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Thursday, June 28, 2007

Interview with Austin Grossman

Buy “Soon I Will Be InvincibleHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic's Review of "Soon I Will Be Invincible"

2007 has been a good year for book releases. I’ve had the pleasure of reading fantastic offerings from established authors, personal favorites and talented up-and-comers. One novel though that really took me by surprise was “Soon I Will Be Invincible”, a fun, humorous and intelligent glimpse into the world of superheroes and supervillains. The mastermind behind this excellent debut is Austin Grossman, a videogame designer (Deus Ex, System Shock, Thief, Clive Barker’s Undying) who talks about the inspiration behind “Soon I Will Be Invincible”, the gaming industry, Chip Kidd and much more in the following Q&A. So, much thanks to Mr. Grossman for his time and effort in doing the interview, and especially for writing one of the most enjoyable books of the year…

Q: For starters, I read that you felt ‘stifled’ as a storyteller when working in the videogame industry, so you took a few years off to pursue a Ph.D. in English Literature at the University of California, Berkeley and started writing a novel, the recently released “Soon I Will Be Invincible”. Obviously with your videogame background, which includes Thief: Deadly Shadows, Clive Barker's Undying, Deus Ex, System Shock, Ultima Underworld II: Labyrinth of Worlds, etc. you had plenty of material to draw from, but instead you chose to write about superheroes/villains. Why?

Austin: In retrospect I think “stifled” is surely the wrong word – for what was such a rich experience – but yes, working collaboratively in a medium with so many formal storytelling constraints meant exercising a lot of discipline.

But yes, left to my own devices I still picked superheroes – why? Maybe because I'm constitutionally incapable of writing a “straight” story. Maybe because it's the genre where the marvelous and the everyday live closest together – you can write about impossible things happening to recognizably normal people and it fits, which is a lovely tension to be able to exploit in a novel.

Q: It’s safe to say that artistic ability runs in the family as you have a twin brother, Lev Grossman who is also a novelist/writer, and a sister Bathsheba who is a sculptor. Regarding your novel, how important was it to have your family’s support and experience, specifically your brother’s as a writer?

Austin: I suppose I'll never have the experience of being the only writer in a family – I should mention that my mother is a novel and short story writer, and my father is a poet. In the end I didn't get a huge amount of practical advice from them, but what they mainly gave me is something to write against – voices to hear my own voice in contrast to. I tried to write the things they'd never ever think of writing. A writer once told me, “You know you're really writing your best when you look at the page and think, 'My family can never see this” – no less true when there are writers in the family.

Practically speaking my brother Lev helped see the thing to publication – he saw it in its early stages and told me it was worth finishing in the first place, which helped enormously; and he introduced me to his agent, who encouraged me and helped me find my agent. So I was enormously lucky in having someone to show the book.

Q: Mom and Dad too, impressive. Well, since “Soon I Will Be Invincible” is your first novel, what did you think was the most challenging part of writing the book? The easiest?

Austin: The hardest bit is keeping going, and believing it's possible to finish, much less publish, especially when you're writing something a little bit ridiculous. Easiest was making up more superhero names!

Q: I heard that you spent five years working on the novel? Can you just outline your journey in finishing the book, finding a publisher, promoting the novel and how it feels to finally see “Soon I Will Be Invincible” on the shelves?

Austin: “Five years” is what I usually say, but there are characters and passages in the book that have been around for much longer – the mid-nineties, at least – stuff I kept thinking of and then putting aside. The first more finished-looking work existed as short stories I did for a writing workshop at Berkeley in spring of 2002, standalone things that I enjoyed writing and which seemed like they could belong to something larger.

After a little encouragement from outside voices, I tried to envision what that “something larger,” was, writing more chapters and fitting them together, settling on the two major characters as narrators. I was still doing coursework for my Ph. D. so it was a part-time project, and publication wasn't something I let myself think about.

After I passed Orals at Berkeley in October 2004, I took a year writing more full-time, 2-3 days a week, and settled the plot and structure more fully. Lev's agent (Tina Bennett) read the manuscript in summer 2005, liked it but asked for some changes, which took a few more months. She passed the revised version to Luke Janklow who became its (totally awesome) agent. There was an auction for the book, which ultimately went to Pantheon, partly because I wanted to see what Chip Kidd (Michael Crichton, Dean Koontz, Bret Easton Ellis, Cormac McCarthy, Frank Miller, etc.) would do with the design, an impulse which has turned out amazingly well.

Promoting the novel and seeing it in stores is a more-than-strange experience – for years I wouldn't let anyone see the novel, which was the product of this crazy private inner furnace of feeling, and now it's sitting out in stores for strangers to look at! But really, now the best part of this whole business is talking to people who've read the book.

