As mentioned recently, when I elected to resume doing interviews after my long hiatus, I started by checking which speculative fiction authors were releasing something new in the near future. Myke Cole, whose upcoming novel won't be published until next fall, didn't meet that criteria. That goes without saying.
But there's no denying that Cole has become one of the bright new voices in the genre these last few years and one of my favorite new writers out there to boot. In addition, I've always felt kind of bad because I actually stopped doing interviews right when his debut came out in 2012. I certainly would have interviewed him back then had I not decided to stop featuring such content on the Hotlist. Hence, I've always felt that I sort of owed him one.
Which explains why there is now a Myke Cole interview on the screen before you. To tell the truth, I'm really happy to have given him this opportunity. Indeed, Cole was quite forthcoming with his answers, making this the most in-depth interview I've posted since my first one with Steven Erikson. And that's saying something!
Here are links to my reviews of all Cole titles. In case anyone of you is intrigued enough to give him a shot after reading this interview! =) You can start with either Shadow Ops: Control Point or Gemini Cell.
- What's the 411 on Myke Cole? Tell us a bit about your background?
A year ago, I could have just said "I'm a novelist," and left it at that. But suffice to say my life has kind of exploded in recent days. I got out of the Coast Guard and transitioned to a full time position with a major metropolitan police department, and I can now add the titles "historian" and "TV personality" to that list. So, for purposes of simplicity, here's a bulleted list:
- Military fantasy SHADOW OPS trilogy and the REAWAKENING prequel trilogy (six novels).
- THE SACRED THRONE trilogy coming from tor.com (THE ARMORED SAINT, THE QUEEN OF CROWS, THE KILLING LIGHT). This is dark stuff with a medieval setting. Think Mark Lawrence, Joe Abercrombie or Peter V. Brett.
- I'm on CBS' new reality-TV series "Hunted," where I hunt fugitives. We just aired the 5th episode and there are two more to go in the season. I'm one of the "cyber analysts" and my primary job is phone-targeting, which is a fancy way of saying I using telephony technology to track people.
- I just signed a contract with Osprey (the military history imprint of Bloomsbury) to do my first nonfiction book. It's ancient military history, and my primary goal is to combine solid scholarship with dramatic storytelling to produce a work that's *accessible* above all to people who aren't academics or necessarily serious students. I'm super psyched about this. Been dreaming of branching off into history for a long time now.
- Without giving too much away, can you give us a taste of the Shadow Ops series?
Imagine if Harry Potter joined the Navy SEALS instead of going to Hogwarts. My books tackle serious issues, like the tradeoff between security and civil liberties and how necessary bureaucracies can also be meat-grinders, but there's plenty of awesome nerd-fodder in there too, like Hill Giants smashing helicopter gunships and goblins burning New York City to the ground.
- Are you happy with the way the two trilogies have been received thus far?
I'm never happy. I am blessed to have a core group of dedicated fans and to sell enough books to be able to keep getting future contracts. But I'd be lying if I said I was satisfied. I'm the restless type who moves the goal posts as soon as I reach them. First, I just wanted a book deal. Next, I just wanted to have fans. Now, I want to be on the New York Times Bestseller List.
- Like many writers, getting your first book deal took a while and at one point you felt like you would never see one of your books get published. Can you tell us a little more about the road that saw this one go from manuscript form to finished novel?
It took me 15 years of spending pretty much all my weekends and evenings writing. I had really incremental progress until my friend Peter V. Brett got his deal, and then I tripled down to try and catch up with him (still trying, by the way). A few things happened that I think made a difference for me. 1.) I jettisoned pretty much everything that wasn't writing. I used to be a kendo champion, was close to getting knighted in the SCA, did indoor climbing and was a member of a Hash House Harrier group. All of that had to go to make time for writing. 2.) I went to Iraq, and came back focused and with a renewed sense of how brief and precious life was. It made me determined not to waste a single moment. 3.) I began to read like a boxer watching a video of his opponent. I stopped enjoying books and started dissecting them. Somewhere in that morass, something clicked. I felt it. I knew I had made some kind of major change and that I would eventually win through.
