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Dealer's Choice: An Interview with Authors John Jos. Miller, S.L. Farrell and Kevin Andrew Murphy by Drew Bittner
Review by Drew Bittner Interview  
Date: 19 March 2008 /

When Wild Cards came to be in 1987, John Joseph Miller and S.L. Farrell were among the writers invited to become part of this groundbreaking shared-world anthology.

After the series had been underway for a few books, a newcomer named Kevin Andrew Murphy joined the group, finding an intriguing way of earning the editors' attention.

John and S.L. contributed stories to Inside Straight, the newest in the Wild Cards series from Tor; Kevin's next contribution will be seen in Busted Flush, on sale later this year. SFRevu interviewed George R.R. Martin and Melinda Snodgrass in January; now we're pleased to bring you an interview with three of the authors of this next hand of Wild Cards.

Hello, gentlemen, and thank you for taking part in this group interview. First, how did you get involved in writing Wild Cards?
JJM: I was one of the original gamers, so I go back to the faraway time before cell phones, e-mail, and iPods, when it comes to Wild Card history.

SLF: George was in town for a steamboat thing -- he's big on steamboats, y'know. We got together since we've known each other for a bit, and he asked if I'd be interested in writing for the revival of the Wild Cards series.

I may have been a little loud then with the scream I let out, and I'm fairly sure I didn't break too many things in the restaurant when I jumped up and down pumping my fist. Then I told him that, sure, I'd think about it and get back to him.

KAM: I'd seen the books when I was in college, but borrowed the first five from a friend and read them the year after I graduated. I was already doing game writing at that point, and I'd heard that Steve Jackson was looking for proposals for "Aces Abroad," the second Wild Cards adaptation for GURPS [aka the Generic Universal Roleplaying System]. So I sent in a proposal and got the gig, intending my game work to be my Baby June number to see if George would let me in. I was 22.

George did read the manuscript, intending to just look at it for general approval, but got sucked in and offered to jump me into the gang so he could play with the characters. Herne, Cameo and Captain Flint were all tapped to become official, and I did some revising on all of them, especially Cameo, to make them fit.

I pitched stories for the next few books until landing a spot in Card Sharks. I'd had a few fiction sales in semi-prozines, but nothing professional as straight fiction yet, let alone at the level of Wild Cards. But George gave me my chance, liked the first draft and gave me notes for the second, and I had my first professional sale.

What was the initial pitch for Inside Straight? How was the story worked out?
KAM: The initial pitch was put together by George and Melinda, I believe, with extra bits and pieces added in at a brainstorming session at the Bear Paw writers' retreat.

Unfortunately I couldn't make it that weekend, but I was in contact by phone and e-mail. And George then split the plot and moved half of it to Busted Flush, including the pitches from Bud Simons, Ian Tregillis and Vic Milan.

JJM: The notion of a "Committee Trilogy," wherein a group of aces makes a stab if not at running the world then at least trying to help control it, goes way, way back to the initial triad notions, as a three-book arc to hang a story on.

How the Committee Trilogy developed into this specific story is very interesting, because it all hangs on a single line written by my wife, Gail Gerstner-Miller, in the only Wild Cards story that she ever wrote, which appeared in book four. If you recall that story, at one point one of the Living Gods gives a pregnant Peregrine an amulet that he says will give her son "the power of Ra." This triad simply explicates that action from way back then, and ties it all up.

SLF: I pitched -- obviously -- a Drummer Boy story. The basic structure of the book had already been worked out, so when you pitch you're trying to connect your viewpoint character to the action that's going to take place, and also to some of the other characters who might be in the story.

I'd talked with Carrie Vaughn about DB maybe having a relationship with her character, Curveball, even though I knew Curveball would end up with Fortune at some point. We worked out some of that with John (Jos. Miller), especially setting up that Carrie would handle the backstory of their relationship since I was pitching a story late in the book. If you look at the initial pitch, you'll see that a big bit of character stuff -- DB's relationship with Rusty, which was important in my story (and will be even more important in the next one in Busted Flush) -- isn't there at all. Nor do the details all match what would later show up in the book.

