F Paul Wilson, Born 1946, is the author of several international bestsellers. His novels sold over 8 million copies, ranking him #68 on the best-sellers list of all times among science fiction and fantasy authors. This places him higher than - just to name one - Orson Scott Card.
Given his immense popularity and obvious talent, it's a shame and a surprise that he is not better known here in Israel. I personally have read 8 of his books so far, and enjoyed every one of them. Only a couple of Wilson's books have been translated, and these by an obscure publisher which went cheap on the cover art - a death sentence to almost any book.
Q: So, the official purpose of the interview is to introduce you to people in Israel who might never have heard of you. I guess a reasonable place to start would be to ask – how would you describe yourself, and the kind of books you're writing? Who should be interested in reading them?
WILSON: I would say pretty much everything I write falls under the thriller category – I write science fiction, I write horror, I write medical thrillers, I write some things that are not classifiable. But the form is what I consider the thriller format, where there are multiple points of view, the reader tends to know more than any character, and there's a good pace and a fair amount of dramatic tension. Even my early science fiction, when I look back on it, has the thriller format.
And indeed, in addition to being a very prolific writer, Wilson is also an incredibly diverse one. His early career focused on a series of political science fiction novels - the Langaue Federation. He later turned to horror stories - during the 1980's, Wilson was one of the defining voices in the genre. In addition, medical thrillers, high tech thrillers, and just good-old-fashioned action stories are sprinkled throughout his larger series (we'll get to that in a bit).
And "Thriller" is as apt a description as any for his books. Wilson's books read fast - the writing style easy to follow, the characters usually either intriguing or likable, the plot snowballing in a brisk pace, and the action (when it's present) tense. Surprisingly, given their often grim nature, some of the books also have small pearls of humor that really help to ease the tension a bit and increase the fun.
Q: You write in a huge array of genres- from horror to medical thrillers. Is the genre important for you, or do you just write the story?
WILSON: I just write the story. I read in a lot of genres, and when I start working on a new book, it just strikes me that this is the next story I'd like to write, and I'm not really worried that it's not what I wrote before. That used to give my publishers fits – I'd do three science fiction novels, then I'd do a horror novel or two, and then I'd switch to something historical, and then I would do a medical thriller. And the marketing departments were going nuts, and finally when I landed with Repairman Jack it made everybody happy, because within the Repairman Jack series I did a medical thriller, I did a haunted house story, a high tech thriller. So there are all these stories that I can write, and as long as Jack is in the story, the marketing department knows how to go to the market - "it's gonna be a Repairman Jack book", and for me it allowed me to genre-hop within my own series, and so I was happy too. For about 20 books, that was a perfect situation.
Repairman Jack? Who is that mysterious sounding fellow?
1984 turned out to be a pretty important year in Wilson's life, as it was the one that saw the publishing of the first novel in what turned out to be a series spanning 22 books as well as numerous short stories. "The Tomb" is a mixed story the like of which is rarely seen. It begins by introducing us to the somewhat quirky urban mercenary, Jack (he has a tendency to change his last name on a seemingly daily basis, but his first name is always the same). Jack is a "Repairman" of sorts - one that "fixes" delicate problems for people, and not in their house appliances. People who have no other option come to him - and for the right price, he provides decisive solutions. His own very unique kind of vigilante, Jack is a clever and fun action hero who's in it for the thrill (and for his own gray moral code). From reading this previous paragraph, I bet most of you didn't guess that "The Tomb" is a horror novel about a British family in New York that is targeted by a madman who controls a horde of monsters.
This is where things get really interesting. We've all read horror stories, and we've all read about action heroes, but it's really rare to see a book that not only mixes these two elements together, but also manages to maintain the atmosphere of both. Sure, we occasionally see monster hunters (like the Winchester brothers from Supernatural), or even action heroes who are supernatural themselves (like Harry from The Dresden Files). In Repairman Jack we get just a regular guy who finds himself faced with powers that are not of our world. This makes his horror at the face of such powers all the more tangible, even as he cleverly and bravely matches them blow for blow. Is it really a horror novel if it's the monsters who should have nightmares about the protagonist? is it really an action thriller if the protagonist spends much of the book terrified and outmatched against a power that is beyond his understanding?
The Repairman Jack fun doesn't stop in "The Tomb", but rather continues in a gigantic, sprawling series of novels and short stories. I haven't read them all yet, so I can't make any promises, but the first few have been terrific and I plan to keep on reading them all.
