Chris Farnsworth: Radioisotopic batteries, ancient manuscripts, Godzilla-sized monster trucks capable of crushing downtown Phoenix... some of the greatest things in the Tyler Locke series so far are the real-life sci-fi toys you get to play with. How do you find out about this stuff?
Boyd Morrison: Researching the stories is part of the fun for me, and the info is everywhere. The Discovery Channel, scientific journals, magazines like Wired and Popular Mechanics, Twitter links. The real problem is not finding this stuff, but agonizing over what to leave out of the novels (and stopping the research so I actually write something). I've always been a junkie for cool technology, so I originally indulged myself by getting a few engineering degrees. That led to getting to play with some of the best toys out there: the space station when I worked at NASA, TVs and satellite systems at RCA, and video games at Microsoft. Now I scour any and all sources for high-tech gadgets to put into Tyler Locke's hands, including the explosive kinds.
What I want to know is how you found the original story that gave you the idea for Nathaniel Cade, who is the best new hero to come along in years. A secret agent vampire that works for the president? Brilliant! Needless to say, I'm a huge fan.
CF: Ah, please. You'll make me blush. The idea for Cade came from a real-life incident in American history. In 1867, President Andrew Johnson pardoned a man who reportedly killed two of his crewmates on a whaling vessel and drank their blood. (You can find all the gruesome details in the non-fiction book also titled The President's Vampire by Robert Damon Schneck.) I couldn't get the story out of my head. I kept wondering: what would the President of the United States do with a vampire? The book began right there. But let's get back to you. First, what was the coolest thing you saw at NASA? Was it aliens? You can tell me. I'm trustworthy. And how did you go from engineer--and Jeopardy! champion--to author?
BM: With the advanced neuralizer technology NASA has from Area 51, do you really think they'd let me keep my memories of aliens? Or teleporters? Wait, ignore that last part. I've said too much. Coolest thing at NASA was flying in the Vomit Comet, the plane they use to train astronauts for zero-gravity. And no, I did not throw up, thanks to powerful drugs (or they've neuralized the memory).
The engineer-to-Jeopardy! link is easier than the other one. We nerds love playing trivia games, and Jeopardy! is the ultimate nerd game (after Dungeons and Dragons, which I admit I used to play--Jeopardy! pays more, by the way). Becoming an author was more a product of being a thriller novel fan and reading enough books where I said, "I could write something better than this." Sort of like when you watch Jeopardy! at home and go, "That player is a doofus. I could kick his butt!" Then I tried both and found out they're harder than they look. As a screenwriter-turned-novelist, did you have the same experience?
CF: I'm impressed. The closest I came to Jeopardy! was getting knocked out in the first round of Win Ben Stein's Money. I never played D & D either. It's the one geek merit badge I never earned.
As for books, I was writing novels long before I sold a script. I wrote my first as a senior thesis in college. (Thankfully, that first one will never see the light of day.) I got into screenwriting almost as a fluke. When I was a reporter, a friend of mine suggested I give it a try, and he showed the finished product to his agents. They sold it in two weeks. And then I spent a long time flailing away unsuccessfully at other scripts, but still writing books when I had ideas that I thought deserved more detail.
I can't say being published makes it any easier to write a book. I'm always wondering how to raise the stakes. My writing teacher, John Rember, called it, "Painting yourself into a corner and then flying out." In your books, you make that look easy. So I want to know: how do you manage to create those ever-worsening death traps for Tyler Locke? Is there some crossover in the skills you learned working with video games at Microsoft?
BM: I paint myself into corners all the time. It's just that readers don't see me waiting there for the paint to dry. I try to make every situation adhere to known laws of physics, so that Tyler will never be saved by supernatural forces. It has to come down to wits, brawn, and resilience. And an important part of getting him out of jams is that the bad guys can't be incompetent. It drains the suspense if they are feeble enemies who make silly mistakes (like the old movie cliche where the bad guys shoot 500 rounds and never hit the hero, but the good guy needs only one shot per nameless minion). There are many times when even I wonder how Tyler is going to avoid what looks like certain death. That's the work part of writing.
The best thing I learned in the Microsoft Xbox group was how to pace an experience. Whether you're playing video games or reading books, you need some breathing space between tense action scenes. Finding that balance is tricky for me: too much action and the story can lose some of the mystery and emotion; too little action and the story gets talky and boring. You seem to have found a perfect balance in your series.
You can use supernatural forces to help out Cade. Does that make it easier or harder to craft the plots?
