Stephen Romano’s new book, Metro, just came out last month, and he kindly answered a few of my questions about it, and more!
You had me at “spies and assassins”! What inspired you to write Metro? Will you tell us a little about it?
Well, first of all, thank you! I really appreciate your interest in my work and your support of my last book Resurrection Express. That said, what I wanted to do with Metro was a little different. Usually with these “thriller” things, you have a central protagonist who leads the action straight through some kind of revenge story or a “McGuffin” oriented plot. And while I certainly have no problem with McGuffins (there’s a major one in Metro), I was actually inspired by a more complex question this time out: Are your friends who they really seem to be? In this case, I’m dealing with not one, but THREE central characters, who have been living in a wild rock and roll party house for years, and they’re all really awesome young counter culture types—you know, bloggers, sci-fi nerds, party people with higher aspirations. One of them is an ace political blogger who also runs horror movie websites. But one night, something terrible happens to them and they realize that someone among them is not who they have pretended to be. This person is, in reality, a highly dangerous individual—a super assassin working for a nasty, far reaching shadow cabal who call themselves Metro. So that’s the thrust of the story. It’s about coming to terms with hidden faces and re-learning how to trust your friends while everything falls apart and people keep trying to kill you. Obviously, this means the book is consequently filled with bloody mayhem like my last one. It might even go further in certain ways.
Tell us more about Jollie, Andy, and Mark. What makes them compelling characters?
Jollie is awesome. She’s, like, everybody’s dream girl in Austin, because she lives to stick it to the man and is smarter than everyone you know. Plus she truly loves bad monster movies and comics and rock and roll. She’s nerdy in that she knows who composed the music for Christopher Nolan’s Inception and has deep seated passions about all of it. She’s the ace political blogger I was talking about. She’s also imperfect in other ways. You know, she’s overweight and weird and has terrible pain in her past from her mother’s suicide. She’s in love with Mark, who is a struggling writer with one indie published book and he’s also a drug dealer on the side. Actually, that’s where most of his money comes from. Mark supports the house by selling weed. So these are real above-the-law types, but they’re also good people. You’ll identify with them in ways similar to say, the main characters in Don Winslow’s Savages. Jollie loves Mark because he’s a lot like her. He’s really smart. Knows about classical literature AND Star Trek, right? But she also loves Andy because he’s really a beautiful guy. Andy’s less of an artist and more a party boy, but even though he’s one of the beautiful people, he makes you feel at ease with his neo-hippie ethic. He truly believes that all you need is love. And he’s the youngest and most impressionable of all these people. They form a triangle that defines the story. I call it The House of JAM. I find that people tend to really identify with on-the-street types like this. And people like comic books, too, so think of it as Savages, only with nerds! (Laughs.) The super bad METRO assassin has been hiding out in plain view among their scene for years, and has been killing people and telling lies to cover the trail. The reason METRO operatives are so hard to spot is that they blend right into to counterculture and drug-related scenes like this. Also, just as a teaser: the word METRO doesn’t mean what you think it means. It’s an acronym. Moo-hoo-hah-hah . . .
What kind of research did you do for the book?
This one was written more from the heart than from a place technical expertise. Resurrection Express had a bunch of computer stuff in it, but this one is more science-fiction. It has epic, far-reaching implications that are more political, tied into certain obsessions of my own about the way America and the world in general works. I give you a good long look inside the world of METRO and explain in depth how they train these people to be what they are. This involves some technical fact checking, obviously, but mostly it’s all mechanical stuff, like gun calibers, the capabilities of smart phones and such. And I just outright had to make a few things up along the way too. I think sometimes writers (and even certain readers) get a little too bogged down in those technical details. They’re not as important here. This is a story of survival, love, and ultimately, changing the world. It’s also very fast and lean. Even leaner than my last one. My original draft was a lot more “nerd core” and I really cut it to the bone. It moves bullet-fast now. Someone silly once said that brevity is the soul of wit. Can’t remember who it was. (Laughs.)
