Interview: Ex-Heroes Author Peter Clines

By David Wharton | 8 years ago

Peter ClinesSince 2010, Peter Clines has steadily released some of the most engaging novels imaginable. Through the fan-favorite indie publishing company Permuted Press, Clines has released the first two books of his fantastic superhero/zombie mash-up Ex-Heroes series, The Eerie Adventures of the Lycanthrope Robinson Crusoe (which needs no description, really), and most recently the stellar science fiction/mystery/horror outing 14, which was easily my favorite novel of 2012, and which has put Clines into the stratosphere of popular authors. Near the end of last year, Random House’s Crown Publishing snatched up the rights to the Ex-Heroes series, and has recently released the same-titled first book of the series in bookstores nationwide, a first for a Clines novel.

The Maine-born author was kind enough to answer a few of my questions about Ex-Heroes, the route it took to getting published, and a few bits about writing in general. Luckily, he couldn’t see me robotically pumping my fists in the air while going through his responses.

In brief, Ex-Heroes takes place in a world where certain humans have developed superpowers, and used them to keep the world safe. The all-powerful Mighty Dragon, the unstoppable Cerberus, the muscle-headed Gorgon, the life-saving Regenerator, and the electrified Zzzap, all under the watchful eyes of the mysterious Stealth. It isn’t long before the world faces its greatest threat ever in a zombie apocalypse, and the ragtag team of heroes must work together to save what little slice of humanity they’ve tasked themselves to protect. From cover to cover, it’s an astonishingly fast-paced read, and I wholeheartedly recommend it to anyone, regardless of your feelings about zombies or superheroes. And without further ado, a few words with Peter Clines.

Like most writers, I assume you get your ideas from a telepathic brain in a jar, but could you tell me what was going on in your life that directly influenced this massive tale of superheroes vs. zombies?

Mostly it’s just the telepathic brain. It really is the best investment I’ve ever made.

I could probably point to a lot of stuff, but there were two big things. One was a comic book miniseries that came out a year before I started writing. It was billed as superheroes vs. zombies, but it turned out it was just superheroes as zombies. And not even superheroes, really. Just very, very talkative ghouls wearing superhero costumes. A lot of people liked it for the novelty and the gore, and it did very well financially, but I just thought it missed so many opportunities to tell a really good story.

The other thing was finding an old sketchbook filled with tons of heroes I’d made up when I was a kid. I’d been half-dwelling on “how I would’ve done it,” and when I was looking at all those old drawings it struck me that most of them were very standard superhero archetypes that would fit right into the story I wanted to tell. So I polished and updated a couple of them and started scribbling some things down.

None of these characters are 100% virtuous, which is always refreshing. In creating these good guys and bad guys with differing motivations, are you putting yourself inside the head of each character and guiding them? Or do you prefer limiting your personality to just a few characters, while writing others from an instinctively creative place?

I think a good writer’s got to get in the head of all their characters, even if it’s just for a few lines or so. It only takes one or two people acting in a completely unnatural way to knock the reader out of a story.

Even with that, though, I’m not a big believer in the whole “Oh, the characters led me there” sort of thing. I think some folks use that as an excuse for bad pacing or plots. The characters may lead somewhere, but if they’re not going where they’re supposed to be going (or taking too long to get there), then there’s something wrong with my setup or motivation. Or maybe just the character themselves. I’ve had a couple characters where in the third or fourth draft they get a major personality tweak because they’re just not working the way they’re supposed to. It happened in Ex-Heroes. It happened in 14, too.

Do you think a zombie-free world could thrive successfully if people started developing powers like those of The Mighty Dragon?

That’s a really tough call. I’ve seen a few stories about worlds where the superhumans essentially take over, for better or for worse. We’d all like to think someone with these powers would be all for truth and justice, but human nature tells us something different.

I think people are pretty resilient, overall. If people started developing superpowers, the world would probably go on at least as well as it is now, but it’d be a very different world, one way or the other.

On the opposite side of that, do you think a superhero-free world could possibly survive a zombie outbreak?

Another tough one. People like to talk about how easy it would be to survive a zombie uprising—especially a slow-zombie one—but I think history tells a different story. I believe it was either Socrates or Agent K who said, “A person is smart. People are dumb, panicky idiots.” All you have to do is browse a news feed to see stories about people proudly rejecting scientific or historic facts. I actually mentioned in Ex-Heroes that one of the big factors of the zombie apocalypse wasn’t the dead rising but people who refused to believe the dead were rising, no matter how much evidence there was.

I don’t think a zombocalypse is going to happen anytime… well, ever. But if it did I think we’d see large swaths of humanity get wiped out just because they’d refuse to believe what’s going on. They’d brush the whole thing off as viral marketing or a liberal media scare or something like that. We’d all wise up eventually, but like anything else, it boils down to how much damage gets done before we reach “eventually.”

