I’m really pleased to be interviewing Atom Yang today! I first became aware of Atom through the Big Gay Fiction Podcast where he was interviewed about his seasonal story, Red Envelope. I looked it up and quickly fell in love with his amazing cast of characters–Atom captures perfectly the complications of cross cultural lives and loves. His newest release, Herc & Pyotr (Storming Love Series: Meteor Strikes Book 5), sounded interesting for entirely different reasons. A dawning love affair set against an apocalyptic backdrop? How would that even work? Atom was kind enough to provide me a copy of Herc & Pyotr to read for this interview, and I have to say that a day after finishing, I am still reeling. Welcome to the blog, Atom, and also, wow.
Atom: Hi Gillian! Thanks for having me. I’m glad you found me through the Big Gay Fiction Podcast—it was my first interview and I had a blast with Jeff and Will (the hosts) as well as with their other guest, the extremely talented Wade Kelly. I was in very good company. I’m also very flattered that you enjoyed Red Envelope and wow, you were reeling after Herc & Pyotr? You’re gonna make me giddy!
The first thing I want to say about Herc & Pyotr is that anyone interested in reading it, don’t do what I did, and read it before bed. The start is really slow and sweet, a gradual drawing together of two people who need each other and it was really neat getting to see an attraction given the space to develop like that–no instant love/sex here! The connection between Herc and Pyotr really felt like it evolved naturally. And then, just as I was lulled into enough security to pick it up before bed, meteors. I could not set the book down and even after I finished my mind was racing all over the place–not at all conducive to getting a full night’s sleep!
If Herc and Pyotr was an adrenalin rush to read, what was it like to write?
Atom: I’m blushing so hard it’s difficult to type! You read it in one sitting? I’m such a slow reader that even reading my own work can take a long time. I think I’m fangirling over you as a reader.
As for what it was like to write, I would stay up very late, resent my bodily functions for interrupting me, and feel emotionally hungover after writing scenes that required digging into my past. Hm. Sounds like I went through adrenaline rushes while writing Herc & Pyotr!
Herc & Pyotr is part of the Storming Love series by MLR Romance, five books written by five different authors, all exploring love against a backdrop of meteor strike. Writing a variation on the same theme as five other authors sounds both a lot of fun and somewhat intimidating. Did you keep tabs on what the other authors in this series were doing or did you focus on your own story? Have you had the chance to read the other books in this series?
Atom: We had a closed group where we would meet and share our individual story ideas as well as develop a unifying back story, but we were given the freedom to write in our chosen genre (I think mine is the only contemporary, the others are firmly rooted in sci-fi).
We didn’t keep tabs on each other, except announcing when we were finished with our story. I haven’t had a chance to read the other books yet, but they’re in my stack!
I agree that writing a variation on the same theme was both fun and intimidating! It was fun because I loved hearing what other people were going to do—it’s a thing with me that I love to see different interpretations of a given concept. Beethoven’s Fifth Symphony and Walter Murphy’s disco classic, “A Fifth of Beethoven,” are good examples, if I’m allowed to date myself.
The intimidating part for me wasn’t making sure that Herc & Pyotr was of the same quality as the other books in the series, but that readers would give what I had written a chance and also enjoy it.
Focusing back on Herc and Pyotr, lets start with Herc. I loved the juxtaposition between his name, his strengths and his flaws–he’s one of those characters that instantly strikes a chord because they seem so real. What I found most interesting about Herc was that the very qualities that make him an excellent therapist are the qualities that led to the deterioration of his relationship with Jason, and almost cost him his chance with Pyotr. I imagine that Herc was a challenge to write. I know you researched Pyotr, but how about Herc? Where did he come from?
Atom: Herc comes from me would be the simple answer—I mean, all the characters come from me—but when it comes to how I imagined him, he came from a mixture of my personality (and quirks), relationship history, and culture.
I write often to understand myself and others, and the situations we find ourselves in or made for ourselves. He was a challenge to write because I was writing about shame: the feeling that you don’t belong or deserve to be loved. I’ve felt that shame myself for a long, long time—still do every now and then.
It can be overwhelming, and I remember in my past when I’d think, “It would be easier not to be here than to feel this way.”
Pyotr is charming. His sense of perspective and the dignity with which he faces the many losses in his life, and, in the course of the story, faces his probable demise, are perfectly in keeping with his age and character, and I was rooting for Herc and him from the start. I know you did a lot of research into creating Pyotr, so I’m curious. Where did the inspiration for Pyotr come from and how did he change as you learned more from your Russian advisor?
