Austin Grossman’s first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible, was nominated for the John Sargent Sr. First Novel Prize, and his writing has appeared in Granta, The Wall Street Journal, and The New York Times. He is a video game design consultant for Arkane Studios, and he has written and designed for a number of critically acclaimed games, including Dishonored, Ultima Underworld II, System Shock, Trespasser, and Deus Ex. His second novel, You, came out from Mulholland Books earlier this year, and his short fiction has also appeared in John Joseph Adams’s anthologies Under the Moons of Mars and The Mad Scientist’s Guide to World Domination.
This interview first appeared on Wired.com’s The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy podcast, which is hosted by John Joseph Adams and David Barr Kirtley. Visit geeksguideshow.com to listen to the entire interview and the rest of the show, in which the hosts discuss various geeky topics.
To start with, how did you first get interested in game design?
My parents, for reasons I have never understood, bought a really early computer. They bought a Sinclair ZX81, which came with Basic hardwired in, and so the kids in my family learned Basic and for some reason the thing that it occurred to me to do was try to mess around with weird graphic patterns and to try to make games with it. Then, when we graduated to the Apple IIe, some early games that were distributed, like Lode Runner, came with the level editors included, so I messed around with it, and I have to admit that I didn’t really play any games after I left high school. I went through four years of college without messing around with that stuff at all, and then I ended up going back to it because I didn’t know what to do after I graduated, and I applied to some jobs in publishing in a kind of aimless way, and I didn’t get any, and then I was looking through the Boston Globe—by which I mean, a physical periodical printed on paper—and I was looking in the classified section and there was an ad for a video game design job. It was sort of irresistible. I didn’t really think or have the idea in my head that it was a job until I saw it in a newspaper.
Well, in the book, Russell gets hired despite having no particular qualifications. Was it really that easy to get a job in gaming back in ’97, or was that a little dramatic license?
It was a little dramatic license. For me, it was ’92, when the industry was more of a hobbyist niche enterprise. The short answer is, apparently it was.
Do you think that’s still possible today? That you could be a 28-year-old English major and get hired as a game designer?
Not without some special circumstances, no. It’s hugely more competitive now. You could certainly major in English. I don’t know any game developers that have a major bias toward hiring people that come out of the undergraduate game design programs. Majoring in English is not at all a strike against you, because part of what game designers do is tell stories, but you would have to have a little more going on for you. You’d have to have some programming competence, you’d want to have some prototype games or game concepts, you’d have to have a really good vocabulary for analyzing why games are fun, how game mechanics work and why they have the effect on the player experience that they do. I mean, you have to have your game design swagger going to get that job. But, it was a different deal in the ’90’s. I actually believe that it was.
In the novel, the main characters, when they were in high school, they all went to this programming summer camp. Did you ever go to anything like that, or was that based on anything?
No, I never went to computer camp. I found on the internet an amazing brochure for a computer camp in 1983 and I downloaded the brochure and it’s incredible. The photographs are incredible, of the dorky campers having a good time with their computers. Anyway, I just fantasized about what it would be like to be at a computer camp.
I think Richard Garriott went to a computer camp like that, which was when he was christened Lord British.
I didn’t know that. A lot of my friends went, and yet I did not.
Your bio describes you as a game design consultant. What exactly do you do?
Most of what I end up doing is writing for games rather than game design. A lot of the time, there isn’t enough work as a writer for a company to retain a full-time writer. Maybe you’re coming in late in the project and they just need some dialogue written or they’ve fallen behind schedule and they just need to get more person hours in there. Maybe it’s early in the design process and they’re trying to figure out how to build a story around their kind of signature game mechanic. It happens differently with different projects.
Are you working on site when you do that or do you work remotely? You work for Arcane Studios, and they’re based in Austin, but you live in California?
Yes. I insist on spending a couple of weeks on site throughout the course of the job. There is kind of no substitute for the group-mind-think that happens on site. These games that are designed off site, sort of by telephone, they don’t have that same aesthetic coherence.
