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Interview: Rick Yancey

Rick Yancey is the author of popular young adult novels such as the Alfred Kropp series and the Monstrumologist series. His latest book, The 5th Wave, is the story of a teenage girl searching for her brother in the wake of a devastating alien attack. The book’s publisher, Penguin, is betting big that The 5th Wave has what it takes to become the next Hunger Games, and is giving the book a massive $750,000 marketing push. The 5th Wave has also been optioned for film by Sony Pictures with Tobey Maguire reportedly attached to the project.

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.

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First of all, tell us about your new book The 5th Wave. What’s it about?

The 5th Wave is a story that takes the alien invasion genre and leaps from the premise that Hollywood has gotten it completely wrong. That if they’re out there, we better hope that they never find us. It centers around four survivors of an alien apocalypse that comes about in waves. Instead of one single attack, it’s a coordinated, multiple assault on the planet Earth. The first wave knocks out all electronics, all power, the entire grid goes down. The second wave is designed to take advantage of the fact that the Earth has an unstable surface, and that forty percent of the world’s population lives within sixty miles of a coastline. The third wave is a plague delivered by birds, and the fourth wave is . . . Well, I’ll leave the fourth and fifth waves out there. I don’t want to do any spoilers. It’s a species-threatening event, which is what really sparked my imagination with this book. I had run across an interview with the physicist Stephen Hawking, and in the interview they had brought up what they always love to ask astrophysicists, “Do you think life is out there in the universe?” And he said, “Of course.” And the interviewer asked, “Well, do you think that it could have intelligent life that could somehow bridge the enormous gulf between star systems?” And he said, “Sure. Of course it’s conceivable that they’re out there, and if they’ve advanced to that point then they could.” Of course, the next logical question was, “Well, what do you think would happen if they found us?” He said, “I’m not sure, but I hope they don’t, because if they do it probably won’t work out very well for us. It’ll probably be more like when Christopher Columbus came to the Americas, and we all know how that worked out for the Native Americans.”

Your wife said something that inspired it too, right?

She did. It was one of those three a.m. conversations where your mind starts going, and I asked her, on the spur of the moment, “What is your greatest fear?” She said, without hesitation, “Alien abduction.” Which was the last thing I thought she might say. I thought she was going to say something about the kids, or her own health, and I said “An alien abduction? I think the odds of that are probably pretty slim. Why is that so scary?” She said, “Well, not only would it be horrifying to be abducted by aliens, but no one would believe me afterwards.” That sense of terrible isolation that that would create, that you’d just be considered crazy. The novel kind of takes that feeling. It opens with the lead narrator, Cassie, who’s a 16-year-old girl, utterly alone in the wilderness, after having witnessed this terrible devastation brought about by these beings that no one has even seen, which I think adds to the fear of the book. You don’t even know what these things even look like.

You mentioned that this was a reaction to Hollywood movies.

Well, we’ve all seen it, from War of the Worlds to Independence Day: They come, they wreak some havoc, and we all band together, we take them on. I think, in that sense, that’s how Hollywood has gotten it wrong. It depends on your definition of wrong, obviously—the movies don’t celebrate how tough and bad the aliens are, they’re celebrating how tough and bad humans are. But screenwriters are almost painting themselves into a corner; you want those thrills of us taking on those big, bad aliens, but you’ve got to figure out some way that we somehow defeat them. That’s the challenge, because no movie audience wants to go and watch two hours of the human race being obliterated.

How did you come up with your alien attack plan? How did you decide on those specific waves, and were there any other ones that you considered but didn’t use?

It was basically trying to think like an alien, and considering the fact that if they are out there, they probably wouldn’t attack without getting to know us very, very well. They would learn how we think, they would learn about what do humans do in times of crisis, and they would turn that to their own advantage. So, when I was working through how the attacks might work, I realized first that it couldn’t just be one attack—the world’s too big—you’d have to do it in stages, or waves.

The first wave would be to cut everybody off, to take down the grid, or to take away our technology, which would isolate people and play to our primal fears of the dark and of being isolated and alone and would kind of drive us together.

