A welcome to Scott Fitzgerald Gray, who is on a blog tour with his military/gamers coming of age/techno-thriller adventure book. It’s a really interesting genre mash-up. Because in amongst all the cool allusions to RPGs and the detail specs for the scarily lethal Vindicator (I’m banning my husband from reading this book, btw – he sighs for a Sherman tank in the front garden, I’d hate to think what he’d put on his Christmas list if he read We Can Be Heroes), there is a strong story about the people caught up in the middle of this adventure. Getting the balance between the techie content and the human side of the story is a great deal trickier than it looks. Scott does get the balance right and the result is this engrossing read.
Hallo Scott, and welcome to the blog. When reading We Can Be Heroes, I was immediately struck by the fact that your main protagonist shares your name. While I’m seriously hoping that this story is fictional, how closely did you model your actual teenage self alongside your character?
Thanks so much for the opportunity; it’s great to (virtually) be here. I confess that the more outrageous elements of the story (which is to say, most of the plot) are entirely made up. But at the same time, We Can Be Heroes was written as a kind of homage to a particular time in my life, the friendships I forged during that time, and a particular way of looking at the world that comes from being a doomed-romantic teenage nihilist gamer. The novel is kind of fake-autobiographical, in the manner of all of those books and films that advertise “BASED ON A TRUE STORY!!!” — but what that really means is that they kept the names, a couple of key events, and made everything else up.
The Scott of the novel isn’t so much me as he is a more self-aware version of me. Much of what goes into the character — his slightly twisted worldview, his aren’t-I-so-clever sarcastic wit, and his sense of wanting to help people even if they don’t understand how much they need help — is all drawn straight from my own life at that particular point in time. However, the Scott of the book is a lot better at getting in the face of the world as it pisses him off; I tended to take a more cowering-in-the-corner approach, myself.
I also found the setting to your story particularly effective. The sense of isolation that surrounds your protagonist – both actual and emotional – is well portrayed. How autobiographical was the setting? Did you work with maps and photographs, or did you drive/walk the sites you describe in the book?
Thank you, and I like to think that a part of the reason for that is that the setting is extremely autobiographical. The first half of the book takes place in a stylized version of the very small Western Canadian town in which I grew up and graduated high school; the second half takes place in Vancouver, Canada, where I spent most of my life after high school. The version of Vancouver that’s in the book is slightly closer to “reality” than the version of 100 Mile House, my hometown, just because the 100 Mile House of the novel exists as a kind of time-tripping double-exposure, where the town as it was when I grew up has been overlaid onto the “contemporary now” time frame in which the book takes place.
I know that it can’t possibly make a difference to the reader, because most readers are never going to have an excuse to visit 100 Mile, but having that connection to the setting really helped define the emotional tone of the story for me, which is, as you say, largely about isolation. But I also have to admit that having an autobiographical slant to the setting was also just a lot of fun. As far as the specific details go, I aided my memory with a lot of time spent on Google Maps and its Street View function, which I’ve always found endlessly entertaining. The layout and look of 100 Mile are exactly as described in the book (though you won’t find the specific stores mentioned in the story because they’re part of the mid-1980s overlay). Likewise, the high school in which much of the initial action of the story takes place is my high school, and if you walked down the corridors having read the book, you’d probably recognize it.
In order to make a contemporary techno-thriller work, the technical detail you include has be believable, easy to understand and yet not hold up the pace of the narrative. You’ve managed to achieve these criteria very effectively. How did you:-
– Tackle the necessary research?
– Ensure that you got the balance between pace and detail correct?
As the sort-of-autobiographical details of the story might suggest, I’m a bit of geek, so that provides a pretty big leg up on the need for research into technology and weapons systems and all that stuff. But having said that, I admit that I’m also fairly intellectually lazy, so a lot of the process of writing the technical story involved doing just enough research to make it sound real, without worrying about whether it would actually hold together under scrutiny. Most of that research was done in the course of writing. Which is to say, I didn’t sit down with a list of technical touchstones and then try to shoehorn them into the story. Rather, I’d come up with cool story ideas (or ideas that I thought were cool, at least), then I’d have to figure out how to make them work — often turning them into better ideas when I started applying the technical research to them.
As far as the balance between pace and detail goes, I’m happy to say I just got lucky with that. Like a lot of writers, my own writing will always be heavily influenced by the writers I love, so I guess I’ve picked up an innate sense of pacing that’s a kind of gestalt reflection of the skill of those writers. Three authors who were specifically important to this book were Philip K. Dick, Harlan Ellison, and William Gibson. Not in the sense that this book necessarily feels like any of the works of those writers, but just because I’ve always been inspired by their ability to marry the technical and philosophical side of a speculative fiction tale with the human story at the heart of that tale. I think speculative fiction sometimes overloads the technical-and-big-idea side of the story at the expense of character story, but those three writers — as different as their works are — always managed to find that perfect balance for me.
While the events surrounding this adventure have to be realistic, the engine that drives this story is the conflicted teenage protagonist and his relationship with his four gaming buddies. To manage a group of five main characters effectively is a big ask – why did you decide on five, rather than three, or four?
That’s an interesting question, insofar as I honestly don’t have an answer. Right from the beginning, back to the very earliest incarnation of the story (when it was actually a screenplay project, from which the novel was expanded), it’s always been the five characters, like that was just something my subconscious knew was going to be necessary. Analyzing it after the fact, though, I think five characters creates an optimal amount of potential conflict, insofar as you have so many possibly groupings and alliances that can split off from within the larger group. With four characters, it’s too easy to have a split decision and no way to break the tie. With three characters, you always have an automatic majority-rules scenario. With five, it’s maximum Machiavellianism right out of the gate.
Beyond that, I think I was probably aware on some level that these five characters provided the archetypes best suited to bring the story to life. Scott is the redemptive hero, who frankly starts the novel being a bit of a self-obsessed dick, and who has to come to terms with what makes him act that way as he becomes a better person. Molly (Scott’s sort-of-ex-girlfriend) is the free spirit who’s tied down by the kinds of dark secrets and fears that I think most of us hold in our lives, especially as adolescents. The Mitchell character is a kind of wise mentor figure (as much as his wisdom is sometimes questionable), engaging with the world on an almost entirely philosophical level. Rico is Mitchell’s mirror-image counterpart as the physical hero, only believing in what he can touch. Breanne (Mitchell’s sister; Rico’s girlfriend) is the moral and emotional center of the story, avoiding both Mitchell and Rico’s paths in favor of engaging with the world she can feel. Certainly, it would have been possible to reduce the number of characters and double up on some of those roles, but I think I knew instinctively that these archetypes would be important foundations points for the story as a whole.
In Scott Gray, you have established a strong protagonist with a convincing narrative voice – are you planning to write any other books using Scott?
That’s very gratifying to hear, but at this point, I have to honestly say, ‘No.’ I loved the voice of the character myself, and in the course of playing around with that voice and playing in the character’s head, I honestly had more fun writing this book than I think any writer should be allowed to have. But for me, the essential process of transformation that carries Scott through the book marks a kind of end to that voice. By the end of the book, Scott is a changed person, a better person — but not necessarily as interesting a person from a narrative perspective. Even if I could come up with an idea for another story featuring these characters, they wouldn’t be the same characters anymore. I have no doubt that the five of them will continue to do amazing things in the world of their story, but for better or for worse, I think those stories belong solely to them now.