Q: I thought the cover art was spectacular and the artwork alone should attract a lot of new readers. Did you get to put any input into the design? What are your thoughts on cover art in general and the importance of having packaging that is both attractive and related to the source material?

Austin: The only input I had was the selection of Chip Kidd as the main designer, which is part of why I chose Pantheon to publish with. I talked with him about comics for about half an hour, and he took it from there.

I think packaging is crucial, especially for a crossover novel like this - the cover had to convey a double message - "we're treating superhero material BUT in a style closer to mainstream literary fiction," which Chip accomplished in spectacular fashion. It needed to be something that could be shelved in either regular-fiction or science-fiction, and wouldn't get lost if it were shelved in a comic book store. I totally think it's affected the reception of the book, and makes people think twice. Chip is a genius.

Q: What are your thoughts on the book as a whole? Do you wish there was anything you could go back and change or add?

Austin: I've started a new novel for the sole purpose of blocking any further thoughts about this. But yes, I can't look at a page without making corrections and deletions – whenever I give readings I have the satisfaction of presenting the corrected passages.

Q: The majority of the characters, origins and storylines in the book are basically parodies from comic books and other superhero-related material. Of the more recognizable, I saw Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Lois Lane and even the Chronicles of Narnia fantasy series, although there are countless others. Can you tell us what kind of research was involved in creating these various characters, origins & storylines, and how you were able to choose from what sources you mixed & matched?

Austin: When people hear it's a superhero novel, they tend to assume I'm making up my own wacky new powers for people, but really I wanted to explore the familiar types and give them a more human reality. So I'd quibble with the word “parody” – I never wanted to make fun of these characters, only work with the humor that comes from putting them in everyday situations. I tried not to focus on individual characters as source material, though – what I wanted was to borrow a milieu, the kind of big-universe feel of the major comics publishers, without doing one-to-one likenesses.

And I'm not much for research I'm afraid – I worked from whatever comics I had been a fan of, and what I was reading at the time, but I tried to let that serve – beyond that, I make things up. I did read bios of some of the more obscure Golden Age heroes and villains to get a feel for the boldness and inventiveness of plotting that went into them. Any time I felt too timid in my storytelling I got a little borrowed courage from those early pulp writers!

Q: Of all of the different heroes and villains in the book, who were your favorites and why?

Austin: I have to say I have a soft spot for Baron Ether, who is really the villain's villain – I wanted his scenes to go on forever. And The Pharaoh, who should have gotten more onstage time, damn it. And Lily, who probably should have been the third narrator. And Damsel. But really, I didn't put anyone in the book who wasn't fun to write – I don't have the discipline to put in that kind of work.

Q: There’s a lot of satirical humor in the book directed at American superheroism? What kind of statement were you trying to make?

Austin: I suppose it seems that way, but I hope it doesn't come across as cynical. Most of the humor comes from just imagining superheroes to be real, and the situations and thoughts that come out of that, points of etiquette, little comedy-of-manners moments.

The other half of this is when we see how superheroes look to a supervillain, which of course makes them look quite different from how the rest of the world sees them. To a supervillain, superheroes are smug, bland, conformists who show up only after all the interesting creative work has been done, assured of winning, poised to receive the world's applause.

Q: When I look at “Soon I Will Be Invincible” I see numerous opportunities for branching out – videogames of course because of your background, comic books because of the obvious references, television, animation, action figures and a major motion picture, which I believe is already in the works. When you first started the book, was this the kind of multi-media property that you envisioned?

Austin: Definitely not. My terrible fear (one of them anyway) about this project is that people will see it as something calculated, as an attempt to set up a multimedia franchise. The project started as a fun experiment in putting superheroes into prose instead of comics, and in writing the villain's side of it.

Different media have different strengths – moving heroes into the grittier, interior world of the novel was the driving inspiration of the work – I think it would be interesting to try putting it into film, which I think could bring out some of the same moments of characterization, awkwardness and humor.

Q: Staying on this subject, more and more these days we’re seeing an increase in cross-pollination between different mediums: literature and movies, comic books and videogames, TV and animation, etc. What are your thoughts on this increasing trend?

Austin: Nothing too original to say here – clearly it's a money-driven phenomenon, so creatively the results are very mixed. It’s fun to see characters tried in a different media when there's a genuine feeling for that experiment, but obviously much of the time it's just squeezing more dollars out of a given piece of intellectual property.

One hates to see franchise-potential mixed into the calculation of what books get published; but then, it's nice to see more potential for creators to be rewarded in a dicey artistic market.

Q: Focusing on the movie version of “Soon I Will Be Invincible”, can you share any details?

Austin: I wish I didn't, but I have to excuse myself from the movie questions, everything's locked down on that front.

