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Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Interview with Peter Clines (Interviewed by Mihir Wanchoo)

Official Author Website 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Ex-Heroes 
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of Ex-Patriots
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of The Junkie Quatrain
Read Fantasy Book Critic's review of 14 

 I discovered Peter Clines last year when I read Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots back to back. I was veritably stunned by his mix of comedy, thriller and exciting characterization. Since then I have read every book of his that I could get my hands on and have found that I enjoyed all of them quite a bit. I was ever curious about Peter's thoughts about his books, his writing style and the horror genre. Read ahead and get to know Peter better...

Q] Welcome to Fantasy Book Critic. For starters, could you please introduce yourself, tell us what inspired you to write in the first place, and describe your journey to becoming a published author.

PC: Thanks for having me. It’s usually a challenge for me, but I’ll try my best to be concise and interesting...

I’m not sure there’s anything that “inspired” me to become a writer. My family will vouch for the fact that I’ve been telling stories my whole life. Sometimes I was acting them out with Star Wars figures and Micronauts. Sometimes I was drawing them in class as comic books when I was supposed to be learning... something, I’m sure. And eventually I found my Mom’s old Smith-Corona and started typing them... one letter at a time.

It’s fair to say the journey took years. I wrote half-assed comic-book scripts all through grade school, and short stories in junior high and high school. In college I made my first few attempts at novels, and then one serious attempt after moving to California. But then I got the screenplay bug and spent, oh, a decade or so working on that. I had some bare-bones success, but eventually decided to pick up one of my novels, The Suffering Map, again. And then I tried a few new short stories, a new novel called Mouth, and then I had this superhero-zombie idea.

So I’m a thirty-year overnight success.

Q] What was the spark that lead to the genesis of the Ex-Heroes series? How long have you been working on it and has it has evolved from its original idea (if any)?

PC: I think the first thing, to be honest, is that I never envisioned it as a series. Ex-Heroes was just written as a single, stand-alone book. I didn’t know if I was going to sell the one, so I definitely wasn’t silly enough to plan any multi-book epics.

There may have been two or three sparks. One was frustration over a zombie-superhero series, one of the Big Two comic publishers did. It seemed like such a great idea—a zombie outbreak in a superhero world--but it was just so horribly executed. It wasn’t even about heroes fighting zombies. It was just ghouls in costume wandering around in the aftermath and talking non-stop about how they were dead and hungry. It seems like a gigantic missed opportunity and I scribbled out a few notes of “how I would’ve done it.” More or less around the same time (spark number two) my girlfriend and I moved in together and I finally had an office. I was unpacking some stuff and found these sketchbooks from grade school and high school, back when I wanted to write and draw comics for a living. I was looking at all these characters I’d made up back then and realized the basic archetypes fit very well into my “how I would’ve done it” story. So I started writing and eventually realized I had a book on my hands. I submitted it to Jacob Kier, he bought it, and started asking me about a sequel. Or maybe even a trilogy.

It was nice to go back and get to expand some points and play with the characters a little more now that the “origin stories” were all out of the way. And since I was relatively sure I’d get a book three I got to weave a few more plot threads and set-ups into book two. When Ex-Communication comes out I’m hoping folks go back and realize how many things were set up in Ex-Patriots. Some of them are obvious “to be continued” points, but others, I hope, are going to be big surprises and twists.

Q] As a writer, your work is known to feature zombie horror, but your books also encompasses elements of thrillers, science fiction, urban fantasy, et cetera. As a reviewer it’s hard to pin down your books genre wise. Having mixed so many genres and tropes, do labels apply to your work? If necessary, how would you label your own fiction?

PC: “Adequate” is a good label. I’d be happy if most people called it adequate.

I’m not really sure, either, to be honest. There is a point where all these genres and sub-genres and niches just become arbitrary labels. A friend and I were debating once if the new Fright Night remake was a horror-comedy or just a horror film with a lot of comedy in it, and I had a discussion once with a magazinE editor about what defines a romantic comedy. For a long time if you tried to do anything fantasy or sci-fi that was based in the real world, it tended to get labeled as horror. Consider Carrie and The Dead Zone –they’re both sci-fi stories about mutants with psychic powers. But there was no way to label such things in the ‘70s so they became horror novels. When The Sandman first came out it was considered a horror comic. Jurassic Park has some serious sci-fi and horror elements, but have you ever seen it shelved in those genres?

So where am I? No clue. Another author I know, Lincoln Crisler, once used a term I liked—speculative fiction. I’m not sure if he made it up, but he’s the first person I heard use it. I think that’s probably the best I could say—I write about “what if...”

Q] Recently you revealed that you have been signed on by Crown Publishing to publish the three Ex-Heroes books and a fourth book set in the same world, can you elaborate on how all of this came about?

PC: I’d love to say it was some clever manuevering and dealing on my part, but really it was just serendipity. Which is a fancy way of saying dumb luck on my part.

An agent who also happened to be a fan of the Ex- books got in touch with me and asked about showing the books around. He mentioned them to an editor he knew at Crown who’d read and liked Ex-Heroes a year or so earlier It also happened that Crown was looking for a “flagship” series for a new line they’re starting. So, there was a lot of back and forth between Crown, Permuted, and me about how we could do this so everyone came out ahead, and in the end we found some middle ground that made us all happy.

