This holiday season, I’ve decided to promote some of my writer friends and ask some of the questions that folks ask me. Today’s guest/victim is:
Van Allen Plexico
First, a little something about him.
Born in Sylacauga, Alabama, United States, Van Allen Plexico graduated from Auburn University with Bachelor’s and Master’s Degrees in 1990 and 1994, doing additional graduate work at Georgetown University and at Emory University. From 1995 through 2006, he lived and worked in the Atlanta, Georgia metro area, teaching at Georgia Perimeter College and at Shorter University. In 2006 he was named Assistant Professor of Political Science and History at Southwestern Illinois College, near St. Louis, Missouri. In 2011 he was promoted to Associate Professor. In 2015 he won the Pulp Factory Award for Pulp Novel of the Year for Legion III: Kings of Oblivion and the Pulp Factory Award for Pulp Anthology of the Year as the editor of Pride of the Mohicans, both published by White Rocket Books.
At what age did you start writing or know that you wanted to write?
I can’t remember a time that I didn’t want to write. Even before I could actually write I was trying to write; I had my dad and my sister write my stories down for me as I dictated them. I think those involved the adventures of a bunny rabbit or something. I’ve branched out a bit since those days. If I wrote that story now, the bunny would be equipped with a starship and a four-barrel energy weapon. By middle school I was writing novels in longhand on notebook paper, then via a manual typewriter, then an electric one, and so on. Writing novels has always been the first and only thing I truly wanted to do in life.
Do you plot out your stories or just make it up as you go?
I’m notorious for preferring to plot stories out in pretty detailed fashion before I start writing them. Part of that is it helps me avoid getting bogged down and losing momentum, since I already know where things are generally going. Another part is I enjoy winding multiple plots and sub-plots through stories, and there’s no way I could keep track of all of them and bring them together at the right moment without having some sort of battle plan at the beginning. That said, I have no issues with being extremely flexible and allowing a story to change course and go wherever it naturally needs to go. The more you flesh out your characters, the more they will dictate a story’s direction, and the more you should let them do so. Forcing characters to behave against the nature you’ve already established for them always makes a story feel false and wrong. I like to have a general “road map” and a destination in mind from the start, but I want to always remain open to traveling alternate routes and side roads when necessary, or when it makes for a better story.
Which of your stories/books/works do you consider the best?
That’s a very hard question because I write in several different sub-genres and I believe the work I’ve done in each of them has allowed me to exercise different literary muscles and achieve what I’d consider success in different ways. For example, in my superhero novel series, the Sentinels, I think each book has gotten better than the ones before it, as the characters have grown and developed over the course of the storylines, and as I’ve gotten better as a writer. STELLARAX, which is the climax of the big cosmic saga that made up the second trilogy (volumes 4-6) of that series, is probably my favorite, though, in that series. It brings together many, many different characters and situations that were introduced across the previous five books, and I believe it hits all the marks it needed to hit and does it with style. When I started on it I was somewhat intimidated by the challenge it presented, but somehow it all came together, which I consider almost miraculous.
With my space opera series, it’s hard to choose a favorite because they’re all different and I think successful in different ways. LUCIAN is the most popular one with readers; it’s first-person POV from the point of view of a Loki-like villainous-seeming character. The Shattering trilogy is pure space opera/military action with a lot of cosmic stuff around the edges, and I’m very proud of how it came out. (Its third volume, LEGION III: KINGS OF OBLIVION, won Novel of the Year this year from the Pulp Factory Awards.) And my newest book, BARANAK, tickles me to death in totally different ways from anything I’ve done before. I’ll get to that one later on in this conversation.
I’m very much a creature of inertia and momentum. If I have a book underway and it’s really rolling, I can scarcely force myself to stop writing—I’ll stay up late, get up early, write between classes where I teach, and so on. I’ll have the whole thing done in less than three months. If I don’t have something working at the moment, I find it extremely hard to get going again. I will find a million other things to do besides get going on it. The best method I’ve found to switch my brain from idle to working hard on a book is to make the first day of the project a “six hours at McAlisters or McDonalds” day. I go to one of those places where they don’t mind you sitting there typing for six hours, and I’ll do nothing but work on the book. Generally by the time the six hours are up, the new book is well underway, momentum has kicked in, and I won’t be able to stop again until it’s done.
What is your latest project/release?
My most recent novel is BARANAK: STORMING THE GATES, which came out earlier in 2015. It’s a sort of prequel to LUCIAN: DARK GOD’S HOMECOMING and fits in with the rest of my “Shattering” series of books. Along the way it provides a number of answers to questions that have been lingering in that universe ever since LUCIAN came out, but I think it also tells a very fun story about two unique individuals on a sort of “road trip” across the multiverse. I’ve also pointed out it’s a space opera in which the two protagonists spend most of their time on horseback, which is not something you see every day. The gist of it is that the titular character gets swept up in an oncoming interstellar war and has no choice but to turn to a rather strange alien being for help—and that being may well be responsible for the coming “Shattering” of the galaxy. They don’t like each other, they certainly don’t trust each other, but off they go, like Hope and Crosby or Abbott and Costello in a “road” movie. I think it’s a very fun book.
Who were your inspirations?
Roger Zelazny was my literary mentor, though I never got to meet him in person. I adore his work and have studied it backward and forward. LUCIAN and BARANAK both owe huge debts to his writing, though his influence is in everything I do. His combining of the serious and the comical, of SF and Fantasy, of pulp sensibilities with prose-poetry and Victorian drama… He is in my opinion a singular force in the history of SF &F.
