Hot Seat

Hot Seat: Michael Carroll

Michael Carroll is a novelist and comic-book writer who is best known for his ‘New Heroes’ novels, a YA series about teenagers learning to control astonishing powers. He’s written science fiction, horror and romance and he’s also penned stories for groundbreaking British comic book ‘2000AD’. Michael’s taken time out of his busy life to talk to YAPS! about super heroes. Visit Michael at his web-site to read extracts from his novels, watch book trailers and generate your very own super hero.

1) With the success of the recent Batman and Iron Man movies and the popularity of TV shows like Heroes and Smallville, superheroes show no sign of going away. You were ahead of the curve when you started writing Young Adult novels about these larger-than-life characters. Can you talk about their appeal?

I’ve always felt that one of the reasons superheroes appeal to young people is the secret identity… Spider-Man has tremendous abilities but he still has to go to school, he still has trouble fitting in. For a kid, it’s easy to identify with that, easy to imagine that – any day now – the powers are going to kick in! Other fictional heroes – James Bond or Tarzan, for example – are larger-than-life in all aspects and therefore it’s that little bit harder for readers to see themselves as that character. (This explains why Superman doesn’t have quite the same appeal as many of the other superheroes: most superheroes disguise themselves so that their human identity isn’t discovered, but for Superman it’s the other way around. He’s not a man who becomes a superhero, he’s a superhero who has to disguise himself as a man.)

There’s also the appeal of constancy that exists with any long-running characters: Real friends will inevitably let you down at some point, but your favourite characters – whether they’re superheroes or not – will always be there for you!

Plus there’s simple wish-fulfilment. Show me someone who doesn’t want to be stronger, faster or smarter than everyone else and I’ll show you someone with no imagination!

2) The New Heroes books are brimming with weird and exciting super powers, from a girl who can turn herself into indestructible diamond, to a man whose hyper-speed allows him to see a distant and terrible future. What super power did you have the most fun writing about and what super power proved the most troublesome?

I’ve had a lot of fun with all the powers, but I particularly enjoy taking the more “boring” powers beyond what’s been done before… Thunder, for example, has super-hearing. That’s been done a thousand times and as first it might not seem all that useful, but I took that idea and ran with it… Here’s a passage from the short story “The Footsoldiers”, in Thunder’s own words:

“What most people don’t realise is that the human body is not silent. Not even counting the voice, every human makes noise all the time. There’s breathing, the heartbeat, the digestive system, the creak of ligaments and muscles, drops of perspiration being pushed out through the pores. The scrape and rustle of body hair as it moves and grows.

“The twin thumps of eyelids blinking.

“The firing of neurons in the brain.”

With each super-power, there’s also the danger of taking it TOO far. Again, going back to Superman: his writers gave him so much power that they quickly found themselves running out of enemies powerful enough to defeat him, and so Kryptonite was invented. Heroes cannot be god-like. They must have weaknesses. Without weaknesses, they have nothing to overcome, no challenge to appeal to the readers.

The most exciting way to do this is to have the hero’s strength also be a weakness: Thunder can listen in on any conversation. That seems like a great ability, until you realise that it means you’ll always know what people really think of you..

Likewise, Renata’s ability to turn herself into a Diamond statue was also a weakness: in that form, she couldn’t be harmed, but she also couldn’t move, which was not a lot of use if a bad-guy was attacking her! (Of course, as the characters grow they gain more control over their powers… but I won’t say more than that for fear of spoiling the stories!)

The most troublesome power was Quantum and Danny’s ability to see into the future (annoyingly, that very power is the keystone of the whole series!). They couldn’t control or direct their visions, which did make things a little easier for me, but I made it more difficult again by establishing a rule that everything they see WILL come to pass: they cannot change the future. However, their visions come without context: it’s up to them to interpret what they see.

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3) With book sales experiencing a slump across a wide range of genres, YA sales appear to be holding their own. What are your feelings on the health of YA writing compared to, say, twenty years ago?

This is definitely a better time to be writing YA fiction! Until Harry Potter came along, the sales of YA books were rapidly declining. There were very few full-time YA authors. But, just like a superhero, Ms Rowling swooped in at the last second and saved the day! Yay!

