Interview by Michelle Lynn.
What are the titles of your works, and can you tell us a bit about them?
“Excelsior” is a young adult / science-fiction novel, the first part of a trilogy. It tells the story of 17-year-old Matthew Peters, who has been spending seven years writing and drawing his own webcomic about a character named Excelsior, who is from the faraway planet Denab IV. Matthew is visited by an older woman who tells him that she is from planet Denab IV, and everything he has been writing and drawing have actually taken place. So now, with Excelsior’s enemies growing in power on both Denab IV and Earth, Matthew realizes that he has the opportunity to become the hero that he thought only existed in his imagination.
“From Parts Unknown” is a five-part science-fiction / sports serial that is currently available on eBook as one complete file. The main character is Stephen Barker, a man who is trying to provide a living for his family by getting on the roster of the only sport left in America: the GCL (Gladiatorial Combat League). The company is a combination of the over-the-top characters & good guys vs bad guys storyline of professional wrestling and the reality of boxing & mixed martial arts. Stephen unknowingly becomes a pawn in a behind-the-scenes battle of control over the league between the current champion and the top villain in the company, and is turned into a monster of a man stripped of his identity and humanity. While his wife tries to find him, she discovers that the GCL is not only providing entertainment for the masses, but it is also used as a tool of distraction and stripping of people’s rights by the US Government.
The first of two “Excelsior” sequels – “Ever Upward: Part Two of The Excelsior Journey” – is currently being edited and prepped for a November 2016 release.
Who’s your favorite character from your books?
It’s easy for me to say Matthew Peters is my current favorite, since I put so much of myself and my late cousin Matthew Peter Henkel into him. He’s the ultimate in wish fulfillment, getting to be a hero that he thought was just his idea.
But looking at all the completely fictional characters, I’d have to say my favorite is General Hodera, a truly ruthless woman who is in the top ranks of the Krunation Empire. While my main character has been sitting in my head for a very long time, Hodera came to be during the rewrites of the original novel. I had a big, tall, force-of-nature like being that would really strike fear into the hearts of the Denarian people, modeled after The Undertaker in WWE. When I told my editor about him, she asked, “Can it be a woman?” Best. Suggestion. Ever. When I took the character and reworked him into a her, she leapt to life and became a truly delicious villain. I loved her almost from the beginning, and I got to use a lot of space in “Ever Upward” to further explore her character. I can’t wait to show you what she’s really made of.
In your book, “Excelsior,” Matthew is a comic book writer and illustrator before he discovers the world behind what he thought he was creating – how did you come up with such a unique storyline?
It really goes back to 1992. When I was in grade school (1985, to be exact), I created some characters with my friends based on everything we grew up watching: Star Wars, Transformers, G.I.Joe, Voltron, etc. We were just killing time between assignments in school, and when I lost contact with them, I kept picking at them. I knew there was something there, but I didn’t know what. Anyway, in 1992, I was in between my sophomore and junior year in high school, my grades were less than stellar, and I was in summer school taking English over again. It wound up being a blessing in disguise, because one of the things we did in this class was watch the 1981 movie Excalibur, which is all about King Arthur. At that time, I was thinking about coming up with a new character, and after seeing this, I knew I wanted him to be a legend within my little universe, a god made into a man, striking down his enemies with his sword. I took elements from Arthur, Jesus Christ, and Optimus Prime and he just came to life.
The original story of Excelsior was all about the character being reborn through someone on Earth, and back then it was an adult who was a comic book writer. When I decided to start writing the novel in 2008 that would be the definitive take on him, I realized itha hads started his own webcomic, so I borrowed that element from him and named Matthew’s uncle after him as a thank you.
Have you always loved comics and superheroes? If so, which one is your favorite?
I’ve always loved both comics and superheroes, more comic book films than comics themselves. The characters grabbed me from the start, and I still love them to this day. It’s almost cliché to say Batman is my favorite, but there really is something special about him that has allowed him to endure in so many different forms.
I’ve also been a fan of Transformers, ever since I heard that they were getting a Marvel comic mini-series and animated series on Sunday mornings. Optimus Prime very quickly became a personal hero of mine, and he always will be.
Matthew gets thrown into a new world pretty quickly, yet is quick to adapt and strong throughout. What are the keys to writing a character like this?
I’m confident in saying that Matthew is not a wholly original character. He’s the form I chose to go on what Joseph Campbell referred to as “The Hero’s Journey.” He’s in the same boat as Luke Skywalker, Marty McFly, Neo, Alice, and all the other main characters who are thrust into an extraordinary adventure. I wanted to make sure that he was capable of becoming this hero, but not ready to jump in with both feet since he believed he would be giving up everything he was. I don’t know about anyone else, but it’s not always a flip of the switch for me when it comes to major milestones. Doubt lingers, confidence has its ebbs and flows, and that’s what Matthew deals with in both “Excelsior” and even more so in “Ever Upward.”
Were there alternate endings that you considered?
Kind of. When the barebones elements of Excelsior’s trilogy came together during my high school years, the first two parts were more or less how they wind up in these finished drafts but the third part was different, more than a bit darker. But after I discussed it with my editor, she convinced me to steer it in a different direction, and now I’m confident that the third part is going to wrap up Matthew Peters’ story in a very satisfying way.
What authors have inspired you to write?
I’ve been a huge fan of William Goldman’s writing ever since I saw The Princess Bride, and I went on to get his “Adventures in the Screen Trade” books that gave me the confidence in my own voice. And I wanted to be a storyteller of any kind when I saw the original Star Wars. That really got me into my love of science-fiction / space fantasy.
What age were you when you started writing?
