By Octavio Karbank
Usually when I interview comic book writers, the focus of our conversations centers on the books they're working on. Yet I occasionally try and shift these talks into discussing writing theory and what it means to create stories. I oftentimes receive intriguing responses, and such was the case when I met with Mr. Fred Van Lente. Writer of such titles like The Incredible Hercules, Magnus: Robot Fighter, and Action Philosophers, the focus of our talk in a recent interview dealt primarily with writing and what it takes to be a successful writer.
Octavio Karbank: Let's quickly talk about your journey into comics and how you got started.
Fred Van Lente: Well, I went to school for screenwriting at Syracuse, but I ended up hanging out with the comics club, and one of the people at the comics club was Ryan Dunlavey. We became pals and we started working on comics together and I really liked the way the artists brought stories to life and my stories to life. After college we all moved in together here in New York. We worked on comics, like I worked with Steve Ellis on The Silencers, which really brought me to the attention of Marvel. He got into the industry really quickly, like before he graduated he was working for Marvel, DC, Malibu, and Valiant; I kind of piggybacked off him to a certain degree before I was able to strike up on my own.
OK: What's your favorite project to date?
FVL: I'd have to say Action Philosophers, which is the book Ryan and I did. The lives and thoughts of history's A-list brain trust, with a humorous style; it's always great when you have people come up to you and tell you how much it means to them and how you've changed their life and all that great stuff. There are rare opportunities you have to do that as a writer, and whenever that happens it's always a great feeling.
OK: You write a ton of books! How do you write so much?
FVL: It's discipline. I basically treat this like a nine to five job, even though I work from my house. I live in a two-bedroom apartment, one bedroom is my office and they're right next to each other, so I basically wake up and just start working. When I was in my twenties, I was like lot of writers. I would never finish anything, because I didn't think it was good enough, and I was very…maybe not too critical because a lot of it was bad, but you learn as you're doing this that you have to be bad at a certain point. You have to be bad in order to be good. You've got to write every day and when you write every day, and once you disciple yourself to do that, it becomes a lot easier to be really prolific.
OK: What do you think keeps you in demand and how do you think you stand out among the rest?
FVL: That's a great question and I have no idea (laughs). I'll tell you what other people tell me, which is the humor has a lot to do with it. It is not easy to be funny. I like to think I'm easy to work with and easy to get along with. I'm always on time and never late. That's something editors and publishers value a lot.
OK: Have you ever turned down a project?
FVL: Sure, all the time. I can certainly see why you might think I don't, given the amount that I do produce. Not everything you're offered is something you want to do. I've turned down stuff, like based on TV shows I don't really care for, or really have an affinity with. I'm lucky that people do offer me stuff that I just can't turn down; some of it is so cool!
OK: What do you think makes for a great writer?
FVL: Empathy. You've got to have empathy for people, particularly for people who aren't like you. The only way you can write, not just "diverse" characters, but characters in general, is to understand their struggles and what they're going through and figure out their reactions to various things. I'd say empathy, without a doubt, is the most important thing.
OK: Why should somebody read comics?
FVL: Why? They're such a unique medium, with the combination of words and pictures that it just provides…it's the same reason you should watch movies, because it provides a different way to looking at the world. Different perspectives are important.
OK: What is the central theme to your comics?
FVL: That's a great question. I'm very much interested in bad people struggling to be good and good people when they attempt to do bad things. I like people going outside their comfort zone and I like people trying to redeem themselves. I think we all do bad things that we're trying to make up for and we're trying to be as good as we can be. It's that struggle that I find really interesting and dramatic.
OK: What are you currently working on and what's next for you?
FVL: Well, I'm currently writing Conan for Dark Horse, Big Trouble in Little China for Boom!, Ivar, Timewalker for Valiant. Coming up, Ryan and I are collaborating for a series of books that are coming out for Harper Collins in 2017, that's how far ahead I'm planning these things, called Action Presidents. It's the Action Philosophers treatment, but as the name implies, for U.S. presidents. I also announced at this Con, and I guess I should mention it, Assassin's Creed: Templars is coming out from Titan next year.
OK: Finally, what does the craft of writing mean to you?
FVL: Dude, it's my only marketable skill! If I didn't have that I'd be in the streets! That's what it means to me! It means I have money for food (laughs)!
OK: (laughs) That works! Thanks!
Octavio Karbank is a writer and bona fide Whovian. Living in Massachusetts, you can find him on Twitter @TymeHunter and his blog www.cozmicventures.com