I recently reviewed Death Drop, the explosive debut novel by Sean Allen, and enjoyed the crap out of it. It’s a rousing and unique addition to the sci-fi/fantasy genre. Now I’ve got the opportunity to interview the author himself. I’m eager and a little timorous to delve into the mind of Sean Allen and explore the processes that brought us Death Drop. (I’ll have an escape plan—just in case.)
Death Drop exploded onto the scene October 1st, 2011. You can also check out the D-Evolution website and download the first 280 pages for free!
Who is this Sean Allen, and what has he done with my brain?
I saw on your website that Death Drop was part of a four-year ”focus” from an unexpected idea. How does it feel to finally see those efforts come to fruition?
Simultaneously surreal and freakin’ crazy awesome! I know it’s quite cliché for interviewees to say “it’s like a dream come true,” so I won’t go there. Honestly, my original plans for Death Drop never included releasing the story to the world at large—I had the idea and felt like I owed it to myself and, in a strange way, the characters in the tale to finish it. When I sat down years ago and scratched out the first line in the book, I didn’t think about fans, interviews, or book signings; I simply wanted to see how well I could bring the idea in my head to life. Writing Death Drop was a labor of love, and if some cosmic force zapped me back in time and told me that I could write the book if I wanted, but that it would never be read by another living soul, I would write it all over again.
Describe to me the moment when it all came together – that “ah-ha!” moment when you knew you had to write this story.
It was morning, and I was getting ready to go to a dreary land of grey cubicles (a.k.a. my 9-5). I was eating toast and reading an article addressing the scientific postulation that humans only use a certain percentage of their brains. The article went on to explain that humans use all of their brains, just not all at once (certain areas activate to perform certain functions). I took this bit of information with me as I continued to prepare for the day ahead, and whilst in the shower I asked myself, “If an intelligent being could access 100% of its brain all at once, what would it be capable of?” Of course, me being me, my mind went immediately to the dark side (shout out to my main man Darth Vader—Episodes 4-6 Vader, not this whiny “Where’s Padmé?” Vader—but I digress), and my vile antagonists were born—the Durax. In the fifteen minutes or so it took me to finish my shower, I worked out the overarching plot to the entire D-Evolution series of novels, and it gave me that goose-bumpy “hey, you’ve got something here” sort of feeling (or perhaps it was just the shower in my dodgy little apartment running out of hot water; my memory is a little hazy about this). At that moment, I knew I had to figure out the details and start writing.
You’re also a musician – what instruments do you play? Are you in a band?
I play a little guitar and sing, but I’m currently not doing gigs with anybody. I played in two bands in Minneapolis over the course of five years or so. I had a ton of fun, played with some great musicians, and met quite a few folks I’m happy to call my friends. Eventually, the band thing sort of died of natural causes, and Death Drop took over as my creative outlet.
What music do you listen to while writing?
The ancient Zen masters have a saying: “In walking, just walk. In sitting, just sit. Above all, don’t wobble.” I tend to follow this principle, putting absolute concentration into one thing at a time. My wife calls it borderline OCD; I call it focus. If the mood strikes me, I can write for 12-14 hours a day, but I have to turn everything off (cell phone, iPod, X-box, etc.) and retreat to a quiet corner of my own world. So no music while I’m writing.
I’m a big fan of anime (love myself some Funimation). You’ve mentioned anime as one of your influences, and I could sense that while reading the book. What are some of your favorite series, and why?
For me, it all started with Akira. My older brother introduced me to the film when I was twelve or so (thanks, bro!). I remember being totally blown away by the complexity of the plot and the crazy post-apocalyptic landscape of Neo Tokyo and its inhabitants. (Can you say data-entry girls with multitudes of super-fast, cybernetically enhanced fingers?) I think a lot of anime fans out there will agree that Akira is one of the pioneering films of the genre. Next came Ghost in the Shell. I love strong female lead characters (preferably wielding guns or swords or both), and Motoko Kusanagi certainly qualifies. And then there’s the whole machine-recognizes-its-own-existence thing, which usually serves as good sci-fi material. Cowboy Bebop is plain awesome—how can you go wrong with interstellar travel and bounty hunting? Samurai 7 is a great adaptation based on the 1954 film Seven Samurai. From a creative aspect, I really appreciate it when artists can create something that pays homage to the original work while still bringing something new and exciting to the finished product. The concept of samurai converting themselves into giant fighting machines (the Nobuseri) rocks my face. Afro Samurai is one of my all-time favorites. Takashi Okazaki’s illustrative style is absolutely gorgeous, and I love the film’s mash-up of fuedal Japanese, sci-fi, western, and hip-hop elements.
