I don’t read much Urban Fantasy. I don’t really know why. But, last week I read ML Brennan’s Generation V, which I found to be a lot of fun. Naturally, after liking the novel, my first inclination was to send the author some interview questions…
Let’s start with an introduction: Who is ML Brennan?
I’m an avid reader, a writer, and in my day job an adjunct professor. A lot of the time I wish there were many more hours in the day, since all three of those occupations have big time requirements!
I thought we’d start with your fiction: Your latest novel, Generation V, was recently published by Roc Books. How would you introduce the novel to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
Generation V is the first in a series of books. Right now, I’m contracted for three books, but I’m hopeful that the series will do well, because I have ideas and plans for several more.
The elevator pitch of my book is that Fortitude Scott has a useless degree, a minimum-wage job, a cheating girlfriend, and a roommate who stiffs him on the rent. And he’s a vampire… mostly. But when a little girl is kidnapped, suddenly he’s the only one who is willing to try and do something about it, so he teams up with a wise-cracking shapeshifter and heads off for a rescue mission that will very likely kill him.
This is a book with a very non-typical hero – he isn’t the most powerful character, in fact he’s almost on human levels of weakness when the book begins. In order to beat someone, he has to outsmart them, or make friends and alliances that can help him. There’s no “End of the World” peril – instead, the peril at the heart of the book is one that Fortitude could very easily just ignore and it wouldn’t effect his life at all. His entire family urges him to just look the other way, but he doesn’t, and so it’s his own choices that lead to the life-threatening peril. There’s a lot of banter, a bit of dark humor. But at the core, it’s about a person who is afraid of himself and his heritage, who has to decide between the path of least resistance or something harder.
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
Inspiration is a tricky thing for me – no one thing inspired me, rather it was a combination of a lot of ideas and topics that I found interesting. Over time I had a lot of scraps of ideas, and they eventually coalesced into the world that Fortitude inhabits.
But I was interested in the idea of family and heritage – Fortitude is a person who has very little in common with his family, and in fact is deathly afraid that he’ll eventually take on the kind of very selfish and harsh worldview that they possess and view as natural. This folds in really well with how I was interested in writing vampires – as dangerous predators, rather than some of their more benign depictions in recent movies. I am also a professor, and one of the things that those of us who teach have really been exposed to in recent years are films, lectures, and books about the idea of an extended adolescence. I also am very personally familiar (through my own experience and those of my friends) with what it can feel like to get a graduate degree and then enter a job market where the only jobs you seem able to find are ones that you could’ve done with a high school diploma. Those things really had a part in how I created Fortitude – he’s twenty-six, underemployed, stuck with a bad roommate and a bad relationship, but his biggest problem is his lack of self-confidence and ownership in his life. Over the course of the book, that starts changing, and it’s a theme that I’m looking forward to exploring in the sequels as well.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
My brother is older than me by two years, so my first introduction to genre fiction came very much because I was the classic younger sibling: whatever my brother was doing was interesting to me, and whatever he was reading I wanted to read as well. I’m lucky that my brother was fairly tolerant, and he let me borrow all of his books. Thanks to him, I read Ender’s Game, the Death Gate Cycle, Star Trek novels (my favorites were the Peter David ones), and the Thrawn trilogy of Star Wars books. When I was a little older, our tastes and interests diverged, and I headed in the direction of David Eddings, Anne McCaffrey, and Margaret Weis’s Star of the Guardians series.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
Very much. Traditional publishing was always my goal, and I worked very hard to achieve it. I spent almost a decade of very serious writing before I sold a book, and I have to say, starting a project feels different when you know for certain that you will be paid for it, and it is a very, very good feeling.
In terms of writing practices, I’m very much a planner. I don’t start writing a book until I have a very clear direction and an overall outline of the book very solidly hammered out. I know other writers who start writing and figure out that plot as they go, and while I respect their process, I know that I’m just too much of an anal-retentive control-freak to try that myself. Sometimes the outlining can take a few months (and sometimes even longer than writing the book itself takes), but it’s the method that works best for me. I like having already ironed out any timeline or motivation issues before I start working, and having an outline in front of me helps figure out if my plot or characters are somehow out of balance.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I’ve always enjoyed reading, and writing is something that I realized very young came pretty easily to me, but I didn’t have much desire to be an author when I was younger. Or, maybe a better way of putting it is that I didn’t want to be solely an author. I grew up in a single-parent household where my mother worked very, very long hours to provide for us, and so I was very leery at the thought of embarking on a career path that didn’t have a solid paycheck and reliability. So, while I did want to write, I always wanted it to be something on the side, with a regular paycheck always there just in case writing wasn’t enough to pay all the bills. I had that plan in mind all through college, in fact, and right up into my first month of law school.
And that first month of law school, unfortunately, is when I realized that I didn’t want the writing to be something that happened on the side – it was what I wanted to do all the time. I wasn’t happy about that realization at the time (as you can imagine, neither was my mother or my spouse), but there it was. I left law school and entered an MFA program, and writing has been the center of my professional life ever since. (In the interests of full disclosure – yes, the pay was every bit as low and unreliable as I’d feared when I was younger.)