The pitch is just that: here's this idea I have and here's how I see it fitting in. Pitches always change to fit the book. That's just the way it works.

What's the best bit you wrote that didn't make it into the book?
SLF: There were several jokers I created for the Big Battle scenes and I had some nice stuff with them. I especially liked the Living Goddess I created named Iabet, who could form water. She formed herself into a giant axe of ice to strike the Djinn. ... I also liked a scene with Matryoshka where he (or lots of him) meet their doom with the Djinn.

But in the end, Matryoshka wasn't one of the aces that went to Egypt, and no one else used Iabet and there were already too many of the Living Gods, so all that ended up getting cut.

KAM: Well, Rosa Loteria was my new character, but the story I pitched with her for Inside Straight was something lighter, along the lines of what I'd done with Swash in Deuces Down. It didn't fit with the tone of the book, especially for a midpoint story, so I didn't get in. But Rosa became a popular character with the other authors and she got to be everyone's bad girl -- something every reality television show needs -- so she's still in the credits.

And I've gotten to play with Rosa on the American Hero website, and that's been a lot of fun too. Ditto with the Maharajah, who's my other new ace.

However, my pitch for Busted Flush was good, but instead of Rosa, I got to tell a story with one of my older characters, Cameo. I've been wanting to use Cameo as a viewpoint character for years.

JJM: [For Busted Flush, the next book in the series] I wanted to write an actual-to-God wedding scene -- I'm being vague here not to give too much away -- but was basically forced to give up the idea because of length constraints.

For the veterans, how has it been working alongside the newcomers?
SLF: These are writers I've admired ever since I first read their work. It's fabulous!

JJM: Relatively painless.

KAM: Well, I'm sort of the Jan Brady of the crew. When I started, I was the youngest writer in the group by quite some, but getting to write alongside far more experienced writers, even ones like Bill Wu and Laura Mixon who joined just before and after me. But everyone was very fun and welcoming and gave me a lot of good advice, both on writing and also on working as part of the team.

When Daniel (Abraham) came in with Deuces Down, he took my place as the youngest and newest, and now of course Ian, Carrie and Caroline (Spector) have come in, giving us a lot of fresh crew.

But it's pretty much how it was before -- a bunch of fun, and an interesting mix.

Inside Straight is fundamentally about heroism -- how it's commercialized on the one hand and how it's achieved on the other. It's profound stuff. How did it affect you?
SLF: DB is a character who's already used to hero worship -- as the living drum set for the hot new band Joker Plague. He's familiar with the heady adrenalin rush of applause and adoration ... and with all the perks that come with fame. But he's not a hero. He's done nothing heroic -- he's a rock musician. I wanted him to have to come to terms with what one can do with fame, beyond the gluttonous consumption.

DB's a bit of an ass: egotistical, loud, brash, an extrovert. But he's also fundamentally aware of the shallowness of his existence and part of him wants to do more.

It's not a journey he can complete in one story. But we get him started on it.

KAM: I loved reading the book, how it turned out, all the stories that are in it. I especially liked to see what the other authors did with Rosa, especially Mike Cassutt's coda with her. It gives you other illuminations of the character, perspectives you hadn't considered, and I also like how Rosa got to act as a foil, setting off the other characters, especially how she figures into Ian's story with Rustbelt, and likewise Rusty and Curveball's decisions.

But apart from that, how the story affected me personally? Well, since I'd been in on the planning, I already knew how it was going to play out, just not exactly how, and as with all good tragedies and tales of heroism, there were the moments of catharsis, not just one but several. Steve Leigh -- um, S.L. Farrell's -- is particularly good, and again, Mike Cassutt's manages the classic tragedy from hubris, and I love the moment of catharsis from that and not just because Rosa gets to give the parting line (though of course I do love that too).

