Here at HNR we’re huge supporters of Peter Clines. The man is a fine writer with a wild mind and a close connection to pop culture. Read one of his novels and you’ll feel right at home, despite how outlandish the concept may or may not be. He successfully connects with readers, and that’s a quality many authors lack.
Peter was kind enough to field some questions for us, and trust me, you want to read this interview. Mr. Clines is not gun-shy. He tackles questions head-first with complete honesty. He’s a warm guy with a subtle self-deprecating style that only renders him more endearing, and if you’re not yet familiar with the man or his work, this is probably a good time to get a feel for who Peter Clines is.
HorrorNovelReviews: The ‘Ex’ series is making some serious noise right now, so I’d like to really focus on these novels primarily. Right off the bat I’ve got to ask, when someone approaches you and says ‘What’s the Ex saga all about?’ how do you respond?
Peter Clines: It’s about four books long at the moment, but they all stand alone pretty well. I might write a fifth one if sales are good and the publisher’s interested.
No, seriously… The Ex series is about a group of superheroes trying to protect the survivors of a zombie outbreak in post-apocalyptic Los Angeles.
HNR: How in the world did you come up with the idea to pit zombies versus superheroes?
PC: It’s not a terribly original idea, to be honest. Marvel had a zombie character back in the ‘70s, and I think John Byrne had Superman and the Phantom Stranger fight the undead when he took over Action Comics in the ‘80s. Spider-Man had an enemy, Carrion, who could make zombies. And then there was a certain zombie-superhero crossover in early 2006 which… well, I know a lot of people liked it, but I thought it was a waste of an opportunity. It made me jot down a couple notes about “the story I would’ve told” which I then forgot about.
About a year later, though, my girlfriend and I got a place together and I had space to unpack a few boxes I’d been carting around for ages. I found an old sketchbook with all these superhero characters I’d made up when I was ten or eleven. Characters like the Mighty Dragon, Cerberus, Gorgon, Cairax, and so on. And I realized with some polishing and updating, these archetypal heroes would fit into the story I would’ve told. I wrote for about six or seven months, a few months after that Permuted Press bought it, and four years later the whole series moved to Broadway Books.
HNR: This story seems like the kind of thing you’d find in a comic book rather than a novel. Are you influenced by comics, or graphic novels at all?
PC: I’m a huge comics fan, but much more of the classic stories. When I was a kid I devoured issues of Amazing Spider-Man, Hulk, Teen Titans, Star Wars, X-Men, ROM, Shogun Warriors, Micronauts… I’m dating myself a bit here, aren’t I?
One of my goals with Ex-Heroes was to write the kind of heroes that I grew up on, rather than the uber-dark-and-gritty-melodramatic things that so many mainstream comics have become.
So the short answer to your question is yes.
HNR: I really enjoy the fact that you reference a lot of contemporary pop culture. As an author, how important is it to know what’s going in the entertainment world, and how important is it to incorporate some of that info into fiction?
PC: I like doing it, because that’s the truth of the real world. We all know people who talk mostly in movie or television quotes. We get songs stuck in our heads. Little kids yell for the latest hot toy or their favorite cartoon. Buses are plastered with posters. A story set in the real world is going to include these elements. There’s just no way around it, in my opinion. I think not including any of that sort of thing tends to feel … well, a little forced. And if I try to make up television shows or songs, it comes across as forced and artificial. It always does to me, anyway.
I know there’s a school of thought that including this sort of material dates a manuscript, but the truth is the world seeps in no matter what. Every book is going to become dated by car models, available technology, even political borders. When Arthur C. Clarke wrote 2010 back in 1982, he made the Soviet Union and superpower politics a major part of the story. Fred Saberhagan wrote a bunch of fantastic modern-day Dracula stories around the same time that would collapse if half the characters had cell phones. Hell, look at most superhero origins—especially the Marvel ones that try to be scientific. Some writers have tried to put modern, updated spins on them (“Okay, maybe Bruce Banner wasn’t right next to the nuclear bomb when it went off…”), but they’re all still pretty goofy. They worked at the time, and we lovingly accept them, but they’re horribly dated. It’s just unavoidable.
HNR: I’ve been told by a few aspiring authors that Robert Kirkman deserves credit for bringing the zombie back to the frontlines of horror. Would you agree with that, or is the resurgence a result of a collective body of quality works rather than the effort of a single author?
