Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Michael Alan Nelson?
I grew up in a small farming community in northern Indiana. Lots of corn and woods and swamp, but not much else. However, we lived about ninety minutes from downtown Chicago, so my parents would make sure to get me into the city now and again to remind me there was a larger world out beyond the seemingly endless cornfields. It was actually a nice place to be. I got to experience that stereotypical “small town” life (for all its good and ills) and yet still be exposed to a large, diverse world beyond my back yard. I would spend a Saturday helping my dad cut down trees and split wood (we heated our home with a wood burning stove) and then head into the city on Sunday to visit Adler Planetarium or the Field Museum–though, to be honest, I much preferred the museums to splitting wood.
I was also a bit of a kid-of-all-cliques when I was growing up. I was always shy so people never paid much attention to me. That allowed me to occupy this odd space that floated between several different social strata. I was in theater, competed on the speech team, but I was also a varsity wrestler. Of course, sometimes I would skip practice to play Dungeons&Dragons. When I was supposed to be working on takedowns, I’d be in the bed of a pick-up truck parked in some random cornfield rolling for initiative. Needless to say, I didn’t have a very promising wrestling career.
After college, it was pretty much the same thing. I’d work in some professional capacity while gaming and jamming in metal bands on the weekends. I had a couple of day jobs that most people would think of as careers (high school English teacher, donor counselor for a blood bank). But I never saw them as such because I just didn’t belong in those worlds. I could function, even thrive, but those occupations just weren’t for me. It never felt right, like I was wearing a borrowed costume. The reason I never felt anchored anywhere is because the only place I truly belonged was inside my own head. It wasn’t until I moved to Los Angeles and met other professional writers that all that became clear to me. Writing is my home.
So I’m still that kid, weaving back and forth between the country and the city, the professional world and the dreamscapes of the eternal adolescent. But now I use words to bridge the gaps between those worlds, occasionally occupying the overlapping spaces within the Venn diagram of life.
Your next novel, Hexed: The Sisters of Witchdown, will be published by Pyr Books in the US, in May 2015. How would you introduce the novel to a potential reader?
The first thing I would say is that there isn’t any need to have read any of the comics to understand or enjoy the novel. That’s something I was very conscious of when I was writing it. I wanted to make sure that a new reader could come in cold and not feel lost. All a reader needs to know is that it’s the story of a young thief, Lucifer, who operates in a magical underworld hidden away beneath the mundane world of the every day. So when a young girl is whisked away by something supernatural, Lucifer is the only one the missing girl’s father can turn to for help. So if you like page-turning urban fantasy with a cinematic flavor, this will be right up your alley.
Hexed is set in the world first featured in your comic series of the same name. What were the challenges of adapting your approach to prose?
There were several challenges, but the biggest was not having an artist to collaborate with. I’ve been fortunate to have worked with some incredible artists over the years, artists who took my scripts and brought them to life in ways I never thought possible. With prose, that job falls to me. It’s up to me to set the stage in the reader’s mind and create that sensory experience.
And that led to another challenge. I had to adjust the way I created settings and actions. When I script a comic, my descriptions are often very clinical since I’m not trying to entertain the artist, but rather give her the tools she needs to create the art. And that doesn’t always make for compelling reading. At the time I started working on the novel, I hadn’t exercised those particular prose writing skills in a while, so it took some effort to get back into the swing of it.
But the challenge I found most surprising was simply not having any limitations to the way I could tell the story. That may sound odd, but writing a comic comes with some very specific parameters. First, a single issue is twenty to twenty-two pages long. So whatever story you’re telling in that issue, you only have twenty-two pages in which to do it. Also, there is only so much physical space on the page. This severely limits just how much dialog and captioning you can have since your words are competing with the art for the same real estate. Now, the good thing about those parameters is that it really forces you to focus on the economy of your story telling. But anything that isn’t important, no matter how much you might like it, has to go. And that’s a difficult thing to deal with sometimes.
