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Friday, November 30, 2007

Interview with Josh Conviser

Official Josh Conviser Website
Order “EmpyreHERE
Read An Excerpt HERE
Read Fantasy Book Critic’s REVIEW of “Echelon/Empyre

As I’ve discussed before, I’m a strong believer of the cross-pollination between literature and other media formats such as film, television, videogames and comic books. Neil Gaiman, R.A. Salvatore, Frank Beddor, Christopher Golden, Tim Lebbon, Richard K. Morgan, Warren Ellis, Mike Carey, Michael Marshall Smith, Wayne Barlowe and Whitley Streiber are just some of the names that immediately come to mind who have been using their creative talents for more than just literature. Another one to add to the list is Josh Conviser, a screenwriter/producer whose Hollywood credits include the HBO television show Rome. Josh’s true love though is fiction writing and to date he has two novels—“Echelon” and the recently released follow-up “Empyre”, both of which I reviewed HERE. While Mr. Conviser’s debut showed flashes of promise, his new book “Empyre” delivers on a whole other level and I was really excited when the author agreed to an interview. So thank you Mr. Conviser for the opportunity and the fantastic discussion that not only covers his books and Hollywood projects, but also such interesting topics as transhumanism, a Singularity, the burgeoning relationship between different mediums and the relevance of the printed word:

Q: “Empyre”, the sequel to your debut novel “Echelon” (2006) was recently released on October 30, 2007 and, like its predecessor, is described as “spy-fi”. For those who may be unfamiliar with your books, can you tell us your definition of “spy-fi”, how “Empyre” is related to “Echelon”, and what readers can expect in the new novel?

Josh: I didn’t set out to write genre busters with “Echelon” and “Empyre”. I’m a huge reader of both sci-fi/fantasy and spy thrillers (Ludlum and the like). So when I sat down to write a novel, combining the two just felt comfortable. As such, my books are influenced by Orwell and Le Carre, William Gibson and Ian Fleming.

Echelon” and “Empyre” are written to be exciting, edge-of-your-seat reads. They’re filled with action, jump all over the world and have characters and plot lines that – I hope – will draw a reader in. While “Echelon” and “Empyre” are both “Ryan Laing” novels, each stands on its own. There’s no need to read them in order.

Echelon” is the first Ryan Laing book. It looks at how a total surveillance system might rise from the actions we’re taking today. (ECHELON is an actual eavesdropping system within the NSA). My hero, Ryan Laing, starts as an agent within Echelon who uncovers an earth shattering conspiracy that sends him on the run.

Empyre” finds Ryan and his partner, Sarah Peters, a couple years after “Echelon” wraps up. “Empyre” starts where most sci-fi ends: “Big Brother” is dead. The world is free. I wanted to know what would happen the next day. How would we react to that freedom and what would life be like for Ryan and Sarah – the two people who forced such a change? Turns out, it’s not a pretty picture. From that premise, Ryan once again gets pulled into an intrigue that has him on the run for his life.

My hope is that the books combine the excitement and political intrigue of a spy thriller with the best “what if” aspects of sci-fi.

Q: Personally I thought “Empyre” was a huge step forward from “Echelon” in everything from prose and character development to plotting, pacing, etc. How do you feel about the progress you made as a writer between the two books, and what was easier for you this time around compared to writing your debut? What was harder?

Josh: Many thanks! That’s a great compliment for any writer. With “Echelon”, I was learning to write a novel. I’ve worked as a screenwriter for a while, but novel writing is totally different. The canvas is much broader, and the options wider. I loved writing “Echelon”. Every day was a discovery. And there’s a lot in “Echelon” that’s very close to my heart. But it was also a learning experience.

Getting into “Empyre”, I felt like I had a much better grasp of how to structure and write a novel. What works and what doesn’t. That said, there was also more pressure on “Empyre”. Writing “Echelon”, I had no idea if anyone would ever see it, let alone publish it. “Empyre” was a different story. A lot of my novelist friends told me that their second novel was the hardest. I now understand what they’re saying. But, like “Echelon”, “Empyre” was a ton of fun to write – something I hope comes through in reading the book.