I was looking at the list of games that you’ve worked on and a really high percentage are very well known, very well respected franchises. You’ve got Ultima, System Shock, Deus Ex, Thief, Tomb Raider, and Dishonored. Was that just good luck that you ended up working on all these great games or did you have some career strategy?
[Laughs] Career strategy. That would have been something to think about. No, that’s good luck. Most of that good luck comes from having gone to work at a place called Looking Glass Technologies back in Cambridge in the mid-’90s. That was a studio that was founded in something like ’91 or so and built around one of the first working, real-time 3D engines. At the same time that the guys were doing that, the id guys were doing Castle Wolfenstein—
This is Ultima Underworld?
Yeah. Those were the guys that put the ad in the paper. They were a bunch of super smart guys who were super passionate about games. They were kind of my founding education in what the medium was about and they were guys that stuck around, worked on amazing games, and then either left the company or, when the company broke up, they moved to other companies and were still willing to hire me. This was luck. I got in right at the start knowing the right people.
Isn’t it possible that these games were all awesome because you worked on them? You’re the singular thing that they all share.
No, that’s kind of Occam’s razor. Actually, no, let’s go with that. I like that. I like that a lot. I should have let off for that one.
Your new novel, You, is set primarily in 1997. Is there something special about that era in gaming that made you want to focus on that?
That is a really good question. I spent the early stages of the writing process kind of dithering about the setting. Part of me said to myself, “OK, this is stupid. If you don’t set it in 2012, no one is going to care.” When you go to ’97 it’s hard to think of games that are relevant. There’s no Halo, there’s no Half-Life, there’s nothing. So I kicked around different moments in time and I thought to myself, okay, you have to pick one and you have to be specific and you have to look at what that year is about. So yes, I picked ’97. I picked it for a bunch of reasons. It’s just the moment when we’re starting to get the Quake engine. The big technological change that’s starting to happen is 3D accelerator cards. What makes the graphics cards important is now you’re starting to support bigger and bigger levels of detail, higher resolution textures, more and more polygons on screen, which means that production values are going up, which means you need more artists and 3D modelers to make your world look correct, which makes the production process more cumbersome, which means it’s much more team-based and collaborative. You can’t do it with five people anymore. You start to need fifteen people or fifty people. It’s when it started to seem just possible that games and movies could kind of merge so that everybody wanted to do it but nobody knew how to do it. As graphics technology gets better, one thing you can definitely see is the loss of a signature graphic design style associated with video games. If you want to put up an icon to signify video games you put up a Space Invader, you put up a Pac-Man, you put up an 8-bit pixel art thing and people know what you’re talking about. When video games started to get to be able to pretend to look like movies, they started to look like crappy movies instead of their own distinctive quality, right? That sense of flat, shaded polygons as a distinctive look, or wire framed, or pixel art . . . within those technical limitations they did cool aesthetic stuff, right, but once you started to be able to animate crappy-looking people on airplanes, they just did crappy-looking people on airplanes. They looked like crappy movies with a lot of lens flare and bloom on them. That’s a little sad. It’s something that we’re coming out the other side of with the indie games movement.
Which parts of the book are based the most on your own experiences and which did you take the most dramatic license with?
Well, clearly, later in the book there is this big dramatic crisis that would have to be fiction, although it would be cool if it were not fiction, but honestly I tried to stick as much as possible to the nuts and bolts of game development, of the real kind of rituals of it, the morning meetings, the different phases of projects, the different problems that you have when you’re designing a level. I cut and pasted that stuff into the novel and I thought that was kind of important to do. Video games are a huge, incredibly popular, exciting, world-transforming medium. It’s odd how little attention is paid to how they are made. A lot of gamers don’t really understand how they are made, or the day-to-day of it, or the frustration of it, or the odd little problem solving that goes into it.
