Posts filed under ‘Books’

Interview with The Moon of My Mind Author J.J. Kalke, Jr.

In the middle of the night when I have been on milk duty, I have found my Kindle to be a pretty steadfast companion. Recently I finished The Moon of My Mind, the first of three books that follow the struggles of a claustrophobic teenager who lives on the moon.

In the late 21st century, growing up on the moon is a nightmare for Dennis Howard – considering his claustrophobia and the underground cities that make up Luna. But thanks to SIM technology, Dennis can keep his sanity by entering simulated realms both vast and rich with complexity. Though full of adventure and peril, in the SIM he finds his sanctuary. Such retreats are short-lived for back in the real world, after a bombing that nearly kills his father, Dennis and his friends find themselves embroiled in conspiracies and intrigue that may well decide the fate of everyone on Luna.
-Product Description from

The author of the book, J.J. Kalke Jr., was kind enough to answer some questions. We talked about background, inspiration, the movie Inception…and maybe a little bit about trees as well. Enjoy!

I didn’t see an About the Author included with your book. In the novel, you see snippets of knowledge from a myriad of subjects – engineering, computer technology, biology, psychology and even music history. I was curious what your schooling and professional background is.

By day, I’m a mild-mannered software architect. (At night, pretty much the same.) I graduated from Purdue University with a bachelor’s in aerospace engineering. I later got a master’s in computer systems engineering from the University of Pennsylvania. But that’s just my formal education. The informal kind never really stops. I’ve worked for financial institutions on banking software as well as aerospace firms to help put all manner of satellites into space.

On Facebook you mentioned this series has been “a long time coming.” How long have you been working on the Persistent Illusion series?

The first words for The Moon of My Mind, book 1 of Persistent Illusion, were set down on paper back in 1991. Now, that’s a long time ago, and I didn’t put in twenty person-years of effort. Thankfully, life has been very busy, and when I had time to write, I did. That being said, Persistent Illusion is a complex piece of work. I hope it comes off as effortless, but it is one of the most difficult things I’ve ever done. I wanted to do something that I’d never seen done before. We’ve all seen stories with multiple plot lines that merge at the end, or sets of characters whose lives begin separate but later intermingle in unexpectant ways. I wanted to take the form one step farther: to combine a novel, a novella and a handful of short stories in such a way as to keep them distinct and separate while simultaneously making them magically culminate together.

That wasn’t enough. Over the years I noticed the tried-and-true third-person limited narrative mode, while more effective than third-person omniscient, sometimes failed to bring you in to identification with the main character sufficiently, especially in science fiction works. So I decided to make the whole thing first person from a single character’s point of view: Dennis. Now, the intimacy you achieve with Dennis is unmatched in first-person, but at the incredible cost of only revealing to the reader what Dennis knows and experiences. I eventually had to concede some ground and write prologues for all three books from the viewpoints of others in order to heighten the tension and give the reader some perspective. And a mere four re-writes later…

Your book takes place on the moon. However, the main character escapes his claustrophobia by immersing himself in virtual worlds through the miracle of SIM Technology. As a result, your story gets to alternate between elements of science fiction and fantasy. As a reader, are you equally fond of both genres? Which works have you found particularly influential?

It’s true, I love both genres. Of course, I didn’t come up with the SIM myself. If memory serves, I first encountered the concept in James P. Hogan’s ‘Inherit the Stars‘ (his Giants series). It may seem obvious now that this type of technology is where we are headed, but this book was published in 1985. There are lots of examples in TV and movies. Anyone remember the TV series ‘Earth 2‘ from back in 1995? Everyone had VR gear. How about the movie ‘The Thirteenth Floor‘ (1999)? Avatar, The Matrix, etc. All of these used the SIM technology either as something tangential to the plot or the entire story was merely about the SIM. In Persistent Illusion, I attempted to use it, not as a focus, but as a means. What am I talking about? Let’s say the SIM is a metaphorical car. The story isn’t about the car, nor is it just a nifty device that you happen to use to get across town. Instead I created a plot in which you can’t get here from there unless you have the car.

