This interview was done at New York Comic Con 2018. We sat down with Peter Tieryas to talk about Mecha Samurai Empire, alternate history, and what to eat when fighting Nazis. Keith Rice: So Mecha Samurai Empire just came out, what can you tell us about it? Peter Tieryas: So, it is a book about giant Mechas fighting big Nazi monsters. And it’s a very personal story in that it’s about being Asian-American, and sort of growing up in a place where, literally, on the other side of the continent there is a group of people who want to see their destruction solely based on their ethnicity. Anyone who doesn’t fit the Aryan Nazi mold should be eliminated. How do you grow up in that world, right? Like, what is your view of the world when you’re acutely aware of your race. And that became the central metaphor. The best alternate history gives us a different context and a different view of our own world. There’s a lot of entertainment, there’s a lot of action, but also, hopefully there are deeper questions about identity, about ethnicity, and about diversity. It’s also loosely inspired by Man in the High Castle. KR: Okay, so this is set in the world of The United States of Japan? PT: Yep. KR: What led you to expand on that world? PT: When I wrote The United States of Japan, I had a deep desire to sort of explore World War II from the Asian side. Growing up I heard all these stories about World War II from the Asian side. Just really fascinating things. And when I came to America there was nothing about this perspective, just no information available. It was always focused on more of the European side, you know? Like what happened with the Nazis, and General Eisenhower and Hitler. I kind of challenge people, how many generals do you know on the Asian side? Who were fighting the Chinese, who were fighting for the Philippines, right? Even on the American side, for the average person, there’s very little actually known about World War II. What battles do you know about? I had this desire to tell a story about that. So when I wrote it, it was very structured. It takes place over a couple of days it’s a roller coaster. You just start and it keeps on going. But when I was finished, I kind of wanted to know more about the world. What happens after those days are, right? What do people eat, how do people hang out, what’s day-to-day life in that alternate history like? That reminded me – that’s what I really wanted to know about in Man in the High Castle as well. What is this world about? Mecha Samurai Empire initially began as an attempt to just explore the world and see what it’s about. The very first thing I wrote was the alternate history Pledge of Allegiance, which is like, “I pledge Allegiance to the United States of Japan, and to the Empire for…” When I first wrote that, it kind of became a guiding philosophy for me. So, you’ll see, it’s like America, and it’ll feel very familiar, but at the last minute there’ll be a little twist and where you’re like, “Whoa, this is a completely different world.” They completely distorted or misinterpreted, or reinterpreted what we view as certain ideas and philosophies. That, to me, was really fascinating. So, for example, one idea that came up is that they look at The Great Gatsby, which was written in the twenties, and it was an indictment of that era, right. But in normal history, after World War II there was the boom, and everything recovered and America became a behemoth. In the alternate history of The United States of Japan, America lost, so there was never that boom. So, they look at Fitzgerald as almost a prophet of the end of the America. It’s stuff like that, those weird little details. KR: Okay, so there are a lot of moving parts under the hood here. You’ve got alternate history, there’s gaming, there’s mecha. What were your biggest influences coming into this story? PT: There’s a bunch, but I think the biggest from a story-telling perspective was Hideo Kujima. He did Metal Gear Solid, Zone of the Enders, but what fascinated me about Metal Gear, was that despite the title, it’s not really about metal gear. It’s about the people involved, and how they’re going to use metal gear. That, to me, was really important when I was writing about the mechas. When you watch a really good mecha movie, if it’s just about the action, the first minute is really exciting. Then after a while you start