Wednesday, February 5, 2014

Interview with David Wellington about CHIMERA

I've interviewed author David Wellington many, many times for Groovy Age of Horror (here are all my reviews and interviews of him over there), and it's always been a pleasure, so it's my pleasure again to have an opportunity to interview him over here at my new digs. The occasion (admittedly belated on my part) is the launch of a new series centered around action hero Jim Chapel, a veteran of Afghanistan getting on with his life after the loss of an arm. The series kicks off with the novel Chimera, and continues with two connected shorter works only available as e-books, Minotaur and Myrmidon. A lot of the basics about Chimera are covered in other interviews, which I'd recommend checking out:
And with that out of the way, let's jump right into the deep end!

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 CarrĂ© 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.

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.
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?
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?

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.
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 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.

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.
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 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.

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.
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.
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).

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.
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!
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!

Tuesday, October 15, 2013

TRVE KVLT Interview with Comics Creator Jared Morgan

Full disclosure: Jared Morgan is a fellow Savannahian (though we only met after he found Groovy Age via Sean T. Collins) with whom I've enjoyed the occasional beer, and even once a game of Cave Evil. He's also a talented young creator to watch, and his graphic novel debut is the heavy metal horror comic TRVE KVLT (currently available through gumroad). Jared was kind enough to help me kick off this new blog with one of my favorite bloggy things to do--an interview!

1. How did you become interested in heavy metal? Considering the importance it places on visual elements (i.e. album covers, cartoon mascots, imagery in lyrics, etc.), what role did it play in your development as an artist? Do you have any particular favorites among album covers (mine, btw, is Dio's Holy Diver)? Is there an anecdote or two you could share about being a heavy metal fan that might not be directly referenced in TRVE KVLT, but that still provides some amusing or illuminating context?
I grew up in a fairly religious household so of course I instantly gravitated towards these weird album covers that were fully painted with monsters, demons, mutilation, and Satan on them.  Although the influence on my drawing didn't really start showing up until recently, strangely enough. Maybe the last 3-4 years?  I had always been drawing monsters and barbarians and stuff but TRVE KVLT was kind of the first project that I fully embraced all of it and let it bleed into the artwork. Now that the gates are open though, I see little peeks of it coming through all the time.  Usually lettering or type (because heavy metal bands have the best logos). 

As far as favorite album covers, that Holy Diver cover is a pretty spectacular one. I also really like the early Iron Maiden album covers, back when Eddie had a little more of a crude look.  Some others that spring to mind are Cannibal Corpses' Butchered at Birth because its so gross, Absu's Abzu, most of Death's albums, and Darkthrone's Circle the Wagon. My absolute favorites though are when you're digging through the heavy metal section of a record store and find all these bands that you've maybe never heard of or weirdo compilations of local bands that didn't go anywhere at the time.  The really weird, crudely airbrushed stuff with bad anatomy and construction.  Those are my favorite and get closest to capturing my imagination.  
2. The art class scene is hilarious! Could you say a little bit about your time at Savannah College of Art and Design, and similar experiences you may have had there? Do you still have any of your old artwork that might have provoked similarly brutal critiques, and if so, could I please post it? Were those critique sessions helpful to your development, and did you feel that your classmates and you were learning much from them?
My time at the Savannah College of Art and Design was very, very brief.  And one of the few things that I can say was really beneficial was those class critiques.  Everybody goes to art school being the "kid that can draw" out of high school, so it's good to have somebody tear your stuff down in an objective way.  Its always nice to have a fresh pair of eyes look at your work and tell you what may be wrong with it, or give you insight into different approaches you could take to get a better effect. The first couple of times you get torn apart sting like Hell, but its all for the better.  However, it can be super frustrating because sometimes, yeah, people don't have anything constructive to say and just say things to take up time or "participate". But all in all, you can't really progress as an artist without honest critiques.  Any time I've ever really been torn apart in a critique is because I deserved it--the art was rushed or, worse, lazy. 
And I tend to not be very precious about my art save for maybe the comic stuff.  So I think most of the artwork from those early critique sessions have long since been thrown out or given to family or friends.  Besides, the idea of sharing some of that garbage on the internet is horrifying! I have a hard time looking at my art from a couple of weeks ago much less years.
3. TRVE KVLT is your biggest project yet, right? Did you approach it much differently from your shorter projects--like did you do anything special to gear up for it or anything like that? Did you find yourself facing any unexpected learning curves in the course of producing it? Did it force you to grow as an artist or storyteller in any special ways? 
Yeah, TRVE KVLT is the largest thing I've worked on to date.  When I started writing it, I had no idea how large or small it was going to be.  So I just kind of made some plot points that I know I wanted to hit and a rough outline of the story.  Then I just started thumb nailing out pages and writing placeholder dialogue and gags as I went.  I think the original page count was something like 140 pages.  After that I just started working backwards from there to get it to a more manageable 98 pages or so.
A lot of the learning curves for me had to do with discipline and not throwing out pages or getting stuck.  If the page wasn’t working, I just moved on instead of getting hung up on the same spot and redrawing everything a hundred times.  Later after I had finished most everything I took the time to redraw, fix continuity errors, etc.  If I stopped to fix everything, I started to lose momentum.  And I knew if I started getting fussy with small details, I would only have 24 pages of an almost 100 page book done. It was really just important to me at the time to finish something I was proud of.  Most of my comics output before I just couldn't stand.  