The concept of bouncing back and forth between worlds or time periods isn’t new either. ‘Lost‘ took it to another whole level. But go back and look at the movie Highlander (1986). I loved the contrast set up between the expansive past and the hard painful present. The current show, ‘Once Upon a Time’ is doing largely the same. What’s so appealing? The change- the switching of gears- is jarring enough to wake you out of your complacency. Keep in mind the human senses are best at detecting change. (Just try staring at an unchanging scene without moving your eyes. It doesn’t take too long before the entire scene vanishes as you go blind- move your eyes and it’s back.) By shifting gears between the two genres I had hoped to achieve a jolt to your senses and thus make you see and taste the action all the better.

You make use of a handful of Public Domain poetry in your first book. In a Native American-inspired SIM adventure, for example, you include a 15th century Nahua poem. Have any of the poems inspired scenes in your book?

Poetry is like cinnamon. By that I mean poetry can invoke powerful emotions without many words just like the spice has a powerful influence (and makes everything taste better). I included poetry in certain places to establish mood or provide emotional closure, for riddles, songs and prophecies. Of those appearing in all three books, I wrote about half and I borrowed the rest. I would have written the whole thing in poetry if I could have, but I’m not that talented. (Shakespeare – wow). But to your question: no, the poems didn’t actually inspire any scenes. In fact, it was a bit the opposite. Via some mysterious process I fail to understand, I would write a piece, figure out I needed a poem, then soon afterwards I’d run across a poem that said exactly what I needed. I sometimes felt as if I must be getting some help.

The main character, Dennis, spends a lot of time in the simulated worlds. In his home, he has a small screw underneath his desk with an X etched into it which at one point he uses to determine if he is still in the real world. I assume you originally wrote this passage some time ago, so I was wondering when you saw Inception (and the totems the characters used to determine if they were dreaming), did you think, “D’ooooooooooooooh!” : )

That didn’t bother me as much as Dicaprio’s character saying, “Here’s my totem. Never tell anyone how you totem works. Got it? Great. Now let me tell you how mine works.” But we needed to find out how they worked somehow, so Nolan used the concept of a reflection character – someone who can be told the information we (the audience) need to have. Couldn’t he have used a voice over?

No, I was much more upset by The Matrix (1999) that not only delved into the SIM world concept, but some other aspects that enter my book as well. I love that movie.

Some of the things that really grabbed me are the small details you threw in about life on the moon. For example, early on you describe how architects used elevators in the lunar buildings out of habit. I absolutely love that concept of “vestigial architecture”. Another example is the bright colors people would wear to offset the monotonous color scheme of lunar life. Are these details things that came to you as you were actively writing or were you out and about one day waiting for an elevator (or seeing someone in a bright wardrobe) when the notion struck you?

Most of those details were invented as I wrote, however the elevator is another story. Generally speaking, in the low gravity of the Moon, people shouldn’t need elevators unless they have a couple of broken legs. Yet the elevator was a device I needed for the plot, so I decided to explain it, from Dennis’ fourteen year old perspective, as silly architectural concepts brought from Earth. There really are some good reasons you would need an elevator, but Dennis sees his city as a place where you can fly. Why get into a tiny box when you can leap up or down stairwells two floors at a time?

Finally– I’m passionate about trees and I was pleasantly surprised that here I was reading a book about the moon and seeing how often trees were mentioned and not just in the virtual worlds! I believe I recall oaks, maples and larches making appearances. What is your personal favorite type of tree?

Trees – and nature in general- are a vital part of all the lunar cities in Persistent Illusion. Here in the real world, we’ve already managed to cut ourselves off from nature. Imagine what it would be like for people on the Moon. The connection with nature would be a means of keeping everyone from going stir crazy. In the book, the cities were designed and constructed well before they had perfected SIM technology. Dennis stays grounded by immersing himself in nature via simulations instead of the arboretums dotting the city.

The older and larger the tree, the more I love them. Sequoias. They dwarf us in both size and life-span. It gives you some perspective, something impossible to keep for very long.

