Alex Irvine is the author of numerous novels, including Transformers: Exodus, which was released this week in trade paperback. We recently spoke about what it takes to make robots compelling characters, the enduring attraction of the Fisher King, and what it’s like to live a double life as a college professor and SF/F fan favorite author.
Hey Alex, it’s been a year now since the hardcover release of Transformers: Exodus. I’m got a paperback copy of the book in my hot little hands, and honestly, my first question has got to be this: how on earth did you write a story with the staying power of Transformers: Exodus?
Hey! I just got copies of the paperback myself, right after I finished the last round of edits on the sequel, Transformers: Exiles. Staying power? We’ll see! I’ve been very happy to see how well the book was received, that’s for sure. What I wanted to do in Exodus was get at the core of how Optimus Prime and Megatron got to be who they are. I wanted Megatron to be more than a Snidely Whiplash kind of villain, and Optimus Prime to be more than the valiant Dudley Do-Right character. And since every writer knows that nobody makes a better arch-enemy than a former friend, that’s the direction I went.
Fandom can be fickle, and downright protective sometimes of their favorite properties, but Transformers fans obviously LOVE you. I see that you’re in the Transformers Wiki, and just a casual Google search turned up a ton of really enthusiastic comments about your work. Did you expect this? Were you ever worried about fan reaction? Have you heard from many fans?
Transformers fandom is a wide and various culture, that’s for sure. Some of them love me, and I love them right back. I even love the ones who don’t love me. Whenever you take on a universe that means so much to so many people, it’s a big responsibility and also a terrific opportunity. I had a blast writing both books and I think fans of the first one are going to like Exiles even more.
I hear from fans fairly regularly. A note to readers out there: writers love to hear from you.
You’ve managed to get right to the core of what makes the Transformers work as characters and what people like about them. Are there any do’s and don’ts of writing Transformers fiction? Maybe some “Commandments” that you generally follow?
The same commandments I try to follow for any fiction. Figure out what the characters want and why. I tried to stay pretty true to the characters as they came to me, but the kind of story I was telling in Exodus meant that I could go back to the beginning and get them before they arrived at their fully formed personalities that we’ve been seeing since 1984. I took advantage of that room where I could, without (I hope) doing too much violence to the characters as they exist in other Transformers stories (and continuities).
We’ve spoken before about both of us having been born just a few years too early to have been a part of the original eighties Transformers craze. If you could go back in time and take one of the toys, or cartoons, or comics or whatever you were crazy about as a kid and see it become just as popular as the Transformers, what would it be? I was lucky in that I grew up with Star Wars and Star Wars toys, but I would love to see an alternative universe where, say, Thundarr the Barbarian was immensely popular. What about you?
Micronauts! If I had one chance to be something other than a human being, I would want to be Acroyear. I would love to see a Micronauts movie if I could have a guarantee from the universe that it wouldn’t suck. Also I would love to write a Micronauts comic if Marvel ever decides to do them again. Hear me, universe?
One last Transformers-related question: you can choose of your current possessions to become a Transformer. What would that item be, and what would the new Transformers name be? I think I’d choose my coffee maker, and its name would be Javatron. You?
I think I would have a circular saw named Spintooth. Either that, or a lawnmower named Suburbotron. My current gas lawnmower is kaput, so I’ve been using a push mower, which is hard to imagine as a Transformer. Although using it makes me a superior human being.
You’ve worked with a number of licensed properties: Dungeons & Dragons, Batman, Daredevil, Transformers. Do you have any favorites?
I talked about Transformers already, so I’ll leave them out of this one. D&D was one of my primary hobbies as a kid, so it was a kick to write The Seal of Karga Kul, and also the Dark Sun comic, “Ianto’s Tomb.” (Did you ever play that Dark Sun computer game? It was real cool.) I like all the superhero stuff, but Daredevil was always a particular favorite, and Tomm Coker’s art for Daredevil Noir was so kickass that I’d love to do another DD book with him. Batman: Inferno was a blast because I got to get inside the Joker’s head. I wrote an Ultimates book that was my first flirtation with Tony Stark, and I’ve since written two Iron Man novels and a limited comic series…I don’t know. I love it all. That’s why I keep doing all these different things. A new possibility comes along, and I want to give it a try.
And of course I’m doing revisions on a Star Wars book right now, so that’s another licensed wonderland I get to play around in. Oh, and I just wrote the novelization for Stephen Spielberg’s Tintin movie that comes out this Christmas. That was a treat.
Some of your earliest works combine history and fantasy. I’m most intrigued by One King, One Soldier, a novel that combined aspects of the Fisher King myth, the Korean War and even poet, and later gunrunner, Arthur Rimbaud. The Fisher King myth is one that has interested a lot of other creative people like Tim Powers and Terry Gilliam. Why do you think that’s so? What is it that appeals to so many people, particularly those of a creative, fantastic bent?
