Interview: Mark Teppo Talks The Making Of 'The Mongoliad: Book Two,' With Exclusive Art

There are few projects more complex than "The Mongoliad." The transmedia project spans devices, printings, and multiple authors, as well as even occasionally bringing the creators to blows. For research, of course. With "The Mongoliad: Book Two" about to hit print, we chatted with writer Mark Teppo... As well as snagging some exclusive art, and looks behind the process of making the book:

MTV Geek: For those unfamiliar with "The Mongoliad," can you give a little rundown of the project, and how it began; as well as your involvement?

Mark Teppo: "The Mongoliad" began as an online historical adventure serial written by a team of seven writers. It’s basic setting is Europe and Asia in 1241, at a time when the Mongol Horde was about to roll over Christendom. The Khan of Khans suddenly died—in a “hunting accident, no less—and the Mongol army went home to elect a new leader, and never came back. That much is true. We didn’t buy the convenience of a “hunting accident,” and have come up with a better answer. It involves a secret group of warrior-monks, and a dangerous mission to the heart of the Mongolian empire.

As to the mechanics of the project, I was the guy who managed details well, and my initial job was Canon Master. Over time, that turned into Scheduling Guy, and eventually, Ad Hoc Writer Guy and, finally, overall Creative Director of the Foreworld franchise. "The Mongoliad," as a serial, ran 58 weeks, and once it was finished, Amazon’s SF/F publishing arm, 47North, picked it up and is republishing it as a three-volume work—in hardback, paperback, and ebook.

Since the original version was meant to be read as a serial, we’ve taken this opportunity to go back and do some tightening and re-ordering of the material, making the 47North edition our preferred edition. Additionally, this has given us an opportunity to fine-tune "The Mongolad" as the centerpiece of the medieval era of Foreworld, the larger transmedia project, now that we’ve had a couple of years to shake out the bigger picture.

Geek: Most people attempting a transmedia project would say something like, "Well, I guess we'll release an iPhone app, see how that does," but it seems like you guys just jumped right in head first. What was that experience like, and why start off whole hog, rather than test the waters, he asked mixing three different metaphors?

MT: It’s never felt like we were diving into the deep end with the hog under our arms and without water wings. We started with a film script, actually. When we talked to some people in Hollywood about it, then said, “Well, you should stake out some other territory around this so that you can fight off the Hollywood land grab that is going to happen. Since we knew the movie would take a long time to happen, we backed up a hundred years or so and started writing a story. We had a room of writers, after all; what else were they going to do?

Delivering it as a serial via an app seemed like the right way to make it fresh and new. We’re not the first ones to write serials, but we thought it would find a wider audience if we came up with a way that people could read it anywhere and anytime—as well as being able to interact with others who were also reading it. The social aspect of reading hasn’t changed, but it was just that our method of reading and our methods of socializing separated. We tried to bring them back together, and it’s been great to see how widely e-book reading has been catching on.

From left to right: (Back row), Erik Bear, Joseph Brassey, Mark Teppo; (Front Row) Greg Bear, Cooper Moo, Neal Stephenson.

Geek: And now, for some reason, you guys are doing it... Again. Why "The Mongoliad 2," and why so soon?

MT: Well, Book 2 (which is coming out at the end of the month) is only the second quarter of the original serial. Book 3, as you can imagine, is going to be about the same size as Book 1 and 2 combined. That part is us giving everyone a chance to catch up.

The crazy part is the associated material that is coming out too—the SideQuests. The hardback editions will contain an additional novella. Book 1 will have “Sinner,” which was just released as an e-novella last month. Book 2 will have “Dreamer,” which will also get a co-release as an e-novella. Book 3 will have “Seer,” the final prequel novella. But that’s not all. Each month now, for the next year plus, we’re going to be releasing a Foreworld novella. The ones that come out between the release of Book 2 (September) and Book 3 (next February) will all be medieval era stories. The ones that follow will be in other time periods—all the way from 400 BC up until 1914 AD. Basically, we’re jump-starting a whole bunch of stores in different time periods.

Oh, and there will be another medieval era duology, coming out later next year and the beginning of the year after. Just to finish up the story that we started. The duology will follow some of the characters from "The Mongoliad." The one that survive . . .

Geek: What did you learn from the first one that you're applying to the second one, other than, "A lot?"

MT: Yeah, “a lot” is definitely true. Some of it is writer and time management tricks. How to frame serials in a way that don’t aggravate your audiences. How not to be worried that you’ll have enough story (there’s always more than enough when you have a roomful of writers who love making things up). It’s not quite the same project this time around and so we don’t have the same issues, but we are definitely applying the lessons we learned.

Mongoliad writers working out a plot disagreement.

