Wednesday, January 22, 2014

Interview with Myke Cole

I've been meaning to interview Myke Cole for a long time. I've been fortunate enough to have him write a guest post during my Spec. Fic 101 series and he took part in an excellent round table that just never managed to find its way to completion, so I was pleased that he agreed to be interviewed about his newest release Breach Zone. We ran the gamut from questions about his process, the genesis of his excellent series, talent versus doing the work, and influences as wide as comics, history and film, This interview turned out to be one my favorites and Myke brings his usual brand of plain talk and straight answers to the table. If you haven't read his work, I can't recommend it highly enough. If you have, then I hope that this interview will shed some light on the story behind the story and the man behind the Britton, Bookbinder, Harlequin, and Scylla.

52 Reviews: Alright to get the ball rolling, I'll start with a soft ball question and see what shakes out. While it's plain to see that your experience as a member of the Armed Forces has played a pivotal role in the setting of the Shadow Opsseries, what else can you tell us about the genesis of the series? And how has it changed from the initial concept both from the first novel and then onward as the second and third novels were being written?

Myke Cole: I appreciate the spin on a very tired interview question :) 

CONTROL POINT was originally called Latent, and the protagonist was an Arkansas Corporal named James Jolly. Oscar Britton, who later became the protagonist, was his best friend. They were rivals for Therese Del Aqua, with Britton actually winning out in the end. Scylla used to be Swift, and when I finally split those characters apart, the Scylla that resulted was more petulant and angry than Magnetoesque as she later came to be. The main antagonist was a guy named Erec who looked like Ian Astbury from the old days of The Cult. There was Mentamancy. Hydromancy was (ridiculously) called Aquamancy. There were two super-powerful "prime magics," Light and Dark. There was a device called the Tair, that was like the sorting hat from Harry Potter, and could tell what school you were. There were Seers, whose primary job was to discover Latent people.

I wrote Latent *four* times from start to finish from 1998 to 2008, when I finally produced the version that my agent agreed to represent. This story has been with me for most of my adult life.


In the version of CONTROL POINT that finally went out to publishers, Jolly was gone, and Britton took center stage. There was no SASS. There was no Fitzy. Nelson (who was named Marty) took Britton in instead of shooting him, and led him to the Green Mountain Tribe, a band of Selfers hiding out in the forests of Vermont. Britton had around 20-30,000 words of adventures there until he was finally captured. 


The publisher said the whole section didn't work. I had to throw it out and rewrite around 40% of the book to get it across the finish line. 

I like to think I'm getting better at writing character. FORTRESS FRONTIER improved on CONTROL POINT in that aspect, and BREACH ZONE is, at its heart, a love story, which I think is a direct result of my studying romance in an effort to figure out how those writers tick. Romances are, at their core, plotless. They're stories that revolve around character interactions, and I think that's super important. In the end, the only thing people really care about is other people. GEMINI CELL is a love story root and branch. It's still action packed, but the relationship between the protagonist and his wife is center stage.

I hope my readers like the direction I'm heading in. My writing mantra, increasing in volume as I chant it over the course of my career, is people, people, people, people.

52 Reviews: Wow, I have to say I am shocked at just how vast the gulf is between the origin and the final product actually is. And sticking with the project through four complete drafts takes a level of commitment and drive that is astounding. What led you to stick with this particular story for so long and avoid jumping to the countless other ideas that I'm sure you had over that ten year span?

Myke Cole: Nothing. I absolutely fell down other rabbit holes. In fact, I wrote two other novels: Cloud Sower and Tea Road, while I was reworking Latent over and over again. 

Cloud Sower was a . . . magic/technology blend at the black-powder technology level. I guess it was more along the lines of what Brian McClellan or Naomi Novik are doing. It was set in a 2nd world based largely off late 17th Century Poland. Tea Road was a retelling of the classic Alfred Noyes poem set in a desert realm where a fantasy variant on the Mongols and Mamluks held sway. Both had some brilliant moments. Both, in the end, couldn't be saved.

52 Reviews: Which brings me to my next question, how do you know when a story has legs and when it's time to let go and find another project to work on? I promise I'll get back to Breach Zone promptly.

Myke Cole: Ha! Take your time, brother. 

That is the million dollar question isn't it? The answer is: you don't. There might be writers out there who can judge their work on their own, but I'm not one of them. The truth is that I have no idea when my work is good enough. So, I take the route you might expect: I revise until my beta readers tell me it's the greatest thing they've ever read. Then, I send it to my agent. I'm very fortunate in that my agent is very hands-on in editing. Most agents don't do that. My agents has 20 years experience picking winning horses. Once my book impresses him enough to pass it on to the publisher, I feel reasonably confident that it's a good book.