Why suspense/thrillers? What do you enjoy about reading, and writing, in these genres?
I don’t mean to be a cliché here, but I never really think of anything I do as a “genre” work necessarily. I just do what I am interested in doing and it comes out that way. I grew up with horror films and so I write horror films. I grew up with action movies and so I write action thrillers. I’m also really interested in science fiction and romantic stories, many other types of film and literature. I do tend to think in cinematic terms because of my background as a screenwriter, but I really enjoy the longer form of prose writing because you can get some great things out there that would be more or less impossible on screen. Seriously though, at the end of day, I’m a storyteller and I gravitate towards my own particular obsessions based on the things that speak to me loudest. I’m actually working on a project right now that combines a LOT of my weird obsessions: Action, Crime Noir, Horror, Romance, Monster Movies . . . all in one over-the-top package called BOTTOMFEEDER. That’s a comic series I’ve been developing for a year, based on an unproduced screenplay. I enjoy these themes because, again, I grew up with stuff like this. Some people grow out of monster movies. I just got more interested in what made a monster tick as I got older, you know? That’s was a LOT of my stories are about. Getting inside the HEADS of these weirdos and psychopaths and seeing what happens. I have a particularly nasty monster in Metro—a guy who hacks people to death on an operating table in the name of Love and Freedom. Maybe that’s finally what appeals to me so much about the darker side of writing. Monsters need love too. But I don’t do any of this stuff to be cute, either. It all means something, I think. It’s all going somewhere. I hope people read that in my work, alongside all the mayhem.
What authors, or novels have been the biggest influences for you, in writing, and in life?
I always tell people to read William Kotzwinkle. He was probably the biggest influence on me, in that he showed me a writer can do anything—BE anything. Bill has written dozens of books in as many different “genres,” and has proven a master of them all. Joe Lansdale is another favorite. Andrew Vachss. More recently, Francesca Lia Block and Kelly Link. Gillian Flynn’s Gone Girl is truly the one bestseller I’ve read in recent years that absolutely deserves every accolade placed at its feet. Just a stunning performance. And Don Winslow, of course. His novel California Fire and Life had a HUGE influence on Metro.
If you could experience one book again for the first time, which one would it be?
Gone Girl was pretty damn compelling, I must say. I read it in two sittings. That almost never happens. Kotzwinkle’s Night Book was absolutely magical. But I’m gonna have to go with a really odd choice to answer your question specifically: The first time I read the Complete Calvin and Hobbes, I felt like I’d lived through this amazing childhood fairytale adventure timewarp thing and was absolutely moved to a new level in my life. It takes about three weeks or so to really read that collection and absorb it properly. It’s three absolutely GIGANTIC hardback books. And it’s a stunning, masterful achievement. The most epic children’s book for adults ever written, about a boy who relives being 6 years old for ten years and the adventures he has in worlds that may or may not be constructed from pure imagination. Of course, if Calvin was really living through all this in linear time, he’d be sixteen at the end, but he keeps doing this Groundhog’s Day thing and rebooting after every Christmas. It’s easy to say, “Well that’s just how comic strips about kids work,” but you get the feeling that something far more cosmic is going on with this one. It’s just too smart and magical in other ways. Also, each strip is properly dated from their original newspaper appearances, so each year is documented day-by-day and it’s like a diary of this really special kid who never grows up. Amazing. I am somewhat in awe of guys who pull off epic life-quest works like this on such demanding publication schedules, and when the work is truly special and transcendent, like Calvin and Hobbes is, the gift it gives us is extraordinary. I always wish I could get back the moment when I finished reading that collection for the first time. It was intense and revealing and awesome. And drop-dead hilarious, obviously. On a bigger level, it’s an epic journey that touches on every theme of humanity: friendship, obsession, betrayal, denial, love and rebirth, death, imagination, childhood versus adulthood, adulthood versus the world. It’s complex and important work, right alongside any classic novel you can name.