Atom: Pyotr, like any love interest I can imagine writing, was inspired by love interests in my own life—crushes, dates, and partners. He reminds me in some ways of a teacher I had who left a huge impression on me (my thing for beards, for example). He was wise, kind, and hot. And bearded. Wait, what was your question?
He didn’t change much in personality after interviewing my Russian friend, but his history kind of filled out. Some things I didn’t put in there, like my friend’s experience growing up Russian in the U.S. during the Eighties when there was a lot of anti-Russian sentiment (we’re always finding new enemies, aren’t we?), but I feel like it informed me on how Pyotr would behave.
I know my experience growing up as the child of parents who survived colonization, war, revolution, fleeing, and immigration, even if I never experienced those things directly, they still affected me and the way I see myself, others, and events at the micro- and macro-scopic level.
I also chose to make Pyotr Russian because I researched meteor disaster movies, and a big one—Meteor (1979) starring Sean Connery, Natalie Wood, and other big stars—had the U.S. and U.S.S.R. cooperating to blow up the killer asteroid heading toward Earth with their “star wars” weaponry (missiles on satellites aimed at the other country), which were named Hercules and Peter the Great, respectively. Peter equals Pyotr, and there you have it—a nod to the movie Meteor.
I loved that one of the first things that brought Herc and Pyotr together was hospitality–in particular, tea. In New Zealand, my Gran insists on inviting anyone who visits in for a cup of tea and biscuit and takes it as a personal failure if she doesn’t have anything to offer them. That is a cultural tradition that is dying, but in Japan where I live currently, it is still going strong. I did not drink tea or coffee before Japan, but I’ve had so many cups of both offered to me in my time here that I now enjoy both. I see this shared link of tea as a bridge between my two homes–which made Pyotr and Herc’s exchanges over the samovar even more meaningful to me. How do you see the role tea plays in this story?
Atom: Exactly as you do! I see it as a bridge for hospitality and exchange. It’s cultural, historical, and personal. It rejoins Herc and Pyotr’s ethnicities, gives them common ground. Food is integral in how we connect with one another, so I see it as being integral to romance.
As Pyotr said about Russian tea culture, people would gather around the samovar and settle disputes, hang out, and flirt. Not much has changed, even if you get to plug in your samovar these days. Tea, coffee, even water is an invitation to slow down, to savor, to meet.
The eventual role that the samovar plays in Herc and Pyotr’s survival made me really, really happy, but I don’t want to spoil things for new readers. Let’s just leave it that the samovar was a highlight, and I will definitely be buying some Lapsong Souchong tomorrow. Let’s move on to another highlight: Nestori. I bet he was fun to write.
Atom: I’m so glad the samovar made you happy!
Regarding Nestori, dude was a blast to write, and my homage to Rose Nylund from one of my favorite TV shows, The Golden Girls. (She was Swedish-American, though.)
While researching Russian culture, I came across a connection to Finland, Finnish-Americans (and Swedish-Americans), and their love of coffee and saunas. His name is a Finnish version of the Greco-Roman name Nestor, and Nestor was a friend and companion to the mythological Hercules.
From tea, to Nestori, to my third highlight; Herc and Jason’s messy relationship. This is incredibly hard to pull off in a romance, particularly one with a lighthearted tone, but wow, Atom. You did it and you did it incredibly well. As the child of divorced parents, it bothered me a lot as a teenager that love in books and TV was often simplified, as if you turned feelings off when you broke up. That Herc’s perspective and understanding of their relationship was challenged by Jason’s reappearance and actions later in the story was really real, and added a lot more depth to both characters and the situation. I felt sympathetic to Herc and Jason both, and was really pleased that they were able to come to the realisation that important as they are to each other, they need to do what is best for them–even if best for them is pursuing a relationship with someone else. I know that a lot of romance readers aren’t fans of such messy relationships, but for me it was a genuine highlight. Did you have misgivings about including this aspect of the story?
Atom: Not at all, and for the reasons you state. Life is messy, relationships are messy, people are messy, and emotions are messy (sound like Herc much?). I don’t like stories where there’s a clear cut “bad guy.” Life’s not that simple—even when someone behaves badly, I still want to see their humanity.
I think in a contemporary piece, a villain is cartoonish to me, and pulls me out of the story like Scrappy Doo. Sure, it can be fun sometimes to hate on a character, but I think it’s a deeper, truer experience to have empathy for the antagonist.
Everybody’s the hero in their own story. Just think about how much people loved reading about that messy relationship in Paradise Lost.