The thing that’s always gotten me about the Fisher King legend—one version of it, anyway—is that the hero’s task is to ask the right question. The first time I ran across that idea, I wanted to jump up and run around because here was a story that essentially turned being a curious nerd into a heroic act. (I’m overstating a bit.) Also, the idea that by healing the Fisher King the questing knight can heal the land, that’s a very resonant way to talk about the weight and responsibility of leadership. And then, of course, there’s all the monsters and derring-do! One King was an experiment for me, and if I had it to do over again I’d do some things different, but the character of dying Arthur Rimbaud was way too juicy to pass up—not to mention Jack Spicer. I can’t tell you how many times people were talking to me about One King and were surprised to learn that he was a real guy. If more people read him because of One King, I’ll be happy.
Looking at your career so far, it seems like you’ve been able to bounce back and forth between high concept literature and pop culture. You’ve got an elastic imagination that I certainly envy, and I imagine that others do as well. Do you have any encompassing worldview when it comes to concepts like pulp and popular culture versus high art? Do you believe in these kinds of distinctions? Also, do you find yourself drawing from lessons learned in one when creating the other?
This has sure kept things interesting throughout my career, although sometimes I envy those people who can settle into a certain kind of story and write it over and over. But stories always remain fuzzy to me until I get an idea of the mode/genre/whatever the story should be in. I don’t generally start with a conceit; I start with a situation and the people in the situation. Then that floats around in my head for a while and then I figure out what kind of story fits the situation and the people best. (Although once in a while I just get an itch to write a particular kind of story, and then I do it.) I think there is a distinction, broadly, between pulp and high art, but once you get beyond the old plot vs. character vs. style argument there’s not much point in continuing…except maybe to consider that idea that what we think of as high art is art that is interested in its own nature as art. It doesn’t have to be obvious about this, but you don’t have to look too hard at a lot of, say, sixteenth-century English sonnets to see that they’re partially about the poet figuring out how to write a poem. It’s pretty easy for this to get boring, but it’s also pretty easy for a space opera or quest fantasy to get boring. Anything done right is great.
Me, I like to mash all of them together into highlow artpulp, and blend different genres together sometimes too. Every story is different. It should have a different telling.
Separate from that is the phenomenon of someone calling me up and saying, hey, want to write a Transformers/Star Wars/D&D/Batman/Tintin/Daredevil book? The answer, invariably, is yes. But even with those books, the same rules apply. You’re getting the characters and the world handed to you, but so did Homer. (Note: the first person who twists that line to suggest that I’m comparing myself to Homer is condemned to be reincarnated as a Cubs fan.)
You hold a PhD and were an instructor at the University of Maine. What are your areas of academic interest? Did you ever have any students that know you from your popular novels or comics? Any kind of reaction along the lines of “Awesome! The Transformers guy is my professor!” Do you try to keep these two lives separate?
Most of my graduate coursework was in Renaissance and medieval lit, but while I was an English professor I mostly taught American lit. Occasionally I spotted in a course I designed, on SF or comics, but the bulk of my courses were American novel seminars, short-story surveys, and courses on contemporary American lit…but I also taught a Shakespeare course and a survey called Homer to the Renaissance. And that’s not including creative writing courses, which I taught from the intro level up to MA workshops.
By and large, my students were much more interested in hearing about comics than novels. A bunch of them went out and got some of my books, though, which was great. (I should point out here that I was not one of those professors who puts his own books on the syllabus.) And man, did they want to talk about comics. I made no effort to keep my two lives separate and never felt any pressure to do so. It was pretty cool when someone would show up to a class with a copy of Buyout or the Transformers book or the Batman book. UMaine has a lot of Batman fans among its undergrads.
I see that you have Android apps for several of your own novels. What do those do, and how did they come into being?
The truth is, I have no idea. Someone told me about them, but I don’t have an Android device. Judging from the previews, they’re like individual e-reader editions of the books. There was an iOS version of Buyout at one point, but it appears to have disappeared, so I’m not sure whether it was legitimate or not. If anyone’s out there using those apps, I’d love to hear about them.
What’s the next thing on the agenda for you? Working on anything right now?
I’m working on some game projects that are either unannounced or still embryonic. But they will be sweet. I’ll be turning in my Star Wars novel this summer and working a new D&D book as well. On the me-novel front, I’m tinkering with three different books, loving all of them and waiting for one of them to seduce me away from the other two. I’ve got a novella, Mare Ultima, coming out from PS soon, and in addition to the rest of what I’m working on, I think I’m going to build it out into a novel(s). Big plans.