1. You've mentioned in several other interviews that your primary inspiration for the character of Jim Chapel is the courage and selflessness of real-life veterans of Iraq and Afghanistan, whom you've encountered both personally and through various media. And you've also said you don't give much consideration to genre as you write. Be that as it may, let's talk a little about genre, and other factors that may have influenced you here. The first thing I'd observe is that, although Chimera falls squarely into the techno-thriller genre, and to that extent is a departure from the horror novels with which you began and established your writing career, in some senses it doesn't feel like much of a departure at all. That's partly because your horror novels have always had a hyper-contemporary, techno-thrillerish aspect to them. We've often hashed out in detail your relationship, as a reader and viewer, to horror, but I don't think we've ever delved into any background you might have with techno thrillers or action in general. Could you say a little about your taste for such material, both long term and more recent? What are some of the touchstones of the genre(s) that probably influence you on a pretty deep level? Did writing Chimera give you a chance to indulge any techno-thrillerish stuff you haven't been able to fit into any of your horror novels to date?
I’ve talked about how my mom’s love of Stephen King novels got me into horror. The spy stuff comes more from my dad… but indirectly. He loved Le Carré and, later, Tom Clancy and that definitely rubbed off on me. That made spy books something to be taken seriously. Which is not to say I read them back then—I couldn’t actually understand most of his books, because the politics were over my head. Instead I turned to James Bond. Ian Fleming’s secret agent was a huge influence, but not on my writing, more on my life. I wanted to write like Stephen King, but I wanted to be James Bond. Not so much for the misogyny or casual murder, but for just how suave he was. This was a guy who could go anywhere in the world, walk into a bar, and order the right drink. He knew how to behave in any situation and look cool wherever he went. For a socially awkward kid that was a super-power worth having. Of course, over time I came to see how Bond was just a kind of male fantasy, something I could never live up to. I think that’s where Jim Chapel, the hero of Chimera comes from. This is a guy who wanted to be the ultra-cool action hero. Life dealt him a kind of bad hand of cards. But his job still demands he acts like an action hero, and he does his best.2. The other major aspect of Chimera that seemed continuous to me with your horror novels is that the chimeras struck me as basically naturalized versions of your vampires. I recall that after you finished your supernatural zombie trilogy, you wrote Plague Zone, which you described as "unfinished business" because you wanted to see if you could write a zombie survival story without all the wild supernaturalisms. You were explicit about that then, and I wonder if a similar impulse with respect to the vampire novels was somewhere in the back (or even front) of your mind as you were writing Chimera. Has anyone else remarked on similarity between the creatures, and do you agree with my impression or think I'm overstating it?
As for the book being a techno-thriller, I don’t know if I set out to make it such—it’s just I’m not sure what kind of thriller you could have anymore that wouldn’t be “techno” in some way. The best bit of criticism about horror I’ve heard is that in the age of the smartphone, 90% of horror stories would have happy endings. So much of horror is about being cut off from the rest of the world. Well, to me, the best spy books have always been about being plugged in. And that means my action hero needs to have somebody whispering in his ear, somebody who can search wikipedia for him. Or, you know, hack a government website. Writing the book let me use all the fancy tricks you can do with computers now, something that would have been a distraction in the horror novels.
Well, I like monsters, I don’t think that should surprise anybody. And I like complicated monsters the best. I didn’t intend to make the chimeras like my vampires, not in any conscious way, but there’s a point where every monster kind of turns into Frankenstein’s monster. The unnatural thing, forced to live in the natural world. I actually wonder if, in writing the chimeras, I was thinking more about werewolves… they live out in the forest and they have anger control problems. Hmm. I’m sort of edging around your question, aren’t I?3. Your last major departure from horror was your fantasy trilogy, which you published under a pseudonym, and I remember you were pretty emphatic that this was necessary because of scant crossover between horror and fantasy readerships. What is different this time, that you decided to publish in a different genre but still under your own name? You've expressed some disappointment in the sales of the fantasy novels; has this led you at all to second-guess your use of a pseudonym for them? If you had to do it over again, would you? Have you considered attaching your real name (not necessarily instead of the pseudonym, but maybe in addition to it) to the e-book versions of them, and maybe also their listings with online booksellers? Could you foresee yourself using the same or another pseudonym in the future?
The more personal answer to your question is that I wrote this book for my dad. He’s a huge supporter of my work. Recently during a visit to my parents’ house, he took time during dinner to make a list of his five favorite David Wellington novels and why he liked them so much. It was awesome. But every time I ask him what kind of book he likes to read best, his answer is always the same. “No elves.” This despite the fact that he introduced me to the Lord of the Rings at any early age… anyway, if there was any kind of intentionality here, it was to create monsters that he could enjoy, monsters with no supernatural component, monsters a super-spy might do battle with, definitely.