That wasn’t without its drawbacks, though: all of a sudden, people realised that there was money in this business, and the search was on for The Next Harry Potter long before we were finished with The First Harry Potter. But the reality is that bandwagons have limited seating… And the seats are not allocated on a first-come, first-served basis. Suddenly, everyone decided they could write YA fiction, despite – in many cases – very strong evidence to the contrary. It’s easy to imagine that YA books are simpler to write than adult books because they’re shorter. But that’s like saying that micro-surgery is easier than general surgery because the parts are smaller… They’re totally different disciplines, each requiring a specific set of skills.

Luckily, after a couple of years, it all settled down. Sure, we got a huge burst of “boy-wizard” books being dragged along on the hem of Harry’s invisibility cloak, but soon most fell by the wayside, with only the strongest surviving. And it’s no coincidence that the strongest of the survivors were those written by people whose desire to tell stories was greater than their desire to make money.

And then Stephenie Meyer materialised with her Twilight books… A new (well, new-ish) bandwagon was rolled out, and now we’ve reached the point where the average book-store could quite comfortably divide their shop into two sections: Vampire and Non-Vampire.

But, annoying as that is, it’s all for the good! People are reading more now than they ever have been. Sure, they’re not all reading MY books, but what’s important is that they ARE reading!

4) One of the most entertaining parts of reading the New Heroes is seeing how Colin, Danny and Renata use their powers to puzzle their way out of dangerous situations. Was there ever a time when you were writing the novels that you wrote yourself into a corner and couldn’t, for the life of you, write your way out of that corner?

Thankfully, no, that hasn’t happened! I plot the books in great detail before I start writing, and that’s the stage at which tricky situations are worked out. Some writers begin with a vague idea and then dive into the first draft, but that doesn’t work for me. I tried it once and ended up with a book that is – if you’ll forgive the technical jargon – a load of rubbish.

That said, there are occasionally moments in the writing of a book when – despite the meticulous planning – I realise that there’s a better way to do something. When that happens I stop what I’m doing and explore the other option, see if it really is better or if it’s just a momentary blip. If I conclude that the new way is better, I’ll go in that direction. But mostly I tend to pepper my first draft with notes to myself about such things (even if it’s just an alternative line of dialogue), and then I revisit them on the second draft, when I’ve had more time to allow the new ideas to sink in.

5) What kind of books attracted you as a teenager?

In my pre-teen years I loved mysteries, but didn’t care much for the works of Enid Blyton (or “Gnid Blyton” as I believed she was called). And the Hardy Boys had no appeal for me either… No, I loved The Three Investigators! Man, those books were great! It’s just a shame that no one seems to read them these days. I don’t even know if the books are still published.

Also, right from the very beginning I was a huge science fiction buff. I read all the greats before I was twelve: Asimov, Clarke, Heinlein, Bradbury, Farmer… And then the SF comic 2000 AD came along, and in 1979 they published an adaptation of Harry Harrison’s novel The Stainless Steel Rat. That completely blew me away, and I resolved to track down the original book. I fell in love with Harry’s work: it was just as imaginative as most SF, but a lot warmer and much more fun.

Arthur C. Clarke’s books were technically brilliant but almost lifeless. You’d have more fun reading a technical manual for a spaceship. Asimov was frequently so involved in his intricate plots that he forgot to put in any people. And Heinlein… Well, the earlier books were good but I’ve always felt that somewhere along the way he became enamoured with his own success and believed that the fans would buy any old rubbish.

But Harry Harrison, Philip Jose Farmer and Ray Bradbury… they’ve never let me down! From them, I learned that with science fiction the “fiction” part is considerably more important than the “science” part.

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6) Did you always want to be a writer or did you picture yourself doing anything else?

Well, I always wanted to be a superhero, and – fingers crossed – one day I will be!

For a long time I wanted to be a comic artist, but I quickly realised I wasn’t anywhere near good enough. But writing… I don’t recall ever *deciding* that I wanted to be a writer, it seems like it just always there. I think I’d still be writing even none of my books were being published. There’s a great satisfaction in completing a book or story, even if no one ever gets to read it.

7) As well as being a novelist, you’re also a respected comic-book writer whose stories have featured iconic characters such as Judge Dredd. How does the experience of writing a comic-book differ to writing a novel? And comic books? That’s all Beano and Dandy isn’t it? Kids stuff! What’s a grown man doing writing it?

Ah,that old chestnut: “Kids read comics, therefore comics are for kids.” Yes, I’ve encountered that particular piece of wonky logic before!

