Interview: George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass
by Drew Bittner and Kat Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner
SFRevu.com ISBN/ITEM#: INTMartin&Snodg
Date: 22 January 2008
Links: Inside Straight Review /
Back in the real world …
About 21 years ago, a group of writers found that their hobby was cutting into their work time … so they turned their hobby into a gig that launched 17 books from 1987 to 2006 and became one of the longest-running series in SF literature. Now the band is back together and ready to rock.
Edited by George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass, Inside Straight is the first "mosaic novel" by this group in many years. SFRevu spoke with George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass at the World Fantasy Convention in Saratoga Springs, NY, in early November.
SFRevu: First off, thanks for taking time to talk with SFRevu! It's a different world sixty years after Wild Card Day …
George R.R. Martin: Very different. History changed a lot. We thought about what would be different now, how things going on in 2007 would be different.
Melinda Snodgrass: In the last ten years, we've seen the Internet go from an interesting curiosity to something that many people can't live without. Most people have cell phones …
George: … and how would wild cards affect all that? This is a new generation of characters -- the older characters are mostly retired, some are dead. Besides, with new characters, readers can jump right in and not worry about any of the history. We hope they'll want to go back and read the earlier books, but they won't have to.
SFRevu: Are there still new wild cards showing up?
George: Oh sure. It only takes one spore and there were billions of 'em. New outbreaks happen sometimes.
Melinda: And people who have the wild card dormant in their genes have children, and those children might "turn their wild card" as we call it. Usually after a traumatic event.
George: It's still fatal almost all the time, so not many wild cards take the risk of having kids, but some do.
SFRevu: Wild Cards started off in New York, and a lot of the action happened there, but over time, the stories traveled around the world. Now, with a brand-new relaunch, will there be a similar "starting point" for readers?
George: The center of the new book is Los Angeles, where we're introducing a television show: American Hero. It's a reality show, to discover America's great next ace. We start with 28 contestants, all Americans, who prove themselves in tryouts.
Melinda: American Hero is the starting point, really, where we start talking about what heroism is. These new aces ask each other, "Why be fake heroes?" and begin to think they could have an effect in the world. So they become affiliated with the United Nations, and then they bring in aces from around the world.
George: Eventually, in the second book, that happens. The first book is half American Hero, and you'll see various things growing out of it. There are crises on the world stage ...
Melinda: ... where they will meet aces from other parts of the world.
SFRevu: Speaking of new characters, there are new writers in the mix as well. Can you tell us a bit about the newcomers?
George: One of our new writers is a young lady, Carrie Vaughn. Carrie's best known for her supernatural horror series (Kitty and the Midnight Hour, Kitty Goes To Washington, et al.). Carrie is an old Wild Cards fan who wrote me a fan letter when she was in high school -- which I actually responded to, believe it or not. Years later, she became a writer, met us and pitched some great ideas, so we brought her in. It's like a high school dream for her, back when she was writing Wild Cards fan fiction.
Melinda: If you go to her website, she made up a little comic book about future Carrie going back in time to talk to high school Carrie, to say "Some day, you're going to be writing for Wild Cards." [laughs]
George: When she did the initial pitch, she had a character whose background was that she was a candidate on the show American Hero and had lost. I thought, American Hero is a great idea. We could do a lot more with that than make it a throwaway one-line bit of her bio. We wound up building the first book around it.
SFRevu: You've both got such a history in TV work and production, it seems a natural.
George: Well, unfortunately, neither of us worked on reality shows. There's a lot to learn about how they work.
SFRevu: It's a great premise. You see how these young kids would go show off, have fun ... but then they think, Why not make a real difference? If we're going to do this, let's do it for real.
Melinda: Tor is launching a website for Wild Cards, where various of the writers will be writing and contributing. I know Ian [Tregillis], one of our new writers, had an idea to have his characters audition to get on American Hero and show the disasters that might have ensued. Maybe his ace (a superpowered wild card) drops the bleachers or touches the wrong thing at the wrong time.
Of course, half the fun of American Idol is the auditions. We have some of the auditions in the book. They're almost more fun than the guys who make it in.
SFRevu: It seems like those would make great chapter leads, or interstitial segments.
George: In the first book, Daniel Abraham does interstitial stuff with his character, Jonathan Hive, and he shows a little bit of the auditions in it. Carrie's story has a little bit there too.
SFRevu: What can you tell us about the plot?
George: It's about the nature of heroism. The show is called American Hero, obviously a parody of American Idol, but the nature of heroism itself is the central theme. "What is a hero? What's an American Hero?"
This has always been the theme of Wild Cards in a sense, you know: what would real people do if they really had these powers? We looked at that a long time ago, in the '80s. What happens if you're suddenly so strong that you can lift a bus and throw it? How will it change your life?
In the comic books, you discover you can lift buses and immediately go out and get a spandex costume and decide to fight crime ... but we pretty quickly rejected that in our world. We don't think real people would actually do that; maybe a few might, but dozens? Hundreds? My character, the Turtle, did something like that. But for most people… an accountant would continue to be an accountant, even if he can throw a bus.
