My Superpower is a regular guest column on the Skiffy and Fanty blog where authors and creators tell us about one weird skill, neat trick, highly specialized cybernetic upgrade, or other superpower they have, and how it helped (or hindered!) their creative process as they built their project. Today we welcome James Dashner to talk about how his power of movie watching relates to The Kill Order.
Like any person (at least any nerdy person, which are the only ones I care about), I love superheroes. I love Superman. I love Spiderman. I love the X-Men. I even love Bruce Willis in Unbreakable. I love the dude who invented Mountain Dew and Abraham Lincoln. All superheroes.
And yes, I am one myself. I know this may shock you, but it’s true. I, James Dashner, am a superhero. And now I will tell you what my secret power is. Are you ready?
I’m really, especially, fantastically good at watching movies. That’s right. Make fun all you want, but I’m much better at it than you are. In fact, no one on the planet of Earth (I can’t vouch for those other planets we keep discovering) is as brilliantly brilliant at watching movies as I am. I can enjoy any movie on any level at any time. My biggest pet peeve in the world is this new thing where all the “smart” people on the Internet rip every single movie that comes out, no matter what. Oh, they’re so smart, finding all those plot holes.
I feel bad for them. If only they could have my superpower and ENJOY the movies. What a concept.
Need examples? The latest Star Trek. I went, took my kids, absolutely loved it. Yes, probably on some deep level I understood that it might be slightly scientifically inaccurate to depict a spaceship rising up out of the ocean. Or that it wasn’t a perfect homage to Wrath of Khan. At least they tried. At least we HAVE Star Trek movies again. I loved it so much, and imagine my surprise when all the “smart” people told me how wrong I was. The Star Trek convention voted it the worst of the films. Those people must’ve been drunk when they saw Star Trek V.
Another one: Man of Steel. I went, took my kids, absolutely loved it. Yes, it was dark and moody. Yes, Superman killed someone. Boohoo. It was a fantastic, fun, visually stunning film. Imagine my surprise when all the “smart” people on the Internet told me how wrong I was. And the music. Oh my. The music. One of the best scores ever.
There are many others. Why can’t people just go and enjoy movies for what they are? I can go to any horror film, no matter how bad, and at least get a good laugh. Any comedy, and laugh at the fact that I’m not laughing. Of course, the truly rewarding moments are when I go to a film that changes my life, from Saving Private Ryan to 12 Years a Slave, from The Matrix to Inception. Movies are pure joy.
Now, obviously I’m being a smart aleck, but there’s a method to my madness. And finally I get to the writing aspect. Movies, without a doubt, without anything else even coming close, are the number one inspiration for me as a writer. I learn something each and every single time I watch one. Good things to do in my storytelling, and bad things to avoid. Think about it. A movie is the PERFECT chance to see a complete story arc in a couple of hours. You see scene cuts, world building, character development, dialogue – all the pieces that make a story strong. Movie or book or stage or whatever.
Movies are an integral part of my job as a writer. Thank goodness I have the superpower of actually enjoying them.
The Kill Order is essentially a prequel to your wildly popular The Maze Runner. What compelled you to go backwards in time and explore the events surrounding the mysteries of the first novel? Could you also talk a little bit about your process?
When I first sold The Maze Runner to Random House, I mentioned that someday I wanted to write a prequel. It’s just the type of story that lends itself to that sort of thing. But what I ended up writing was much different than I’d originally planned. I’d always thought it would be about Thomas and Teresa, showing their lives leading up to the Maze. But my editor talked me into going even farther back, and I think it was the right decision.
As for my process, there’s nothing very revolutionary there. Once I have a cool premise, I spend a few days turning it into a very simple outline, maybe 2 or 3 pages. Then I go into first draft mode, in which I plow ahead, only worrying about the creative process, no editing. After that, it’s a few read throughs with lots of changes, then off to my editor. Then I go through several rounds with her as well. All in all, it takes about a year.