Geek: What's the story of "The Mongoliad 2," if it can be encapsulated?

MT: Book 2 introduces the Rome Branch, a storyline that follows a priest suffering from the medieval version of PTSD. He thinks he’s had a vision from God, and it is his job to report what he’s seen to the Pope. When he gets to Rome, he discovers there is no Pope. Local politics have resulted in the cardinals being imprisoned until they can elect a new pontiff. The priest gets sucked into the political maelstrom, and well, he might not survive . . .

Book 2 gets us into the aftermath of the Mongol invasion of 1241. What happens to those who survive the arrival of such an overwhelming army? How do you react to having your world shattered? Who picks up the pieces? Who steps up and helps rebuild a broken community?

There’s still plenty of sword fighting, though. We certainly don’t skimp on the sword-fighting.

Also, with Book 2, we’re putting out hardback editions (the hardback for Book 1 will be coming out at the same time). They’re going to be nice editions, with a map on the end papers, an additional novella, and a gallery of character sketches done by famed comic book artist, Mike Grell.

Geek: Can you talk about the process of making the book, beyond the tech aspects? I know a lot of teams fight when creating something... But you guys fight with weapons.

MT: Knowing that any argument could—very readily—turn into a fracas out on the training floor did tend to temper discussions a bit. But that was also a great part of doing combat choreography and research. At any time, you could go out into the other room, pick up a weapon, and figure the scene out.

It also got a little out of hand. The fight between the Viking and the Samurai in Book One was completely choreographed—start to finish—four times. We kept building it, and discovering that we had made a fundamental error in our research, which sent us back to the training floor. The delightful part of all this was that we kept finding new experts in very, very specific areas of historical martial arts, and we managed to get a number of them to come and visit our lab.

Geek: For someone who looks at a transmedia project like this and gets overwhelmed by the size, what's the best entry point? Where to start, before you get sucked down the rabbit hole?

MT: You will fall down the rabbit hole. It can’t be helped, really. What has helped us is having a long-term vision, and some realistic understanding of how long it takes some aspects of a transmedia project to come to fruition. You have to have a lot of patience.

And flexibility, too. You have to be able to change direction quickly when an opportunity arises, or when a storyline suddenly ends. It’s a delicate balance to juggle—you want to know enough about the world you are creating that you can build it convincingly, but at the same time, how you get from point A to point B in your larger narrative is going to change—dramatically. Usually after you’ve left point A.

Geek: What's new that your experimenting with in Mongoliad 2? Tech changes all the time, so I imagine you need to adapt for the times...

MT: We’re still trying to work in agile teams in concert with what sort of feedback we get from our audience. The SideQuests are going to be interesting experiments to see what sort of story our fans want to see next. Do they want us to go back to the origins of the martial order? Do they want us to get into the Renaissance and the Age of Discovery? Or do they want us to leap all the way forward to the dawn of the 20th century?

Some of these shorter pieces will be in a comic format, and so we’ll looking at how people read comics on mobile devices. There’s been a big explosion of this style of reading recently. You just have to look at Chris Roberson, who recently left working for DC to start his own digital-only imprint at Monkeybrain Comics, to see that the marketplace is changing. Of course, working with artists in addition to writers is a completely different scheduling puzzle.

Geek: Where are things going next? Or with the new project on the horizon, is it too soon to talk about how Mongoliad 3 will be projected on a holographic cloud resident in our minds?

MT: We recently ran a successful Kickstarter campaign to fund CLANG, our next-generation motion controller video game. The team is in place on that, and they’re hoping to ship something in the early part of next year. It’ll be a simple sword-fighting game, where we’re hoping to get the fight mechanics in place. After that, we’ll start iterating on that, and building up to a larger open-world type game. It’ll take place in Foreworld, of course, and have hooks into the novels and stories that have been written. It wasn’t an accident that we invited a place where sword-fighters from many different cultures could come together and fight each other...

The screenplay I mentioned earlier is still being worked on. It’s too early to say anything concrete there, but we’ve been making incremental progress on that front for some time.

Right now, there are four more books coming out through the beginning of 2014, and more than two dozen shorter stories during that same time. We’re focusing on putting out a lot of content over the next eighteen months, and a lot of it is through traditional media types, but it’s good to build a solid foundation of content that people can absorb at their leisure in a convenient fashion. This will give us time to perfect that holographic cloud projector technology...

This illustration of the character Istvan appears in the Hardcover and digital editions of "The Mongoliad: Book One Collector’s Edition."

Both "The Mongoliad: Book One Collector’s Edition" and "The Mongoliad: Book Two Collector’s Edition" will release on October 30, 2012. "The Mongoliad: Book Two" comes out on September 25, 2012