Tom King is the author of the 2012 book, A Once Crowded Sky. (See the SF Signal Review.) Following the attacks on September 11th, King worked for the Central Intelligence Agency as an Operations Office. Prior to his service, he interned with Marvel and D.C. Comics. He recently had a moment to speak with us about his first novel:
SF Signal: Hi Tom, thanks for taking a couple of moments to speak with us! My first question is one you probably get a lot: how do you go from interning with comic book companies to the Central Intelligence Agency?
Tom King: The basic answer is 9/11. After the attacks, I was one of the millions of people who volunteered to help. The way I chose to do it was to apply to the CIA; I just figured they’d be the closest to the front lines. It was a new and righteous war. I wanted to be in it. I wanted to save the world. I was very young.
SFS: Can you tell us a little about what an Operations Officer does?
TK: Honestly, not really. For all the obvious reasons, I’m very limited in what I can say about my CIA experience. Here’s the official description of what an operations officer does taken from the CIA’s public website.
“Operations Officers (OO) are certified Core Collectors who collect human intelligence of concern to the U.S. President, policymakers, and military by recruiting and handling clandestine human sources in a secure manner.
OOs clandestinely spot, assess, develop, recruit and handle human sources with access to vital intelligence. This human intelligence plays a critical role in developing and implementing U.S. foreign and national security policy and in protecting western interests. OOs have sound judgment, integrity, strong interpersonal skills and assessment abilities to acquire high-value intelligence from human sources. OOs deal with fast-moving, ambiguous, and unstructured situations by combining their “people and street smarts” with subject matter expertise and knowledge of foreign languages, world travel, and cultures. OOs serve the bulk of their careers overseas.”
I basically did that with a focus on Counterterrorism.
SFS: How did A Once Crowded Sky come about?
TK: I left the CIA shortly after my son was born. The type of career I wanted at the agency did not fit with the type of father I wanted to be. Prior to 9/11, I’d always wanted to be a writer, and after leaving the CIA, I decided to go back to my original plan. I wanted to write about my experience, not in terms of what I’d actually done, but in terms of the emotional and physical impact of such a life, a life spent in pursuit of an endless enemy—the joys, the frustrations, the moments of bravery and cowardice. I wanted to explore the virtues and follies of a world of violence.
The lives of comic book characters, lives dedicated quite literally to quests without ends, seemed like an obvious metaphor. The basic idea of Crowded Sky then is what happens when that quest ends, when all the powers and villains are taken from these heroes, how do they go on, how do they fall.
SFS: A Once Crowded Sky is a superhero novel that follows a number of superheroes who’ve become regular citizens after one last major battle. How difficult do you think such a transition would be for a hero?
TK: The obvious, fairly uninteresting answer is: if we treat heroes as people, then, well, it depends. We all deal with loss differently; how we handle loss depends upon the billion amorphous factors that make us human.
The way I think about it is to remember the insane dreams and ambitions of myself and my friends when I was young. Back then, we were all on our way to the moon. Now we’re older, and most of us are not flying; we’re dealing with the petty details of our lives, doing what we can for our children and our spouses and our bosses. Everyone handles that transition, that move from fantasy to reality differently. Some are dragged down under it and some ride it. We’ve lost our initial dreams, but we go on, and perhaps it’s not all that bad if you think about it.
I try to reflect this in the book, to have a variety of characters with a variety of reactions. Some heroes are suicidal, some simply shrug, some rejoice.
SFS: Working at Marvel and D.C. Comics, how difficult was it to create an original world populated by superheroes?
TK: To me the super hero genre is quite similar to jazz. The original superheroes created in the early 40s and 60s are the Tin Pan Alley songs, the stunning and inspiring basic musical lines on which subsequent generations have riffed. You create tension by pulling away from this familiar line, and you create relief by coming back to it.
In building a super hero world, I started with the icons and then I tweaked them and pushed them around until they were warped enough to be original. The Soldier of Freedom is not Captain America, he’s not the ideal American hero, though he’s drawn from that mold. Now, the reason he’s not Captain America, the way he’s broken where Cap is strong is the basis of the novel.
