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Interview: A. Lee Martinez

July 20th, 2006 (07:04 pm)
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A werewolf and a vampire walk into a diner - this isn't the beginning of a joke, I swear - and sit down for a bite to eat when zombies attack the place. They save the day, earning the respect of a waitress named Loretta and the contempt of the evil Mistress Lilith - otherwise know as a seventeen year old girl named Tammy. While helping Loretta, the Duke of Werewolves and Earl of Vampires befriend the local Sherriff, a kind female ghost, and a hyper dog ghost. Before long, they have to save the diner - and the world - from an apocalypse.

Loaded with laughs and packed with the undead, GIL'S ALL FRIGHT DINER is A. Lee Martinez's debut novel. I recently spoke with the author about DINER, his upcoming OGRES, and the difference between fantasy novels and real life.

What inspired GIL'S ALL FRIGHT DINER?

Well, the very first grain of GIL'S came when watching a B martial arts flick called NIGHT HUNTER, starring DON "THE DRAGON" WILSON. (which is why Don gets a line in my dedication, by the way) Near the conclusion, Don is fighting the evil Prince of Vampires. And I turned to my Mom, who I was watching with, and said "And that guy over there is the Earl of vampires. Well, actually, he's just a vampire named Earl."

That was the beginning. I started thinking of how vampires are always portrayed as such romantic, tragic, beautiful, sensual characters, and I asked myself why? Just because someone is a creature of the night doesn't necessarily make them cool. And Earl was born from that. Duke came along as a companion because I've always thought werewolves got shortchanged in most fiction involving the two, always being less cool and less tough. With two country boy monsters as heroes, the rest of the story just fell into place from there.

GIL'S is a humorous story, almost tongue-in-cheek. Did you set out to make it funny?

I don't set out to make anything funny. In fact, I don't want to be considered a "funny" writer. Not that I mind if someone says they loved my book because of the humor. It's a compliment, and I take it as such. But I am, in my mind at least, a fantasy adventure story writer. The humor just kind of pops up on its own.

Everything I write has humor in it because that's just the way I am. I make jokes about everything in real life. I make jokes when I write. It just happens.

Much of what people consider humorous in GIL'S is not intended as a joke but rather as a matter-of-fact portrayal of weirdness. It always bugs me that people who deal with odd things in fantasy stories don't get used to it. First time I see a zombie, I'm freaking out. Hundredth time, I'm just annoyed. Two hundredth time, I barely even notice it. This sort of "Been there, done that" attitude is rarely explored in fantasy, and I think it's fairly realistic.

Ultimately, fantasy is absurd. Life doesn't work like this. So you can either go out of your way to make it serious or you can just admit that it's make believe and ask your reader to accept it on its own merits and leave it at that.

Which character did you have the most fun developing and speaking for?

I try to make every character different, and so, it's hard to play favorites. They're all fun. If a character bores me, he doesn't make it into the book. I'd have to say my favorite character (to write) in GIL'S would have to be Duke because so much of his personality is not found in his dialogue, but in his physical actions which I find challenging to get captured on the page.

When you go to a diner, what do you order?

I used to order a burger. Always. Hard to screw up a burger, and because I wasn't a gourmet adventurer, I just played it safe. Then I stopped eating meat, and so now, I just order whatever's available. When you don't eat meat, there's not a lot of choices and most menus end up deciding for me. Fries are my default.

What are your favorite funny horror flicks?

Funny horror is a tricky category. I don't generally like silly horror movies. But if a movie has a good plot and humor that works with it, I'm always impressed. I'm a big fan of SHAUN OF THE DEAD, which is funny, but also has real heart and soul and doesn't shy away from making the zombies scary. BUBBA HOTEP is great, too, though more jokey intentionally.

What is the concept of your newest book, IN THE COMPANY OF OGRES?

Unlike GIL'S, OGRES does not have a clear moment of genesis. Oh, big writer word!

The story is about a soldier in a fantasy world called NEVER DEAD NED. Ned dies and dies a lot, but for some reason, a sorceress keeps bringing him back to life. Other than reluctant immortality, Ned has no special powers or abilities and is pretty much worn out. He gets assigned to Ogre Company, a military unit full of monsters, because its commanders keep dying under strange circumstances, and so what better job for an immortal? As the story progresses, Ned has to try and make something of these monsters and also learns the truth about his many deaths that only makes things worse.

OGRES is different from GIL'S in that it has more characters and a larger story. If GIL'S is an homage to all the classic black and white horror films, then I guess OGRES is my take on the worn epic sword and sorcery tale. It's my chance to dissect all those tired cliches and try to give fantasy something new. At least, I hope so. I've got a fat elf. That's something you don't see everyday at least.

Both of your novels are published by Tor, a big name in the sci-fi industry, and shelved in the adult sci-fi/fantasy section of bookstores. Did you have a difficult time finding an agent or a publisher?

Oy, don't get me started. Yeah, it was a long hard road, and I won't bore you with the details. It took thirteen years from beginning my quest to getting my first book published, and it was a fight all the way. Of course, this is not unusual. Writing is hard to break into. So many people want to do this. I'm just one of the lucky ones.

Getting agents and publishers interested was not so hard for me. I write killer query letters. And Tor was not the first major publisher to look at my stuff. But there's a lot of hoops to jump through, and I'd come close a few times without getting there.

Do you think your books are appropriate for teens?

When I was a kid, my mom let me read and watch nearly anything. I was never sheltered from swearing, violence, or sex. So though GIL'S has a healthy dose of salty language, violence, and a little bit of sex, I wouldn't have considered it anything terribly racy for a kid.

Some people might disagree, but then again, the ALA did give me an ALEX award (adult books that appeal to young adults) and a BEST BOOK FOR YOUNG ADULTS award. So if librarians say it, who am I to argue?

I'd recommend it for anybody who is both smart and easily bored. I guess that would be most young people, when you think about it. I won't pin it down to a specific age because we're all individuals and there are plenty of smart kids out there. And dumb adults as well, sadly.

GIL'S was recently optioned for a movie. Congratulations! What's the newest news on that front?

The option has been picked up (I think that's the term, but I might be wrong) by NEW LINE CINEMA. This is one step closer toward a film, but doesn't necessarily mean a film will get made. Only time will tell. But it wouldn't hurt anything if GIL'S inexplicably made the New York Times bestseller list. So if you want to see GIL'S in movie form, might I suggest recommending it to your friends and neighbors and family. Oh, heck, why not just cut out the middleman and buy ten copies yourself!

I wouldn't mind. Really.

What are your ten favorite books of all time?

Ten favorites, eh? Here's a list that springs to mind at the moment. In no particular order.

TARZAN OF THE APES by Edgar Rice Burroughs
RETURN OF TARZAN by Edgar Rice Burroughs
BEASTS OF TARZAN by Edgar Rice Burroughs
A PRINCESS OF MARS by Edgar Rice Burroughs
A BARREL OF LAUGHS, A VEIL OF TEARS by Jules Feiffer
THE MYTH BOOKS (I know that's not one book, but I can't pick just one, so sue me) by Robert Aspirin
HITCHHIKER'S GUIDE TO THE GALAXY by Douglas Adams
THE MALTESE FALCON by Dashielle Hammett
THE DAY OF THE TRIFFIDS by John Wyndham
FOX IN SOCKS by Dr. Seuss

When I thanked A. Lee Martinez for doing this interview, the author had some extremely kind parting words:

No, thank you. This is my third interview ever, and it is always an honor and a privilege.