Barbra J. Dillon, Fanboy Comics Managing Editor: As the writer of The Odds, what initially inspired you to tell this story, and how did you come to develop such an intricate world with a dynamic cast of characters?
Robert J. Peterson: Phew! What a great question. The Odds is one of those projects that started out as one thing but quickly morphed into another. I sometimes joke that I’m always trying to write normal, mainstream fiction, but I can’t go 10 pages into a novel without introducing some kind of high-concept element. That definitely happened with The Odds, which began in my mind as a simple, gritty crime novel set in a dusty, desert town. (I’ve felt the pull of the desert for many years and could easily see myself landing in the high desert near Joshua Tree in my retirement.)
In any event, I’ll probably still write that book, but when I started writing The Odds, I very quickly made that wrong left turn at Albuquerque, so to speak. The lead character makes a left turn on his motorcycle early in the story, and it takes him into the subterranean city of Dedrick. I’ve always been fascinated by enormous indoor spaces like caves, and enormous, man-made indoor spaces are even cooler! So I imagined Dedrick as a five-square-mile city enclosed by a giant, vaulted brick ceiling overhead. I couldn’t quite keep all of the action inside Dedrick — quite a bit happens in the aboveground areas, as well — but most of it does, and that was great fun to limit myself to that small region as a storyteller.
Building out the world and the characters came through one of the longest and most challenging development processes in my writing career. I work closely with a lot of trusted editors, but my most trusted editorial voice over the years has been Karl Mueller, a filmmaker and writer. Pretty much, when I grow up, I want to be a writer like Karl Mueller.
The Odds was actually the fifth novel I completed, but it was the first one I seriously outlined. If you can believe it, I completely wung my first four books. Yikes! But when it came time to write my fifth, I decided to plan it out, and I wrote several outlines before I settled on one that I liked. And it’s funny — at Karl’s behest, I actually wrote one outline where I stripped away all but the most essential story-points, and I wrote another one where I stripped away the science-fiction trappings and reimagined the story as a grindhouse-y Jason Statham vehicle.
Guess which two outlines contributed most to the final product?
When it comes to characters, I’ve also joked that the heroes in my novels are different parts of my personality with certain eccentric adjustments. The hero of my first novel is me if I turned into the Incredible Hulk. The hero of my second novel is the sad, skittish and very angry fat kid who hides inside me. The hero of my third novel is my “Evil Kirk.” (Remember that episode of Star Trek where Captain Kirk got split into his good and evil halves, and his evil half included all of his command skills, bravery and womanizing? If that happened to me, my evil side would be the hero of my third book.) The hero of my fourth novel is the lonely part of me that suffers from body dysmorphic disorder. (Body dysmorphia comes up in just about all of my writing.) The hero of my most recent novel is the part of me that retreated into technology to find connections with other people.
But Eldridge, the hero of The Odds, is me if I were a superhero. Let me explain:
I feel like all of us have “super” versions of ourselves. They come out in good times and bad. Sometimes an especially wonderful significant other (like my exquisite partner, Lauren Rock) can help you access that super-version more often. But when I talk about a “superhero” version of myself, I’m not talking about a version of me that has super-powers (although Eldridge has a few), and I’m not talking about a version of me that wears tights and a cape.
No, a “super” version of yourself is you at your best. It’s all of your best qualities given voice and form. I like to think that Agent Dale Cooper of Twin Peaks is a superheroic version of David Lynch. He’s intelligent and spiritual, but most of all, Cooper is incredibly kind to everyone he meets. He also has a few superpowers, including the ability to get a full night’s sleep after 20 minutes of meditation, as well as a powerful sense of intuition.
When it came to Eldridge, I didn’t set out to write him as my “super” self; that’s just how it shook out. But when I was rewriting the book, one of my beta readers pointed out how Eldridge’s actions — some of which are incredibly foolish — are driven by a deep sense of empathy and an abiding love for his friends. I mentioned earlier that Eldridge has some superpowers; he has superhuman strength and limitless endurance, but he rarely uses those powers in the book, no matter what kind of trouble he gets into. (And he gets into a lot. Apparently the “super” version of me is just as bumbling and clumsy as I am in real life.) No, he always has help from his friends, even if they’re not around.
BD: Are there specific creators who have most influenced your work as a writer or, more specifically, your work on The Odds?
RJP: Oh, yeah. A lot! The central action setpiece in The Odds is the Xiang tournament, a live-action chess battle royale. A couple of old computer games influenced that idea, including Battle Chess and Archon. Battle Chess was a standard chess engine that portrayed all of the game-pieces as animated characters, while Archon was a chess variant that included one of the most important elements I imported into Xiang: battles for the squares.
As insane as this sounds, I actually wrote the first “draft” of the Xiang tournament when I was six years old. No kidding. I used to draw tons of storybooks on notebook paper. Mostly these involved me inserting me and my friends into Saturday morning cartoons. But I wrote one called Chess that depicted two men playing a chess game. Every time they made a move, I drew a battle scene. I imagined every piece as a different warrior with different weapons and powers. One image from this storybook — and I’m not making this up — that made it into the novel was a rook-pawn battle. I imagined the rook as someone driving a big-rig with a cow-catcher mounted to the front, while the pawn was on foot, fighting with a broadsword. (In the novel, the battle ends with a decapitation. I don’t think I included that in the storybook.)