Just speaking of frustration, there was one section that really struck me where it’s just going through all the different ways the player could break the game just by doing some annoying thing that they’re not intended to. It kind of reminded me of when I was a Dungeon Master, playing Dungeons & Dragons in high school, and I would make this incredibly complicated story and stuff and then I would start out the story and say, “OK, you meet this peasant woman,” and the players would be like, “Tell her we want to see her panties,” and I’m like, “No, you can’t do that, dammit!” And that’s when I decided that I was going to go into fiction because then I wouldn’t have to deal with stuff like that.
Well, there’s two ways to look at that. On one side, it’s incredibly frustrating. I mean, the trial by fire is when you make a level and you get someone to play test that level and the only true way to play test that level properly is to let them play through it without intervening, and it sounds simple but it’s incredibly difficult. You can watch someone bumble around your level for twenty minutes looking for this one obvious door or ladder that you put in, and you think to yourself, “OK, I’ll just tell him where the ladder is because no one else is going to have this problem,” right? That’s what you tell yourself. Unless your friends physically restrain you, you will tell them, and then you will set that level with a ladder that no one can find. The other side of it, though, is that players will try to do the wrong thing. Players will know what you want them to do a lot of the time and they will simply not do it out of what feels like sheer perversity, but I think there’s an actual reason for it, which is that players want to own their own story. The most thrilling thing, if you are a video game player, is to live the story that’s only your story or the story that you chose, even if it means mucking up the rest of the game. Basically, they are Lucifer in Paradise Lost. They simply rebel against the universe’s architect for the sheer thrill of the feeling of having free will. I think that’s the profound truth about game design that needs to be understood and worked with rather than rigorously stamped out, because the impulse as a game designer, as an interactive storyteller, is to go into siege warfare and to reinforce your story so rigorously that no one can possibly do anything but follow the story that you set up in the world, and that is the kind of success that also kind of kills the medium in a way, or kills what’s so distinct about the medium.
One thing that really struck me, reading this, was that Russell seems to have this dream job, but he’s very unsure about if this is the right thing to do. He’s like, “Should I have gone to law school? Am I a dork for doing this job?” How common are those sorts of feelings in the industry do you think?
I think that there are a couple of different answers. One is that it was less cool, it was less of a dream job in the ’90s than it is now, when people recognize it more as a career. There are days when you can’t escape the feeling that other people in the world are doctors and other people in the world are architects who are at least building things in reality, and then there are other times when you are in the industry and you think to yourself, “I am architecting a medium that no one has ever experienced before, and I’m exploring an area of feeling and storytelling that has literally never happened in this way before,” and when you go to give a lecture or teach a class on game design at a college and you look at how passionate the people are who show up to that and they care about it and they’ve played every game and you think, “Oh, god, I am plugged into the most important thing that I could possibly be doing right now.” The truth is simply both ways. You have one kind of day and then you have another kind of day, and that’s probably true in a lot of jobs.
I really liked the line where Russell is looking at these business guys who share their office building and he thinks to himself, “I make dragons. What the hell do you make?”
That’s the feeling a lot of the time and you try to capture that feeling and there are days when you can’t, but there are days, there are definitely a lot of days when you can and it’s completely awesome.
Michael Moorcock’s magic sword, Mournblade, plays a major role in the book. Have you gotten any feedback from Moorcock about that?
No, I haven’t. Why haven’t I? I guess I think of him like Melville, as like, in the clouds somewhere as an iconic American author who does not—
He’s actually British.
Or British author. I don’t know anything about Michael Moorcock. It’s hard for me to think of him as a real person, because how could a real person invent Elric. That is not something that a real person could do. It just slips my mind that that could actually be a real person.
In Episode 48, we interviewed your twin brother, Lev Grossman, and the way that your book deconstructs fantasy games is similar in some ways to the way that his novel, The Magicians, deconstructs fantasy novels. I was wondering if you see any parallels between the two books and do you two bounce ideas off each other or anything like that?
I thought this question was going to go to Codex, but I guess it didn’t.
I haven’t read Codex yet so I’m not sure what happens. Is that a better example?
