Myke Cole is the author of the Military Fantasy series Shadow Ops, which started last year with Control Point followed by the just released Fortress Frontier. He’s done three tours in Iraq and was recalled to serve during the Deepwater Horizon oil spill. I finished Fortress Frontier right after this interview and found it to be an even better read the the first in the series. Each book has brought something new to the table while giving a good view of life in the military, granted military with magic, but that just amps it up even more.
MH: Shadow Ops: Control Point introduced us to a world where magic has come alive again and people with abilities are conscripted into the military. Control Point is through the eyes of military lifer Oscar Britton, but Fortress Frontier moves the POV to someone else. Why the change?
MYKE COLE: All of my favorite fantasy writers, from Peter V. Brett to George R. R. Martin, deal with ensemble casts. I know plenty of writers have been incredibly successful following a single protagonist (Charlaine Harris, Jim Butcher, Devon Monk, etc . . .), but that has never been the story arc that appeals most to me. It's the interplay between characters that we know really well that draws me in. I love the sense of in-depth world building that we get when an author fully fleshes out even the most ancillary characters. The serving boy has a story, so does the guy who pumps your gas. Steve Martin does an amazing job of this in his novella, Shopgirl. Joe Abercrombie is another writer who does this really well. The three books following his outstanding First Law trilogy are all in-depth examinations of 2nd string characters from First Law.
I have worked really hard to give the reader a very different experience with each Shadow Ops book. I understand that this risks those fans who like to follow a single protagonist, but it's just not how I write. I'm proud of the fact that Fortress Frontier and Control Point do very different things. You'll be following an entirely different protagonist for Breach Zone as well.
MH: One of the biggest confrontations Oscar faces in Control Point is revealing his powers to his parents. But one of this things that keeps coming back to mind is Oscar's dad goes through a portal where everyone supposedly dies, but we learn that is not necessarily true. So is there a chance his dad is not dead?
COLE: I'm not going to give spoilers. I will only repeat what you saw in the text: A gate opened, Stanley Britton went through. When the gate closed, he was still alive. Schroedinger's Cat, brother.
MH: Holding out on me, I see. This brings up an old discussion. I understand why authors don't like to give spoilers of their stories, but as a reader do you think there are such a thing as spoilers? This is something I go back and forth on a lot personally, while when I write my reviews I try not to include big reveals, but rarely would learning something "ruin" the story for me.
MYKE COLE: I'm with you. Learning what's going to happen in a story seldom cheapens the experience for me. That said, I recognize that there are people for whom so called "spoilers" really do ruin the experience. I always keep that in mind when talking about stories. It's like a wedding that way: you think it's about you, but it isn't.
MH: Your military experiences permeates Control Point. Did you always plan to go into the service? And were any of the characters based off officers you worked with?
MYKE COLE: If you'd come to me in college and told me I'd be a mercenary and eventually a uniformed officer, I would have laughed until milk came out of my nose. I was raised as a scrawny, nerdy aesthete, and only developed physically because working out was less shameful than sitting alone in the cafeteria during lunch. 9/11 spurred a reinvention for many Americans, myself among them. It created a perfect storm of opportunity: A passionate desire to DO SOMETHING, coupled by a glut of opportunities to do them. As the smoke from those planes cleared, the public was suddenly willing to let contractors do a lot of things they would never permit if they weren't frightened half to death. Once I was working for a private company in a war zone, I felt like my service was cheapened because it ultimately served a for-profit entity. That planted the seed that grew into my deciding to join up.
MH: I had a friend join up as well. I think that's something that ran though a lot of people's minds during that time.
You've an acknowledged Dungeons and Dragons player and last year helped DM and organize the Author D & D event at ConFusion. After watching that I couldn't help but wonder if you ever had a game going during your tours of Iraq.
MYKE COLE: I worked 18 hour days, 7 days a week, so that was definitely not happening for me. However, when I was at the US embassy, I did note with pride that there was an advertisement for a Warhammer 40K game right along side the yoga class flyer on the community bulletin board. Space Marines in Baghdad. Real life is *way* stranger than fiction.
MH: Grueling hours, man. But I'm glad gaming is still out there. Back to Fortress Frontier. What are the biggest differences between Oscar Britton and Alan Bookbinder? Both are military men, but one from the grunt side and the other bureaucratic.