Then there's the Spider-Man credo: "With great power comes great responsibility." If you did have this power -- and this is what the new book gets into a little -- are you going to fight crime? How about all the horrible things that are happening in the world? What about the genocide in Darfur? Do you just sit at home, you big strong guy who can lift buses? Or do you feel compelled to do something? Where is the moral responsibility?
SFRevu: Or 9/11 or Hurricane Katrina or any natural disaster. Are you going to sit at home when you might help out?
George: Sure. A tsunami hits Indonesia, wipes out thousands of people ...
Melinda: ... and you need to move medicine or famine relief, and you've got people who can teleport or fly -- what do they do?
The other thing, the thing that's fun about having young characters, is that they have this naïve belief that "we can fix things, because we can fly and teleport." But the world is complicated, and its problems are complicated. You pull one thread to fix something, but what are the consequences? It's a growing up process for them … a loss of innocence, in a way.
SFRevu: Like if you could throw fire, you might want to help with the wildfires in California and make firebreaks though you don't know how, so you jump in and make it worse.
George: Right. Exactly.
SFRevu: There's a quote from Goethe: "Knowing is not enough; we must apply. Willing is not enough; we must do."
Melinda: Yes, that's good.
George: Comics often make the assumption that if you get these powers, obviously some people use these for selfish or bad ends ... the super villains. So the superheroes are always fighting the super villains. We've done that in Wild Cards. We did that in the early series, with characters like the Astronomer, and his group of Masons; certainly that's legitimate. If you're randomly distributing these enormous powers in the world, some people use that power for selfish ends.
But comic books do that already, and we decided pretty early on there's no sense for us to rehash what's already being done in the comic books. A little of that goes a long way. What was more interesting to us was, say, the Walter Jon Williams story "Witness" in the first book (which was the only Wild Cards story nominated for a Nebula).
The "villain" there is the House Un-American Activities Committee. ["Witness" lead character] Golden Boy is the strongest man in the world, he's invulnerable, but he still has to deal with politics. He has to live in the real world. That story talks about being blacklisted, and he has to decide whether he will be loyal to his friends or to the government.
SFRevu: [Howard Waldrop's story] "30 Minutes over Broadway" is a great example, too. Jetboy flies a jet —- it's what he does, being a combat pilot and WWII vet —- and he's thinking, "How can I fight crime? What am I going to do, shoot up somebody's car?" But he has his moment.
Melinda: And actually he screws up.
George: Jetboy is a great hero. Patrick Henry died too ... "I only regret that I have one life" ... no. That was Ethan Allen ... I forget -- who only had one life to give for his country? Nathan Hale, it was Nathan Hale.
SFRevu: "Witness" is a great example of that. If you're Golden Boy, you can't just shrug off the Federal government. There's a lot of fear out there, there's pressure to conform ... and a lot of people did. A lot of people were friendly witnesses.
Melinda: And that was the point. Ultimately the strongest man in the world proves to be the weakest.
SFRevu: Absolutely. Well, let me turn us back to Inside Straight and ask a little bit about the characters and who will be featured. Mr. Martin, you mentioned Lohengrin ...
George: Yes, Lohengrin is my character, he's German, and he's been an ace for a few years. He's already a celebrity, but of course he's German so Americans don't know anything about him.
Lohengrin can manifest a suit of armor and a sword at will, a force sword and force armor made of what he calls "ghost steel". He becomes this enormous armored warrior and his sword can slice through pretty much anything. So he's pretty potent, but … he does endorsements for BMW motorcycles. He's a young guy, about 19, and they bring him over as a guest villain on American Hero.
One of the stunts is, there's a bank robbery going on. An evil ace is leading the robbery team, and the American Hero teams each have to deal with the evil ace. We see how they do.
Oh, and there are four teams in American Hero: Hearts, Spades, Clubs, and Diamonds. Each team starts with seven members. When they lose, they have to vote someone off, which they call a discard.
Melinda: Another new writer, Caroline Spector, loves these reality shows. She told us, "You've got to understand, with reality shows, there's a meta game." [Ed: her story is entitled "Metagames".]
George and I are going, "What?" She told us that if you're playing these games, you don't vote off the weakest link; you vote off the strongest link, because they're your toughest competition.
SFRevu: The tactics that have evolved are really amazing.
George: Alliances, betrayals, things like that.
Caroline has a great character called Amazing Bubbles. She was a world-class supermodel who unfortunately got a wild card. She absorbs energy and stores it as fat. If you shoot a machine gun at her, she gets enormously fat, but then she can throw explosive bubbles and become thin again.
Melinda: So periodically, she turns to the male aces and says "hit me -- no, really, hit me!"
George: Some of our aces are clearly characters similar to some done by Marvel and DC. There are only so many superpowers in the world; you can't help but duplicate them. We do try to a certain extent to differentiate ourselves from those universes. [One way is] by doing characters that they would never touch, like, say, an immensely fat girl who blows explosive bubbles.
