Michael J. Martinez Interview
I’m fortunate to have the opportunity to catch up with author Michael J. Martinez about once a year, thanks to his ability to so quickly write fantastic books for us to discuss. In 2015 we talked about the end of his dual-universe sci-fi/fantasy Daedalus trilogy. This year we both dressed up in our best James Bond dinner jackets and talked about his fresh new fantasy-spy-thriller MJ-12: Inception.
Okay, this is a brand new book in a brand new series. Give us your elevator pitch.
Short version: In the wake of World War II, a government conspiracy begins gathering individuals suddenly possessed of extraordinary, paranormal abilities in the hopes of using them as agents in the nascent Cold War. But will these Variants serve a country that fears them, or forge their own path?
Shorter version: Think Bond meets X-Men meets X-Files.
That’s the kind of pitch that gets anybody excited! So where did the idea come from?
I actually came up with a character first – a man who could glean the memories and abilities of other people, but only when they were at the brink of death. While this could make him the most skilled, knowledgeable and dangerous person in the world, all of that death – and the burden of those memories – could really do a number on him. I really wanted to write this guy’s story. How would that person go about his life?
I figured that particular skill set would make him an excellent covert agent and, in my humble opinion, the Cold War was pretty much the golden age of human intelligence gathering. Thus, Frank Lodge was born. From there, things slotted together neatly. I borrowed the MAJESTIC-12 conspiracy myth, kept the players and removed the aliens. Frank became one of several individuals in the employ of – or perhaps held captive by – the CIA.
You’ve written this book off the back of a series which was well known for being a ballsy genre mashup. What led you to trying something completely different and mashing up an almost completely different set of genres?
You know, I don’t go in thinking about which genres I’m going to smash together in any given story, though it often ends up that way. In this case, I found myself wanting to tell the story of ordinary people with extraordinary abilities, called Variants. I wanted to see how the Variants would manage these powers – and how they themselves in turn would be managed. I thought it was a no-brainer that the government would seek these people out and try to use them – or at least keep them locked down. So in pondering all this, the superhero genre got mashed together with spy thrillers and government conspiracies. It was kind of a natural progression.
We have more alternate history here, which is great because that’s one of the aspects of your writing that I’ve absolutely loved. Do you find it hard sticking to certain rules of reality or do you prefer having those limits to play around with when storytelling?
History is full of people and events far stranger than I could possibly devise. I really don’t see alt-history as constraining, but rather incredibly inspiring. Did you know, for example, that there were three different coups in Syria in 1949? And only one of them was directly CIA-sponsored. The story behind that year in Syria is incredible, and yes, it’s going to be in MAJESTIC-12 at some point.
That said, the beautiful thing about writing alt-history is that I can alter history in whatever ways I like, so long as the logic and worldbuilding I’ve done allow for it. And sometimes, if I need Harry Truman to be in the Oval Office on a particular day, when in reality he was somewhere else, I have no issues putting him there.
So yes, I take my inspirations from history, and I find there are plenty of characters and potential plots there. Mostly, I try to color within the lines, as I find that both a fun challenge and an active part of my worldbuilding. But if I need to play with things a bit, I have no qualms.
How much research is involved in trying to get the details of the period just right? Do you do this all up front or as you go?
A bit of both. I read a ton of history, as you might imagine. That helps get the events and personages of the period right, as well as a very rough sense of where things occur. But the details tend to come as I’m writing. For the scenes in the book set in Istanbul’s Topkapi Palace, for example, I not only had to get a sense of the layout of the palace and the look and feel of the interiors, but I had to do the historical research as well to see what it looked like in 1948. So that happened just before I wrote those scenes. Every now and then, I’ll have to figure out what a character is wearing, or I’ll have a radio playing and I’ll need a song. So those end up being researched on the spot, sometimes in mid-sentence.
I’ve loved the authentic feel of the historical people you’ve created for us to live with for the duration of the story, both in this book and the last series. What’s your secret to an authentic historical voice and was anything different for the Cold War-set MJ-12: Inception?
Well, unlike the Napoleonic Era [where much of the Daedalus series is set], you do have a much stronger sense of how people talked in the 1940s thanks to film and radio, which is all over the Internet and easily heard. Books of the period are OK, but only to a point – we rarely talk how we write, after all. Still, I’ll throw those into the mix as well. Ultimately, I’m going for a voice that is true in spirit to the period, but is also accessible to the modern reader. Verisimilitude. I still love that word.
In your last series you had an ensemble cast but two clear leading protagonists. Here I didn’t really see a clear leading protagonist and the weight seemed more evenly distributed among the great cast. Was it a conscious decision with a view to creating a more complicated Heroes or Mission: Impossible style story—and what challenges did you face?
I already talked about Frank, and I think if there was a lead character in MJ-12: Inception, it’d be him. But as I wrote it, it definitely grew into an ensemble, and I found that I’d created some compelling characters who deserved their own points-of-view. I’d like to think I actually have four main characters here and several strong supporting roles. This book lives up to its name in that it’s a starting point, bringing all these characters together into this conspiracy and this world. As the series progresses, these main characters won’t be together all the time, and they’ll have their own individual challenges. All of that was planned – I think the best thrillers have several threads running through them at once. Heck, just look at A Song of Ice and Fire and how many main characters George has going.
I think the bigger cast was a challenge, certainly, but an exciting one to tackle. One of my writing goals with MJ-12: Inception – as opposed to story goals or career goals – was to challenge myself to write with more nuance and more complexity. I can only hope I rose to the occasion.
No spoilers, but the very nicely worked end left the door open for future instalments. What can we expect from the next in the series?
Well, I already mentioned Syria in 1949, and given that Inception ends in 1948, you can safely assume that’ll show up next. I don’t really plan on going year-by-year, but there are so many pivotal, fascinating, terrible events in the Cold War to work with. Just in terms of CIA involvement in regime change, well…they were very busy. So historically, I have a lot of material there – plenty of world events, exotic locales, skullduggery and paranoia.
I think you’ll see the Variants mature in future instalments, but also struggle with their roles as agents. Espionage in the 1940s and 1950s wasn’t for the weak of heart, and I think any normal person would have serious moral qualms about a lot of what happened. Add in the Variants’ abilities and how they try to integrate them into their lives and self-image, and there’s a lot of really interesting character development I’m looking forward to working with.
And finally, I think you’ll see some of the paranormal mysteries deepen, even as they build toward resolution. The MAJESTIC-12 conspiracy has only the barest idea of how the Variants were empowered, and they know even less about why. I’m looking forward to unveiling more of that, because…well, let’s just say it won’t be pretty.
As always, a great big thank you to Mike for his time. MJ-12: Inception is out on 6 September 2016.