Today, I have the privilege of interviewing Mikey Neumann, author of the serial novel The Returners, and Gearbox Software Chief Creative Champion. He’s a super cool dude, so I was excited when he agreed to answer my questions. I just finished Part One of Season One of The Returners two nights ago, and I can’t wait to dive into Part Two. Onto the interview!
You’ve had numerous health problems—ones that shouldn’t have affected a 29 year old, which if people are interested they can read about on your blog (http://diagnosismia.blogspot.com/). I actually recommend that people check it out. It was a funny, open, touching take on everything that’s happened since last year.
Would you say that these issues with your health have changed the way you approach writing? Has there been any change to your worldview that might manifest itself in some way in your writing?
I think it’s safe to say that my worldview has changed and this has affected my writing to some degree – though, it’s probably in unexpected ways. I think the most obvious way is how freeing it was to just dive into things, I mean, that’s where the blog came from in a sense. I wanted to inform people purely on my own feelings, thoughts, and emotions going through some difficult times. I know that some relatives and friends were a little taken aback by the honesty on display, but in the end, I think it made it more valuable.
In concrete detail, that journey is what created The Returners in the first place. I wanted to lose the safety net.
Let’s get away from that topic and focus on cool stuff: video games and writing. You’re the Creative Director at Gearbox, and you’ve worked on some great titles like Borderlands, Brothers in Arms, and Aliens: Colonial Marines. How did you get your start at Gearbox, and when did you start writing for video games?
I have been the Creative Director on products here, but my official title is Chief Creative Champion. I started at Gearbox in 2001 at 19 while working on Counterstrike: Condition Zero as a texture artist. I also did a bit of work on Half Life for PS2.
The first game I wrote from start to finish was Brothers in Arms: Road to Hill 30 – I think this job solidified on the
follow up to that game, Earned in Blood, when I was nominated for an Academy of Interactive Arts and Sciences award for writing. I was around 24-25 at the time and it cemented in me a desire to write stories for the rest of my life.
How hard is it to switch gears (heh, get it?) between writing for a visual, interactive medium than it is writing say a short story or novel? What techniques do you find work well across both media? And has your time in the gaming industry influenced how you create scenes for your novel experiment?
I’ve never seen anyone ask so many questions in a single paragraph before. (Editor’s note: There were more questions in that paragraph originally)
In short, the example I usually give is describing how I’ve hired other writers (like Anthony Burch) to work at Gearbox. It’s easier to train a person that’s a good writer to be a game writer. If they understand story, pacing, character arcs, etc., then you can teach them the tools and structure of a type of game. If someone comes along and says they only write games, that raises an eyebrow. Storytellers are storytellers and the medium is of middling importance.
As for the rest of that mammoth inquiry, I’m not sure the novel experiment is too influenced by the games I’ve written in the same way that Anthony Saves the World wasn’t influenced too much by Brothers in Arms. They’re just different types of stories.
You’ve been working on your serialized, internet novel experiment, The Returners for a while now. For those that don’t know about it, can you give a quick description/synopsis?
It was the thing that got me out of writing the illness blog. I was done feeling sympathy for myself and wanted to channel all of that creative energy I was spending explaining and telling stories about my illness to become something greater. So I was thinking to myself, what if I blogged a book, chapter-by-chapter?
The Returners is what came out of that. I wanted to serialize a book like Charles Dickens did with Oliver Twist. He wrote that under the pseudonym “BOZ.” as it was being published in the magazines at the time. That’s where “BOZ.” Publishing comes from. The idea was to serialize a novel of grand scope on the internet – that’s why the website is fixed height and width – it’s just worked on a Kindle of an iPad.
The book is about a group of known historical figures that all find themselves born into another life on this Earth in the modern day. Why are they here? Why is someone trying to kill them? When you write Joan of Arc having a conversation with a thirteen-year-old Albert Einstein, you know you’re onto something. It comes from a place of wanting to spiral a personal story of friendship and survival into something of much larger and grander scale.
It’s my LOST, I guess.
Since The Returners is serialized, would you say that it might be similar to writing for a TV show than a more traditional novel? How much of the story do you have outlined in advance? Do you have a secret list of all the historical figures you want to make an appearance? Or because these are daily chapters, do you just kind of make it up as you go along and see where the story takes you?
I think writing The Returners is a lot like writing a TV show. I’m clearly borrowing their nomenclature with doing the book in “seasons” and such. I want people to know it’s an ongoing story and there are many kinds of stories to tell in that universe.
As far as what I have outlined in advance, I have all of the chapters in Season One (all three parts) outlined and ready to be written. From there, I have where it ends and the major ideas of five seasons of stories, increasing in scope and grandeur with each one. In my head, the story would make an excellent TV show (which I’ve also heard a lot from the fans of the books,) but I’m not sure if it would make a good movie. That’s probably just me, I always like TV shows more than movies – I like spending time with the characters.
Of course there’s a list of who else comes back in the book! There’s some new faces that arrive in part three of Season One *winky face*
Sticking with the TV analogy for just a bit longer, have you ever envisioned taking a “summer break” where you don’t put up new chapters but instead plan out where you want the next season to go?
Yeah, when Season One has concluded I’m going to outline in detail that entire second season as well as put up another novel I wrote last year called The Ending. The website will continue to grow with not just my own content, but the content of other authors as well.
I gotta thank Mikey for answering all my questions! Great stuff! If you’re interested in The Returners, you can read it for free at “BOZ.” Publishing or buy the collected chapters of Season One Part One from Amazon. You can also follow him on Twitter and see more of his work at Gearbox Software.