- Your friend Peter V. Brett blurbed your debut, CONTROL POINT, claiming that it is "Black Hawk Down meets the X-Men." How would you describe your work to someone who hasn’t tried your books before?
What surprises a lot of people is how dark my books are. I am heavily influenced by Pete's style, and my favorite writers are mostly from the "grimdark" subgenre. I also come out the Frank Miller era of comics. Anyone who has read his old Dark Knight, Elektra: Assassin and Ronin stuff knows how bleak that can be.
- SIEGE LINE, the final volume in the second trilogy, appears to have been postponed and will be published at the end of the year. What is the reason behind the delay?
I'm a firm believer in the doctrine "done right is better than done fast." I saw the deadline looming and I didn't think the manuscript was good enough to go to my editor. I don't like to have anyone (not my agent, not my editor, NOBODY who I need to have faith in my ability) other than my beta-readers look at my manuscripts until I am certain they are as good as I can make them. SIEGE LINE wasn't at that point, but I felt confident that I could turn it around with another few months. I've never blown a deadline before, and I was really upset about it, but I figured readers could forgive a late book. They wouldn't forgive a bad one.
- What can readers expect from this last installment?
I can't wait for you to meet Wilma "Mankiller" Plante. She's the sheriff of a frozen hamlet in the ass-end of Canada's Northwest Territory. An Afghanistan veteran, she's hard as nails and takes no shit from anyone. All she's ever wanted is peace for her people and to grow old in the town she grew up in. But the Gemini Cell has other plans, and where they go, Jim Schweitzer goes . . .
- GEMINI CELL, JAVELIN RAIN, and SIEGE LINE take place years before the events chronicled by the first trilogy, in the early days of what will come to be known as the Great Awakening. Will the third Shadow Ops series bridge the gap between the first two trilogies?
IF I can sell the third SHADOW OPS series (that is not guaranteed), it will pick up immediately after the events of BREACH ZONE, with many of the characters from the original trilogy.
- The fact that you served for years in the military and seen active duty allows you to imbue your books with a credibility regarding the realism of the use of magic in military operations and its ramifications up and down the chain of command. Do you feel that this gives you an edge compared to writers without firsthand combat experience?
Absolutely not. Joe Abercrombie who has never fired a shot in anger in his life writes some of the best battle scenes I've ever read, and captures PTSD better than many writers I know who are actually suffering from it. Naomi Novik captures military wardroom culture better than almost any other writer I know (besides Jack Campbell), and as far as I know, she's never even been in a wardroom. The military experience is deeply personal, but smart people can certainly understand it well enough to convey it on the page. I'll take skill at writing over first-hand experience any day.
- What was the spark that generated the idea which drove you to write the Shadow Ops series in the first place?
I was working at the Pentagon, and doing the standard "what if" scenarios that are the stock-in-trade of nerds. My "what if" was "what if there was a department of magic?" I knew right away that the military would bind it up in rules and red tape and find a way to make it boring. I also knew that these rules, while necessary, would wind up hurting people. From there, the wheels just started spinning and never stopped.
- What do you feel is your strength as a writer/storyteller?
Grit. Writing is an intensely fraught occupation. There are really two types of writer: those who suffer from anxiety and depression and those who lie about suffering from anxiety and depression. I have the same low spots as everyone else, but I think one thing I do well is give myself a short period of time to rage and weep, and then dry my friggin' eyes and get my ass back in the chair and fix. The. Problem. I'm not unsympathetic to how hard this job is, but only one thing will get you to the place you want to be with a book, and that's throwing yourself at it until it breaks or you do.
- By the same token, what would be your weaknesses, or aspects of your craft you feel you need to work on?