CF: One of my professors in English Lit gave me a great piece of wisdom about writing fiction: it doesn't have to be possible, but it does have to be plausible. Using the supernatural, I can push the bounds of what's rational in my novels--but I have to be careful to stay within the rules as I've already set them up. Readers tend to call BS if a bunch of exceptions to the vampire mythos suddenly pop up when it's most convenient for the plot; if, for example, Cade suddenly revealed his aversion to sunlight goes away for no reason every third Thursday of the month. I find people will accept the fantastic as long as it's consistent.
But I agree with you that the villains have to be smart. This is another thing you do really well. Maybe it's because you're smart yourself, but your bad guys all have good reasons for their actions. Maybe they're not ethical or moral reasons, but they make sense to reach their objectives. That seems more like the real world to me. Nobody really believes they're the villains in their own stories; like your antagonists, they think they have good reasons for doing what they're doing. Why do you think that is? When writing your villains, have you figured out why people can do such horrific things and still consider themselves basically the good guys?
BM: I think most of the people we consider villains in the real world fall into one of three categories: those taking actions that they feel are for the greater good (or a greater power) despite the cost to certain groups or individuals; those who act selfishly with total disregard for how their decisions impact others; and complete psychopaths whose actions are irrational and incomprehensible. In all three cases the villains dehumanize outsiders so that their actions are acceptable to themselves. And in some cases, the villain is deluded, selfish, and irrational. Taken to extremes, we can unfortunately see how that combination leads to pure evil (Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot). The beauty of fiction is that we get to write the ending where the villain gets his just desserts (unless you're writing horror or noir, in which the villain might get away with it).
In your case Cade is fighting against internal demons to be on the good side, which makes him intriguingly complex. What makes a worthy protagonist in your opinion?
CF: That's a tricky question for me. One of the reasons I like Tyler Locke is that he's such a genuinely decent guy. He's not superhuman, despite all his abilities and successes, but he does his best. However--and this may be something best discussed with my therapist--I don't think I could write a guy like that. I have spent too much time wallowing in self-doubt and misery to create a character who's not carrying around a backpack full of flaws.
Some of my favorite protagonists include Jack Reacher and Nicholai Hel (from Trevanian's Shibumi). Both are guys who would be called cold-blooded killers by any competent court-ordered evaluator. But I have no problem rooting for them. It helps that the people they fight could really use some killing, but I think the main factor that tempers their violence is their strict adherence to an ethical code of conduct. Some other protagonists who fall under this definition: Takeshi Kovacs and Carl Marsalis (both created by Richard K. Morgan), John Connolly's Charlie Parker, and even John D. MacDonald's Travis McGee. These are all guys who carry some weight on their souls.
That said, I have a great appreciation for the Superman, Doc Savage, Jack Ryan kind of hero as well. The guy who walks in the daylight, not the shadows. If anything, I think heroes like that are harder to write. Do you find that to be the case with Tyler, who's definitely a daylight hero?
BM: Tyler's a guy we'd like to have on our side when things get dicey, but he's not out there looking for wrongs to right. He's a hero as much as anyone who voluntarily joined the military to serve their country, but now he's done his duty and wants to get back to some kind of normal life. The hard part in the writing is conveying that, while he's smart, capable, and tenacious, he's no superhero fighting for truth, justice, and the American way (that's what he did in the Army). He has foibles and fears, he gets hurt, and he makes mistakes, but he's dogged enough to overcome those hurdles even when the odds against him look grim.
Now, finally, to the often-asked movie question. I know that the rights to your series have been optioned by Hollywood, and you've mentioned that Christian Bale would make a scary good Cade (I agree). Do you want a cameo in the film, and who would you want to play?
CF: Although I did some acting when I was a kid, I have no great desire to get in front of an audience again. I think any movie with Christian Bale will do just fine without a cameo from me. Being a published author is about the biggest amount of fame I can handle. I simply cannot understand those people who make it their mission in life to appear in grainy cell-phone video on TMZ. I like my privacy.
You're an actor, though, so you may feel differently. Is there a clause in your movie deal that you get to play Tyler? And if not, then who do you see in the role? And what part will you find when they eventually get your books on the big screen?
BM: I think it would be a blast to appear as one of the bad guys who gets offed in a gruesome way. Playing Tyler isn't a goal, though; I want any eventual movie to make money, and nobody's going to pay to see me. I could envision someone like Matt Damon, Bradley Cooper, or Ryan Reynolds doing a great job in the role.