going, “Oh, I’m used to this.” And it almost becomes boring. It’s like mecha porn. Or you just become so inured to it. What really differentiates it is if you care about the characters. And I think with Metal Gear, you go find a boss and the boss has this very strong personality and you remember their personality as you’re fighting them. In the same way I wanted these characters to be memorable. So that’s where I spent a lot of time – just really focusing on the character interactions. What does each battle mean? The way they fight, how does that represent who they are? I also took a little bit of inspiration from “Mike Tyson’s Punch-Out!!” – the original game- because each of those characters had so much personality. So, there’s a character named Honda. He has big bushy eyebrows that he moves. And for people who know “Mike Tyson’s Punch Out!!” they know when he does the his hurricane charge, he actually takes four steps. So, they actually analyze this mecha data, and they realize, “Oh, every time he does that charge he takes four steps,” They use that to beat him. And in a little ironic twist, the “Punch Out” referee is Mario, right, he’s Italian. in the Axis world, Germany and Japan are at odds with each other, but Italy always plays the peacemaker. In the mecha tournaments, there’s an Italian guy who’s the peacemaker. That’s a nod to Mario and “Punch Out”. From a literary perspective, obviously Phillip K. Dick, that just goes without saying. Cordwainer Smith is another one, I just love his storytelling. Rieko Kodama is another. She did “Phantasy Star II.” It was one of my very first exposure to science fiction, through that video game. Where it’s actually about a Utopia that’s really cool and amazing, and then the whole Utopia starts falling apart, and then you find out at the end that humans are the bad guys. KR: Right. PT: That’s one of the very few instances – in a movie, book, or whatever – that I can remember, where the villains are ultimately humans. KR: Are you planning to explore more of Mac’s story, or moving on to something else within the world of United states of Japan? PT: Yeah, so I actually turned in the first draft of the next book to my editor. It’s a completely different story, completely new characters. It is following the aftermath of the Berkeley massacre, and the whole battle. It’s basically a revolution takes place within the United States of Japan. KR: What three books would you recommend for fans of Mecha Samurai Empire? PT: I would say Sleeping Giants is a big one. I really like the works by Project Itoh. He did the adaptation of “Metal Gear Solid IV”, but also Project Harmony and Genocidal Organ. Those are just really great. But between those three, maybe I’d say Genocidal Organ. It really stands out. And then, while I don’t know if it is necessarily connected to the United States of Japan and Mecha Samurai Empire but, Cameron Hurley’s work. I really love her work, Apocalypse Nyx is great. And then obviously Man in the High Castle, but, you know, that goes without saying. KR: I’m going out on a limb and assuming you’re a gamer. PT: Yep. KR: What are you playing right now? PT: We recently had a baby, so I’ve had to stop. But the last game that I played was “Spec Ops: The Line.”. That was an intense experience. That was, just, like, wow, you know? Just the world-building and everything. KR: And that twist is just killer. PT: Yeah, yeah. I think I finished it the week before our baby came. “Persona V” was the big one I played before that. That just took forever but I really wanted to enjoy it. I actually played through with my wife. I was very influenced by “Persona”. What I love about the world-building in “Persona” is that you have to save the world and everything’s going to chaos, but you can also go find a really good ramen, or you can go on a date at a carnival. I love that. So, in Mecha Samurai Empire, there are food excursions. Sure, there are Nazis, but you still have to eat, right? Check out Peter Tieryas’ Mecha Samurai Empire! Keith Rice is a West Virginia native and a freelance writer residing in Philadelphia with his lovely, if oft exasperated wife and three cats. Keith fosters an enthusiastic appreciation for beer and scotch, collects comics, and most importantly is an avid reader and movie lover. Oh, he’s a pretty big fan of sci-fi and fantasy as well. Drop him a line @Keith_Rice1.
