Interview with Speculative Fiction Author Jeff Pearce
Bianca: The Silver Age is sexy superhero/urban fantasy set in the future, and it’s one of the most unique books I’ve encountered recently. I love the world-setting (futuristic urban fantasy with alchemy!) and how it fearlessly tackles themes that other superhero fiction would shy away from. I’m pleased to be joined here by the author, Jeff Pearce, as he talks about superhero fiction, being a Canadian spec-fic author, and e-publishing.
Frida: What was the inspiration for Bianca: The Silver Age?
Jeff: I have to back up, way back, to answer your question. I grew up reading superhero comics—Batman, Superman, all the DC greats, and I still adore them. But it’s extremely hard for a writer to break into mainstream comics. The way to do that is usually to hit the conventions and show your work, but I’ve never had the bucks or days off to do that, and the big companies don’t take unsolicited scripts. So what do you do when you want to write about superheroes but you can’t write about their superheroes? Invent your own!
A few years ago, I was writing erotic thriller novels under pseudonyms, and fans responded to my character, Teresa Knight, who’s a sexy sleuth, a gal who’s smart and can handle herself. One reviewer called her a “feminist icon,” which put me over the moon. The books are still around through Random House reprints, but my character was “orphaned” because my original publisher went under. I’ve always wanted to take the best of what worked with Teresa—her brains, her feistiness—but jettison the more gratuitous sex elements I was under pressure from certain editors to add. I suppose that statement’s kind of ironic in that Bianca is a succubus, but she’s very much the descendant of my original heroine.
In the beginning, Bianca and her whole Paladin world were supposed to go into a graphic novel, but that fell through. I still wanted to develop the concepts, so my natural instinct was to novelize them. Now putting heroes in panels is one thing, but a novel doesn’t have that visual shorthand that comic book readers accept. “Oh, the guy flies,” or “Okay, he shoots his gadget gun.” In a novel, your suspension of disbelief insists on more. I wondered how I could get this stuff to make sense, because to me, you need more going on. It just falls apart if you say: The world is realistic like our own, but you’ve got heroes with it. Uh-uh. Bzzzz, wrong. The world itself has to enable this, and that got me thinking how the urban fantasy genre is perfect for bending the rules of physics and chemistry…
I have to laugh at myself for being such an arrogant idiot in trying to invent a whole new superhero universe as the backdrop to her story and any sequels. I mean after all, both DC and Marvel developed with multiple contributors over more than half a century. What the hell was I thinking? The good thing is that with all their creations out there, it forces you to come up with something original or at least a new take on an old theme. But I’m sure readers can recognize certain archetypes. Clerfayt’s a detective avenger, and he’s rich. I know, I know, who does that sound like? But then you find out how he gets his wealth, and it’s unusual—and it works in urban fantasy.
Frida: I haven’t been exposed to much superhero fiction outside of mainstream comic books (DC, Marvel) and old pulp masked heroes (e.g. Zorro, The Shadow). What struck me about the Paladins, the superheroes in this world, is that their actions have consequences on world politics. It’s not to the same extent as say, the alternate history in The Watchmen (with superheroes getting involved in Vietnam), but it still runs counter to the way mainstream superheroes treat superhero activity as a non-political and non-historical thing.
I especially liked how the superhero/vigilante in Sudan (the Bandit Queen/Makeda) and the rest of the Paladins actively negotiate their working relationship, because intervention is never a simple non-political thing without ethical dilemmas. As Bianca reflected in a scene, “It bothered her that Makeda Falosade had made them all feel like intruders, not saviors. Maybe they were intruders.”
Did you intentionally set out to explore certain themes in superhero fiction, or did they just develop naturally as you wrote the story?
Jeff: Oh, the intention was always there. To be honest, I’m not crazy about other attempts at superheroes in novels—they’ve really disappointed me. Marvel and DC both put out paperback novels that read like shallow film novelizations even when they’re original stories, and that’s ironic, because the actual comics can have real depth. The Dark Knight Returns by Frank Miller explores themes that make it literature. When Marvel did its whole “superhero registration act” storyline, it was a mess, but it aspired to greatness. But in novels, some writers still treat heroes like Freudian head-cases, or their novels get kitschy and self-referential. For them, it’s a literary stunt.
I wanted to get back to the tone of superheroes as larger-than-life figures and play it straight, instead of winking at the reader. If you’re a fan of the Justice League cartoon series, you know that one season had this fantastic story arc about how the U.S. government and ordinary people start to get scared over heroes having all this power with a satellite base in the sky… Adult themes and issues. That’s the feel I’m going for.