Essentially all the paperback books are going to vanish for a bit and then next year they’ll get re-released by Crown one after another with new covers. Ex-Heroes, Ex-Patriots, Ex-Communication, Ex... well, you get the idea. I think the plan is to put out a book every two months or so.

Q] As a follow-up to the previous question, what can you tell us about the fourth book, will it be a prequel, sequel, sidequel? Any thoughts you can reveal about the title?

PC: It’s going to be a sequel, but it’s going to be a bit different. The first three books have a pretty similar structure as far as flashbacks and viewpoints, and this breaks from that a bit. Not drastically, but I think (hope) it’s going to be interesting. I’m about halfway through it as I write this.

I don’t want to talk about it too much because some of it does depend on things that happen in Ex-Communication and a few things that happened in Ex-Patriots, too. I have a title, but I’m not a hundred percent comfortable with it yet so I’m keeping it quiet. I can say it’ll be like the others in the series, that there’s two ways to read it.

Q] I know you are a comic book fan as well so in regards to your team of super-heroes, How do they stack up against DC’s JLA or Marvel’s Avengers? Also in between those two who are they more alike?

PC: In all honesty, my heroes would probably get annihilated by most of the JLA or Avengers. A lot of superheroes these day seemed to be dialed up to eleven or so. They’re just insanely powerful. I wanted to keep these characters a bit more in believable levels. I mean, believable considering we’re talking about a bulletproof man who can fly and breathe fire.

As far as similarities... well, I tried to model a lot of their personalities off the Marvel heroes back in the ‘80s. Y’know, back when you could have a dark issue once a year or so, but for the most part they were positive stories about heroes trying to make a difference and even having a degree of fun. Most heroes were people you’d like to know, even if they weren’t superheroes. I think nowadays that’s been replaced by a lot of dark melodrama and “mature” storytelling. Which definitley appeals to some folks but... well, I don’t think it’s a coincidence the comic industry’s been struggling for the past ten years or so.

Q] Can you tell us about any other writing projects that you’re currently working on or plan on starting in the near future?

PC: Well, a couple things have gone back on hold because of the Crown deal, the most notable one being a sci-fi zombie thing I’ve been trying to do for a few years now. At the moment I’m playing with the idea for a new series, and I’m hoping to find some interest for it once I’m done with the fourth Ex-book. It’s still early days, but I’d call it the very dark, disturbed love child of The Dresden Files and Joss Whedon’s Angel.

Q] Are there any preconceived notions that you’d like to dispel about Zombie/horror literature?

PC: Honestly, my biggest complaint is more how some people view the writers of these stories than the stories themselves. It’s just sort of assumed if I write zombie books or horror books, well, I must be screwed up somehow. I probably had some horrible childhood incident and now I hang garlic in the windows, wear upside down crosses, and keep a loaded shotgun in every room of the house for the day when the zombies rise—and they will rise! Believe it! Yet nobody thinks Dan Brown was raised by a secret society, young Isaac Asimov had some scarring incident with a robot, or Michael Crichton had a terrifying vacation in Costa Rica where several family members were eaten by dinosaurs. It’s an assumption that’s only makes about horror writers, that we write this stuff because of something that happened to us. Heck, I’ve even run into a few would-be writers who feel that way, that you can’t be a good horror writer unless you had a messed up childhood.

The truth is, most of the horror writers I’ve met (and me, too, I’d like to believe) are really decent, kind people from very normal backgrounds. Honestly, they’re some of the best people I know. Craig DiLouie, Mira Grant, Jonathan Maberry, Eloise Knapp, Iain McKinnon, Timothy Long, Jonathan Moon—these are all wonderful people. They’re funny, they’re clever, they’re kind.

What amazes me is that no one assumes the people who write about real horrors are messed up. Serial killers, greedy CEOs, corrupt lawyers, self-serving politicians—if you write about that horrible stuff as entertainment you’re well-balanced and worthy of a Pulitzer. But make stuff up that’s complete fantasy and you must be sick in the head.

Q] I’ve noticed you have an IMDB page and it says the following:
Has included a plush toy beaver in at least one scene of every movie and television show he's worked on since 1998.”

Until the secret identity of the murderer is revealed in Psycho Beach Party, the part is played by prop master Peter Clines.”

Nickname – Peter Props

 Tell us more about the aforementioned facts. What about your experiences in Hollywood and could you share any bizarre/funny experiences?

PC: I worked in the film industry for about fifteen years as a prop master before I decided to get out. During that time I tried writing a few scripts and got a lot of interest and meetings (my first meeting was with Ron Moore at Deep Space Nine), but none of them really went anywhere (I’ve actually had more luck in the years since then). It was fun and I met a ton of really wonderful people, but I’ve been a much happier person since I started writing full time.

