Myke Cole is the author of the Shadow Ops series, coming soon from Ace Books (in the US). After writing a guest post for CR, I asked Myke if he’d also be interested in an interview, and he agreed. So, I asked him about his books, his military experience, how he approaches his writing, and that the time for “Gun & Sorcery” has arrived.
Your debut novel, Control Point, will be published in February 2012, and is the first novel in your Shadows Ops series. How would you introduce the series to new readers? What can we expect from the novel, and series as a whole?
Harry Potter just joined Delta Force. I’ve taken the sorcery we know and love from our days as D&D nerds and folded it into the military. And not the cold war military you so often get in military SF novels. This is today’s military: focused at the fire-team level, fighting street to street and house to house, never sure who the enemy really is, hopelessly blurring the lines between police officer and soldier.
On the one hand, you can expect a high-octane military adventure story. You’ll get to see how an Apache gunship stacks up against a Roc, or how a direct action team hits a target when they have the ability to fly and cast fireballs. On the other hand, you’ll get what I hope is a convincing examination of how our military handles sudden and dynamic changes in the social fabric, and how individuals make the tough decisions necessary to defend and take life when their beliefs don’t marry up with those giving the orders.
You’ve worked as a security contractor, a government civilian and military officer, and you’ve served three tours in Iraq. In what ways have these experiences informed your series? Are there any specific events or moments that have been the inspiration for any theme or moment in your upcoming series?
My experience under arms has colored every aspect of my life. I wrote a guest post on this very topic when I realized that it was my military experience that had enabled me to produce a saleable novel. War changes your perspective on the world suddenly and totally. Once the curtain has been pulled back, there’s no putting it back again. Life is a lot nastier than folks who live day to day in industrialized western nations realize. We think we know this, but we don’t, really. That shift in perspective definitely permeates my writing.
I’m obviously unable to give specifics about my time over there. But I did become very interested in the military’s intense culture of internal suspicion, rigid adherence to regulation and its willingness to punish its own, no matter how excellent or valuable, for deviation from orthodoxy. I was always a huge fan of the X-Men and the incredibly realistic way in which the writers imagined how the government would react to mutants. I began to ask to myself “what would my commander do if she discovered a Goblin on the base?” or “how would the Pentagon handle a real and bona fide sorcerer in its halls?” Those questions began to form as early as 1998 (when I was working in the Pentagon), and formed the kernel of the story that became Control Point.
How were you introduced to sci-fi and fantasy?
The same way we all were. I was blessed by the outstretched hands of Saint Gary Gygax and Saint Stan Lee J
That’s a rather reverent way of saying that my big brother brought home the old D&D basic rules set (the one with the blue cover of a red dragon, that came out right after the Chainmail rules). I was electrified. From there, I graduated to hanging out at the neighborhood comic book shop.
Everything crystallized when my mom took me to see the arms and armor hall at the New York Metropolitan Museum of Art. When my elementary school had a book sale, I was allowed to buy three. All three were chosen due to having something that resembled a knight on the cover. One was Lloyd Alexander’s The Book of Three. I never looked back, never grew out of it and never ceased to dream of being a full time fantasy writer. Roughly four months ago, that dream became reality.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry, while also maintaining a day job?
I’m one of the crazy few who doesn’t maintain a day job. I had a very high paying job as a bureaucrat for the Navy. As a government job, it was secure even in the midst of this rocky economy. I had promised myself for years that if I ever got a book deal, I would take the plunge and write full time. When the deal came through, I was terrified to give up the security, but I was true to my word.
I am currently living very frugally on my savings. Being in the reserves helps enormously. Apart from some income, I get the freelance artist’s holy grail of HEALTH INSURANCE. In fact, I just got activated, so I’ll be wearing a uniform during the day and writing nights and weekends for the next few months. I know a lot of reservists get annoyed at being called up, but I love it, and the regular bursts of income don’t hurt. It makes it tougher to be as ambitious with my word counts (I can do around 4-5,000 words a day when I’m full time), but I managed to write when I was pulling an 18 hour a day/7 day a week op tempo in Iraq. I’m used to it.
I love this life. I spend all day doing precisely what I want to. It really is a dream come true. I always tell folks that between the military and writing novels, I have the two best jobs in the world.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
George R.R. Martin has described writers as being either “Gardeners” who let their stories grow naturally, or “Architects” who plan before they build. I’m an über-architect. I outline obsessively, often producing 70-100 pages of bulleted guideposts and even more pages of notes before I begin writing any prose.
I’m also absolutely terrible at judging my own work. I have a circle of test readers that I rely on to make sure I’m on the right track. The outline goes out to them, and once they’ve chopped into it (and I’ve revised based on their input), I feel confident that the plot/character core isn’t drek. Only at that point do I begin writing.
