We chatted with Rucka about the novel over the phone, why he needed to embrace cliche with this book in order to reject it, and also, a bit about what’s coming up with everyone’s favorite skull-wearing vigilante:
MTV Geek: For those who don’t know what Alpha is, there’s a lot of ex-military-ends-up-working-a-shady-job type novels. What makes this one different… Other than of course you writing it?
Greg Rucka: What makes it different? Honestly, this started with me asking myself “what’s the most cliché action story I can think of,” and then trying to take all the pieces of the cliché and breaking them into something new. The book has everything short of a guy saying, “Man, I was three days from retirement, I bought a boat”—you know what I mean? There is an element—it’s not over the top—but there is a certain self-awareness in the story. The scenario is created as plausibly as possible. I mean, I do crazy amounts of research. I want this stuff to “work,” so to speak. I need to be, at least to me, believable—because if I feel if I cannot invest some element of verisimilitude, the reader is absolutely not going to buy in. And the emotional element of the story has to be sincere because if there’s no empathy you lose your audience. So at first blush, this book is about a guy with a gun chasing other guys with guns. But I do think what makes Alpha perhaps distinctive in the genre is both its self-awareness of what it’s doing. I’m certainly not the first guy to go, Hey, terrorist, amusement park, let’s run with it. But it’s the first time in my experience I’ve ever seen anyone run towards it, if that makes sense, the surrealism of the scenario. So there’s that.
I think another thing is… I’m not very good at presenting just one point of view, which is to say, I don’t like showing only the protagonist’s point of view, Bell’s point of view. Don’t get me wrong, I’m quite fond of him, I sort of met him for this book, and I’m working with him for Bravo, the follow-up—he is in many ways not a typical action hero even though he is a very professional, very expert soldier. But I spent a lot of time on his antagonist, you’re in this other guy’s head, too, and I had a lot of fun contrasting and comparing the two of them. In many ways they’re reflections of one another, albeit a twenty-year gap between their ages. And they actually don’t encounter each other until fairly late in the novel, which is something I had some fun with. It’s less that clench fists/curse you/shouting at you kind of novel as it is two people moving through an environment, each doing exactly what they believe they must, and their actions in that environment, while they are aware of each other, are acting and reacting at a distance until they do finally come together at the end.
Geek: One thing that I thought was really cool about the book was the amount of character detail… As opposed to comic book, I imagine tackling a novel lets you explore more of the character’s inner life, just because of the amount of words.
GR: Yeah, absolutely. When I did the Queen & Country novels… Queen & Country was initially a comic book series published by Oni Press, you know, and part of the reasons while I was doing the series I always knew I’d end up with Q&C novels is because there was an inner-life to the characters that I just couldn’t explore the way I wanted on the comic book page. There’s more time in a novel, you can linger a bit more. Alpha is a very fast-moving book. It doesn’t lend itself to laborious introspection and the navel-gazing that some stories can fall prey to.
But yeah, you’re absolutely right. When you’re working in prose, that’s entirely different; I had as many words as I needed to do this. That said, that can be a trap. You can fall in love with Ooo, I can use all the words. No, no, it’s using the right words instead. That will get you where you need to go.
Geek: I’m just curious—and we’ll get back to Alpha in a second—but with the Queen & Country novels, was that just having a lot of character biography and other ideas kind of laying around that you did during research for your comic, that you were able to repurpose and expand on for the books?
GR: Yeah, and things that I just had in my head that I knew were occurring off panel and off the page that there was really no way to demonstrate. For instance, Crocker is as important character in the Queen and Country series as Chace is. They really rely on each other. Except the comics have to focus on Chace far more than Crocker. One of the joys of being able to write the novel was I was able to talk about the fact that Crocker is married, talk about the fact that he has a family. Actually being able to juxtapose that home life, for instance, with his office life was fun. If you know the series, Crocker is this imperious, unrepentant bastard ruler of his domain in British Intelligence. And people do not say no to him, and he shouts and he bullies and he gets what he wants—and then you see him at home and he has absolutely no authority whatsoever, and he dotes on his wife and his daughters. I love that contrast. He is this very important man in the British government, but when he goes home he has this wife and two daughters who are like we don’t care what you do for a living, you know, don’t you take that tone with us. And just being able to show things like that is one of the delights of being able to work in novels while also writing comics.