Let’s talk about Death Drop
Without giving any spoilers, tell me about Death Drop in your own words.
Believe it or not, this is one of the hardest questions that people tend to ask me. After taking almost 200K words to tell the tale, I always find it difficult to sum it up in a way that will do it justice. Well, here it goes: a human girl wakes up in a war-ravaged universe 400,000 years after the last known human was exterminated, and she can’t remember how she came to be there. What follows is a non-stop action adventure, the outcome of which could very well reconcile the entire universe to slaughter and enslavement by a race of demented murderers with psionic powers.
How did the D-Evolution universe evolve…um…d-evolve?
It all began with the relationship between the three sets of main characters in the story—the Durax, the Mewlatai and Dezmara. The creation of the Durax immediately set my mental cogs in motion, thinking of heroes whose virtue would rival the Durax’s depravity. The genesis of the Mewlatai was largely due to a joke my mom used to make when I’d call her up and ask her what she was up to. Often she would say that she was “worshiping the cats.” The first time she said this, I was a little confused so I asked for some clarification. She quipped that cats must be the descendents of superior beings, since they’ve convinced much of the human race to take them in and lavish them with comforts with virtually no expectation of anything in return. So she was playing with her cats in order to please the cat gods. (For some reason, I find it necessary to explain that my mother only has two cats and she is perfectly sane.) This started me thinking about what a superior cat-like creature would be like—wise, honorable, lithe yet powerful, stealthy, and of course, masters of the sword—and WHAM! the Mewlatai were born. The idea for Dezmara’s character was the bridge I needed to connect the Mewlatai and the Durax on a more clandestine level, a level beyond simple good versus evil. Once I had the Dezmara epiphany, the story largely evolved from my influences and my writing approach, both of which are swayed in no small manner by the ridiculously inordinate number of movies I’ve watched. I saw major scenes in my head involving the main characters (the scenes that would change the course of the book or reveal something cool to the reader), and wrote up to them. The big scenes served as a skeleton I could start adding meat to. This “scene” technique ended up being very organic, allowing the story to build momentum until it took on a life of its own. As my mind invented new characters, I could envision more scenes, or “bones”, if you will, and I continued to add connective story tissue until my little creature came to life.
I’ve noticed that some reviewers (including myself) commented on how Death Drop‘s main protagonist, Dezmara Strykar, doesn’t show up until a fifth of the way into the story. I found this to be a unique decision, and one that worked quite well. Was this planned from the start, or did it come about during the course of writing?
This was indeed the original intention. At its heart, Death Drop is a tale of mistaken identity (with a few surprises here and there), and I felt very strongly that the back story leading up to Dezmara’s introduction was imperative to making the plot believable. Without it, the characters’ actions (especially the Dissension) would have seemed irrational and a bit forced. When I decided to try and publish the book, I entertained the idea of going the traditional route—sending query letters, trying to get an agent, etc. But in the eyes of the traditional publishing industry, Death Drop checks a few of the big “reject immediately” boxes: it’s the first in a series from a previously unpublished author, it has more than twice the word count that they like from an unknown, and then there’s the bit about Dezmara not showing up until one fifth of the story has been told. So I set to changing the manuscript in order to remedy these “obstacles.” What I ended up with was two books—one primarily from the Dissension’s point of view (which, aptly enough, I was going to call Dissension) and the other from Dezmara’s point of view (where she would have shown up smack-dab on page one and would have been called, you guessed it, Dezmara). Both of these manuscripts actually worked; however, they lacked the punch, the page-turning magic that I felt the original book had captured. I stewed on this for quite some time. One day, while camping with my wife and our mutts out in the Minnesota wilderness, I raked up a Lego Han Solo figure (the Empire Strikes Back version in the blue, fur-lined winter coat) while clearing a place to set up our tent. I took finding that little figure as a sign. Now, I believe that Han is one of the coolest space rebels in the history of sci-fi/fantasy, and I found myself asking, “WWHD?” And then I answered my own question—”Han would publish his book on his own terms; the Empire be damned!” So I put the two books back into one and sought out some folks who would take a chance on the original manuscript. Things worked out pretty well in that regard, and Lego Han now stands prominently on my desk as a token of luck and a totem of rebelliousness.
Death Drop has a myriad assortment of races, many of them resembling the animals of Earth. How much fun was it creating all of these different creatures? Which is your favorite, and why? (Mine is the Mewlatai—sheer awesomeness, plus I’m a cat man.)
