It’s no secret that I really love Will McIntosh’s books: I count Soft Apocalypse as one of my absolute favorite novels, and I was a big fan of Defenders. His latest novel Burning Midnight is now out, and it’s a strange, excellent book about the wonders of collecting and otherworldly horror. We had a chance to chat with McIntosh about his latest book, and what went into it (and his other novels)
Your latest novel, Burning Midnight is in stores now, and follows a teenager and some fantastic spheres. It’s a plot that’s out there - how did you put it together?
I wanted to explore the fever and excitement people feel when trying to acquire rare objects, whether it’s fine art, Pokemon cards, autographs, jewels, or MIB (mint in box) Star Wars action figures. I’ve collected one thing or another since I was a kid. As a teen I had a business selling rare comics, and I published an academic paper laying out a theory of why people collect back when I still a psych professor. I’m fascinated by that weird, hungry high you get hunting for rarities, and eventually it was bound to come out in my fiction.
I’m pretty sure the idea for Burning Midnight came most directly from an experience I had when I was twelve. My sister, a cousin, and I stumbled on a 60 year-old dump in the woods. We spent the summer hunting for antique bottles, and built a collection of something like 200 bottles (and eventually sold them to an antique dealer). Those great memories led me to want to create a story about hunting and discovering incredibly valuable things in the wild.
Since your first novel, Soft Apocalypse in 2011, you’ve written five novels. What have you learned since that first book up through Burning Midnight?
Ha, some people think Soft A is my best work, so I may have learned nothing, but let’s assume I have…
1. Try out your novel ideas as shorter works first. I may be the only writer who benefits from doing this, but a few times I’ve gotten excited by an idea, dove into chapter one of a novel, and two months later discover I’m writing crap. Sometimes something seems like a great idea when it’s in my head, but on paper it just doesn’t work. I’m better off spending a week writing a short story, then my treasured critiquing friends can tell me it’s bad, and I can move on.
2. Have some semblance of an outline. I was a pantser early on, and it led to so much revision. I probably rewrote 50% of Soft Apocalypse. For Burning Midnight, it was more like 10%. Often I only have a rough idea of what’s going to happen, but I have some idea of what the beginning, middle, and end will look like.
3. If you’re a new author, try to stick to one genre. I followed up Soft Apocalypse with Hitchers, which was urban fantasy/horror. Not many people who wanted to read about a relatively realistic apocalypse also wanted to read about a half million people possessed by their dead friends and relatives, so not many readers followed from my first book to my second. I’m mostly interested in exploring near-future SF anyway, so I’m happy to stick to SF for now.
What prompted you to make the jump from an ‘adult’ novel to a YA one? What in Burning Midnight required the jump in style, and did your approach change at all?
It was more like I tripped and fell, rather than jumped. Burning Midnight started out as an adult novel. I was about a third of the way through the first draft when I felt like there was something odd about the book. I didn’t know what, so I emailed my agent, Seth Fishman, and told him I was going to have to rethink the book, because it was feeling too….I struggled to describe it…it felt almost like YA. And Seth responded about ten seconds later. So write it as YA! I was kind of stunned by his reply, because I wasn’t a YA writer. I didn’t know anything about writing YA. Then I realized that I’d read a few YA books without even realizing they were YA. The Perks of Being a Wallflower, for example. The only change I had to make to the draft in progress was to make the characters younger. Initially they were college students, and I changed them to high school students. That’s about it. I write in a pretty straightforward style anyway (some of my writing friends would say I’m not a stylemonkey), so I think my writing lends itself to YA.
Something that I’ve noticed in your books is your unique take on genre: you seem to come in from a 90 degree angle. Soft Apocalypse was a different take on the post-apocalyptic genre, while Defenders had its own unique take on invasion literature. Do you feel that you’re consciously twisting genre conventions?
I had to think this one over for a while. When it comes to writing fiction I try not to do much of anything consciously, beyond telling a good story. Themes, social commentary, I like to let all of that emerge on its own out of the story. That being said, when it comes to developing the initial ideas for books, I can recall instances of thinking very consciously about doing just what you said – striving for a unique take.
In Soft Apocalypse, which began as a short story, I wanted to basically drop a character similar to Rob Gordon from High Fidelity into an apocalypse. Apocalypses tend to be about people bucking up and surviving. But people would still cling to the important aspects of their old lives, especially if the apocalypse came slowly. So I had this lonely guy looking for love as he steps over corpses.
The other one you mention is Defenders, and I can remember planning the short story and thinking it would be interesting to create a situation where it turns out the invading aliens are not the problem, it’s the weapons we created to fight them.
Your next novel, Fallers, is due out later this year, about a world in which everyone’s lost their memories. What has you excited about this novel?
Everyone losing their memories my well be the least strange aspect of Faller! The book opens with a guy regaining consciousness in downtown Manhattan with no memory. He spots a crowd of people and goes to see what they’re all staring at, and it turns out they’re looking at this enormous sky, because they’re all standing on ten blocks of downtown Manhattan hanging suspended in an endless sky. The guy finds three things in his pockets: a toy paratrooper, a sketch drawn in his own blood, and a photo of him and a woman. Based on the paratrooper he fashions a parachute, and falls off the chip of city and finds…another chip. It’s a weird, wild book, and I’m hoping people will find it kind of different.
What’s coming up next for you after 2016?
I *may* have just sold a Middle Grades book about robot bodyguards built to resemble animals to a major publisher, but that’s unofficial. : ) I’m currently at work on another YA book. It’s about lying, about all the ways we’re lied to, all the lies we tell, and what would happen if no one could ever get away with a lie again. I so want to call it The Future Will Be Bullshit-Free, but that may not be the best title for a YA book. I’m also developing an outline for a screenplay. I’ve always wanted to write a screenplay.
Burning Midnight is now in stores.