INTERVIEW: Author Warren Hately on ZEPHYR - The Superhero You SHOULD Be Reading
We're changing tact a bit here, looking at the character of Zephyr, a unique entry in the superhero genre whose prose adventures are written by Australian writer Warren Hately. What follows is an exclusive interview with the author, who details what Zephyr is all about.
If you like your superheroes with a twist - as in twisted - and don't mind a decidedly adult approach, then Warren Hately's Zephyr is likely your kind of metahuman. Presented in the form of ebooks (there are three so far, the first of which is temporarily priced at just .99), Zephyr is described as being a webcomic in prose.
Hately lives in Margaret River, Western Australia, with his wife and their five children where he works as a journalist and sub-editor. Previously he has been a freelance travel writer, photographer and academic. Since he was young, Hately has enjoyed studying languages and history and in a former life released music with death/black metal bands Sámain, Daybreak and The Silver Twilight. He helped pioneer collaborative online fiction in the late 90s and maintains the fiction blog zephyr.warrenhately.com for Zephyr. He is also working with an illustrator on a graphic novel called ASU set in South Armagh, 1977, during The Troubles.
In the following exclusive interview, Hately provides some insight into the process of creating Zephyr and his approach to writing these stories.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: You've had a career as a journalist. What led you to want to tackle fiction and how did you go about doing so?
WARREN HATELY: I've written fiction since I could write. Even becoming a journalist was really just to work in the medium in which I was happiest. I wrote for years and years, probably fairly artlessly, just banging away at novel manuscripts and a handful of short stories, which I quickly learnt really isn't my chosen form. For a long time I didn't really accept that what I wanted to be was a full-time writer. When you're a kid living in the most isolated English-speaking city on the planet, pre-Internet, it's hard to see those sorts of career paths as feasible. The world's really opened up this century though. Now I am mainly focused on screenwriting outside of my work as a news reporter, and then there's Zephyr.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: What was the genesis of Zephyr? The character itself, the decision to start posting chapters online, then the decision to turn them into ebooks?
WARREN HATELY: I was influenced by the books I'd enjoyed reading when I was still reading comics as a teenager and in my early 20s. Zephyr started then, though I didn't actually write anything about him until about five years ago. I was very seriously focused on some serious high fantasy novels I had written and was trying to get published at the time. I started writing Zephyr just for me, in a sense, so as not to be so beholden to the standard expectations of any genre, to have an outlet for that sardonic voice. Ironically it proved to be the easiest thing for me to write and I decided, because I didn't see any commercial potential in it, to just start putting it up online and see what happens, see if anyone else liked it, like it might go spectacularly viral or something. Hasn't happened YET - but you read the crazy flukey success stories of other people and you think, really, you have to have a shot and in fact you have to take every shot you can. Zephyr's a reflection of that. Once I got over my old world conditioning to think only a publisher-vetted book release was "proper" I decided to collate them and release as ebooks because readers had asked, plus my website navigation really sucked for people who were coming into the series midway through.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Is there any concern about using real people (such as The Beatles) in fiction? Legally, is that allowed? I guess that's more a curiosity thing than anything else.
WARREN HATELY: There's a fair use right that applies to public figures and also Zephyr's very clearly a quasi-satirical, certainly not very real take on some of those figures. When you reimagine some of the world's most established musicians as superheroes in a parallel universe and imagine how history might've unfolded differently with their inclusion, then you'd have a pretty slim shot at a lawsuit. But if those guys really want to lawyer up and try and bankrupt some sarcastic amateur scribbler on the other side of the world, they're welcome to try. Frankly, I would welcome the publicity.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Who is Zephyr? Share your feelings on how you perceive him, and what his sort of evolution has been over the course of what's out there so far.
WARREN HATELY: I guess Zephyr is a product of my striving for some flawed idea of "realism" in a superhero story. He's an imperfect guy with a dented moral compass, which I think would be inevitable for any real person who gets these awesome powers at age 16 and then decides to dress up like a peacock and live a public life. His private life has been sacrificed on the altar of that career. At the end of the day he is a hero, but I didn't want to fall into that hero and antihero paradigm that has become to schematic in the post-Wolverine era. There's a lot more grey area to that. We have very effective, very noble public figures who do some crazy shit in their personal lives and Zephyr's no different to that. Plus, he's a guy trying to make ends meet in a world for which he's never had any real pre-written game plan as far as how to forge a career or deal with stresses and disappointments. Hell, he struggles to deal with the good stuff let alone the bad. Not that it's deliberate, but Zephyr is really a well-meaning junkie. His life's a mess, mostly of his own making, though due to circumstances potentially out of his control. He wants to make good, wants to do the right thing, has certain needs and aspirations, but stuff just keeps coming through that screws that up. Hard when there are public expectations on him, too. You get that in one of the scenes where he's called in by a bunch of political big wigs, including the Pope, and basically asked to do a sanctioned commando mission and instead he just walks out. I'm not interested in telling those sorts of stories, though I do take the opportunity to put my spin on WHY those sorts of stories are so flawed and Zephyr is the vehicle for that.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Who do you view as some of the other standout characters in this ongoing story, and what's your feeling about who they are as characters?
