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The Thin (and Mutated) Blue Line: Inside Wild Cards' Fort Freak by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
SFRevu *Interview  
Date: 30 June 2011

Links: Review of Fort Freak /

The Wild Cards universe is quite probably the longest running shared world anthology in print. Kicked off in 1986, the series chronicles the lives and adventures of those transformed by an alien virus, as well as the way history has changed due to the presence of these "wild cards."

A superlative roster of writers have contributed to the series over the years, all under the editorial guidance of George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass. Now, in Fort Freak, a mixed group of long-time Consortium members and new recruits offer up a slate of tales about a Jokertown institution.

SFRevu spoke with Melinda Snodgrass, Stephen Leigh, Victor Milan, John Jos. Miller, Cherie Priest, Mary Anne Mohanraj, and Kevin Andrew Murphy about how this new mosaic novel came to be.

* * *

SFRevu: First off, thanks to all of you for participating in this group interview! I'm glad to have the chance to hear from so many of you about this singular book. So let's begin!

The stories in this book all center around New York City's Fifth Precinct, aka Fort Freak, the home of law and order in Jokertown. How was this decided?

Melinda Snodgrass (MS): I'm trying to remember exactly how Fort Freak arose. I had dealt with the issue of how you incarcerate aces in a spec screenplay, George and I were also talking about Hollywood pitches and agreeing that with Wild Cards you can do medical dramas, police procedurals, political thrillers, etc. And we had done a lot on the international stage, and realized that it was probably time to return to our roots, so to speak.

As for what makes Fort Freak a source for stories -- the same reason there are so many cop shows on TV. A police precinct is a story generator. They can literally walk in the door.

Cherie Priest (CP): This isn't superhero central; this is a place of work staffed by people with unnatural advantages and disadvantages that both simplify and complicate their jobs.

Stephen Leigh (SL): It was mostly George's decision, but I think several of us felt that with the 'international' scope of the most recent books, it was time to return to the roots of the Wild Cards universe and examine what was going on back at the thematic heart of the books: Jokertown.

And I have to say that it did feel good to be back there once more.

John Jos. Miller (JJM): Jokertown is the heart and probably soul of the Wild Card universe. It was something unique in superhero fiction (comics and prose) but now somewhat imitated. You can come home again. It's nice to hang out for awhile and see what's changed around the place and what remains the same.

Victor Milan (VM): As John said, Jokertown's pretty much the soul of the Wild Cards world - and what marks the series as unmistakably distinct from other superhero cycles. And the soul of a good yarn is conflict. Of which a police precinct is bound to attract a certain amount...

Mary Anne Mohanraj (MAM): When I was invited to join the Wild Cards collective, the precinct was already in place as our setting. It's a natural locus for compelling stories -- police live at the intersection of competing social needs, and those tensions are only exacerbated when you throw aces and jokers into the mix. Exciting!

SFRevu: There are lots of new characters introduced. Do you have a favorite, your own creation or one created by another writer?

SL: I actually returned to one of my long-standing characters, whose story I never was able to finish in the previous books: Oddity. While I came up with a few new characters to place in Fort Freak (for instance, Snap), I wanted to finish Oddity's long character arc. So I was really returning to the roots.

CP: I can't pick among anyone else's characters (too many great ones to name!) ... but from my own stash, I'd have to say it's Wanda Moretti. She was, shall we say, "inspired by" my aunt - a woman who's a hell of a character in her own right.

MAM: More than a favorite character, I really enjoy the complex interactions between my three adult characters -- Michael, a nat detective, his girlfriend Natya, an ace with powers that manifest when she dances, and the joker...whoops, I was about to give away a plot point. Let's just say that there are some romantic complications that ensue, and it's fun trying to manage them.

VM: As always Fort Freak abounds in cool characters - aces, jokers, and nats. So I have to plug my two leads: Ratboy, the joker who's basically a giant cigar-chomping brown rat, and is in fact quite intelligent and who talks - in his own thoroughly vulgar working-class New York Italian way. He's Detective-Investigator Second-Grade Vincent Marinelli of NYPD Internal Affairs, and he feels that bad cops are the very worst of criminals. And now he's on the track of some very bad cops indeed right here in Fort Freak. (He was co-created by Craig Chrissinger, who co-chairs our Albuquerque SF con Bubonicon.)

The other's all my own: Charles Santiago Herriman, aka Charlie, or Flipper (his joker caused him to be born with flippers in lieu of hands). He's a twenty-something emo whiz-kid public defender with serious daddy issues, largely manifest as a really crippling lack of sense of self-worth. Which he's going to need to start to overcome, so that he can step up and do what he's capable of. Or he's never gonna make it out of this book alive...

MS: I'm obviously partial to Francis Xavier. I enjoy writing about outsiders trying to adjust to a new situation. I loved Paul Cornell's character, Abigail (even though she was very insulting to poor Franny), David Anthony's Durham's character Marcus is a great addition, and Ramshead offered a weary and lined, but very human face to Jokertown.

