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PDZ.com interview with Greg Rucka

Original interview transcript from PerfectDarkZero.com.

Greg Rucka has been busy. In addition to authoring almost a dozen novels, he's also been chronicling the exploits of such comic book luminaries as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, Elektra, and the Black Widow. But somehow he found time to pen Perfect Dark: Initial Vector, the very first Perfect Dark Zero novel, published by Tor Books.

ID Confirmed: Begin Transmission

Operative: Rucka, G.
Classification: Author
Team: Tor Books
Mission: Perfect Dark Zero
Mission Parameters: Perfect Dark: Initial Vector
Mission Hot Zone: Portland, OR, USA

Writer Greg Rucka has been busy. In addition to authoring almost a dozen novels, including the Atticus Kodiak series, he’s also been chronicling the exploits of such comic book luminaries as Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Wolverine, Elektra, and the Black Widow. His work has earned him a reputation for writing believable characters and gripping narratives, characteristics that are readily apparent in the pages of works he’s created himself, such as Whiteout and Queen & Country. He’s also the author of nearly a dozen novels, including several that feature the central character of Queen & Country, the memorable Tara Chace, an agent for Britain’s Ministry of Intelligence. Small wonder, then, that Microsoft Game Studios enlisted his help to bring Joanna Dark to the printed page.

MGS: How did this project come together? Were you familiar with Perfect Dark Zero before being approached to write the novel?

Greg Rucka: It’s kind of a long and strange story. About two years ago I was attending Emerald City Comiccon in Seattle when this guy I’d never seen before approached my table. He pointed at some work I’d done for hire that I had on display, and then he asked me ‘Would you like to do more work like this?’ I replied that my agent doesn’t like it when I do work for hire because it steals time away from my regular commitments, so anything I did freelance would have to be pretty special. He then informed me that he worked for Microsoft Game Studios and wanted to discuss the possibility of me writing a novel based on an upcoming game title. While he couldn’t discuss the exact game with me because I hadn’t signed a Non-Disclosure Agreement yet, he mentioned that the game featured a character that I would appreciate because she was a strong, capable, kick-ass heroine.

Suddenly it dawned on me: could he be talking about Perfect Dark? I’d been a fan of Rare’s work for years, and Perfect Dark was one of my favorite games ever! This guy just smiled and said that he couldn’t discuss any details with me yet, but if I’d keep in touch he would let me know about the project when he was able to talk about it more freely.

Over a year went by before I heard from him again. I was doing a signing at Olympic Cards & Comics in Olympia, Washington, and I happened to be talking to this guy who was in the shop about story in games. We were discussing how story in the game format is evolving, and the conversation turned inevitably to Perfect Dark because of course that game had a great story. I mentioned to him how I’d been approached about a potential work for hire project involving an MGS title that I thought might have been Perfect Dark Zero, but that I’d never heard from him again so it was probably a lost cause.

This guy grinned and replied, ‘Yeah, I know. That was me.’ It turns out that the guy was Eric Trautmann, who does the ‘creative work’ for Microsoft’s ‘Franchise Development Group,’ and the writer of Welcome to the War, the PDZ comic book. (See interview with Eric Trautmann here.) ‘Still interested?’ he asked.

I definitely was still interested! Rare created this great, rich world around its heroine Joanna Dark. To be invited to play in that sandbox was really cool, and I was really happy to have a chance to contribute to it.

MGS: Your writing has already bridged the gap between comics (the Queen & Country series) and novels (A Gentleman’s Game and Private Wars, which feature Tara Chace, the central character in Queen &Country). How did you approach bridging the gap between game and novel? How did you prepare?

Greg Rucka: Before writing any story, I take fundamentally the same view: I need to know the character. The author must have a very good, clear idea of who he’s writing about. So I played Perfect Dark (N64) again, and this time I noticed that there were some subtleties in the story that was presented through gameplay that I hadn’t noticed before. Like the character of Cassandra Devries: where had she come from, and why was she doing what she did? I decided that I wanted to explore her character in the novel.

Equally importantly, I read the story bible that Eric created for Perfect Dark Zero, and I worked with him, and via him the folks at Rare, to understand Jo as well as I could. We discussed her attitudes, her signature moves, her family and her motivations, everything that makes her who she is. This was essential because I wanted to create continuity and consistency between the world of the game and the world as presented in the novel. Readers who play the game and read the novel should look for continuity Easter Eggs—or Christmas presents, if you prefer—scattered throughout the novel that relate to or reflect some aspects of the game, such as special equipment and combat moves.

I spent all this time and effort in preparation because I want the reader to feel a strong connection between the game and the fiction. The fiction enriches the world by elaborating on the world that’s presented in the game, in ways that the game can’t. The novel can identify parts of the Perfect Dark Zero universe that exist in the game but aren’t explored as deeply as the designers might have wished, such as economics, politics, and technology. And it can enrich the characters by letting the reader really get inside their heads.