Patience. I like to *execute*, I like to be *done*, I like to be *on time*. This is the opposite of how a writer needs to be. Again - "Done right is better than done fast." Here's another one - "If you don't have time to do it right, how will you find time to do it twice?" Good writers SLOW DOWN. Good writers are willing to miss deadlines if it means their end product will be better. Good writers understand that it takes as long as it takes.
- Were there any perceived conventions of the fantasy genre which you wanted to twist or break when you set out to write the Shadow Ops series?
Military members in fiction are usually portrayed with a lot of stereotypical attributes: They're all confident, they all have good judgment, they all stay cool under fire. Of course, this is total bunk. Military members are *people* and in any large group of people, there will be all types. Some are weak, some are stupid, some are evil, some are frightened. I worked hard in my my books to kill these stereotypes, and show military members in all their flawed glory.
- Characters often take a life of their own. Which of your characters did you find the most unpredictable to write about?
Definitely Wilma "Mankiller" Plante, who you'll meet in SIEGE LINE. She was originally intended to be a side-character, and wound up almost eclipsing Jim Schweitzer as the protagonist. It's *very* rare for me to have that weird experience where the character comes to life and I'm just taking dictation, but it happened with her.
- Cover art has become a very hot topic of late. What are your thoughts pertaining to that facet of a novel, and what do you think of the cover that graces your book?
I think cover art is incredibly important. The number one reason people buy books is word-of-mouth and the digital equivalent of word-of-mouth. The number two reason is the cover. I've been incredibly lucky in my covers. First, I had action-heavy RPG illustrator Michael Komarck, and for the 2nd trilogy, I had iconic photo-manipulator Larry Rostant. Both are incredible artists in completely different ways. In all cases, Ace has basically allowed me to act as an art director, and I have had unprecedented levels of influence over my covers, from picking out equipment and clothing, to setting the scene. The pose Schweitzer takes on the cover of JAVELIN RAIN was my idea, because it's a book about him being beaten down. This is extremely rare for an author, and I definitely appreciate how fortunate I am to have been allowed this level of input.
- A few months back, you sold a trilogy of novellas to tor.com. The first one is titled THE FRACTURED GIRL. What can you tell us about it and when will it become available?
It's been retitled to THE ARMORED SAINT. It's a dark fantasy heavily influenced by my reading in the "grimdark" subgenre. It's set in a medieval secondary world with its own special technology. In this world, wizardry has been outlawed by a fanatic religious order who believes that it opens a doorway to hell and invites devils into the sunlit world. This order uses the danger of wizardry as an excuse for a brutal, oppressive rule. Heloise Factor, the protagonist, rebels against the Order, but just because the Order is heavy-handed, doesn't mean they are wrong . . . It will be available in 2018. I don't have an exact month yet.
- You made a name for yourself writing military fantasy novels, and I'm told that THE FRACTURED GIRL is more grimdark in style and tone. Was a different approach required when the time came to write in a different sub-genre?
There's a reason this book took me three years to sell. It is COMPLETELY outside my wheelhouse, and I almost gave up on it twice. I try to stretch myself with each book I write. I have taken enormous pride in the fact that my previous six novels are all utterly different from one another. I can be accused of many things, but not of rubber-stamping out books in the same mold. This is my biggest reach yet, and it was a doozy, but in the end, I figured it out.
- You have recently announced that you have a new history book deal. What can you tell us about this project?
Not much. The publisher has asked me to keep things vague until the summer, when they will announce details. I can tell you this: a.) It's ancient military history b.) Osprey is known for very short, almost pamphlet-sized books. This is a full-on 100k word work of history. c.) Like all Osprey books, it will be heavily illustrated, with hundreds of photographs, color plates, line drawings and maps. d.) The book will focus, first-and-foremost, on accessibility. I want ANYONE to be able to pick it up and enjoy it.
- What authors make you shake your head in admiration? Many speculative fiction authors don't read much inside the genre. Is it the case with you?
