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ENDGAME is Real. ENDGAME is Now. An Interview with James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton

Twelve bloodlines, twelve players, only one can win. Endgame: The Calling by James Frey and Nils Johnson-Shelton is a young adult adventure with a twist. There will of course, be a character who prevails as the winner, but there will also be readers who prevail as winners. The novel is filled with codes and puzzles and keys and hints. Solve them and the prize is yours.

Nils Johnson-Shelton is the coauthor of the international bestseller No Angel: My Harrowing Undercover Journey to the Inner Circle of the Hells Angels. He is also the author of the Full Fathom Five series for tweens Otherworld Chronicles.

James Frey is originally from Cleveland. All four of his books, A Million Little Pieces, My Friend Leonard, Bright Shiny Morning, and The Final Testament of the Holy Bible, were international bestsellers.

James and Nils were kind enough to answer my questions about collaborative writing, the fun ideas behind Endgame, and what’s next for the series.

Andrea Johnson: Endgame has a lot of everything: lots of action, lots of end-of-the-world cataclysm, a massive mysterious puzzle, secrets that have been passed through generations, and a global group of young people fighting to stay alive. The whole thing is on a truly massive scale. What inspired this story, and how did that initial seed of an idea become Endgame?

James Frey: As far as the initial seed, it would have to be the ancient aliens theory of human evolution, which is pretty whacked out but at least plausible. Basically it says that at some point about 12,000 years a highly intelligent alien race visited earth and literally rejiggered our DNA, changing the way our brains work and completely changing the way our culture could evolve going forward. This is pretty easy to dismiss as a conspiracy theory, but I don’t really care. I love conspiracy theories. If nothing else, they make for great stories.

And there’s some evidence that it could be real. After the Human Genome Project finished decoding our DNA, they started to go back to try and figure out how we’d evolved or if we’d evolved at all. And what they found was that around 12,000 years ago the genetics associated with human cognitive brain function changed drastically and suddenly. How and why it changed they don’t know, but the change bore all the hallmarks of genetic engineering. It looked like our brains had been tinkered with like those of lab rats in some kind of grand experiment. Around this time, the first human civilizations started to pop up around the globe, agriculture started to happen, and stone working and language and eventually metal working and writing and all the rest. Stranger still is that these civilizations formed around gold mines. No one knows why. Gold isn’t really functional and doesn’t have any value beyond what we assign to it. Can’t make an ax out of it, can’t work it into a knife. So why gold? No one knows. Also around this time, the world’s origin myths began to come into existence. No matter how disparate, whether they came from Egypt or Sumer or South America or Europe, these are strikingly similar: an omnipotent being descended from the heavens and gave us the spark of life, gave us our soul, gave us rules to live by, gave us our humanity. And then it left. But before it left it told us that one day it would return, and when it did return it would be a day of reckoning.

So the ancient aliens people say: what if all this were in fact true? What if some higher form of intelligence actually did visit earth in the distant past, conducted a genetic experiment on the homo sapiens running around, taught us some pretty advanced tricks, asked us to mine gold for it for whatever reason, and then left? Is that any more or less plausible than pure natural selection? Ancient alien theorists still believe in science and in the theory of evolution, but they also think that certain of our ancestors were artificially selected by our ancient aliens visitors. Endgame begins in a world that is exactly like our own, but where this did in fact happen, many thousands of years ago. And now, for reasons not yet known, our alien creators are returning to Earth to start Endgame.

Andrea Johnson: Tell us a little about your collaboration process. Did you brainstorm and write the drafts together? Send ideas and chapter drafts back and forth over e-mail? Share a writing space? How is writing with another author different than writing alone?

Nils Johnson-Shelton: This is my third collaborative project, and all have been different. For Endgame we did a lot of collaborating in the beginning, getting the basics of the plot straight, talking about which ancient cultures we would choose for the bloodlines, and the rudiments of developing the characters. I went from there and wrote the first 100 or so pages more or less on my own, writing the story and beginning to flesh out each of the 12 Players (naming them was a lot of fun). Then we collaborated again to outline the rest of The Calling, writing it all out on a whiteboard, and I wrote through to the end on my own. I sent this to James and he gave me notes and I did two or three revisions. He took the manuscript from there and did a few revisions of his own, adding a couple secondary characters and fleshing out the story some more, and then it went to the publishers for the usual editorial back and forth. We don’t share a writing space, so the writing was all done in isolation and shared over email, but the outlining was and is done at James’s office where we can put everything up and then refer to it later.

James Frey: It’s definitely different than writing alone, but since starting Full Fathom Five I’ve gotten more and more used to working with other writers. I like writing alone—I think that’s kind of a pre-requisite for the job—but I like writing with others too.

Andrea Johnson: There are hints to the big puzzle all through out the novel. In how the characters interact with each other, in objects they use, in the in the little asides between chapters, everywhere! Without giving anything away, can you tell us about your process for putting these hints into the novel?

James Frey: It’s hard to talk about this without giving anything away. But for some of the stuff we just put in things that we thought were interesting or somehow related to the backstory or just plain badass. There’s some whacky shit out there. It was pretty awesome.