My biggest problem with Herc and Pyotr was the very dramatic shift in tension, from the first half of the story to the meteor strike and after where the focus shifts from navigating a tentative relationship to survival. However, somewhere in the early hours of last night, it occurred to me that might be a strength. I sped through the last half of the story because I needed to know what happened, much like the characters raced to find each other and reach places of safety. That sense of impending end created some of the most meaningful and poignant exchanges of the story, and the tone of the story is in keeping with the shift from every day to disaster situation. Balancing the two halves of the story must have been hard work. What were the challenges of bringing the story together as a whole?
Atom: Essentially, I kept telling myself that this was a story about everyday people and their response to a large-scale, natural disaster. I didn’t find balancing the halves of the story challenging, because it seemed like a reasonable progression (and metaphor for being alive—no predictability or control, just you and me).
I’m from California, so my experience of earthquakes is: you’re going about your day, falling in love, falling out of love, getting stuck in traffic, etc and then the ground you assume isn’t going anywhere starts shaking like you’ve put money in a Magic Fingers Vibrating Bed.
If you’re lucky, you’re not near the epicenter, but you turn on the news and you see freeways and buildings collapsed, people injured or dead. There’s no warning, or very little warning, and whatever you were doing immediately shifts from la-dee-da to survival.
The risk of telling a story like this is that ultimately, we don’t expect stories to follow real life, even when we complain or insist on realism (which is a style, not a reflection of reality)—we have expectations and an understanding of how a story is supposed to go and we can get disappointed—or delighted—when things don’t go as we assumed.
I really enjoyed Herc & Pyotr, loved Red Envelope, and really look forward to whatever you’re bringing us next, Atom! What are you currently working on?
Atom: Thanks! I’ve got several romance projects going on right now, and they’re all subject to change because I’m like that: paranormal about three (male) witches, contemporary about a restaurant, historical paranormal about vampires in the Wild West, paranormal noir about a psychotherapist and his clients, speculative (sci fi) about flying people, and lastly, a project a publisher approached me a few days ago to helm that I’ll reveal more about once things get going.
And finally, what are you reading or watching right now that might appeal to readers of Herc & Pyotr?
Atom: Hm, not sure what I’m reading and watching will appeal to the readers, but Herc & Pyotr has references to Star Wars and Star Trek, and I’ve been watching Star Trek: The Next Generation lately (I’ve never watched the entire show), and I just finished American Hero, which is a mockumentary about a troubled, down and out man with telekinesis.
I’m currently listening to book 9 of the Dresden Files series by Jim Butcher, started on Into Deep Waters by Kaje Harper, and looking forward to All I Believe by Alexa Land. I might slip in Hell & High Water by Charlie Cochet for a second listen. I’m a slow reader, so audio is how I get books into my head faster.
Thank you so much for having me on your blog! This has been wonderful and one of the most enjoyable interviews I’ve ever had the pleasure of doing.
My pleasure, Atom! I hope to have you back in the future–I want to know more about your many story projects!
To keep up with Atom, you can follow him at the following places:
Atom was born to Chinese immigrant parents who thought it’d be a hoot to raise him as an immigrant, too–so he grew up estranged in a familiar land, which gives him an interesting perspective. He’s named after a Japanese manga (comic book) character, in case you were wondering.
Herc thought he had the perfect life: a great partner and a meaningful career as a psychotherapist—until his partner left him a week ago and Herc became too depressed to see his clients. When a random meteorite punched a tidy hole in his car’s engine, it seemed like the world had it in for him, but bumping into Pyotr, the handsome older man who’s moved in a couple of doors down and happens to study things like falling stars, life might be looking up for Herc—and more may be falling than the skies in this light-hearted, apocalyptic romance.
I took care of my car.
Regular maintenance, oil changes, carwashes–the works. I figured I’d sell it one day, and I didn’t want it to have a scratch or a sticker to drop its value, let alone anything wrong mechanically. Everything worked on it–the power windows, radio, CD player…until today.
“Great,” I said, staring at the fist-sized hole in the hood. I clicked my key fob and turned off the alarm. A few of the neighbors came out and turned off their car alarms, too, that had been set off by the very loud boom that shook all of our windows early this spring morning.
“Jeez, Herc, what happened?” Nestori, my friend and neighbor down the way, stood there with his blond bed head, rubbing the sleep from his eyes. He wore a rumpled white tee, sweatpants, and socks–we were dressed alike except I had slippers. Maybe I appeared as lost as he did. Or worse, since I hadn’t changed my clothes since the beginning of the week.