In Ex-Heroes, as well as its sequel Ex-Patriots, there is no release from the constant conflicts these characters are going through, both in the past and present, which creates a breakneck pace. Do you consider conflict the most important aspect of storytelling? Do you just run around fighting people all day?

I start fights constantly! I blame it on video games. And movies. And video games about movies, which are the worst. The entire Iraq war happened because Dick Cheney played a video game that was based on a movie, but I won’t say which one.

Seriously, though… I think a forward-moving plot is key in any story. Stories are like sharks—they die the minute they stop moving forward. I love character moments and having well-developed people populating a story, but there has to be that balance between character and plot. If a writer blows that balance, in my opinion, you end up with either mindless, “plot-driven” action or tedious, melodramatic “character-driven” stories that everyone likes to praise but no one actually reads.

How did you go about planning for the Ex trilogy? Did you fill the walls of your residence with an index card outline, or was the preparation more of a mental task?

In all fairness, I never planned a trilogy. I wrote Ex-Heroes as a standalone book. I wasn’t arrogant or foolish enough to think I could get someone to buy an epic trilogy. I just wrote one book and tried to make it as good as I could. When Ex-Heroes became a hit with Permuted Press, I was in the lucky position of writing the second book knowing I was going to get a third one. So I was able to plant a few more setups and leave a few dangling threads. When the series moved to Crown they wanted a fourth book, so it gave me a chance to use a super-thin thread I’d planted in Ex-Patriots as a “just in case” sort of thing.

All that being said, I’m not much of an outliner. I’m not against them, in general, but my problem is that if I have an outline I’ll let myself get too tied to it. When I sit down to write a book I usually have 10 or 15 pages of random notes, dialogue snippets, and a general idea of where I want it to go. That’s about as much prep as I do.

Could you describe a little bit about making the jump from a small publisher to one of the big boys? Is the process any easier, due to more people being involved, or does that complicate things?

An agent read Ex-Heroes and Ex-Patriots, liked them, and hunted me down online. He and I talked a few times and then he went to an editor he knew at Random House/ Crown Publishing, and it turned out that he’d read Ex-Heroes too. It also happened that Crown was looking for a series that would appeal to the Comic-Con crowd, so to speak. So it was a lot of lucky coincidences combined with the fact that I’d written a fairly decent book. Most of the actual “jump” from Permuted to Crown was dealt with by agents and publishers over a few months of negotiations. I just had to sit here and pull my hair out as things went up and down until everyone was fairly happy.

As far as the process, it’s been fantastic. I’ve got an editor who’s really pushing me to make things flawless. I was kind of stunned when I discovered there was a publicity team working on the series. The worst part has been that we’re essentially doing four books at the same time—re-releasing the first two, the third one that I’d finished just when all this happened, and the fourth one that I’m trying to write. There’s just been non-stop copyedits and proofs and covers and approvals and promo stuff and…

It’s just been kind of an amazing whirlwind, and now I’m hoping the books live up to all the effort everyone else has put into them.

I’d love to hear what your inspirations were for the character of Zzzap, who reminds me of something David Cronenberg would conceive if he were taking too many happy pills.

I made up most of the characters when I was a kid, but I found one picture of Zzzap from many, many years back. I won’t say exactly when, because I don’t want to date myself too horribly, but suffice it to say I created Zzzap before Return of the Jedi was in theaters. I say that just so it’s clear how far back I’m reaching to answer this.

If memory serves, a big part of his creation was just pure science. I was a geeky kid who loved reading ahead and trying to learn everything I could (even if it didn’t always reflect in my test scores). I remember grasping the basic idea of Einstein’s E=mc2 formula, that a small amount of matter was equal to a gigantic amount of energy, and thinking, what if a person could turn their whole body into energy? They’d be like a nuclear bomb or a small star or something. When I revamped him for the book, I got to play with a lot more aspects of it, too. Someone in this state wouldn’t perceive the world the same way as a normal person (they wouldn’t have any sensory organs) and they wouldn’t be able to interact with it, either. So that helped shape the kind of person Barry Burke would have to be in order to deal with this kind of power.

I’d be remiss to not ask about progress on the much-awaited third book in the series, Ex-Communication. For fans who don’t stalk you through social media and kitchen windows, what can you tell us about it?

Not too much, for the moment. I can really identify with J.J. Abrams’ desire to give away as little as possible. I know I’m not anywhere near his league, but I think we share a similar desire to let stories stand on their own, as they were intended to stand, not in some piecemeal fashion. We all know there are folks who will dissect, analyze, and criticize every statement you make. It doesn’t matter how out of context it is, people will judge your whole story off one sentence, and through the miracle of the web that judgment will get seen everywhere. So I try not to say anything.

That being said, I will point out that all the titles in the series can be read two ways. If you do that here, it’ll give you an idea of some of the things the third book will be dealing with.