Don’t Pokémon Your Monsters: An Interview with Robert Ashcroft

12 Apr

Seven years after the Hollow War decimated Earth, only 50,000 humans fight for survival in Los Angeles. Theo Abrams is sent on a mission to destroy the enigmatic being that initiated this apocalypse.

There’s a quote that pops up now and then, usually in reference to Star Wars, though it can be applied to a lot of great films and books: Great villains believe they are the hero of the story. It’s a useful line because it forces an author to give villains their own narrative arc. At their most poorly written, villains have the same qualities as the bad guys that used to wait at the end of stages in the old Super Mario games: no context or motivation, existing only to provide a bump on the road of the hero’s journey.

There’s another danger that villainous characters run into: we see them too clearly. In so many great horror films, the monsters remain on the periphery for a long time, cloaked in shadow, glimpsed only fleetingly. When we finally do see them close up, it’s with a turn of the camera and BOOMthe monster is right in front of our faces, almost too close to take it all in. This is why villains so often wear masks; to see and know them clearly is to reduce the fear of not seeing or understanding them.

Great villains, then, often lurk just off the page, seen mostly through the hero’s anticipation and dread. Robert Ashcroft gets this in his debut novel, The Megarothke. In it, an apocalyptic war has reduced humans to a small colony in the remains of Los Angeles. The creature responsible for that war, unheard of for several years, has begun to be whispered about again. In this scene, the novel’s main character, a police officer, is talking to one of his superiors:

Looking out the window, she asked, “What do you know about the Megarothke?”

A loaded question, to be sure. The secret shifted within my stomach. It rose and lay upon my tongue. I’d long learned that no one suspected anything, but I felt the secret scream from every pore whenever the Megarothke’s name was mentioned.

Back when I’d awoken from the coma, I’d had some very definite theories. I’d been convinced that I’d witnessed the creation of the Megarothke—even aided and abetted it to a certain degree.  Unlocked it. But I learned very quickly that this sort of talk was seen as “mentally unsuitable” and would get you removed from the force.

“The Shadow King. The Spider-Creature that kidnaps kids…” I said. “The first few years he was the very incarnation of the enemy. But then he disappeared. Vanished.”

Aria nodded.

“I can’t remember the last time someone told me not to touch a cobweb,” I continued. “The question should really be, ‘What happened to the Megarothke?’ I mean, the last incident was in…what? 2047? HW3? No one’s really talked about him since.”

Of course, the Megarothke is back, and the police officer will eventually face it. The book, then, depends upon readers wanting to see that encounter, on their curiosity about the monster building and building. To that end, notice how Ashcroft keeps the details vague: The Shadow King, The Spider Creatures that kidnaps kids. These are not precise character traits so much as descriptions of the monster’s legend.

Ashcroft also introduces the suggestion that a true understanding of the monster is dangerous to one’s health, both professional and literal. Someone out there doesn’t want you to know—and even that threat is vague, which is crucial to the story. Vague threats with specific outcomes (death, end of the world as we know it) provide the opportunity for characters to solve a mystery, and it’s that search for truth that usually provides the structure for the entire book.

Robert Ashcroft has worked as a State Department contractor and was recently mobilized to serve abroad with the U.S. Army Reserve. He is trained as a cryptologic linguist (with experience in Korean and Spanish). His first novel is the dystopian military thriller The Megarothke.

In this interview, Ashcroft talks about world building, writer dialects, and the challenge of creating so much suspense that it’s difficult to give readers a pay off.

Michael Noll

The book builds an entire world (post-apocalyptic LA with only a few thousand people protected by a police force that keeps back animal/human/AI hybrid beasts trying to kill them) and also a save-the-world quest, and despite these very large elements, the novel has an intimate feeling, focusing as it does on one character and his family (even as he embarks on the quest). How did you balance the need to build the world and also craft a story that revolves around relationships?

Robert Ashcroft

Back when I was majoring in creative writing―around ten years ago―genre fiction didn’t receive as much respect as it does now. I felt like in order to “deserve” to write in science fiction/horror, I had to prove that I could use what I had learned. Stories like, “Coming Attraction” by Tobias Wolff, or “For Esmé―with Love and Squalor,” by J.D. Salinger, really left a big mark on what I wanted to do with words.

Great fiction, but especially great short fiction, has to tear at the heart of human struggle. In “Coming Attractions,” this girl tries to drag a bike out of the pool for her little brother and she can’t quite do it. The story ends with her catching her breath, laying on her back, looking up at the stars. She’s freezing. All of your senses are wrapped up in the moment. The image is crystal clear. You understand how much this bicycle means to her, to her brother, to her concept of family and responsibility. It’s no longer a bike, it’s a young girl desperately fighting to grow up and be a better person.

I would love for my science fiction to be able to approach this magic.

The main goal within the Megarothke was to make sure that any action scene included both a personal and a thematic aspect. So, in the first chapter, the final scene touches on the memory of his lost daughter and the central question of what it means to be human.

Or later, in the standoff where a Korean guy has a knife to the girl’s throat, I wanted Theo to have to struggle with questions on multiple levels: his career, his custody battle, his fear that society might accuse him of police brutality―and on top of all that, you’ve still got a life or death situation.

Michael Noll

You’re working within an established genre with a few titanic writers working in it. Aspects of it reminded me of William Gibson and others, even though it’s not space opera, reminded me of M. John Harrison’s work. How did you approach putting your mark on a story that’s been told so well so many times?