I see my Paladin world as perfect territory to ask some hard questions. There are still so many ideas that can be explored in novels, while up to now the comics have been doing the heavy lifting. The movies only flirt with these issues. For instance, remember Superman Returns? I always thought they wimped out on that. What they should have done is not dance and hint around the issue, but have Superman flat-out in context of 9/11. Bring it right out in the open, and have him fly over the rubble of Ground Zero. Have people ask: “Why didn’t you stop this? Why don’t you go get this guy?” Of course, he can’t, we know he can’t, and it would be preposterous if you even tried to suggest he’d do it as the end credits roll—and yet he’s Superman, he could and maybe he should. Or shouldn’t. Either way, you then have a real story, because you have stakes that really matter.
So the international issues the Paladins struggle with are ones many of us in the real world feel are overwhelming. You mentioned intervention in Africa, and that’s one. In Bianca’s second book, Mask of Anarchy, which I hope to bring out in the summer or early fall, she’s forced into a no-win situation where she can’t just go in and kick ass. The country this time is a quasi-Vietnam-Cambodia-Burma nation where the people believe in non-violence. Okay, what do you do if you’re a superhero? The strategy of non-violence works on shame. But the brutal regimes of Syria, of Iran, of Burma today don’t feel shame. They don’t give a shit. You have all these powers but if you use them arbitrarily like a god, you’ll undermine the self-determination of the very people you’re supposed to be “saving.” What do you do?
Frida: I’m really impressed by the world-building in Bianca. I love how the setting is a mash-up between near-future sci-fi and early 20th century-inspired urban fantasy, and some flourishes of Victorian England and earlier with the use of alchemy and such. Could you elaborate more on this? I’m intrigued how the fragmented nation-states came to be, and why everyone is so stylishly dressed.
Jeff: Hmmm… That’s a very difficult question for me because I don’t want to give away a lot. You’re right in that it’s very much a “ten minutes into the future” mash-up world where you’ve got Maglev float-bikes but also alchemy, which of course is proto-chemistry that goes back to Newton and Paracelsus. I had to build things that way because the Paladins themselves are a mash-up team, just as superhero teams always are with DC and Marvel. Here you’ve got Thelonius Minh, a master of combat yoga who has a unique origin, working with Makeda Falosade, who’s brilliant at physics and engineering but who also knows African magic. And they’ve got to work with Plague Man, a completely bat-shit unstable entity who’s so full of human rage and grief, but who can become a cloud of mustard gas or make himself into a neurotoxin in seconds. They have to live in a very interesting world.
As for the nation-states… I’ve deliberately kept the political back story a submerged iceberg, at least for now, because this is the one thing to me that readers will go along with in a novel, in terms of suspension of disbelief, in the same way gadgets and powers are often accepted without question for superheroes in film. If Bianca were a movie, I think we’d have the reverse challenge. She’d be stronger than most regular humans, and Clerfayt would simply arrive wrapped in mist. If you wondered how he makes his gadgets, you answer that in a 10-second montage. But in a 300-plus page novel, you have to go into the actual details. In a film, we wouldn’t sweat the mechanics—instead, we’d very much care how our guys got into their situation. It’s why you always get those white-on-black expository intros in SF movies or somber narrations.
Bianca: The Silver Age was always intended to be ambitious, to kick off a multi-strand series of novels, each book featuring one or two individual Paladins, such as say Clerfayt with Hawkwood showing up, or Makeda Falosade on a solo adventure. I wanted to create a world in which other writers can hopefully contribute when Gallivant Books is in a stronger position to commission talented authors. So I haven’t locked in too many fine details of how the world got into its mess, and that’s so others can play in my sandbox. Here’s hoping they will.
As for their outfits… It’s nice you call them stylish! I was actually trying to come up with alternatives to the old cape and tights clichés. I’ve always dreamed (sometimes in a ruthlessly commercial sense) of the franchise possibilities of the Paladins, and if they’re to work some day in comics or by some miracle, wind up in a movie, they need to be distinctive but not ludicrous. A hot chick in a bolero jacket and a hakama kicking your ass has to be taken seriously. A guy in a fisherman’s cap and a dark coat in the shadows can still look menacing. A guy in vagabond rags who suddenly turns into a cloud of disease is fucking scary.