It deals directly with video games and there’s a mystery and a lot of video game sequences and so forth. To answer the second part, yes, we do talk about ideas in early stages. There is a recognizable breaking point when I get so desperate and stuck, or I just despise what I’m working on so much that I cannot stand it, or that it starts to feel worse than sending it to him and so I send it to him. I have to go through a certain amount of agony before I do that, but it is invariably helpful. We exchange manuscripts; we do all of that. I have a small number of outside readers, but he is always the first one that I go to. It’s generally like I’m doing something weird and I can’t figure out where it’s going and so it’s like, “Can you see where I’m going with this? Because I can no longer see where I’m going with this.” Or like, “This seemed like such a great, smart idea, but now it seems like I’ve done the worst thing in the world. Just look at it,” you know? As to why we do the work we do, I don’t know. I think we do slightly different things which is actually good news. I think that if our work had too much in common it would be weird and harder to do. Although, obviously yes, we do take the material of genre and mess around with it a good deal.
It’s very metafictional, or sort of self-aware about genre conventions. Do you think that maybe comes from, well, Lev told us that writing a fantasy novel was almost an act of rebellion for him because your parents disapproved of fantasy. Do you think that some aspect of thinking a lot about the value of fantasy and what it means to people comes out of that?
I think it’s complex. I mean, the first novel of any length that I ever read was read to me, to the both of us, by our father, which was The Hobbit, so it’s not as if they tried to wall us off from fantasy. It’s a difficult question because it’s such a basic question. Why the hell are we doing what we’re doing with writing? I mean, you call it metafictional. I don’t really think of it in really intellectual terms. When I sat down to write Soon I Will Be Invincible, my first novel about superhero characters, I did it because, honestly, emotionally, I couldn’t find a way to talk that felt satisfying and I knew I had this attachment to superhero comics and superhero storytelling, and I felt it very deeply and I felt that, by and large, the stories that had been told with superheroes and superhero comics felt incomplete to me. It felt like there was some voice or some emotional truth that was being glossed over, or I felt like there was a way of speaking through it that was going to be satisfying, that was going to let me speak the terrible truth that I needed to speak. So, honestly, I didn’t come to it thinking to myself, “Ha-ha! Genre fiction. I will mess with you,” you know, because I’m so smart. I certainly didn’t come to it that way. Although, from the outside, it looks as if I did.
There are certain authors who sort of dabble in fantasy where you kind of get the feeling that they’re posers and they don’t actually love the stuff or know that much about it, and that’s unquestionably not the case here. This book is full of just the most obscure fantasy references of anything I’ve ever read. It’s very clear that you love the genre and know it inside and out.
Yeah, Lev and I are both long steeped in that stuff. I don’t like to play the authenticity game, but you know when somebody is being arch about a subject and they don’t really love it or they don’t really know it well enough to have the right to be arch about it. You can tell when someone’s doing that and it’s irritating. I don’t think we have that problem. When people talk about The Magicians as a satire fantasy, I think that’s kind of incorrect. It’s easy to make fun of genre fiction. That’s not what The Magicians did, that’s not what Soon I Will Be Invincible did, right? They played with it and they messed with it and they speak through it because they love it. Because they think it’s the greatest thing ever, and honestly, The Magicians is a great fantasy book. It’s not a takedown of fantasy, that’s ridiculous.
I guess when I say that You is metafictional, I’m thinking of the way that the characters, the four kind of archetypal RPG characters—was it Lorac and Brennen, those guys?—they’re not just fantasy characters, but they’re fantasy characters that we’re meant to think about as the way that fantasy characters are presented in games and in fiction.
Yeah, absolutely, and You is much more directly metafictional. It analyses the medium as it works with it. That’s completely true and it seems to be unavoidable when writing about game development, and coming to write about video games was a very different experience than coming to write about comic books, I have to say. It ended up getting more analytical and more self-conscious for various reasons. I think partly because it’s about a young artist kind of coming to understand the medium he’s working in, and partly because video games are such an odd medium that we’re still working out the basics of that we end up having to talk through a bunch of the problems. Part of it, I think, a lot of the worry was that I wasn’t sure what audience was going to come to and pick up You, right? Is it going to be the people who know the medium backwards and forwards, or is it going to be the people who read genre novels and sort of know about gaming but need some of it explained to them? We will discover that later this month.