The pseudonym thing gets so complicated I don’t even know the answers here, and I was the one making the decisions. I guess if it was just about my personal feelings, no, I wouldn’t use a pseudonym again. I didn’t like it. I’m proud of all my books (why else would I publish them?) and I’d prefer to have my name on them. Putting a pseudonym on the fantasy novels made it really hard to reach out to my existing readers—while those books were in stores, I actually had a bunch of people email me and ask why I hadn’t published a book that year. It was exasperating. So, if it’s purely up to me, no more pseudonyms.4. Waaaaaay back when, we discussed the fact that you weren't writing sex scenes in your horror novels, and the reasons for your reluctance. You wrote: "They rarely do it for me. Typically in horror books and even in movies a sex scene just stops the action, stops it dead in its tracks, and then you have to waste a lot of ink getting back up to speed. I think it's a lot more effective to hint at sex, or to tease with it." Now, with Chimera, you've written a sex scene. And I hate to say it, but I think you may have been right the first time, as I caught myself skimming it. What changed your mind and overcame the reasons you gave before? Beyond sexiness, what did you want it to contribute to the story, and how happy are you with the result? Were you mindful of the "stopping" effect you previously tried to avoid, and if so, were there any special steps you took to neutralize it in this case?
I stand by the idea that explicit sex in a horror novel puts the brakes on. Horror is supposed to be about putting somebody in a bad situation and then tightening the screws. Sex scenes, at least positive sex scenes, are about people finding some point of comfort and compassion. Something good in the midst of the craziness of the plot. In horror that’s problematic. In a thriller it’s very different. Thrillers are about adventure. They’re not as pessimistic as horror stories. You want moments where, no matter how many spies are trying to kill you, it’s okay to stop and take a breather, and the sex scenes give me that chance. If you skimmed them, that’s fine—the effect is still there. The idea that the world is not unrelentingly horrible, that there is actually something worth fighting for beyond mere survival. It also gave me a great chance to expand my characters. The sex scenes give you a window into who they are that isn’t about how fast they can run or how good they are with guns. And that’s always useful. Finally, it’s a trope of the genre, isn’t it? James Bond is defined not just by his ability to kill, but also his ability to seduce. Chapel is definitely not James Bond. He’s not a hit man. He’s also no womanizer. But the only way to get that across is to show him falling in love, real, meaningful love in a way Bond never could. So I think those scenes are vital to the book.5. Jim Chapel, a combat veteran with a disability, is your second series protagonist who belongs to a minority, after Laura Caxton from the vampire novels, who is a lesbian. How deliberate are you, as a writer, about departing from the heroic-template default of maximal privilege (i.e. straight, white, male, able-bodied, etc.)? Another way to ask that: is broadening the sense of who can be a hero part of your creative vision, or has it just worked out that way both times? I think creators across all media are going to have to face, sooner than most probably expect, a vastly higher bar in terms of audience expectations for diversity, especially where a lack thereof seems unrealistic. The widespread criticism of Lena Dunham for whitewashing New York in her HBO series Girls, for example, strikes me as indicative of a tipping point, which is itself indicative of accelerating shifts in the broader culture. I recently read Jonathan Franzen's Freedom, to cite another example; here's a novel that spans years and a number of locales over multiple storylines and points of view, and probably my strongest reaction to it was that its all-but-exclusive whiteness, straightness, and general privilegedness made all that supposed scope and breadth ring false. As a writer who gets feedback from your agent, editors, and readers, what is your sense of the way these winds are blowing, and how does that affect choices you make about characters and stories? What kind of feedback have you gotten, in particular, about your minority characters from people who belong to those minorities?
Well, if I can turn it around a little—I never set out to create characters who fit into any particular group, whether that’s a minority or anything else. I just know my own style, and what works for me, and that’s verisimilitude and realism. I want my books to feel like stories about real people. And the real world is full of all kinds of people, so I try to make my books that way, too. I don’t go out of my way to be inclusive, or diverse, I just write what I see around me. I live in New York City, maybe the most diverse place in America, so I tend to put people of color or disability or alternative lifestyles (god, these euphemisms just start to sound horrible after a while, don’t they?) in my books because I see them all around me. There’s no political intent there. Laura Caxton was gay because when I started writing from her perspective, she just was. Chapel is missing an arm because he represents the sacrifices our veterans made.6. Your career began in earnest during the presidency of George W. Bush, and looking back over my old reviews and interviews with you, there was a lot pertaining to that administration which seemed to provide context and subtext to your work and our discussions of it. Now that we're into Obama's second term, I'm curious if you have any sense of how your work from that period has aged in that regard. Is there anything you're hearing from newer, younger readers who might not have that so strongly as a frame of reference, that would hint at an answer, one way or another? This is probably going to be harder to answer, considering some of the more personal changes you've been through in the meantime, but do you have any sense that the change in political climate has changed you as a writer in any specific ways? You do deal in the Jim Chapel stories with issues like drones, white supremacy, national security secrecy and cyber-measures, etc., but it seems a lot more direct and less metaphorical. Is that mainly a function of genre (horror being in general more metaphorical than techno-thriller), or has your approach to engaging issues evolved toward this, or maybe a little bit of both?