Frida: As a genre writer based in Canada, what are your thoughts on the publishing landscape for genre fiction and for Canadian literature? What do you think of the concept of the Sci-fi Ghetto? I just wanted to bring that up because out of all the Canadian speculative fiction authors I’m aware of, the only one that gets attention from national media is the one that claims that her works aren’t sci-fi (ahem, Margaret Atwood).
Jeff: Yeah, I’m disgusted by the fact that when the BBC asked Atwood about science fiction, she took offense and called it “talking squids in outer space.” Her comment really captures the snobbery here regarding literature. The contempt is quite baffling and downright silly—I mean you have Robert J. Sawyer who’s won virtually every SF award you can think of, you have Guy Gavriel Kay, Tanya Huff, so many others.
The truth is that Canada’s literary stars make their living off books sold overseas. They’d starve if they had to depend on home sales. The whole publishing industry here is heavily subsidized by the government, and so much of it never has to prove itself commercially. The really sad thing is that we don’t have a viable SF imprint or mystery imprint that can make a big splash nationally and internationally. We don’t have a Tor or a Baen Books of our own, which is part of why I started Gallivant Books, though if GB survives and thrives, it’ll be years before it reaches that scale, if ever.
That leads into the issue of the Sci-Fi Ghetto. For us in Canada, the ghetto is all too real, but in the U.S., I wonder if the ghetto really matters or exists anymore. One of my heroes, Harlan Ellison, has a gem ranked in The Best American Short Stories for 1993. How many Philip K. Dick movies are there? I’ll take their ghetto any day!
Here it’s awful, but I’ve realized lately that my defensiveness makes me sound bitter. Many of us sound like we have a chip on our shoulder. And we do. I’m trying to adopt a new attitude this year, because in the end, science fiction and fantasy are called a genre, they’re a “category,” not simply because of their subject matter, but because we have discerning readers. We may never get massive fan bases, and that’s okay, too. If we do it right, the work lasts. When I checked out your link on the “ghetto,” it mentions the old saw about how so much SF is “poorly written rubbish,” and to that, I say, remember Sturgeon’s law.
Read Somerset Maugham. Stylistically, his stuff can be terrible, full of clichés and sloppy phasing, which is why they won’t put him in literature, only fiction. I love so much of his work. His narratives grab you, and they’re still adapting his books for films.
Think of all the literary crap that is so crushingly dull and forgettable—I was forced to read Malamud’s short stories in college. They’re root canal to me. Does anyone really believe Updike’s stuff will last? Ten minutes into the future, we’ll still have Maupassant’s Bel-Ami and Gore Vidal’s Lincoln. But we’ll also have Shogun and Tigana and The Demolished Man, which is one of the most overlooked fantastic novels ever, and Stranger in a Strange Land. I have no clue whatsoever if people will be reading Reich TV or The Karma Booth. I can only hope so.
Frida: What are your experiences with independent e-publishing so far? Are you planning to publish other books through a traditional publisher, or do you plan to go with independent e-publishing all the way? What will the world of publishing look like in future?
Jeff: It’s been a hell of a ride. I’ve been a magazine editor and a freelance book editor, so I had some experience to help guide me. Many folks don’t realize e-publishing still involves all the grunt work of regular publishing. Getting ISBNs, meeting deadlines… I’ve had to commission cover art before, check galleys, etc. I’ve been lucky enough to have sold novels to a start-up British imprint, but have also had those books sold to a major publishing house for reprints, and I’ve also had success in regular non-fiction. So I arguably knew more than others going in, but still nothing really prepares you for the slog you’ll take upon yourself with starting your own imprint. Gallivant was never intended to be just “Jeff’s Novels”—I wanted and still want to make it into an SF, fantasy and thriller version of Ellora’s Cave or Dreamspinner, which are ebook imprints with multiple authors, a whole list of them.
But I’m behind schedule on that. The print books look quite professional and we’re getting into great online distribution channels, but there’s so much content out there that marketing is the biggest challenge. I have a cool marketing strategy I want to execute, but we’ve had some setbacks. My cover artist is taking time off for family this year, which she’s certainly earned, and I love her stuff so much, it’ll be hard to replace her. And of course, there’s still that snobbery over e-publishing, there’s snobbery if you dare use Lightning Source, which is stupid because they do great work, or you run into attitudes if you dare publish your own work. Never mind the fact that Kipling did it and Orwell nearly published Animal Farm himself because he got rejected so many times.