Q: A couple of themes that showed up in “Empyre” that I was unfamiliar with were singularity—“the acceleration of technological progress to the point where we can no longer predict our future based on the past” and transhumanism—“the impact of technology on humanity”. Could you discuss a bit more about these two topics and how much of an impact you think they’ll have in our world?

Josh: The concepts of a Singularity and transhumanism both relate to the underlying theme in “Empyre” and “Echelon”. My books are about control, both on a personal and a societal level. It seems to me that the speed and scope of our technological progress will impact our ability to control and understand both society and ourselves.

The Singularity deals with technology’s impact on society. The idea is that, at some point, technology will kick us into a totally new reality, one so removed from what we know that our past will no longer be a predictor of the future. The journey to that point, whether you see it as good or bad, marks a substantial shift in society. We can see it today. With each passing moment, the world gets smaller, technology further webbing us together. This dispersion of control, be it good or bad, is only increasing.

Some think that passing through the Singularity will be a boon for humanity. And some think we will not survive the process. “Empyre” looks at this issue. It opens on a world teetering on the Singularity’s edge – a world ripe with fear – and looks at what might happen next. As an idea, I find the Singularity very interesting. As a writer, I think it sets up a world ripe for an action packed storyline.

Transhumanism deals with similar issues on a more personal level. It looks at how our integration with technology will impact us as people. How will it change what it means to be human? I look at this issue through my hero, Ryan Laing, who is the first true cyborg – a total mesh of man and machine. He’s the guinea pig, reluctantly entering a new territory. And it’s not a place he’s comfortable inhabiting. The technology within Ryan offers limitless possibilities, but it also forces him to relinquish control on the most personal of levels.

So transhumanism and the Singularity both relate to the single theme of control that runs through “Echelon” and “Empyre”.

And while all these ideas and issues may seem like far future scenarios, I think we’re going to be dealing with a good bit of them in our lifetime. For a primer on these ideas, I highly recommend Joel Garreau’s nonfiction book, “Radical Evolution.”

Q: You mentioned how you explored Transhumanism through Ryan Laing, but the other two returning characters in the book (Sarah Peters & Dave Madda) are also dealing with technological issues. For Sarah and Dave though, their reactions are much different from Ryan’s. Is it safe to say then that a large part of your characterization is discovering how different personalities deal with transhumanism, singularity, etc?

Josh: Certainly. I want to know what the on-ground impact of these issues would be. It’s one thing to talk in an intellectual way about how we might deal with technological progress. It’s another thing to slam your characters up against those changes and see how they react. I think that’s one of the great benefits of sci-fi – it allows a dramatic, emotional experience of complex issues.

Q: Other subjects that you explored in the books that are highly relevant with current events are terrorism and privacy rights. Is there a certain statement that you’re trying to share regarding these issues, and if so, what is it?

Josh: As far as the right to privacy, I think it’s a very tricky issue. I totally understand the need to obtain good intelligence. We live in a world with very real threats. My concern is that, in our effort to find safety, to maintain control, we’ll commit to a course that will have long-term, unintended consequences. The choices we make now will only be magnified as our technical capacities increase. We’re balancing between security and freedom. Leaning toward freedom puts us in physical jeopardy, while overweighting safety could well kill the freedom we hold dear. Finding the balance between these two pressures will be pivotal to our future.

The threat of terrorism is obviously wrapped up in all this. “Empyre” deals with the ramifications of using terrorism as a political tool. If “Echelon” is about control through surveillance, “Empyre” is about control through fear.

Q: A very accurate description I think about the two books. Now even though “Echelon/Empyre” are set a hundred years in the future and deal with what seems like far-fetched technology, apparently most everything in the books is grounded in reality and based on factual data. How important for you is it that readers are able to connect with your novels on a realistic level despite the ‘science fiction’ elements?

