I was given the great opportunity to interview another author greatly admire Peter Clines. It was my pleasure to be able to ask him some in depth questions about his book Ex-Heroes and his follow up novel Ex-Patriots. I hope you enjoy
- Where did you come up with the basis for Ex-Heroes? And did any of your heroes take after heroes from your childhood or did you envision them to be fully unique?
Ex-Heroes came about through some dissatisfaction and a bit of serendipity. I’ve been a huge comic fan since I was about seven, but as of late I’ve become very bothered by the trend of aiming comics solely at adults. The Big Two, who traditionally had a very young demographic, are now marketing pretty much exclusively to ages twenty and up. And one of the ways they do this is by making all the characters as messed up and melodramatic as possible. Being heroic is the least-important thing.
When I heard that one of the Big Two was going to do a zombie miniseries with a very Romero feel to it, I was thrilled. Not only did I love the idea, but it was a situation that essentially forced the heroes to be heroic. I imagined all these great last stands and classic heroes barricading themselves in buildings with civilian survivors.
Needless to say, the story was not that at all. It wasn’t heroic at all, it was just a gorefest. These weren’t even heroes—they were just cannibalistic ghouls wearing superhero costumes and talking non-stop. They had to be tireless zombies to talk that much.
So I channeled my dissatisfaction and scribbled a bunch of notes onto a legal pad of what I would’ve done. The ideas I would’ve explored with these heroes in this situation. Super-powered twists on a lot of classic zombie tropes. That sort of thing.
That probably would’ve been it, but a few months later my girlfriend and I decided to move in together and got a new place. I finally had a home office and got to unpack a bunch of stuff I’d been hauling around for years. One of the things I found was a pile of old sketchbooks from grade school and junior high, when my big goal in life was to write comics for Marvel. There were tons of heroes and villains in there. And I was paging through these and it struck me that a lot of these characters I’d created when I was ten or eleven would slot into the zombie story I’d hoped to see.
Granted, they needed a lot of work. Some of them were kind of goofy, in that ten year old way, so there were some revamps and polishes to all of them. Probably the biggest revision was that all my superhero characters were male. At age ten I didn’t see what anyone could possibly find appealing about hot women in spandex fighting crime. So in this revamp a few male characters became female. Stealth was male, originally. So were Cerberus and Banzai. I think it worked out better for all of them.
–How much research did you do for diseases?
For the zombie idea? I’d stumbled across the bit about the Komodo dragon years ago, and I’m cursed with a freakishly good memory for stuff like that. It fit well, and I’d never heard of that angle before.
The funny thing is, right after the book sold to Permuted Press I got to interview George Romero for my then-day job at Creative Screenwriting Magazine. So I was doing some random background research before we talked and found out he’d used the exact same analogy with the Komodo one time in an interview to explain why zombie bites were lethal in his stories. I was horrified everyone would think I’d just ripped him off. But then I talked to a few friends who were die-hard Romero fans and they’d never heard it, so I figured I was safe.
And then, as icing on the cake of shame, about a month or so before the book came out a study came out that showed Komodos really are poisonous. The disease element is just an odd side-effect.
So my research is all crap, apparently…
- Ex-Heroes goes from current story to the past and shows how each hero or hero that is now an ex got to that point in time. This is only the second time I’ve seen this done in a book and I really enjoy it will Ex-Patriots be similar? And how did you come up with that style of story telling?
I’m afraid to say it was laziness. Well, not entirely, but it definitely wasn’t the case of a careful planned structure right from the start. When I first started scribbling notes and ideas to myself—with no real idea where it would lead to—I was just doing little character pieces. One of the first things I tried was more or less a first person short story which eventually became “The Luckiest Girl In The World,” the story of the Zombocalypse from Banzai’s point of view. A little bit after that I wrote “Subtle Beauty” and “Enter The Dragon.” They were just things to let me get a grip on the characters and some of the backstory. I knew my real story was going to be the aftermath, not the uprising.
I’m not sure exactly when it happened, but at some point it occurred to me that I could keep all of these chapters for just that reason—they gave a great view of the characters and they told some of the history. In fact, with the three I’d scribbled, I realized I was telling the backstory sequentially. Plus it meant I already had about 10,000 words done in the novel. So I decided to run with it and it let me do a lot of fun stuff.
- Gorgon was my favorite character in Ex-Heroes, did you have a hero that you really enjoyed writing?
It’s tough to say. I enjoyed them all because I love the idea of superheroes and each of the characters hit a certain archetype. Gorgon is the gritty, borderline-vigilante. St. George is the noble, larger-than-life symbol—the boy scout. Stealth is the dark protector type. Cerberus is the high-tech armored one. Zzzap is the energetic one. Even the ones we only get glimpses of hit a lot of standard tropes. Banzai’s the super-nimble acrobat. Cairax is the supernatural guy. Blockbuster’s the strong guy (because every group has a strong guy).
I couldn’t really pick. I could say that if I didn’t enjoy writing one of the character, I probably would’ve left them out. I think that distaste shows through. I even enjoy the bad guys.