Great question. All of the characters have their strong points as well as their weaknesses (even the Mewlatai). But if I had to choose, I’d say my favorite is Admiral Rilek. I vividly remember writing the scene in Death Drop where Rilek reveals a little of what he’s capable of doing, and I got super excited. I love the mystery surrounding what and who Rilek is exactly, and I can’t wait to share what I know—I think people are going to dig it!
I have to ask this, if only to write this word a few more times. You use onomatopoeia (the process of naming things or actions by the vocal sounds associated with them—meow!) quite frequently. This added to the quirky feel of Death Drop, and it definitely hails from your comic and anime influences. Was this always your intention? What were some of the challenges in including onomatopoeia in a novel?
I’m proud to say yes, including onomatopoeia was always my intention. I love comics and anime. They are art forms in their own right, each with their own unique style and aesthetic. Recently, I’ve noticed a blending of art forms that I absolutely love—using outright comic book elements or inserting full-blown anime segments into movies (Scott Pilgrim vs. the World, Kill Bill, and Revolver, to name some recent examples). Stylistically, I wanted to write something that reflected the stuff that I dig, so I took a cue from the directors of some of my favorite films and put comic book elements—specifically, onomatopoeia—into the book. I figured if they could make it work in the movies, why couldn’t I do the same in a novel?
Outside of trying to avoid making Death Drop resemble an old Adam West episode of Batman (using the onomatopoeia too much and landing the novel squarely in the cheese department), the only other challenge was getting the manuscript past my editor. I distinctly remember having a conversation with her about this very thing. She quite accurately said that she had never really seen such a technique used in a sci-fi/fantasy novel before, and she was worried about how it would be received (an editor’s way of gently saying, “This is crazy, kid; you’ll never sell any books with this stuff in here!”). But I can be a bit stubborn, and I tend to do things my own way. Once I decided to try and publish Death Drop, I knew exactly who my audience would be: they would be comic, anime, and video game geeks—just like me—and they would “get it.” Fortunately, my publishing arrangement gives me a lot of control and I was able to keep the quirky sound effects. It’s a risk, but you (or your book) can’t be all things to all people.
On the website, you are giving away a free download of HALF the book. This is pretty amazing. Have you received any feedback on this approach? What have you heard? (I’m sure it’s all good.)
I really haven’t heard much about this decision, but that’s cool. Before e-books, you had to judge a brand-new book based on what was on the cover or how much you could glean in the first few pages. It was a bit risky. Offering half of the book as a free download is my way of minimizing a potential reader’s risk. I want people out there to see that I believe in my story. I feel pretty confident that if a person cruises the web page and likes the plot summary, the character descriptions, and the illustrations, they’re going to enjoy the book. Asking somebody to fork over their hard-earned money isn’t something that should be taken lightly. After reading half of the book for free, I think a person will be able to value the book more accurately and decide whether or not they want to buy it. I just think it’s good business.
Your website and cover have some amazing art work by Matt Dixon. How did that collaboration take place?
I’m so glad you asked; I love telling this story! I took a page out of George Lucas’ book when he hired Ralph McQuarrie, and I got it in my head that custom illustrations by a real-deal concept illustrator would blow some minds. I set to finding the right artist for the job, which entailed quite a few days on the user end of Google, scouring concept illustrator web pages and forums. I happened upon this hub for illustrators where they all shared their work, war stories, advice, etc. and clicked on this tiny, unassuming drawing of a bright yellow balloon with a smiley face. The balloon landed me on an absolutely bitchin’ illustration of a battle-worn robot (with the smiley balloon floating above it). The machine had that 1930s art deco look that appeals to the vintage gearhead in me, and I knew this guy could get the job done with a style that would reflect my vision for the book. I clicked onto the artist’s homepage and discovered that his name was Matt Dixon and he had quite a few more drawings to peruse. As I looked at the little thumbnail drawings, something caught my eye: a series of numbers and letters read “Pu-36-ESM.” I clicked to view the entire illustration and found a punk-rock pin-up girl holding an enormous gun on her shoulders. I saw the script mentioned above on the cannon’s barrel and realized that it had to be a reference to an element in one of my favorite Marvin the Martian cartoons—the Illudium PU-36 Explosive Space Modulator. At that point I knew Matt was the illustrator I wanted to work with (I really appreciate a good sense of humor). I sent him an email explaining what I was trying to accomplish with the book, as well as telling him how much I liked his reference to Marvin the Martian. He wrote me back, saying that my recognition of what the script was alluding to “clearly identified me as a fellow of fine and discerning taste” and adding that I should forward along some details for the illustrations. I did as Matt instructed, cutting and pasting character details directly from Death Drop into an email, and zapped the message across the pond (Matt is located in the UK). After a few days of fingernail chewing on my part, Matt finally responded. He said that my character descriptions inspired him to draw, and despite my limited budget, he agreed to take on the project (for which I can’t thank him enough—not only is he an amazing talent, but he’s a real stand-up guy). The rest, as they say, is history.