What I view as my first serious foray into writing happened when I was an undergraduate in college: a short story that I’d written was published in a literary magazine. I do look back on it very fondly – I had no personal or professional connections to that literary magazine, and I mailed the story to them with just a standard cover letter. My story had already been rejected from easily two dozen other literary magazines, but I kept at it, and I was published. That experience really helped years later when I was trying to get a book published!
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I think the genre that I’m working in – urban fantasy – is really exciting. Dip into urban fantasy and you can find everything from hard-bitten, noir-ish police procedurals with monsters, to very sexually-charged paranormal romance. Urban fantasy is a big tent genre, which is why I have so much fun with it.
I think what can potentially be problematic about some urban fantasy is when authors start becoming formulaic in the hopes of getting an audience quickly. I made some decisions in my book that I felt helped make it be what I think urban fantasy should always try to be: something fun and new.
Your novel features vampires. What’s different about your vampires, and why do you think they (and other undead beasties) have been, and continue to be so popular with readers?
I think vampires rest in our cultural consciousness so well because they hit a lot of our buttons. Vampires look human, so they can pass among us unnoticed, and we can’t immediately identify them as a threat. Vampires are traditionally humans who have been changed and converted, so that hits on our fear of treachery, that the person who was an ally, friend, or loved one today might turn on us tomorrow. Vampires feed on human blood – this frightens us because it raises the horror we have of being prey, and of being consumed. Vampires typically have a level of sexualization – this also brings up that fear of not recognizing a threat, and of facing treachery later. I think all of those elements make vampires more popular (and sustain that popularity) over creatures that don’t play on those fears. For example, the Creature From The Black Lagoon: it poses no threat of infiltrating society, it can never betray you since everyone already hates it, while it does have a bit of subliminal sexual horror in that it sure seems to gravitate to pretty women in bathing suits, but it doesn’t seem to possess genitalia, and no one is going to be seduced by it, so no worries there, and finally it doesn’t really seem to eat us – mostly just squeeze us to death, if my memory of the movie is accurate.
So, vampires have a very long-standing appeal. In terms of the vampires in my book, I actually made a lot of changes to the traditional presentation. In the majority of vampire fiction, the vampire is a human who has been transformed into a vampire, and through that transformation process they are now ageless, immortal, and undead. I’ve always found this kind of idea a bit problematic. For one thing, a creature that reproduces just through a tiny blood donation? Talk about a population explosion! For another, a character that never gets older and will never die? That’s a fairly static character with very few outside pressures. I was never interested in writing about an immortal character.
The big change that I made for my vampires is to make them a separate species. These aren’t transformed humans – they have a lifecycle that includes growing up, old age, and ultimately death. They also have a reproductive cycle that is rather finicky and difficult, and it gives a good reason why vampires haven’t just overrun the planet – in fact, my vampires are a species in total crisis, and right on the edge of extinction.
What other projects are you working on, and what do you have currently in the pipeline?
In the pipeline is Generation V’s sequel IRON NIGHT. It’s with the copyeditor right now, and I’m currently working on the third Fortitude Scott book, which has to be finished by the end of the summer, so that’s pretty much filling most of my days.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I’m a fairly wide reader, so if you asked me that week-to-week the answer would always be changing. Right now, I’m reading non-fiction, Carl Sagan’s The Demon-Haunted World: Science as a Candle in the Dark. It’s good – very challenging, extremely applicable to a lot of what is happening right now, but ultimately very optimistic. This has been on my stack for a while now. I haven’t read any Sagan before, though I did have a general working understanding of him.
My first encounter with Carl Sagan was actually thanks to The Far Side comics, which my brother and I used to read in the paper every day and puzzle over. There’s one comic that’s supposed to be Carl Sagan as a kid, and it’s two little kids looking up at the night sky, and one says to the other something like, “Look at all those stars, Susie! There must be hundreds and hundreds of them!” Which is funny, if you know about Sagan’s famous comment “billions and billions.” My mother explained that to us, which led to my brother reading one of Sagan’s books on outer space. I remember looking at the pictures but nothing else…
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I guess it would depend on what readers’ expectations of me were. One expectation that I’ve actually encountered a few times (primarily, it must be said, from friends of my parents who don’t do much genre reading), is this idea that if I write about vampires, than I must be an active believer in vampires, ghosts, witches, UFOs, and just about everything else, or that I have some kind of obsession with one of those topics. That’s definitely not the case. While I have an interest, it’s similar to the interest I have when I read about mythology. Curiosity and enthusiasm for Norse myths doesn’t mean that I have an altar to Odin in my closet, or that I’ve decorated my house with runes.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Oh, lots of things! I’m going to my first convention as a writer in just a few weeks – ConnectiCon, and I actually will be on two panels, so I’m extremely excited about that. At the end of the summer I’ll be at WorldCon, which should be pretty amazing. And then Iron Night will be published in January, so I’ve got a lot of really great stuff to be looking forward to!