I read almost exclusively inside the genre (when I'm not doing research for my history book. Right now, all I read are scholarly articles, my Greek and Latin phrasebooks and mountains of primary source material). Everyone knows my main influence is Peter V. Brett, but I am also in awe of Joe Abercrombie and Pierce Brown. These are writers where I read their work and want to give up writing, because how could I ever be that good?
- Given the choice, would you take a New York Times bestseller, or a World Fantasy/Hugo Award? Why, exactly?
Hands down an NYT bestseller. Nobody, apart from a tiny cabal of insiders and SMOFs, cares about the Hugos or the WFA. Winning them does help expand your audience and sell more books, but if you hit the list that means you already ARE selling more books. I come out of fandom, and consider myself a dyed-in-the-wool nerd, but I want to write for the largest audience possible, and you can only hit the list if you're selling *outside* the traditional and limited genre audience. Added to this, both sets of awards, but moreso the Hugos, have been so mired in petty controversy that I'm not sure I want to be associated with them anymore.
- You are now part of the reality TV show Hunted on CBS. Tell us a bit more about the show and how you became part of the hunters' team.
Hunted is the most elaborate game of hide-n-seek ever made. It pits 9 teams of ordinary Americans against 34 professional investigators, all of us drawn from the intelligence, military and law enforcement communities, each of us with an average of 20+ years experience. We have state of the art equipment and full powers of law enforcement. Any one of the teams that can evade us in 100,000 square miles of the southeastern US for 28 days wins $250,000.
Most folks know that I worked in intelligence for many years, but most don't know that my specific discipline was as an SSO-T (Special Skills Officer - Targeter) in the Counterterrorism field. Counterterrorism Targeting is just a fancy way of saying "manhunting" and I guess I built a reputation, because when CBS started making inquiries, my name came up as a go-to guy, and I got a random call out of the blue asking me if I wanted to be on TV.
It was (and is, because the show is running now) and amazing experience. I'm most pleased that it's a window into who we are and how we work for the general public. Police relations with the public always benefit from visibility, and I think this show is a great move in that direction.
- I'm aware that the 3-size too short T-shirt you wear on the show has earned you the nickname "Totally jacked cellphone tracker guy." But why not wear the fox shirt that Sam Sykes so kindly offered you a few years ago? This was probably the only time you could have made a fashion statement on national television and you blew it!
It was a Doge shirt, actually, and there's no way CBS would let me. They had specific people whose whole job was to "Greek" the set, which means they scour every inch of the clothing, the furniture and remove any proprietary art or company logos that could potentially cause a rights issue. But yeah, it would have been super cool. I asked them repeatedly to let me wear my Captain America belt buckle, or my Star Wars Spec Ops TIE Fighter t-shirt, and I never got more than a sad shaking of the head.
- How has your interaction with fans and critics colored your choices in terms of characterization and plot? Has there ever been anything that you've changed due to such interaction in any of your novels?
I wish I could say no, but it wouldn't be true. Remember how above I said I was looking to break military stereotypes? I did that with Oscar Britton in CONTROL POINT. I made him wavering and dumb, and sort of had him blunder his way to heroism, just like real people do. There was a uniformly negative reaction from readers who felt that, while maybe this was realistic, it made him too unlikable, and turned them off the book. This horrified me. I'm thrilled to have succeeded artistically, but never at the cost of readers. Further characters are still human, but you will never see one as wavering as Britton.
- Some authors mention that they're never fully satisfied with any of their books, that there is always the idea of the book one attempts to write versus the book that one actually managed to create. Looking back, give us an example of something that didn't quite work out the way you envisioned it. Given the chance, is there anything you would change in any of your novels?
I would give anything to go back and rewrite Britton. I also feel like JAVELIN RAIN didn't quite hit the tone I wanted. The book is definitely my Empire Strikes Back, and I certainly intended it as a dark middle book, but I do sometimes wonder if I overdid that.
- According to George R. R. Martin, most authors are either architects, who write novels based on detailed outlines, or gardeners, who have a general idea of where the storylines are going but prefer to watch things grow as they go along. Which type of writer are you and why do you prefer that approach?