This process of writing is very active. Getting inside Joanna Dark’s head was exciting because her point of view in the game is limited by necessity of the format. With the novel I had a chance to expand her point of view and give us a look at how she really feels and what she really thinks.

MGS: You’ve remarked before that every story has to be about something. What’s Initial Vector about, from your point of view?

Greg Rucka: Not only does it have to be about something, more importantly it has to be about someone. And the story has to be a story in which that someone changes in a significant way. Otherwise the story is static, dull, and lifeless. Not to mention boring. A good story is about people and their journey. Even if the characters in a story end up at the very same place they started from at the beginning, as long as they have changed somehow during the space in between the story can still be good. The characters drive the story in this way: plot is nothing without character.

Think about it like this: two people walking together on the street witness the same event. Let’s say the event is a crime, a bank robbery, and someone’s been shot. One of the people witnessing this event might make a grab for her cell phone and call for help, or race to assist the wounded, or even make an effort to interfere with the criminals’ escape. The other person might throw himself to the ground, hide behind a car, or run away. People react to the same situation in very different ways, and how they react—what they do—is about character, not plot.

In the case of Joanna Dark, she interacts with the things that happen around her, involving herself in them, and is changed by them. Jo entering a room filled with bad guys is plot. Why she went into the room, and what she does in the room is about character. Specifically it’s about her character. 

Initial Vector is an action-espionage novel, and in one sense it’s about how Joanna Dark deals with some dangerous events. But it’s about two characters—Joanna Dark and Cassandra DeVries—accepting their respective destinies, and reconciling their potential futures by leaving parts of their past behind.

MGS: Please tell us about the most significant challenges you encountered in writing Initial Vector, and how you worked through them.

Greg Rucka: The biggest obstacle was the breakneck pace of the writing. In order to fit this book into my schedule without it interfering with my other obligations I had to finish the manuscript in about a month. The writing took about three weeks total and I practically had to lock myself in a room to get it done on time. That kind of intense pace takes a toll on the writer, stealing time away from things like family, sleep, meals, and other projects.

Despite that challenge, there’s something very pure about being able to focus so intently on the writing. There’s a chapter in the final quarter of the book that I’m very proud of. The narrative in this chapter just does cartwheels. It’s all muscle, no fat—the narrative there is like a cheetah running after a gazelle, that fast and lean. And to this day I have no idea how I wrote it because I was concentrating so hard on getting it all finished! I don’t have any memory of consciously planning the chapter: the schedule forced me into a pure writing mode, and the achievement of that chapter was born out of that purity.

MGS: Was Joanna’s character hard to develop? How did you try to capture her mindset and how she’s likely to react to various situations?

Greg Rucka: What is Joanna’s nature and nurture? That was the key question for me. When Jo has a gun in her hand, she hits what she aims at. She’s an incredibly skilled field operative whose potential is still being discovered day by day. What makes a 20-year-old woman behave this way? And how does being able to behave this way make her feel?

The answer to the ‘nature-nurture’ question lies in Jo’s past. With the help of Eric and Rare I got a good grip on her background. To say that Joanna is home-schooled, for example, is an understatement: it’s more like she’s home-trained! It’s not just that she hits whatever she shoots at: she seems to instinctively know exactly what to do in a variety of incredibly dangerous situations, but she can’t exactly stop to discuss how she knows or how she’s doing it—hesitation and delay gets you killed in her line of work. She just does it, and does it amazingly well, and thinks about it later.

So that was hard to develop, but rewarding. Think about it…Jo is cognizant of her extraordinary ability, but doesn’t really understand it. Because of her nature and nurture situation she not only survives but excels and emerges victorious from situations that would destroy anyone else. She can walk away from encounters that ought to kill her that would kill anybody else.

Imagine a slightly different scenario by way of comparison, let’s say a young woman who has, instead of tremendous martial prowess, perfect pitch and a phenomenal voice, making her one of the world’s foremost singers. She trains her voice from a very young age, but all the practice in the world doesn’t change the fact that she’s got a huge natural talent to start with. We can conceive of this person more easily because there are people who exist in our world who possess this capability. They’re very rare, but they’re out there, unique examples of a very particular nature and nature. Their situations are similar to Joanna’s in that both have amazing and very specific talent that they use almost instinctively, but can’t really understand it or explain how they do it in a way that most of us ordinary people could ever truly understand. The difference between the singer and Jo is that the singer’s ability isn’t existentially problematic: it doesn’t have any morally questionable consequences, like dead people. Nobody dies when the singer displays her extraordinary talents. When Jo does what she’s good at, somebody gets killed.

To sum it up, Jo discovers at the young age of 20 that she is a natural-born killer. Sometimes that’s going to keep you up at night! And that’s how I went after her character development.

