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A. Lee Martinez Chud.com Interview (joss whedon mention)

Cameron Hughes

Sunday 6 August 2006, by Webmaster


A. Lee Martinez is a great writer. Funny novels are hard to write, Gil’s All Fright Diner is warm and thoughtful and makes you care about even the most minor of characters(I defy you not to like the sheriff). His dialogue crackles and the places feel real, and the characters all have their own voice and the two main characters, Duke and Earl, have a real chemistry that most readers fail to accomplish. I’m constantly amazed at how many writers can’t write a close friendship well relying on snappy patter and macho posturing instead of real stuff like making fun of each other or calling them on their bullshit. Oh yeah, it also has zombie dairy cows. His new novel In the Company of Ogres comes out on August 8th.

Cameron/CHUD: Could you tell us a little about yourself? How you got into writing, what advice was crucial and what the publishing process of your first novel was like?

Martinez: I’m going to be honest here. There’s nothing really very interesting about me. I’m just a guy who likes to make up stories. I have an unexceptional background and an unexceptional life. Nothing really worth talking about. Seriously. I’m not being modest. It’s just the cold, hard truth that though I am a cool dude who can tell a good story, I do not have anything exciting to tell you about myself.

I got into writing when an English teacher in my last year of high school suggested I enter a short story contest. So I did. And I won. And after that, I decided that since I really didn’t have any other idea what I wanted to do with my life, I’d give writing a shot.

I have to give a lot of credit to my Mom. She supported me all the way. When I told her that I didn’t want to go to college and wanted to write, she said she wouldn’t mind supporting me for the next four years, just as long as I was really writing and submitting. After the four years passed, and I still hadn’t made it, she still supported me. She’s been a tremendous influence, and I don’t think I could’ve done this without her. I really consider this her accomplishment as much as mine.

The publishing process is long. I mean, really long. Nothing happens fast in this business. My various novels had bounced around for years until eventually, through a quirk of fate; an editor at Tor asked to see a manuscript. So I sent him GIL’S because I felt it was my most commercial work. Then I waited. And waited some more. And waited some more.

I waited two years. I’d actually given up on Tor and had started submitting GIL’S elsewhere. Then I got the call. My future editor asked a few questions about my background, and then told me he was going to pitch it to the higher ups. Still wasn’t excited. By then, I’d developed this sort of "whatever" attitude. I was optimistic, but it’s never a sale until you’ve got the money in your hands. And I’d been that close once or twice. There’s a lot of hoops to jump through to get a manuscript published, especially with a big publisher.

About two weeks later, I get the call. Tor wants to buy GIL’S. They make an offer. I get part of my advance. Then there’s waiting. More waiting. Really, that’s all this business is. Writing and waiting. From first submission request to actual publication was roughly four years.

There is one crucial piece of advice for all aspiring writers. Write and submit. I know that seems rather obvious, but it’s rarely talked about. There are tons of books on technique and grammar, but hardly any that just tell you to get to it.

When it comes to the writing part, be sure to finish something. Don’t get stuck in rewrites, and don’t devote years of your life to one manuscript. If you want to be a pro, you have to write at a reliable pace, and you have to finish. I cannot stress that enough. And once you finish it, you must write something else. Otherwise, it’s not a job. It’s a hobby. Which is fine, but an important distinction.

The other part is submitting. Submit like crazy, all the time, like a madman. I usually sent out four query letters a week at least. And many writers send out more. One a week is fine, too. But a writer who spends forever "perfecting" his work and never getting it out there is, again, just a hobbyist.

CHUD: Duke and Earl are such vivid characters and go against the usual stereotypes and cliché’s with vampires and werewolves. They eat, they flirt, they argue like two old friends always do without ever actually being mean. Was this always the intent?

M: Intent is kind of a hard thing to pin down for me. Duke and Earl evolved on their own. In the beginning, I knew that Duke was large and quiet and Earl was skinny and grouchy. I made them friends because often in fantasy werewolves and vamps are depicted as enemies. Other than that, they’re interaction and personalities evolved over time.

I don’t plan my stories out in detail, and I don’t have character profiles or anything like that. I just get to know the characters the same way the reader does. I start with the obvious and see where it goes. Since I don’t like stereotypes, the characters almost always change along the way. But it’s not usually a conscious decision.

That said, Duke and Earl are a deliberate attempt to avoid many of the old monster clichés and make the monsters seem like regular Joes. Their friendship isn’t much different than most friendships I’ve had. They make fun of each other, but they’re still good friends, still count on each other. They’re real friends, not because they tell each other that they care, but because they show it through their actions.

CHUD: The end of Gil’s with the characters leaving the town suggests a sequel. Do you have one in mind?

M: No, no sequel in mind. In my original draft, the last two chapters are reversed. It was my editor who wanted them switched. I know it’s a small change, but I think having the chapter with Tammy and Chad at the end really made the book seem like a complete entity. Ending the way it does, most readers naturally assume it’s the beginning of a series.