I am an UBER architect. I usually write 80-120 pages of outline before I write a single word of prose. My fear is of painting myself into a corner and having to throw out a whole book (or most of a book) just weeks before deadline. The irony is, this sometimes happens anyway. I wound up throwing out something like 20,000 words of FORTRESS FRONTIER and rewriting it about 2 weeks before I handed it in.
- Have you ever written a scene, only to be stunned by your own reaction after reading it?
The scene in GEMINI CELL where Steve Chang and Sarah Schweitzer are comforting one another? I actually cried reading that. It was amazing and terrifying at the same time.
- There are a number of different perspectives as to the function secondary-world or epic fantasy carries out for readers. Le Guin once wrote that such fantasy deepened and intensified the mysteries of life, while R. Scott Bakker has put forward that humanity is neurologically ill-equipped for a modern, rationalist world and this leads some to seek access to a pre-modern worldview (or the fiction of one) where reality conforms to the mind's irrational, evolutionarily hardwired expectations. Others have denigrated it as mere escapism, an alternative opiate for the masses.
What is your view as to fantasy's function?
I would never presume to describe fantasy's function for anyone. The truth is that literature is as complicated and varied as the people who read it, and I continue to be amazed that two people reading the same book can have entirely different and conflicting reactions. I do strongly believe one thing: Once I write the book and put it out there, I no longer own the reading experience. It now belongs to the reader and I have no choice but to accept their reactions. If someone feels that somehow CONTROL POINT is an "erotic marxist" novel, then that's what it is for them. There's no "you're reading it wrong."
- Some writers admit having a favorite book among those they've written previously, others say that their favorite is their current work in progress, and others still say it's always the next book that hasn't been written yet. How about you?
FORTRESS FRONTIER continues to be my favorite book of mine, both to write and to read. I think GEMINI CELL is probably a better book, but FF will always be my favorite.
- Neil Gaiman said of Lord Dunsany’s THE KING OF ELFLAND’S DAUGHTER, “...It’s a rich red wine, which may come as a shock if all one has had so far has been cola.” If the Shadow Ops series was a drink, which one would it be? Would you recommend downing it in one shot or sipping it slowly...?
It's probably a 16 oz. can of red bull. The kind with extra sugar.
- In your opinion, what lost you more readers/followers on social media? Your political posts, or your ancient military history jokes?
My political posts. I tried very hard to stay apolitical in my early career, because I didn't want to color reader impressions, but more because I was commanding a military unit, and my troops had the right to know that their commander was politically neutral and would lead them to the best of his ability, and take care of them, no matter what they personally believed. Once I got out of the military, these shackles came off, and then Trump got elected, which I view as an absolutely national crisis that demands constant and dedicated response. I know that many conservatives are fans of military fiction, and that I am likely upsetting them with my strident political positions. This genuinely pains me. I really don't want to lose readers for any reason, but I also have to get up every morning and look in the mirror. Whatever damage the Trump administration does, it's important for me to be able to look at myself and know that I did what I could to stop it. If that costs me readers, well . . . that sucks, I'm not going to lie . . . but this is something I have to do so that I can live with myself. I imagine other writers who have taken controversial positions that cost them readers, like Orson Scott Card, feel the same way. I am a person who separates artist from art. Ender's Game is one of the GREAT novels, and I will read it and recommend it no matter what horrible things Card says. Ditto for Mists of Avalon. If you are not a reader who can make the same separation, what can I do but say "that sucks" and accept it?
- During the course of answering those interview questions, how many times did you spill coffee on yourself?
Actually, once. But it was bourbon, not coffee.
- Anything else you wish to share with us?
I want to encourage everyone to play Fantasy Flight's Star Wars games. I'm currently heavy into X-Wing, Armada and Imperial Assault, and I want to increase the percent likelihood that any random person I run into will be willing to play with me. Thanks.