“I don’t know.” I gawked at the smoking hole. “Lightning?” I pieced together the evidence I had, and only came up with a timeline that started with a crash, followed by my car alarm, then a couple of minutes later the aforementioned boom, and finally the other cars being triggered. “A frozen turd from an airplane?”
“Are you serious? Holy shit.”
“What?” His golden eyebrows crinkled together, and then he grinned. “Oh.”
“To be fair, it did fall from the sky.” Everybody huddled closer to peer into the puncture. “I don’t know. I don’t even know who I should call about this.”
“What about Jason?”
Nestori’s innocent question should’ve felt like a sucker punch, but the numbness from seeing my killed car protected me. “He left last week. We’re not together anymore.”
“Bro. Why didn’t you say anything?”
Because you would’ve wanted to get me drunk and laid.
“I would’ve totally come over with a bottle of Jack and helped you get some D, man.”
“So that’s why I haven’t seen him jogging for a while.” Pihla, the widow who lived across the street, had the perkiest personality–and breasts–in our neighborhood. “I thought he left on a business trip.” She wore a pink satin robe over a pink nightie with matching pink slippers. A small, thin, gold cross on a gold chain stuck out sideways from her cleavage and wobbled back and forth, unable to rest flat. Her son, Sami, clung to her leg, his head just above her knee, avoiding eye contact like some toddlers do. This suburban Madonna in pink held a mug of expensive coffee I could smell and envy from where I stood, and rested her French manicured hand on her shy boy’s head. By the way she had batted her eyes at Jason during block parties, or how she happened to pick up the morning paper from her driveway when he’d jog past, I always thought she had a crush on my partner.
Ex. I meant ex-partner.
“Yeah, he didn’t leave on a business trip. He just left me.” I wondered if I died inside my home from choking on a chicken bone while eating, single and alone, how long it would take for my neighbors to notice my dead, bachelor body. I thought I smelled something funny, one would say a week later. Jeez, what happened? another would ask. Who the hell cares? my ghost would spell out on a Ouija board, life sucks.
“Meteorite,” said a faintly accented voice from the crowd. Slavic, I would guess.
“Whoa! You think a meteor hit Herc’s car?” Nestori asked. “How do you know?”
“Meteorite,” the voice gently corrected. “It’s a meteorite when it lands. I saw everything as I was jogging this morning.”
“Meteorite,” I mumbled. My geek brain fetched a personal wiki page from when I wrote a report in sixth grade about asteroids crashing into Earth and destroying all life, because I’ve always been a cheery person. The word “disaster” comes from the Italian disastro, meaning “ill-starred event.”
Why couldn’t it have been a pretty shooting star that vaporized all sparkly in the atmosphere, so I could make a wish? Instead, it’d dropped a deuce on my perfectly maintained car.
The hole in the hood gaped back at me, and I thought about the day Jason left. He had requested I park on the street instead of in the garage, so he’d be able to get his things out of the house without too much trouble.
I should make a wish anyway.
Something realistic, not like true love and a happy-ever-after ending with a handsome, emotionally intelligent man, because that obviously doesn’t happen. How about a nice pair of shoes? Good shoes are more reliable than men.
“I’m sorry this happened,” the voice said, this time to my left. “There have been worldwide reports of meteor strikes over the past few weeks.”
I turned and came eye to eye with the concerned face of a middle-aged man only slightly taller than me. He wore a red baseball cap and his black hair, lined with a few strands of gray, escaped his hat around his ears and a little over his forehead. His color-coordinated stubble, speckled with silver, defined a square jaw and framed full lips. Perspiration darkened his loose, gray shirt, forming something like a Rorschach inkblot in the center of his defined chest. Despite the smell of engine oil and gasoline coming from my mortally wounded car, the scent of his clean sweat cut through and woke me from my daze.
“Hi, I’m Pyotr. I moved here last week.” He offered me a firm handshake and a smile, and returned to surveying the damage to my car, his hands on his hips. “You should probably call your insurance and not your ex. I work from home a few days a week, so if you need a ride, let me know? I live down the street.” He started running lightly in place. His feet were bare, which I hadn’t noticed.
“Thanks for the offer…Pee-yo-ter. I may take you up on it.”
“Please do.” Pyotr smiled again, nodded a succinct farewell, and trotted off.
“Yeah, if you need a ride…” Nestori and a few neighbors offered, but I didn’t pay attention.
I was busy making an unrealistic wish. And it wasn’t for shoes.