PC: Robert Kirkman helped a lot, unquestionably, but I think it was a lot of things at once rather than one source. More of a “perfect storm” thing. I mean, The Walking Dead is fantastic, but it wasn’t an instant smash hit. It took a few years before it really caught on and started getting widespread recognition. By that time we’d had Shaun of the Dead, Max Brooks had put out his books, and even George Romero had come back with a couple new zombie movies. That’s all within about three years of each other.
I also think there’s, if you’ll forgive me for sounding uppity, a socio-political aspect as well. Kirkman, Brooks, Romero… all of them were telling zombie stories at a time when most people were feeling very isolated and vulnerable. I think lots of people had this underlying sensation that things had gone horribly wrong, that our country—our whole world—had turned on us and we were all on our own. A zombie apocalypse fits very nicely into that mindset, and heroes who could survive that situation were suddenly very popular to read about. So there’s that whole aspect to it, too.
HNR: The fact that you introduce these grandiose villains in the Ex novels really makes for a whole lot of fun. We had a wild gang with a menacing leader to contend with in Ex-Heroes, and a gnarly clan of super soldiers in Ex-Patriots. What can readers expect from Ex-Communication?
PC: I’d rather not say too much about it, to be honest. The back-of-the-book summary is up on Amazon, and the title can be read two ways, like the others. Past that… I think there’s an awful tendency on the internet to grab hold of small, out-of-context details and run wild with them. And then these details lose a lot of impact and strength when they finally get seen in context, so the story suffers. The whole craze around Bennedict Cummerbatch in the new Star Trek is a perfect example of that. The filmmakers tried to do something fun and cool and, weeks before anyone had even seen the movie, the internet pummeled that reveal into an early grave. I think stories are much better served going into them cold than knowing a bunch of random things about them. So, for the moment, I’m biting my tongue…
HNR: I recently wrote a piece on the abuse the zombie subgenre has experienced as of late. My stance is that zombies have basically become the dead horse of horror, perennially beaten well beyond tired cliché status. As a guy who is delivering quality tales of the undead, what’s your take on that? Do you think the zombie craze has gone overboard, and furthermore, do you think the Ex franchise might have enjoyed an even greater measure of success had it been released with a strong push say, a decade ago?
PC: I don’t think they’re a dead horse at all (not one that will stay dead, anyway…). A zombie story is just a subgenre, like a murder mystery or a spy thriller or a teen romance. If anything, the past few years have just shown it’s a real, solid niche that will probably go on forever.
Look at it this way. By the mid-seventies everyone thought vampires were done. The last major shake-up had been twenty years ago with Richard Matheson’s I Am Legend, and most people all quietly agreed there was nothing left to be done with vampires. And then Stephen King showed up with Salem’s Lot and suddenly vampires were scary as hell again. The thing is, he doesn’t do a single new thing with vampires in the book. No clever origin or rethinking of vulnerabilities or any of that. He uses the exact same rules that Bram Stoker set out a hundred years earlier in Dracula. He just knew what every good writer knows—horror stories aren’t about the monster.
I think that’s what you (and others) are probably tiring of—people who are telling the same zombie story again and again and thinking it’s different because they came up with a cool tweak to the zombies. Yeah, it’s another ragtag group of survivors in an RV trying to travel cross-country to get home/ to the safe zone, but it’s different because my zombies are caused by solar flares/voodoo/cybernetic implants/mutant mosquitoes/alien blood transplants/whatever.
Would the Ex series have done better if it came out a decade before all this? Tough call. I’m tempted to say no. Before the whole series came out from Broadway, the first book originally came out in early 2010 from Permuted Press. I think I had a pretty charmed spot right there. That perfect storm we were talking about a couple minutes ago was still out there. Superheroes were getting very big in the public eye because of the Marvel movies and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films. It let me gather a solid fanbase that were open to that sort of thing. I think if Ex-Heroes had come out in 2002 or 2003, even with a big push, it probably would’ve been a small novelty and faded away. Of course, there are folks who say that wouldn’t’ve been a bad thing…
HNR: Switching gears briefly, I’ve got to talk about social media and author promotion. There was a time when it seemed like an author’s number one task was to craft fiction. These days we see a lot of young/new authors being forced to invest a whole lot of time on promoting their works via Facebook, Twitter, etc. long after they’ve wrapped their project. Is this a product of oversaturation as a result of self-publishing? Or has the market simply changed with the times?