Now with prose, the sky is the limit. If I wanted to spend five pages on Lucifer walking through a door, I could. It was wonderful to finally have that freedom, but I found myself suffering from an almost kind of writing agoraphobia. I would get nervous if a scene was getting too long or if I was letting characters dictate the length of their conversations. So when I went back during rewrites I ended up adding almost as much as I subtracted.
What inspired you to write the novel and comic series? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
My inspiration comes from everywhere. Dreams, music, LOLcat images, anything that makes my brain sit up and wonder. Whatever it is that spurs my creativity, I have to take it and run with it as fast as I can. Because the sad truth, at least for me, is that inspiration isn’t always there waiting for me to notice it. Most of the time I have to go looking for it. But that wasn’t the case with Hexed. The inspiration for Hexed actually came from a comic series I wrote called Fall of Cthulhu. I was in the middle of writing the second story arc when my editor asked for some cover ideas for the third arc. Now, comics are solicited months in advance so covers are often commissioned before the stories for those issues are finished or even solidified. I wasn’t quite sure where I wanted to go in the next arc, so I wrote up a few ideas I thought would be interesting but vague enough to use with several different story concepts I had. One of those ideas was of a girl sitting on the floor of a jail cell and scrawling runes in the dust. When the cover came in, I was transfixed by the image. I instantly wanted to know more about her. Who was she? Why was she in jail? What was she doing with the runes and why on earth did she look so calm about it all? When I started to answer those questions, that’s when the character of Lucifer came to life.
By the time FoC was finished, I and my editors had really grown to love Lucifer and the Harlot. So we decided to take them out of that darker Lovecraftian universe and put them into my own. That’s how Hexed came into being.
The idea for the novel came when I was doing a little background world-building for the comic series. Quite often I’ll have bits and pieces of stories or ideas that I’ll keep in the back of my mind to help me add a bit of flavor and depth to a character. Even if those pieces never see the light of day as fully fleshed-out stories, I have them percolating in the background to help me make my characters three dimensional. But in this instance, I finally had to chance to explore one of those ideas and really see it bloom into a complete story.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
My dad introduced me. He was big into genre fiction when I was a kid and he always left his books lying around. Books he owned, books he had checked out from the library, books he had borrowed. Clarke, Azimov, Herbert, Tolkein, McCaffrey, all tucked away on coffee tables or nightstands just waiting for me to get my greedy little fists on them. I never had the chance to ask him if he left them about with the intention of enticing me into reading them, but I’d like to think that he did. I think he eventually came to regret leaving them about since he always seemed to have sizeable overdue book charges whenever he was finally able to return them.
How do you like being a writer and working within the publishing industry?
I love it. My goodness, how do I love it. Even when it’s difficult and the words don’t come nearly as quickly as the bills do, the little eleven-year-old boy inside of me squeals in my ear, “You tell stories for a living!” I’m also very fortunate to be working with some truly incredible people. Everyone at Pyr Books, from editorial to marketing, has been an absolute joy to work with and the folks at BOOM! Studios are practically family. The one thing they all have in common — aside from being just all around great people — is that they all work to help me tell the best story that I can. I know some people might roll their eyes at that and say, “Well, that’s their job.” True, but the entertainment industry can be pretty ruthless at times and the publishing wing of that great magic factory is no exception. So I consider myself extremely lucky to be surrounded by professionals who all want to do great work and push me to be the best I can be.
Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
I try to do most of my writing in the morning or late afternoon/early evening since my brain is mush the rest of the day. And I usually like to have a very specific soundtrack running through my headphones when I write. I’ll create different playlists for each scene to help set the mood in my head. Preferably instrumental music since lyrics tend to distract me. Then it’s just a matter of finding the tiniest corner I can. It makes it easier for me to block out the world since I have the attention span of a toddler on a sugar high.