I had been creating characters since I was nine years old in 4th grade, but I didn’t start filling notebooks with text until I was 14 years old in 9th grade. By that point, the characters had evolved to the point where I couldn’t really draw them anymore. My very limited artistic ability had hit the proverbial wall, but I wanted to keep going with them, to give them detailed origin stories, let them interact with and fight against each other. As time went on, and my writing in high school improved, I incorporated my high school friends into the stories, making them supporting characters, which got them wanting to read them. That was a lot of fun, and I almost wish I still had those notebooks today. (I say “almost” because, if they’re as bad as I remember them, it’s probably best that they stay in the past.)
Do you ever experience writer’s block?
Sometimes, but more often, it’s – as Kevin Smith once called it – “writer’s laze.” If I’m not in front of my monitor hacking away at my work-in-progress, I lose the momentum and find myself either on social media or in front of the television in the middle of the latest Netflix marathon. Thankfully, I know now what gets my momentum up and running again, and that’s a deadline. I asked my publisher to let me know when they would like to launch “Ever Upward,” and once I got that, it suddenly became a little easier to sit down and edit one chapter after another.
Do you work with an outline, or just write?
I’ve done both. When I did the first draft of “Excelsior” in 2008, I knew the beginning and I knew the end. That was it. It was up to me to figure out what happened between Point A and Point B.
The outline for “From Parts Unknown” wound up being the original novel that I published through iUniverse in 2002. I was under the impression that I was just going to punch up that one, update the technology, and incorporate a subplot I had been thinking about ever since I got the rights back from the publisher. But as plans will do, that plan went awry in the best way possible because only scraps of the 2002 novel remained, and it went from a 234-page novel to a 550-page serial.
Before I started writing “Ever Upward,” I wrote an extensive outline and worked on it with my editor. That helped out a lot and became a map for me as I went through all the different twists and turns with this story. I think with the third one, I’m going to do another outline, but I want to see if I can make it not as detailed as the second, so there’s more room for me to embellish when I get to actually write it.
Do you ever get sad when you realize that the characters that you’ve created aren’t real?
Not really. I’ve taken enough elements from my life that my characters have some form of reality attached to them. Matthew Peters feels real to me because of how he’s an amalgam of myself and my cousin, and I’m grateful to the one to take him on the adventure he’s on now, since it keeps my cousin’s name alive. And Excelsior has been with me for almost 25 years, so I can’t imagine my life without him.
Can you tell us about your challenges in getting your first book published?
The original versions of both “From Parts Unknown” and “Excelsior” were each different challenges. “From Parts Unknown” was finished in July 2002 BK (Before Kindle), and self-publishing was still looked at as the “last option” for writers. I sent it to an agent acquaintance, and he suggested I self-publish since it catered to a very niche market. That September, I came across iUniverse and they offered a setup package of just $199, which included a free hardcover upgrade. I took a shot, the book was launched in November, and it literally came and went without much of a whimper because I had no idea how to market myself or my book.
When I was working on the rewrites of “Excelsior” in 2009, I opted to self-publish that one because I didn’t want to just throw away the rights on these characters I’ve known for so long. But by this time, I had a website, I was writing regularly for a successful pop-culture website – 411Mania.com – and I was more confident in this particular story. So I set up a crowd-funding “Early Bird Special” drive where all participants would guarantee their own signed copy and their names would be listed in the back of the book in the acknowledgement section. That drive brought in all the money I needed for setup at
Infinity Publishing, everyone’s copies, and mailing of copies to everyone out-of-state. It took a while for that money to come in, so it was a stressful time while I was working on my edits, but it felt great getting it self-published without having to pay a dime.
If you had to go back and do it all over, is there any aspect of your novel or getting it published that you would change?
If I knew what “From Parts Unknown” would go on to be, I would have just shelved the 2002 novel without releasing it at all.
Can you tell us about your upcoming book?
It’s going to be hard to say too much without giving away elements of the first one, but here goes…
“Ever Upward: Part Two of The Excelsior Journey” picks up six months after “Excelsior” (in Denab IV time, so SHOULD BE five years in Earth time). I gave myself three commandments for this one: I wanted it to be longer (the first book is less than 80,000 words and this one is between 110,000 & 115,000 words), I wanted it to go deeper into Excelsior’s mythology, and I wanted it to be darker. All three are definitely accomplished. We’re going to take a much bigger look at Denab IV itself, we’re going to go inside the hierarchy of the Krunation Empire, General Hodera will be given a much bigger role, we’re going back to Earth to catch up with Matthew’s uncle Jason, a major character from the original will come back to life, there will be a major battle on the 70th floor of Rockefeller Center in New York City (with cameos by former Top of the Rock colleagues), and we will not only see the complete origin of Excelsior himself, but also that of his greatest enemy.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author? What has been the best compliment?
I’ve had people say that “Excelsior” is clichéd, which makes me want to say, “Of course it is, it’s my take on Campbell’s “Hero’s Journey,” so that doesn’t really bother me too much. The toughest critique I’ve gotten is that it’s under-written, and I understand the way of thinking behind it and I won’t fault them for saying it. I’ve always been story-driven, and I just want to get on with telling the story when I feel I’ve given enough description.
Do you have any advice to give to aspiring writers?
Do not – I repeat, DO NOT – be afraid to write a crappy first draft. Get it on the page, get the story out, and commit to going back and fixing what you have. Almost every bit of writing comes from rewriting, and you can’t rewrite from nothing.
Thank you George for sharing a bit of yourself and your books with us.
What others are saying about George Sirois:
“Thank you, George Sirois, for making me feel like a kid again.”
“This story grips you from the beginning and does not let go. I was blown away with the author’s ability to build worlds, and quite frankly, this is science fiction at its best.”
“Sirois has done a fantastic job of borrowing small elements of familiarity from comic books and cartoons and combining them into an amazingly original and fantastic story.”
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