Josh: Very important. The world I’ve created lies down the path we’re walking right now. As such, I spend a lot of time thinking about what would happen tomorrow based on what’s going on today. And that includes technology, geography, politics, architecture, healthcare and even our social interaction.

Q: On your website HERE you talk about some of the technology used in “Empyre” as well as the varied geography. What kind of research did you put into the technology & locations that you ended up using in both of your books?

Josh: On the technology side, I read every book, blog, magazine and publication I can get my hands on. I also spend a lot of time at the universities, chatting with those people working on the cutting edge. Honestly, it’s a ton of fun – one of the best aspects of my work!

On the location side, I’ve spent time in most of the places in “Echelon” and “Empyre”. I’m a big traveler and love being able to write about the locations I’ve lived in. For those locales that I haven’t been to, I try to spend some time with those who have. For example, part of “Empyre” takes place in Antarctica on these massive granite fangs that rise out of the ice. Getting down there was going to be a bit tough. So, I spent an afternoon with Rick Ridgeway, one of America’s foremost mountaineers, and a guy who’s climbed those formations. Getting his impressions of the place was invaluable.

As “Echelon/Empyre” take place in the future, I’m making guesses as to what the technology and geography will look like, but I try to ground those guesses in fact.

Q: I believe that you’re working on a standalone novel. How far along are you with that and is there anything you can tell us about it?

Josh: Wow – good intel! Haven’t told many people about it. The standalone is set in the espionage world as well. I’ve put a lot of work into it, and it’s coming along well. Sorry I can’t be more specific, but I want to get it done before going into it much deeper.

Q: Fair enough :) I also believe you’re developing a sequel to “Echelon” + “Empyre”. What’s the progress report on that, what do you have in store for Ryan Laing & friends, and how many volumes do you envision in the series?

Josh: I am working on part three, but haven’t settled on a title yet. As you can probably guess, it will be one word and start with E. Why fix what ain’t broke, right?

I always conceived of the Laing story in three parts. That said, Ryan could well find another mission or two - that is, of course, if he survives the third book! I love Ryan and Sarah as characters. It would be very hard to give them up!

Q: In addition to writing novels, you’ve actually been working in Hollywood for about ten years now as a screenwriter & producer and you were an executive consultant on
HBO’s television series Rome. First off, how did you land that gig, what kind of experience was it, and what was the most important thing you learned from working on the show?

Josh: I co-wrote what’s called the story bible for the show. It’s the document that outlines the show, the characters, the larger arcs and, in our case, the episodes themselves. It was a great pleasure to work on Rome. To have the chance to develop a project with that kind of scope was absolutely amazing.

As to what I learned… I’ll just say that the behind the scenes power struggles were of Roman proportion. Coming out of that, I realized that I needed to do something on my own, to write something that would live or die based on its quality and nothing else. That was my motivation to write a book.

At this point, my passion lies in literature. I’ve always been a voracious reader, and having the opportunity to write books for a living is a true gift. With each page, each book, my passion for the work grows. That said, I do still write for the screen. Making film and TV is a ton of fun. I love the communal creativity and energy in filmmaking and would miss it if I only did books. In being able to do both, I think I’ve found the perfect balance.

Rome seems like a pretty big departure from your current “spy-fi” novels. Will we ever get to see you write a fantasy novel? What about another genre like say horror, etc?

Josh: None of the above are impossible. I don’t really think about genre as I begin to write. Usually, an idea flashes into my head, a set-up or “what if,” which then leads me to the genre. That’s how you get Rome and “Empyre” from the same writer. In the end, no matter what the genre, a writer does the same thing: create a world, populate that world with characters that, hopefully, resonate with the reader and then tell a story that’s gripping.

I’m not sure that I’ll go into horror, but you never know. I have been working on a fantasy novel geared for teens. It’s a ton of fun and is coming along well. I’m also a big fan of historical fiction and spy thrillers and would love to try both genres.