The second wave takes advantage of the Earth’s actual structure, the fact that the surface of the Earth is made up of tectonic plates that meet each other, and rub against each other and create friction, and that’s where we get earthquakes and tsunamis. It wouldn’t take advanced alien technology to take advantage of this structural flaw in the planet. So, these massive earthquakes, huge tsunamis, and you have forty percent of the world’s population living within sixty miles of a coastline—after an attack like that the survivors would probably flee inland; they would have no choice if they wanted to survive. They’d cluster even tighter, and that’s when it occurred to me that once you have all that human population in basically one spot, you can unleash something biological, which would [kill the indigenous population but] preserve the planet [for the invaders]; you wouldn’t have the ray guns, the land-walkers, and the flying saucers swooping out of the sky—you wouldn’t need to. Just find a way to deliver a virus that has an extremely high kill rate, which you could have plenty of time to genetically engineer in the safety of your mothership.

The fourth and fifth waves play off the idea of what would these beings actually look like? Does it matter what they look like? They’ve had plenty of time to decide how they’re going to take care of any of the remnants that are left after they’ve knocked off ninety-nine-plus-some-change percent of the Earth.

You mentioned that you’re kind of reluctant to talk about what the fourth and fifth waves actually are, and I’ve even seen some synopses that are kind of spoilerish given that the book is so based around mysteries. How do you even go about doing publicity for it?

It’s difficult, you do kind of have to dance around it. There are major spoilers, if you will, that if you go on too long about the basic plot, you’re going to give stuff away that’s going to, I think, take some enjoyment away from the reader.

Let’s talk a bit about the characters. You mentioned that the main protagonist is a teenage girl named Cassie. Why don’t you tell us about her?

Cassie is the first female [protagonist] I’ve ever attempted, and I was a little nervous tackling her character because I’m not a 16-year-old girl, and I never have been. I have three boys, so I didn’t raise a 16-year-old girl. I was a little [apprehensive], but I knew once I was just a few pages in that I had it pretty close, so it was exciting to kind of see the world through the eyes of someone very different than what I was. The heart of the book, really, is not an alien invasion, but its effect upon us. Any sort of species-threatening—or apocalyptic—event, how it affects human beings, and the idea of when everything else has been stripped away, what is it that’s fundamental that remains? To explore that is why I introduced her little brother Sam, who is five years old at the beginning of the story, and who is separated from her, and it becomes Cassie’s sole mission in life to find him and to keep a promise that she made to him that she would come back for him and they would be reunited, and that is the driving force of the story. More than “Are the aliens going to ultimately win?” or “Are we ultimately going to defeat them?” It’s really a very human story about what is left after everything else is gone.

You said in the afterword that your son Jake helped out with writing from a teenage perspective; can you think of any specific pointers that he gave you?

Oh, yes. I tried to be pretty conservative when it comes to slang, particularly teenage slang, because it changes almost on a weekly basis, so you don’t want to pepper your story with a bunch of teenage slang because five years from now teenagers won’t even know what’s going on. I tried to be conservative about it and very choosy about it, but there was one moment when I was writing, and I shouted up the stairs to Jake, my 16-year-old, and I said, “I need some term that means someone is really good at something, that they’re just excellent.” And he said, “Boss, they’re boss!” And I said, “Oh, that’s perfect!” So that made it to the book.

One thing I thought was really interesting is one of the characters in the book proposes knocking out the alien mothership using Fermi’s steam cannon. Where did you come across that?

I don’t remember. I do a lot of research, and I probably saw it some place online. I did a little dipping into Fermi because he’s the father of the Fermi paradox.

Basically, the Fermi paradox is: There are certainly enough stars in the part of the universe that we can see that could sustain planets, and on these planets intelligent life could arise, and the universe is definitely old enough to have a civilization that’s far in advance of ours, and if that is the case, then why haven’t we ever seen any evidence of any kind of that, anywhere? That’s Fermi’s paradox. If they are out there, then why haven’t we seen them? We should be able to see them because there’d be so many, there’d be so much of it out there, but we don’t see anything out there.

Well, maybe they all got killed with Fermi’s steam cannon.