Q: I love Repairman Jack! How do you balance all these story elements – as you said, Jack gets to be in high tech thrillers and horror stories, while also being an action hero. What can you tell us about writing a character that can handle all these situations, while keeping it fun from book to book?
WILSON: Well, basically the character is the rock of the story – Jack is the rock of the series and the rest of the world changes around him. So he stays the same, and the situation changes. That gives me and gives the reader something to hold on to, even though this book that you are reading now is very much unlike the last book, Jack is the same and he's there for you to anchor yourself to, and all the stuff that goes around him doesn't really matter.
Q: And now that I think about it, Jack *is* very adaptable – that's an important part of his character.
WILSON: Well, you have to be in his line of work. You know, finding yourself in interesting situations, and every one of them is different. He doesn't like to risk himself when he does something – he's not the get in there, beat 'em up and shoot 'em up type of guy, he's more about "convince two other people to beat each other up". He gets in there, gets what he's there for, and they don't realize they are even taken. He likes to work from the shadows, and he doesn't like confrontations – he's not afraid of them, but he'd prefer not to.
Q: Alright, that makes sense. I noticed, while doing research for the interview, that there was a 14 years gap between the publishing of "The Tomb", the first Repairman Jack novel, and that of "Legacies", the second one. What was it that drew you back to Jack after so long?
WILSON: Well, I didn't want to write a series. I mean, I knew while writing "The Tomb" that I have a series character, but I didn't want to write a series – I had "The Touch" written in my head, and I had "Black Wind" taking shape. But I knew people were going to be asking for more, so I left Jack dying at the end of "The Tomb". I actually came back to him because of a request for some short fiction– "A Day in the Life" and "The Last Rakosh" and things like that, because people requested them.
So I was doing medical thrillers in the mid 90's , and I decided I didn't like medical thrillers, that they were just too formulaic for me – but I was on contract and had to deliver one more, and I had this idea for a high tech thriller where Jack would be the perfect hero – but it wasn't medical. So I decided that I want to write it anyway, and I'd have a doctor hire Jack, so therefore I get a doctor into it and I could say it's a medical thriller. That was "Legacies", and the publishers went along with me because they liked the book.
So I brought him back for one book there, and they asked me if I'd do another. So I did "Conspiracies", and I had such fun with it, that I said "you know what – let me take this a little further". From there it was one multibook contract after another, and before I knew it I was writing number 15. But the back-story of the Jack series was starting to take over everything, I finally had to end it, and so I ended it with "The Dark at the End" and "Nightworld", and that ended everything .
Q: I did use to wonder about the second book – even though the first in the series introduced monsters and magic, the second had no supernatural elements to it, which is weird – I don't think I've ever seen that done before. But now I can start to see why.
WILSON: Yeah, and that did set the tone for the rest of the series, that you didn't know what to expect from the next book. That was the pattern – this is not going to be your typical series, but rather a series of novel that all had Jack in them. But they were all pointing towards the same thing, all of them working towards "Nightworld", but I didn't know how many books it will take me to get there – could be 15, could be 20, I simply didn't know.
The Repairman Jack Series, huge as it is, is only a part of an even larger and more ambitious story, one about the entire history of Earth. I'm talking about the "Secret History of the World", a series that seems to encompass almost everything that Wilson has written. His words describe it best -
"The preponderance of my work deals with a history of the world that remains undiscovered, unexplored, and unknown to most of humanity. Some of this secret history has been revealed in the Adversary Cycle, some in the Repairman Jack novels, and bits and pieces in other, seemingly unconnected works. Taken together, even these millions of words barely scratch the surface of what has been going on behind the scenes, hidden from the workaday world."
Perhaps the most important part of this "Secret History" is "The Adversary Cycle", a series of several novels that eventually intersects with the Repairman Jack cycle in the book that ends both - "Nightworld". Unlike Repairman Jack, which focuses on a single character living in New York, in the Adversary cycle we get an epic tale that takes place all around the world - one book could feature a knight armed with magical weapons facing an evil sorcerer in historical Europe, while the next would be about a small time clinic doctor in modern day Monroe who discovers amazing healing powers. It's a story that literally started before history and involved many different lives. As such, it really showcases Wilson's adaptability.
What Repairman Jack and The Adversary cycles have in common other than a shared last book is the antagonists. In both cycles, the forces working behind the scenes are the same - one called "The Ally" and the second called "The Otherness". As one could guess, those forces are opposed. However, neither is actually good or evil, nor are they exactly "with" or "against" us. Rather, both are cosmic forces waging wars in a battleground too large for us to comprehend. The Otherness is also mildly affiliated with tentacles.
