So, today we have a little off-the-cuff, extemporaneous interview with Justin Robinson, author of Everyman, just published by Books of the Dead Press. It’s a great book, go get it. And here’s a little background about the guy himself.
Q. OK….Ahem…so here with are with Justin Robinson, author and newly minted Books of the Dead writer. So, tell me a little about yourself here at the start. At least as much as you’d like to share. Any closet skeletons would be deeply appreciated.
A. Let’s see. I’m married. I have six fish, all named Nigel and I’m pretty sure my cat has vertigo. I’ve been a writer for a while now and I’ve worked in just about every medium there is. I did some time as a script doctor, I’ve worked in comics, and I wrote a couple articles for these things called “magazines” that used to exist.
Q. Magazines. Fascinating. That’s where my career centered, before magazines, as a viable advertising medium, began their long, slow burrowing towards the earth’s core. Do you have a fish license? (Sorry, somewhat obscure joke.) How did the pendulum swing from non-fiction, more journalism-centered writing, to fiction? And why?
A. It was actually for a gaming magazine called No Quarter. I play miniature wargames — starting with Warhammer 40K, then moving onto Warmachine and Hordes. No Quarter was the in-house magazine for Privateer Press, who make Warmachine and Hordes. It wasn’t really journalism. I wrote flavor articles for fake monsters and whatnot. It’s not really a big shift from that to this. Back then I just wrote about where someone else’s monster came from. Now I write about my own and get to add whole stories.
Q. That’s cool. I’ve seen these types of games in comic book stores and often wondered about them. My kids and I got into Heroclix for a while when they were younger. Do you remember the first fiction piece you wrote? What was it about? What was it that drove you to writing rather than, say, sports or acting or the chess club?
A. I played Heroclix! One of my favorite moments was when I decided to play the Gotham Police Department. Jim Gordon got into a fistfight with Doc Ock, and my dice were hot, so the old man kicked the crap out of the supervillain.
I think in the first grade I wrote a story about a dinosaur taking a walk. I’m going to assume he made it there. Well, sports, I wasn’t any good at unless you count fencing, and then only so-so. I acted in high school, but it turns out I’m not that good looking.
Q. So, writing…what was the impetus for Everyman? Where’d the idea come from, and how did you know it was a novel rather than a short?
A. Well, before “Coldheart” I didn’t really do shorts, so I wasn’t thinking in that mode. I’ve found that the form something takes generally depends on my mindset. When I was writing screenplays, everything was a movie. When I was writing comics, everything was a 4-6 issue limited series. I had been writing novels — Everyman was the sixth I’d done at that point — and so that’s where my head was at.
The initial inspiration came during a roleplaying game. I play a lot of thieves/rogues/sneaky guys, and in one of these games I thought to myself, “Hey, wouldn’t it be cool if someone could steal an object and with it become someone else?”
Q. The Doppleganger and the Gestalt Entity featured in Everyman are two wildly original ideas in horror, and they bring a depth and underpinning to the book not often seen in horror novels. Where did they come from?
A. The Doppelganger came out of that initial thought. I was still sort of in the headspace of The Dollmaker, which was my first true horror novel, and that was about a guy who basically through a combination of insanity and genius, gives himself superpowers. So when I wrote Everyman, I had that idea rattling around there. So once I decided that I was going to write about the Doppelganger from his perspective, I started to think about what kind of combination of traits would enable someone to take this power from the universe.
The problem was, I didn’t have a book. I had this sociopath running around stealing lives. Where does he go? Who’s trying to stop him? I was already wrestling with the idea of his chapters being repetitive, and that was something I had to fight.
I started to consider his victims. What happens to them? Thematically, you have a character (the Doppelganger) who can become anyone, but the irony is, there’s nothing underneath. Ian Covey is a void. So I took someone with something in there, and then started mashing them together, over and over. So to counterbalance the idea of someone who can look like anyone, but inside is no one, I created the Gestalt Entity, which looked like no one, but inside is everyone.
Q. Which is great, because they’re opposite sides of the same coin, in a way. And the opposing powers of these two is what keeps the narrative…umm….lively, shall we say. So what was the easiest part of this book, for you? And then, of course, what was the hardest?
