Novelist, award-winning screenwriter, podcaster, biker, poker player, roustabout, Travis Heermann is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop. He has sold short stories to print magazines and anthologies such as Weird Tales, Cemetery Dance, and others. His historical fantasy novel, HEART OF RONIN, and swashbuckling fantasy novel, ROGUES OF BLACK FURY, are available from E-Reads, and his YA horror novel THE WILD BOYS was released in December, 2012, by Damnation Books. He sometimes eats outlandish things.
I met Travis at the Rocky Mountain Fiction Writers’ Colorado Gold Conference and am delighted to host him here on the blog today to celebrate the launch of THE WILD BOYS.
And now…on with the interview!
1. Where did you grow up? Will you share a favorite story from your childhood?
I grew up on a dairy farm near Naper, Nebraska, which, if you know anything about the Great Plains, is about as far as one can get from anywhere without being in the Arctic. My high school when I graduated consisted of 21 total students, 9 of which were in my class.
In the summer between 2nd and 3rd grade, there was this movie that came out that I was jumping up and down to see. The trailers on TV (we got three channels) absolutely enthralled me and I begged my parents to take me. So we loaded up the family van, dropped my two infant siblings off at my cousins’ house for babysitting, took one of my cousins with us, and drove 35 miles to drive-in in Gregory, South Dakota, and my life was changed forever. My only regret was not being able to watch a really scary fight scene where Obi-Wan Kenobi and Darth Vader were duelling with lightsabers. I had to go hide in the back of the van until that part was over. It took several years and the advent of VHS before I ever had the opportunity to watch that scene again.
2. What inspired you to start writing?
When I was in sixth grade, I was browsing the school library, and I found a double volume hardcover: Swords of Mars and The Synthetic Men of Mars, by Edgar Rice Burroughs. Once again, my life was changed. I tore through that book, lit on fire from the inside. I had been writing little stories and drawing space battles and comic books for as long as I could remember, but after discovering Barsoom, I asked my mom if I could borrow her blue plastic portable Smith-Corona typewriter. And I wrote a novel, complete with maps and colored pencil drawings.
3. If you could go back in time and share one writing lesson with “new writer you” before starting your first manuscript … what would that be?
“Kid, this is who you are. There will be people who tell you to ‘get a job, get a sensible career, make some money.’ Ignore them. If you do anything else, it will just leave you hollow, passionless, and older than you need to be.”
4. Your new YA novel, THE WILD BOYS, features a strong female protagonist who must save her best friend – and her town – from a lycanthropic plague. What inspired you to write from a female perspective, and what unique challenges did you face in writing from a female teenage point of view?
Writing from a teenage girl’s perspective was really difficult, never having been one. In many ways, I’m still a teenage boy, so it would have been much easier writing from that perspective. The impetus for this book basically came from my agent. I had a couple of different ideas that I was thinking about pursuing for my next writing project, the sequel to Heart of the Ronin or the idea that would become The Wild Boys, and he told me. “YA is hot. Try your hand at that.” The earliest kernel of an idea came from a dream experienced by my wife at the time. When she told me about it, it was so cool that she wanted me to write it as a story. I agreed, so stemming from that came the building of the characters and ideas.
But the second part of the answer is that I wanted to write a book for a wider market than books I had written before. It could be argued that teenage girls ARE the YA publishing industry, so if I was going to write YA, it might be best to start there.
As for the challenges, several years and many drafts went by, and my chief concern was: does this feel like a teenage girl’s voice? So I showed it to as many female beta readers as I could find, and all of them helped me understand what goes on in a teenage girl’s mind.
5. To what do you attribute the rise in popularity of werewolves in fantasy and horror fiction? What drew you to werewolves in particular?
For this particular story, the original dream was about werewolves, so they were already integral. And for me, werewolves are some of my earliest fears. I can remember having terrifying werewolf dreams as early as three years old.
Werewolves are an archetype that seems to be embedded in our DNA. There are stories of humans who can shift into animal form across cultures worldwide. Something about the idea of becoming a monster, uncontrollably so, pushes our deepest internal buttons. When you add in the idea that these monsters are more powerful than us, that brings into question who is actually superior. The human race is used believing that we’re at the top of the food chain. We subscribe to the illusion that we can control nature, control our world. But what if somebody else suddenly comes along who is stronger, faster, with more coherent pack-like social structures, and yet retains our capacity for intelligence? If someone is just as smart as we are, and yet immensely superior physically, must we not bow to natural selection eventually? Who has the right to the top of the food chain? Humans or monsters? These were some of the issues I found myself exploring whilst writing the book.
6. Do you have a favorite author? If so, who and why?
Ray Bradbury changed my life just as surely as Star Wars and Edgar Rice Burroughs, but at a much later date. When I was about 28, I read Fahrenheit 451 for the first time, and was utterly blown away by not only the bizarrely accurate prophetic ideas in there, but by a single quote: “Stuff your eyes with wonder…live as if you’d drop dead in ten seconds. See the world! It’s more fantastic than any dream made or paid for in factories. Ask no guarantees, ask for no security, for there never was such an animal. And if there were, it would be related to the great sloth which hangs upside down in a tree all day every day, sleeping its life away. To hell with that…shake the tree and knock the great sloth down on his ass!”
That quote was the beginning of an awakening for me of what had been something like a ten-year sleep. The awakening lasted several more years, but it ultimately led me to places like Japan, Bali, Vietnam, Cambodia.
Books can change people’s lives. I’m evidence of it. Ray Bradbury changed mine.
7. Many of your books have an Asian (and, specifically, Japanese) theme. What was your first introduction to Asian history and culture?
By the time I was in high-school, still living in the middle of nowhere, my family had acquired a satellite dish, and in those wild and wooly media days, there were no cable subscriptions or anything like that, so the random satellite feeds of a hundreds were streaming down from above, but you had to know where to look for them. I happened across a showing of the Miyamoto Musashi film trilogy with Toshiro Mifune, and thus began lifelong love of Japanese films. I also discovered anime soon after that, and let me tell you, in 1986, anime was mighty hard to find, so I devoured all I could get my hands on. I discovered Akira Kurosawa, then later Hayao Miyazaki.
8. What is the last book you read, and why did you read it?
The last book I read was on the way to Toronto for the World Fantasy Convention. Necro Files, an anthology of extreme horror, with stories from George R.R. Martin, Joe Lansdale, and others. I picked that out of my massive to-be-read pile because it wasn’t too thick (I’ve been plowing through A Dance with Dragons for about three months now), and I wanted to remember the days when GRRM could write brilliant, mind-blowing, tightly plotted short stories, rather than bloated, sprawling, meandering wheel chocks.
9. How long did it take you to write THE WILD BOYS? How did you push yourself to get past difficult moments in writing and editing?
From start to final draft was probably something like two years, with fits and starts in the middle, during which I attended the Odyssey Writing Workshop (another life-changing experience), went to grad school, and learned how to podcast.
There was a point while writing this novel that I realized I had written my characters into an impossible situation. The likely result was that they would be killed and eaten. So I did something I had never done before: I asked the characters what they would do. I trusted them to do something, and the result was something that greatly surprised and satisfied me.
10. Do you have any upcoming signings or readings?
Dec. 14 at 7 p.m. – Barnes & Noble, Oak View Mall, Omaha, Nebraska
Also, I’m having a launch event at the Broadway Book Mall in Denver in late December, date YTBD. So anyone interested should check out my blog for news about day and time.
And now, the speed round:
- Plotter or pantser?
I tend to me more of a pantser, but my process tends to be somewhere in the middle, rather than either or. Usually I have a vague idea where I want the story to go, and then discover how to get there along the way.
- Coffee, tea, or bourbon?
Single-malt scotch, but there are some nice bourbons out there too.
- Socks or no socks?
- Cats, dogs, or reptiles?
I’ve had all three, but I tend to prefer cats.
- For dinner: Italian, Mexican, Burgers or Thai?
Thai, every time.
A huge Thank-You to Travis for joining me today! If you or someone you know likes YA – or werewolves! - THE WILD BOYS would make a great holiday gift (or even just a great pre-holiday treat)!
Can a 16-year-old girl stem the tide of a lycanthro-pocalypse? When three younger boys show up on the doorstep of Mia’s everyday suburban existence, naked and on the run, she is drawn into a shadow world where a series of strange disappearances heralds a slowly spreading plague of lycanthropy. Mia must save the three orphaned boys from their brutal Alpha, a man-beast who believes humans are food. A war is brewing for the top of the food chain, and Mia doesn’t know it yet, but she holds the key to the future of the human race.
Once again, a big thank-you to Travis for joining me today, and congratulations on the launch of THE WILD BOYS!