Q: Let me ask you a question about "The Otherness", the kind-of-but-not-exactly-evil force that's the villain in many of your books. I sense a strong Lovecraftian inspiration there. Is that correct?
WILSON: Oh, definitely. Lovecraft's cosmic horror really affected me as a teenager. I never encountered anything like it. He didn't even throw out the Jewish and Christian mythologies, he treated them like they never even existed. His horror was totally alien to the view of existence that I was brought up with – there's your benign, paternal, father-figure god and there was an evil devil – in Lovecraft's view, the entire universe was sort of against us. You know, you got no friends out there. And that to me was such a different view of reality, and a deeply terrifying one. You can't be comfortable that someone is watching out for you, and worse than that, everyone is out to get you. You have to save your own butt.
I never forgot that. And so when I started writing the Adversary Cycle with "The Keep", I put that to work, in the sense that there is a dualism, but neither side is really good for us. One is less evil than the other, that’s basically how it works out, but neither of them care about us except as a means to win, and the prize isn't even a major prize, it's just one of the marbles on the table. The rest just blossomed from there.
The only thing I did do different, is that Lovecraft named all his stuff, and I didn't like that idea. For the human mind, when you name something, you sort of put it in a cubby hole, you label it, and in a way it becomes safe. So I decided that there are just forces out there, and the only names they have are the names we gave it. So "The Ally" is just what we call it, and "The Otherness" is a name we've given it. It doesn't call itself "The Otherness" (nothing would), it's just the name we call it. So they had no names, they had no faces, they are really just entities. So I think the namelessness and the facelessness make them more of a threat, something that creeps under your skin a little more.
I mean, look what they've done to Cthulhu. There are toys of Cthulhu, and I bought one of my grandkids Cthulhu slippers, you know? He has become trivialized, all because he had a face and a name, and I didn't want that sort of thing to happen
The book that kicks off the Adversary Cycle is arguably one of Wilson's absolute all time best, and certainly it was very popular in its time - The Keep. In this historical horror novel, a division of Nazi soldiers is placed in a small Romanian keep on the border with Russia during World War II. Shortly after they arrive, their commander sends out a cryptic and chilling massage to his superiors in the S.S - "request immediate relocation. Something is murdering my men". This beginning continues to provide the groundwork for an increasingly larger tale, and the book goes far beyond even this promising opening premise. The book has been a defining factor of the horror scene of the 1980's, garnering Wilson much of his fame.
Q: I want to talk with you about "The Keep". A really great book - I read it, and I love it. Here in Israel there might be some special interest in the book. That is because the story takes place during World War II, and it features 2 Jewish characters, as well as one rather sympathetic officer in the Nazi army. Could you provide some insight into how it was writing those characters? Because this is a very politically charged subject.
WILSON: I imagine it would be. What a lot of people didn't understand, and which my research has shown me, is that the German armed forces weren't ideologically homogeneous. And Woerman (the aforementioned sympathetic officer) was a German soldier, and he was fighting for the Fatherland, for German pride. He had no use for Hitler, no use for the Nazi party. He and soldiers like him just wanted to get back what Germany lost after World War I, that was their thing. And they looked down on the S.S soldiers, considered them to not be real soldiers, to be political soldiers. And so there was always the friction, whenever you got the regular army together with the Nazi troops, the Waffen-SS, they didn't get along
And so I used that to add another layer of conflict. When you are writing a novel, you are looking for those layers of conflict, and that one was part of the human conflict, which I kept escalating up until you got to the cosmic conflict that was going on behind the scenes.
I speak to classes a lot, and they all love to read "The Keep", and because of where it's set and the time it's set, it never ages. Like, in the medical thrillers I wrote in the 90's, nobody has a cell phone, and so often the plot would turn on somebody making a call, or not being able to make a call. Nowadays you just whip out the phone and make the call – so the technology dates stories, whereas with The Keep, it's never dated, and it gets around to new readers all the time.
And I am surprised that these new readers will always call Woerman "The good Nazi", and that to me is a misunderstanding. He was not a Nazi, he never joined the Party, and that was why he was stuck in this little castle in Romania, because he wouldn't play their games.
Q: For a sharp change in subject - you are one of the only authors to have won not one, but two Prometheus awards for writing Libertarian books. Are your politics part of the reason that you write books, or are they only in them as a product of the way you think and the way you view the world?
WILSON: I have a libertarian world view, and it's basically very simple – you own your own body, and what you do with it is your own business as long as you don't interfere with anybody else doing what they want with their own body. In that sense, laws against drug use, laws against prostitution and that kind of stuff – they have no place because they interfere with your own sovereignty.