This interview was done at New York Comic Con 2018. We caught up with Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, and Jon Peterson to discuss their upcoming book Dungeons and Dragons and Art and Arcana, the process behind the book, and of course, the history of D&D. Keith Rice: Okay, so you guys are promoting Dungeons and Dragons and Art and Arcana. What can you tell us about it? Michael? Michael Witwer: So, Art and Arcana is a complete, comprehensive visual history of the Dungeons and Dragons brand. Not just art, but also advertising, ephemera, and all kinds of other imagery that really tells the visual history of the story from beginning to end. KR: How’d the idea come about? Kyle Newman: The idea came about because I was back in Dungeons and Dragons, started playing 5th edition, and was ravenous for more material. I said where is the book? What have I been missing for the past 10 or 12 years. Where’s the art book? Where’s the history book? And there wasn’t one. So, I was like, I’ll make the book. How am I going to make the book? And I reached out to Michael, I was a fan of Empire of imagination. And I knew his brother Sam [Witwer] and Michael and I had known each other peripherally on Facebook. I said, would you be interested in doing this? And he was like, “Absolutely and my friend Jon would be great too, Jon’s a D&D historian.” So, we started to assemble this group, and Sam was like, “You’re making a book with my brother and I’m not involved? And I fricking love Dungeons and Dragons, too.” And I was like, “Well of course, man if you have time, let’s all do this together.” He was so passionate, so resourceful. We just formed like, a super-team, and all brought different expertise to it. I saw the idea of the book, but didn’t know exactly what it was going to be. Is it going to be more history, more art? What’s the balance between image and word? Are we going to use native art, are we going to show product covers? We had to strike that happy medium and curate something special. So, it wasn’t just the most beautiful-looking art, but it was the most important art. Not only what came out of our discussion organically and figuring out what the book was going to be. So, I would say that’s how it came about and then from there once we solidified our idea, we met in Los Angeles, we put a lot of images up on a screen, we went through them, we discussed the merits of each thing, and we stared to formulate the spine of what it would be. And then there was the archaeological stuff, which I think Jon can speak to, like, the actually the hunting down of things. KR: Well, actually my next question goes into that. So, you guys had unprecedented access to the archives at Wizards of the Coast, right? What was that like? Jon Peterson: I mean, it was fantastic. I can’t say enough about how generous the Wizards team was to us with their time. So, there’s this original company TSR that was bought by Wizards of the Coast. Unfortunately before that acquisition, though, things ended up scattered to the nine winds, because nobody really knew that they would turn out to be collectible. Now in a few cases, things that got, like, lost in a warehouse for decades eventually turned up. The cover of the original basic set, for instance, which is something that Wizards did still have, because somebody found it basically behind a box on some loading deck and fortunately some of their people recognized what it was. But, for a lot for that stuff from the early days, the 70’s, nobody knew this would be important. Fortunately, I’ve worked with a collecting community, I’m a collector of D&D memorabilia. We knew a lot of the right people to go to to find both pristine product, but also the people who owned a lot of the original art. And for some of it, it’s just a process. It just goes on and on, you turn over rocks and you hear a rumor that this exists, and maybe this person has it, and you do outreach and at the last minute it all just came together. KR: Jon, what was the oddest thing you found pulling this all together? JP: The oddest thing that we found pulling this together, hmm? KR: If you had to pick one. MW: That’s a good question. KN: Artistically or informationally? KR: Either/or. JP: So probably the one that we have to single out for this is the original Tomb of Horrors, this 1975 adventure. Now, everyone knows this famous module, this deathtrap module that came out in 1978 that’s called The Tomb of Horrors. It’s the place you go for characters that you want to die. You know, you don’t want to play them anymore. It’s full of arbitrary traps, poison gas, pits, spikes, monsters that come in droves, you stick your hand in the devil’s mouth and it gets disintegrated. It’s a terrible thing. But one of the fascinating things about Tomb of Horrors is that it started as a tournament. And the reason it was so lethal is because they were trying to find a winner, right? And back in 1975, at Origins One, they ran this tournament called The Tomb of Horrors. What we found, and what we have actually reproduced in full facsimile, for this special edition of Art and Arcana is that tournament version from 1975, with a hand drawn map by Gary Gygax with all the original descriptions, that’s something that would really blow peoples’ minds. KR: Anyone want to add anything? MW: Yeah, I’ve got one for you. So, when it comes to some of the original art, again, as Jon kind of intimated, a lot of this early stuff is homebrew stuff. They didn’t