JJM: That's been kind of a subtext (if not outright theme) of a lot of my stories for Wild Cards, so it is familiar turf for me. I'm not done with it yet; it's a profound theme with a lot of angles to examine and I've tried to do some of that even with my American Hero blog commentaries when you get to know a little about Simoon before you learn about her ultimate fate. Although, I must say, you don't know her ultimate fate yet. That's a hint.

What is there about this genre -- superhero adventure -- that appeals to you? Is there latitude to tell different kinds of stories than you might in other genres of SF or fantasy?
KAM: I think the thing I like about superhero fiction is that it's a melange of genres, science fiction and fantasy and magical realism. Where else can you have a witch, a robot and a mystic all sharing the same stage and all making sense?

The wonderful thing about the Wild Card is that it allows latitude to tell all these stories and give them a common explanation. If I were to be telling the story in another superhero universe, Rosa Loteria's deck would be magic, as opposed to magical only for her. Meanwhile, Jetman's pulp-era comic book science works for him. And Rustbelt gets to be a joker rather than just a golem some kid welded in metal shop. Things fit together in a way they wouldn't otherwise.

SLF: To me, it's about The Gift, which is part of a lot of fantasy. You explore what happens to an ordinary individual when he or she is suddenly no longer ordinary. How does it change you? How do you deal with that? Here's a character who has been given The Gift, whatever it happens to be: super-strength, invulnerability, flight, the ability to remove calories from chocolate …

Oh, sorry. That last one was just wish fulfillment.

JJM: I love fantasy. This is a 21st century version of fantasy. The specific appeal of Wild Card is that you can take our humdrum, everyday world, and play with it, mold it so that it's more the way you'd like it to be in big and little ways. For example, in the Wild Card world, the Dodgers never abandoned Brooklyn. To some people, that may be a little thing. To me, it's enormous.

The original Wild Cards stories largely emerged from a group roleplaying game. Do any of you still game?
JJM: Many of the original gamers still game, though my wife and I have largely fallen out of it.

SLF: Not any more, but I did for many years. I never enjoyed playing anywhere near as much as I did running the game. To me, running an RPG game is like creating a novel where the characters are free to do as they wish.

KAM: I still run a game biweekly for my friends. It's a fun outlet and also a good way to flex the storytelling muscles.

What other projects are you working on between Wild Cards stories?
JJM: I've handed in my manuscript for Green Ronin Press' Wild Card Roleplaying Worldbook (for the Mutants & Masterminds game system), which should see publication this summer.

I'm back to work at my novel, Black Train Coming, a fantasy about vampires, a race of immortal dogs, and other strange creatures, set in a West Virginia coal mining camp in the early 1920s, wherein the bloodsucking capitalists are, actually, bloodsucking capitalists.

I also have a novella set in the same universe, only about 800 years in the future, called "A Knight in Summer Long Ago, or, Cruel Sisters," about halfway done, as well as a hard-boiled detective story set in contemporary New Mexico with Judas Iscariot as the hard-boiled detective.

SLF: I'm working on a fantasy series. I've completed the Cloudmages trilogy (Holder Of Lightning, Mage Of Clouds and Heir Of Stone, all out from DAW Books), which was a Celtic-based generational fantasy. Now I'm working on a more Renaissance-based series called the Nessantico Cycle -- the first book of that has just been released (in February '08) from DAW Books, entitled A Magic Of Twilight. It's received great reviews so far [read our review]. I'm currently working on the next book in the cycle: A Magic Of Nightfall.

KAM: I've got a short story I want to do for another anthology if I find time, and some other projects I'm working on pitching to publishers but can't talk about just yet. There's also a film adaptation that's being done of one of my short stories, "Clove Smoke."

Mostly things brewing and irons in the fire at this point. My story in Busted Flush is the only one I can announce as upcoming just now.

And there you have it. SFRevu would like to thank John, S.L. and Kevin for this interview. Be sure to read Inside Straight and visit the American Hero site.

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