Hello everyone and welcome to another edition of Ralph’s Rants does interviews. Tonight we have the pleasure of having the prolific Van Allen Plexico as our guest on the hot seat. Hello Van and welcome to the show!
Thanks a bunch, Ralph! Longtime fan of yours, first-time interviewee!
So Van, when did you start writing? At what age?
I think my first book was about a rabbit going on an adventure in the woods and meeting all sorts of strange creatures. I couldn’t actually write yet (though I enjoyed banging away on my granddad’s manual typewriter!) so I had to get my dad and my sister to write it out for me. I think I was about three or four. I discovered comics a couple of years later and wrote/drew those until eighth grade, when I wrote a big fantasy epic longhand in a ring-binder notebook (complete with maps!). Then I wrote my first SF novel (typed and everything) in tenth grade and actually sent it off to Del Rey and DAW and Timescape/Pocket Books. So my first rejection letter came probably about the time I got a driver’s license.
Was it something you were encouraged to do, or just something you came to yourself?
We always had books around the house, and my grandmother would read to me every night and help me follow along. So books were always important. (I do the same with my little girl now.) Living in the woods in rural Alabama, miles from anyone my own age, and with only two or three channels on the TV and no VCRs or anything yet, I devoured all the books and comics I could get my hands on. I knew from a very early age that I wanted to write books—preferably for a living, but of course that’s not so easy. So I pursued an education in other things but always kept writing—and improving my writing—a top priority on the side.
Now I’ve known you for about 15 years at this point, dating back to the MV-1 days, so I know that some of your influences were decidedly comic-based. What other authors were inspirational to you?
Ah, MV-1—that great opportunity to write fun characters and stories for an audience and find out what we could really do. That was priceless experience.
Comic-based? Yes indeed—the way that Jim Shooter used large casts and juggled plotlines in big, epic stories was very influential to me, as was the way Jim Starlin incorporated such a sense of cosmic wonder to his tales. And big hairdos.
The author most inspirational to me has always been Roger Zelazny, for his combination of pulp action adventure and pacing mixed with a true poet’s way with words. He took everything Philip Jose Farmer was doing and added a whole new layer of facility with the English language—just a musicality—and it blew my mind as a kid. The first Amber novel is still my favorite book. And I try in everything I write, to one degree or another, to capture a sense of flow and musicality, beyond just telling the story. I want it to sound good to the ear as well as make sense to the brain. That’s Zelazny’s influence.
More recently I have become an admirer of Dan Abnett’s work. Many probably know him as a comics writer, particularly for co-creating the current version of the Guardians of the Galaxy and Nova, among others. But his novels for the Black Library (Warhammer 40,000 / “Horus Heresy” universe) are truly remarkable. I try to some degree to emulate his ability to combine engaging prose with strong characterization and very vivid action scenes. I learn something new every time I read a book of his. I generally admire writers who attempt new things with each new project—Steven Brust is another who likes to experiment this way—and Abnett gives a master class in big-screen cinematic adventure writing with each novel.
I mentioned earlier you were prolific, how many books do you have out now?
Let’s see… Seven novels in the SENTINELS superhero series… Three novels in my overlapping SF universe… Those include LUCIAN: DARK GOD’S HOMECOMING and HAWK: HAND OF THE MACHINE as well as the first volume in my “Shattering” series, LEGION I: LORDS OF FIRE… So that’s ten novels… And then there are all sorts of anthologies from different publishers, including Sherlock Holmes, Blackthorn, Gideon Cain, Mars McCoy, the Griffon, Lance Star, Monster Aces, and a few that haven’t come out yet. And two books about the Avengers I created and edited… and a trivia book… and I co-wrote one book about football and have another one coming out in May. So, something like twenty-three, depending on how you count.
What characters are you re-visiting with new editions this year?
I’m in the early stages of working on the eighth volume in the SENTINELS series—I try to get one of those done every year, since the reader base for that property has been growing tremendously thanks to Kindle editions. I want to keep them happy! This will be the middle volume in the third trilogy, and the middle parts are always when things get really dangerous for the heroes. And there’s not much more fun than putting your beloved characters into horrible situations!
I’m also finishing up the plotting of the second “Shattering” novel, LEGION II: SONS OF TERRA. This is more serious, more violent, more intrigue-laden stuff than I do in the superhero books, so it’s a refreshing change. It’s basically Military SF in the same vein as the Warhammer 40,000 books—a cross between big guys with futuristic guns, and demonic creatures possessing mortals and entering our universe. Fun stuff!
I’ve also worked out most of the plot for the next book in HAWK’s series, so that one is out there, too.
There’s this thing we’re all involved with that has been classed as ‘New Pulp’, which is basically a sub-genre of the highly entertaining action/adventure novels we all used to pick up at supermarkets, pharmacies, and book stores like Barnes and Noble or Walden books. Book stores for the most part are disappearing and our books are basically sold through amazon and a few other places. What are your thoughts on ‘New Pulp’ as a genre, or is it all just writing?
New Pulp came along at a very propitious moment for me. I was writing LUCIAN and the first Sentinels novel and was growing concerned that nobody would like it because it was much more action-adventure oriented than the deep, sociologically profound SF like you see so much of these days (or you did a few years ago, before everything turned to vampires, teen agers, and steampunk). What New Pulp did for me was to tell me, “You have a niche—you just didn’t know what it was yet!” It reassured me tremendously that what I was doing was a legitimate type of literature, and that there were other people who liked to write it and who wanted to read it! And the New Pulp community has been incredibly good to me and to each other, providing support and encouragement across the board. So, whatever it is, I’m awfully glad it exists.