I’m the sort of person that would read it, but it does seem like you’ve made a real effort to explain things to people who aren’t into gaming. Russell is kind of an innocent abroad, in a way that people have to explain to him what E3 is and what a level editor is and so the reader is explained these things as well.
Yeah, that was tricky. The book is written for two audiences and it has to negotiate that path. People who read the work in progress were by and large people who didn’t play many video games, and I tried to keep it that way just to make sure I wasn’t walling out people who didn’t know about video games. One of the things that I look forward to learning when the book is released is kind of how many people knew this stuff and how many people didn’t. How mainstream are video games? That’s kind of a basic question that no one seems to have a good handle on.
One conflict in the novel is between the programmer character, Lisa, who hates stories and games, and the English major character, Russell, who wants stories. Where do you come down in that debate?
Honestly, by and large, I am an anti-narrativist. I am a ludocist or a ludologist, that is to say, I push toward simulation-driven, dynamic systems rather than designer-authored stories. By and large, I gave Lisa the part of speaking things mostly that I believe, although, the other day, I was at PAX recently and I was on this panel about narrative design, and I was ranting about how stories need to be driven by players and player experience rather than designer experience, but then, a week later I picked up an incredible indie game called Thirty Flights of Loving which is, it costs like five bucks on Steam, and it’s completely linear and it’s completely designed and authored. It’s the most incredible narrative game I’ve played through in years and years and it just kind of made me realize that I should shut up because I don’t know anything.
In the opening chapter, the protagonist, Russell, goes for a job interview in a video game company and one of the questions he’s asked is, “What is your ultimate game?” How would you answer that question?
There are a number of answers to that question. One answer is, if I had a good answer, I would not have written the novel because the novel was a kind of book-length attempt to come to grips with that question. Another answer is the kind of metagame or anthology game that is enacted in the progress of the book, which is to say the book kind of recapitulates the history of video and computer games, more computer games since ’83, but it has that thing where all the games in it are backwards compatible so you can keep migrating your saved game from your primitive ASCII, rogue-like dungeon game to your 3D galaxy simulation. I want the game that does that. I want the game that walks me through all the genres in the history of gaming and yet plays them as a single sequential evolving simulation. Honestly, the real answer is that’s the question that keeps us designing games and developing more games; it keeps pushing the medium forward that you’re pushing that question. You know that next year’s games are going to make this year’s games completely pathetic and that never stops. It’s an asymptotic process where the medium continues to evolve. So, I don’t know if I could answer it, but I would have to answer it again the following year.
So has the title You caused a lot of confusion? I can just imagine a lot of conversations where you say, “I’m doing an event for You tomorrow,” and someone says, “For me? How nice?” and then you say, “No, no, not for you, for my book.”
The whole thing is a Spinal Tap deleted scene and it has been from day one, and it’s so fucking horrible and I offered to change the title, and Michael Pietsch said, “It’s a good title. Keep it.” Michael Pietsch edited The Pale King and is a genius so I said, “Yes, sir.” I like the title. The title is kind of in your face and it’s very sort of intrinsically part of the medium that it’s talking about, so I kind of love it. I love it and it has that sort of enduring kind of exciting charge to me that is always throwing itself back on the reader. It always has this question to it, which is, “It’s not me, it’s you so, who are you?” At the same time it’s a horrible pain. It’s why I added the subtitle just because I was so sick of it. I have not yet found a reliable, elegant way around it. I have yet to do any kind of interview or significant conversation about the book that does not contain some kind of mistake or jokey attempt to diffuse the weird confusion of it. Yes, this is the rest of my life. I’ve done this to myself. It’s never going to stop.
You have a book called Soon I Will Be Invincible and then You. Is it safe to say that the next book will involve the word “we” or “me” or “us” or something?
