Three years ago the community saw the rebirth of Alien and Predator novels at the hands of Dark Horse Press. I recently got the chance to interview Rob Simpson and Victoria Blake, the editors of the Alien and Predator prose line.
AvPGalaxy – First off , thanks for the interview Rob and Victoria! And for anyone out there who doesn’t know, what are your connections to the Alien and Predator franchise?
Victoria Blake – I’m an associate editor at Dark Horse Books, working on the Aliens and Predator novels.
Rob Simpson – And I’m Senior Books Editor here at Dark Horse. Between the two of us, we oversee the prose novels based on the Aliens and Predator franchises, though Victoria does the lion’s share of the work with both series.
AvPGalaxy – How did each of you become fans of the original movies?
Victoria Blake – I think this is probably a fan-boy response, but the movies are just cool. The older I get, the cooler they get.
Rob Simpson – I’m probably revealing my age here, but I fell in love with the Alien franchise when I saw the first movie in the movie theater back in 1979. I actually still have the program book that they sold at the movie theater and have seen every movie at least a dozen times. Like Victoria said, the movies are just cool. I got hooked on the Predator, though, slightly differently””through dozens of viewings of Predator and Predator 2 on HBO. My poor brain is forever warped.
AvPGalaxy – How did you get the positions of being the editors for the Aliens/Predator novel line?
Rob Simpson – When I came to Dark Horse about three years ago the decision to do Aliens and Predator novels had just been made. Since I’ve edited similar novels based on movie franchises before, such as Indiana Jones, Warcraft, and Starcraft, it was a pretty easy fit. As Victoria’s duties here started to grow, she showed a real affection for the two franchises, so I’ve been passing the duties over to her more and more.
Victoria Blake – Well, each of us has a number of other projects we’re working on, so partly it was a workflow decision. We also work together on a lot of books. Rob’s a huge resource on pretty much everything. He knows more about books, book publishing, and the history of individual properties than anybody I’ve ever met. Plus, he loves what he does.
AvPGalaxy – What exactly does being an editor entail?
Victoria Blake – Picture a chef in a busy kitchen. The chef makes sure that the carrots are cut, the soup is hot, and the bread is baked. In an editor’s case, the meal is a novel.
Rob Simpson – And as with all good meals, it takes careful planning and as few chefs in the mix as possible. I learned a great lesson from Denny O’Neil, longtime Batman and Marvel editor that one of the major aspects of any editor’s role in a project is hiring good people who know what they’re doing and staying out of their way. On Aliens and Predator, to the extent we have to get involved in the shaping of the novels because we’re helping to steer these two franchises across several authors we’ll gently nudge ideas one way or the other, but mostly Victoria and I try to reach out to creative people who have remarkable ideas and let them explore the rich backgrounds of the characters and chart new directions for them.
AvPGalaxy – Before [Aliens] Original Sin hit the shelves, it had been over 7 years since the last Alien book was published. Why 2005? What made DH Press decide to begin releasing Alien / Predator novels again?
Rob Simpson – Well, sharp-eyed readers already know that the Aliens, Predator, and Aliens versus Predator novels have always enjoyed an umbilical connection to Dark Horse. The first novels, published by Bantam Books, were adaptations of storylines from Dark Horse graphic novels. The main reason for that arrangement was because at the time Dark Horse didn’t have a prose publishing division. Now that one is in place, it makes sense for us to do them ourselves.
AvPGalaxy – What sort of process went into reviving the novels? Did you have to go through a complicated legal process with Fox?
Rob Simpson – Not really, since Dark Horse has always been involved in creating the books and comics with 20th Century Fox. There was already a really good relationship with everyone at the studio before I got here and since we’ve started doing these novels it’s been a real thrill to work with Debbie Olshan at Fox and to get to work on these characters that I’ve loved for so many years. In every respect, from legal to creative, working with Fox has been a dream.
AvPGalaxy – What is the life of a novel like? From pitch to publishing, what happens to that novel?
Victoria Blake – I don’t know how detailed you want this, but for the novels so far we’ve approached writers we’ve either worked with in the past or writers with whom we would like to work. The writer then sends us a five or so springboard ideas””just brief sketches of a plot””and we ask them to expand one of those ideas into a full novel synopsis. That’s an important stage, because if we do it right, we’ll run into fewer problems down the road. The synopsis goes to Fox to make sure everything is copasetic with the rules of the licensed universe, and then, if it’s approved, it goes back to the writer. Contract signed, book written, book delivered. The writers we work with tend to work quickly””six to ten months to write a novel. Then it goes through a macro-level edit, followed by author’s changes. Then design and layout, a few more copyediting and proofreading stages, and off to the printer. In the meantime, the marketing department is doing their own magic, and the cover artist is working up the images of the drooling Aliens or the hulking Predators.
AvPGalaxy – Do Fox have to approve the novels? What sort of things do they look for to approve or disapprove the novels?