I personally think we’ve lost a bit of our Americana with the loss of spinner racks full of novels and comic books, and I feel that’s a bad thing. While I’m a big proponent of the internet and all the wonderful things it’s brought us, I also feel that we’ve lost that connection to a simpler, more personal life without places that carry novels and comics where people can actually interact together when looking over the new novel of comic releases. What are your thoughts on this?
I understand your point, but from my perspective, buying and reading comics and paperbacks was always a very solitary activity. As I said earlier, I grew up in the middle of nowhere, Alabama, and I didn’t set foot into an actual comics shop until I was halfway through high school. On those days when I’d get to go to the grocery store with my granddad and beg him for a few cents to buy a comic, or when we’d drive all the way up to Birmingham and I’d be able to buy a science fiction paperback, I would spend the rest of the day or week or month with whatever it was I’d bought, devouring it over and over. I didn’t really have anyone to share that kind of thing with (other than maybe one or two other guys, occasionally) until high school at the earliest, and even then it was mostly frowned upon. So I’ve felt nothing but a vast increase in the number of people I can actually interact with about this stuff.
Are there any of your characters who have a lot of “you” in them? Ones you identify with more than others?
I do have a particular archetype I’m fond of, though I don’t know if it’s all that personal for me: the confused protagonist who fills in the reader as he learns things for himself. I probably get that mostly from being such a fan of how Zelazny introduced us to Corwin in the Amber books. You see a bit of that in Ultraa (Sentinels) and Hawk, in particular. That’s another reason I enjoyed writing LORDS OF FIRE so much—because Col. Tamerlane, the protagonist, actually sort of knows more than the reader does in the early chapters, rather than less. He’s keeping secrets, rather than learning them, and that was fun to do. I do tend to have my protagonists sort of look like me—or a comic book version of me—though. Hawk, Tamerlane, and Brachis all kind of favor me, I suppose—if I were drawn by George Perez. Hah.
Is there any character you killed off that you wished you hadn’t afterward?
Not to give away a big spoiler to anyone who hasn’t read it yet, but I do famously (infamously?) kill a major character in an early Sentinels novel. I’ve been hearing about that from irate readers for seven years now! But it was always planned, and I did give readers a flashback to that character in the pages of Volume Six: STELLARAX. And I took steps in Volume Seven: METALGOD to sort of replace that character, more or less. So we’ll see what the verdict from the readers is…
And of course the Warlord gets killed almost every volume. It’s just that I’ve yet to figure out how to get him to stay dead…!
You have created a universe that has several of your characters and situations acting within its boundaries. It’s sort of a shared universe, but shared by the characters within it. Are you moving all your characters within those boundaries (Meaning the Sentinels as well as your ‘future’ based series and characters.)
That’s a really excellent question, and one I’ve been thinking a lot about lately.
It’s true that HAWK, LUCIAN, and now “The Shattering” all happen in the same universe. Quite a bit of time passes between each—thousands of years in some cases—but it’s all blending into one cohesive universe. The gods of LUCIAN used to be prominent in the galaxy, but then they mostly went away for various reasons covered in that book, and the galaxy was “shattered” (as is being revealed in the new series). Hawk is something of a lawman patrolling the post-shattered galaxy. There are very strong connections among the characters in all of those books and series. (Clue: Pay close attention whenever someone’s first name is mentioned!)
The short answer to your question of whether the Sentinels will be rolled into that universe is, “It probably doesn’t matter.” What I mean by that is, the stuff that happens in the Sentinels universe is pretty much “present day,” at least in comic book terms—it rolls forward to keep up, time-wise, with the latest book. (So, for example, WHEN STRIKES THE WARLORD came out in 2006, but in story terms, it happened one year ago as of the latest volume.) The stuff that happens in my other books is thousands of years in the future. So there’s not much overlap. So—it doesn’t matter.
The longer answer is, “I don’t think the Sentinels fit into that universe.” It would have been fun to have them overlap somehow, but you have to remember that Earth is interacting with a race as powerful as the Kur-Bai in contemporary times in the Sentinels books. Where are they in Lucian’s time? Or during the Shattering? And if humans are as powerful as the Sentinels in our time, where are they thousands of years from now? Ehh. Better to keep that world a sort of “Marvel Universe” of big alien empires our superheroes can interact with, and keep it separate, I think, from the more science fictional universe where such things have to be more realistically accounted for.
Last question, what one character or property would be your dream character to write? Or are you already writing your dreams with your large catalogue of books and characters you’ve already created?
There was a time when I would have said the Avengers, or maybe Corwin and the Amber princes and princesses. But I’ve come to love my own characters and worlds so much now—and to know that other people really enjoy them, too—that I barely want to think about having to take someone else’s property and do something more limited with it. That’s not to say I don’t enjoy working on things like Bobby Nash’s LANCE STAR or Jim Beard’s MONSTER ACES—that’s tons of fun, working with great characters created by friends and peers. But to write long-established characters and not really be able to change them much? Just advance the ball a few yards down the field and then hand it to someone else? That’s not too appealing anymore. I have a limited amount of time to write, and I’d rather spend most of it working on properties that make me the happiest. I’m very, very fortunate to be able to do that, and I appreciate every one of my readers for helping make that possible. And I’m very glad it makes them happy, too.