I first came to your work through your 13th Reality series, which had a rather geeky/nerdy quirkiness to it. The Maze Runner and its sequels are drastically different types of books in terms of characters, tone, etc. What was your process for switching to this noticeably different environment?
Well, actually, I wrote the first book of The Maze Runner series before I wrote The 13th Reality. Not many people know that. It was much different and needed a lot of work, but a rejection for Maze actually led to the eventual idea and publication for 13th Reality. The publisher liked the story but thought it was a little too dark. You know, I don’t really think of myself as having a style or genre or age range. I just write what I think is cool, and that happened with both of those series.
The novels in your Maze Runner series are obviously quite dark, particularly given the big reveals at the end of the first novel. What were some of the challenges you faced when creating this bleak future world?
It’s a dark story, no doubt. And I tried to stay true to that throughout, which is why there are quite a few deaths. But as many authors have said before me, sometimes showing the dark side really brings out the best in humanity. As my editor at Random House said, the reason she fell in love with The Maze Runner was because she thought it was about hope. Under extreme duress and facing outrageous difficulties, Thomas, Teresa, and the Gladers (most of them) never give up.
The deaths were the challenges. Those are tough to write. Very tough, on many levels. And contrary to many of my awesome fans’ beliefs, I don’t write them while cackling maniacally like a deranged witch. Haha.
The Kill Order is equally as concerned with virology as the previous books, as you’ve taken a different approach to an exploration of genetics in the wake of The Flare (the viral infection in your imagined future). What drew you to an exploration of a world after an infection? More particularly, can you talk a little about how you approached the viral and biological elements in The Kill Order?
Well, I’ve always loved movies and books with that theme. I mean, honestly, I don’t know if there’s anything that terrifies me more than a potential deadly virus. Unseen, lethal, makes you suspicious of everyone around you. It’s the most realistic version of a horror story in my opinion. So I wanted to have that element. And the second thing that terrifies me is the notion of human beings who’ve gone utterly insane — who’ve lost all traces of what makes us civil. Combine those two and voila! You have my series.
I did a lot of research to lend as much credibility as possible to the story, but I also took many liberties. I’m sure there are a few professors out there who got a good chuckle here and there, but hopefully it stands up well enough for suspension of disbelief.
How has the process of seeing/getting The Maze Runner to the big screen affected your writing or everyday life?
It’s clearly been the single most exciting thing to ever happen to me in terms of my career. As much as I love books, movies are my first and truest love. To see my own story come to life as one is beyond description. It’s been surreal and awesome, no other way to say it. I’ve been very involved with the process, much more so than I even dared dream. And I think my fans — and many who’ve never heard of the books — are going to be blown away. It’s an amazing, amazing film.
Silly Questions Five:
1) If you were trapped in the maze, would you become a runner or a food wrangler?
Food wrangler, no doubt. I’m way too chicken to step out into that maze.
2) What is the most terrifying creature or character you’ve created for any of your fiction works, published or otherwise?
The Stompers, in a little known series that starts with A Door in the Woods. They feed on fear and can enter your dreams, taking any shape.
3) If a movie/TV show were ever made of The 13th Reality series, who would you like to play Atticus Higgingbottom (a.k.a. Tick)?
Oh man, great question. Hmmmmm. I’d vote for Joel Courtney.
4) Which book has had the greatest influence on you as a writer?
Every book ever written by Stephen King. He is the master, my favorite author, and my idol.
5) If you were stranded in the Himalayas without paper, computer, phone, tablet, or typewriter, what would you use to continue writing?
Ummm, all I’ll say is this: Yellow snow.
James Dashner is the author of The 13th Reality series, The Infinity Ring series, The Maze Runner series, The Jimmy Fincher series, and Eye of Minds (published last year in October). The first novel in The Maze Runner series is being adapted into a feature film to be released in September 2014.
James was born and raised in Georgia, but now lives in the Rocky Mountains with his family. After several years working in finance, he is now a full-time writer.