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[INTERVIEW] John Hegenberger on Alternate History, Space Opera, Time Travel, Hard Science, and Private Detectives

John Hegenberger sold 1,000,000,000 words last year. He has 4 private detective series with interlocking multigenerational characters; space opera that involves telepathy and time travel; hard science that involves a sentient weapon; a near-future thriller with a magical artifact from Altantis, and a western that involves dinosaur fossils and Indian mysticism. Throw in a couple of anthologies.

Here he delves into the personality and cases of his PI characters.


CARL SLAUGHTER: How do you write a million words a year? Do you have an army of ghost writers?

JOHN HEGENBERGER: No army of ghostwriters; wouldn’t that be cool? The truth is that I haven’t written one million words in a year, but I have sold one million words in 2015. The secret was that I held off submitting any manuscripts until I had several of them banked. Then in 2015, I began to market my work and was delighted to find that several publishers were interested in signing contracts. What a joy.

CS: How do you juggle so many series, novels, and anthologies at the same time?

JH: Of course it’s not easy. Must have something to do with my ADHD. Seriously, my idol is a writer named H. Bedford Jones who had a knack for writing several novels at the same time. He would reach a point in a manuscript where something was missing and he would switch to a different manuscript until the answer came to him. I currently have three novels in process and one short story. They span the genres of science fiction, mystery, western, and techno-thriller.

CS: Does Stan Wade work for a spy outfit or an investigative outfit? How does he choose his cases? Or do his cases choose him?

JH: Stan is a private investigator with the offices in the back of the Brown Derby restaurant in 1959 Los Angeles. His Hollywood clients come to him, but he soon learned that one of them and many of his protagonists were involved with undercover government operations which led some of his tales to involve the FBI and the CIA.

CS: Does he rely on gadgetry, a support team, or his own skill?

JH: Stan relies on a support team and his own skills, but one of his friends is what we today would call a “geek.” Norman “Weirdo” Weirick has a knack for inventing proto-types of the devices we find common today. He has successfully cobbled together a car phone, fax machine and several other tools like a parabolic microphone which were only just beginning to be thought of in 1959. Norman is also a big fan of science fiction which is why writers like Philip K. Dick and Rod Serling show up in some of the stories.

CS: Same questions for Eliot Cross.

JH: Eliot Cross is another matter entirely. He works on his own in Columbus Ohio in 1988. He gets by with luck and pluck. And he’s a meaner or tougher investigator, somewhat like Jim Rockford of The Rockford Files.

CS: Did the word fall in all the Stan Wade titles come from one of the recent James Bond movies?

JH: The word “fall” appears in the title of the Stan Wade novels as an homage to Raymond Chandler’s Sam Spade, as in the phrase “you’re taking the fall,” or “we need a full guy.” Stan falls for a lot of nonsense from his clients and gets fooled right along with the readers on many occasions. He also seems to have a penchant for getting injured, so in almost every story he takes a big “fall.”

CS: How long will the Stan Wade/Eliot Cross series continue?

JH: It’s likely that the Eliot Cross series has finished, but I keep discovering new plot points and characters to add to the Stan Wade series. Thus, that series of stories will likely continue on for some time since I’m having such great fun with it. And so are my readers. Alternate reality and alternate history stories offer a multitude of clever ideas that feel irresistible.

CS: Who would play Stan Wade/Eliot Cross in a screen adaptation?

JH: Since the Stan Wade stories take place in 1959 and 1960, I’ve taken to imagining him to look a lot like Tony Perkins as he appeared in Psycho. The books are much lighter than the Hitchcock film. They are not hard-boiled in tone. So a young, hip, and some would say handsome main character nicely fills the bill. Eliot Cross on the other hand takes place in 1988 and strangely enough he looks a lot like what I did in that year.

CS: What’s the science/speculative element in a series set in the Wild West?

JH: The Ace Hart westerns are set in Wyoming in 1877. It was around that time that the first dinosaur fossils discovered in America. Picture an early Indiana Jones character dealing with the idea of giant thunder lizards along with a good helping of Indian mysticism. There’s a healthy dose of geology and paleontology in these books as well.

CS: Is Tripleye galactic or is the setting restricted to Mars?

JH: The Tripleye novels feature the first private eye agency on Mars and begin on that planet, but quickly span out to a future Earth and the asteroid belt. These novels feature an ensemble cast of agents who are telepathically linked with a substance discovered on Mars and known as the Snot. This is a large tapestry saga, involving space elevators, androids, and time travel. They are also tangentially linked to my SF novel, Malerone’s Maser.

CS: Do all 4 of these detectives deal with individual cases or is each case part of a story arc?

JH: Since I’ve been able to market and assemble all of these books in a very short time, I have found ways to interconnect them. In some cases, it might be through the use of time travel, or in other cases it’s a generation saga, however you don’t need to read everything in order to get the full story. So it’s possible that the reader can enjoy Stan Wade novels without any idea that there is a connection to the Ace Hart stories, for instance.

CS: Do they change the world? Does the world change them?

JH: Interesting question. I would say that in all cases the world changes them. These are tales of discovery, sometimes external but most times internal. However, in many cases the characters are not aware that they have changed the world. For instance back in 1959, Stan Wade rescues a little boy who has fallen into a dangerous situation. Later he learns the boy’s name is George Bush, which means nothing to him at the time, but everything to the reader today.

CS: What type of hard science is in Malerone’s Maser and what’s the context for this science?

JH: Malerone’s Maser involves a handgun that is sentient and communicates with its owner via a plastoid substance chewed like gum. Today’s high-tech weapons are already keyed to a specific person’s hand imprint and possibly to their DNA. Linking information from a device to a human’s inner ear is already possible, but what happens when that device begins to argue with its owner?

CS: The Pandora Block is a near future thriller. How near is near and what happens in the future? It’s set in Atlantis. Is it a fantasy story?

JH: The Pandora Block is much like a Clive Cussler thriller and takes place in the next 10 years. The characters in the novel work to assemble the parts of an ancient artifact that originated in Atlantis thousands of years ago. In the story, Atlantis is located east of Greece in the Black Sea, rather than out in the Atlantic, as many suppose.

CS: What was the inclusion criteria for The Last Martian Chronicles and what will be the inclusion criteria for Iceslinger?

JH: The Last Martian Chronicles contains a story titled “The Last Martian.” It also contains a story called “Last Contact” that I published in Galaxy magazine in the late 70s. There are several other short stories that have seen previous publication and a handful of new ones; all containing elements of fantasy and science-fiction. This is also the case for Iceslinger, although many of the details in that book are more galactic in nature and based on hard science. Obviously the title “The Last Martian Chronicles” is an homage to Ray Bradbury and the variety of contents for both of my books is similar to early Bradbury collections.

CS: How are you going to top yourself after Stormfall?

JH: I’ve set the bar rather high for myself after Stormfall, aiming at a world-spanning techno-thriller, The Pandora Block. Not only will it be a contemporary thriller, but its two main protagonists are the granddaughter of Stan Wade and the son of Eliot Cross. I think you can begin to see now how all of my fiction is connected.

CS: Do you plan throw any more stories into the hopper or will all this do you for a while?

JH: No, I feel that I am just getting started. Hardly a week goes by when I don’t find a new plot, character, setting, etc. which inspires me to begin dreaming and pounding the keyboard.

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