The Moon of My Mind, Whispers of Memories Lost and Greater Than I Know make up the Persistent Illusion: A Distant Ringing series. All three books are available for the Kindle on 

February 19, 2012 at 10:27 pm 2 comments

ISO: Tree Books

Speaking of trees and books….

The local ecologist blog is looking for books where North American trees and forests serve as main characters. As this list will give me ideas of additional ways to feed my tree fancy, it is in *my* best interest for that list to be as comprehensive as possible. If you have a tree book you would recommend, fiction or non-fiction, definitely swoop over to local ecologist and leave a comment:

Call for books: Ethnobotany of trees & forests

Tree of Books
Tree of Books (Photo by

November 15, 2010 at 3:00 pm 4 comments

Trees and The Kite Runner

In 1992, the city of Sarajevo had 26,111 trees. Three years of war later, only 6,117 remained. Faced with a siege, the residents of Sarajevo had no choice but to cut down the trees to heat their homes, to cook their meals, to survive. Some time ago, I read a compelling quote that has stuck with me. It’s from Kemal Kurspahic, the editor in chief of a Sarajevo newspaper:

“Do whatever you can to stop the killing, to bring about peace, and then bring us trees.”
-Kemal Kurshpahic, Oslobodjenje, Spring 1998 Issue
(Also see Releaf Returns to Sarajevo)

This first thing on his wishlist was peace. Second up— trees.

The best-selling novel The Kite Runner focuses on another war-torn city, Afghanistan’s Kabul. Author Khaled Hosseini is describing a different city and a different war, but he still hits upon the loss of trees.

Part of his effectiveness comes from describing the many ways trees touched the lives of citizens in happier times. Descriptions and cameos of trees litter the entire novel. Although a particular pomegranate was prominent, it wasn’t the only tree accounted for in the book. A wealth of species – willows, pines, cypresses, cherries, apples, mulberries, gums, acacias, poplars, palms, persimmons, hibiscuses, loquats, birches and oaks- made appearances.

Trees were used to describe locales and landmarks. Jalalabad described as “the city of cypress trees and sugarcane fields.” A passage on Islamabad’s panoramic view mentions “rows of clean, tree-lined avenues and nice houses.” One of the main characters lived “[o]n the south end of the garden, in the shadows of a loquat tree.” Meanwhile, another character was buried “in the cemetery on the hill, the one by the pomegranate tree.”

Trees described people. The main character recalled sitting on his father’s lap as a child “like sitting on a pair of tree trunks.” He described his father’s strength by saying he had hands that “looked capable of uprooting a willow tree.”

Trees were used to portray affluence. A rich boy’s house was described as “a posh, high-walled compound with palm trees.” A family friend’s two-story home “had a balcony overlooking a large, walled garden with apple and persimmon trees.” Later in the novel, a character speculates on another’s privileged upbringing. Part of his tirade– the presence of fruit trees.

You probably lived in a big two- or three-story house with a nice backyard that your gardener filled with flowers and fruit trees. All gated, of course. Your father drove an American car. You had servants, probably Hazaras.

Trees were functional. Their fruit was ingested and their shade was enjoyed. The kites that were the namesake of the tale were also aided by trees. After the boys ran the kite strings through a “mixture of glass and glue”, they would hang “the line between the trees” to dry. The author even described how a snapped tree branch served as a credit card for two young boys.

Hassan and I would take the wooden stick to the bread maker. He’d carve notches on our stick with his knife, one notch for each load of naan he’d pull for us from the tandoor’s roaring flames. At the end of the month, my father paid him for the number of notches on the stick.

Trees illustrated the happy childhood of the two main characters. They chased each other “between tangles of trees” and “used to climb the poplar trees” to annoy their neighbors. The boys would respectively tell and listen to stories under a pomegranate tree. The same pomegranate tree documented the boys’ friendship in the form of their carved names and continued to do so for decades. Happiness and trees were so synonymous that at one point, one boy was able to cheer up the other simply by asking, “Do you want to go climb our tree?”.