[Laughter] Exactly. So, that whole thing with the steam cannon, I stumbled across while I was looking into Fermi’s paradox.

Do you want to just describe the idea of the steam cannon?

Basically, you dig a big hole, you put a nuclear device in the bottom of it, and then you seal it off with steel, or concrete, or maybe both, and it’s submerged in water. When the device goes off, of course you’re talking about millions of degrees Celsius, which would blow off the lid you’ve constructed of metal and concrete, and it would literally blow it into orbit, it would be that much force.

Another thing I really liked was a reference: “the sole atheist in Camp Ashpit’s foxhole, a college professor named Dawkins.”

[Laughter] You caught that.

Presumably that’s not Richard Dawkins. Could you just talk about why you decided to name the character that?

This is an action-adventure novel that’s set in sort of a sci-fi paradigm, and I was never pretending I was writing some great study of good and evil, and that kind of thing, but I did realize, putting myself in the position of these characters, like in any existential crisis, there is this question that arises, “What about God?” This kind of comes up—it’s not heavy-handed, it doesn’t come up over and over in the novel, but every character wonders about this because I think everyone would wonder about this, “What about God?” I didn’t try to play it up too much, but, obviously, just like people divide into camps over all kinds of things, I think there would be people who are so entrenched in their own beliefs, whether it be atheistic or monotheistic, they would cling even harder, they would dig the trench even deeper. I like it as a reader, especially when you’re reading YA, when you know the author has put things in that probably will go over the young person’s head, but a savvy reader is going to hook on it and get maybe a chuckle. I thought, well, if I want some guy who’s an atheist, why not use a name that might ring a bell.

I understand that this book is the first in a trilogy.

Yes, that’s right. The second book is coming out in May of next year.

You said essentially the premise of the book is that any aliens that could fly here from another star are so advanced that we would have no chance against them.

It would be like using sticks and stones against a tank.

It seems that makes it kind of a challenge to make it a series. Is there anything you can say about your approach to that that’s not giving too much away?

My approach is maybe it’s not so much about watching the mothership crash to Earth, like in Independence Day, maybe it’s more like what Faulkner called “enduring.” That that is the most human, if you will, most inspiring thing about our species, is that somehow we endure. I’m not sure there will be an ultimate triumph—I’m not saying that—but there could be. I don’t want to close every door, but there will be affirmation.

Which previous alien invasion stories do you think have done the best job of presenting a realistic picture of it? I’ll say that the books that this made me think of was the Tripods series by John Christopher.

I’m glad you brought that up. I remember being pretty young [when I read those], and I was blown away by those books. They were so creepy and yet so almost dreamlike. It was so well done. I don’t know how well those books ever did, but I sure remember them.

Did you do any research for any of the military training or weapons?

A lot of research, because I am not in the military, nor do I have a living family member that served in the military. My father served, but he’s passed away, so I couldn’t rely on him as a resource. The best, most fun thing I did, that gave me the most insight, was looking at message boards and forums that are populated by former and current military personnel, and reading their stories, and the jokes they exchange, and how boot camp was because my book does deal with military training. Former grunts were talking about the drill sergeants that they had, exchanging stories, anecdotes, and things that the drill sergeants would scream at them, and how they were treated, that sort of thing. I actually got a lot of information from the official site of the United States Marine Corp. In fact, there was a page on there that talked about the typical day of boot camp. I guess it was to let prospective recruits know what to look forward to when they got to camp. That was very helpful.

The 5th Wave has been optioned for film by Sony Pictures. What’s the current status of that?

I was informed by my agent yesterday that I’m contractually obligated not to talk about the specifics of things. I do know that I can tell you that the last I heard is that they’re lining up a screenwriter for the project.

Wait, your agent only yesterday told you that you’re not supposed to talk about it?

[Laughter] Yeah, not because he knew I was going to talk to you or anything. There was a review that Entertainment Weekly published online that’s going to be in their print edition tomorrow, but the review has a sidebar that talks about it being optioned by Graham King and Tobey Maguire. After he saw that article, my agent contacted me and said, “I don’t know if you told Entertainment Weekly this, but you’re contractually obligated not to talk too much about the details of this deal.” I said, “I didn’t tell anybody. I particularly don’t talk to reviewers. Why would I do that?”

