Gary Whitta is an award-winning screenwriter best known for the post-apocalyptic thriller The Book of Eli starring Denzel Washington. He also co-wrote the Will Smith sci-fi movie After Earth, and was writer and story consultant on Telltale Games’ The Walking Dead, for which he was the co-recipient of a BAFTA award. Most recently he served as screenwriter for the upcoming Star Wars movie, now in pre-production. Abomination is his first novel.
Gary was kind enough to chat with me about his new book, Abomination, and more!
Kristin Centorcelli: So, I saw this tweet with the words “war, magic, sex, Vikings, monsters, love, hate, death, vengeance”, in reference to your upcoming book Abomination! It’s a pretty compelling tease, but will you tell us more about it?
Gary Whitta: I’m primarily a screenwriter by trade, but when it comes to getting original ideas through the Hollywood system it can really be a brutal struggle. It’s very difficult to even sell a piece of original material as a film these days, much less see it produced. I was very fortunate with The Book of Eli to have an original screenplay that I wrote made at that level and so faithful to the text, that is crazy-rare. With Abomination I liked the idea both of experimenting with a different form of writing, and particularly of the writing itself being the finished product. A screenplay isn’t a finished product, it’s just the blueprint for one, and if the film isn’t made the story never gets to be told. So I liked the idea of instead taking this idea directly to an audience by writing it as a novel.
I think it’s a really cool story. It’s kind of a gnarly mash-up historical fiction and fantasy in that it’s set in a real time and place – England during the Dark Ages and the reign of Alfred the Great – but with magic and monsters thrown in. It’s been a lot of fun to research that period, the great battles that were fought during the Viking invasions of England, and then to augment it with my own fantastical stuff.
KC: Why Vikings, and what made you choose to write a historical fantasy?
GW: I’m a huge fan of traditional fantasy stories set in far-off imaginary places but I think that’s become a very crowded genre and it’s difficult for one story to distinguish itself over all the others. I thought it was more interesting, and perhaps a more eye-catching approach, to ground the story in a real historical setting but then warp it through a fantasy lens. Hopefully it makes the story feel more real because you have these true-life historical elements blending with the more fantastical stuff. Plus, the idea of making up a bunch of imaginary place names and maps just seemed exhausting to me because I’m very lazy.
KC: What kind of research did you do for the book?
GW: I spent a lot of time researching the specific period that the story is set in – late 9th Century, early 10th Century England. What’s particularly interesting about the Dark Ages is that they weren’t called that simply because they were very bleak – although they certainly were – but because there are large gaps in the historical record due to the widespread illiteracy and the destruction of written works that was rampant after the Romans left England and the country descended into feudal chaos. So from a fiction-writing point of view I saw an opportunity to present an alternate version of history by making the argument that the actual recorded history during that period is sketchy enough to take some creative liberties with.
KC:You’re a screenwriter and have also worked on game development and comics. How do you think this background has helped you in writing fiction?
GW: I think a good story is a good story regardless of the medium, be it film or games or comics or conventional literature. And I’ve been lucky enough to learn so much about the art of story at places like Telltale and Pixar and Lucasfilm and from people like Frank Darabont and Robert Kirkman and Mark Millar, that I was able to apply in writing Abomination. I think it’s the culmination of everything I’ve learned as a writer so far, and certainly the purest iteration of anything I’ve done as a storytelller because it’s not something that was filtered through an army of collaborators and development notes and compromises. It’s just me.
KC: What do you love most about writing, and reading, SFF?
GW: For me it’s always been an opportunity to daydream in a way that the dreams can actually become real. There’s nothing more satisfying than seeing something I’ve written come alive to be enjoyed by others, to create another world, another time, another reality, completely from the ether, and to turn it into something that exists in this world. And the ability to inspire the imaginations of others the way that people like Douglas Adams and George Lucas inspired mine as a kid is about as close to magic as anything we have in the real world.
KC: What are a few of your favorite authors?
GW: Douglas Adams, Kurt Vonnegut, Terry Pratchett, Ernest Hemingway, Patrick Rothfuss.
KC: What are you currently reading? Is there anything you’re particularly looking forward to this year?
GW: I’m working my way through Joe Abercrombie’s First Law trilogy, which I’m enjoying immensely, and patiently awaiting Pat Rothfuss’s third Kingkiller book.
KC: What piece of advice would you give to an aspiring author?
GW: Write. Don’t make excuses. Write. And finish what you write. And don’t let anyone – especially yourself – tell you that you can’t do it.
KC: What’s next for you?
GW: I’m writing the feature film adaptation of the Mark Millar comic Starlight for 20th Century Fox, and I have a comic of my own called Oliver, which is post-apocalyptic re-telling of Oliver Twist, coming out later this year from Image Comics. And I still need to finish Grand Theft Auto V.