Oh, I didn’t think about that. I don’t know. I already know the title to my next book, so I can answer that by saying that it does not contain any pronouns.
But you can’t tell us what the actual title is, though?
The title of the next book is called Crooked. It is the secret story of Richard Nixon.
Does it have any superhero or fantasy elements or anything or is it a realistic novel?
It does, and I will not even say any more than that. It has a genre component, but I’m going to leave that a mystery for now.
I’m a huge fan of the Ultima series and we mentioned that you worked on Ultima Underworld II. Have you been following Ultima Forever and Shroud of the Avatar stuff and what’s your take on that?
I haven’t enough, I have to say. I think Richard Garriott is a really interesting kind of disruptive intelligence. I think Ultima Online was a very interesting experiment. I think he’s bound to do something interesting, but I have not actually read up on what he’s doing with Shroud, but I’m kind of glad that he’s getting back into it. He has a tendency to change the landscape and that is a good thing.
I guess I should explain to people that Richard Garriott’s Ultima IP was sold to Electronic Arts and so Ultima Forever, they’re making a game called Ultima Forever and he’s making a game called Shroud of the Avatar, both of which are basically Ultima games except that he can’t use their IP and they can’t use his IP, which is his character of Lord British. It’s just a weird—we see a lot of this with people like Ron Gilbert and a lot of these Kickstarters, like the guys who made the SpaceQuest games, where the actual creators end up twenty years later wanting to make a new game in their franchise, and they can’t because they don’t own the IP, but no one else is really using it and it’s just kind of an unfortunate situation.
Yeah, it’s interesting. Walt Disney lost control of the IP of Oswald the Lucky Rabbit, which caused him to create Mickey Mouse. He left his job, and he left the rights to his first character there, and Oswald, if you look at him, you know that he looks like a rabbit, but like a slightly less evolved version of Mickey Mouse. Yeah, it’s a weird situation, but people are smart and generally pushing things forward, like Garriott. Like this, they’re going to cope and come up with something cool with it and sometimes it helps to be cut off from your IP. You can’t help but think that Garriott was a little bit imprisoned by the Ultima IP, don’t you think?
Well, I don’t—
That’s what the show is for, but at least personally, there was a real life enriching quality to go back to the same world installment after installment and see how things had changed and remember these places that I had visited when I was twelve years old and see them still alive. I always imagined I would be showing my kids, taking my kids to Britannia and taking them to those places in Ultima 25 or something and it’s just sad, to me it’s sad that the franchise has just kind of—
Yeah, I have two things. One is, the guys at EA cannot be so incredibly inept as to not, at some point, plan to make a deal with Garriott. How would you not do that, you know? If you owned that IP. How much is that IP worth with Richard Garriott versus without Richard Garriott? Surely someone can do that math. The second thing loops a little bit back to You, because that’s the process that I was writing about in You, the novel, where the same areas of the world get recreated and as time passes you see through the lens of different game display technologies. When you brought that up, it reminded me of the feeling you get when you revisit a place, but you see it more realistically than you’ve ever seen it in a game because in earlier iterations in the franchise, you just saw little letters or pixels and now you’re seeing it in 3D. It’s a really interesting moment and experience and it’s a unique experience. It’s unique to the medium. It’s unique to our cohorts experience of the medium, right, when we’ve lived through a time when technology changes so fast. Part of why I wrote the book is that there are so many odd experiences that never get narrated, that haven’t been given names, and that’s exactly one of them.
Before we run out of time, we do want to talk to you about your first novel, Soon I Will Be Invincible. So what are some of your most memorable experiences surrounding the publication of that book?