The galley that we got mentions that this book is getting a $750,000 marketing campaign.

Can you believe that? It’s unbelievable.

When they’re spending that kind of money, what does that marketing campaign consist of? What are some of the biggest publicity items that have been going on?

They have done four book trailers, each one dealing with the first four waves of the attacks, and then premiered them on pretty heavily trafficked sites, like MTV, USA Today, io9, and then subsequently put them on YouTube. A lot of extra poster and banner advertising. The trailers themselves are going to be shown in movie theaters. I did see that they will be showing the book trailer for showings of Man of Steel. That’s one of the venues. Of course, money for touring, a lot of advertising in print and other media, and there will be a full-page spread in The New York Times on publication day.

So, there’s not going to be a gold-plated elephant parade or anything?

[Laughter] No, but there should be! I think that’s a great idea.

I’m just saying, if I were spending $750,000, I would want a gold-plated elephant parade.

You know how some propaganda drops out of planes? Just drop leaflets, that sort of thing. I’ve worked with half a dozen publishers, and I have never had this experience with one where everyone from the publisher himself down to the editorial assistant are so excited about a book. It’s very exciting, and it’s also very humbling because as the person who wrote it, I know all its flaws. It’s kind of like being a parent—you know all your kid’s flaws, and you’re very proud of them, but if you’re an honest parent, you don’t look at them with rose-colored glasses. I know all the flaws of the book, and I know that there will be some very conscientious reviewers and critics who are going to see those very flaws and probably won’t be able to resist in pointing them out, but you just have to be prepared for that. It’s just something that happens.

At one point in the book, Cassie ends up on the farm of a teenage boy named Evan Walker, and I read that you actually grew up on a farm yourself, so was it similar to the one in the book?

No, actually, I worked at a cattle ranch, which is different from a farm. My vision of what Evan’s farm is—first of all, it’s in the Ohio Valley, and my ranch that I worked at was in the heart of central Florida in an area called the Green Swamp, so you can take it from there what that was like. Ranch work is a lot different than farm work. I do know what it’s like to put in a day of back-breaking labor and that sort of thing and working with livestock.

But you didn’t grow up on that ranch?

No, my father was a lawyer, but he got to thinking of himself as a gentleman rancher, so as soon as we had a little bit of money, he bought this cattle ranch out in the middle of nowhere in a swamp, cleared the land, and then trucked in some cattle, and then called himself a rancher.

I saw that you wrote your first book at the age of fourteen.

Yes, it was terrible. The experience wasn’t terrible, and that’s probably why I’m still writing, but the actual book, I wouldn’t want it to see the light of day. I was really a geek. I was really into science fiction and fantasy, so it turned out to be an intergalactic story between elves and dwarves, which was a weird mash-up.

Your mom said it was a waste of paper, and your dad wanted you to be a lawyer, right? Your parents were not interested in you becoming an author.

No, my father had that kind of outlook on the arts that, yes, they were necessary, but that would be a horrible way to try to make a living and support a family because until you reach a certain level, it’s not exactly a stable thing to do. He’d been through the Depression, and he was a firm believer in not taking unnecessary risks. I’m not saying that he wasn’t entirely supportive, but I think he would have been perfectly happy with me becoming a lawyer.

You ended up actually going to work for the IRS, right?

Yes, I did, for twelve years, it was one of those things where I picked up the newspaper one day, and I was looking for a job, and I saw this ad, and the paper didn’t even identify that it was for the IRS, it just said federal government work. All you have to have is a college degree and be breathing, and come on in for this open house and find out what it’s all about. I showed up for the open house, and realized at that point I was in the bowels of the IRS. I was writing at the time, and I thought, “Well, I need something to pay the bills, and I’ll just hang on to this until my writing takes off, or I actually get off my butt and get a master’s degree in English and maybe teach somewhere.” Then twelve years later, I was still there.

But you wrote a book about it called Confessions of a Tax Collector, so you must have had some sort of interesting experiences, right?

