All Pulp’s Van Allen Plexico interview
AP: Tell us a little about yourself and your pulp interests.
VP: I’m a college professor living in southern Illinois but originally from Alabama. I’ve been writing and editing professionally for about six years, but I’ve been writing stories as far back as before kindergarten. For as long as I can remember, I’ve loved the old sword & sorcery and planetary romance tales of guys like Robert E. Howard and Edgar Rice Burroughs.
Unlike probably most other pulp lovers, though, I didn’t become a big fan of the 1930s crime-fighter pulps (Doc Savage, the Shadow, the Spider, etc.) until fairly recently, after I became a writer. Their appeal for me came as I was refining my own approach to writing. Most of what I had read growing up was lengthy science fiction in the vein of Frank Herbert and Larry Niven, and so when I tried to write, I would consciously attempt to emulate that rich, complex style—something that’s not easy for a novice writer, and something that is very difficult to pull off under any circumstances. Once I got into pulps, though, I realized there was an entirely different approach that I hadn’t tried—the approach of favoring fast-paced movement and action and vivid scenes over lengthy dissertation.
AP: What does pulp mean to you?
VP: I know there are probably a dozen (or more) different definitions and no one can really agree on it. For me, pulp is a style. It’s an approach to telling a story that, while striving to maintain quality and excellence in every traditional way, strips down the story to its bare essentials and races along at a break-neck pace the entire way. It doesn’t waste words. It’s efficient and it’s brash and bold and vivid. It gets in and gets the job done and kicks your butt and moves on.
AP: Your Sentinels novels are a mix of comic book archetypes and good old-fashioned pulp. What was your inspiration for The Sentinels books and what plans do you have for the future of the series?
VP: The Sentinels books really do represent the ultimate literary expression for me as a writer and creator. They combine the type of characters and stories I’ve always loved best—comic book-style cosmic action and character drama and humor—with the pulp approach of fast-paced action and constant forward momentum.
The characters came about years ago when my old friend, Bobby Politte, and I were brainstorming an interconnected universe of characters in the Marvel or DC style. Several years later, as I began to experiment with the pulp style of writing, I found that modern superheroes and the classic pulp style made a perfect match. I know there are some other original superheroes-in-prose projects out there, but I honestly don’t think anyone else is doing it quite this way. Our inspiration was predominantly the Avengers and X-Men comics of the 1970s and 1980s, which had such strong characterization and so many great moments of interaction among the cast—not to mention over-the-top threats, both from Earth and from outer space, other dimensions, godlike beings, and on and on. There really were almost no limits on what could be done in Marvel comics during those years, and I try to pull out all the stops to replicate that sort of feel with the Sentinels.
There’s not a lot of what I think of as the hokey tropes of so many superhero prose stories. The characters have their powers and mostly take them for granted the way a Star Trek character would have a phaser and a communicator and access to a transporter and take those things for granted in the course of a story. There’s virtually no dwelling on those tropes—they merely serve the story and the action. Readers tend to really like that. If you’re reading a story of this type, you probably already understand those basics and are wanting to get on with the action!
I have one more volume to complete to round out the current story arc, “The Rivals.” It will be called Stellarax and you can look for it next spring or summer, if all goes according to plan. That will bring the total number of books in the series so far to seven, including an anthology volume that came out in between the two trilogies. I have compiled extensive outlines and notes that should carry the overall storyline across at least two more story arcs or trilogies, and eventually I’m hoping it will round out at around twenty volumes. At that point, I can look back and feel I’ve produced at least one very solid body of work that will stand up for readers after I’m gone.
There has been talk recently of some RPG-related supplements based on the Sentinels, and I’m hoping that will move forward soon.
AP: Tell us a bit about your novel, Lucian: Dark God’s Homecoming. Are there any plans to revisit this world?
VP: Yeah, I do write other stuff besides the Sentinels! Lucian is a longer novel that I worked on for several years, pouring a lot of effort and energy and love into it. I tried to channel the sorts of attitudes and sensibilities that I loved so much in books like Nine Princes in Amber (by Roger Zelazny) into it. That includes a shady, not-terribly-sympathetic (at first) main character with godlike powers and a need to be taken down a peg or two.
