A conversation with Michael Bunker

This week, after months of collaboration, Michael Bunker and I finished creating the covers for his Amish science fiction series, Pennsylvania. The result is so striking, and so completely unique, that I wanted to share them here. I also invited Michael to pull up a chair and talk about the books (which I highly recommend, whether you're a devoted science fiction reader or not).

Let's get this show on the road!

The Pennsylvania lineup, installments 1-5. (Click to enlarge.)

Michael Bunker

Michael Bunker

Hello, Michael! Tell me about Pennsylvania

Pennsylvania is a classic fish-out-of-water story with a pretty dramatic twist. In the middle future, Jedediah Troyer is a young Amish man who wants to start his own farm. There isn’t enough affordable land in Pennsylvania, so he signs up to emigrate to a new, Earth-like planet called New Pennsylvania. It’s in a distant solar system, land is cheap, and the Amish are starting a new colony there. 

On another planet. I love it.

Jed makes his journey just as a major uprising breaks out against the tyrannical government that rules both worlds. Jed and his new “English” friend Dawn work together as they try to make their way to safety — they hope — in the Amish Zone. 

How do you even classify a book like this? 

It’s an Amish science fiction thriller love story, if you can imagine that!

How did you conceive of such a tale? You’re sort of inventing a niche in an established genre here.

I know what people must think when they first hear the phrase “Amish sci-fi” — but in reality, it’s the most natural thing in the world. The Amish aren’t anti-technology. They boarded very advanced ships to migrate to America from Europe in the first place. I think because they make deliberate choices about technology, most people believe that they’re anti-tech. But they are not. 

One of my favorite types of science fiction are stories that ground themselves in the plausible, the possible. Is Pennsylvania that sort of story?

I have long believed that the best science fiction — actually the best literature — deals with these natural social and spiritual conflicts as men and women make decisions about how they want to live. I am a “plain person”, and I live in a plain community [Note: You can read more about Michael Bunker and his off-grid, plain lifestyle in an interview that I wrote earlier in 2013. — Jg], but I am also a writer who interacts with technology every day. I walk down a long path from my beyond-off-grid cottage to my office — which is also off-grid, but which uses alternative energy sources to give me access to the technology that I use to write and publish my books. That walk is really what this book is about.

Let’s talk about the covers. Pennsylvania is a sprawling series. Five books, with an omnibus edition coming. When you start thinking about the cover for your stories, what is it you look for? 

To me, a book cover is not primarily about marketing. It’s about communication. Of course, you want your product to be seen and for it to attract readers… but I need a book cover that communicates what I want to say about my book, using images and as few words as possible. With science fiction, I believe that the reader wants something that stands out — but I think they also want to feel comfortable that inside the book is a well-fleshed-out world that could exist somewhere. Maybe in another world, maybe in another future, maybe in the distant past — but somewhere. This seeming conflict — that a cover be striking enough to garner attention, but comfortable enough to project depth and texture — is what I think a science fiction book needs.

Which is where I came in. This isn’t the first time we’ve worked together — I designed your covers for The Silo Archipelago, for Wick, for Osage Two Diamonds, and a few other titles. But let’s generalize a bit. How do you work with a designer to realize your vision?

Well, one of the greatest things about working with you is that you’re also a writer, and a very good one. So you understand the need for something that isn’t just a cool cover, but is an integral part of the story I want to tell.

Well, thanks. 

Remember, for me it’s all about communication, so that’s what I look for from any designer. I try to give a rounded-out word picture of what I want the cover to say. I share my very loose ideas of what’s in my head. 

This generalization thing isn’t working, so let’s just talk about our collaboration on these covers. Is it easy to trust me with your books? 

I make a point of telling you that I’m always willing to flush my ideas if you come up with something better, and almost inevitably, you do.

Almost inevitably. Let’s not talk about the covers that didn’t make the cut. 

Oh, when we’re working on the first book for a series, or on a single book, and you send several covers to choose from, it’s inevitable that I want to use them all! But I also appreciate that you aren’t afraid to give me your opinion of my hare-brained ideas when they won’t work, or when you think they’ll produce a sub-par product. 

What would you say to an author as they’re preparing their book for publication? When they’re contemplating a cover, what should they think about?

It never ceases to amaze me how hard an author will work on a book, and how little they consider the factors that motivate readers to seek out and actually buy their book. Although I enjoy writing, I write to be read. I would tell authors that there are a few things you should never do to your book: Don’t publish it unedited. Don’t clothe it in an amateurish cover. Despite what an author may think, unless your name is Stephen King, you are not good enough or popular enough to overcome a bad cover. A great cover will not make a bad book good, but it will make a great book even better, and attract readers, and create sales.

My own publishing situation is quite unique. I’m a unique author, and my books are quite different from the bulk of what’s out there. You manage to make my stories communicate well to a broad audience. You’ve helped build my brand, your covers give my books instant credibility, and both go a long way towards sharing my vision with my readership, which is growing every day.

I was really excited to work on the covers for this series. It’s not every day you get to explore new ground like this. Do you think we’ve achieved your vision for how these books would look on a shelf?

Absolutely — that’s why I keep coming back to the well. The books put a fantastic face on the message I want to communicate with my books.

What do you think the covers will say to readers? What do they say to you?

That there’s something out here that doesn’t fit the same old, same old mold. Pennsylvania is something different, and a story that communicates with them in a very primal way. I think we need to examine where we are, where we’re going, and sometimes, in order to do this rightly, we need to look at our trajectory through the eyes of someone different than ourselves.

Let’s go back to the genre question. Is there a readership for Amish science fiction, do you think?

We’re just now finding out, but it looks like the audience could be bigger than I ever imagined. We already knew there was a large audience for Amish stories.

Really? What sort of stories?

Amish romance in particular, actually. But there are millions of people out there today who are looking for something different, for something that examines the tough issues we all see every day but almost no one ever talks about.

How do you attract readers to this new sub-genre? How do you grab a science fiction reader and convince him or her that Amish science fiction is worth checking out?

I think we are at a very particular moment in time when our society of consumption has generated a sort of nostalgia for a simpler, more productive way of life. This is one of the reasons that tourism in Amish regions is growing exponentially. But I also think that Amish sci-fi gets back to the roots of what science fiction is all about — the point of contact between man and something fantastic, futuristic and really beyond the limits of imagination.

It doesn’t hurt that you have some deeper understanding of the culture you’re writing about, I’d imagine.

Most of my readers know how I live, and the experiences I’ve had living off-grid and plain, so I think they appreciate the authenticity I bring.

The upcoming Pennsylvania omnibus edition.

Well, I’m really excited to see the series published. You’ve already put a couple of these installments up for sale. What’s your plan for releasing the remaining titles, or the collected volume?

Pennsylvania 1 and Pennsylvania 2 are already out there. I hope to release Part 3 in the second week of January, and Part 4 a week after that. The final part should be out in early February, and hopefully the collected novel will be available almost immediately afterward. 

Where can readers stay updated about the releases? 

I blog at MichaelBunker.com, and I’m on Facebook and Twitter quite a lot.

Thanks, Michael!