Robert Ashcroft

I’m a big fan of retyping, which helps you get a sense of punctuation and flow, but also forces you to take ownership of their vocab sets and preoccupations. Every writer has a dialect of sorts. William Gibson will mention a word like “wetware” in several different stories of Burning Chrome, and you get to see the context in which it’s introduced each time. Then there were entire passages of The Megarothke where I would retype a section of Annihilation, by Jeff Vandermeer, and then go back and revise my work. More than just descriptions, he’s the master of unspooling an abstract concept in a character’s head while physically tracking their motion through an equally strange landscape.

In terms of the Megarothke, while the concepts aren’t new, I wanted to juxtapose two dueling misinterpretations of Evangelical Christianity and Nietzschean philosophy. The wrong view of Christianity forsakes our current life for the afterlife. The wrong view of Nietzsche ends up sacrificing everything for the ubermensch. These both blend with the age-old science fiction question: will some new form of technology replace humanity? And should it?

I should be clear here that I really respect the overall messages of Christianity and Nietzsche, but just like with ISIS and Islam, problems are usually created by a misinformed reading of the original text.

Michael Noll

The novel features a monstrous villain who, until the end of the book, is an unseen source of fear. We’re not told what the Megarothke looks like, which sets up a challenge for the story: when the Megarothke shows up, it needs to be as monstrous and terrifying as we’ve come to expect. How did you approach creating that character?

Robert Ashcroft

This was actually really difficult for me. I probably rewrote that page of description twenty times. I read it aloud, pulled it apart, and debated with people about word choice. I vividly remember fighting to keep the word “auroch” during the early critique group meetings.

If you boil the Megarothke down to his baseball card statistics, he’s really nothing we haven’t seen in a million video games and movies. But when wrapped up with his mythology, his goals, his undefined powers, his detached cruelty―I hope that he transcends your average first-person shooter entity.

The description is also integrated with the setting: the staircase, the metal turn style, the speakers on the walls. And then you have the state of Theo, our protagonist at the same time: is he still really alive? How long was he unconscious? How close to arriving are his peers? All of these things have to be factored into the description to produce the maximum effect.

There’s a real danger, largely due to the video game and toy industry, to remove the context and seek firm definitions for any given monster. I call it the “Pokémon-ization” of characters. Each power needs a name, a range, a strength, etc. For me, this is the death of good fiction.

Michael Noll

Sections begin with quotes from Nietzsche’s Thus Spoke Zarathustra. How did that book inform this one?

Robert Ashcroft

The short answer is that the Megarothke is an attempt to create the ubermensch.

But as a writer, the book means a lot more. I first read Thus Spoke Zarathustra when I was twenty, living alone in Mexico. I wanted to be a writer and I didn’t know anything about Nietzsche, but I knew the book was on all the right lists. This was during a time when, even if I didn’t comprehend something, I would still power through it. Sort of like when I read Ulysses as an undergrad. I had no clue what was going on, but I knew it was important.

And, this is going to be a digression, so I apologize, but I’m going to launch into it:

I heard once, I think Glenn Gould said it, that all great art is about the distance the artist feels between himself and the world. In Thus Spoke Zarathustra, there are these quotes that reach out and grab you. They encourage, implore and goad you all at the same time. Things like, “Go into your loneliness,” or “They hate you because you have gone beyond.” Zarathustra is arrogant and self-loathing but also really inspiring. He hates everyone but he wants to save them. He’s not sure how, but when he gets an idea, he presents it ferociously. There’s a truth―a charisma―that’s really breath-taking.

These are things that every writer has to embrace at some point. You have to isolate yourself, to cannibalize your own personality, to go really deep, because that’s where all the marrow of the best fiction resides.

Is the Megarothke the Ubermensch? Is Theo the “last man?” Do they represent the master/slave morality, respectively? Does Mathew go through the stages of the Camel, the Lion and the Child? I don’t think it can be boiled down so simply, but I want these ideas to play out in the reader’s mind. What allegiance do we owe to a creature with far greater physical and mental capacities than ourselves? What allegiance do we owe to God? To each other?

Michael Noll

I believe I saw you write on Facebook that you worked on this novel for years, printing versions for your friends to read at times. How do this published version differ from those earlier versions? What problems did you have to solve or figure out over the course of revision?

Robert Ashcroft

I’m a huge fan of printing your own work. I’ve spent hundreds of dollars at this point just to be able to read my own writing in a paper book sized, spiral bound format. You can give it to friends. You can read it and see how the pages work. It’s really rewarding, and given the incredibly long time it takes to get published, I think every writer owes it to themselves. These days it should probably cost you 15-20 dollars to do a decent version, but it’s still quite possible. I’ve done it in Mexico, in Korea, in Texas―the staff is always really curious and helpful. It’s kind of an unusual request.

The biggest difference between those versions and the final print is length. At the very end of the final version, there’s a single chapter, almost more of an epilogue, where we meet a different character. In the previous version, that character had about five chapters of case notes, describing his investigations. Then there were newspaper articles, folk songs, and editorials as well, sort of like in Watchmen.

I workshopped four versions of the book through Critters.org. I also had a bunch of friends and acquaintances read it, and I was part of a weekly critique group for over a year. The biggest problem I solved was streamlining the story. There was just too much going on. It felt like pulling teeth but eventually it was the right move. I hope the story carries people smoothly from start to finish, and even if not every detail gets explained, it should be a fun ride!

April 2018

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories and author of The Writer’s Field Guide to the Craft of Fiction.

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