TK: I took influence from both the comic world and from prose. From comics, I’m obviously indebted to Alan Moore and Frank Miller whose comics I read, re-read, memorized, got bored of, and then read again. Their basic idea of exploring what happens when we take ideas built for children seriously, how that transition can reflect our own transition from childhood to adulthood, pushes on every load bearing beam of this book. On the prose side, my biggest influences are probably Thomas Wolfe and that old stand by Earnest Hemmingway—Wolfe for his use of repetition to create prose poetry and Hemmingway for his attempt to cut through so much bullshit.
Though nothing in book is drawn directly from what I saw or did in the CIA, my personal experience of those events, the stresses and emotions I encountered while in the agency, are on every page. You write what you know, what you’ve gone through, and that’s what I’ve been through. It helps that there are some obvious parallels between the lives our spies live and the lives our superheroes live.
SFS: What do you think the duty of someone with superpowers is, and does that duty change without powers?
TK: The answer I want to give is that having power does not mean you have a duty to use that power; someone who is gifted is not dishonorable or immoral if he chooses not to use that gift. We all have conflicting duties, duties to specific others, to friends, family, yourself, and duties to more abstract concepts, to country, humanity, God. In finding a balance between these duties, I don’t think it’s fair to say that we should put the realization of our own abilities above all the others. If you’re four years old, and you’re the next Mozart, and you want to play with your friends instead of practicing, I don’t think it’s absurd to say, “I’m going to play, you can live without the symphony.” In that sense having powers or not having powers doesn’t really matter.
And yet, I don’t know, I’m hesitant to say that if you have the ability to help the world and you choose not to than this is a good thing. If Einstein says, “forget it, I don’t want to study, I want to drink beer,” and something is essentially lost that cannot be regained, something that could help billions, then maybe he is making an immoral choice of some sort. In that sense, having superpowers makes all the difference.
It’s a contradiction in my own thinking that I’m well aware of and that I put up front and center in the book. The two main characters in the book, Soldier and Pen make opposite choices reflecting this tension. Soldier chooses his duty to his powers over his life; Pen chooses his life over his duty to his powers. The consequences of these choices, the weight they put on these men is the story of the novel.
SFS: What are some of the challenges in writing a prose novel in what’s traditionally a very visual medium and subject?
TK: It’s hard to pin down the exact literary metaphysics of it, but super heroes do not translate well to prose. It has something do with suspending disbelief, with the level of realism you expect from prose as opposed to comics. What is exciting and profound in comics looks pedestrian and kind of silly when put down in prose.
It’s probably due to what goes without saying in comics. Superman’s colorful tights and outside-underwear look iconic on a page, because this is a costume with a 75 year history, a history that involves an evolution from a child’s aspiration to a national symbol of freedom. The author doesn’t have to address this history. The audience somehow understands it. Now, in a book describing in words Superman putting on colorful tights and outside-underwear, it’s hard to avoid discussing why he would put on something so patently ridiculous and unfit for his day’s mission. There’s a reason real soldiers don’t dress like that when going out to fight.
In writing a prose novel about super heroes, you have to address this issue; you have to somehow acknowledge the silliness of the activity, how none of it quite makes sense. But while addressing this issue, you cannot lose sight of the essential heroism behind the absurdity. A soldier’s uniform, out of context, can also look ridiculous, but the act of choosing to put on the uniform of going out to fight the mission, foolhardy or not, is fundamentally serious. It’s a tough balance to strike. You have to convince your audience you’re in on the joke without allowing your characters to become jokes.
SFS: What do you have coming up next that we should look for?
TK: My next novel is a war novel about our current war. It’s currently being shopped by my agent, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever written. In addition to that, I’m doing some straight comic work. I’ve got a short story in the DC Comics/Vertigo anthology Time Warp coming out this spring and another short work coming out from Dark Horse this summer.