Friday, February 8, 2013
Paul Revere and Genghis Khan come back to life in new book revealed one chapter at a time
The Returners is written by Plano resident and Gearbox Software writer Mikey Neumann.
There’s a popular trend in popular culture today of resurrecting classic fairy tales, sometimes even placing them in the modern day as seen in the comic series Fables to ABC’s Once Upon a Time. Local writer Mikey Neumann has gone in a similar direction with his episodic book series The Returners, only instead of resurrecting myths, he’s reincarnating historical figures.
The Returners takes characters that you’re probably familiar with from history books and gives them a new life in today’s society, from those in the far flung past like Alexander the Great and Genghis Khan to more recent people like Elliot Ness. They’re all living about as normal of a life as one can under the circumstances until one of their own – another “returner” – starts killing them off. So begins a book series that has been released episodically online, similar to the way a TV show is released, with the “Season One” omnibus available now.
The Returners: Season One Book Trailer
The first time I met Neumann was at a preview event for Aliens: Colonial Marines – a video game that serves as a canonical story in the popular movie franchise – for which he serves as a writer at Gearbox Software in Plano. At Gearbox, Neumann has also written the hit games Brothers in Arms and Borderlands, and has developed a bit of a following (not to mention experience) doing so. The Returners, though, is something else entirely, and it’s being written differently than most books.
Most books you read are rewritten at least once before they land on your bookshelf. It allows an author to see a story from beginning to end before fine tuning the bits and pieces that make up the whole. But Neumann doesn’t have that luxury with The Returners, due to its episodic nature. Once a chapter has been published online, he’s locked into his choices, whatever they may be. While he plots out much of his seasons similar to how television writers will plot out a season on TV, a lot can happen on the fly, and he can’t change his mind once he commits to a decision in print.
He gave a great example of this fast-paced writing process by referencing a scene in which the books villain (who’s identity was still unknown) kidnaps the modern day Marie Antoinette and Paul Revere. “I knew going into the chapter that one of them was not going to make it through the chapter,” he said. “In my notes I actually listed out the entire future for both characters; I wanted to know what I could do with them three or four seasons down the line.” When the killer tells the two captors that he hasn’t yet decided which of them would die, that was Neumann himself speaking through the character, debating with himself who to kill off.
But even when he made a decision he thought he could stick to, he veered off-course right as the chapter was coming to a close, like a driver hastily changing lanes to narrowly make an exit off the highway. When the character who was originally meant to live asks the killer, “Changed your mind?” the killer replies, “I did” and kills that character instead. “That was me also,” Neumann said, “because at the end I was like, ‘I made my decision, but nope! I’m going this way!’”
Neumann does quite a bit of research for each of these characters (he told me he has a stack of some 450 letters Napoleon wrote), but the nature of their “second life” gives him some leeway with each of their personalities. As far as favorite characters go, “The one I absolutely needed to have was Albert Einstein as a 13 year-old kid,” he said. “There’s the public persona and then there’s who Albert Einstein actually was, so if you dive into him there’s some pretty dark stuff in there. And then to put that into the mind of someone who’s just becoming a teenager is really interesting. He’s very conflicted, he’s in the middle of puberty, so there’s a lot of emotional responses … There’s not a room he walks into that he’s not the smartest person in.”
Self-publishing and Amazon: The pros and cons
While you can read the entirety of The Returners online at the Boz Publishing website (which Neumann runs with the help of his editor), you can also purchase the eBook version on Amazon, either as a $2.99 Season One Omnibus or in piecemeal $0.99 chunks.
“That’s actually a terrible business model, because of the way that Amazon works,” Neumann says of the smaller, cheaper eBooks. “I mean, it’s cool that I can launch things for 99 cents. The problem is anything below $2.99, you get 35 percent royalty as opposed to 70 percent. So they’re taking 65 percent of my money, and they’re not really doing anything. People have asked, 'Well why don’t you take the Omnibus and discount it?' But if I discount it even one cent, I would lose half the money I was earning. So that’s not good.”
Making money isn’t the primary goal with The Returners, though. While the Omnibus is selling “better than the average eBook,” Neumann is putting more into the project than he is reaping, in part because he is doing most of the heavy lifting on his own. “It would be nice if I didn’t have to do all the art for all the covers and do all the typesetting myself.”
Regardless, the digital model has been far friendlier to both author and consumers, at least so far. While websites such as Lulu and Createspace exist for the purpose of helping self-published authors print physical copies of their work, it can get very pricey very quickly.
“Some people might have found better success [with those services], but by printing a book at a time it’s just too expensive. I need to print 1,000 books at a time. Printing one book on one of those vanity sites might cost me $20, whereas printing 1000 at once, each book might cost me $5. So I can turn around and sell that to a consumer for $12 to $15 or whatever, whereas on Lulu – it’s a real book, it’s really well put together and the quality is awesome – but on Lulu I’m charging consumers $34. There’s nothing I can do, that’s as low as I can charge for a hardcover. You’ve got to be out of your mind to pay $34 plus shipping! [In a way], it’d be like buying a book at the movie theater in an airport. It’s got all the markups.”
The future and The Ending
In terms of aspirations, Neumann makes it no secret that he wouldn’t mind seeing The Returners on TV or in film. “I did it serialized because I wanted it to feel like a TV show,” he put it bluntly. “Because I wanted someone to be like ‘Oh, that should be a TV show.’ … If you were a Hollywood casting agent and you were doing a movie or TV show based on The Returners it’d be really cool to be finding someone that looks like an historical figure but is also an up-and-coming actor. That would be really fun.” I have to agree. The fast-paced nature of the novel makes it feel like it would be perfect for prime time.
Meanwhile, another book Neumann is in the process of writing, The Ending, will deal with the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse coming down to destroy the earth. The beginning of The Ending can be read online, but the rest will be sold (and was written) as a more traditional novel.
“The idea behind it is ‘how do you save the earth if God is the one trying to destroy it?’” he said. “I think the heaviest theme to The Ending is ‘Just because you create something, that doesn’t give you the right to destroy it,’ in so far as we frown on mothers drowning their children in the bathtub, you know? … That’s definitely something that might ruffle some feathers. … [But] the book is not about a message from an atheist perspective, agnostic perspective or Christian perspective, none of these things. It’s simple genre fiction. And it’s tough to say genre fiction in reference to Biblical things, but it has that same sort of weight. It’s obviously fiction, but it’s interesting and makes good entertainment. Like, who doesn’t like watching angels fight?”
“I’m really excited about that book. I think it’s going to be something really special. I hope that I don’t end up as the villain on Fox News – that’s my worst fear, is that it becomes popular and I just get vilified by the Christian Right.”
After our interview, we stopped at a comic book store in Plano to pick up the third issue of Borderlands: Origins, which had been released that day and which Neumann wrote. When we were done checking out, he opened the comic to the credits page, pointed and said excitedly, “Look, that’s my name! That will never get old.”