As far as feedback goes, there has been none. Pretty much zero. I think that’s because I don’t make a big deal out of these things. I actually had one LGBT magazine tell me they wouldn’t review my vampire books specifically because 13 Bullets wasn’t about a lesbian vampire hunter, it was about a vampire hunter who happened to be gay. They didn’t mean it in a bad way—they just had an agenda they wanted to get across, and my books didn’t foreground their agenda. I understood. And frankly I don’t want to be known as the guy who writes books about diversity. I would much prefer to live in a world where that wasn’t an issue. So I write my books as if it wasn’t.
As far as I can tell nothing much has changed except people have accepted there’s no going back. We still live in a world where politicians say “9-11” and we fight amongst ourselves over who can surrender their personal liberties the fastest. I had high hopes for Obama—and yes, I voted for him twice—but his recent speech about the NSA pretty much finished that off. The speech amounted to “I hear you folks are worried that America has given up on freedom. Well, you know what? Nothing’s going to change. And you don’t get to have a say in that. So stop worrying.” If the political stuff I deal with has become more literal and less metaphorical, it’s because that’s what happened to the real world, too. There’s no longer a debate about security vs. liberty, that debate’s been concluded and the results have been institutionalized. As far as newer, younger readers, well, they grew up with this stuff and don’t know anything else. It’s funny. When I started writing this stuff, say with Monster Island, I felt that old horror was dated and obsolete and I wanted to address the world as it had become. I always expected my books to become dated and obsolete, too. Instead, we seem to be stuck with the world that scared me so much back then.7. In other interviews, you've promised at least three Jim Chapel books. Am I correct in thinking that Minotaur and Myrmidon are supplemental to that, rather than part of it? If so, were they part of your contract, or just something you and/or your agent decided to go ahead with? One thing I'll say--they do nicely fill some of the time between hardcovers. Will more like this be on the way as you continue the series, and if so, will they likely be collected in print at some point? For a while now, you've been experimenting with e-book-only publication, in parallel with your publishing in print; I'd really love to hear how that's going, what your experience of the pros and cons of it might be, any tips you might have about it, etc.
Sorry to be such a downer! But I do actually have a little hope for the future. There’s a line I kept coming back to in the zombie books. What do you do the day after the world ends? The answer, of course, is that you rebuild. And I hope we can do that in the real world, which didn’t end but might as well have. I’ll actually be addressing themes of rebuilding and optimism in Positive, my next zombie book, which takes place twenty years after the zombie apocalypse.
Minotaur and Myrmidon are short stories, or novellas, depending on how you define those terms. There will be three full-length Jim Chapel novels (I’m currently drafting the third one): Chimera, The Hydra Protocol, and The Cyclops Initiative. The novels tell a complete story as a whole (as well as standing pretty well on their own). Minotaur and Myrmidon are separate from that story, but maybe they add a little depth to it (your mileage may vary, as the kids say).8. Here we are facing another new year. What are you most looking forward to, both professionally and (if you don't mind saying) personally? Thanks for three more fun reads, and thanks for another great interview!
They’re supplemental. Promotional material, whatever. I was asked to write them to help get attention for Chimera. But as usual when I start writing something I start caring about it, so they’re actually pretty good, too (if I say so myself). For now there’s no plan to write any more short pieces, but there are a lot of Jim Chapel stories I could tell that don’t fit in the big splashy novels, so who knows? I’ve always got a list in my head of about twenty books I want to write when I get a chance, and sometimes I get to actually do them.
As far as ebooks go, it’s something I’m only really starting to do now, so the jury’s still out. I love the freedom you get from releasing ebook only stuff. It doesn’t have to be a certain length, it doesn’t have to be written for a mass audience, what have you. But for now I’m still paying the rent with actual paper books. That’s the only real conclusion I can draw at this point. Ask me in a year and I may have a lot more to say on the subject.
Professionally, I’ve got two more Jim Chapel novels, and then Positive, my zombie epic, which is going to be really exciting. Personally? That would suggest I have time for a non-work life! Okay, seriously—I’m looking forward to spending a lot of time with my partner, Jennifer. She’s put up with a lot of weekends when I had to write and couldn’t do anything. She’s been fantastic about it, but hopefully this year we’ll get to make up for that.
Thank you, Curt, for this opportunity and for another great interview. The questions you ask make me think about my books in ways I didn’t before, which is always a good thing!