- I was recommended your book by a friend and was very pleasantly surprised at how great it really was. As a fan I have become kind of jaded with zombie books, but you took a fresh new approach. Are there any zombie novels, comics or anything of the sort that got you started on this unique genre of writing? If so who and why?
It’s funny you ask that. I don’t think I really did anything that unique. It wasn’t anything new, it was just going back to a lot of the standards I grew up with. My zombies are really just your classic Romero shamblers. They’re slow, they’re mindless, they walk into walls, they’re attracted by noise, and so on. My heroes, like I mentioned above, are just a lot of standard superhero archetypes.
I think it’s that back-to-basic-ness which seems so fresh and new to people. I think a lot of writers are determined to find “a bold new take” on classic ideas and they make big changes or shifts. And, in all fairness, some of them really do some amazing stuff. But I think after a while most people just end up wanting the classic. That’s why no matter how many times they revamp Spider-Man or Superman, they always end up back in the same costume with the same powers. We’ve had, what… the four after-death Supermen, the Electrical Superman (two different colors, even), Kryptonian battle-armor Superman… In a year he’ll be back in the same fabric costume with the red shorts. I’d put money on it.
Y’know what it is? Have you ever gone to a restaurant where it’s impossible to get a cheeseburger? They’ll have a braised ostrich burger with brie on a croissant, a garlic-seasoned patty with pine nuts and blue cheese crumbles on an oatmeal-sesame bun, or something along those lines. And these are all good and nice for a little change, but in the end most folks just end up wanting a basic cheeseburger. I think Ex-Heroes is a cheeseburger in a wave of new-age California cuisine.
- What is the most surprising reaction you’ve gotten to Ex-Heroes fan wise?
Honestly, I’m still kind of surprised people have liked it as much as they have. I was pretty sure it was a good story when I finished it, but I also knew it was kind of an homage to the type of heroes and stories I grew up with. Going off what sells in comics these days, I felt very alone in that, so I figured it wouldn’t work for most people. They’d find it too silly or childish. So it’s been kind of overwhelming to see the number of folks who’ve enjoyed and—as in your case—passed it on to other friends.
I will say, one thing that completely blew me away was some of the interpretations of how Cairax got infected. It’s something I left a bit vague, yes, but all the clues are there for what happened to him. Some of them aren’t even that subtle. I never dreamed some people’s minds would drop so far into the gutter. Well, okay, that they’d go on record with it, at least…
- The sequel to Ex-Heroes is coming out in a little while– what can we expect from Ex-Patriots? How far from the end of Ex-Heroes is this book set? And do we get to see maturity from all of the heroes that are still around from Ex-Heroes?
Ex-Patriots starts up about eight months after Ex-Heroes. To be exact, it’s the summer of 2011 (lucky break, that). The people of the Mount are settled in and exploring more of Los Angeles, because supplies are getting tight with their increased population. And, as in any zombie story, this is when the military shows up.
One thing that was important to me, though, was that the Army not be the bad guys. So often in this type of post-apocalyptic story the military gets portrayed as inept or mad with power. Whenever you get a military hero, they’re either the rare exception or they’re a deserter—often both. I knew there’d be a clash of methods and ideas between civilian forces and military forces, but I didn’t want the Army to be a group of deluded psychos going “muah-hah-hah—we’re here to take your food and your women.”
As far as the heroes themselves—the ones who made it out of Ex-Heroes, anyway—their lives have progressed a bit and they’ve all changed a little. When I sat down to write Ex-Patriots I already knew I had a very, very strong chance of getting a third book, so this time I was able to do a bit more foreshadowing and plant some more seeds, so to speak. There are some things left dangling in Ex-Patriots that are obvious set-ups for another story. It’s my Empire Strikes Back, if I may be so bold.
- My questions have been a bit long, but this is the last one. I ask every author I get the chance to interview this same question and everyone has a different take so I would love to hear yours. What does it take to be a great writer?
A great writer? Beats me. I’m still trying to figure that one out myself.
To be a good writer, I think it’s pretty simple. Write. Sit your butt in a chair and start putting words on the page.
I know that sounds kind of trite, but it really is the truth. Most professional writers wrote and wrote and wrote before they got any small degree of success. I wrote three or four novels that will never, ever see the light of day and dozens of short stories that didn’t sell. But that’s how I learned. I see so many people who want instant results and are furious their genius wasn’t recognized in the first thousand words they ever strung together. Either that or they get so caught up in classes and how-to books that they never do anything.
Look at it this way, if I can use another food analogy. Say you wanted to be a really good chef. Would you really be all that surprised if no one wanted to pay seventy bucks for the first meal you ever cooked? You could also read all the cookbooks in the world, study every recipe, and spend every night watching cooking shows, but I think we can all agree that won’t make you a chef either, right? You have to get in the kitchen and practice again and again and again. Then maybe on your seventieth or eightieth or one hundred-fiftieth cheesecake someone will say “Wow—that’s totally worth ten bucks a slice.” But you can’t expect it to happen without that work.
Man, now I want cheesecake…