Geek: Going in the other direction, I imagine you have to have considered this at least at one point: would you take Alpha and make it into a comic book? Because, as you said, it’s based in cliché in a way… But it’s cliché you’re playing against, you’re expanding on during the breadth of a novel. If you were to distill that all down into a comic book, do you think that would just reducing it down to a cliché? Or are there ways around that?
GR: My answer would have to be no, I think. I mean, the goal with Alpha was to run towards the clichés and then to break through them, and that doesn’t change depending on the medium. So you look at them and say, Here’s a cliché scenario; we have terrorists holding a location hostage, and there’s a family element, and our hero is divorced, etcetera, etcetera. All those clichés are evident. But the story remains the story, the telling of it will alter to the medium—that’s the biggest difference between prose and comics, or a movie and prose, or whatnot. So it would be an interesting challenge turning the novel into a comic, because you’d have to cut things from the novel to make that work, and the result would be, I imagine, that you’d cut, say, Gabriel’s inner life. That antagonist character would be limited, and you would have to draw him – both literally and figuratively – very carefully on the page to avoid turning him into something I think we’ve seen a million times before.
It’s funny, because you know the novel process, you get the drafts, you get the galley, and then you get the galley proofs. You have opportunities to change things all along. But the further along in the process you go, the more careful you have to be in making those changes, and the smaller the changes have to be. And very late on, I actually rewrote the ending with Gabriel, ended up changing his motivation because it was too cliché. I wrote him I’ll make you all pay, and that’s the motive we’ve seen a million times before. A far more human emotion, a far more human motivation – at least to me – is someone in this dire situation being told by someone else, Here is your escape route. It made more sense for him to look at that escape route and go, I know you’re lying to me, but I want to live, and I have to believe this because I have no other choice, and I will actively allow myself to be deceived. That’s, not to pat myself on the back, but to me, that’s a more honest and, oddly, a frankly more unique motivation than I normally see, at least. Those are the kind of clichés I’m trying to get away from. But if you’re representing them in comics, it’s harder to do. It’s not impossible, but I think it’s harder to do.
Geek: Jumping back to the book for a second, it starts off in such a nice, surreal place that I actually had to read the first sentences a couple of times. You open up, and the main character is talking about fighting a dog, and it just gets nuttier from there. What was the process of writing that opening chapter?
Greg Rucka: I wanted people to read that first sentence and go, I couldn’t have read that right. A giant dog armed with a knife? What’s going on here? Like I said, there’s a surreal, almost absurdist element at work, and I wanted to embrace that. There was a point where I was writing it when I was honestly worried the prose was becoming too glib. I get asked who my influences are, and I always say things like Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and how much I love Hemingway or Crane, and it’s all true, but in all brutal honesty, the greatest influence on my prose? The late Douglas Adams. He was a profound influence, and I think there is a sort of a current of Hitchhiker’s-like gentleness and self-awareness and absurdity in the narrative. Bell takes his situation very serious. But when you’re talking about terrorists running around an amusement park dressed up as park characters, there’s a little bit of silly there, and you can’t pretend it’s not. You have to know that it is, and thus you can have somebody dressed up as a giant dog attacking somebody at the beginning of the book. And the dog’s name is Pooch—can you think of anything more absurd? And yet this guy is fighting for his life. It is as brutally realistic a knife fight as I could write. I have different people I go to for research and many of them have become friends, and there’s this guy who told me that the first rule in a knife fight is you’re going to get cut. If you win, you’re still going to get cut. There’s nothing good about a knife fight. I’ve been told a few times that there’s folks who would much rather be shot than stabbed, and there’s a visceral, tangible sense of sweat and exertion and adrenaline and blood, and you put it up against one of the perpetrators dressed up as a giant happy dog, how can that not in some way be absurd?
Geek: Bigger question for you, and it may have come in the pitching process of the book, but at what point do you say, “This isn’t one novel, this is a series?”