realize they were making history when they were developing it, right? A lot of times if you would draft material that you rejected for the original box set of Dungeons and Dragons, you’d probably throw it out. So, it’s a miracle that some of this stuff survived. And we were actually lucky enough to gather a few draft pieces that never made the final cut. We had a witch made by Cookie Corre which didn’t make the final cut, and we have this really peculiar piece called the Big Eye. Kyle had mentioned the idea of rumored pieces that may or may not have existed. Well, Jon and I had both heard independently that there was once a something akin to a ground beholder, as it was described to us, that Greg Bell had done. Greg Bell, being one of the original artists, he was just a teenager when this was all happening. He was asked by Gary [Gygax] to do something that was similar to what we would define as a ground beholder, a beholder connected to the ground. Well we had looked up and down and sideways and we had never come across anything that looked like this. Well sure enough at the eleventh hour we found an art collector that had a tremendous trove of art and within this trove – and by the way, John and I had both interviewed Greg Bell individually and he didn’t have any recollection of such a thing – and yet, at the eleventh hour we get this piece that is in fact a ground beholder by Greg Bell with Gary’s handwritten annotation that says “don’t use”, and “no”. We were able to reproduce that for the book. So, to say that’s peculiar? Absolutely. Unique? Absolutely. KR: Kyle, do you have anything? KN: I honestly think the seeing the five probably most important pieces – the Monster Manual, the Dungeon Master Guide, the Fiend Folio, etc. Seeing all those books in their native form, that art, and being able to put them in this was great. I love seeing that all together. I think it’s really important. I think fans are going to get a kick out of seeing it without all the logos and everything in its native artist form. KR: All right one last question to wrap things up. Favorite class? MW: Bard. JP: Magic User. KR: Kyle? KN: I got to go with Wizard, but I’m loving Clerics, too. Check out Dungeons and Dragons and Art and Arcana! Keith Rice is a West Virginia native and a freelance writer residing in Philadelphia with his lovely, if oft exasperated wife and three cats. Keith fosters an enthusiastic appreciation for beer and scotch, collects comics, and most importantly is an avid reader and movie lover. Oh, he’s a pretty big fan of sci-fi and fantasy as well. Drop him a line @Keith_Rice1.
This interview was done at New York Comic Con 2018 and has been lightly edited and condensed for clarity. We sat down with Mur Lafferty for a quick chat about Solo: A Star Wars Story, what it was like writing a film novelization, and the not-so-complex motivations of Han Solo. Keith Rice: Okay, so Solo: A Star Wars Story, was that your first novelization of a film? Mur Lafferty: Yes, yes it was. KR: What was the process like? ML: Well I was flown out to San Francisco to Lucasfilm, I had basically the day with the script and then I went home and started writing. I came up with a couple of additional scene ideas, and those had to be cleared through Lucasfilm. There was a delay on the deadline of the book which was great for me because I got to see the movie and was able to then tweak whatever I had gotten maybe a little wrong, which helped, because there were a couple of things I’d read in the script that I couldn’t quite picture. It was pretty amazing. KR: Can you talk a little bit about some of the new content you explored? ML: (SPOILER ALERT – Skip this section if you haven’t seen “Solo”) The movie starts out with Han Solo running away from a deal gone bad. So, I decided I wanted to write that deal. Backup, say, fifteen minutes, and that’s when the story starts. We see Han Solo trying to cheat the people he’s selling the coaxium to so he can steal some of it for himself. Of course that goes very poorly and then he steals the speeder. I also expanded the scene of him at the academy, working with the Navy. And probably my favorite scene that I added was L3 merging with the Millennium Falcon from her point of view. Finally, I threw in this crazy idea to put an epilogue in there about what happened to all the coaxium they stole, where Enfys Nest took it, and Lucasfilm actually approved it, which shocked me to my core! I’m like, okay. I asked for all of this, all the toys in the world, and they delivered. KR: So, you added canon, basically. That’s amazing. ML: Yeah, so I got to write the epilogue with Saw Gerrera and Jyn and Enfys Nest. KR: What I does it feel like taking on an iconic characters like Hans Solo? ML: It was intimidating, but he’s – I mean, let’s be honest, he’s not a complicated character as an adult, and so he’s not a complicated character as a young man. He’s, you know… “I’m gonna try to ride my bike down this hill, okay the brakes failed, so lets make the best of it, and turn when we need to turn and okay, we’re going faster now, I just want to try not to crash.” I mean, that’s pretty much how he approached everything in his life. And so, just making that a little more naive and a little bit more willing—and removing some of the bitterness of his adult life—that’s how I wrote it. KR: How do you find a balance between your podcasting and your writing? ML: I usually do not podcast as much as I intend to. So, writing is