Oh yes, in fact, I was just talking to my wife about it a couple of days ago. I would not be the person that I am, and I’m not even sure that I would have the willpower, or wherewithal, or whatever you want to call it—this is something that is regardless of talent, by the way—to actually have the discipline to finish a novel, because that’s one of the things the IRS gave me. It awakened my will to succeed, I guess you would say. To finish whatever it is, no matter how unpleasant it might become. There are still moments when I’m writing a book when I just want to take my computer, throw it out the window, and go get a job selling insurance or something, and I tell myself, “It has to be easier than this.” That’s one of the gifts that the IRS gave me, plus the fact that I met my wife there, so it all works out in the end.

Can you think of any specific interesting stories from your time there?

I could, but the IRS would shoot me if I told you. On a daily basis you were exposed to the farcical, the tragic, the hilarious, and the surreal. I specialized in a particular kind of collection with the IRS, and that was for people who had basically decided, for whatever underlying motivation, that they were never going to pay taxes again. Sometimes it was based on a rationalization or a fantasy that they could somehow opt out of the tax system, or it didn’t apply to them for some reason or another, and they were at times sneaky, at times kind of dangerous types, and that was kind of what was addictive about what I was doing because it was like a [game of] cat and mouse, it was like a constant chase. I remember one case, a guy was a pretty hardcore—we called them “tax protestors,” that was the official term for them (we had other terms within the office). [He] would thumb his nose, and was actually dumb enough to park his collectible ’69, cherry red Corvette in a public parking space. I found the car after some work, and called in the tow trucks. He saw me, came barreling out of his office, and he did end up spitting on me, and shoving me, but that always came with the territory. I was very excited about that car—I was going to sell it, that’s what the IRS does with seized assets, and I was very excited about my sale because it was the coolest thing I’d ever seized.

Roger Zelazny is my favorite author. Before he became a full-time writer, he worked for the Social Security Administration. I was just rereading one of his books, and I noticed there’s this line in there where someone seems to have an awful lot of information about the protagonist, and she says that she knows all this stuff about him because she’s been reading government reports on him, and he says, “I’d be really curious to meet the person who’s writing these reports, there may be some great artistic talent going to waste in a government office.” I’ve always thought that was a little in-joke about his time working in the government.

That’s what I tell people. It wasn’t like I was an IRS person that turned to writing. I was always a writer that was working at the IRS trying to figure out a way out.

What was your way out? How did you turn to writing?

I’d published my first novel with Simon & Schuster, and realized very quickly on that first novels, unless you’re incredibly lucky, won’t let you quit your job. I wanted to continue writing—getting that first novel published had kind of swept away my initial reluctance, or whatever you want to call it, about becoming a full-time, professional writer. I had proved to myself that it was something that I was actually capable of doing, completing a manuscript and seeing it through publication with a major publisher. I happened to have read a book not long after that was published called Monster by John Gregory Dunne. He was the spouse of Joan Didion, and he worked in Hollywood, and he had written a book about a movie that he worked on, and the inner workings of how the Hollywood studio system worked at the time. [After reading it,] I thought, “You know what, no one has ever written a book about what it’s like to work within the most hated agency on the planet.” I realized the moment I started thinking about that idea, of actually writing a memoir based on my experiences, that I couldn’t stay at that job. The IRS wouldn’t look kindly upon an employee writing some tell-all book about how things really were behind the frosted glass doors. So, I knew that once I had done the proposal for the book, that what that meant was that it was a career-ending decision, and also a career-beginning decision, but this was ten years ago, after that it was kind of just a leap.

How did you then get into doing YA books?