Nils Johnson-Shelton: And I had a lot of fun putting in some of the placeholder stuff in the ARC, a lot of fun making pretty rudimentary puzzles that I think are solvable but not nearly as cool as anything the real puzzle makers, Mat Laibowitz and Adadm Susman and their team at Futuruption, ended up creating. I couldn’t do what they do. I don’t think James can either. They’ve made a really amazing puzzle and woven it seamlessly into the story. I’d also add that it’s a puzzle neither James nor I have any idea how to solve, or even what the solution is. It’s way fucking cool.

Andrea Johnson: The main characters in Endgame are the young representatives of ancient Earth cultures, such as the Minoans, the Olmec, the Cahokians ,the Harrapan, the Donghu, and the La Tene, among others. How did you decide which ancient civilizations to represent? Can you tell us a little about the research you did?

James Frey: It was all done over the Internet. For obvious reasons we wanted the cultures to represent all of humanity. So one Player’s from Australia, three are from Asia, one from India, two from the Middle East, two from Europe, one from Africa, one from North America and another from South America. It’s an international cast. Some were no-brainers, like the Sumerian or the Minoan or the Celt—these are really old cultures—and some are maybe less expected—like the Mu or the Donghu or the Cahokian. There weren’t really any common criteria, but it helped if the culture had pyramids or mounds or neolithic stone or earth structures in its history. Just some unexplained shit like, “How did the Olmecs make their pyramids without use of the wheel?” or “What was Stonehenge really used for?” There really is so, so much that we don’t understand about the prehistoric world. Take Gobekli Tepe in Turkey, which features in the book, or all the new stuff that’s being discovered right now on Scotland’s Orkney Islands. There is so, so much out there. So weird architectural stuff was plus but it also helped if the culture had more explicit connections to supposed ancient aliens, like the Sumerians. We picked some just because they were obscure—the Aksumites instead of the Egyptians, for example. Egyptian would probably have been too expected. Or the Mu, which isn’t a historical culture so much as it’s a postulation, a myth. If you want to have your mind blown a little, Google “Yonaguni Monument” and see what I mean. In Endgame, the Mu once lived in that place, a long, long, long, long time ago.

Andrea Johnson: But Endgame isn’t just a novel! There is also an interactive game that’s being developed. How can fans of the book get involved with the new game?

James Frey: The mobile game and alternate reality game (ARG) are being developed by Google’s gaming division, Niantic, which is headed up by John Hanke. They’re the ones behind Ingress, and Ingress and Endgame will have some cross-pollination. It’s already started. If you prowl around Ingress YouTube channels and Ingress message boards and Twitter feeds you’ll see it popping up all over. The ARG will launch online when the book comes out and the mobile game will launch later in the year. It’s fucking awesome. It’ll bear some similarities to Ingress. You’ll choose a team to play on, but in the case of Endgame you’ll join one of the 12 bloodlines as opposed to one of two factions—and then you’ll set out in a location, map-based game world to fight other bloodlines for keyspots all around the globe. Google has already identified over a million keyspots around the world for players to fight over, to take, to hold. You won’t just fight for these keyspots by claiming them, but also by actually fighting other players. Think Ingress with a PvP feature. There will also be hotspots that come and go. So for example, maybe one week there will be an event at New York’s Metropolitan Museum of Art, and when you log in you’ll be told to go to the Middle Eastern Art wing, and if you get there first then you’ll receive some serious in-game booty. A unique and powerful weapon, a cache of currency, or a bit of game intelligence that only you, as the first Player to arrive, can receive. It’s going to be really, really cool to witness.

Andrea Johnson: Earlier this summer you were at Comic-Con promoting Endgame. What was your favorite part of Comic-Con?

Nils Johnson-Shelton: The costumes, without doubt. I saw an amazing Silver Surfer, an actual centaur dude, and a pretty convincing version of the Martian girl from Mars Attacks.

James Frey: Just the power of fans. There’s nothing like Comic Con for the straight literary world. There are conventions of course, but they don’t compare. As a writer, it’s an amazing thing to see so up close, so personal. People just love, adore, idolize the stories and worlds and characters that they’re there to see and consume and support. It’s can also be pretty funny. You’ll see a thousand people carrying fake weapons everywhere. Guns, swords, bows, knives, light sabers. All these instruments of death. And yet everyone is so happy, so polite, so fucking psyched just to be there doing their thing.

Andrea Johnson: What’s next for you? Can we expect more Endgame novels?

James Frey: Hell, yeah! We’re revising book two now. It’s called The Event, and we’ll be outlining book three in the next month or so. Both of those books will have puzzles built into them as well. And it’s not just novels. We have about a dozen novellas coming out in print and as exclusive e-books. We have training diaries for the main characters. We have an Endgame dictionary. An Endgame history document. We have over a hundred YouTube videos, the characters have Twitter and Google+ accounts that you can read and follow right now. If you love Endgame, and I hope you do, then you’ll have lots and lots and lots of stuff to check out. We’re going to keep you busy.

Andrea Johnson: Thanks James and Nils! Your enthusiasm is contagious!

About Andrea Johnson (99 Articles)
Andrea Johnson also blogs over at where she reviews science fiction and fantasy novels and talks about other nerdy stuff. She's also an interviewer at Apex Magazine. Her apartment looks like a library exploded, and that is how it should be.
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