the priority. And luckily because the shows are about writing, my listeners understand. Because when I tell them I actually have a book due and podcasts aren’t going to be coming as often, they understand because they’re writers, or they want to be. Honestly, podcasting doesn’t take that much time. It’s all the other things, procrastination, or the things that demand you time from home, or deciding that ten minor emails are more important that your daily writing or something. That’s what I struggle with. It’s not a time thing, it’s a priorities thing. If I can dedicate an hour or two hours a week to podcasting I’d be fine. It’s just finding those two hours among the maelstrom of procrastination and stuff that is my constant struggle. KR: If you could take on another Star Wars character, who would you want to write? ML: Completely different from Solo? Gosh, so many. KR: Who’s your top three? ML: I really want to write some young Finn stories. I want to know, I mean, something had to happen in his youth that gave that spark of, “I got to get out of here,” kind of thing. Gosh, I don’t know. Everyone I think of has already been done by very good authors, and, you know, Leia’s one of my favorite characters of all time but there’s been a lot of stuff told about her. KR: Yeah. ML: I guess I’m just going towards the newer ones. I have to say, Enfys Nest, I love her. I think that there are so many stories you can tell about her. And I think are a lot of stories you could tell about Qi’ra, after she went to take on the Crimson Dawn. I think a lot of people – I’m going on a tangent here – I think a lot of people were very confused by Qi’ra’s actions. I heard somebody say she was betraying Han. And I didn’t see that at all. She never ever, ever, said she would go with him. She never promised anything. He just assumed and went off on his own little fantasy world. But I would love to follow her and see a little bit more of her reasoning behind things. I guess my top three would be Enfys Nest, Qi’ra and Finn. KR: What’s your current favorite podcast? ML: I’m not listening to podcasts right now. I feel awful, I feel awful. KR: No, don’t. ML: There’s so many amazing podcasts I hear about now, but I usually use my audio time to listen to books. KR: How about this. If you had to pick a podcast to introduce someone to podcasts, what would you recommend? ML: Let’s see. A friend of mine, Rob Walsh, who now works at Libsyn, Liberated Syndication, one of the first podcast hosts, he did a podcasts called podCast 411, where he’d talk about all the news in podcasting. And that was pretty cool to watch. For children’s podcasting one of the first people who did that was Grant Baciocco, was Radio Adventures of Dr. Floyd. He took, just, a very small scripted radio show-type format and made it for kids. It was very funny and really clever. Gosh, and you know for fiction, Scott Sigler I believe is still doing a lot of fiction and a lot of keeping up with everything. He’s putting out a lot of content as well as his books. Check out Mur Lafferty’s Solo! Keith Rice is a West Virginia native and a freelance writer residing in Philadelphia with his lovely, if oft exasperated wife and three cats. Keith fosters an enthusiastic appreciation for beer and scotch, collects comics, and most importantly is an avid reader and movie lover. Oh, he’s a pretty big fan of sci-fi and fantasy as well. Drop him a line @Keith_Rice1.
This interview was done at New York Comic Con 2018. We caught up with Delilah Dawson for a quick chat about Kill the Farm Boy, fantasy tropes, Spam Musubi, and drinking with Kevin Hearne. Keith Rice: you have Kill the Farm Boy out now, and No Country for Old Gnomes is coming out next year? Delilah Dawson: Yeah – – KR: So, what can you tell us about The Tales of Pell. DD: Tales of Pell are like if The Princess Bride got in a car crash with Discworld. It’s all about flipping fantasy tropes in a loving way, playing with the tropes of Dungeons and Dragons and what happens when a group of heroes gets together. Kevin Hearne and I came up with the idea at an airport barbecue restaurant in Houston. He wanted to do an anthology and I was there for it, and then we realized that took a lot of math and author herding. We’re like, what if we just wrote the book together? Then you each only have to write half a book, which is a really good deal for us. It’s all about playing with fantasy tropes. There’s a dark lord but his only magic is that he can make bread in various kinds of crusty goodness. There is a fighter in a chainmail bikini because her real armor is on hold for layaway, which is why she needs the money. There is a bard who is also kind of a bunny rabbit, and the hero turns out to be a goat, because guess what happened to the farm boy? KR: What was it like writing something like Phasma, and then moving on to this kind of farcical fantasy? DD: It was refreshing. Phasma, we call it the “Mad Max” of Star Wars. It’s kind of unrelenting, violent, soul-crushing, it is a sharp book. And then you move into the Tales of Pell, which is all light-hearted, fun, jokey, a couple of fart jokes. So, it was very freeing, and in troubled times it was really nice to come home and get an email and it’s this hilarious chapter from Kevin Hearne who is really funny. And it’s all about being lighthearted and loving, and the good guys win. It was really nice. You know, you come back from a big fight and it’s like that refreshing sip of ale. KR: After writing