This week’s author interview is with Myke Cole. Credit where credit is due, this is another author I might not have picked off the bookshelves if he hadn’t taken part in Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s #sffwrtcht round-table on Twitter.
As a security contractor, government civilian and military officer, Myke Cole’s career has run the gamut from Counterterrorism to Cyber Warfare to Federal Law Enforcement. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. All that conflict can wear a guy out. Thank goodness for fantasy novels, comic books, late night games of Dungeons and Dragons and lots of angst fueled writing.
ANTHONY: Hi, Myke! Thanks for taking some time to chat with me.
MYKE: Thanks for having me.
ANTHONY: During your visit to the #sffwrtcht on Twitter a few weeks back, we discussed “military fantasy.” Most of the series I can think of in that area are still high fantasy but with heavy martial elements (Lord of the Rings, Game of Thrones). How difficult was it to find a publisher for a “modern warfare” setting with fantasy elements?
MYKE: Really, REALLY difficult. Many publishers were skittish about the idea, worried that high fantasy and hard military stories attracted vastly different audiences. They were tempted by the idea that my work might attract both, but more concerned that it would attract neither. In the end, we found someone willing to take a risk on the idea, but it remained a risk. This soon after publication (less than 2 months after release), we still don’t know if that risk has paid off or not.
ANTHONY: Do you think “modern military fantasy” is a market that will grow? Will it ever equal the plethora of military science fiction on the market?
MYKE: That’s impossible to answer. On the one hand, authentic military stories have a lot of resonance in a country that has just wound down one war and is trying to wind down another (all while vigorously rattling sabers at a recalcitrant Iran). Movies like Act of Valor and Battleship are capturing/responding to that Zeitgeist. On the other hand, we’re damn well sick and tired of war (and particularly counterinsurgency operations) and the tremendous drain they have placed on our national energy (emotional, financial and . . . well. . . sanguine). That fatigue might make concepts like SHADOW OPS seem tired even though its relatively new in the fantasy field. But, honestly? Who knows? Nobody predicted the intense popularity/longevity of either paranormal romance or zombie fiction. Who knows where this will go?
ANTHONY: Now that Shadow Ops: Control Point has been out for a few weeks, what kind of audience has gathered around it? Is it mostly military fiction fans, mostly fantasy fans?
MYKE: I’m surprised (and thrilled) by how diverse my audience is. I get a lot of fan mail from service members and the “core” fan base of hard military stories (folks who enjoy Jack Cambell, John Ringo, David Weber, etc . . .). But I’ve also been pretty vocal about my appreciation of romance and have guest blogged for a few major romance writers. This outreach has resulted in a fairly large number of romance readers trying my work, and it’s a real delight to get insights from a mostly female audience who bring a fresh (and character focussed) perspective to hard-edged military work. Here’s hoping those same folks will come back for FORTRESS FRONTIER.
ANTHONY: You’ve drawn from your own military experience to inform the battle sequences. Was there any point where you wrote a scene and thought “no, that’s too close to reality to use?”
MYKE: Absolutely. You have to remember that I’m still in service. Just today, a Commander (O-5), complimented me on CONTROL POINT, which he had read on a plane between duty stations. I am always aware of senior officers like him reading my work and how it will reflect on my service. Balancing that concern with my 1st amendment rights and my duty as an artist to create compelling and thought-provoking stories is a balance I will navigate as long as I combine my two careers as writer and officer.
ANTHONY: The parallels between the fictional US incursion into The Source and the real-world incursion by Europe into North America in the colonial period can’t be ignored, especially in the way the indigenous people are treated by the FOB. Was this something you intended to explore from the beginning, or did it develop as you wrote it?
MYKE: It is absolutely something I intended to explore in the story, but I was thinking more of the relationships between the US military and the native Iraqis and Afghanis that surround (and work on) our FOBs and COPs in those countries.