That basic idea — the live-action chess tournament — lingered with me until I wrote The Odds. Given the popularity of Most Dangerous Game-style action mayhem in recent years (The Running Man, Battle Royale and later The Hunger Games), I was happy to make use of the idea.
Oh, and along with Battle Chess and Archon, one other 80s video-game influenced The Odds: The Bard’s Tale. That was an old dungeon-crawl that consumed hours of my time back in the day. It all took place inside one small village, Skara Brae, and there was a huge tower you had to infiltrate to kill the big bad. I installed Dedrick potentate Jeb Goldmist atop a mighty tower in The Odds. Skara Brae also included an endless street called Sinister. (I assume the game’s creator, Michael Cranford, included it to make level-grinding easier.) I named the main drag in Dedrick Sinister Street.
As for writers, my biggest influences remain Neal Stephenson, Joss Whedon, John Irving and Barry Unsworth. When it comes to the craft of novel-writing, I’m always trying to be like Irving and Unsworth, who construct these beautifully headlong narratives. Unsworth in particular astonishes me with his versatility. Whenever I pick up an Unsworth title, I feel like I’m reading an entirely new novelist. Of course I try to be like Stephenson, too, who writes with incredible energy. (He also uses hyperbole better than any author I’ve read.) And when it comes to geek overlord Joss Whedon, I mostly try to emulate his characters. Whedon’s characters are good people who are trying to be better people. I try to write like that, too. Whedon also destroys cliches with alacrity, and I try to maintain a similar impatience with cliche.
But more than any one video-game or novelist, the biggest influence on The Odds is John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. When I try to describe the tone of The Odds, I always call it “an extended ode to Big Trouble in Little China,” which features a wise-cracking, world-weary hero who’s also a klutzy goofball, as well as a narrative that mashes up a lot of genres, including martial-arts movies and American westerns.
BD: What do you hope that readers will take away from the book?
RJP: That the greatest weapon any of us can have is a good heart.
BD: Are there any plans to continue the world of The Odds in further novels?
RJP: Affirmative. It’s the first of a four-book cycle — or tetralogy, or “quadrilogy,” if you’re marketing the Alien franchise — called the Deadblast Chronicles. The second book, The Remnants, is tentatively set for a 2016 release, to be followed by The Oceans and The Palaces.
BD: While The Odds was first released in January of 2014, the revised edition of the book will mark the first publication of California Coldblood Books as an imprint of Rare Bird Books. What led to creation of California Coldblood Books, and what do you feel makes the publishing company unique in the ever-expanding literary landscape?
RJP: I’m a huge fan of the team at Rare Bird — Tyson Cornell, Julia Callahan and Alice Marsh-Elmer. Pretty much, they lead fascinating lives that bring them into contact with interesting people who write books, and that’s who they work with. I originally created California Coldblood Books to serve as the publishing label for the Deadblast books — and by “created,” I mean, “I built a website.”
As for what makes CCB unique, I’ll offer this: I want to make CCB into an Island of Misfit Toys. I want to work with kooky authors who want to write novels and who maybe haven’t found a home yet. I’ll give them a home on this Island of Misfit Toys where they’ll get boutique treatment from a goofball editor (me), and where they can develop and write books that excite them, because that’s what makes for great fiction.
BD: How did California Coldblood come to find a home under the Rare Bird banner, and how do you feel that the companies will complement one another?
RJP: I’d had a longstanding fantasy to make CCB into Rare Bird’s the imprint for sci-fi and fantasy. The stupendous Lauren Rock encouraged me to approach them with with idea, and when I did, it was kismet; they’d been hoping to expand into sci-fi and fantasy for a long time.
I plan to expand Rare Bird’s reach into the worlds of sci-fi and fantasy, both with a slate of new titles, as well as with outreach to blogs, websites and agents who represent authors in these arenas.
Rare Bird, in turn, provides extensive support in public relations, with years of experience in the literary world, as well as a fantastic distributor, Publishers Group West. The Rare Bird team also just has great taste. I love their design and presentation. I’ll be the art director for CCB, but I plan to get feedback and creative advice from the Rare Bird crew. In addition, they’ve been acting as my mentors in the publishing world for awhile now. I’m looking forward to a long and fruitful relationship with them.
BD: Will California Coldblood Books be accepting submissions for publication, and are there any specific genres of literature on which you are focused?
RJP: We certainly are! You can find out more information at our website, CaliforniaColdblood.com. We’re looking for sci-fi, fantasy and speculative fiction. Agented and non-agented submissions are welcome. Writers can submit a query letter if they want, but I’m open to less formal introductions, as well. Tell me about your project, your body of work, and yourself. The ideal CCB author has written two or three novels, though I’m not afraid of a killer first novel.
BD: Are there any upcoming projects on which you are currently working that you would like to share with readers?
RJP: I’ve got three deals coming into place right now, but I can’t announce them until I sign the authors. I will say that one of CCB’s upcoming releases will be my young-adult sci-fi action novel Omegaball, which is about a futuristic pro sports league.
BD: Lastly, what is the best way for readers to find out more information about The Odds and California Coldblood Books?
RJP: At both websites:
The book is also available for purchase on Amazon and wherever books are sold.
Thank you so much for the interview, Barbra!