In the book the main character escapes the turmoil of Kabul and eventually settles in America. After roughly 19 years, he returns to the city of his youth and is struck by the devastation. One change he definitely notices is the trees. When he first arrives in Afghanistan, he notes that “pine trees flanked the road, fewer than I remembered and many of them bare.” When he reaches the center district of Kabul, he discovered, “There weren’t as many palm trees there as I remembered.” At his childhood home “most of the poplar trees had been chopped down.”

As he had a somber reunion with his city and he watched children playing in ruins and mule-drawn carts swerve around debris, he had a question for his driver.

“Where are the trees?” I said.

“People cut them down for firewood in the winter,” Faris said, “The Shorawi cut a lot of them down too.”


“Snipers used to hide in them.”

A sadness came over me. Returning to Kabul was like running into an old, forgotten friend and seeing that life hadn’t been good to him, that he’d become homeless and destitute.

Because Hosseini had been consistently reminding us about the presence of trees throughout the story, this conversation has all the more impact. When I read The Kite Runner, I found myself coveting two things for the Afghan people– peace…and trees.

The former may be tricky, but there are numerous organizations already helping out with the latter.

Future Generations Canada
Afghans4Tomorrow’s Bare Root Trees Project

Anthony Miller Plants an Apple Tree in Afghanistan (Photo by USDAgov)

November 15, 2010 at 5:00 am 2 comments

Book Review: Halfway to the Sky

A few years ago, I bought a CD by a new punk band. It became my programming sound track, I listened to it for an entire summer while I did the backend for the Virtual IT website. To this day when I hear the songs, I feel energized and productive. The band was Good Charlotte. It wasn’t until much later I discovered the fanbase of Good Charlotte consists of me… and twelve year old little girls.

Well, perhaps I have even more in common with twelve year old girls than I had thought. Following a recommendation from, this weekend I read a book called Halfway to the Sky.

The main character’s brother recently died from a debilitating disease. Filled with grief and feeling alienated from even close family members, she decides to leave town without telling anyone and thru-hike on the Appalachian Trail to find some silence, some peace.

Her name is Dani. She’s twelve.

The people she leaves behind- her divorced parents.

Despite being young, Dani displays a lot of good hiking sense. She trained two hours a day for three months. She was well read on all the guidebooks and maps. She saved up money for the expenses and even showed great prudence with the contents in her pack. But she forget to delete her browser history. That dang Internet Explorer will get you every time. Before she was even off on Springer Mountain, Dani’s mother, rather unpleased, catches up with her.

After some drama, Dani convinces her mother to keep on hiking. Together, they complete 700 miles and finish up in an area I’m very familiar with– Catawba, Virginia. Along the way, they argue, they disagree, they grieve and they bond.

Some of the plot lines and conversations between Dani and her father don’t feel genuine to me. But I did enjoy the relationship and understanding that developed between mother and daughter on the trail.

Perhaps more than the storyline, I enjoyed this book as an introduction to the Appalachian Trail. I thought it did a great job of interweaving facts and trail culture into the tale. The whole book is formatted very much like a Trail Journal listing the current location, the daily mileage and the total AT mileage at the beginning of each chapter. It hit on so many little tidbits that made the story feel authentic and educational– GORP, trail magic, the infamous approach trail to Springer Mountain, the shelters, hanging bear bags with carabiners, Damascus Trail Days, trail registers, hostels, zero days, moleskin, what foods weather the best, mail drops, the logistics of doing laundry and even the thru-hiker smell.

Everytime I hike with a new person, I find a new trail food to adopt for future trips. Dani and her mother are fictitious hiking partners, but nonetheless I was introduced to another trail recipe.

Mom made the pudding in a zippered plastic bag with [pudding mix], powdered milk and water. We cut the side of the bag and squeezed it into our mouths.

!!!! YUM !!!! The thought of trail pudding alone makes me want to leave my house and go backpacking right now. I will definitely be trying that in the future!

This book is classified as a Young Adult title. Its target audience is pre-teens– twelve year old little girls. But like Good Charlotte, the author has attracted a significantly older fan.

One who’s suddenly craving pudding. : )

July 20, 2009 at 10:15 pm 9 comments

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