And now…to the future!
The second book, Daelekon, is already in the works. What is the plan for this next installment? Do you have a release date?
Daelekon was really the book I intended to write when I sat down at the keyboard several years ago, but through the course of writing, ideas evolved and the story became a much more complex organism. Death Drop has introduced the Serum, and readers now have an understanding of the power it has over the fate of the universe. The primary focus of Daelekon will be to explain how the Serum came to be and shed some light on why Blangaris is hell-bent on killing his brother. Of course, there will be some surprise twists, and there could be some big revelations surrounding Simon, Dezmara, and Rilek (wink, wink). This book will delve deeply into Mewlatai society—their world, beliefs, politics, life-cycle, and combat skills. Where Death Drop used the bullet as its primary vehicle of carnage and destruction, expect to see a heavy focus on the sword in book two. As you noted in your review of Death Drop, I like to blend genres, and you can expect more of that in Daelekon. However, I will go on record and say that the genre-blending in this book will include some combinations that didn’t exist in Death Drop.
I haven’t firmed up a release date yet, but you can expect a big announcement on my website when it does happen.
Are there any other plans for the D-Evolution universe?
I’m always coming up with a new something-or-other pertaining to the D-Evolution. At present, I can tell you that the series will consist of at least three books. However, as I mentioned earlier, I take an organic approach to writing, and if the story leads me somewhere cool, I won’t prematurely stunt its development. If that means that it takes four, five, six or more books to tell the tale, then that’s what it takes. In terms of specific things that are in the works right at this moment, I’m in the planning phase to do an audio book version of Death Drop with some amazingly talented folks at a place called Sound Surfers, Inc. They specialize in doing wild character voices and icons for your GPS, but they signed on to supply some voice talent for the multitude of characters in Death Drop. I can tell you that the audio book will be quite a bit different than what most people are used to. I don’t want to let the cat out of the bag, so to speak, so I’ll just say that I’m aiming for mind-melting awesomeness with this version of Death Drop as well. Other than that, there’s marketing Death Drop, writing Daelekon, and conceptualizing the remaining books in the series.
I hear you will be kicking off the Death Drop release with a virtual tour. Can you give me some details on this?
I think this plan has morphed into what my publisher and I are calling the Death Drop Fall Con Tour—2011. In lieu of a virtual tour, I will be traveling around the country and participating in several conventions that cater to speculative fiction and its related genres, including sci-fi, comics, anime and horror. I will be on site at each con, selling copies of Death Drop, as well as the posters and tees I mentioned earlier. Of course, I’ll be signing (almost) anything folks want me to put a pen to. Interested parties can check out the events page on my website, and if I happen to be at a particular con that you’re attending, stop by and say hello!
A few for the road
I noticed you have degrees in Economics and Technology Management. (What? No degree in Total Badass, or are you just being modest?) What is it you do when you’re not pounding away on the keyboard?
Alas, I don’t hold a degree in Total Badass (*flushes with embarrassment*). However, if you, or anyone else out there, wants to bestow an honorary degree in said subject upon me, I will humbly accept.
As for doing something related to my fields of study, I assume you’re asking about my day job. Truth be told, I have the opportunity to focus on the D-Evolution full-time at the moment. But in my most recent past working life, I was the Customer Satisfaction Manager for an IT company.
You’ve stolen my brain. Why? What do you plan to do with it?
Sweet! Stealing brains was exactly what I wanted to accomplish (laughs maniacally while rubbing hands together). I hope to prod, twist, tantalize and set your brain ablaze in a conflagration fueled by imagination. It might be a little ambitious of a newbie author, but ultimately, I want the D-Evolution to be something that earns a permanent place on your bookshelf. So many books nowadays seem to be easily surrendered to the nearest used book outlet or website after turning their final pages. It’s my sincerest hope that fans out there connect with the D-Evolution books on a level that makes them impossible to let go.
Is there anything else you would like to add?
Yes, please. I have to give a huge thanks to you and everyone at The Ranting Dragon for reviewing the book and giving me this opportunity to blather on about it. You guys (and gals) rock! I’d also be woefully remiss if I didn’t say thanks to all of the amazing people out there who have helped Death Drop along the way and the many more who are still working to deliver it to the throngs of geek chic out there in the world. You know who you are. I’m awed by your talents, grateful for your help, and honored by your love and friendship.
Thank you again for interviewing with The Ranting Dragon. Best of luck with the book, and I look forward to reading the next installment.