A. While writing it, I joked to my wife that the Doppelganger chapters were the hardest because I was writing a monster, the Gestalt Entity chapters were hardest because I was writing something for which no human has a frame of reference, and Sophie chapters were hardest because I didn’t have anything supernatural to fall back on.
Q. And yet, you were able to give each one a distinct, unique voice. As a writer, what comes easiest to you–plot? Characters? Dialog? Description?
A. Probably plot. When I started out, it was as an aspiring screenwriter, so they really get you to be a technician when it comes to writing plot. The three act structure is like gospel in pitch rooms. It’s versatile, and definitely a good way to teach budding writers how to tell a compelling story. I brought it with me to comics, and there it’s even more binding since there’s a finite amount of space to fill. Novels, by comparison, have more room to breathe. I wouldn’t necessarily say plot came easiest in terms of it being natural to me, but it came easiest in the sense that I put in the work first getting to know that aspect of storytelling. The other stuff is catching up. Hopefully.
Q. I was going to ask you how your screenwriting experience comes into play. That’s interesting. What’s the hardest for you…and why?
A. I know when I’m rewriting, descriptions are the things I’m most likely to tear up and try again. When you’re writing a screenplay, you’re writing for someone who doesn’t like to read, and so your descriptions should be pretty short and vague. It’s a house. It’s a castle. It’s a sex dungeon. Your standard executive has seen all three of these things, and he doesn’t need to know specifics.
With comics, you’re describing something to an audience of one: your artist. So you’ll say things like “the table is 4″x6” or “it’s the size of that dining room table on How I Met Your Mother, and you know what, you can get it at Ikea, and here’s a link.” Not the most poetic of language, especially since the purpose of descriptive language in a book is to have someone not even notice how awesome it is.
Then, you’re dealing with what voice you’re writing in. The standard thing these days seems to be this hybrid 1st and 3rd person (I use it in Everyman), where it’s ostensibly 3rd person limited, but your PoV character is commenting on the action. In that case, do you write the description in an approximation of the PoV character’s voice? The answer appears to be “sorta,” which probably isn’t that helpful.
Q. OK, so what’s your favorite part of the writing process?
A. Boogie Nights is one of my favorite movies of all time. There’s a scene in it when Burt Reynolds and Ricky Jay are watching a rough cut of the first Brock Landers film. Reynolds drifts into his old man whiskey-and-Marlboros voice and says, “This is it. This is the one I’ll be remembered for.”
That’s not my favorite part. My favorite part is when Jay responds with just the right touch of wonder in his voice, like he can’t quite believe what he’s saying. “It’s a real film, Jack.”
My favorite part of the writing process is when I can look at a manuscript, and in that same tone of bemused wonder, think, “It’s a real book, Justin.”
Q. Amen. I agree. When it’s all done, produced and you’re actually holding the thing in your hand. OK, that was one of your favorite films. I think an author’s favorite films are instructive. What are some others? What about authors? Who are some of your favorites and their books?
A. It’s usually before I’ve got the finished product. It’s the rough cut, the vomit draft as I like to call it. That’s when I have something.
The Thing is my favorite movie, period. The Godfather, Alien, Double Indemnity, Reservoir Dogs, The Big Lebowski, The Warriors, I could probably keep going till Judgment Day… oh wait, Terminator.
Stephen King. Probably The Shining or Carrie would be my favorite from him. James Ellroy, and The Big Nowhere (that sounds like the title of an amazing Roald Dahl book). I love the Ice and Fire stuff from Martin. Caves of Steel by Asimov. Dashiell Hammett. The Thin Man, definitely. You don’t get much better than The Thin Man. I fell in love with Larry Doyle’s Go, Mutants!, but I’m not sure it’s a favorite yet. And Catch-22 is my favorite novel of all time, though I have yet to read any more Heller.
Q. So, what’s next? What are you working on that you will unleash on the unsuspecting world soon?
A. I’m working on a pair of sequels for two of my early novels. One is with alpha readers now. The other one I started way back in 2008 and am only now getting back to. Turns out I wasn’t that good back then. I’ve been describing it as a cross between Brokeback Mountain, Scarface, and Little Shop of Horrors, which isn’t that far off.
Q. That’s sounds like a fantastic, trippy combo! Well, congrats on Everyman! It’s a fantastic read.
A. Thank you! This was a lot of fun.