Right now, I’m just not interested in getting stuck in one world with one set of characters. What I love about writing is not knowing what to expect, about pushing myself to create new characters and situations. I love that in one of my stories the heroes might be country boy monsters, in another a guy who just doesn’t die, and in another, a hard-boiled robot. None of these characters could truly exist in the same universe. And even if they did, I don’t see why I should be limited in the stories I tell. Fantasy is all about pushing limits.

It’s great that so many people have such affection for Duke, Earl, Cathy, and Rockwood. That’s a fantastic compliment. But I’d like to think that they’ll have as much attachment for the dozens of other great characters I have in my head.

What I like about my books is so far is that they are all self-contained. You don’t have to know anything except what’s in the book. You aren’t being sold a preview for the next book, and you aren’t being asked to remember long artificial histories. You just sit down and read it and enjoy.

CHUD: Let’s talk about the new book, IN THE COMPANY OF OGRES. What’s it about? Is it a comedy like Gil’s? Do we follow a single protagonist like we did with Earl and Duke?

M: I’ve never considered GIL’S a comedy. It’s actually grown into a little bit of a sore spot, in a way. Of course, if someone tells me they loved GIL’S because it’s hilarious, I’m very happy to hear it. On the other hand, when someone complains that the book just "wasn’t that funny", I always feel like saying "well, it wasn’t supposed to be a comedy."

To me, it’s an adventure story that doesn’t take itself too seriously. But I wouldn’t call it a comedy myself. Still, some people consider it a "funny" book, so who am I to argue if they enjoyed it?

OGRES isn’t a "funny" book either. Although, like GIL’S there’s a lot of humor. That’s just the way I think and usually the way I write. My third novel THE NAMELESS WITCH is due out next year, and while it has plenty of humor too, it’s of a more understated variety. I’ll be curious as to how readers will react to it.

OGRES has a much larger cast of characters than GIL’S, so yeah, it’ll bounce around a little more in focus. While Never Dead Ned is the central character, the supporting cast is very important. They’re all characters in their own right. It’s just that the story isn’t really about them.

CHUD: For me, I liked the warmth in Gil’s. The story of Earl and Cathy, Loretta clumsily flirting with Duke while knowing she’s fat and not that attractive, stuff like that made it interesting. In GIL’s, there’s a love story, a road trip adventure, zombie killing, and the way two vastly different people can be best friends. OGRES crosses fantasy with military fiction. Does the mixing of genres keep it interesting and easier for you to come up with more ideas?

M: I think nearly every story needs characters that the reader likes in some way. Even anti-heroes are usually likable in some manner. And I think every good story has multiple layers. Even GIL’S, which is on the surface a very simple story, can be interpreted in many ways, and hopefully, be appreciated by different readers with different tastes. Some people call it funny. Others have said it was absurd or silly. Some people like it for the characters, and others for the action. I’ve even had one or two people say they liked it for the realism. Which is odd, except that I do try to make the characters as real as possible, and the world, outside of the fantasy elements, grounded in reality.

So yeah, mixing things up really opens new doors. Fantasy as a genre for me only requires one element: The fantastic. Exactly what’s fantastic in the story can vary immensely, and that’s why it appeals so much to me. If I wrote Westerns or techno-thrillers or romances, then I’d be stuck with a certain repetitiveness. But if I write a Western that has giant ants in it or a romance between a cannibal witch and a chaste knight, then I can really explore different stories.

OGRES really isn’t military fiction though. On the surface, it’s fairly standard fantasy with a slightly different take on many of the conventions. The monsters are just guys, the hero is a schmuck whose sole talent is not dying, and the mercenary army of the story is filled with red tape and paperwork. Sure, the accounting may be done by demons, but it’s still beauracracy in action.

CHUD: Will you ever write a novel strictly in one genre?

M: Well, like I said, I consider everything I write to be in the fantasy genre. I just try to avoid many of the clichés and keep it interesting. My third novel, due out sometime next year, is almost a fable in a way. And the novel after that is a combination of retro sci-fi and classic crime noir. If I come up with a very traditional idea that really appeals to me, then I’ll write it. I just want to write something that is new and different, and hopefully, hasn’t been written a thousand times before.

CHUD: What’s average day writing for you like? Is it a full time job yet for you?

M: I do write full time now, but honestly, I don’t spend eight hours a day at a computer. I usually write about an hour or two a day on average. When it’s going well, I can go much longer. But really, you’d be surprised at how much you can get written just by writing a few pages a day.

I write usually either in the afternoon or in the wee hours of the morning. It seems to be the best time for me because it’s usually when I’m alone and hav nothing more important to do. Plus, it’s just the habit I’ve built up over the years.

I really don’t earn quite enough money to consider it a full time job though, but I’m working on it.

CHUD: Do you have a favorite character and scene from OGRES And GIL’s?

M: I’ve been asked this a couple of times before, and I don’t really know. It usually depends on my mood. I try to make every character strong and every scene worthwhile. So I guess if I had to pick something based on my mood right now:

In GIL’S, Duke is definitely my favorite character. Besides being a werewolf and a badass, he’s also a very quiet character. Most of his personality is found in his body language and brief snippets of dialogue. That’s a challenge in writing that I enjoy. In fact, in THE NAMELESS WITCH there’s a character named Penelope who is an animated broom. She can’t talk, and she’s not toony. She basically floats around. And that’s what I love about her. Duke has more options that that, but otherwise, he’s much the same. You rarely really know what’s going on in his head, but he still comes across as consistent and likable. At least, to me.