JJM: As usual, my contribution went against the grain and concerned one of the oldest established characters in the universe. It's difficult to pick a favorite amongst the newcomers, because there are so many great ones, but maybe I'd say the Infamous Black Tongue, because he has such an awesome name and you can shorten it to IBT, which reminds me of a delicious sandwich.

SFRevu: The overarching story (without giving too much away) has a strong sense of L.A. Confidential and the Black Dahlia murder in Hollywood decades ago. When writing your stories, did you dig into police procedurals or noir fiction for inspiration?

MAM: I did spend a day watching Law and Order re-runs, mostly to remind myself of how cops talk to each other. It's a little -- rougher than my own daily life as a college professor. More direct. It was sort of a relief, actually, having a character who didn't have to worry too much about being polite or tactful.

SL: For my story, no. If I'd been writing about one of the cops or detectives in Fort Freak, I might have read some noir, though I'm fairly familiar (as a reader) with the genre, being in particular a great fan of Raymond Chandler.

CP: I grew up on noir, and have enough Hammett lying around my home to stuff a phone booth. But I did go out of my way to watch nonfiction police procedurals and stories, and I picked up a few books on some of the more well-researched true crime events of the 1970s. (Since the crime which frames the story happened in '79, I believe.)

Kevin Andrew Murphy (KAM): While I've read and written noir before, for this one I went straight to the source: I have a friend who's from a family of police officers and taught me how to use a gun specifically so I'd get my firearms descriptions right. Turns out I'm better with a revolver than an automatic, which he said was common with cops, and I'm also good with a machine gun. (Not so much with the grenade launcher, but I wasn't able to work that into my story.)

But my biggest resource was my friend Patricia MacEwen, who's another author, but also works as a police coroner. She gave me invaluable info on the dynamics of modern police departments and critique on my story.

VM: I'm an old Chandler and to lesser extent Hammett fan. Also I have a curious taste for real-world police procedural TV shows like The Forensic Files and The FIrst 48 - whereas I find fictional cop shows distasteful. Plus I've known a few working police detectives in my time. I tried to learn from all.

SFRevu: The stories here also seem more grounded and street-level than we've seen in quite some time. For the veteran writers, is it refreshing to get back to that kind of storytelling?

VM: Well, not dealing with world-wrecking Sturm-und-Drang the way we did last time is a relief, yeah. I think the last triad was made of awesome, and not just because I wrote the overarching villain for the latter two books. But no question we kinda got ourselves into a case of Michael Bay Syndrome - which I named after that class of effects-driven action movies series that have to keep topping themselves with ever-escalating psycho stunts and bigger explosions to keep viewer interest. (Although in fairness, unlike many such movies, we actually had something else to offer other than SBU. Such as characters and story.)

JJM: That's been the nature of most, if not all, of my Wild Card stories, so, yes, I enjoy working in that mode. It's always a pleasure to do a Wild Card story, simply because I like the universe so much, as well as working with the other writers to create something in which the sum is so much greater than the individual parts.

MS: I love Jokertown. It really is the heart of our series because the jokers have always been the thing that sets Wild Cards apart from other superhero properties. Jokertown holds many of our most iconic sites -- the clinic, Freakers, the Dime Museum, the Church of Jesus Christ Joker, the Crystal Palace. The only thing that was equivalent on the ace side was Aces High.

SL: It's one thing to write about grand, sweeping, wide-scale heroics, but even with those, I most enjoy writing about the 'small people' caught up in the greater tide, and seeing how they deal with the events around them. That's the beauty of Jokertown -- these are people who have been intimately affected by the Wild Card virus, but for the most part, they're also relatively powerless. I think some of our most poignant stories have revolved around them.

SFRevu: For the newer writers, what was it like, writing these stories and collaborating with writers who created that world?

CP: At the risk of saying something clichť - it was immensely challenging, but very rewarding. No kidding: I leveled up as a writer by virtue of being part of this project.

MS: All of our new writers are terrific, and as an editor it's been fun to read new writers as we search for new victims... er recruits.

MAM: Working on this collaboration has been super-fun, but also quite a challenge. I've read the most recent Wild Cards trilogy, which I enjoyed immensely, but I haven't yet had a chance to go back and read all twenty of the previous books. There's a vast, rich history there. I've relied heavily on George's expertise to help me weave my own characters into the existing world; hopefully, readers will find them meshing beautifully with the ongoing Wild Cards universe.

VM: I will say that when some of them talk about how they grew up reading Wild Cards I don't know whether to kiss them or kill them.

SFRevu: If Fort Freak does well, are there stories or characters you'd like to continue?

JJM: I've got several characters whose stories are not yet finished. We shall see.

MAM: I'd love to keep working with my trio of characters. Michael's been a pretty straight arrow so far; I'd like to see how he does when he faces a real moral challenge. And Natya is caught between her pacifist desires and the demands of a dangerous world, one that isn't likely to let an ace with her kind of power just sit around.

MS: I really want to do the story where Franny discovers that his father really wasn't a Big Damn Hero, but was one of the bad guys. How will the son cope with that?