That was accidental. Totally accidental. I had written a novel starring a 30-something-year-old detective, a private eye, who is kind of a klutz and a ne’er-do-well, and his mom dies and leaves him some money, so he decides to fulfill his lifelong dream of being a detective, without having any clue about how to be one. So he sets up his shingle, and his first client pays him a bunch of money to take something that the client claims was his, that was stolen from him actually, and he just wants this detective to get it back for him. It turns out it’s a very special kind of item, priceless in its way, and it also happens to be magical. It’s King Arthur’s sword Excalibur. The rest of the book is the detective discovering that his client was actually the bad guy, and the bad guy has designs to use the sword Excalibur for his own nefarious purposes, and the last third of the book is getting it back. The CIA gets involved, and there’s a lot of shootouts. Publishers really liked that manuscript. There’s a half a dozen or more that really liked that book. They thought it was so different and out of the box, but that was also its downfall because everything spins off of marketing. They had concerns that they didn’t know what genre it fit in because it literally didn’t fit into a genre. It wasn’t detective because of the magical sword. It wasn’t fantasy because it’s set in the 20th century. The CIA gets involved, but it’s not really a spy thriller because the first part of the book is detective fiction, then it becomes something, then it becomes something else. It’s just a big mash-up. They said our marketing department would kill us because they wouldn’t be able to tell the bookseller where to put it on the shelf. Then my agent, who really believed in the manuscript, and believed in the story, came to me and said, “You know what, there’s one area of fiction that the rules don’t apply. It’s young adult, because kids aren’t so set in their ways yet. They don’t care as long as you give them a good story.” And I said, “Well, beyond the fantasy element, what is there about my story that’s YA? My protagonist is 30-something-years-old.” He said, “Just take your protagonist and halve his age, make him 15, make him a kid because that’s really the hub of what makes young adult young adult, is having a young protagonist.” At first I resisted, but then I decided to give it a try, and that resulted in my first YA novel. I did change it and rewrote the story from a 15-year-old’s point of view, and the book sold right away.

What’s it called?

It’s called The Extraordinary Adventures of Alfred Kropp.

I actually heard you tell a funny story about coming up with the name Alfred Kropp. Could you talk about that?

[Laughter] Sure. I didn’t have a name for him. I didn’t want to use the same name I used for my detective character because to an author, names are extremely important; it’s almost like naming your kid, and then if you have to change their name when your kid reaches 30 years old, that’d be weird. So, I decided to have a whole new name. I decided on the first name Alfred because it was close to Arthur, and it’s an Arthurian sort of story, but I couldn’t figure out the last name. What had actually happened was, my coffee machine broke, and I went to Wal-Mart, and I was walking down the coffee aisle, and I saw Krups coffee, and I thought, “That sounds so cool,” and it’s almost perfect for my character to describe him because he’s this big, goofy guy. I wanted kind of a goofy name, but I decided to change it because I didn’t want to get sued by Krups, so I made it, long story short, Alfred Kropp.

I’m interested in the long story though because—

[Laughter] Yes, you are! I made his name Alfred Krupp, I just took off the ‘s’ off of Krups, and added a ‘p’ and made it Krupp. We were very close to publication, I forget exactly how the timing was working, but it was extremely close to publication when my editor called me, and she was all in a panic, and she was like, “Don’t you Google names before you write a book?” I said, “I don’t know what you’re talking about.” And she said, “It’s his name. It’s Alfred’s name. We’re going to have to change it. We’ve got to change it quickly because we’re right at the wire here, and we’re going to go to press.” And I said, “Well, why?” And she said, “Because Alfred Krupp is a real person.” And I was totally shocked. I said, “Well, I had no idea, who would be named after Krupp?” Actually, there are real Krupps walking around, but that wasn’t the Alfred Krupp she was referring too. She said, “Well, Alfred Krupp was a real person who lived in Germany.” He was the owner of Krupp manufacturing, which was instrumental in producing a lot of Hitler’s war machine. She said, “I don’t want to publish a YA book whose hero is named after a Nazi, so you better come up with something quick.” Which I ended up doing, we just took out the “u” and put in an “o” and Alfred was born.

Names are a big problem for me because often I’ll have a name that I thought I just made up and then later on I realize it’s just something I’d heard somewhere.

From then on, I always check. [Laughter] It’s okay, there are only so many names in the world, and there’s a lot of people, and everybody has a name, and it could happen that you come up with a name for a character that several people have that name. Just make sure they’re not a famous person or something like that.

You have another series called The Monstrumologist. Could you say briefly what the premise of that is?