Others who have had a major impact on my work include Dan Abnett (for the use of pulp-action styling in SF storytelling), Larry Niven (who first taught me about how to use big SF concepts like the Ringworld and indestructible spaceships) and Frank Herbert (for grandiose epic sagas across millennia). In the comics world, Jim Starlin, Jack Kirby and Jim Shooter burned the ideas into my brain of creating SF-based superhero stories that weren’t confined to just this world—or this dimension.
Over the past few years, I’ve been fortunate to be tabbed as the “celebrity author interviewer” at DragonCon and a couple of other SF conventions around the country (as well as via my White Rocket Podcast), so I’ve gotten to interview people for whom I have tremendous admiration for their accomplishments in the field, such as Larry Niven, Peter F Hamilton, Harlan Ellison, Harry Turtledove, Graham McNeill and Joe Haldeman, and pick their brains for all sorts of writing knowledge.
What book do you read over and over the most?
Without question it is the first Amber series by Roger Zelazny, beginning with NINE PRINCES IN AMBER. Prince Corwin of Amber is my favorite fictional character ever. He’s Loki, Thor, Prince Charming and Sam Spade all at once, and more.
Do you have a dream project that you want to write in the future?
I’m writing it now and it’s called “The Shattering” and I’ve been building myself up to tackle it my entire life, adding pieces to it here and there even as I constantly improved my own abilities to craft it. It includes everything I love in SF and Fantasy, from fleets of warring starships and vast legions of soldiers and massive walkers battling across many different planets and star systems to demonic invasions, hordes of horrific aliens and Jack Kirby-esque cosmic beings with godlike powers. That series begins with LUCIAN and includes the “Shattering” trilogy of “Legion” novels where everything really comes together. I have quite a few more books to write as that big saga continues to be fleshed out.
The Sentinels are a dream project in a way, too, because I always loved the Avengers but wanted to do my own characters in that genre rather than writing someone else’s. I have the freedom with them to take superheroes and send them all over the world and all across the galaxy, having them battle street-level villains and overthrow alien galactic empires, all in one series of books—and grow as actual characters as they do those things.
What genre do you prefer to write? To read?
I helped invent the modern indy superhero novel series, back in 1996 when Bobby Politte and I first started writing what would become the Sentinels. So I certainly have an affinity for that sub-genre, and I still have plenty to say in it. Currently, though, I’m fully immersed in what I’d describe as “gothic semi-military space opera”– where aliens, gods, demons and men clash as the galaxy burns!
In terms of reading, though, I read all sorts of things. The most recent genres I’ve read a lot in have been Scandinavian crime fiction (Nesbo; Mankell; Larsson) and Napoleonic Era naval adventure (O’Brian). I also read a great deal of history and biography; a good chunk of the Shattering’s early plot ideas came from Byzantine history as related by Julius Norwich. I believe if you only read books that are similar to what you write, you’ll never truly expand and develop and improve as a writer.
Do you prefer writing short stories or novels? And why?
I much prefer writing novels, where I have plenty of time and space to develop characters and plots. I have a lot of respect for writers who are skilled at constructing short stories, because it’s not easy to be that concise—to include every single thing the reader needs to know, and almost nothing else. I also always say a short story has to perform a trick: It has to do something along the way, so that at the end it basically says, “ta daa!”, like a dog rolling over or shaking hands. A novel isn’t constrained by the need to make you go, “Oooh! Neat trick!” after twenty pages or so. It can grow and breathe and be more immersive.
What are you working on now?
I have several books in the outline stage including a sequel to HAWK: HAND OF THE MACHINE (which is also a part of the Shattering universe) and another Legion-related novella and novel. Before those, however, I have vowed to write the next two Sentinels novels. It’s been since 2012 that I cranked one of those out, and the reader base is, to put it mildly, annoyed about that and anxious for more (and not thrilled with me for switching over to space opera for three years). So in the next few months I should complete Sentinels volume 8: The Dark Crusade. The ninth volume will follow thereafter. Then it will be back to the Shattering.
Along the way I’m also writing a serialized novel (sort of) for Pro Se Productions called ALPHA/OMEGA. It’s a near-future space adventure in the vein of the Expanse or Space: 1999. It’s a challenge to write since it’s not something I’ve done a lot of before—no gods or superheroes to be found!– but I’m enjoying it.
Is Writer’s Block ever a problem for you? If so, how do you deal with it.
I’ve never experienced that phenomenon. I generally have several projects pending at any moment, so it may be that I have avoided it (without even being aware) by switching over to a different one. That being said, I find it enormously difficult to change from one universe I write in to another. I’m a very “one track mind” person. My brain doesn’t retain all the details of each universe for very long, so it works better for me to stick with one, keep everything in my head without any competing interests to distract me, and just keep going in that same universe for as long as I can. When I switched from writing one Sentinels book after another to doing space opera a few years ago, I had a very rough time deleting all the superhero stuff from my brain and loading in all the SF stuff. Similarly, it took almost a decade after writing LUCIAN for me to come back around to being able to write first-person POV smart-alecky lone protagonist again. Now I have to switch back to “superheroes with tons of major and minor characters and plots and sub-plots” and it has taken me months to get my brain back over there again. That’s why I’m planning to write the next two Sentinels books back-to-back—so I don’t have to switch back over again for another year or so!
Thanks Van. To find his books, click below: