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Blow It Up Better: Thomas Mullen interviews Paul Malmont on Pulp Fiction, Imagination, History, and Comics

Paul Malmont is the author of three novels re-imaging the lives of early 20th century pulp writers to thrilling effect: his first, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, placed ‘30s authors Walter Gibson (The Shadow) and Lester Dent (Doc Savage) in their own pulp adventure, complete with zombies and phantom freighters, and his second, Jack London in Paradise, took a look at that author’s mysterious later years in Hawaii. Malmont’s new novel, The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, takes us into the mad laboratory of the early sci-fi writers who were enlisted by the U.S. Navy during World War II to use their imaginative brawn and scientific know-how to create military super-weapons. (Loosely based on fact, amazingly. Or astoundingly).

I met Paul at a book conference a few years back, and we’ll both be at Comic Con next month. And because I’ve been increasingly interested in the interconnections between what his characters call “what’s real and what’s pulp,” I tossed him a few questions.

Thomas Mullen:  While I was reading your book I happened to see X-Men: First Class and I couldn’t help but think of some odd similarities. The movie is a sort of prequel, showing the origins of mutant superheroes that we’ve come to know and love, with the occasional cameo from someone like Wolverine at a bar, and placing the story in a historical context (the Cold War). Your book traces the early lives of writing legends (like Isaac Asimov and L. Ron Hubbard), explaining their motivations and dreams, again with some cool cameos (like Ray Bradbury and even Einstein), and placing it in a historical context (World War II).

Paul Malmont: I love the literary mash-up form.  I love when something you’re familiar with collides with something you aren’t. That’s my favorite kind of illusion. I’m a big fan of pop-culture shout-outs, and references and allusions. I think they work in things like X-Men and our books because they validate our love of these geeky things. If you look Alan Moore’s work, especially League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, it’s just one huge geek-out. But at the same time, he’s trying to get down to the essence of why we still love these characters and these stories.

Philip Jose Farmer was a master of this, too, and he had such a huge influence on me.  He created a family tree that linked all sorts of great fictional characters from Sherlock Holmes and Tarzan to James Bond and Nero Wolfe—the Wold-Newton Family. Win Scott Eckert and other fans had Farmer’s blessing to build onto the tree, so now its branches extend to Steve Austen, Buckaroo Banzai, Peter Venkman, and Buffy Summers.  But Farmer was the first one to do the mash-up.

TM: Your book plays with the idea of imagination and how it can influence the real world. In this very unique writers’ workshop, sci-fi authors are conducting research for the Navy; on a chalkboard someone has written the following inspirational bullet points:

CAN WE MAKE IT FLY HIGHER OR FASTER OR BY ITSELF?

CAN WE MAKE IT VANISH?

CAN WE BLOW IT UP BETTER?

CAN WE CONFUSE OUR ENEMIES?”

One character even explains that sci-fi writers, by imagining a future, actually do bring that world into being, by putting their visions on paper to catalyze their readers (mechanics and inventors and engineers), who will take that imaginary baton and run with it. I loved that motif.

PM: My first book was really about the redemptive power of the imagination–how the writers could always use theirs to pull them back from whatever brink they stood upon. My second was about the destructive power of the imagination–how it could turn to obsession and despair. So the theme of this one is what are the limits to imagination? How far can you take an idea before it breaks? Or breaks you? All these guys are so in love with different visions of the future and they really want to bring it about. But reality intrudes in the form of bureaucracy, relationships, an entire planet at war.

Something from Nikos Kazantzakis’ The Last Temptation of Christ that made a big impression on me was the sense he created that the coming of the Messiah was so imminent, it could happen at any moment.  It seemed to be in the air and it was what everyone was talking about. I tried to capture some of that sense for these writers. I think they felt that they were part of something so huge that they got swept up in it–creating the future.

By writing it out on that board, I’m trying to show what the stakes are. Can these guys, who put such faith in their imaginations, bend reality to their will. Writers try to convince you that what the world you’re reading about is, in some sense, real, and I’m using the Philadelphia Lab as the analogy for the creative process of a writer. That part introduces the brainstorming process when every idea seems glittering and golden. Then, throughout the book, we kind of track the progress of those ideas as they are written out, so to speak.

TM: I should note that a good buddy of mine is a physicist who has worked for the Navy and Army; one of his projects involved stopping light rays, whatever that means. He told me that an invisibility cloak is actually possible: if we can find a way to bend the light rays around a person or a thing, then we wouldn’t see that person or thing but instead see whatever is behind it. So this crazy and goofy idea of using sci-fi ideas in the real world isn’t necessarily so crazy or goofy.

PM: I wonder if your physicist friend was inspired by any science fiction writers? One thing I always loved about Robert Heinlein was that he was such a visionary about the future, but he couldn’t imagine a calculator. His starship pilots are always reaching for their trusty slide-rules to solve equations. Sometimes it’s the little things that get missed when the big predictions about the future are being made. We’re already walking around with personal communicators that work (and look) better than the ones Star Trek promised us. But in the 60’s, who knew about cell-phones?

TM: I’ve written two historical novels, but I’ve chosen to create my own characters whole cloth. You, however, have written about actual historical figures. I’m curious about some of the struggles and tough decisions you might have to make, as far as determining what real-life events or personality traits to use vs. not constraining your imagination with too many facts.

PM: I didn’t actually start out to write three books about writers–it’s kind of a rabbit hole I fell into. In doing the research for the first one, I learned how much Jack London had contributed to the birth of the American pulp magazine scene, so I began learning more and more about him, and suddenly found gray spots in the biographical record which seemed ripe for fictionalization. The same research led me to the facts about Heinlein, Asimov, and L. Sprague de Camp at the Philadelphia Naval Research Center in WW2. Knowing that there are legends about the Philadelphia Experiment from the same time and place, the pieces just kind of fell together.

The challenge each time is to help the reader realize that I’m not writing a biography about someone they may or may not know. I’m writing a fictional story with a character who shares the same name and some historical traits with a person who once lived. What I really dig is looking at my characters and trying to find those puzzle edges that will fit in nicely with what we know about them through history, but more importantly, their work. I like trying to show how the fictional person I’ve created is poised to create Stranger in a Strange Land, or Foundation, or, for that matter, Dianetics.  That’s what has to be believable.

Then there are the details we know, such as who was where at what time, and who wrote what, and I’ve given myself the leeway to be a little less strict about those. But sometimes, those are inviolable.  For instance, the date of the Philadelphia Experiment. I had to have everyone present and accounted for.  Also, I can’t really have Heinlein writing at that point, because he’d pulled a Michael Jordan and walked away from the game. When you look at his bibliography, there’s a gap during this period.  So, I need to figure out why this works for my character, and how to get him back to writing–because we know he does.

TM:  Writers need to spend a lot of time alone to do their job – writing is often called “the solitary pursuit,” a line that Heinlein uses in your book. Yet your first book put two writers in a sort of buddy caper (with a third, Hubbard, along for comic relief), and in your new one we have a veritable gang of writers. Is this strictly out of plot necessity (ie, a book about a loner would be boring), or are you saying something about the creative process?

PM: I think the team-building element of the two books was dictated by two very different things. In the first book, The Chinatown Death Cloud Peril, I was trying to re-create, in a modern, meta way, the kind of stories that those pulp writers told. So, to tell a Lester Dent-Doc Savage story, I needed to put together a team that rallied behind Dent, since that was so critical to his tales. Walter Gibson spends a lot of time by himself, in that book, exploring his shadows–in a riff on his character, The Shadow.  I really loved how the movie Dragon told the Bruce Lee story as if Bruce Lee had actually lived in a Bruce Lee movie.  I worked with the same conceit in the first book.

In The Astounding, the Amazing, and the Unknown, I got to play with the reality that these guys were actually thrown together to work for the military. I didn’t need to go quite so deep into a meta-exploration of that kind of story-telling. Instead I was able to explore more Heinlein’s anti-authoritarian streak vs. Asimov’s Utopian ideals. It wasn’t as much about trying to tell their stories by recreating them–because people already know Asimov and Heinlein, whereas they might not have known as much about Dent and Gibson. So instead I played around with some of their conventions–sex, freedom, conflict, and technology.

I also think there’s just something funny inherent in the idea of people who spend their time sequestered in their minds and bolted to their writing tools getting out into the real world and having some fun.  Part of that’s just playing with myth and stereotype, because so many of our best writers have been adventurers and warriors and explorers and degenerates and lovers. It’s just fun to explore those expectations.

TM: After your first book, you got to write some comic books, resurrecting one of the first pulp heroes, Doc Savage. (Who, if I’m not mistaken, seems like a precursor to Indiana Jones, about whom we also need to talk.) Tell me about the experience of writing comic books: was it fun? More work than it would have seemed? Learn any new narrative tricks?