WARREN HATELY: I hope and think there's a fairly strong roster of supporting characters, some of whom dip in and out of the story. Zephyr's relationship with his family (ex-wife and his daughter) are driving forces, as is the mystery of his parentage and the forces responsible for his mothers' deaths. One of the things I like is broad tableau storytelling, particularly in the superhero medium, of getting heaps of minor characters together and playing with them almost Game of Thrones style. You never know who's going to survive or be exposed to hugely life-changing events. Standouts for me are Twilight, Shade and the other British supers (based on real people) in Sting, DJ Ali and St George. There's characters who have only made brief appearances (like Zephyr's mentor Hawkwind) who are actually quite dear to my heart and, at least in my notes, have quite rich and detailed backstories). As far as my feelings about them go, the Zephyr books are as much about exploring and critiquing the superhero genre and other genres like SF that can be dragged into the field of superheroics, flipped over, inverted, parodied, etc., and in that sense, minor characters are just devices to achieve that.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: Obviously you're still turning out chapters on your website. Do you have an end game in plan, or is Zephyr something you plan on continuing to write?
WARREN HATELY: There's no real end game in mind. I am happy to keep writing it as long as people want to read it, though I can't guarantee how fast that will be with all the other stuff I have to fit into life. I do remind myself to stay focused and not let the plot get too long-winded (too late, some people might cry), as I am more than confident that even were I to somehow wrap up and answer every existing mystery in the next book (not gonna happen, but "if") there are heaps more ideas I'd like to explore through Zephyr.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: You mentioned that you're focused on screenwriting. When do you attempt to turn Zephyr into a screenplay?
WARREN HATELY: Never. Unless someone serious expresses an interest and wants to go the whole option route and hire me (or hell, buy me out) to write the adaptation. Unless Zephyr were to get spectacularly huge, it's not what they call a "pre-sold property" like Marvel comic characters etc. Studios like to develop stuff as safely as possible, knowing comic book fans will pay to see their characters on the big screen. That's why we see so many book adaptations and reboots. That same perverse logic even dictates things like the Battleship movie.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: You've touched on this, but how, in your mind, does Zephyr compare to all of these superheroes that are rising in Hollywood these days? The audience seems to love their superheroes now.
WARREN HATELY: As I said, many of those characters are well established pre-sold properties and they are a safe bet as far as Hollywood is concerned. Zephyr's different to that. The closest thing we've really seen to Zephyr is probably Mystery Men with Ben Stiller, though it was hopefully way sillier. Even Kick-Ass, which started out as a sort of Real Life Superhero critique of the genre, has seemingly forgotten what it set out to achieve, or that's my take on it. I believe audiences like crazy creative worlds much more than studios believe and viewers are open to riskier ventures, but films aren't easy to make, they're not cheap, and the people who make them invest years of their lives to do so, so they want to get as many factors working in their favor as possible to maximize returns. I don't blame them for that.
VOICES FROM KRYPTON: What's been the response to Zephyr since you launched the ebook version?
WARREN HATELY: I've been surprised by the interest once I got Zephyr onto Amazon. The audience is slowly growing for what I see as a pretty niche genre. It's superhero prose fiction, with a fairly gritty yet also sardonic edge to it. I think it's a pretty distinct tone. Growing up, I was a huge fan of the Wild Cards books and I would see them read by many people, plenty of whom would probably never deign to pick up a comic book. It always surprised me there wasn't more superhero-style books given that reaction (and I don't mean novelizations of comic books etc). Obviously through Kindle there's more authors doing this than just me, but Zephyr is different than most of the other titles I've skimmed. I'm not trying to reproduce a classic four-color comic in prose. Hell, the simplicity of some of those comics and the straight-forward storylines are one of the things that failed to keep me engaged as a comics reader even back in my teenage years. Zephyr's much more like a mish-mash of the best "adult" takes on the superhero genre (Watchmen, the Authority, etc) through a filter of transgressive, what some people call "post-literary" writing, best exemplified by authors like Bret Easton Ellis. The whole genesis for the world of Zephyr started years ago when I read American Psycho (a much maligned and, in my view, misinterpreted book) and wondered what that world would be like if the main characters were superheroes rather than stockbrokers.
I have a method where I put up one chapter at a time for free on my site and then the books are a collation of those chapters. Each chapter has already been edited and hung out to dry and reviewed before I put it up, so I'm never writing on the fly. I'm not a great self-promoter, so in the early days it was hard to tell how well the free web fiction was received. However, people must've been reading it because I've had emails from all corners of the earth and the moment Zephyr Phase One was released as an ebook it started selling in its modest way.
It's not like I am blazing any massive trails here. But I do hope there's a point of distinction that Zephyr is a product people might expect from a traditional publisher, but which just happens to be available from the creator directly. I had some interest from publishers and then got stalled as they worried about the genre, marketing plans, what other books were doing, etc. The publishing landscape has changed so much that for a thing like Zephyr with a less-than-mainstream audience, I probably make as much back from selling it direct as going through a publisher, plus it is much more immediate. I had three books ready to go once I decided to pull the trigger with Amazon, and a fourth book coming later this year. In traditional publishing I'm not sure even the first book would be released yet and I would have less control over the look of the finished product as well as some of my deliberately nonsensical plots-that-go-nowhere, which are part of my take on traditional narrative in Zephyr. And I like my lo fi covers!
I wouldn't write this way for a bigger market, but being in a niche gives me some freedom. I dislike the whole addiction to a clear, logical and focused narrative you get in conventional literature, where only details that contribute to the main plot are included and everything else falls by the wayside. Sometimes things just happen. Certainly true in Zephyr. Think of them as vignettes if it helps. When you add such an unreliable main protagonist in Zephyr, whose life is so chaotic he doesn't always follow through on the things one might expect of a world-class superhero, hopefully I am challenging literary conventions instead of just failing to execute them properly.
To order the first volume of the series, Zephyr: Phase One, just click HERE. Or click on the image below:
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