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SFFWRTCHT: A Chat With Tom King, Author of the Post-Superhero novel “A Once Crowded Sky”

Tom King is a former Counterterrorism officer for the CIA who served in the Gulf.   A husband and father, he’s also worked at Marvel and DC Comics, and lives in Washington D.C. His debut novel, a mix of graphic novel and literary prose, A Once Crowded Sky, is out from Touchstone. It’s the story of superheroes who’ve lost their powers and purpose until a crisis calls them again. He can be found online at Goodreads, on twitter as @TomKingTK and on Facebook.

SFFWRTCHT: First things first, where’d your interest in science fiction and fantasy and comics come from?

Tom King: I was your typical nerd kid who escaped from the world of bullies to the world of heroes and swords and powers.  I think it started with Greek Myths, moved on to Narnia, and then the world, not this world, but other, cooler ones.

SFFWRTCHT: Who are some of your favorite authors and books that inspire you?

TK: Caves of Steel was my first science fiction novel. Still one of my favorites. War and Peace, Look Homeward Angel, G.K. Chesterton, Watchmen, Hemingway. I have my top books that changed me on my writing desk. Those are some of the names.  Asimov will always be sort of my science fiction God.

SFFWRTCHT: When did you decide to become a storyteller and how did you get your start?

TK: Writing was always my dream. You escape into fantasy and you want to tell others about your escape. I took some time off of that dream after 9/11 to see what I could do to help.  I left when I had kids. My first sale was this novel in full. A Once Crowded Sky. A small miracle of a thing, really.

SFFWRTCHT: How’d you learn craft? Trial and error? Formal study? Workshops?

TK:Mostly trial and error. I studied History and Philosophy in school. When I decided to go after writing as a career I bought every how to write book out there and sort of taught myself.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you start with shorts stories, novels? As you said, Once Crowded Sky was your first pro-sale.

TK: I’d love to have gone to a workshop, but it didn’t fit into my life, so I had to try to figure out the rules from those books. I had a practice novel, that I loved, that was fairly horrible.  Carry The Three was the title; it was about God and guns and death, the same things I always write about. I knew I was serious about writing when I decided to throw it away and write something better.  I still have dreams of going back to that first idea. Lazy, can’t-think-of-a-new-idea dreams.  You always have to evolve as a writer, you just hope to control what you’re evolving into.  The sad part is sometimes you read your old stuff and you wonder how you came up with that, will you ever do it again.

SFFWRTCHT: I can just see you, sneaking thru the streets of Baghdad, HOW TO WRITE book under one arm, comic book under the other. Where’d the idea for A Once Crowded Sky come from?

TK: Super heroes losing their powers. It’s a fairly transparent metaphor for escaping a world of violence.  I wanted to write about my experience, that sort of odd post 9/11 fight. When I wrote, super heroes came out.

SFFWRTCHT: In the book, former superheroes have lost their powers, but a new threat calls them back into action, forcing them to rely on each other. How long did the novel take to write?

TK: Yeah, the book is about the struggle to escape a game of war, how hopeless and noble that struggle is.  Though the heroes start at rest, something always comes. That’s the problem with being a hero.

SFFWRTCHT: Did you have that idea in mind for the book before the CIA stuff? Or did that work influence your idea development?

TK: The idea came at the end of my CIA career. It came out of it, I think, somehow. You have to write what you do. Or did. It took about a year and a half to write, another year to sell.

SFFWRTCHT: Now that Tom’s press kit mentions he’s a former CIA assassin, he gets less rejection for some reason… 

TK: I’ve got to look at the press kit again. I’m cooler than I thought I was.

SFFWRTCHT: How did you go about making the sale?

TK: I went the traditional wrote with a query letter. But I used a connection to a connection to get out of the slush pile. The agent called me, asked if I could make some basic changes. I didn’t listen, I was so nervous, I just said yes, whatever, yes.   If he had said you need to stand on your head for six weeks, and I can sell the thing. Head standing I would’ve gone. Since I had the connection I stuck with the one. And waited. And waited. And waited. My life was my refresh button.

SFFWRTCHT: When it comes to writing, are you an “Outliner” or a “pantser”?

TK: I’m a semi-pantser. I construct beats into a novel and then I work to those beats. Between, I pants the pants out of it.

SFFWRTCHT: Which came first—character, plot, or world? The book has a large cast. Tell us about them and their world.

TK: I always go in the same order. World. Character. Plot. Plot’s the hardest and perhaps the most important. The world we have in A Once Crowded Sky is a world of super heroes who have all lost their powers.  The characters are a former sidekick who never wanted powers to begin with, and a military leader who just wants to rest.  The plot is what happens when a new threat comes and these men have to go back to war, have to choose whether to go back to war.

SFFWRTCHT: Is it a series or a standalone?