Q: I read that once you finished your debut novel “Echelon”, it didn’t take you long to get an agent and land a contract with Del Rey. Do you think your Hollywood background had anything to do with you getting a publisher so quickly, and while we’re on the topic, could you just tell us a bit about your journey in finding a publisher and why you went with Del Rey?

Josh: It was really quick and did have something to do with my Hollywood stuff, but in a roundabout way. The first person to see the novel was Sarah Self, a film agent. Her excitement for it bowled me over. Within days, she became my agent for film and found a lit agent to push the book to publishers. Within a couple weeks of that, we had an offer from Del Rey. As to why I went with them – I really hit it off with my editor, Betsy Mitchell, the Del Rey gang and Ballantine in general. I was thrilled to go with them and look forward to a long relationship.

Q: Going back to film, you have something being developed at Fox. What’s going on with that?

Josh: I’m producing a CGI animation film for Fox/Blue Sky (the crew that did Ice Age, among others). It’s a total departure from anything I’ve done before and I’m really enjoying it. Getting a CGI animation project to the screen is a long process, but it’s coming along well.

Q: Sounds like fun :) Additionally, you wrote a screenplay for a thriller that is described as “a modern day adaptation of Dante's Inferno set in Las Vegas”, which sounds pretty interesting. Could you tell us a bit more about the story and how things are progressing?

Josh: This is an idea I’ve been stewing on for years – putting a modern spin on the epic poem. At first, I thought about going the fantasy route. Then, my writing partner, Jud Grubbs, and I decided to go the other way – to make it as realistic and gritty as possible. The story tracks a young lawyer, Dante, as he descends into a hell of his own making. The poem becomes inspiration for the characters Dante meets along his journey. Dante lands in Vegas and is immediately swept up by a stunning beauty named Beatrice. When she disappears, Dante enlists a casino host named, you guessed it, Virgil to find her. It doesn’t take long for Dante and Virgil to fall into an intrigue that sets them on the run for their lives. It’s a ton of fun, a project I’m really excited about.

Currently, it’s being shopped to Hollywood. The writers strike has put everything on hold for the time being, but I think this one will find a home eventually.

Q: Well I hope so. It sounds even better now that you’ve shed a little light on the premise! Moving on, have there been any developments regarding an “Echelon” film adaptation? Speaking of which, what would be the ideal situation for you…in other words, would you be okay in handing over the rights to someone else and trusting that they’ll do the best job they can, or would you want more control such as what Frank Beddor is doing with his Looking Glass Wars property?

Josh: “Echelon/Empyre” is doing the typical Hollywood shuffle. There’s a lot of interest and we’ve been close but, as of today, the rights remain available.

As a producer myself, I’m very aware that the budgets of these films means that there has to be talent attached to the book for a studio to pick it up. If that talent ends up being an A-list screenwriter, so be it.

There’s some relief in not writing the screenplay for my own book, as I know it would require a wholesale slaughter of darlings. To make a good film, you have to cut a lot from the book and such drastic surgery would be tough going. That said, do I want the job? YES! I’d love to re-imagine “Echelon/Empyre” as films.

Q: On a somewhat similar note, you’ve expressed interest in bringing Ryan Laing to life as a comic book character. Personally I think that would be really cool :) Any word on that happening?

Josh: Still in the early stages of this. I would love to try my hand at comic books, and think Ryan’s world suits itself well to the format. I’ll keep you up to date on my progress.

Q: Great, thanks! Are there any other projects—film, novels or otherwise—that you’re working on that haven’t been mentioned yet, and if so, could you provide any details?

Josh: I have two TV series that I’ll pitch when the writers strike ends. One, which I’m doing with novelist Allan Folsom, is set in my hometown of Aspen, Colorado. The other is more “Empyre” in feel and deals with high-tech and international intrigue.

I also have a new screenplay I’m working on, a Three Days of the Condor style thriller. I mentioned the teen fantasy book and the standalone. And, of course, there’s the next chapter in Ryan Laing’s saga!

Q: Looks like you’re keeping busy! From your experience in the film industry and now publishing, what are your thoughts on the cross-pollination between different mediums (comic books, film/TV, videogames, etc.) today and where the future might lead regarding multi-media properties?