In short, Lucian is the “god of evil” of a Jack Kirby-esque cosmic pantheon; think Loki or even the devil himself. He tried to take over the Golden City for himself, years ago, and was defeated and exiled to the mortal realm. While he was away, someone or something murdered dozens of the other gods—and of course everyone blames Lucian. So now he’s on the run, trying to prove that (at least in this one instance) he’s innocent!
With the whole thing written in first-person point of view, the reader lives the story from inside Lucian’s head. You experience the action from his perspective and you never know more than he knows, as the mystery unfolds.
When writing it, I tried to challenge myself to make every single scene “go to 11.” I was never satisfied with the first draft of any chapter; I added more and more visual imagery, made the language richer, and pushed myself to make the scenes as vivid and exciting as possible.
I do have three more books set in this universe roughly plotted out—one is sort of a prequel and explains where the gods actually came from; the events of the other two take place much farther in the future. A different “god” is the first-person protagonist of each—which is what Zelazny originally planned to do with his Amber books, before deciding to just go with Corwin the whole way through. If all goes well, the next one will be coming along soon.
AP: You have worked on shorter pulp tales for Airship 27’s Lance Star: Sky Ranger (vol. 2 and upcoming vol. 3), Gideon Cain - Demon Hunter, Mars McCoy - Space Ranger, and Sherlock Holmes - Consulting Detective vol. 1. What draws you to these shorter stories?
VP: I’m not nearly as big a fan of short stories as I am of big, epic sagas. That being said, though, short stories can be terrific if they’re done right. I like to think of a short story as “performing a trick.” Here’s what I mean: A great long novel can dwell on lots of details and lots of characters and just wallow in all the fun. But a short story, because of its brevity, is restricted to focusing very narrowly on the main point of it all. At the end, too, I think a short story needs to have a kind of kick to it—an “oomph” moment—where it “does a trick,” almost like telling a really good joke, where the end hits you and makes you go, “Wow! Cool!”
In the case of a character like Gideon Cain (the sword-and-sorcery guy I co-created as part of a group that included Kurt Busiek and Keith DeCandido, among others), the short story format really does work best, I think. Cain stumbles into a situation, encounters something weird and probably deadly, battles it, and moves on. I think it would be harder to sustain a single Cain story over the course of an entire novel, but short stories are just right for his kind of character.
AP: What, if any, existing pulp or comic book characters would you like to try your hand at writing?
VP: I always used to think I wanted to write the Avengers, but having written around 400,000 words of the Sentinels (so far), I think I’ve done many of the things with them I would have done with the Avengers—and more. Now, if Marvel suddenly handed the reins over to me, I’d like to think I could come up with a bunch of new ideas, and I’d certainly get the characters “right” after reading them for decades. But the desire doesn’t burn nearly as brightly as it once did.
Working on original characters is much more appealing to me. I can put little pieces and parts of many different existing characters I enjoy into my own creations—and just the best parts! Even working on a jointly-created character like Mars McCoy is appealing in that way, because I had a hand in his creation and I can concentrate on and emphasize the elements of that character and that world that I like the best.
AP: You’ve been referred to as “Mr. Avenger” by various sources. When did your association with The Avengers begin and what is it about this team that resonates with you? Also, tell us about the Assembled books and their charitable origins.
VP: The first Marvel comic I ever owned was a copy of Avengers #162, the Bride of Ultron, in 1977. They instantly became my favorites. The appeal was probably the combination of science fiction imagination, superhero action, and strong characterization; I loved how the members squabbled and fought each other as often as they fought the bad guys. (That’s a big part of what I’ve tried to bring to my Sentinels books.)
In 1995 I had the chance to create my first web site, and naturally I gravitated toward the Avengers, setting up AvengersAssemble.net, the first Avengers site on the Internet. (Hard to believe it’s been around for over fifteen years now, and welcomed millions of visitors!) A mailing list spun out of that site, and over the years we members there all discussed doing some kind of Avengers book.
In 2007 the opportunity finally came around to do just that, and we (the Jarvis Heads) put together Assembled!, a compilation volume of articles looking in-depth at the various “eras” of Avengers history, such as the “Stan and Jack Era,” the “Jim Shooter/George Perez Era,” and so on. We donate the profits to the HERO Initiative charity for retired comics creators. In 2009 we produced a second volume, Assembled! 2, focusing on the “Big Three” Avengers (Thor, Iron Man, and Captain America) and the major villains. Both books have sold very well, and we’re hoping to publish a third (and final) volume in the months ahead, focusing on the rest of the characters and other villains.