PC: Okay, you’re kind of asking/ presuming three or four things here, and normally these are the sort of things we could base the whole interview around. So I’ll try my best to give a solid answer without babbling too much.
First off, the market is changing, yes, without a doubt. What I think a lot of folks forget is that the market is always changing. Always. Lots of things that sold easily in 1950 will not sell today. Lots of marketing techniques used today weren’t even dreamed of fifty years ago. Styles change, preferences change, expectations change. It’s just a given. So I think if I’m trying to use “the changing market” as part of my rationale it’s kind of a cop-out.
I also don’t know if oversaturation is quite the right term for the current self-publishing wave. I don’t really believe in market oversaturation. The film industry taught me that’s another cop-out phrase to explain failure. People always want to read good stories. No one’s ever going to say “well, it was absolutely brilliant, possibly the best thing I’ve ever read but it’s a zombie story, and I’m sooooooo sick of those…” I think I’d just call it a glut. It’s this huge wave of material—most of it, in all honesty, not that good—that readers need to sift through.
This is just my opinion based off my own observations, but I think quite often when we see people pouring tons of effort into self-promotion, it’s because they’re doing things ass-backwards. They’re trying to build a good fanbase to support a release rather than writing a really good story that will create a fanbase. And, like you hinted at in your question, they’re putting more time into that self-promotion than they are into learning to be better writers. Look at any writing-related message board. How often do you see posts about social media and agents and self-publishing versus posts about making dialogue pop or writing tight action scenes?
HNR: I know you yourself stay very, very busy. How much time would you guess you spend promoting, or have you reached a point in which the promotion isn’t necessarily a mandatory for you?
PC: I think I’m a long, long way from the point where promotion isn’t mandatory. I look forward to those days…
I try to put in an hour or so every day. Sometimes two, but not often. At this point I’ve got the Facebook fan page, my ranty blog, a Tumblr, and I’m trying to get an actual website off the ground. And I usually do a con or two a year, although this year’s just been packed with conventions and signings because of the re-release of the Ex series.
The truth is, I’ve never been much of a self-promoter. I don’t do giveaways or flood message boards or spam email folks. Even the pages I just mentioned are more about writing advice, upcoming movies, and other unrelated, geeky things. I wrote a couple books, made them the best I could, and I let them speak for themselves. Some did very well. One didn’t. In the end, though, like we were just saying, it all comes down to the writing. If I’m spending more time promoting than writing, something’s gone horribly wrong.
HNR: Any words of advice for aspiring authors out there that may help prepare them for the industry they’re attempting to gain a foothold in?
PC: Take your time. Learn how to spell. Those are my two big pieces of advice.
So many people rush through because they’re so eager to get their work out there NOW. Well, getting it out there NOW when it still needs a lot of work doesn’t accomplish anything. As a writer, it’s more important for things in my story to be right than for them to be available next week.
And that leads to spelling. I used to read for a few screenplay contests and it was painful how many times I’d see words that were spelled wrong or used wrong. A real writer can’t be depending on their spellchecker, they actually need a working vocabulary. Spellcheckers are idiots that cant till if a ward is used write, only if its spilled rite. See what I mean? If I don’t know the difference between grizzly, gristly, and grisly, or I still haven’t figured out its vs. it’s, I’m in real trouble.
I mentioned the ranty blog and there’s tons of advice there about writing. Not publishing or agents or marketing or finding your happy place—just writing. Characters, structure, dialogue, pacing, subtext… stuff like that.
HNR: Before I let you go here, is there anything you’d like to say to your fans and followers out there Peter?
PC: All the evidence is circumstantial and you’ll never make any of the charges stick. Back off now and you won’t be humiliated in court.
Wait, sorry, my documents got crossed…
I think the only thing I can say is that Ex-Communication comes out on July 9th, and I’ll be at the San Diego Comic Con with a bunch of copies to scribble in. Plus we’re holding a cosplay contest—show up dressed as a character from the series and you’ll get a bunch of free books plus a chance to get an advance copy of the fourth book.
HNR: Thank you for the time sir, MUCH, MUCH appreciated!
PC: Thank you so much for thinking I’d be mildly interesting to talk to.