As for research, I live on Google. And I’ll use Evernote and Feedly to keep track of things I find interesting or want to be able to reference later on. And with all the writing research I’ve done over the years, I’m probably on so many watch lists it’s not even funny. I would not be surprised at all if someday I got story notes from the NSA.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I can tell you exactly when I decided I wanted to be a writer. I was eleven years old and I had just finished reading Fred Saberhagen’s Book of Swords Trilogy. I was big into D&D at the time (who am I kidding, I still am!) and just loved the premise. And it was my first experience with what we call a “page turner.” The end of every chapter had me dying to read the next. But what made it such a profound experience for me was when I read the last line of the final book. It was exactly the same as the first line of the first book. Yet because of the story that happened in between, those two sentences had a completely different meaning. It blew the top of my head off. My eleven-year-old brain could hardly process the sheer awesomeness of it. I didn’t know anything like that was even possible. I remember sitting on my bed with the closed book in my lap, mouth agape, and thinking to myself, “This is what I want to do with my life. I want to create moments like THAT!”
And so my life as a story teller began. The first story I ever wrote was for a school-wide contest in the sixth grade. It was a storyabout a young boy who goes back in time to defuse a nuclear bomb that has been left on a beach in Missouri (because if Missouri is known for anything, it’s beaches). I called it Paradox! Not that I knew what the word really meant. I just thought it sounded cool. The whole thing must have clocked in at about a hundred hand-written words with delightfully awful crayon illustrations. I didn’t win, but I didn’t care. I was so damn proud of that story.
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
I love YA fiction, especially speculative. It’s so much fun to read. I know there are some very vocal people who look down on YA fiction and/or speculative stories and they are perfectly welcome to do so. I don’t care. I love what I love and I will make no apologies for it. Genre fiction brings me joy, either reading it or writing it. What I find so wonderful is discovering others who share that joy. As a writer, it’s my hope that I’m able to bring that same feeling to those who read my books.
Look, I know the chances of me setting the literary world on fire or penning the next great American novel that will be listed on college syllabi for decades to come is pretty slim. And I’m okay with that. What I want is to entertain my readers, move them in some way, to bring them into my world and that they enjoy the time they spend there. That’s what I live for. What I live for. There is no feeling in the world like a fan telling me how much they love what I do, how my story surprised them, made them cry, laugh, even angered them (in a good way). I get caught up in the emotion of my stories when they unspool inside my head, so it’s exhilarating to know that others are affected the same way. Those are the moments when I know I’m not alone in the world.
Oh, yes. I’m finishing up co-writing the comic series Day Men with Matt Gagnon as well as finishing the current arc of the Hexed comic. As for prose, I have a couple of ideas I’m fleshing out and hope to have some news on that front very soon. I’m also involved with an upcoming online project that is focused on serialized story telling with several other writers. It hasn’t fully launched yet so I’m unable to give specifics, but I’ll be able to officially announce my involvement soon.
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
My TBR pile is taller than I am, but at the moment I’m currently reading The Bone Clocks, Joe Abercrombie’s Half a World, Brian K. Vaughn’s Saga, Richard Kadrey’s Sandman Slim series, and I’m on the second book in Catherynne M. Valente’s Fairyland series. Oh, and let’s just take a moment to reflect on just how good Miss Valente is. Her writing is stunningly beautiful. Just gorgeous. I have never been more professionally jealous of a writer than I have been of her. She is mind-bendingly good.
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I used to spin fire. It’s a form of juggling called poi spinning where you attach a kevlar ball to the end of a chain, soak it in kerosene, light it, and spin it around your head in fun and interesting patterns. Though I much prefer the safer LED poi, the fire poi seems to be the thing people enjoy watching the most. Probably because they’re all taking bets on when I’ll immolate myself.
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
I’m looking forward to wrapping up some current projects so that I can begin working on new ones. Developing and creating new stories is such an exciting time. The blank page holds endless possibilities.
Hexed: The Sisters of Witchdown is due to be published in May 2015 by Pyr Books.