early on in our working relationship, what captivates readers in all literary genres is, first of all, great characters. The most dazzling plot imaginable will fall flat on its face without compelling, fully rounded, identifiable, and sympathetic characters. Second, the story must have the highest stakes conceivable. The characters must be thrust into circumstances that threaten their survival again and again, so that readers are on the edge of their seats page after page, chapter after chapter, in suspense about whether the protagonists can beat such incredible odds—right through to the end. Third, a good story should teach readers something about life that they can put to use in their own struggle to survive. Good stories are the only human activity that can occupy a person’s mind for hours on end. That’s because stories are how we make sense of life and search for ways to win at it.

5. What inspires you to keep writing?

I’d sooner stop breathing than stop writing. Writing is in my blood. I’ve always had a vivid imagination and dream life, and excessive energy and passion. When I was a boy, I used to play Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony of my parents’ stereo and spin around like a dervish until I went into ecstasy. Beethoven’s music is what it feels like to be in my head. If I weren’t a writer, I’d be a composer. And if I couldn’t write, I’d probably go crazy. At the moment, what’s keeping me writing is the fact that The Cloud is in development as a TV series, and I’ve written the pilot script. And at the urging of my literary manager and book editor, I’ve outlined two sequels to The Cloud, which will make it a trilogy—or at the very least, a sequel of 600 to 800 pages. In the 40-page outline I recently finished, I’ve blown out the original concept for The Cloud and figured out—through painstaking effort, a lot of false starts and mistakes, and collaboration with my book editor and literary manager—how to turn my initial concept into an epic.

6. What would you say is your most interesting writer’s quirk?

My most interesting writer’s quirk is that I can’t stop editing; I revise everything compulsively, hundreds of times, and I’m never satisfied with the results. I acquired this quirk when I worked as a journalist and had to write 16-18 articles a week for a daily newspaper, a monthly business journal, and a university alumni magazine. The quirk deepened later, after I got into advertising, and had to work under enormous pressure to meet short deadlines and revise the ads, websites, and commercial scripts I wrote many, many times. That taught me never to get married to the way I expressed anything. There’s always a better way to say something.

7. Have you ever experienced writer’s block? If yes, how do you overcome it?

I’ve never had writer’s block because I’ve always worked as a professional writer in one capacity or another—as a journalist, advertising copywriter, screenwriter, blogger, and novelist.

8. Do you have any suggestions to help new writers become better at what they do?

New writers carry the heavy burden of creating the stories and myths that speak to their age. To become a master of what you are born to do—and writing is a calling, like the priesthood— you must first read incessantly, compulsively, and broadly; not just literature but also history, philosophy, theology, journalism, and current events; and you must watch lots of movies and TV series in all genres. Second, you must write incessantly, obsessively, hopelessly, and let yourself screw up and make false starts. Third, you must discover a writing genre that most closely fits your sensibility, personality, and interests, and read the masters in that genre. Fourth, read every book you can get your hands on about how to become an effective storyteller. There are hundreds if not thousands of books on the subject. Read reviews of them and buy the ones that make sense to you. One of my favorites is A Writer’s Time by Ken Atchity. Finally, write what you’re passionate about. I disagree with Hemingway that you should write about what you know. What you know may be tedious and uninteresting. Write instead about what sets you on fire with passion, even if you know little about it. Joseph Conrad wrote a stunning novel about 19th century South America, a continent he had never visited. It’s called Nostromo. I recommend it.

9. Does your family support your writing? If so, how do they support your books?

I’m the only artist/intellectual in my immediate family; my biological relations don’t really understand what it means to be an artist, and they’re not inclined to support me emotionally or financially—except for my mom, who loaned me money during the Great Recession of 2007-2015, when I was struggling to survive in Southern California, working hit or miss as an advertising copywriter and failed screenwriter. Aside from that, my wife, who has an artistic temperament, has always been emotionally supportive. She’s the one who convinced me to write in the science fiction/speculative fiction literary genre.

10. What is the most difficult part of your writing process?

I have the most difficulty at the beginning of a project. It’s extremely hard to crystallize an idea into a story. Every story originates as a tsunami of emotions, thoughts, half-baked ideas, and obsessions based on traumatic experiences and/or something I’ve read or seen on TV or in a film. The only way I can plow through that mess is to write as full-fledged, detailed outline. Then the project starts to make sense.

11. How do you develop your plot and characters?

The story originates in a feeling, an emotion, a dream, or a half-baked idea—like a musical theme that begins as a spray of notes. Gradually, as I outline the idea, the plot distills itself into clearly identifiable characters. The characters may begin as actual people I’ve known or composites of several people I’ve known; but as I write, the characters develop a life of their own and take control of the narrative, so that I’m following them as opposed to directing their actions.

12. Which of your characters can you relate with and why?

I relate with all my characters on some level—even the “villain” is a human being and commands my respect in some measure. Because the fact is, we’re all struggling to do the best we can to survive on a hostile planet; so even the “bad guys” deserve a little sympathy.

13. How did you come up with the title for your book?

The Cloud was the natural title for my novel, since it’s speculative, futuristic fiction. Our present age is largely the age of the Internet, which is linked through high-performance, satellite-linked computer servers collectively called the cloud. It just made sense to call the malevolent empire I invented The Cloud, since that empire dedicates itself to clouding over anything spiritual and free in humanity, with the intent of turning humanity into a race of mind slaves.

14. What inspired the idea for your book?

The Cloud came from three sources: 1) My 8 ½ years living in Los Angeles, which changed my life and introduced me, through my advertising clients, to the intricacies of global computer networks and biotechnology breakthroughs. Los Angeles also introduced me to Asian culture, which had a profound impact on my worldview. 2) My failed relationship with a beautiful Asian lady, an electric violinist and operatic vocalist whom I met in Los Angeles. I split her up into the female protagonist and the femme fatale in my novel; it was very healing. 3) My three years working for a Fortune 500 commercial real estate company in Atlanta. There I learned about how companies like the one I worked for are building cities of the future in 75 countries—but cities that will be for the top 10% only. My rage against that spurred me to write about a potential future I hope we can avoid.

15. How would you describe your book’s ideal reader?

My ideal reader is anyone, male or female (of mature age), race, nationality, or creed who is fascinated by our rapidly transforming world and concerned about what the future might look like—particularly in the face of global warming, the coming of AI and virtual reality technology, and the recrudescence of authoritarian political movements.

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