It’s funny. When I did erotica, I’m sure what really drove sales was the word of mouth in reviews, and Random House quoted Coffee Time Romance and one or two others right on the front page and the covers. There’s only been one review ever of the Teresa Knight novels in a mainstream venue, Publisher’s Weekly; the rest were all online forums. Well, I’m still doing the same thing, I’m still writing genre novels. But in e-publishing, you get that whiff of “you’re not real” from some people who don’t bother to read the blurbs, or check out the professional production work or the fact that we’re in Kobo, Kindle, Waterstones, practically everywhere. The Karma Booth got a critic’s praise in Australia. So are novels from Gallivant Books “real?” I think they are.
But I’ll always be more of a writer than a business person. I’m still flogging certain books at traditional publishers. I even want to get over my bitterness at the Canadian literary scene, so this year I’m trying a new strategy of “If you can’t beat ‘em, infiltrate ‘em.” I’ve actually applied for a couple of Writer in Residence gigs, which I never thought I’d do because I’ve always associated them with the whole grant dodge. But Vancouver was smart enough to have Spider Robinson as a Writer in Residence. That would be good company to be in.
As for publishing in the future: we’ll always have books. Think of those great Dorling Kindersley volumes on everything from science to gardening. People will still want those. They’ll still want beautiful thick tomes with uneven cut cream-cloth pages. But in the future, maybe we’ll have new technology that can give us the feel of texture while also being multimedia. Wouldn’t that be cool? (And oh, yes, I’ve put that into the Paladins’ universe and a couple of other spots).
Frida: What can readers expect in the sequel to Bianca: The Silver Age? Are there upcoming sequels for your other books?
Oh, Mask of Anarchy has a lot going on! I’ve already mentioned the theme of non-violence, but other ethical issues are explored, too. And new Paladins are introduced. The ones in Silver Age—Plague Man, Orson Hawkwood, Clerfayt, Thelonius Minh, the Bandit Queen, Bianca—are the “top guns.” But now the landscape opens up a little, and you meet other Vigil-ebrities and get a sense of the pecking order of the heroes. Bianca’s now far more confident in her abilities and much more a leader. In fact, how she handles leadership is a major through-line of the book.
Initially, I intended to write novels for the other characters after Bianca had three of her own, but I’m anxious to get cracking on a book for Clerfayt, which has the working title, Clerfayt: Arch of Terror. Each novel in the Paladin series, assuming things go well, won’t be a cookie-cutter pattern. By that I mean Clerfayt’s novel won’t be a “team” book like Bianca’s—his story is very much a noir-ish detective story where you learn more about the Allied Zones of Paris. But there will be a team-up, and readers get to discover more about his working collaboration with Orson Hawkwood.
I’ve got a third novel plotted and waiting to be done that focuses on Plague Man, which surprises me because… Well, from how Plague Man is in Silver Age, I wasn’t sure for a while if he should get a book of his own. Dig into the mystery too much, and you destroy what makes the character interesting. But I think I’ve figured out how it should work. In Plague Man: Time Itself Will Burn, Volker Sharf has to really come to terms with his rage and impetuousness because everyone else is counting on him. That’s a novel where readers will get really juicy back story details on certain Paladins.
That should be plenty enough to keep me busy, but I’ve been working as well on a sequel to Reich TV, a book I never thought at first should have one. For your readers who don’t know it, Reich TV explored how television could have changed the course of Nazi Germany. When Steve Jobs died, I started to roll around in my head certain themes about early computer tech the same way that early television haunted me, so now anyone who liked the first book has a big hint about the sequel, which has the working title, Nixon’s Web. George Orwell is back, but this time he’s in America. And he has a rather interesting supportive cast like last time.
And if that’s not enough to keep me busy, I’m hoping Gallivant will be able to bring out a hard SF novel, plus a couple of thrillers, plus a young adult fantasy novel in the near future. Right now they’re each in different editorial stages, and I think I’m going to be busy. I just hope people like the books.
Man, all those sequels look juicy. And I’m really looking forward to Nixon’s Web; I gave Reich TV 5-stars after all. Alternate history George Orwell + political conspiracies + technology on stereoids? Yes please!
Posted on February 4, 2012, in Bianca The Silver Age, Contemporary and Urban Fantasy, Fantasy, George Orwell, indie ebooks, indie fantasy books, indie science fiction, indie speculative fiction, Interview, Jeff Pearce, Karma Booth, Margaret Atwood, Reich TV, sci-fi ghetto, Science fiction, science fiction ebooks, self-publishing, SF Chatter, speculative fiction ebooks, Superhero and tagged Canada. Bookmark the permalink. 1 Comment.