Phasma are there any other Star Wars characters you’d like a crack at? DD: The great thing about the current Del Rey Star Wars editing team is that they seem really great at matching authors to the characters, the stories that a given author would really be great at telling. So, I feel like anything they ask me to do, it would be because they thought I would be the best person to write that particular story. I would be totally down for it. Phasma is great. Violent women are kind of my modus operandi. And, you know, same with Bezine Netal in The Perfect Weapon. The original pitch for that was female James Bond in space. I was totally there for it. So, yeah, I would love anything that was offered me. You know, I really want to know what happens to Cardinal and to Phasma. Although I know what happened to Phasma, but we don’t know about “Episode 9.” Cardinal and Bezine Netal are kind of my babies and I want to make sur that their okay. And if they’re not ok, I want to make sure that they go out with guns a-blazing. KR: How was the experience co-writing with Kevin Hearne? DD: It’s like going to the bar with your best friend and laughing your butt off. Those stories, we did the outlining and story-breaking when we were at a Con together. We would just go bar-hopping. No Country for Old Gnomes, that was on Frenchman Street in New Orleans, we’d go into one bar, get a drink, listen to the music, look at the art on the walls and different things would make its way into the book. And then for The Princess Beard, we were in Seattle and I had never had Spam Musubi, and I was like, “Kevin, we have to go get Spam Musubi.” We ended up with these two foot-tall hurricanes. And we’re like, “Oh, and it’s a book that’s got some piracy in it!” So, it was very fitting. So, just a little bit of, “Oh, buddy, you know what would be fun, ooh, yeah that’s a really good idea, let’s do that.” [Laughs] We giggle a lot. KR: What was the inspiration for Kill the Farm Boy. DD: Kevin [Hearne] came up with it, it was his idea for an anthology and I said we should make it into just a book we write together. I think the actual inspiration was just the trope of, kind of, every fantasy novel ever – a poor white boy from nowhere special suddenly discovers he’s the chosen one with secret powers and is the scion of a generation. We were, like, “Oh, my God, stop.” Like, we love “Star Wars”, but Luke was pretty whiny at the beginning. Let’s accept it and he could’ve died at any moment. So, we were like, well what if we start off with a farm boy anointed as the chosen one and then he kicks it? Who picks up and carries the torch of that quest? How do the people come together to do the right thing? It was all about lovingly playing with the Dungeons and Dragons sort of dungeon party trope, to tell a more current story that is feminist, that is LGBTQ inclusive, that is diverse, it’s not all just a bunch of white awesome people. We just really wanted to tell a more kind of fairytale fantasy. KR: You write Lady Castle and Sparrowhawk for Boom. DD: Yeah, pretty much anything that’s a portmanteau or two words thrown together, I will write. KR: What’s your process like writing comics versus writing fiction? DD: 100% different. When I write a book, I mean, granted, properties like Star Wars are very different – you work with committee of people, there are outlines involved – but writing a book for me at home is just, I do what I want, and then I turn it in, and an editor helps make it better. With comics, the idea in the pitch has to be something that would lend itself to a very visual story, and you have to describe the world-building. You also have to think about length and pacing in a different way. A comic is usually 22 pages, and the ones I’ve written have been four or five-issue arcs, so each issue has to have its own small story that has an ending and then they all have to contribute to the overall arc. It takes a little bit more advanced planning. There’s also this wonderful surprise of, you write your pages, you edit them, you get them right, and then one day art just falls in your lap and your like, “Oh my God, this is the thing that I dreamed up except better.” Because the artists are the heroes of comics. They do all the heavy lifting. All mad props to them. They take our ideas and our words and just make them gorgeous. You don’t really get that with novels. You get to see one cover that you might or might not like, but in comics you’re usually involved in the art, and it shows up and it’s like seeing your dreams made real. KR: Okay, so, if you could pick three books to recommend for fans of Kill the Farm Boy what would they be? DD: Books for fans of Kill the Farm Boy? Wow, hmmm, it’s more like, “if you like this book, then you would like Kill the Farm Boy.” KR: Let’s go with that. DD: So, Good Omens, Discworld, The Princes Bride. If you liked my Lady Castle stuff, if you like Monty Python. All that sort of stuff would lead you into Kill the Farm Boy. But, I haven’t really read anything as kind of silly and playful as it in a long time. Check out Delilah Dawson’s Kill the Farm Boy! Keith Rice is a West Virginia native and a freelance writer residing in Philadelphia with his lovely, if oft exasperated wife and three cats. Keith fosters an enthusiastic appreciation for beer and scotch, collects comics, and most importantly is an avid reader and movie lover. Oh, he’s a pretty big fan of sci-fi and fantasy as well. Drop him a line @Keith_Rice1.