There was the big experience of working on the film, which is sort of in development and is kicking around a little bit. There was the experience of seeing the concept art for the film and seeing all the characters drawn, which I also got when we did the UK edition and the comic artist, Bryan Hitch, who is incredibly fucking great, drew all the characters for the UK edition. There was the experience when Dr. Horrible came out, right, Soon I Will Be Invincible was summer 2007 and then Dr. Horrible came out in summer 2008, and I thought to myself, “Aw, crap, man. He had the same idea except this guy is Joss Whedon.” But I had to admit, I loved Dr. Horrible. I have to admit that it’s really, really good. There was the bizarre experience that, in one of my earliest Hollywood meetings they were like, “Okay, who should play Dr. Impossible, do you think?” and I didn’t realize they were just being polite to me, but I said, “Neil Patrick Harris,” but I said that before Dr. Horrible, I just thought to myself, Neil Patrick Harris: Super villain. Fuck yeah. They didn’t care. But I’m so proud of having called that and actually, just a few weeks ago, someone said to me, “You know, I think maybe I know someone who knows someone who knows Neil Patrick Harris and they could give him your book,” and I actually sent him an inscribed copy that may or may not get actually passed to him with this narrative attached to it. But my other story, and then I’ll shut up. These are all Dr. Horrible stories. I went to ComicCon in summer 2008 and I was like, still feeling the burn, a little bit, of Dr. Horrible, and feeling like this thing was getting a lot of attention and I had done something similar, but I really liked it, so I went to the cast viewing sing-along of Dr. Horrible and I’m sitting in this line, and if you’ve ever been to ComicCon, this is one of the hour-long waits, right? It’s night, it’s showing at like 9 at night, so the convention center is dark, everyone is sitting in this line, like, on the floor in this convention center and it’s kind of empty. Somebody comes walking down the line, because it’s a convention center, you can see them, like, half a mile away. They’re approaching and they come and they stop in front of me and they hold out a copy of Soon I’ll Be Invincible and said, “Could you sign this?” and suddenly all of my resentment of Dr. Horrible fell away. I thought to myself, man, we all like stuff, you know, and some people actually read this book and like it. It was like enough to be recognized by one person even though I was in this crowd of people recognizing this other thing, it was enough that one person noticed it and it meant enough that they could figure out who I was. It was kind of awesome.
Was the reaction pretty positive? Did it surprise you at all, what people thought about it? Did people see in it things that you were just like, “Wow, I never even considered that.”
I don’t know what to say. This was my first novel. The fact that it was published at all was just an ongoing shock from which I have not recovered. I wrote it when I was in grad school, I wrote it as a private goof-around project just to kind of write the weirdest dumbest thing I could.
You said something like, “I wanted to ruin the workshop I was in.”
Yeah, I was at Berkeley in the doctoral program there, and they didn’t have an MFA but they did have some fiction workshops. Yeah, I wanted to lower the tone. Here I was studying 19th century literature. I wanted to goof around and I also wanted to be stupid. I wanted to annoy people. It was much less of a thing to write about comic books in prose back then because this was 2001. This was before even Jonathan Lethem’s The Fortress of Solitude. The comic book novel wasn’t a thing at the time, so it seemed that much stupider to be doing it. I totally wrote it to irritate people. I wrote it to irritate people who were still trying to write Anne Beattie stories or Raymond Carver stories. I mean, I came of age as a fiction writer in the ’80s and ’90s, when it was all minimalism and it was all very slow, tiny moments in somebody’s kitchen. I wanted to blow the lid off of that. I wanted color, I wanted action, I wanted energy, I wanted the supernatural, I wanted, you know, I wanted all that great stuff that genre brings in. So, yes, it was kind of a fuck you to the fiction tradition that I had been brought up to revere. At the time, it was the time to write something so great and so stupid that the world could not handle it. That’s what I was hoping to do.
Have you ever seen or heard about anyone cosplaying any characters from the book?
Man, you know, I really wish that I could say that I had. I honestly do. I was at VeraCon and the guest of honor was Brandon Sanderson and everybody was cosplaying as his characters and I was like, “Aw.” So, that has become a life goal. At PAX this year, I hung out with people who were cosplaying from Dishonored so at least that was something, but yeah. It has yet to happen. Unless you count my own private exercises.
I think that to get people to cosplay your characters, you have to have one character that is just a really easy costume to do. Like, he wears a yellow t-shirt and carries a garbage can lid or something and then people are like, “Well, I didn’t have time to do a real costume but this will be easy.”
