This is the second half of a two-part interview (first part here) with Peter Clines, author of The zombies-versus-capes series Ex-Heroes. In this final installment, Peter talks about the latest volume in the Ex-Heroes series, Ex-Isle, which is available now!
More about Ex-Isle:
It’s been years since the tidal wave of ex-humans washed over the world. Since then, thanks to St George and his fellow heroes, the community known as the Mount has been the last known outpost of safety, sanity, and freedom left to humanity.
But even for the Mount, survival still balances on a razor’s edge—and after a disaster decimates the town’s food supply, the heroes must make a risky gamble to keep its citizens from starving.
And then the news arrives of a strange, man-made island in the middle of the Pacific. An island populated not just by survivors, but by people who seem to be farming, raising children, living—people who, like the heroes, have somehow managed to keep the spark of civilization alive.
Paying this place a visit should be a simple goodwill mission, but as the island reveals itself to be a sinister mirror-image of what the heroes have built at the Mount, the cost of their good intentions becomes dangerously high.
UNBOUND WORLDS: I know that some of your characters are inspired by existing comic book characters. What are your favorite comic books to draw character inspiration from? If you could have any superpower what would it be?
PETER CLINES: The Ex-Heroes series as a whole is inspired very much by the comics I read as a kid. Which means a lot of the same characters (well, and also ROM), just not with the need to make everything horribly dark and gritty and overly realistic. I remember when–he said, stroking his long white beard—every hero didn’t need feet, calves, and thighs of clay.
Sorry. I feel a soapbox coming on. I’ll stop there.
Any superpower… Flight is really tempting, but I admit I’ve always had this odd fascination with the idea of super-speed. Doubly odd because I never really was interested in any speedster characters until the current Flash show, and I’ve never written a speedster for any of the Ex-Heroes books. Not yet anyway.
Yeah. Let’s say super-speed.
UW: I’m oddly fascinated by the ocean, but terrified by it as well, as I can hardly swim. It sounds like you had to do a lot of research about maritime topics. You must be a lot more comfortable in that world than I am. What’s your relationship like with the sea, personally, and what did you enjoy most about digging into the research for this book?
PC: I grew up in Maine, right on the coast, so the ocean’s always felt pretty “normal” to me. There were two major beaches in my home town, and another three or four smaller ones. Although when I was in my twenties I found out I’d almost drowned as a baby, soooo… take that as you will.
Oddly enough, despite that background, I’ve got very little experience with big ships, the kind of ones used in the artificial island, Lemuria. Cargo ships, cruise ships, oil tankers, that sort of thing. I did a bunch of work on the USS Midway, down in San Diego, but at that point is was much more a museum than a working ship.
So, for Lemuria, I ended up doing tons of research. I studied histories and schematics. I did virtual tours. Found a bunch of engineering articles and a couple along the lines of “Six Things You Never Knew About Your Cruise Ship”—and some of those things are pretty freaky, believe me. I love learning all that odd stuff.
UW: I don’t want to give away anything about the plot, but this particularly book had kind of a pulpy, Saturday afternoon matinee feel to it. Was there a conscious effort to change the style up a little bit or did the story just evolve that way?
PC: I wanted to change things a little bit, yeah. Nobody’s going to be interested if it’s just the same thing over and over again, so I wanted this to focus on some other characters and do something they haven’t done for a while (go somewhere completely different). To be honest, I wanted this to be less pulpy and a little more paranoia-suspense. Alas, I think the problem is that these days, what a character needs to do in order to sound “paranoid” has just hit ludicrous levels. We’ve all come to accept so many extreme behaviors and viewpoints in the name of “security.” So at that point, with some of those exaggerations… yeah, I could see where it would look kind of pulpy.
To be clear, though, I don’t have a real problem with that. One of the things I’ve hada lot of fun with in the Ex series has been exploring a lot of classic superhero story tropes. Super-soldiers. The occult tale. The powerless tale. The alternate reality. I always liked when Spider-Man would end up in the middle of some cosmic tale he clearly had no place being in. So if Ex-Isle reads a bit like a classic pulp story to some folks… cool.