Tara Isabella Burton’s Social Creature is on so many summer reading lists for good reason. It’s a fast-paced contemporary thriller focused on a twisted friendship between two young women in New York City. Full of bizarre and luxurious parties, crime, sin, pretense, and social media, it’s a smart and addictive read. We spoke to Burton on the phone and talked about her influences, dandies, and more.
You initially wrote a novel that you abandoned because it wasn’t working, but you brought the characters back in this book. What changed in this iteration?
Originally the book I’d written was a Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca knockoff and it was very dated, it could have been set in 1960, it was on a Mediterranean cruise ship. It was stilted and everyone was overly dramatic. But despite that, I liked the idea of having these two women who were obsessed with each other, this man playing the role of the femme fatale character, and this fourth character, a kind of harlequin type who likes to cause chaos. The four of them, I wanted them to live! But at nineteen, I didn’t have the insights or life experience do do anything interesting with them.
I’m from NYC but was in University of Oxford from eighteen onward, so I’d never really been an adult in New York. I started coming back to NYC in about 2013, developing intense relationships with women and close friends- the experience was an incredibly frenetic New York life. Around that time I became more and more fascinated with ways in which the internet is a canvas for people to explore their identities. How you create a literary poetic language around the internet and technology and these things that are very real in people’s lives but are not necessarily “literary”.
I wanted to write this story more about the female friendship, and being set in this New York with that frenetic feeling gave the novel it’s atmosphere. Originally no one had cell phones, I kept technology out because I wanted to write like Daphne du Maurier. But it turned out that I liked finding out how to write about someone texting and and still keep that literary, lyrical register. The characters got reborn in a much better book for them.You had this great twitter-thread talking about how self-creation via the internet is interesting and artistic, not frivolous. Some press surrounding the book makes it seem like it’s a scathing indictment of social media – but that’s not what you’re going for!
No! I’m excited by it! But I see why some people would think that. So, a little bit of backstory – my doctorate is in theology but specifically about the idea of self-creation in 19th century dandies. Basically my thesis was about how in Paris, people were exploring how to create yourself as a work of art. What does it mean to create your own identity? So I think social media is fascinating! The technology is new but the instinct to create yourself is not new – it’s as old as humanity. Particularly when it comes to women online, women posting selfies, there’s a tendency to dismiss one’s social media presence as a form of artifice that has nothing to do with reality. And I find that shockingly simplistic. This is just a whole avenue to explore our identities. Is it fictional? Yeah, partly, but no more than putting on makeup or smiling when you don’t feel like it or dropping references to books you haven’t actually read.
It was super interesting to hear you studied French decadent literature – the excess, the over the top social circles absolutely come through – can you tell me about crafting that atmosphere?
Pretty much every incident in the book is something I’ve seen or experienced. I wanted to create a world that is not at all a one-to-one representation of a particular New York group, but instead a stylized pastiche of Brooklyn lit bros, finance bros, vintage club kids etc. None of these people necessarily hang out together – I wanted to create a New York scene in order to create a sense of timelessness that you don’t get by portraying just one group. The New York I created was rooted in my experience of coming back in my twenties, but very much designed not to map onto one social group.
Can you tell me about the two main characters’ power dynamic? Neither one is innocent, neither one is fully appealing, you can’t wholly identify with either.