ANTHONY: You hint throughout the book as to how other nations have reacted to The Reawakening of magic on Earth. Russia plays a role in a particularly brutal scene midway through the book, India is at least mentioned, and there’s at least a few hints that Europe is completely Muslim-run at this point in history. Will we see more development of the political state of the world post-Reawakening in future books? Will that play a major role, or will it stay essentially background to Britton’s story?
MYKE: The SHADOW OPS series was *never* intended to be solely Oscar Britton’s story. While he gets major screen time in FORTRESS FRONTIER, he is not the main character. BREACH ZONE has a different protagonist as well. I had always intended the series to slowly develop a small ensemble (think George R. R. Martin or Joe Abercrombie lite). I strongly believe in fully-formed, fleshed out characters, and the ones I’ve created are far too interesting to me to ignore in favor of Oscar Britton (though he’s interesting to me as well).
As for the foreign countries question: Yes. India is a major player in FORTRESS FRONTIER, and I am currently planning to have an independent Quebec play a strong role in BREACH ZONE.
ANTHONY: How did you decide on the breakdown of the various schools of magic and which abilities would be rare/”prohibited?”
MYKE: The basis for the magic system was always elemental (along the Greek conception of elements), and it developed with the story. I knew there was a baseline of incredible institutionalized fear in the global reaction to magic, and I tried to logically extrapolate how that fear would play out along religio-cultural lines. That thinking gave rise to the Geneva Convention amendments and special religious prohibitions. Fortunately, I have many years in civilian government service dealing with international relations/policy making, and that helped me to think about what fears/reactions might play out on a strategic scale in various countries. It was a really fun exercise and I’m still doing it with each book I write.
ANTHONY: You put your main character through one hell of an emotional roller-coaster. Some of the worst moments are almost blink-and-you-miss-it they happen so fast and yet they have lasting repercussions through this, and I suspect future books. Did you ever think “enough is enough for one book, give the guy a break?”
MYKE: Hell, no. Perhaps my three favorite fantasy authors are Peter V. Brett, George R. R. Martin and Joe Abercrombie. They beat the crap out of their protagonists, nonstop, book after book after book. It’s so bad that I actually posit in a forthcoming essay that many of Martin’s characters suffer from PTSD. You can read about that essay here.
ANTHONY: There are also some great secondary characters developed, and some great character reversals as well. Without giving too many spoilers, did you outline heavily for this and know all the character arcs before you started, or did some of the developments catch even you by surprise?
MYKE: I am a religious outliner. I have detailed character arcs planned for everybody before I write a word of prose. I envy those writers who say that they can just put characters on the stage, stand back and take dictation. That never happens to me. That said, there were a few points in the story where beta readers came back to me saying that a character behaved in a way that didn’t gel with that characters established personality. In those cases, I did have to think carefully and rework it (usually with a lot of self-derision. I really come down hard on myself when I don’t get character right, because I think it’s the most critical element of good writing).
ANTHONY: It seems like you worked hard to make even the scuzziest characters at least somewhat likable (personally, I’m think Fitzy here, but other characters could fit that description as well). Was there a temptation to let characters fall into various military-related stereotypes just to advance the story?
MYKE: Not at all (though I do believe that stereotypes are a useful thing in writing and not to be totally ignored). My favorite villains are the ones I can identify with (Jardir, Jamie Lannister, Inquisitor Glokta, Jorg, Elric of Melnibone, Dr. Doom, Magneto, etc . . .) I worked really hard to understand what motivated my villains. I wanted them to feel like they were justified in pursuing their goals. They might be wrong, but THEY, at least, should believe they are right.
ANTHONY: And my usual closing question: What is your favorite book, and what would you say to someone who hasn’t read it to convince them that they should?
MYKE: I can’t pick a favorite, but if you haven’t read Peter V. Brett’s Demon Cycle, you MUST. The first book, THE WARDED MAN is a singular work of fantasy and is the most influential piece of literature in my life. If you like my work at all, THE WARDED MAN is a big piece of the why.