But for those writers who don't have an agent? Find a writer whose career is where you want yours to be (and this is why you go to cons), then convince them to beta for you. When they tell you that your book has legs, it might be time to start shopping it. 

But don't do ANYTHING until you have a.) written a book all the way through to completion and b.) revised it until you really don't know if it's good or not anymore.

52 Reviews: I have to be honest, that question was for me. I have started and stopped on at least three manuscripts over the last few years, one of which was almost 80,000 words long. Judging whether or not it's any good, or if it is the right project has always been harder than the actual writing. You've certainly given me a lot to think about. Now on to Breach Zone

I've been really impressed by the growth I've seen in your writing from novel to novel, with Breach Zone being an exponentially better read than even Fortress Frontier, which I loved. Going back to what you said about character being key, with each novel focusing on a different  protagonist, I've noticed that the level of character growth has intensified with each change of principle protagonist. Was this something you set out to do from the outset, or was it an side effect of your maturing as a writer? 

Myke Cole: I think it's both. The more I write, the more I learn what's important in good writing. I'm also one of those people who is cursed with never being able to be satisfied/enjoy his victories. As soon as I hit a mark, I start looking over the horizon. 

First, the goal was to write a novel that was so good it would get published almost as a byproduct of its quality. I . . . sort of achieved that. I don't want to say I pulled it off totally, because CONTROL POINT is a flawed book, but I came close enough that I consider the mark met. So, now the next goal is to create fiction that STICKS. You know, the way that Brooks and Gaiman and Feist and Anthony and Moorcock and Martin endure. The key to that is character. 

All my favorite writers use ensemble casts and explore different protagonists over multiple books. My intention was never to do what Chuck Wendig does with Miriam Black, or what Jim Butcher does with Harry Dresden (and both do it damn well). The upside of this is that it allows me to explore different characters with different life stories. Thanks to this angle, I've gotten to write from the prospective of an African-American young man, a middle-aged married dad, a female corporate mover and a paragon of military virtue. It's a wild ride, and I can feel my horizons broadening as I go.

It's terrifying, because the more you step out on the ledge, the greater the chance you'll fuck up and fall, but if my career fails it damn well isn't going to be because I didn't push the envelope. 

I've got one shot at this, and I am playing to win. 

52 Reviews: It's interesting to me how the characterization of Scylla progresses through the series, She definitely gains a very Magnetoesque feel in Breach Zone, damaged by her own attempts to do good and while an absolutely sociopath as a result, she still manages to be sympathetic and tragic at the same time. Adding the cover blurb by Peter V. Brett that calls the series a cross between Blackhawk Down meets the X-men, and the parallels between way mutants are viewed in the Marvel Universe and how latents are seen in the series, it's pretty obvious that comics are a definite influence on your writing. Can you tell us a little bit more about how that medium has served as an inspiration and influence for you?

Myke Cole: Comics are a huge influence, not only on my writing, but on my person. I grew up without a sense of safety, and so I didn't really have the freedom to explore the world and let my identity form organically. Instead, I had to construct it. In the absence of strong male role-models, I turned to media, and superheroes were HUGE factors in my developing a sense of bravery, perseverance, stoicism and self-sacrifice. Any/all comic book influence you see in my writing is intentional and, in my opinion, a very good sign.

Readers of BREACH ZONE will notice that it's at least partially dedicated to Batman. He is, apart from Captain America, the costumed crime-fighter I most identify with.

52 Reviews: With the obvious parallel between Scylla and Magneto were there similar inspirations for the story arcs of the other principle characters in the series? I'm particularly interested in Bookbinder and Harlequin.

Myke Cole: Yes, but not necessarily superheroes. Bookbinder was highly, highly, highly (read: stolen from) influenced by the real life Lieutenant John Chard, an engineer sent to survey a bridge who found himself in command of a tiny force under siege. I was amazed at his story of being thrust into command without any real combat experience, and then finding a way to lead based on sheer ingenuity and force of will. He fought against absolutely overwhelming odds and won.

Harlequin is influenced by the character of Lt. Kendrick from A Few Good Men. I was interested in how hidebound he was, what a stickler for the rules, even when it was obvious that those rules were hurting people. I spent a lot of time thinking about *why* a person would think that was the correct course of action, and Harlequin was the character that resulted from that navel-gazing.

In both cases, I have met many real-life service members who contributed to my portrayals of the characters.

52 Reviews: One of my favorite things about the Shadow Ops series is the internal conflicts of the principal protagonists. Britton struggles with a sense of duty and the need for individual liberty, Bookbinder learns lessons about courage and leadership and Harlequin learns that the labels that divide us are less important than the humanity that links is all. As you said, the key to story is character, what changes have you made in the approach you take towards planning the protagonist's growth as the series has grown? 