If Lavinia and Louise had been born in each other’s bodies and met, the exact same story would have played out. They’re very very similar; they appear as opposites, but the way in which they are opposite is a function of privilege and money and upbringing. Fundamentally they are just two women who lack a solid sense of self – they are constantly looking to define themselves through other people. I think their relationship is toxic and interesting because Ido think they love each other, I think they are in love with each other – for me there was no doubt there was a sexual and erotic attraction. But they are so obsessed with themselves that they can’t have any intimacy with any other human being, because every interaction is just to fill this black hole of “who am I”. Both of them have power in every moment.
Are there other complicated and obsessive relationships in literature that you love?
One of my favorite toxic relationships is the literalization of the trope that the most toxic relationships are when you’re two sides of the same person. So I think Fight Club is the perfect example of that. It does incredible job of making literal this metaphorical truth that the people who get inside your head are you or are as close to you as possible.
Also Henry James – one of my favorite writers. He’s hugely influential in regards to how I approach dialogue and he’s such an incisive writer about petty little social codes and class and money. Wings of the Dove has a relationship between two women that’s so mediated by outside power structures that it’s impossible for them to authentically relate to each other.
When friends ask you for book recommendations, is there anything new or old that you always mention?
My favorite book of the year is The Collector which is incredibly terrifying story of am who kidnaps a women as though she’s an object.
i love latest book “based on a true story” which is another toxic female friendship. it follows a french novelist and a ghostwriter who mysteriously floats into her life.
I also used to make all my old boyfriends read D.H. Lawrence’s Women in Love which is another story about very messed up people having deep conversations and glowering at the landscape. I like books with lots of intense conversation and big symbolic scenes.
Check out SOCIAL CREATURE!
Sophie Chen Keller joins Amy to talk about her first novel, THE LUSTER OF LOST THINGS. They cover NYC bakeries, beloved kids’ books, and going the extra mile to be kind.
We’re going deep inside the making of a book, with interviews from Penguin Random House employees in editorial, marketing, sales, and more. If you’ve ever wondered about all the behind-the-scenes work that goes into making your favorite books, this is the series for you. Take a look at the first post in this series here. Gemina is now on shelves! We’re wrapping up this series with an interview with the authors! Amie Kaufman and Jay Kristoff stopped by the studio to talk about their book tour and much more. Listen here:
“Getting out and meeting readers is honestly the best part of the job” – Jay KristoffFans have been raving about Gemina, and book instagrammers have a lot to say! From Hikari of Folded Pages Distillery:
“Gemina: 10/5 Stars. Explosive, Brutal, Hilarious, Unforgiving, Fist Pumping, Jaw Dropping. These are the words I’m using for Gemina. I started Gemina on Thursday and stayed up last night until 3 a.m. finishing it because I COULD NOT STOP.”From Vilma of Vilma’s Book Blog:
“I think the whole world knows how much I loved #Illuminae and so far I’m loving Hanna and Nik’s story too! Anddddd the book features illustrations by @marieluthewriter! How awesome is that?!!!”From Ursula of ursula_uriarte: “I present you guys my favorite book of the year!!! If you haven’t read this series please do yourself a favor and get on it! If you do it simultaneously on audio is even better!” Thanks for following along with Gemina’s Life of a Book series! Follow the authors on Twitter (@AmieKaufman, @misterkristoff) and Instagram (@amiekaufmanauthor, @misterkristoff) Visit the website here: illuminaefiles.com Check out more Young Adult books here. Get the book here:
Amor Towles, author of the best-selling RULES OF CIVILITY, came on the show to talk about his new book, A GENTLEMAN IN MOSCOW. He and Amy talk Russian literature, gratifying research and why Andre Agassi is like a good novelist. Learn about the book here:
Chuck Klosterman and his long-time editor, Brant Rumble, talk with Amy about the future, Moby Dick, high-school level physics, serial killers and much more. Follow the entire Life of the Book here: bit.ly/216fgsS Learn about the book here:
Whitney Way Thore, star of TLC’s “My Big Fat Fabulous Life” jumps out of a ballroom class to talk with Lindsay about dancing, prejudice, writing, eating disorders, body positivity, and her mom, Babs. Watch the moving book trailer: bit.ly/1sJihE1 Learn about the book here: