T. Michael Martin is the author of The End Games, a young adult zombie-thriller about brothers and brains, which debuted yesterday. Mike has been a screenwriter, a prank-caller, and a test-subject, and now lives with his wife Sarah in Virginia.
Could you tell us 5 random facts about yourself?
1. I once met Joss Whedon in line at Los Angeles International Airport. (He’s super nice!)
2. The first movie my parents ever took me to was The Terminator (I was two months old.)
3. When I was eight, I tried to build a jetpack so that I could defend myself from some bullies who beat me up. Didn’t work. :/
4. I have a degree in Filmmaking, and I graduated with the highest GPA in the history of my film school.
5. I make YouTube videos every week at youtube.com/tmikemartin.
Tell us about your journey to becoming a writer.
I’ve been a book lover since before I could read: some of my favorite childhood memories are my mom reading Berenstein Bears to me. But the writer who made me want to become a writer was R.L. Stine. For my generation, Goosebumps was the introduction to the grand archetypes of the supernatural, and Mr. Stine sent me head-over-heels in love with horror. (That’s partly why it was so thrilling to receive a blurb from him for The End Games!)
So I wrote and wrote for, like, fifteen years, and then had a screenplay “optioned” (where a studio “rents” the rights to develop the project) during my senior year of film school. It didn’t work out, though, I think for a couple reasons: 1) the Writer’s Guild strike happened, and 2) as heartbreaking as it was to admit, I just wasn’t a good enough writer yet.
I worked a bunch of frustrating, minimum-wage jobs for several years after that (including a stint as a test subject in experimental drug studies). And honestly, those years were so scary: I was watching my childhood friends go on to promising careers in other fields, and more than once — as I scrubbed a toilet or got poked with another hypodermic needle — I despaired that I might be kidding myself with This Whole Writing Thing.
But one of the things I’m proudest of in my life is that I kept writing throughout all that pain. I had a feeling that a book I was writing (my third novel, called The End Games) might be a pretty good one. When I finished the book in the fall of 2011, I sent off query letters to agents on the scariest Saturday night of my life. I received multiple offers of representation first thing Monday morning. The book sold to HarperCollins about a month later.
(Do I have to tell you I cried?)
What has surprised you about writing and publishing?
I’ve been blessed to have some amazing writer friends mentor me throughout this whole process, so I haven’t been too caught off-guard by anything (yet!). Getting used to working under deadline and contract required an adjustment, for sure, but I’m very grateful to be getting published and I’ve had a good experience so far.
Why do you feel drawn to the stories you write?
I’ve always loved what Stephen King says about why he writes horror, and it sums up so precisely how I feel about it, too: “I was built with a love of the night and the unquiet coffin, that’s all. If you disapprove, I can only shrug my shoulders. It’s what I have.”
Also, as strange as it might sound, whenever I encounter a great scary story, the primary aspect of my own fear is a sense of wonder. Modern technology has improved our lives in countless ways — but I can’t help but feel that they’ve also robbed our world of much of its mystery. The ability to instantaneously dial up the answer to almost any question sometimes makes me feel like there are no more uncharted lands to sail toward and discover. So tales of the extraordinary offer us a very precious thing: the re-enchantment of the world around us.
I also love that horror is, in so many ways, the genre of non-denial: Scary stories, or at least the best of them, reckon with the fact that life is sometimes scary and violent. And because they show the full spectrum of existence, they allow us to review and reframe our own struggles through the lens of the extraordinary and extreme. Which I find to be a pretty inspiring thing.
What has been the toughest criticism given to you as an author?
There have been some criticisms of the narrative voice in The End Games, which can sting sometimes. But I also have to admit that I always knew that the book’s kinetic style — inspired by William Goldman and Cormac McCarthy — might be controversial. (And in fairness to the book, an equal number of people — including Booklist, who gave The End Games a starred review — have had hugely positive things to say about the voice. And that does make me feel really good.)
What has been the best compliment you’ve received?
John Green (#1 New York Times author of The Fault in Our Stars) is my favorite Young Adult author, and he recently tweeted:
Reading the novel THE END GAMES by nerdfighter and YouTuber @tmikemartin and holy crap is it excellent. The zombie novel I wish I’d written!
— John Green (@realjohngreen) May 2, 2013
Where’s your favorite place to write?
I love writing in libraries, particularly university libraries when the students are on break. (The silence and emptiness are both peaceful and I Am Legend spooky!) But probably my favorite place is in my home office, with the smartphone, router, and laptop turned off, and my old electric Brother typewriter set up by the window. (Most of The End Games was written by hand or on a typewriter, and “revised” for the first time when I typed it into Scrivener.)
What is one thing you wish you’d known when you sat down to write your novel?
Honey, this is gonna take a while. (Four years!)
How do you approach writing villains or antagonists?
With radical empathy. I’ve always tried to remember that every person alive is the “protagonist” in his own life, and almost no one (even really villainous people) would call themselves “evil.” So I try to write the antagonists with a clear idea of how they rationalize their own behavior to themselves. (Which has the interesting effect of making them even scarier, I think!)
Also, I’m a big believer in the idea that villains should be the hero’s “shadow.” This is a Jung/Campbell concept: The antagonist is necessary to the protagonist, because they represent the dark, unclaimed, unconscious impulses that the hero already has within himself. (In popular culture, this is most beautifully illustrated in a hallucination sequence in The Empire Strikes Back, when Luke slices off Darth Vader’s mask… and finds his own face inside it.) So really, an antagonist is the worst aspects of the protagonist, just taken to the extreme. And it’s only through conflict with the antagonist that the hero will be forced to grow into whomever he’s destined to be.
How do you construct the world and tonal environment of your story?
For me, everything starts with finding the emotional center of a story. In The End Games, the heart of the story is the relationship between seventeen-year-old Michael and his five-year-old brother, Patrick. Once I had that, I asked myself this question: What is the Very Worst World that I could put these two specific people in? And how — over the course of the story, if they can survive — can it actually turn into the Very Best (or Emotionally Necessary, at least) World for them?
Which is easier to write: The first line or the last line?
Oh man, no doubt the last! By that point, I have a good handle on what the book is about thematically, so it’s always fun to try to end with a sentence that serves as a kind of resonant, lingering note.
What is your favorite chapter or scene you’ve written recently?
I’ve been writing the climax of my next book this week, and although I’m a really tough critic of my own work most of the time, I’m so proud of it. (I can’t go into details just yet, but I think it has the most original imagery and action I’ve ever written.)
Which one YA novel do you wish you had when you were a teen?
Looking for Alaska, by John Green.
Do you have things you need in order to write? (i.e. coffee, cupcakes, music?)
Quiet, and a goodish chunk of time (1.5 to 4 hours). Coffee helps, too.
What are you working on now?
I’m working on my next novel for HarperCollins, which will be published in Autumn 2014. It’s another YA thriller that takes place in West Virginia, with lots of action and scares and humor and teenagers saving the world. We’re keeping the specifics of the plot a secret at the moment, but I will say that it isn’t post-apocalyptic or a sequel to The End Games, and it also doesn’t have any zombie-ish creatures.
Bonus Question! Would you rather be a book, or a computer?
Computer. (So I could download ALL THE BOOKS! :D )
Thanks so much for having me, y’all, and for all the great questions!
About ‘The End Games’:
It happened on Halloween.
The world ended.
And a dangerous game brought it back to life.
Seventeen-year-old Michael and his five-year-old brother, Patrick, have been battling monsters in The Game for weeks.
In the rural mountains of West Virginia—armed with only their rifle and their love for each other—the brothers follow Instructions from the mysterious Game Master. They spend their days searching for survivors, their nights fighting endless hordes of “Bellows”—creatures that roam the dark, roaring for flesh. And at this Game, Michael and Patrick are very good.
But The Game is changing.
The Bellows are evolving.
The Game Master is leading Michael and Patrick to other survivors—survivors who don’t play by the rules.
And the brothers will never be the same.
For more about T. Michael Martin:
You can connect with Mike on Facebook, Tumblr, and on Twitter as @TMikeMartin. Check out his YouTube channel for pop-culture musings, and and for more information and contact details, visit his website, TMichaelMartin.com. The End Games is available for purchase at Amazon, Barnes & Noble, and other booksellers.