Myke Cole: With Britton, I really wanted to explore reader expectations of a "military man." Less than 1% of Americans serve in uniform, and the result is a divide where most civilians know almost nothing about the military. Ignorance leads to stereotyping and fetishization. That's not cool.

The truth is that military men are like every other kind of man. Some are brave and confident. Some are cowardly and uncertain. Some make good decisions. Some make bad ones. In Oscar Britton, I wanted to explore a conflicted, anxious, blundering person who was *still* a dyed-in-the-wool military officer. I wanted him to flail his way into heroism and be left uncertain as to whether he made the right call or not. I didn't want there to be clear right and wrong. I didn't want easy answers. 

Artistically? I achieved that goal in spades. But the backlash of reader reactions against Britton showed me that I misjudged what my audience wants in a story. I'm fine defying my audience. This is my book in the end, and I have to have artistic integrity. You have to take artistic risks to have success in any form of art. But I am *not* fine with my audience hating the protagonist to the extent that they are thrown out of the story.

With Bookbinder, I think I plugged that hole. The irony here is that I actually craft my characters *less* realistically than I did with Britton. I am still working to examine the full range of humanity, but I am also more cognizant of the fact that the characters must serve the drama of the story. This is what many "literary" fiction books I've read get wrong. They are hyper-realistic, and serve up characters that I don't give a damn about.

Reader reactions are universally better toward Bookbinder (and I hope Harlequin) than they were to Britton. This is another advantage of switching protagonists with each book.

52 Reviews: Switching gears a bit, I'd like to talk a little bit about something I've noticed in your social media interactions. You seem to be a really vocal proponent of work over talent when it comes to the production of art. What can you tell us about that topic? 

Myke Cole: I feel the idea of talent is intellectually lazy. There's plenty of scientific evidence that *something* is at work other than focused practice that factors into expertise, but the truth is that we have no idea what it is, or if it's even one thing. It could be millions of things.

People absolutely cannot stand to say "I don't know," so we shout "talent!" and obviate ourselves of the intellectual rigor required for real analysis. That's an academic objection. My practical objection is this: That people use the idea of "talent" as an excuse not to work. "He's got a real talent for that, so it must be easy for him" or "I won't even bother to try, because I just don't have a talent for this." 

Bullshit. Bull. Shit.

The only thing you can control is the work. It is useless to contemplate anything else. Work until you pass out, and when you wake up, get the fuck back to work again. You can rest when you're dead.

52 Reviews: I can't argue with the results of your labor, the series has gotten better with each novel and in my humble opinion Breach Zone is better than Fortress Frontier by a magnitude of four or five. With this series at its end what can readers expect next?
Myke Cole: That's very kind of you to say. I need BREACH ZONE to gel a bit more in my mind before I can declare it better than FORTRESS FRONTIER. I will agree that it's better than CONTROL POINT, which is flawed for the characterization issues we discussed before.

Next up is GEMINI CELL, which takes place many years before CONTROL POINT, while the SOC is still in its infancy. It'll show you the world at the dawn of the Great Reawakening. It's a highly romantic, highly character driven story. It centers around a US Navy SEAL who runs afoul of the budding clandestine magical service, and death is just the start of his journey. I've said that I need to let BREACH ZONE gel a bit before I can feel good about it. I don't have that problem with GEMINI CELL at all. It has been done for months, and I'm in the 6th draft of edits. I am completely confident that it's the best thing I've ever written, and I sincerely hope that won't be idle bragging when readers finally weigh in on it.

52 Reviews: Well, I'm sad to say that we've reached the last question in our interview. I'm sure the readers will enjoy your answers as much as I have. I usually let the author take point on the last question, so what comes next is up to you. Feel free to wax philosophical on whatever strikes your fancy, offer a bit of sage writing advice you wish you'd heard ten years ago, recommend a little known fellow author or pitch a reality show featuring you Peter Brett and the Beta Winter Solider. It's been a pleasure, sir. 

The floor is yours.
Myke Cole: Thanks so much for the smart questions! I really like this rolling interview style. When you do a lot of interviews, they start to run together after a while, and it's really nice to do something fresh and new.

The thing I'd like to throw out to your readers is that the military had been a powerful force for good in my life. I just finished a piece for Writer's Digest on how it ironically served as the best creative writing course I could ever take. I hope aspiring artists will consider military service as a way to hone the personality attributes necessary to face literary dragons. Reserve commitments allow you to serve without abandoning everything else you've built in your life and career, and each branch of the military has an auxiliary for those whose physical limitations prevent them from joining up in an drilling capacity. We need creatives. We need intellectuals. We need people who will help make this institution I love so much evolve along with society so that it reflects it more fully. We are you and you are us. I can't do this alone. Stand with me.

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