It springs from a couple things: my love of 19th century literature, and my great fear of things that go bump in the dark that dates back to my childhood. The basic premise is that back in the 19th century, there’s actually an emerging branch of science that studied, and sometimes hunted, creatures that we normally would subscribe to folklore, creatures of myth. Not creatures like vampires or werewolves or something like that, but things that could actually exist in our physical universe. Creatures that were written about quite seriously, and extensively, dating back to the time of the ancient Greeks. The first creature that is wreaking havoc in the first book is called the Anthropophagi, which is actually a creature that has been written about by Herodotus, and Pliny the Elder, and even William Shakespeare makes a mention of them a couple of times. A race of beings with no heads, and eyes and brain and mouth located at different parts of the anatomy. They actually believed in these things. The last book of that series, the fourth book, will be published this fall by Simon & Schuster.

I was reading an interview, and I came across this reference where they said that the series nearly met a premature end back in 2011, but was saved by an extraordinary response from fans. What’s the story behind that?

My contract was done. I had a three-book contract. I had always had it in my mind, though, that the story arc, if you will, could not be told in its entirety in just three books. So, I had my fingers crossed that the series would have gained enough of a following and enough sales that Simon & Schuster would be delighted to extend my contract for one more book. I wrote the third book in the series—the final book, according to the contract—with that hope and thought in mind because the first two books in the series had gotten a lot of critical attention, as well as some pretty big-time awards. The first one received the Michael Printz Honor from The American Library Association, and the second book, The Curse of the Wendigo, was a finalist for the L.A. Times book prize, so I was cautiously optimistic that once I got the third book done that we’d be able to negotiate a contract for a final book. The other reason I was thinking that is because the way the story was structured, the whole setup is, I, the writer, Rick Yancey, discover these thirteen leather-bound, hand-written notebooks, and that’s the form that the books take, the form of a diary of a very old man looking back on his youth and his adventures with this scientist who studies monsters. By the time I reached the end of the third book, I still had three of these hypothetical notebooks left to edit and to publish, and that’s how I presented the third book to my publisher. My publisher said, “Look, Rick, we’re very sorry, we had high hopes for the series, as we’re sure you did, but the sales don’t really justify us moving forward with one last book.” The Monstrumologist is one of those series, like some books, they don’t become hugely popular, but the people who do like it, love it, and it becomes almost cult-like, and that was sort of what was churning underneath the surface by the time I had turned the third book in. There were some very fierce, very loyal readers for these books, who had just fallen in love with the characters, and they would have been perfectly happy with there being 45 books in the series, let alone just one more. Because I constantly got asked questions about a possible fourth book, I just put on my Facebook fan page, “I just heard from the publisher. They are going to stop the series now with the publication of the third book.” That’s all I said, and the blogosphere and the internet exploded. There was a particular blogger who posted a long entry on her site and said, “Oh, and by the way, here’s how you contact Simon & Schuster, and this is the form you use. Here’s the link, please everyone needs to let them know that we are not happy that there will not be a fourth book.” And apparently Simon & Schuster got enough feedback from readers to convince them, you know what, let’s bring this story to a close, and let’s do a fourth book.

Wow, that’s great. The last thing I want to ask you about is that you have a short story called “When First We Were Gods” that will be appearing in an anthology called Rags and Bones, edited by Melissa Marr and Tim Pratt.

That was a great opportunity. Melissa just contacted me out of the blue and she said, “Hey, Tim and I are putting together this anthology. Gaiman’s going to be in it, Carrie Ryan’s going to be in it, Margaret Stohl and Kami Garcia, and this is our idea. Neil had mentioned to us about the things we read as kids, these fairy tales and folklores that our elders pass down to us, how did that affect our writing, and does it consciously affect us?” She was familiar with my Monstrumologist books, and she said, “I know you’re a lover of 19th century literature, and this is the kind of thing we’re thinking of. Would you be interested in taking one of your favorite stories from that era and kind of updating it? Putting a new twist on it? That’s the whole concept behind this book.”