MGS: Were there any characters, scenes or elements of the story that changed significantly between the first and final drafts? Can you describe them for us?

Greg Rucka: Steinberg leaps immediately to mind. He was a very interesting character and he definitely changed as I was writing the book. Initially I conceived of him as being someone who might be flirtatious with Jo, possibly interested in her romantically. I didn’t expect that he would develop this immediate love/hate relationship with her, or that this attitude would conjure up something closer to an older brother than a potential love interest. And the fact that he’s a competent “super soldier” is at odds with his respect and awe for what Jo can do, and that’s at odds with his desire to protect her. He became a lot more complicated!

Cassandra DeVries is another who raised a lot of questions for me during the writing of the book. Is she automatically evil because of her association with dataDyne? I wasn’t so sure that she was that two-dimensional. So then, what is she? Who is she? Answering these questions took the character in some surprising directions, but I’m happy with the result. The story humanizes DeVries, and in many ways Initial Vector is as much about her fall from grace as it is Jo embracing her destiny. I wanted the reader to empathize with DeVries because of how she is manipulated and essentially tricked into her situation with dataDyne. And I also wanted the reader to be able to fall in love with her a little as well as to feel badly for her because she is a more complex and deeper character than we all originally thought.

MGS: What’s it like to write about characters that you didn’t create?

Greg Rucka: It’s an interesting process that I actually enjoy. I do it a lot, writing for characters such as Superman and Wonder Woman: I didn’t create them, but it’s a great experience to write for them. Of course I try to be as fair as possible to what has gone before and to the interpretations of other writers, and to the continuity that’s been established for the character. But I like to put my own interpretation on the characters, too. Essentially, you serve the character as best you can.

I like to pull on threads that nobody has pulled on before. The Perfect Dark Zero: Initial Vector story has to be about where Joanna is at this point in her life, because when you finish playing Perfect Dark Zero you are left with emotional questions. The novel tries to explore and answer some of those questions.

Any story lives or dies depending on whether or not you believe in its characters. My job as a writer is to make you believe in Joanna Dark by making her, her thoughts and her emotions, real. The fact that I didn’t create her doesn’t help, hinder, or change that goal.

MGS: Do plot ideas and bits of dialogue constantly come up in your mind even when you're not writing? If so, what do you do with those fragments? Can you give us an example of an inspiration you incorporated into Initial Vector?

Greg Rucka: You can’t wait for inspiration to strike, or you’ll never finish writing. Worse, you’ll never start. A piece of you is always writing, always in the narrative. Whether I’m doing the dishes or taking a shower or talking with my wife, a part of my mind is still writing. Sometimes my wife and I would be having a conversation about something completely unrelated to the novel and something in my mind just clicks and I’d say ‘Hey! I know, I really need Carrington to say this to Jo….” Right in the middle of our conversation!

At times I’d find myself stuck and so I’d talk to people about it. I’d call Eric Trautmann, for example, and we’d hash it out together. Sometimes he’d suggest that Jo utilize a particular weapon or tool or that a certain character would get involved. And one idea always leads to another!

MGS: Most people who aren’t writing their own comic series and novels work about 40 hours at their jobs and then kick back in front of the TV. How many hours a week do you spend writing? What do you do in your free time? Do you have any free time?

Greg Rucka: What free time? Seriously, I have very little. I love my work, but I do try hard to make time for my family. That’s a priority. But it can get kind of crazy, to the point where my wife and I have to plan deliberately to do ordinary things that other people might take for granted like, say, go out to dinner. And when we’re doing that we have remind ourselves consciously not to rush, to take our time and enjoy the meal and each other’s company. My wife is a writer too, with her own comic book and professional commitments, and since as I mentioned you’re always writing on some level…you can see how the free time would be very limited!

I also try hard to make time for things that are not work. I consider myself a gamer. I really enjoy roleplaying games, like Dungeons & Dragons, and the kind of collaborative storytelling that can occur between people when playing that kind of game. I like to do that for fun, to relax. And of course even that helps generate ideas for my writing.

MGS: Whose comic and novel writing do you enjoy, and why does it appeal to you?

Greg Rucka: My wife, Jen Van Meter, writes the comic book series Hopeless Savages, published by Oni Press. I love the way her characters view the world, especially Zero, the central character in her book. Zero just makes up words and it’s marvelous: she plays with language, and in her hands language means whatever she wants it to mean. This creates some hilarious in-jokes for readers and I admire her ability to do that.

Tim O’Brien is one of the greatest American writers ever. I re-read his short stories in The Things They Carry and his novel Going After Cacciato and they leave me awestruck. His narrative is good but his language is fantastic: there’s not a word wasted in his books.

I like prose to serve the larger purpose of the narrative, so I like writers who can be economical with their words and yet still tell a wonderful story. Add Raymond Chandler, William Faulkner, and Stephen Crane to the list.