AP: Who are some of your creative influences?
VP: In the realm of prose writing, nobody has been more influential on me than the late Roger Zelazny, the author of the Amber books and Lord of Light, among others. His writing manages to combine old-school pulpiness (and even noir!) with amazingly poetic prose work. I never get tired of studying his sentence structures and the way he incorporates so many diverse elements into a cohesive whole.
As far as superheroes and comics go, I have always loved the stuff produced by Jim Starlin (as both a writer and artist—the supreme master of the cosmic!) and also Jim Shooter’s 1970s Marvel work. While I can’t draw a lick, there’s no doubt that the art of George Perez, Steve Rude, Jack Kirby, John Buscema, and Michael Golden was all very influential on how I imagine scenes and how I try to depict action with words.
Other writers whose work strongly impacts me include Robert E. Howard, Frank Herbert, Larry Niven, Philip Jose Farmer, Dan Abnett, Richard Stark, James Clavell, Arthur Conan Doyle…and so many more.
AP: What does Van Plexico do when he’s not writing pulp stories and novels?
VP: Either teaching history and government courses at my college or helping take care of my daughters. I also write a weekly column on college football for an Auburn site. So I have to squeeze in the fiction writing whenever and wherever I can, and it’s not easy!
AP: Where can readers learn more about you and your work?
AP: Any upcoming projects you would like to mention?
VP: You mentioned the Lance Star story I will have in the next anthology, and that’s proving both challenging and fun to put together. It helps a lot that I have previously worked with the Griffon, another air-ace kind of hero from that era. I’ve been banging away at a big, far-future space opera trilogy for several months now—the first volume, HAWK, should be done sometime next year. Same with the concluding volume of the current Sentinels trilogy, Stellarax. If you like big, Marvel-style cosmic action with Galactus-ish and Celestials-ish characters threatening to destroy planets and battle one another, you will love Stellarax. And I contributed a long novella to the second volume of Airship 27’s upcoming Mars McCoy-Space Ranger anthologies, which I am particularly proud of and which I think readers will very much enjoy. I also co-edited the first volume, which should be along any time now.
AP: Are there any upcoming convention appearances or signings coming up where fans can meet you?
VP: Nothing in the near future. The bad economy right now is proving pretty disastrous to small press writers and publishers, and I’m no exception. I probably won’t even make DragonCon next year—ending a thirteen year run. Hopefully I will be at PulpArk (in Arkansas) and ImagiCon (in Birmingham) in the spring, depending on the financial situation at that time.
AP: You have served as a writer, editor, and publisher (White Rocket Books). Are there any creative areas you’ve not been worked in that you would like to try your hand at doing?
VP: Yeah, I’ve written for maybe six or seven different publishers now, and edited for two or three, in addition to my own White Rocket imprint. It certainly keeps me busy. A few months ago I would have said what I wanted to try next was sports writing, but now I’m getting to do that with the War Eagle Reader. Eventually I’m sure I’ll get around to writing comics scripts; I’ve done a couple in the past, but none have ever been produced or published. It’s just a matter of having the right ideas and finding a reliable artist to work with.
AP: And finally, what advice would you give to anyone wanting to be a writer?
VP: Read! Read and read and read. Read lots of stuff, including material (way) outside of your comfort zone. Especially stuff outside of your comfort zone.
When writing Lucian, I haunted bookstores and libraries, digging through volumes of Asian and European poetry, looking both for some good and fitting quotes to work into the story (Emily Bronte’s lines make a couple of appearances) and for general flavor to try to incorporate into my own prose.
When working on the Sentinels books, the last thing I want to do is read comics. That would just lead me to rehash stuff that’s already been done to death. Instead I go and read Patrick O’Brian’s “Master and Commander” series (very inspirational in terms of writing groups of characters trapped in hostile and isolated conditions) or James Clavell’s Asian Saga (books like Shogun—studying actual foreign cultures will give you lots of good ideas for writing SF!) or Richard Stark’s “Parker” novels or James Ellroy’s noir (to learn an economy of words and the impact of taut, blunt sentences and crystal-clear characterizations).
So I recommend that any beginning writer try to get as broad an exposure as possible to any and every kind of literature. The more different elements you have bumping around in your head, the more original the work you produce will be.
AP: Thanks, Van.