What defines a great story for you?
I’m not sure anything defines a great story, that’s what makes them great, you know? I don’t think there’s any one set of rules or definitions that are to be followed, respected or imitated. I think it’s all out there for us to find, and we find it all the time. When it happens, and you make that great connection with what someone has written, THAT’s the real magic—but someone else may not get it at al. For example, as many people are aware, I really, seriously love bad exploitation cinema. And by “really, seriously love,” I mean that I look at it the same way I look at anything else. I can laugh at the lousy special effects or the cheesy acting like all the other hipsters, but what ELSE happens to be going on under there? What are these people really trying to say? It’s a kind of art that goes right over most people’s heads. I also really dig terrible pulp paperbacks with titles like Death of a Transvestite. (Ed Wood wrote that.) But I also love Moby Dick and Nathanial Hawthorne. And I can be terribly judgmental and critical of things I absolutely DON’T like. So does that make me a weirdo? Or just a guy who finds art in many places and forms? I guess, to me, what defines a great story is mostly on the reader or viewer themselves. It’s what THEY bring to it. Because, at the end of the day, it’s all art, man. I’m sure that sounds really strange. But as I get older, I’m finding more and more that it’s true. For this reason, I don’t talk a lot of smack at my blog anymore about things I don’t dig. What’s the point? Life’s too short.
What are you currently reading? Is there anything you’re looking forward to reading this year?
Right now I have a huge stack I’m sifting through. Just recently finished Canary by Duane Swierczynski. I’m re-reading Beat the Reaper and Carter Beats The Devil. (I’m a big fan of beating things.) I like going back over some books for instructional purposes. God is a Bullet by Boston Terran is absolutely gorgeous thriller writing. I have that book highlighted. Looking forward to reading the MAD MAX: FURY ROAD graphic novel soon. It has some terrific backstory on Max in there, apparently. I’m a big Mad Max Fan. Also, really looking forward to reading FIGHT CLUB 2 when the series has finished its run and it’s all collected in one volume. Obviously, I like Chuck a lot. But I don’t think I could handle reading one of his books in serial form. I just get too upset when they leave off on a cliffhanger, you know? I waited for all of Transmetropolitan to be collected before I read the whole thing. I’m a big Spider Jerusalem fan, too.
What’s next for you? Is there any more news you’d like to share?
Well, I already told you about my new comic series BOTTOMFEEDER. That’ll be coming next year. And I’m doing some comic books based on a couple of popular grindhouse horror films from the 1980s also—Zombie and The Gates Of Hell, which was also called City of the Living Dead. This will be terrific stuff and they are looking killer already. And, of course, there are several new novels in the works. I’ve been trying to get the sequel to Resurrection Express out for years now, but things just keep getting in the way. The novel’s been finished for a while, it’s just been a matter of finding time to get it edited and polished and out there, you know? I was hoping it would be a serial novel this year, but that is looking less and less likely. I was seriously, permanently injured last year when a speeding truck ran me over, so a considerable amount of time is devoted each week just to getting THAT fixed. I’m still in physical therapy, and work goes slower now. But the muse still screams at me. I’ll get all this stuff cranked out eventually!
For the last five years, Jollie, Andy, and Mark have lived together in a crazy bohemian crash pad in Austin, Texas, immersed in an endless summer of sex, drugs, and rock and roll. But one of them is not what they seem to be. And when that person finally blows a decades-long cover during a violent attack on a powerful Austin dope dealer, all hell breaks loose in the bloody, bullet-riddled aftermath. As the façade of the normal world sizzles away, revealing an ominous shadow league of endemic spies and assassins known only as METRO, Jollie, Andy, and Mark must run like hell into a very dark night, where love and friendship will bind them, a terrifying hatchet man will close in to kill them, and the pitch black truth about everything will be revealed, again and again…