Myke Cole is bursting onto the SF scene with his debut novel, the first of a series blending elements of Fantasy, and Military Science Fiction. He’s served the United States military in multiple capacities while his short fiction has appeared in Weird Tales, Writers of the Future, and Black Gate, among others. Myke took time to discuss his first novel Control Point, serving in the military, geekdom, and writing in general.
Congratulations on Shadow OPS: Control Point, your debut novel being published, would you mind giving readers a brief summary of the book and a bit about yourself? Also, why “Myke” with a y as opposed to the standard “Mike” with an “I”?
Thanks! I’m a military officer in the reserve who has done 3 tours in Iraq. I’m also an unrepentant nerd who grew up on Dungeons and Dragons, comic books and fantasy novels.
You blend those two influences and you’ve got Control Point, a novel that mixes modern military action and the classical magic you know from Tolkien. Peter V. Brett ‘s blurb is the best summary I can possibly give without blathering on longer than your readers want: It’s Black Hawk Down meets The X-Men.
I started spelling my name with a “y” in college as part of a joke, but I quickly found that it got people to pull my manuscripts out of slush piles, so it stuck. At this point, it’s “in the system,” to the point where I get bills to that name. My officer’s saber is engraved “MYKE COLE,” and I carry that by commission of the President, so I guess it’s as official as it gets now.
You’ve been working on Control Point, and the Shadow OPS series for a while now, according to your blog. How much has it changed since you decided to mash up military science fiction and urban fantasy?
I wrote my first draft of Control Point (then called Latent) in 1998. The main character was an Arkansas corporal named James Jolly. Now the protagonist is an officer (and aviator) from Vermont, named Oscar Britton. Britton and Jolly are very different people, and these are very different books. So much so that I’d say there’s very little that remains of the original Latent except for the basic concept.
The tag line the publisher is using is a great one – “Black Hawk Down meets the X-Men.” Is this the high concept you were aiming to achieve or did you just want to get these ideas swirling in your head into the form of a novel?
The latter. I was far more interested in seeing how the rigid, giant military bureaucracy would deal with magic than I was in writing a fast-paced, action-packed novel. But the story started out pre 9-11, when I was doing peacetime work at the Pentagon. Once I started going to Iraq, I changed dramatically, and the story changed with me, taking on a lot of the tactical camera I picked up in theater. My craft developed all along, and what emerged at the other end was (I hope) a great blending of all those lines into the book we’ve got today.
With your military background, the military elements come across with great verisimilitude. You’ve mentioned Jack Campbell in previous interviews, what other Military SF writers you can you point to and say “They served, they got it right, too.”
Absolutely: Robert Buettner’s Jason Wander series. Buettner was Army, and it shows in his frank and complex depiction of the military and the people in it. He shows the organization as gigantic, hidebound and soul-crushing, but also glorious, triumphant and transcendent. And that’s really how the military is. It’s impossible to be “pro” or “anti” any organization so vast and complex. It’s very tempting to do that when you’re writing fiction (because polarity makes for an easy story), but the best works of art embrace the complexity and the reader enjoys it because they see reality reflected there. Campbell does this. Buettner does this. I have tried really hard to do it too.
What helped to keep you sane during your tours in Iraq?
I’m not sure that I stayed sane out there. But what kept me going was the horrible possibility that I could fail the other people I was working with. I could handle screwing up and disgracing myself, but screwing up and causing someone else to get hurt or killed? I couldn’t live with that. It’s the same thing that keeps me going now in the reserve. As an officer, you’ve got troops who are depending on you to not only make sure that they can operate safely but to help them advance and manage their careers as well. You’ve got a command who is counting on you to get your assigned mission accomplished.
These are people who I love and admire. The thought of letting them down drives me. Iraq was the same way.
What was it like to have a writer whom you admire provide you with such a generous blurb?
The Jack Campbell blurb sent me sailing. Not only do I love his work (his Lost Fleet series is the best military science fiction I’ve ever read, hands-down), I also feel a real personal connection to him. We share so many common experiences/career-points. We’re both sea service officers and we worked at many of the same commands. At my last day job before I quit to pursue full-time writing, some of my colleagues were friendly with him.
Peter V. Brett has been my friend since high school. He’s quite literally saved my life, and been instrumental in achieving so many important goals of mine that there is no way I can ever possibly repay him or thank him enough. That blurb is just one more kindness in a long list of them, and I hope he knows how much I appreciate it.
That he means what he wrote in that blurb is enormously gratifying, and the product of literally thousands of emails and hours of conversation that we spent debating both my universe of Shadow OPS and his of The Demon Cycle, over many years. As Pete often says, there’s a lot of him in my work, and a lot me in his.
So with another writer as a close friend, is it safe to say writer’s groups (even if only two) are important for a writer’s abilities to flourish? Have you taken part in any real life writer’s groups or online writer’s groups like the Online Writing Workshop (OWW)?
I actually don’t like writers groups, online or otherwise. I feel that they generally function more as group therapy than as real craft development tools, and I find that unless they are packed with incredible writers (and they’re usually not) it’s really hard to distinguish between a charismatic/eloquent person who gives you terrible advice and a less charismatic person who is giving you good advice. That said, I understand they work for many people and have no problem with that. I just did a blog post on this very topic for the Inkpunks writing group, and it goes into a lot more detail. You can check it out here -http://www.inkpunks.com/2012/01/11/writing-groups/#content.
Military SF is one of the more popular branches of the SF tree, how critical is possessing a military background to writing in the genre. For example, David Weber has one of the most popular Military SF series on the shelves, but from what I can gather, he doesn’t have a military background.
I don’t think it’s critical. Being a great writer with strong research skills can definitely make a big difference in writing in military arenas. One of the most famous military historians (who has trained an entire generation of British officers), John Keegan, has never served in his life.
That said, I like to think that the front row seat I’ve had not just for war, but for domestic disaster response and law enforcement, has given my voice an authenticity that veterans will recognize and that non-vets will find believable. In the end, that’s for the reader to judge.
Through your facebook page and Web site, you are a self-professed and proud geek (as am I and many of the folks reading this interview, obviously). How long have you been a fan of all this “stuff” and what was your “gateway drug?”
Quite literally, all my life. My older brother brought home the old D&D basic set when I was just a tyke and I never looked back. Dungeons & Dragons was absolutely my gateway drug. My parents kept waiting for the phase to end, for me to grow out of it. Well, I’m pushing 40, and they’re still waiting.