UW: You wrote this book using an outline, which you typically don’t care to do. I have to admit that I don’t like using them either, although I was taught in school that this was the way responsible people did things. I find that as you get older, you learn that sometimes following the accepted wisdom isn’t always the best thing for you. Are there any other “rules” about writing that don’t work for you?
PC: I think outlines are one of those things that are always going to be case-by-case. I know some people who swear by them, I know some folks (like you and me) who barely use them. That’s one of the big steps people take as writers—when they stop following advice mechanically and start figuring out what does and doesn’t work for them.
I figured out a few years back that big, detailed outlines don’t work for me. I like things much looser. So it was pretty foolish of me to try using one, but I was in a crunch and I thought it’d help me save time. Kind of like finding the best route to drive from your home to your office, driving it for years, and on the day you’re running late you decide “wait a minute… I’ll try going a different way and see if that’s any faster.” So then I spent even more time digging myself out of that carefully outlined hole…
As far as rules… okay, here’s how I see it. There are some definite rules to writing. Spelling, grammar, structure—there are things readers are going to expect and need as touchstones. It’s possible to break the rules, sure, but I still need to learn them first. I can’t start from the position of “rules can be broken, therefore the rules are irrelevant.” People who blow up buildings know tons of engineering and architecture—that’s how they get hired again.
On the flipside of rules is advice. That’s the stuff we were just talking about, like outlines. This is the stuff we all weed through and have to figure out what works best for us. Writing in the morning or at night. Writing 500 words a day vs 5000 a day. Legal pads or laptops. Word or Office or Scrivener. These are all individual choices, and—as we were just saying—what works well for me may not work at all for you.
One of the biggest problems I see is when people start offering advice as rules and rules as advice. We’ve all seen the folks who will argue that spelling is irrelevant, or that if I don’t do at least a thousand words a day,every day, I’m not a real writer. That’s all nonsense. It’s all rules and advice. I learn the rules so I can break them, and then I figure out which bits of advice work best for me.
UW: The timeline of the EX universe differs from our own, namely in that the apocalypse occurred somewhere in 2009. Is it sometimes difficult to keep yourself in that past mindset? Do you worry about anachronisms? Also, is there anything actually good about writing in a world in which popular culture stopped nearly a decade ago? Do you ever think, “Phew. Well, at least I don’t have to worry about that”?
PC: It’s not so much about a past mindset, because their world has moved on as well. It’s just that their 2012 wasn’t anything like our 2012. The real trick is trying to keep track of things that have changed in the world since then that wouldn’t’ve changed there. Buildings in Los Angeles get torn down and replaced, businesses change, but in the Ex world that all stopped seven years ago. Social movements, singers, actors, movies, books—lots of things that are household terms or names today didn’t exist then. When did Taylor Swift become known vs when did she become a megastar—that sort of thing. Would those still be anachronisms, technically?
For example, in Ex-Isle, at one point I have Barry make a Simpsons reference—“Everything’s coming up Millhouse!” Except then I had to figure out when that expression first got used on the show. Did people pick it up instantly, or did it take a while? Yeah, it only takes five minutes to find this stuff online, but with a character like Barry we’re talking about almost every other word that comes out of his mouth. I’ve had a couple times when I’d have him make an “old”reference and then find out, crap, that was 2011 or something like that.
UW: Are we going to see the Ex world cross over into real comic books? It would seem to be a logical progression, and with so many television shows and novels spinning off comics it doesn’t seem that unlikely a future.
PC: I actually have an idea for a comic I’m going to try to pitch to a few folks this year. Not so much an adaptation as an “untold stories” sort of thing. It would be a nice companion piece to the novels. We’ll see how that goes.
As for movies or television…sad to say, I’d probably have better luck with a tie-in comic series than with the actual books. Ugly truth is, there aren’t a lot of non-Marvel/DC superhero movies that’ve been big box-office hits. Which means they’re not all that willing to take a risk on other non-Marvel/DC properties. It could still happen. I get some interest now and then, and one writer-director took me out for a really nice lunch once, but… well, my years working in the film industry have jaded me a bit, and I have all-too realistic expectations.
It would be really cool, though, wouldn’t it?