I get lonely writing all day in my closet sized apartment, so I do most of my work in a coffee shop (though I’ve just discovered the Rose Reading Room at the New York Public Library). I wear headphones and listen to movie soundtracks. They put me in a cinematic mood without distracting me with lyrics. This also shuts out the conversation around me, but I’m still surrounded by people, which helps.
The New York Public Library Reading Room (An Awesome Space)
When did you realise you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
My first novel attempt was when I was eight. I sat down and tried to transcribe the vinyl album version of Ralph Bakshi’s animated The Lord of The Rings. I later figured out that writing a novel meant actually coming up with your own story, and my first serious effort was a novel titled Latent, about sorcery in the military. I wrote another 2 novels before revisiting Latent, and it eventually became Control Point.
The irony isn’t lost on me. My first real attempt at a novel wound up (revised so much that it may as well be another book entirely) being the novel that took me pro.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I think speculative fiction is more daring and interesting than ever. Writers are pushing the envelope farther and faster than they ever have before. You’ve got a lot more frank and realistic exploration of the darker side of human nature in fantasy environs. Robert Asprin gave us noble thieves, and I guess we’ve always had Gray Mouser, but I don’t think they resonate as much with a public who sees the ugly underbelly of humanity every day on reality TV and non-stop social media feeds. I think that dissonance gives rise to writers like Sam Sykes, Joe Abercrombie, Scott Lynch, Richard Morgan and George Martin. There’s a hard edge to their writing that makes it a lot more believable (and thus transporting) than ever before.
I’m sad to see science fiction flagging in comparison. Paolo Bacigalupi is the only author I can think of making waves in that department at the moment. I was just discussing this at a party last week. I was coming around to the idea that modern technology is finally catching up to what we can imagine, and that’s really taking the wind out of SF’s sails. I mean, my iPhone is basically a tricorder. The camouflage from Predator is real now. If you want to geek out on technology, you’re going to have to seriously push the envelope. China Mieville just did that with Embassytown, but note that’s his first SF novel. He built his reputation writing fantasy (he’d probably smack me for saying that, but I would define his pre-Embassytown work as fantasy).
Of course, all of this is happening as the publishing industry itself is going to through the biggest maelstrom in its history. What publishing will look like in the future is an open question, and one I hope will be decided in a way that continues to promote people who produce new and exciting work.
I hope that the Shadow Ops series contributes to this general pushing of the envelope we’re currently seeing in fantasy. I may be flattering myself, but I don’t believe that anyone has taken traditional fantasy tropes (like D&D style magic) and integrated it into a modern military (counterinsurgency) setting. When I describe my work to them, people immediately assume it’s either military SF in the Baen mold, or Glen Cook style swords-and-armor stuff. It’s not. It’s a Blackhawk Down style story, only with sorcerers. I could be wrong, but I don’t think anyone has done that before.
Military writing and writers have always had their own sandbox off in the corner of the speculative fiction genre. If Shadow Ops is successful beyond my dreams, it’ll crack that barrier. You’ve heard of Sword and Sorcery. Well, let’s try Gun and Sorcery for a change.
What projects do you have in the pipeline? Any projects unrelated to your Shadow Ops series?
Yup. I just finished my first pass at another trilogy proposal that I’ll be pitching to my editor at Ace once I’ve gone through my intensive revising process. I don’t want to give any details here until I have a better idea of how it’s forming up and what my publisher’s reaction is. I’m also hard at work trying to make contacts in the comic book and video game industries. I’d love to write for both, and both were a big part of growing up to be the big, strong nerd I am today.
Who are you reading at the moment (fiction and/or non-fiction)?
A Dance with Dragons, of course. I’ve been waiting six years for this one. I’m about half way through and loving it so far. On deck after that is John Crowley’s Little, Big. That came recommended to me by both my agent and Neil Gaiman. The one time he ever responded to a tweet from me was to praise it.
For non-fiction, I’m currently poring over a bunch of Coast Guard policy manuals in preparation for my recall to active duty. It’s a good idea to know the rules before you report. It’s also smart to get a feel for your CO’s past policy directives if you can find any. The Coast Guard’s Incident Management Manual is never far away, as is our Maritime Law Enforcement Manual. I try to reread the US Army/US Marine Corps Counterinsurgency Field Manual on a regular basis.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
For most of my life, I had hair down to my ass. I played in heavy metal bands all through high school and college. If somebody had appeared to me back then and told me I’d be a military officer, I’d have told them they were nuts.
What are you most looking forward to in the next year?
That’s easy. Control Point will be published in February, 2012. This will represent the culmination of a dream I’ve harbored since I was old enough to have dreams. To say that I’m impatient for the day to arrive may be the biggest understatement I’ll ever make.
* * *
Want to learn more? Visit Myke’s website (which is very nicely designed, actually).