I said, “Yeah, that would be cool. That would be great.” I didn’t want to use something that had been overdone, and I remembered something from Hawthorne that at the time I’d read it when I was pretty young—I think I was a teenager—I thought, “Gosh, this sounds so familiar.” The reason it did was Hawthorne had written it about twenty years after Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, and it’s kind of a Frankenstein-like story called “The Birth-Mark.” The 19th century writers were really unnerved by science—it kind of scared them. [The protagonist] falls in love with this woman who is absolutely beautiful, and she has a birthmark on her cheek, and it just starts to bug the guy—she’s so perfect, except she has this one tiny (in his mind) flaw: She has a birthmark. So, he decides to use all his scientific knowledge and acumen to try to remove this birthmark and make her perfect. I won’t give away the ending, but you probably can figure, being Hawthorne, and being the 19th century, it doesn’t end out very well. It’s over the top in the melodramatics, it’s a little too much on the nose, it hits you over the head with its point, like a lot of writing from that era, but that’s part of its charm to me.

When I decided to do as Melissa suggested and give it that new, fresh twist, I kept stepping back from the story, away from the particulars, like a mad scientist stereotype guy, and his weird, grotesque sort of assistant, and the poor damsel who gets victimized by the guy’s love. I just kept stepping backward until finally I was in the future, and I was taking the themes of the story and placing them in maybe the not-so-distant future where humankind has figured out a way to defeat death, which sprang from an article I read, I think it might have been in The New York Times Magazine, there’s some scientist type, he’s a theoretical guy, but a lot of it’s based on current technology, this idea that we can achieve a virtual immortality by downloading what makes us into a program where consciousness does not have to end when our body ends. You can take the next step and say, well, if you can upload yourself, why couldn’t you download yourself? Why couldn’t you grow bodies, and when your body gets too old and feeble, you can download yourself into a new, fresh body?

In the story, you have the wealthy people who are essentially immortal, and it’s about a marriage between a guy—and this is his 45th marriage or something—and a woman who has put off getting married fourteen times.

He falls in love with a “mortal,” someone who is not in the class that he is, and therefore has a mortal life, like yours and mine. It takes the idea of “The Birth-Mark,” that it’s actually human death that mars the human face, at least from this guy’s perspective, so he’s going to remove that terrible flaw of death from his lover by making her immortal like him, but it has some pretty terrible consequences when he tries. Part of what makes life precious is the fact that time is precious, and that’s pointed out in the story by one of the characters where she says, “We’ve taken time, once the most precious thing on Earth, and we’ve made it the most useless, the most valueless thing. What is time to us anymore? Why do we celebrate birthdays or anniversaries? No wonder we can’t stay married and we can’t stay in love, because we’ve taken away the finiteness of life and filled the infinite with just emptiness.”

How long do you think a life has to be before you get to that point of it all coming to seem pointless? Say you could live to be 200 or 300 years old, would that be too long?

I guess it depends on what you’re up to. I would hope that if you had some kind of gift like that that you would make the most of it and not spend your time watching The Price Is Right. I’m certain that if you ask me this question again when I’m 80 years old, you may get a completely different answer. Sometimes I have a feeling or sensation that I’ve been around forever, and I’m kind of tired, and then I have a sensation that I just got here. My life’s just starting, and how could it be that I’m this age, and that I’m on the back-end of the time I have allotted. How could something like that happen?

I saw that the story was optioned for film by Lionsgate. Is there anything you can say about that?

[It’s with] a writer/director duo that Lionsgate is very [high] on. They like them a lot—one’s a screenwriter and one’s a director who’s gotten some notice; they certainly have placed it with a team that they believe in, and I don’t think it was someone just getting thrown a bone to keep them around, but they do really love this story.

We’ll keep an eye out for news about that. That does it for the questions; is there anything else before we wrap things up? Any other projects you want to mention, or anything else you just wanted to throw out there?

No, you were thorough! That was fun.

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The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek's Guide to the Galaxy

The Geek’s Guide to the Galaxy is a science fiction/fantasy talk show podcast. It is produced by John Joseph Adams and hosted by: David Barr Kirtley, who is the author of thirty short stories, which have appeared in magazines such as Realms of Fantasy, Weird Tales, and Lightspeed, in books such as Armored, The Living Dead, Other Worlds Than These, and Fantasy: The Best of the Year, and on podcasts such as Escape Pod and Pseudopod. He lives in New York.