MYKE COLE: Oscar Britton is a *lot* more conflicted than Alan Bookbinder. This is because Oscar never had a sense of being moored somewhere. He didn't get along with his family, never established a lasting romantic relationship, and . . . well, he's a black guy in rural Vermont. He always had a sense of being out-of-place. The army filled that role for him, it became the home he never felt he had. So, when he's suddenly faced with the choice between the army and his own identity, he is really, really, REALLY torn over it.
Alan is the opposite. His life was smooth sailing from jump. Stable, supportive childhood, wife and kids, great career. He is as grounded as they come.
And then there's one more critical factor: Oscar Britton is a Probe. Alan Bookbinder self reports and is embraced by the system. Bookbinder faces some hard choices, but they're not morally conflicted choices. His path is clear. It's just a matter of finding the will to get it done.
MH: Fortress Frontier is the second volume of Shadow Ops with Breach Zone being the third. How will that differ from the first two?
MYKE COLE: I'm very proud of having made each of the SHADOW OPS books very different from each other. Each book does something totally different (which also plays into my decision to vary protagonists for each book).
BREACH ZONE does two things that the first two books don't do. It is a tragic love story and an in-depth look at a single battle (a la Joe Abercrombie's THE HEROES). It also shifts focus to the political landscape in America following the upheaval resulting from . . . certain actions by the protagonists in books I and II. It has been the most difficult of the 3 books for me to write, and that's likely because it's the most ambitious. Here's hoping I pulled it off.
MH: You've also mentioned that you're writing a media tie-in novella. Is there anything you can say about that publicly?
MYKE COLE: Only that it won't be media tie-in. I have worked very hard with a few companies to find ideas that work with their franchises, but unfortunately, my writing just doesn't seem to be wired to fit those molds. In the one case where we were able to agree on an idea, the contract specifications were, frankly, unacceptable. I am certainly open to media tie-in work, but I'm not going to write something my heart isn't in just to make money.
MH: What is one your favorite D & D character names you've created?
MYKE COLE: When Pete (Peter V. Brett) and I played D&D in college, he got the Complete Book of Humanoids (2nd ed) and I rolled up a Wemic fighter. I a lot of . . . leonine stuff, I guess. Kicking down doors, killing people without talking to them and generally mucking up the campaign. Pete shook things up by killing me, then binding my soul into a statue. The resultant character had 18 in every stat, but was completely immune to all magic, including positive spells. Made for a fascinating game.
Oh, wait. You wanted to know his name. I don't remember.
MH: Do you have any celebration rituals when a new book is out?
MYKE COLE: I grab my agent and we hit every bookstore in the area, signing as many copies as we can find. I also try to chat up all the booksellers, even buying them a copy if they're willing to give it a read. A lot of the people working in bookstores are serious genre fans, and getting them interested in your work (or thinking you're a nice guy) is a great way to accelerate a launch. Sadly, this ritual takes less time every year, as more and more bookstores are closing.
MH: What is the greatest advice you've even been given as a writer?
MYKE COLE: It's the same advice I've been given as a military officer, government drone and human being: quit your bitching and get to work.
MH: Now on to the important issues. What is your favorite hat?
MYKE COLE: Of course it's my Mich 2002 combat helmet. Here's a shot of me posing with it during my 2nd tour.
MH: Awesome. What books are you reading at the moment?
MYKE COLE: Joe Abercrombie's Red Country and 2 other books for prospective blurbs. This is probably the most frustrating thing about being a pro writer. You barely have time to read as it is, and when you do, you can't simply get lost in a book and enjoy it. You're either deconstructing the reading experience as you try to improve your own craft, or you're reading a manuscript that your publisher sent you and feeling like a jerk because you're either too busy to finish it by the blurb deadline or don't like it enough to attach your name to it (I only blurb books I *really* love. So far, that's been just two: Daniel Polansky's Tomorrow, The Killing and Wes Chu's Lives of Tao). Going pro really does suck a lot of the joy out of leisure reading, which is ironic, because that's what made you want to go pro in the first place.
MH: Is there anything you'd like to say to close us out?
MYKE COLE: My blog, FB and Twitter are great places to see what I'm up to. I'd also like to call on your readers to consider a commitment in the military reserve. Seems like the nation has been going through some tough times lately, and nothing has done more for my mental health than feeling like I was able to ante up and HELP. I've deployed for the Deepwater Horizon oil spill, Hurricane Irene and now Hurricane Sandy, and I sleep so much better at night knowing that I pitched in and did something. If you can, I think you should. Stand with me.
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