Q: I totally understand, but I had to try :) So, just for fun, what would be your dream adaptation?

Austin: Ditto, I'm afraid, although I would love to speculate wildly. Privately I've been working on an interactive-fiction adaptation of some sections of the book, just to see how it would work; if I get some more free time to work on it, I may put it out there for free.

Q: That sounds like it’d be cool. Okay, you mentioned earlier that you started a new novel. Will it be related to “Soon I Will Be Invincible” as a sequel…a spin-off?

Austin: I don't have active plans for a spin-off (although I get a lot of questions about some of the minor characters, who the Infinitesimal Seven are, etc.), but it's a possibility. The novel is set in a big, complicated world and there's some possibility that what I'm working on next will turn out to have been set in another corner of that world, with the Champions and Doctor Impossible showing up on the daily news.

Q: Well, I guess we’ll just have to wait and see :) Might you be working on anything non-“Soon I Will Be Invincible” related, like in a different format or genre?

Austin: I'm pathologically closed-mouthed about work in the early stages – nobody heard about Invincible for like two years into it – I'll just say I'm starting to think about playing with another genre the way “Soon I Will Be Invincible” plays with superheroes.

Q: Hmmm, interesting. So what’s the future hold for Austin Grossman the game designer? Are you planning on working with videogames again and if so, in what capacity and what kind of ideas do you have for new videogames?

Austin: I hope I'll get to return to video games full-time at some point – there's so much interesting creative work waiting to be done in that medium. Right now I'm consulting on an unannounced project at Electronic Arts, headed by Doug Church (Ultima, System Shock, Thief) with Steven Spielberg (Jaws, Indiana Jones, Jurassic Park) involved, but that's only a few months out of the year.

Q: I won’t even ask about this consulting project since I’m sure you can’t reveal anything yet ;)

Austin: Yeah, apart from that it's at EALA with Steven Spielberg and Doug Church, I am sworn to silence – people on the team can't even tell their spouses…

Q: So, as a videogame designer/writer, I was just wondering what your thoughts are on the next-gen consoles (Nintendo’s Wii, Xbox 360, Playstation 3) and where you think the future of videogaming is headed?

Austin: Well, I think I'd make a fool of myself if I tried to prognosticate about the console wars. The aspect of game development I'm concerned about is where creative innovation is going to come from. I'm not saying more artsy games, but games that take creative risks, that feel more human, more original, more emotional – the way the best Hollywood films, or the best comic books do. Thus far, the economics of the industry (long development times, low profit margins) and the formal challenges of telling stories interactively have made creativity and writing the weakest link in a very exciting medium.

I'm actually less interested in faster consoles than I am in working out better creative process, development tools, and business models to let game makers find more interesting places to go.

Q: Do you have any preconceived notions that you'd like to dispel as someone who has worked in the videogame industry?

Austin: Yes – that people working in the game industry think we're doing the best possible job. We all know the creative side of video games is very far from achieving its potential – that we could be doing more original, compelling work.

Q: Any advice for anyone hoping to get involved with videogames?

Austin: Learn computer programming. No matter what area of video game development you're going into, understanding how a computer program functions ("procedural literacy" it's sometimes called) is the fundamental prerequisite for working in the medium. Like any artistic medium, you need to know its fundamentals before you can really make it sing.

Q: Surely you must have a favorite game, one that you've either worked on or just love to play. If so, can you tell us what it is and why? What about a favorite comic book, character, writer or artist? How about a favorite novel or author?

Austin: My favorite computer game is NetHack, which is a computer game so Old School that even hardened video game professionals consider it too hardcore-dorky to mess around with. It's a fantasy adventure that uses primitive ASCII-type graphics (letters, numbers, and characters), but the gameplay is incredibly rich and sophisticated, much more than most contemporary games. And it's a community-built game crammed with references to Tolkien, Douglas Adams and all that good stuff.

When it comes to comics I like to plug anything Gail Simone writes, and also Ed Brubaker's series Sleeper, a dark moody story about a deep-cover agent who gets trapped in his cover identity as a supervillain. As far as novels goes...everyone should read Thackeray'sVanity Fair”! And Ellen Kushner's mannerpunk fantasy! Ideally together.

Q: Nice picks! So, what are you currently reading?

Austin: I just finished Cormac Mccarthy'sThe Road”. I'm setting out on my book tour today, so I'm hoping people at the bookstores can suggest where to go next.

Q: Well, I’m sure you’ll get plenty of recommendations! Any last words that you’d like to share or anyone you’d like to plug?

Austin: The last thing I read that absolutely stunned me was Kelly Link's "Magic for Beginners", so I'll go ahead and plug that.


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