Josh: Great question. I think seeing one “property” on multiple platforms will become the norm. As a creator of these stories, I love the challenge of adapting them to different mediums. In the end, film, TV, comics and video games are all mechanisms to pull someone into a story. Each does so in a different way and has different strengths. Cross-pollination between these mediums is only a good thing.

I’ve been thinking a lot recently about how to tell a story within a video game. As an art form, video games haven’t really been accepted yet – but that day is coming. The games now hitting the shelves have increasingly intricate plot lines, with more effort put into theme, characters and story arc. I’m excited to see what’s coming down the line!

Q: Additionally, with film, television, music, videogames, etc., becoming more interactive and technology-based, not to mention the Internet, is there a legitimate threat of the printed word becoming obsolete and what can publishers & authors do to make sure that literature/publishing stays relevant?

Josh: I don’t think the printed word is in danger. Are there more options for consumers than there used to be? Sure. But literature offers an experience that, as of yet, no other medium can. It’s a direct link between the author and reader. And more than that, the reader fills out the scene and characters with his/her own imagination. No book is “seen” in the same way by two readers. As a writer, that ability to develop a story in cooperation with a reader is magical. No other medium offers such a direct link. As far as I’m concerned, literature is still the most personal way of telling a story.

As to what authors and publishers can do to keep books relevant, I think we need to keep up with the times and not fear change. I think we need to recognize and embrace the fact that readers will find the printed word on an ever-increasing number of platforms. I think we need to see that promotion of our product comes increasingly from sites like yours and get savvier about making sure people like you know about our books. Personally, I’m excited to see how the publishing industry will deal with shifts in technology and the marketplace. There will be turbulence but, hopefully, the journey will lead to an increasingly robust industry.

I also think that all of us who love to read and write should bow our heads in thanks to JK Rowling for introducing a new generation to the written word.

Q: What’s the biggest misconception that people have about Hollywood?

Josh: I guess it’s that there’s a wider breadth of experiences than what you see on Entourage and the like (though I am a huge fan of Entourage!). On one level, the industry is as wild, cut throat and irrational as most think. On the other, there are people of amazing talent in every aspect of the business. I’ve had the honor of working with many, and it’s an experience that’s addictive.

Q: So what have you been reading lately?

Josh: As you can see, I’m all over the place. I like to read a little of everything. My website HERE has a larger list of my favorite books:
Spook Country” by William Gibson
The Society of Others” by William Nicholson
Max Perkins: Editor of Genius” by A. Scott Berg
The Android's Dream” by John Scalzi
The Faithful Spy: A Novel” by Alex Berenson
The Sandworms of Dune” by Herbert/Anderson

Q: What about new authors? Anyone I should be checking out?

Josh: Hmmm. I have a couple friends with books coming out soon, including Selden Edwards. I think his will be a book worth checking out.

Q: You’re a big fan of spy fiction. Who better represents you: James Bond or Jason Bourne?

Josh: You’re going to make me pick?! I love both. The Bond books got me into reading. And I think Ludlum’sBourne Identity” is one of the best spy thrillers ever written. I also love the movies of both. In Ryan Laing, I was hoping to create a new hero who’s spoken of in the same sentence with Bourne and Bond. That would be a huge success in my book!

Q: Good luck with that! I think you’re off to a good start :D So is there anything else you’d like to say?

Josh: Only, thank you. These are great questions. I really appreciate you taking the time.


chrisd said...

Robert, this was an excellent, thorough interview.

Personally I hate a surface interview. I saw a terrible one on PBS. Usually I can count on something a little more, I don't know, educated. In depth.

When the young man said, "What did it feel like when you..." I switched it off.

Nice work, Robert!

Robert said...

Chris, glad you liked the interview! I thought Josh had some really interesting things to say. Plus, his books are definitely worth checking out :)

Moses Gunner said...

Berenson is a great Author. Check out The Ghost War by Alex Berenson

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