The Psycho Beach Party thing was more about convenience. Most of the time movie making’s not as clean and perfect as a lot of film professors would have you believe. A lot of stuff gets changed last minute and tweaked for whatever’s fast/ cheap/ good. On Psycho Beach Party they didn’t want to bring the actual actor in every day the “mystery murderer” was filming, because that’s expensive. The special effect makeup guy, John, pointed out that I knew how most of the various “death” gags worked, and I was there all the time, so it made a lot more sense to just put me in the costume and have me “kill” everyone. So if you watch that film, every time you see the chest-down shot of the murderer in the black jacket and gloves, that’s actually me.

There’s not much to tell as far as the nickname. In the film industry people tend to identify you by your department more than your last name. I have friends who are known on set as Laura Wardrobe and Matt Camera. I’ve worked with Greg Props and Ilya Props and Dave Props. Mine just stuck fast because it was alliterative.

As for bizarre or funny stories... wow, there are just too many. I’ve got an odd story about an ostrich, and two related stories about chimpanzees, but they’d all take way too long to tell (people reading this—hit me up at conventions and I’ll tell you). I can say that Tony Todd really is just as big as he looks on screen (and a very nice guy). Jon Polito (who’s been in everything from Highlander to Flags of our Fathers) is one of the most wonderful people I’ve ever met. Reiko Aylesworth is about ten times more beautiful in person than she is on screen. Seriously, she’s breathtaking (and a pool shark).

Q] Amidst your bibliography is a book called The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe. You had faced a rather funny issue with its publication. Can you tell us about how what exactly happened with it and what was your inspiration for writing it?

PC: I’d finished Ex-Heroes and was playing around with that sci-fi zombie thing I mentioned before. It was early 2009 and Pride & Prejudice & Zombies had started that whole cross-genre mashup craze. Jacob Kier at Permuted Press asked a couple of us if we’d ever considered writing a mashup, and I think a few folks responded with different ideas. I’d just re-read Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe a year or so earlier, so I had a few ideas.

I decided I didn't want to do something silly or bizarre, though, I wanted to do a serious book... at least, as serious as possible when you're introducing werewolves and the Cthulhu mythos into one of the classics of English literature. And I'd like to think that, on an artistic level, I succeeded. I wrote a perfect, early 18th century horror novel in the language and prose of that time.

The downside, from a business point of view, was that I wrote a perfect, early 18th century horror novel in the language and prose of that time. And those really aren't selling these days... as I found out. It hasn’t been the greatest flop Permuted ever put out, but I’m pretty sure it’s on the short list.

Q] In the SFF genre, some authors like to put an emphasis on characters or worldbuilding; others on storytelling. Where do you fit in this picture and what do you feel are your strengths as a writer? What about weaknesses or areas that you'd like to get stronger in?

PC: I think worldbuilding is cool, and a lot of fun, but at the end of the day you really need some kind of story in that world which ties to characters. The world of Star Trek is amazing and very well-detailed, but Paramount doesn’t spend any time or money putting out “Federation Orientation” films. Even with books, you see technical manuals for Trek, Star Wars, or Doctor Who, but they only sell to a small sub-set of die-hard fans. The things that sell are the stories about characters we’ve all grown to love.

I think a writer needs to have relatable, likable characters. These characters need to take part in a plot that, to some degree, changes their lives and gives them a bit of an arc. Nothing gigantic, but if a story ends with all the character right back where they started, in my mind that means nothing important happened.

I’d be worried by any writer who thinks they don’t need any improvement. I go back over older material and see little tweaks and changes I would’ve made. I read other writer’s material and see clever ways they describe something or little sleight-of-hand tricks they pull with their plot or their writing. So I’m always on the lookout for things that will help make me a better writer.

Q] On your blog there are several posts about writing & publishing in general. Could you give aspiring writers the top three points of your choosing which you believe are of utmost importance to any newbie [or for that matter any writer]?

PC: Limiting it to a top three is tough. A lot of aspiring writers, I think, are looking for magic bullets. They want to know the one thing they need to work on right now so they can sell their material, and the truth is—like I was just saying—you need to work on everything. Basics like spelling and grammar are a must, but I also need to be good with characters and dialogue. I have to understand story and plot, narrative and structure. And I need to have an empathic sense of how the reader’s going to recieve the words I’m putting down. These aren’t things you learn in an afternoon—they take years of work and experience. i still look up words in the dictionary all the time because I want to be sure I’m using something the right way and that it means what I think it means.

Here’s my one big tip. Writing is like prospecting for diamonds. A lot of people see gems in a jewelry store (metaphorically speaking) and when they go prospecting they toss aside every diamond they find because in nature it’s a rough, crusty thing. And then there are the folks who grab every one of those black, misshapen little lumps, glue them to rings, and demand six grand for each one. Neither of these approaches work. A diamond inherently needs work before it’s ready to sell. You never find the end product. It’s going to need a practiced eye to tell which ones are worth the time and effort, and then they need lots of cutting and polishing.

Q] Finally, Thank you for taking the time for this interview.

PC:  Thank you for thinking I’d be somewhat entertaining for your readers.


Evan said...

Good'Ol Peter gives another great interview! Good questions, Mihir!

The Reader said...

Thanks Evan, Peter was certainly a blast to interview.



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