Victoria Blake – Everything, anything, and nothing. For instance, it would surprise me very much if Fox allowed a novel to be written from the Alien point of view, because Aliens, unlike Predators, don’t have an understandable logical intelligence or a describable social dynamic. One of the scary things about the Aliens is that they are so unpredictable. Their behavior doesn’t follow human logic, and it can’t really be figured out. Therefore, a passage written from an Alien point of view would, by definition, undermine those scary aspects of the Aliens.
What else? Okay, this is a good one, and a question that recently came up in a Predator novel synopsis. Do the Predators see in infrared naturally, or is the infrared a function of their visor? What do they see when their visor comes off? Randy Stradley, a long-time editor here and the guru for all things Aliens, and I spent twenty minutes one day discussing Predator eyes. Eyes, or lenses? I mean, really, can they be called eyes?
Another good one: Do the Predators always have a mothership watching over their hunts, or are the hunts sometimes taken individually? And how does the dynamic of being watched while hunting change the nature of the hunt?
Those are the kinds of things we look out for, and that Fox looks out for””the rules of the universe, but also the implications of the writing.
AvPGalaxy – How has the novel line been doing financially? Has it been selling well?
Rob Simpson – They’re doing great””several have gone back to press, which is always a good sign.
AvPGalaxy – Forever Midnight hit the shelves with some very mixed response. The critics loved it and it’s gone on to a second printing, but the fans of the original Perry AvP novels didn’t. Did you anticipate such a response to the replacement of the Yautja with the Hish?
Rob Simpson – Not really; it’s been a little surprising that some of the readers were put off. I know lots of people who enjoyed the new direction. I’d just ask the indulgence of those readers who were upset and that they give the story a second read and another chance.
AvPGalaxy – Speaking of which, why did you decide to ignore the older novels and start anew?
Rob Simpson – When we started, I asked all the writers to read over the background material for the concepts carefully and then ask themselves, if you could do anything, what would you want to do? Mike Friedman said, “A Ripley story.” Ripley stories were specifically forbidden by the background notes governing doing Aliens stories, since there might be new movies using the Ripley clone. It could have wasted a lot of time and effort to try and do stories using her, but I decided nothing ventured, nothing gained. Mike did his outline, I sent it to Debbie at Fox and we were told we could do it. So, across the board, it’s been a process of pushing against the pre-established rules. There are lots of things we all agree not to pursue, but it’s worth changing things up from time to time.
AvPGalaxy – Now you’ve only got the rights to Alien and Predator novels are the moment. Are there any plans to get the AvP rights? I’d imagine doing a novelization of AvP2 would be a good way to launch that line.
Rob Simpson – Unfortunately, at this time our novel program can’t encompass AvP novels that are direct novelizations of the movies or use characters or situations that stem directly from the AvP movies.
AvPGalaxy – We now know that Steve Perry is returning to the world of Alien / Predator novels. Are there any chance you’ll ask some of the other authors back to play in the sandbox?
Victoria Blake – I’d love to. It would be a great return. I’d also like to bring some new blood in and see what happens.
AvPGalaxy – I notice Dark Horse Books’ prose line has an open submission policy. Does that mean that if a fan made a good enough pitch, you’d be willing to let him write a novel, even if his only experience was fanfiction?
Rob Simpson – I’m glad you asked about that, because I love working with new writers and have a great affection for fanfic. I know a great many authors and professional editors who started out doing fanfic. That said, I need to clarify something: while we do indeed have an open submission policy for the prose divisions of Dark Horse, both at Dark Horse Books and our sister imprint M Press, that doesn’t extend to ideas derived from licensed properties, creator owned properties, or characters owned by Dark Horse. So, we currently can’t accept any proposals based on Aliens, Predator, Sin City, Hellboy, Usagi Yojimbo, Barb Wire, and similar characters. If we open an envelope and see that the submission even pertains to such a concept, we have to destroy it right away.
I know that sounds harsh, and like we’re closing the door on new writers, but it’s necessary to keep us from exposing ourselves and the companies and individuals that own these characters to possible prosecution. We’re actively involved at all times in creating Aliens stories””if someone comes up with an idea they feel mirrors what we’ve been working on, it could become a highly volatile situation very fast. So, for the safety of all concerned, we simply can’t look at them.
So, how does a new writer get into the field? It’s a question that comes up in every area of commercial writing, from TV to movies to comics to novels. More often than not, the answer is, Write something else. If you want to write for Gray’s Anatomy, write a spec script for The Closer. If you want to write an issue of Batman, write a spec script for Spider-Man. Why? That will show an editor or show runner that you (1) know how to write in the format we need, (2) that you can write convincing characters, (3) that you can limit yourself to the physical requirements of the project, be it a 75,000 word novel, an hour-long drama, or a 22-page comic, and (4) that you understand that if you send me an Aliens novel that I won’t be able to read it, and that you’ve passed beyond being a pure fanfiction writer and are on the road to becoming a professional. I could keep ticking off numbered responses, but you get the point. Outside of being a known author whose work we’ve read, that’s the best way to do it.