Melinda's character is a bit of a surprise. I'm not sure how we should really tell you about her, because it would spoil the twist in the first book.
Melinda: I'm not even putting up the character's sketch, not until the first book is out.
SFRevu: Then let's just say you have a great character waiting in the wings.
Melinda: [laughs] I have a great character waiting in the wings. For me it's kind of fun, because I created the man who felt consumed by guilt and wanted to change what happened and devoted his life to the victims of the wild card virus in Dr. Tachyon. This time I'm writing someone who's a little more [ethically] gray. It's a lot more fun.
It's definitely exercising a different set of writing muscles, creating someone who's got that particular sort of morality and agenda.
George: Daniel Abraham's character will be one of the more popular characters. His ace's name is Jonathan Hive, but everyone calls him Bugsy. He turns into bugs -- that's his power. He turns into an equivalent body mass in small green wasps. He doesn't get laid a lot. Girls don't like guys that turn into insects when they get too excited.
He's also a blogger and a would-be journalist, so the interstitial materials are his blog posts. He's trying to do a George Plimpton Paper Lion sort of thing, so he signs up for American Hero, planning to report on it from the inside by writing a blog on it. And Daniel does it beautifully; he's created (and is) a very funny sardonic character and he's a lot of fun.
SFRevu: I can see where Bugsy would have trouble with his social life. Whew! Definitely a problem most folks never even imagined …
George: The trilogy is Inside Straight, Busted Flush, and Suicide Kings. We are just about ready to turn in Busted Flush by the end of the month.
SFRevu: Is that a shorter than usual production schedule?
George: When we first launched Wild Cards, they were doing them every six months, but I think we had a few in the bag before they started publishing them. But our contract has us turning them in about once a year.
SFRevu: The next one will be in about January '09?
George: Presumably. It's not written in stone, but that's the assumption.
Melinda: Though if the book is doing great, Tor will have it in their hands. Meanwhile, we're having a lot of fun.
George: Ian Tregillis is a wonderful young writer who's wandering around here, a very talented graduate of Clarion. He's created a character called Rustbelt, a giant guy from the Iron Range in Minnesota. Did you ever see the movie Fargo? He talks like that: "Oh, you bet'chum." He's one of those guys. His skin turned to iron, and he can touch anything made of iron or steel and rust it.
Melinda: He could drop a bridge. I want to see the movie version, where he touches a tank and the whole thing crumbles around the guys inside -- to see them sitting there as the tank erodes around them. It'd be great.
George: He's not the brightest member of the group, but he is goodhearted and kind of dorky. He says "Cripes!" a lot, and "knuckleheads" and "you fellas."
Characterization like that has always been central to Wild Cards. We wanted our people not to be just costumes and powers, but to have real personalities.
SFRevu: They do!
George: It's like adding any new member to your team, whether it's a football team or a bowling team, or whatever. You got to work together, and sometimes you draft someone for your team and they don't really play well with others. And if they don't work out, others don't really get into it.
Melinda: We've learned some lessons over the years. I think we're much more strict about taking control of the structure of the book and not letting people go astray. It's kind of like television; once we agree on a direction, we try to keep the focus on the story and not let outside elements creep in. You know, "Please don't go off and bring in an alien invasion when we don't expect it."
We have a vision here, and the books have gotten more and more mosaic in quality even though the first two (in this trilogy) are not technically full mosaics. The third one will be and they're very interwoven. Much more so, I would say, than our earlier books.
SFRevu: "Mosaic novels" is a terrific, concise way of describing them.
George: The writers frequently say they'd like to do a book with "just stories" [not interwoven], so we've tried to give them that; Book 16 [Deuces Down] was a just-stories book. On the other hand, the readers don't seem to like that as much.
Melinda: They like the interplay of the characters banging off each other.
SFRevu: I really liked the last novel [Dealer Takes Five], with Fortunato and his son, and the question of where it's going to go. "Is this character building up to a supernova?"
George: We used to joke about it. In the early days of Wild Cards, one of the characters we suggested was Nova Boy.
SFRevu: Kind of like the Daffy Duck line: "It's a great trick, but I can only do it once …"
George: Right! John Fortune will be in these books. Some of the old characters are there, but John Fortune is probably one of the most important of the old characters in the new storyline.
His mother Peregrine is the producer and emcee of American Hero. One of the judges is Digger Downs, who is basically Simon Cowell, the wise guy who says nasty stuff about the hopeless candidates. The other two judges are the Harlem Hammer and Topper; they decide who wins the contests. A few more of the older characters show up from time to time too. We love the older guys, but it's time for new folks to take the spotlight.
Melinda: It's a whole new world. We want to show that, in the new book, bringing Wild Cards into the new millennium.
SFRevu: The new book is absolutely terrific. We have faith that it'll turn readers into eager fans.
SFRevu would like to thank George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass for this interview. To learn more about the editors, visit GeorgeRRMartin.com and MelindaSnodgrass.com; to learn more about the series, visit WildCardsBooks.com.