Probably my favorite scene in GIL’S is when Earl and Cathy dance in the cemetery. I don’t know why, but I just love that one. Something about it really always gets to me. Guess I’m a wussy romantic at heart.

In OGRES, my favorite character would probably be Ace. He’s just a little goblin whose job is to pilot giant birds. He’s tiny, foolhardy, and determined. And I just love the image of this twenty five pound goblin trying to control a thirty ton monster bird.

My favorite scene in OGRES has to do with the climax, so I’ll just mention one of my other favorites. There’s a scene with two ogre gravediggers, minor characters really, that I enjoy because I love the dialogue between the two of them. There’s actually two scenes involving these ogres and their grave digging duties, and I really like both of those scenes immensely. The interaction between the two ogres is just fun.

CHUD: Who have you been influenced by in writing? There’s a very Joss Whedon/Coen Brothers feel to GIL’s.

M: Funny you should mention the Coen Brothers, who I have tremendous respect for. They’re movies are all so different, I respect their willingness to take chances and not repeat themselves. That’s what I hope to imitate as a writer.

I wouldn’t consider Whedon a tremendous influence. I actually wrote GIL’S several years before BUFFY hit it big. Just a lucky coincidence that I had it ready when he opened that door for me. Thanks, Joss.

My biggest influence would probably be found in comic books and cartoons. Both are great examples of absurd storytelling that, when executed properly, becomes genuine and real, regardless of the ridiculousness of it. I love Batman and Superman because of the absurdity of the characters and the complete implausibility of superheroes in general. But rarely in comics are they treated in a condescending manner. It’s a world where anything goes, but where good characters and good stories can really shine through. Same with cartoons. What makes the Looney Tunes so solid and entertaining is that these are real characters. Silly, yes, but consistent and always well done. No matter how crazy the storyline, how bizarre the situation, they are always true to themselves. And I think that’s the most important quality in writing a good story. Not believability, but consistency and never looking down on either your work or your audience.

CHUD: Do you ever read books as a writer and find ways that you think they would be better?

M: I try not to. Every writer writes differently, and I try to judge any book on whether it accomplishes what I feel the writer is trying to accomplish. And I try not to nitpick the details.

But yeah, I do have pet peeves. And I feel a lot of fiction nowadays is just not written with entertainment in mind. I can tolerate almost anything in a story except inconsistency and boredom. And there’s a lot of that in modern fiction. But I’m not naming names, so let’s move on.

CHUD: Who are you reading these days?

M: This is always a bit of an awkward question because I read very little written after 1990. I do try to keep up with what’s being done (especially in fantasy), but since I have very little interest in series books or books based on licensed products, there’s not much left to read.

I love EDGAR RICE BURROUGHS and am always reading something of his. The guy wrote a lot of books, and I haven’t even cracked most of them. I’m also fond of JOHN SCHWARTZWELDER, who has written a couple of extremely silly books called THE TIME MACHINE DID IT and HOW I CONQUERED YOUR PLANET. Both are exceptionally nonsensical and funny. I also recently read a terrifically funnybook called THE AREAS OF MY EXPERTISE by JOHN HODGEMAN. A non-fiction "almanac" that’s just full of the strangest "facts" you will ever read.

CHUD: Any final advice to aspiring writers?

M: Write. That’s it. If you don’t write, you’re not a writer. If you do, then you are.

Of course, I should add a few qualifiers that separate the amateur writer from the professional. Finish something, and don’t spend twenty years perfecting your masterpiece. If you can’t write at least a book a year, then you probably won’t be able to make a living at this.

Submit regularly and often. Send query letters to any and every publisher you can. Don’t worry about rejections. If you can’t take the idea of being turned down, then you will never be a professional writer. And if you expect the world to tell you you’re a genius, then you probably won’t be a professional writer.

Be stubborn. Realize that it will probably take a while. Took me fifteen years, and that’s not at all unusual. It’ll be a long, hard journey, and it will be frustrating every day. If you can’t deal with that, then you probably will not be a professional writer.

But, if you can handle sacrificing your personal life in hopes of achieving a dream that 90 percent of the world shares, where there is incredible competition, years of disappointment, and then, if you’re very lucky, finally some reward, then go for it.

I also recommend finding a great support group if you can. I have the DFW Writers Workshop, and I would not be published today without them. But find a good group. It’s not worth much to find a group that’s just a mutual admiration society.

Bottom line: There’s a huge difference in the goals and motivations of someone who writes as a hobby and someone who aspires to be a pro. Hobbyists do it for fun and because they like the idea of being a writer. Pros do it because they’re stupid or optimistic enough to believe they can get paid for it. But they also realize it’s a job, too. And just like any job, you’ve got to take the good with the bad.

Order Gil’s All Fright Diner (which Nick recommends as well) and In the Company of Ogres from CHUD.com.

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