TK: The first volume is stand alone. But there may be more coming. They’d be with the same characters but with complete contained arcs.  The theme of this book is: “They all come back.”  I modeled Crowded Sky on themes from Dante’s Paradiso. The others would be on themes from Purgatory and Inferno.

SFFWRTCHT: It’s set in our world in the near future right?

TK: Yes, it’s our world, but it’s the Super Hero version of it you find in movies like Avengers or any comic book.  The super hero world has almost become as common a backdrop as a saloon in a western.

SFFWRTCHT: The novel uses comic cells to illustrate particular scenes. How did you envision that as you wrote? When/How did the artist come aboard?

TK: Yeah, the book is a bit of hybrid as it contains comic art. (See examples here.) The meta idea is that when these comic book characters lose their powers the transform from comics to prose. So the book begins as a comic book, turns to prose, and features flashbacks to their former lives in comic form throughout.

SFFWRTCHT: You got to choose the artist. What was it like collaborating with him? And how did you envision the art working with the prose when you wrote? All based on the meta idea?

TK: It was actually an amazing experience.  You have pictures of your characters in your head and you expect them to live there forever, then someone draws them.   I have no talent for art. The great Tom Fowler was my cover and interior artist on the book. He’s a master and he just got it.  It was sort of a dream to have it work that way, but I wasn’t sure I could do it.  It was my editor at Simon & Schuster who pushed it and really supported it, much to my pleasant shock.

SFFWRTCHT: Are any of your heroes intentional homages/pastiches for existing comics characters or did you try to distance?

SFFWRTCHT: What’s your writing time look like-specific block? Write `til you reach word count? Grab it when you can?

TK: I try to write a page a day. Single spaced. 11 point font.  5 days a week with weekends and holidays off. Sometimes I go over. I try not to go under.  When I wrote my 1st two novels (2nd ones not out), I was taking care of my kids full time. I wrote when they slept basically.  If you write a page a day you have a draft in six months, you edit for six months, you have a novel in a year.

SFFWRTCHT: Do you have any writing rituals or tools? Scrivener? Word? Something else? Do you write to music or silence?

TK: I write to music. A lot of indie rock and Bob Dylan. I write in the dark with headphones on. Just me and the screen. Glowing. So I radiate a bit as part of my process? Whatever works.  I write in Word for Mac in Cambria in 11 pt. at 167% magnification. Everything looks deeper in Cambria 11 font at 167.  I just got a new desk chair. I’m kind of scared it will somehow affect my word choice. This is the life of a writer.

SFFWRTCHT: Is it a dictionary chair with words all over it?

TK: The chair is fine! I think. I hope. Dear God, what if it’s not fine? Where’s my old, lucky chair?!?

SFFWRTCHT: What’s the best and worst writing advice you’ve ever gotten?

TK: Best: People are not linear. They do not relate to their motivations on a one to one basis. People are you. People are absurd.  Worst: I think that “kill your darlings” line gets a little too much play. Life is short. Write the crap out of your darlings.  Yeah, the best dialogue should go a little crazy. It should not be what your characters think they want to say.

SFFWRTCHT: What future projects are you working on that we can look forward to?

TK: My next thing out is an alt universe short work in a comic Anthology Time Warp. Here’s a link to the Time Warp anthology. Please check it out. I kind of love it.  It’s also with Tom Fowler.   My next novel is a war novel, and it’s the best thing I’ve ever written or perhaps will write. It’s with the publishers now.  The war novel is about our current war, the war on terrorism. It takes place in 2006.

About Bryan Thomas Schmidt (68 Articles)
Bryan Thomas Schmidt is an author and Hugo-nominated editor of adult and children's speculative fiction. His debut novel, THE WORKER PRINCE received Honorable Mention on Barnes & Noble Book Club's Year's Best Science Fiction Releases. His short stories have appeared in magazines, anthologies and online. As book editor he is the main editor for Kevin J. Anderson and Rebecca Moesta's WordFire Press where he has edited books by such luminaries as Alan Dean Foster, Tracy Hickman, Frank Herbert, Mike Resnick, Jean Rabe and more. He was also the first editor on Andy Weir's bestseller THE MARTIAN. His anthologies as editor include SHATTERED SHIELDS with co-editor Jennifer Brozek and MISSION: TOMORROW, GALACTIC GAMES (forthcoming) and LITTLE GREEN MEN--ATTACK! (forthcoming) all for Baen, SPACE BATTLES: FULL THROTTLE SPACE TALES #6, BEYOND THE SUN and RAYGUN CHRONICLES: SPACE OPERA FOR A NEW AGE. He is also coediting anthologies with Larry Correia and Jonathan Maberry set in their New York Times Bestselling Monster Hunter and Joe Ledger universes. From December 2010 to June 2015, he hosted #sffwrtcht (Science Fiction & Fantasy Writer's Chat) Wednesdays at 9 pm ET on Twitter as @SFFWRTCHT.
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