GR: Well, for this it was actually fairly deliberate because one of the first discussions I had with John Schoenfelder was the idea of what ultimately will be the third book in this series. And that was something he had had in mind and floated it out in one of those conversations—what if you did a story like this. I liked it, but it seemed to me to be the end of a journey rather than the start. That you need to lay out the ground work and that’s when I turned around and said I have this idea. It came sort of originally in that. One of the things that publishing looks for is a franchise, certainly material that has itself longevity, and one of the ways that’s created is a series. But speaking personally, I’ve never been a writer who can easily walk away from characters once I’ve gotten to know them. It’s less commercial concerns for me. Frankly, you look at my career and you can say that there’s an obvious lack of commercial concern!
These characters, they’re people I want to spend time with and I want to explore more and more. I’ve been going through contortions in Bravo trying to figure out how I get Athena logically into the story, because I don’t want every book to turn into “Bell goes off to do something and his deaf daughter gets into trouble,” or something like that. That’s a cliché I don’t want to go near. But the fact is I want to spend more time with Athena, I love the character, and I want to let her run some more. But I’m going to have to bite the bullet—she’s not in Bravo very much. I wrote a novel, Fistful of Rain, and it’s a standalone, except it’s not. I’ve always wanted to go back and tell more stories about Mim, the main character of that novel, to such an extent that she’s in the new Stumptown arc that Oni Press will be putting out in August. Mim’s the client. I wanted to bring her back.
Honestly, different writers work in different ways. I’ve always worked from character, and the more time I spend with a character, the more I get to know them in the main, the more I want to spend with her. That becomes sort of the driving force. For Alpha, here’s an idea for a novel which will be part of the third book once that’s written, and here’s an idea that I had for another story. That’s weird for me, to have the story before the character. The process of actually trying to figure out who Bell was, for Alpha, this was a longer and frankly different process than I’ve normally done. It became more and more clear to me that I wanted to spend more time with him. The book because of the nature in the way I wrote doesn’t spend a lot of time with Isaiah or Freddy or Jorge. Those guys I have pages and pages of bio on. I wanted to go in and say to who these people are. We’re starting to talk about craft more than anything else, now. It’s a question of picking the right detail for the right time, and if you try to force moments into a novel where they don’t belong, to me it’s like looking at a beautiful person with a giant zit on their nose. Whoa, that’s shocking and not quite expected—and I’m out of the book.
I wish I could say there’s one consistent process. There isn’t. It’s a strange sort of organic growth, which makes it sound vaguely cancerous. But it’s the best answer I can give.
Geek: Last question thing I’ll ask you before I let you go—and this has absolutely nothing to do with Alpha, but while I have you on the phone, because I’m sure people will be curious—with Punisher: Omega Effect about to happen, where are you taking Frank after that arc?
GR: Oh, Omega Effect actually marks the midpoint of this long-form story that I’ve imagined for Frank. You’re in the cave, and after Omega Effect, the daylight disappears. It gets a lot darker. There’s some fun in stuff coming up. Punisher 13—people are going to hate this when you run this quote, because it’s inaccurate—but the way I’ve been thinking of it is Frank as James Bond. He has to get into a location and accomplish certain things at that location and he gets to wear a tuxedo to do it. But he ain’t James Bond. If he enters into a situation like that, you’re going to get a Punisher result. What I’m doing right now with Frank, I really wanted to show what makes Frank a unique character, what makes him kind of incredible as a literary entity. And I’m talked about this elsewhere. All revenge stories end the same way, but because it’s a comic, and it’s an ongoing comic, Frank’s story can’t. He’s not going to die in the end, because you do that, and you cut off the flow of cash. It’s not to be cynical. You acknowledge that reality and then you go now I have to make that work, why therefore Frank does not know he is a character in Marvel Entertainment. He is not aware of this thing, so he’s going to continue forward anyway. How does he do it? Rachel’s presence in the story is really there to illustrate that what Frank is and what Frank does is incredibly unique. That it is not an emulatable path. Like I said, revenge stories only end in one way, really. The writing should be on the wall for us paying attention.
Alpha hits bookstores on May 22nd from Mulholland Books!