But I try not to preach it in the books. Your world view has to get through, it’s very hard to write without your worldviews breaking through, but I'm not out to convert you, you know? And Jack was perfect for me, because when I created Repairman Jack, Jason Bourne (The super spy protagonist of "The Bourne Identity") was a very high character, and I decided I would create a character who is just the opposite of him. Everything that Jason Bourne was, Jack would not be. So Jack has no connection to the CIA, Jack has never paid taxes, he has no official identity anywhere, and he's never had any training. He's not an ex-navy seal, he's not an ex-ranger, he's just a guy from Jersey who learned to do some things on the street, and that's what he depends on. He can't call an old friend in the police force, because he doesn't have any, he's on his own. And when I came up with that idea I realized that his world view is going to be a little bit anarchistic. Now, a lot of people think that anarchy means "no rules", and that's wrong – it means "no rulers".
[WARNING: THIS PARAGRAPH CONTAINS A MAJOR SPOILER TO THE REPAIRMAN JACK CYCLE!]And so Jack has fought his whole life to be autonomous, to have no strings, and the irony of the series is, his life has been manipulated since day one, and he's been unaware of that. And only as the series nears its end he realizes that his past has been manipulated to put him here.[END OF SPOILER]
Q: In all of your books that I've read, there were always impressive female characters. And that's great, and it's not always the case, especially with thrillers. Do you make a point of doing that, or do some of your characters just happen to be female?
WILSON: I mean, I do make a point… I think a strong female character, even if she is a supporting character, makes the guy look good. If you've got someone who's her own person, and she loves your hero, then that says something good about your hero, without you saying it as the author. It's the "show rather than tell" type of thing. And if the lead character is a woman, you have to have someone who is decisive, because otherwise the story is not going to progress. I think the sort of traits that make a good hero or heroine are the same, regardless of the sex. I don't think it's fair to say I always write strong female characters, but I try to just write strong characters. And characters are half the story – if you are invested in the character, whether it's male or female, if you are interested in her, then you're going to want to see what happens next. You want to see what they do next and what happens to them next. So the plot, when compared to the characters, becomes secondary, and if you latch on to this character, "I want to spend time with this person", you are going to latch to the book. Male or female, they got certain traits that make the reader want to latch on and go for the ride.
Q: Alright, let's say someone reads this interview, and they are curious, they want to start reading your novels. Where would you recommend that they start? What are the good entry points to your writing?
WILSON: Well, "The Keep" is sort of the gateway draw to my books, and the other one would be "The Tomb", which is the first Repairman Jack novel. Both have supernatural elements, so you'll have to be OK with that. If you're not OK with that, then I will say "The Select" is a very good choice, it's very much grounded in the real world. Or you can try "Legacies", the second Repairman Jack novel, which as we mentioned has no supernatural elements, and you can see the character and go on with him. If you are interested in science fiction, I have all my science fiction work in a single ebook called "LaNague chronicles"', it's bargained priced, and it has 5 novels and a number of shorter stories. That's my earliest work, so that has the most rough edges, I wrote that way back.
Q: If anyone wants to find out more, are there any official websties, twitter accounts, fan sites, anything of the sort?
WILSON: There's repairmanjack.com, and there's an FAQ that some of my readers put together which is really excellent. There's another website, flowyn.com/jack/. It's an obsessive website that a fan put together. It has all my books, a synopsis of every title, a breakdown of every character… the guy has spent a tremendous amount of time on all that, and I actually go back to it because I forget some of the stuff I've written...
Q: Just one last question before we finish – is there maybe a new project you are working on, or anything recent and exciting?
WILSON: I'm about 70,000 words into a new thriller, that has no series connections, it's high concept, and I don't like to talk about work in progress but I am having a lot of fun with it. I'm also working on some young adult books. Oh, by the way, the new book has a part happening in Israel! The characters have to go to the Negev to find a clue… I've never been to Israel but I did a lot of reading on it, so I think it's going to be realistic. But other than that, the book is going to take the characters all over the western world and the mid east. Jack was stuck in New York all the time, so now I'm just gonna break out. I've been to Mexico with these characters and now they're going to Israel, now they are going to France, so… having fun.
This brings our interview to a conclusion, with Mr. Wilson still trying new things and (more importantly) having fun, after nearly 40 years of an intensive career as a professional writer. I hope the reading was enjoyable, and that some of you will carry on to discover the work of F. Paul Wilson in further depth.