Monday, December 27, 2010

Greatshell writes Mad Skills with, well, mad skills

I raced through Mad Skills like a madwoman. What a fun ride through the looking glass. Young Madeleine Grant goes from average teenager struggling to fit in, to vegetable to government experiment with "mad skills" in a very short period of time. Who can be more vulnerable than someone who is trapped in a body with a damaged brain, who is unable to process her surroundings and voice her needs? Scientists use experimental technology to literally hardwire Maddy's brain. But now that she's part tech and the creators are monitoring their tech, what's next? What's real? How can you tell with someone feeding ideas into your head?

Maddy has her faculties back and then some. The speed at which she analyzes a situation and uses raw materials at hand to build a solution makes MacGyver look like an idiot.

Maddy goes back to school after her operation. News crews show up to see the spectacle. After having her Dad drop her around the corner, she gets to work.

As soon as he was out of sight, she walked to a nearby convenience store and browsed the automotive shelves. Making chemical connections in her head, she bought various items and took them behind the store, where she fashioned a peculiar device out of plastic bottles and volatile compounds. It looked like a toy spaceship. The warhead was a can of degreaser with a steel penetrator made from a lug bolt. It took a few minutes to assemble everything, then she had to hurry with it down the street -- she didn't want to be late for school.

A few blocks over, she found what she was looking for: a clear view of the local TV news affiliate. Estimating trajectory, she angled the device just right and lit it off. It went shoosh! and streaked upward, arcing high over the town common. A second later, there was a crash and a puff of flame -- the station's big satellite dish was on fire. People came out, yelling and screaming, and in minutes the news trucks started showing up.

Maddy passed them going the other way. The front of the school was clear of media people. She slipped onto campus unnoticed, grateful that she hadn't missed the bell.

But her functioning brain has come with a price. Not least of which is her freedom. Still in the balance is her sanity. What's with that talking raccoon, anyway? The more she learns of the project and it's goals, the more the carpet is pulled out from under her. She has no one left to trust.

Greatshell's pacing is excellent. And he manages to introduce boy to girl without things getting all mushy and complicated. Maddy has complications in abundance. And what do you do when you find out you're a lab rat and there are lots of other lab rats like you? What do you do when people you've trusted aren't who you thought they were? Read Mad Skills to find out what Maddy does. You won't be disappointed.

It was a real treat to chat with Walter about Mad Skills, his Xombie books and writing.

AW: You wrote a very convincing female protagonist. And I'm sure those in your Xombie novels are equally well-rendered. Maybe I should ask your wife this next question. Do you seek female input or are you really that good?

WG: My wife says, "He's strongly in touch with his feminine side." Which is funny, since I look like a Mack truck. But any little boy who loves books more than sports can't help but feel a certain kinship with girls, who tend to be the most ferocious early readers and writers. And I was raised by a single woman, so that probably helped.

AW: Okay, what's a Xombie?

WG: A Xombie is a person who has been infected by Maenad Cytosis, the disease called Agent X, which attacks the X chromosome and turns women into unstoppable killing (or rather, infecting) machines.

AW: How do they spread it?

WG: By suffocating their victims--either by strangling, or by literally sucking the breath from their lungs. Agent X doesn't work in the presence of oxygen molecules. The O2 has to first be evacuated from the victim's body.

It's a real "kiss of death". My idea was to create a situation where women were the aggressors, and no man was safe. They call it Sadie Hawkins' Massacre.

AW: Who do you credit with nurturing your unique sense of humor?

WG: My sense of humor probably comes from being a bit of a class clown all through school. I liked being a ham, and also loved reading my stories in class.

AW: Have you ever had your sense of humor get you in trouble?

WG: A few times, yeah. I remember once I was being disciplined in front of my 2nd grade class, and I made goofy faces behind the teacher's back--the class cracked up. But then I got caught, and got slapped with a ruler. The good old days...

AW: Mad Skills is a far cry from your usual satirical horror. You seem to be diversifying. What else can we look forward to?

WG: I have a bunch of different books in various stages of development. A Godzilla-like satire about a man who grows to giant size, called Enormity [original title still listed on website is The Leaf Blower]. A steampunk type story about girl flyers at the dawn of aviation. Also a horror novel about a voodoo-type cult on an island (Catalina Island, actually), called Terminal Island.

AW: What genres do you read?

WG: Everything! Lately, a lot of nonfiction. I just read a bio of William Golding, which made me buy his sea trilogy To the Ends of the Earth. But I grew up on all the science fiction greats, as well as Stephen King.

AW: Where did the idea for Mad Skills come from?

WG: Mad Skills was my attempt to do a psycho-thriller in the vein of The Stepford Wives or Coma. That kind of paranoia thriller that was so popular in the '70s. I also am a fan of Dickey's book Deliverance, and always wanted to do that kind of suspense. My agent suggested I work on something in the urban fantasy genre, and Mad Skills was what I came up with. Actually, once I had the rough idea for the novel, it sort of wrote itself. That doesn't happen often, so it was nice.

AW: In Mad Skills, did you ever get tangled up in your layers? How did you keep track of it all?

WG: I just took a lot of notes on scraps of paper--I have a very cluttered type of organization...but it seems to work.

AW: Will there be a sequel?

WG: I'm in the middle of writing a sequel right now, which I think is going to be great. I'm incredibly excited about it, but I can't give anything away because it's too early in the process...but it'll be good.

AW: Woo Hoo! Make sure I get an ARC. :)

WG: Actually I had an earlier idea for the sequel, which would have been kind of an international spy thriller type thing. But this new idea is much better. And of course you'll get the first ARC!

AW: Do you do conventions?

WG: I've just started. I went to Thrillerfest last year, and I've been to Comic Con a few times, and intend to go again. It's fun, but I'm still too obscure a writer to really be able to greet the fans. Hopefully that will change.

I love meeting people and talking about my work--it's a rare treat for me.

AW: Did you have one big break that got you going? Many authors have a dumb luck story about how they found an agent.

WG: I sold my first novel, Xombies, back in 2004. That was an incredible experience: I had been working the night shift at a submarine plant, and the idea occurred to me that people could escape a zombie-type epidemic aboard a nuclear sub.

So I talked to my wife about it, and she agreed that I should take the time to write it. I quit my job, and a year later I had a book called Dead Sea.

I sent it to several agents, and one of them agreed to rep me. He sent it to an editor at Berkley, and they immediately bought it.

AW: That's awesome!

WG: Then I sold nothing for the next five years! But I wrote the whole time, and suddenly out of nowhere, Berkley contacted me again about doing a Xombies series--three books plus Mad Skills.

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