SL: For me, not particularly. There are, however, other characters in the 'new' series that I'd like to get back to: Drummer Boy and Barbara Baden, for instance.

CP: Absolutely! I have a set of triplets I'd love to deploy one day, and Fort Freak's "Button Man" is far too cool to drop out of hand.

SFRevu: If you can talk about this, what stories or ideas did you have that didnít get the editorís okay?

KAM: I had a Will-o'-Wisp story I wanted to do for the new expanded reprint of the first Wild Cards, set back in 1950's LA, but it didn't gel as much as George would have liked. But that left me free to pitch for Fort Freak, and I can always get around to Will-o'-Wisp for a future historical volume.

CP: The first five or six drafts of the interstitial proposal pitch. It took that many rounds to wear George down until he'd let me do it.

SL: For this one, the story I pitched George went with, with (of course) some modifications to fit the rest of the pitches. But there's never a guarantee, and I've certainly pitched stories that never made it into one volume or another.

SFRevu: Melinda, what editorial challenges did you have, working with so many narrative threads that arenít just stories in their own right but also mysteries? This seems a situation where the usual complications are multiplied a couple of times over.

MS: This book ended up much more like one of our mosaic novels because each story had to add a clue to the mystery. Usually we like to only have one mosaic -- traditionally the last book of a triad, but given the genre there really wasn't a choice.

SFRevu: What are you working on now?

JJM: My long awaited novel (by me, anyway) Black Train Coming, which is about vampires in the West Virginia coalfields of the early 1920s and which concerns, among other things, a race of immortal dogs, and of which it has been said: "it's nice to see a story where the blood-sucking capitalists ARE ACTUALLY blood-sucking capitalists."

MS: I've got to write the third and final urban fantasy in my contract with Tor. I'm working on the third Edge book, I've got the next Wild Card story to write, and another short story set in the Edge universe I'd like to write. And I'm waiting on word about a project in Hollywood.

VM: Oh, yeah. Just sold my epic fantasy trilogy, which I call The Ballad of Karyl's Last Ride, to Tor, and am awaiting editorial notes for the first volume, The Dinosaur Lords. Look for it beginning of 2013. And you'll want to: as my writers group pals say, "Knights riding dinosaurs - what more does anybody need to know?"

CP: With regards to Wild Cards? I've had to bow out of the next installment, as I'm tied up in contract work through the end of the year. For one thing, I owe another novel to Tor (a new one in my steampunk universe) in September; but the other contract work is something I'm not at liberty to discuss.

MAM: I've just finished the first book in a YA series, a portal fantasy in which a sixteen-year-old girl from our world is drawn to a tropical island where she has magic powers (she can shoot lightning from her hands, for example) and gets caught up in a civil war. The book is loosely based on the recent Sri Lankan conflict between the Tamils and the Sinhalese; my own family is Tamil, and I find that more and more, that history is finding its way into my fiction.

KAM: Unfortunately, for the future, it's all proposals and deadlines for secret projects. But I do have other fiction just out. Paizo.com just put out an epub of another mystery of mine, "The Secret of the Rose and Glove". That's 18th century alchemy and magic, but itís definitely a mystery.

SFRevu: Lastly, if your protagonist could be played by an actor in a big-budget film, who would it be?

MS: Hmmm. Well, right now I'm in love with James McAvoy even though he's British. I think he could really sell the eager puppy, innocent quality that Franny requires. Shia LaBeouf would also be a possibility.

KAM: For SlimJim, while it's hard to cast 6'9" skinny guys, comedian Eric Grady is actually the perfect height and weight. A little peroxide and he'd look just about right. Alternately, I'd go with Jeremy Howard. Not a huge box office name, but a good actor, and while he's not quite as tall, he's even thinner and has the right facial expressions.

CP: Leo Storgman - Hmm, maybe Bob Hoskins. He did a great American accent in Who Framed Roger Rabbit, and I think he'd be an excellent fit for the part.

SL: Oddity, I think, would be terrifically difficult to portray in a film except via intensive CGI. But... how about Sigourney Weaver for Patti, Samuel Jackson for Evan, and Harrison Ford for John?

MAM: Michael is half-black, half-Korean, so I would love it if an actor who looked something like football player Hines Ward might play him; Ward is gorgeous and would look exactly right. Honestly, I don't offhand know of a major Hollywood actor with that ethnic background, but perhaps one is emerging right now!

VM: Whoa! Vinnie - Ratboy - is gonna be a Gollum situation, so we're talking more a voice actor who can do tough blue-collar Italian who is long-suffering with his large and thoroughly exasperating extended family. Vince Vaughn?

For Charlie/Flipper - this choice will no doubt gratify Melinda - maybe James McAvoy. If she won't let me have him, I understand this kid Daniel Radcliffe may be looking for a new gig soon, and he seems to handle floppy-haired nerd roles okay...

Read Fort Freak. Really. It's good, okay?

SFRevu: Couldnít have said it better myself, Victor. Thanks, everyone, for joining in this group interview!

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