And yeah, I feel like every time I finish a project I’ve grown in some way.  Whether it's just getting comfortable in my own artistic voice, or learning discipline, or just confronting artistic hurdles.  I started focusing on grids and layouts a little bit more towards the end and finding a pacing that suits me the best. 
4. Were the fantasy elements (i.e. the things summoned by the albums) pretty firmly in your mind from the beginning, or did you play around with different ones before settling on those three? Do you have any sketches you could share of alternate designs or anything like that?
I knew that the basic core would be summoning a witch from an LP and that it would be a whole set of monsters, so most of that stuff came together pretty early.  Most of the characters kind of came out fully formed, but I do have some early rough sketches of characters.
5. Did you try to place this anywhere before doing your own print-run and then putting it up on Gumroad? What has your experience so far been of the business of promoting and selling your comics? Have you been going to conventions for that purpose, or done signings at any local comic shops, or anything else in that vein? Has this in any way affected your long-term view of yourself as a comics creator?
Right now, I’m trying to shop it around and see if anybody would be interested in giving it a home.  Most people have been really supportive but no bites yet.  I really like Gumroad so far since I can just throw it up to be downloaded and read on whatever device you’d like. Making mini-comic versions of it, while fun, are insanely time consuming and costly.  I’d rather be drawing than folding, stapling, and mailing comics.  If it was maybe shorter, I don’t think I’d care as much but for a book of its size its kind of a pain in the ass.  
I’ve learned that I can get the work done and put my nose to the grind when it comes to creating the work, but sometimes I have a hard time knowing what to do with it after its been created.  I always thought that my biggest hurdle to overcome as a creator was learning the discipline to create and finish projects but in reality I found it was learning how to promote and distribute said work.  It’s a bit of a steep learning curve but I think I’m slowly getting better at it. 
6. You've been posting shorter pieces to your tumblr page, but do you have any other big projects in mind or in the works? Frank Santoro somewhat recently asked, "Is era of 300 page single story graphic novel sort of over?" Do you see yourself tackling anything on that scale in the foreseeable future?
I’ve been doing the smaller stuff because it’s easier to hammer out than spending 9-10 months drawing comics like TRVE KVLT.  I can leisurely finish a 14-16-page comic over month and a half or so while still drawing other projects and have a finished comic.  And really, I think sometimes that story you want to tell might only be 4 pages. Or just a page.  No need to stretch it out over 600 pages and take 9 years to do it like Habibi if you can say everything you want to say in just a few pages.
That being said, however, I do have another larger story I want to tell.  In my head its significantly larger than TRVE KVLT but I would like to maybe approach it differently.  Maybe serialize it online in larger chunks like 24-32-pages at a time. I don’t think I cram enough information in a page to rationalize doing a webcomic where I would update only twice a week. I have a few other short comics I want to do before I tackle it though.
 7. Any special plans for Halloween? Anything else you'd like to add? Thanks very much for a fun comic and an informative interview!
I plan on spending Halloween drinking Pumpkin beer and watching some trashy horror movies with my girlfriend. And thanks to anybody that takes the time out to sit and read TRVE KVLT

Friday, October 11, 2013

Say hello to my little friend

This is Butterbean. When I started looking around for a dog, the last thing I expected was to end up with a chihuahua, but she's the one who came up to me and said, "Oh, hey, you're my daddy!" I mean, look at that face. What could I do? Now, almost a year later, I have to say she's the best thing that's happened to me in a long, long time. I just love this little creature! I'll try not to turn this into a dog blog, but pics of her will probably crop up from time to time . . .

Wednesday, October 9, 2013

Hello Again

Most people who know me online know me through the blog I started many years ago, Groovy Age of Horror. For a variety of reasons I won't bore you with here, I've been on a very extended hiatus from blogging there. Well, I feel about ready now to ease back into the blogging game. Instead of picking up where I left off there, though, I've set up this new blog, and will resume blogging here.

This is in no way a diss of Groovy Age. People I've invited over the years to join me there continue to keep it active, posting fun, interesting, relevant material. And I'm extremely proud of the archives built up by my co-bloggers and myself. Almost nothing I covered there in the beginning was being covered anywhere else on the internet, and Groovy Age is still the only place to find coverage for much of it.

So why a new blog? The main reason is, I'd just like a fresh start. My interests have migrated over the years quite far from Groovy Age's original conception, and they have only continued to do so during my hiatus. It made sense to keep posting there before, even long after I had ceased to post anything genuinely (or even remotely) on-topic, simply owing to my then-unbroken stint as the blog's founder and primary contributor. Now, however, that stint has been broken, for such an extended period and so seriously that I honestly wasn't sure I ever would return to blogging. It makes the most sense, I think, for me and for Groovy Age, that I move on.

Also, I guess it was inevitable that Groovy Age would eventually wind up behind an "Adult Content" filter. Frankly, I'm a little surprised it took so long. If you think (as I don't) that visual depictions of nudity and sex necessarily belong behind such a filter--and that does seem to be the main standard used in most cases--then I suppose Groovy Age fits the bill. Going forward, though, the stuff I'm most interested in blogging about really doesn't fit that bill, and I'd prefer not to have it pointlessly concealed (from search engines, for example) behind such a filter.

One more thing. Without going into details, I felt that I hit a few low-notes, and my disappointment in myself over them was a factor in my hiatus. I took them quite seriously, am genuinely sorry for them, and hope I've learned better. I apologize for them to all my readers, whether you have any idea what I'm talking about or not.

All right, then! I probably won't post with my former frequency, but I hope that what I post here will be worth your time an attention. Thanks to everyone who rejoins me here!