PM: DC Comics asked me to help bring back Doc Savage, as part of their Fist Wave series, which brought the Spirit and Batman and the Blackhawks  and some other pulp-style characters into the same universe. I’d been hoping for years for the chance to write a little Doc Savage someday and I’d always wanted to write comic books–so it was really bucket-list moment.  I thought I knew a lot about comics, but there are little rules of thumb I didn’t know about that I had to adapt to quickly. For example, I was really focusing on streamlined narrative, but what I was told was that I needed to have major location changes every few pages so that when a potential buyer flips through the mag, they see lots of different colors which makes them feel like they’re getting good value for their money.

Who knew?

The First Wave Universe was supposed to be this timeless kind of pulp era that borrowed from a lot of different time periods, but I’m not sure if, in the end, we didn’t just confuse the audience with cell phones meets gyro-copters. I’m really pleased with the dirigible chase in episode 3, because it’s something I’ve always wanted to see, and I think we were just getting started on some great stuff before I had to move on.

TM. We’re both going to be at Comic Con next month. Have you ever been before? What should I be bracing myself for?

PM: It’s really fun if you just let yourself go and get into the spirit of the whole thing. As a book writer, you really come to realize just how low you are on the pop-cult Totem Pole when you see how excited everyone gets about the movies, TV shows, comic books, toys, booth babes, then you. You have to prepare yourself for the crowd and the fact that at one point you will find yourself trapped like a piece of human cholesterol in the artery of life. You will be unable to move forward or backward, left or right. Don’t stress. You’ll move again shortly. And if you get a chance to go see Stan Lee speak, don’t miss it.  he is perhaps the greatest live pitchman you will ever see.

TM. In a deleted scene from Pulp Fiction, Uma tells Travolta that everyone is either a Beatles person or an Elvis person, and she asks him which he is. Since you’ve covered pulp adventures and now sci-fi, I have to ask the movie equivalent of that question: Are you an Indiana Jones person or a Star Wars person?

PM: It’s a close call–but Star Wars in 1977 was such a seismic event in my life that it wins by a hair.  Here’s what I think the difference is and why it edges out Dr. Jones. The world Lucas created in Star Wars was just so utterly complete and immersive and special and wonderful and unique, and Luke’s yearning to be a part of it was just so palpable, that it struck a primal chord in me that still reverberates. Indy is an incredible character but his world is more recognizably cinematic–from Westerns to Casablanca to jungles. Raiders contains some of the most evocative examples of that serial ethos, but I’d visited it before in pulps and comics and the movies.

Having said all that–I’d still love to see one more great Indiana Jones movie more than one more Star Wars movie.  I think you’ve got one in you, right?

 TM: Dude, it’s my life’s dream to write an Indy movie. (I’m definitely an Indiana Jones person, and I have a framed poster of Temple of Doom beside my writing desk. I was 10 when it came out, which was the absolutely perfect age. I loved Star Wars as a kid, sure, as my son now does, but Indy remains a trusty companion, whereas Mark Hamill makes me cringe.) I’ve seriously considered sitting down to write an Indy reboot, starting with his WWI years and keeping the series in the early-20th Century—Shia LaBeouf and the Fifties doesn’t do it for me. A guy can dream, right?

Okay, lastly, since this site is read by a lot of other writers, and since we’ve been talking about war and fiction, should we throw in a gratuitous plug for Operation Warrior Library?

PM: Thanks! Operation Warrior Library is a program I put together with Col. George Reynolds (retired), who was serving in Iraq when he first contacted me, and then you, after reading our first novels. Turns out he’s a collector of signed books. Just the kind of man you want leading troops into combat. I realized that we authors can get books at deep discount from our publisher and started asking the writers I knew if they wanted to do it. The response was overwhelming. Most of their publishers jumped in to help out as well. To date we’ve worked with the Army and National Guard to ship thousands of books overseas to Iraq and Afghanistan where they get passed around from soldier to soldier. It’s a great, simple way for those of us who benefit from those who serve to pay them back. We’re not an official charity, so we don’t take donations of money. What we do is ask people to support our authors and publishers by buying their books to replace the ones they’ve donated. We’re raising books for the summer even now, so if you’re an author or publisher, find out more at www.warriorlibrary.org.

Thomas Mullen is the author of The Last Town on Earth, which was named Best Debut Novel of 2006 by USA Today, was a Chicago Tribune Best Book of the Year, and was awarded the James Fenimore Cooper Prize; the critically acclaimed The Many Deaths of the Firefly Brothers; and the forthcoming The Revisionists, which Mulholland Books will publish in September.

Paul Malmont can be found at www.thatamazingbook.com.  For more information about Operation Warrior Library, contact warriorlibrary@gmail.com.