I could have done something simpler and more distinctive. That’s a first novelist’s mistake, if you will: You don’t think through. Also, to some degree, I was creating people as types, I think, and I gave them a kind of generality. That said, I’m sitting on the amazing concept art for the Soon I’ll Be Invincible film and if that stuff ever got out, that would be the tone.
You said it’s in development. Is it in development hell? Can we look forward to it? What’s the status of that?
It does feel like hell; I don’t know if there’s a technical term for it. I’ve written the screenplay, I’m going to tell you very little because there is a lot that I’m not allowed to tell you, but basically we want to find the right director. The market for superhero films is still around, and if anything, the audience is more sophisticated and the scarcity of original ideas, given the reboots that we’re seeing, is more and more glaringly apparent. Obviously, they did Megamind and they did Despicable Me, not that I mind that they did those things, they should do Soon I Will Be Invincible. It would be such an awesome film. It’s an awesome character. It’s hard to do when you’re not pushing Marvel or DC IP. I think people who want to make that film want to know that it has that preexisting market. But I still think it’ll be an awesome idea. The script came out really well, the first version of which was done, really, by Dan Weiss, now famous for Game of Thrones. He is one of the sort of show runners, and then I did my own draft. Anyway, that’s where that sits, but my agent and I have sworn a blood oath that before we die there will be a film. You can look forward to that.
Speaking of that book, you also wrote a story for the anthology The Mad Scientists Guide to World Domination, which was called, “Professor Incognito Apologizes: An Itemized List.” You want to just briefly just mention what it’s about?
Oh, yes. The Mad Scientists Guide to World Domination is a really good anthology. I have to say, I wasn’t sure whether I wanted to revisit the subject of a mad scientist. I thought to myself, Maybe I’ve said to what I had to say, but it turned out to be really interesting. It’s a mad scientist who has a girlfriend, and the problem of having a girlfriend and being a secret mad scientist at the same time just generates its own interesting plot developments. It turned out to be incredibly fun, and I think that’s probably the story that makes me think that there will be a Soon I Will Be Invincible sequel down the road because I thought to myself, I’m actually really not done with this voice and this premise.
Do you consider that story to take place in the same world as Soon I Will Be Invincible or is it just sort of similar but not the same world?
The world of Soon I Will Be Invincible is a capacious place, I have to say. You know what I should have done is I should have done a real call out to sort of solidify that. As it is, I can’t really call it canon, but I should have just done one character cameo, just as a throwaway, that set it in that universe. That would have been smart. Next time.
We mentioned earlier that you really know your stuff when it comes to fantasy and science fiction. Do you think you might ever write just a straight-out epic fantasy or a space opera?
That’s a good question. You is a novel that spans genres because the game company has a fantasy franchise and it has an espionage franchise and a space opera franchise. It was my chance to kind of tour through those genres and I have to say yes. I don’t know which I will do first. I don’t know that I could do what you call straight, because I don’t know that I do anything that you’d call straight, but god, I’m so invested in those genres and sooner or later I’m going to come to the moment where it’s like, “OK, I have to find out what’s in this for me.” So the answer has got to be yes, so, yes.
We usually wrap things up by asking what upcoming projects people have. You mentioned Crooked—and that’s a spy novel or something?
I would say it’s a spy novel with genre elements in which Richard Nixon is the principle character. It’s a Cold War novel from the point of view of Richard Nixon and it has some genre twists in it that I’m not going to go into right now. Of course, You is coming out April 16th, or April 25th in the UK, and it’s going to be cool. I’m so looking forward to the 16th and we’ll be doing events and probably some online events and, god, people who are interested in games in any way should check it out. I, honestly, I’ve had my moments when I did not have confidence in it, but now I think it’s interesting enough that people should get it. Crooked is probably going to come out next year. I’m working on, of course, the Dishonored franchise, the game franchise, and our downloadable story arc is also coming out April 16th. So, I have a bunch of stuff going on.
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