Comics are a medium, not a genre… They’re a means through which a story can be told, and just as valid as any other story-telling medium. In Ireland, the UK and the USA comics are often frowned upon by people who like to think that they know better, that it’s not “proper” reading if the story has pictures, but in most of the rest of the world there’s no stigma attached to reading comics. Look at the market for Manga in Japan… The books sell to all ages, across all social strata. There’s no shame involved!

As I said, comics are a a valid medium, but they are a *different* medium to books: in comics, the reader tells himself or herself the story to a large degree. With the written word the tale unfolds exactly as the writer intends. With comics, the reader is free to linger over the pictures and take in the tale at his or her own pace.In a medium that relies on the fourth dimension (movies, TV, radio) the tale unfolds not only exactly as the writer intends, but at a predetermined pace.

To use the classic graphic novel Watchmen as an example: one can read it once and then set it aside and never look at it again, or one can read it many, many times, each time extracting something that was previously hidden. The Watchmen movie was fun and really well-made, but it doesn’t have the same depth as the comic… Look at the cover of issue #3 of Watchmen. See that waft of smoke rising in front of the fallout shelter sign? If you’re familiar with the comic you’ll have seen that a hundred times. Now, take a *closer* look… It’s a human skull!

As for writing comics: In many ways it’s harder than writing prose. Not just because the medium dictates shorter tales (and writing small is always tougher than writing big!), but because the writer is only one half of the team. The writer’s job is to tell the artist what to put on the page, and the artist’s job is to interpret that in the most appropriate way possible. The only piece of the writer’s work that the reader gets to see is the dialogue! Effectively, the writer is telling the artist: “This is the story that I want *you* to tell.” The artist is by far the most important part of the creative team. Without a good artist, a comic can’t work.

The structure of a comic-book script takes some time to learn, but it’s not that different to a screenplay: the writer breaks down the tale into panels, and describes what he or she wants the reader to see in each one. Some writers will go do incredible detail for each panel, others are more terse. Alan Moore, for example, has been known to write more than a page of text describing a single panel, while John Wagner is more likely to have descriptions like “Dredd. Close-up. Grim.”

I tend to fall somewhere between these two approaches: for some panels, especially establishing panels that set the mood for a story, I’ll go into great detail, but for others a line or two will do.

One place where the writing of a comic differs greatly from a screenplay is in the pacing: for a Judge Dredd tale in 2000 AD there’s six pages, and the first page is always on the right-hand side of the comic. This means that the gist of the story should be revealed on the first page, something to keep the reader interested enough to finish the tale. Likewise, the last page is always on the left-hand side, so any sudden last-minute twists should be kept to page six and not revealed at end of page five where the reader might accidentally see it prematurely!

There are other considerations, too: With only six pages to play with, dialogue must be kept short and to the point. Each panel can only show one action, like a single frame of a movie: you can’t get away with panel descriptions like “John enters the room and picks up the gun from the side-board and shoots Pete with it. Pete falls backwards,smashing down through the glass coffee table.”

And the last part of your question: “What’s a grown man doing writing it?” Well, the answer to that one, you’ll be pleased to know, is short and simple: it’s fun!

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8 ) Finally, your recent work for 2000AD recalls EC Horror Comics and Tales From The Crypt, and in the past you’ve contributed stories to Irish horror anthologies such as Chiller. Do you have any plans to return to horror in the future, and what are working on at the moment?

I have indeed returned to horror… Last month saw the publication by
Com.X of my novel Razorjack: Double-Crossing. It’s the first in a
series of original novels based on the Razorjack graphic novel by
writer and artist John Higgins. The other novel already scheduled in
the series is Wire Mother, by Al Ewing. My book is more of a
fast-paced action-adventure-horror, but Al’s book is a *proper* horror tale! If the books do well, I have plans for a few more.

Double-Crossing was a lot of fun to write and made a nice change from the YA novels (we’re not really allowed to decapitate characters in YA books!).

I’ve also just finished the sixth book in the Quantum Prophecy / New Heroes series (the fourth was published last summer in the USA, and the fifth is scheduled for publication at the end of June).

Right now, I’m working on some strips for 2000 AD and preparing the groundwork for the seventh and eighth books in the Quantum Prophecy /New Heroes series (which, if all goes according to plan, will wrap up the whole saga!).

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