Oh, and I should stress””send outlines! Sending us a 150,000 word Alias fanfic is the surest way to make sure we don’t read it. The sheer weight of submissions prevents us from reading the entirety of such manuscripts. So think incremental steps. Send a one-page query letter, explaining you’d like to write a novel, list your credentials (and “I love Aliens” is a totally valid credential if you’re just starting out””everyone is starting out at some point), and enclose with it a VERY short synopsis of a different kind of story. One, two pages tops. Don’t send a plot outline for creatures that gestate from square blocks instead of eggs””that’s still “aliens” and we’ll still have to dispose of it the second we see you’re trying to sneak through an Aliens pitch. That’s why I was saying to write a medical drama send me a cop story, or to write a comedic comic about married couples send me a pitch for a comedy about dogs.
Both are either dramatic or comedic, but don’t infringe anyone’s copyright and hence won’t require me to dispose of it unread. If we like the pitch, we’ll ask for the first three chapters. If we like those, we’ll either ask for the whole story (to show you can carry through the execution of the beginning-middle-end of a story in its full form from an outline), or we’ll let you know that we’d like to work with you, and keep you in mind for when an assignment opens up. We’re not trying to drag out the process, but it’s the only way we can tell if you understand the requirements of writing this kind of fiction. Now, if you just wanted to submit a science fiction novel, you would only have to send a query, the outline, and the first three chapters. The guidelines are on our website, though they’ll be migrating to the Dark Horse Books website as we fold the DH Press titles over into the Dark Horse Books imprint. But, in all cases, for licensed characters we have to do the assigning. Those rules apply to experienced writers as well as new ones. Long answer, but I hope it addresses some of what you’re asking.
Victoria Blake – Just to add on Rob said… The question gets to the heart of what a book is, and why we value books as more than simple entertainment. Or, rather, I should say “I.” It gets to the heart of why I love books as much as I do, and why I respect writers as much as I respect them.
I think of writing like any other skilled craft””carpentry, law, engineering of any sort. Mastery in each of those fields requires a natural talent, or aptitude, and a period of study and practice. Similarly, writing a good book requires some serious time spent studying and practicing. I don’t think that anybody can write a good book, but I do think that many people can. I think the number of people who actually do write good books is fewer than the number who could. And I think that this is because writing a good book is hard, hard work. It requires a set of skills that are developed over time.
So, yes, we’d look at a pitch for an author’s totally original concept””as Rob said, there are legal reasons we can’t look at an unsolicited Aliens pitch””but I don’t think that we’d accept a novel from an unproven writer without seeing the novel first. It would have to be written, otherwise it would be a blind bet. And then there are a bunch of other things to consider, like, for instance, could a new writer deliver a workable manuscript in six to 10 months? Would the writer be easy to work with? Would the writer respect the rules of the licensed universe? Which, again, goes to what Rob said…sometimes you have to go around the side door in order to be able to later approach from the front.
All this is not to say that I don’t like fanfiction, and that I don’t respect the writers of fanfiction. I do. I think that at a basic level a bunch of people hashing out a single idea is super, super cool… Fanfiction can be a little more free than fiction written under contract. The ideas are different, the execution can be different, the directions can be different. More is better. The more people having fun with an idea, the better.
AvPGalaxy – What sort of thing does you look for when deciding whether or not to accept a pitch?
Victoria Blake – As I mentioned, most of our novels are written by writers we’ve worked with before, or writers with whom we want to work. So the pitch process is less a strict pitch than it is a collaborative process. The writer says, “This would be cool,” and then we say, “That’s cool! Have you thought about this?” And it goes from there.
Rob Simpson – I’d only add, I’d like it to be a story I’d be willing to pay ten dollars to watch in a movie theater. To be a good Aliens or Predator novel, it should at least aspire to be as good as any of the movies””and to not tell the same story or aspects of the same stories that we’ve seen or read before. Expanding on aspects of the Predator and Aliens universe is fine, but no need to go back to a penal colony or watch the Predator take on commandos in the jungle.
AvPGalaxy – Have there been any declined pitches that stand out in your memory for some reason?
Victoria Blake – The comics side of Dark Horse received literally dozens of pitches about xenomorph Aliens””you know, Alien whales, and Alien giraffes, and Alien push-me-pull-yous. That’s not the direction the Alien property wanted to go, although there is something cool about thinking about an Alien whale or tiger.
AvPGalaxy – Has there been anything that you or one of the authors wanted to do but Fox wouldn’t let you? If so, what?
Rob Simpson – Not so far; the writers we’ve been working with have a healthy respect for the idea that they are playing in someone else’s sandbox, and treat the characters with a lot of insight into what might be going too far. At the same time Victoria and I try to balance the impulse to pursue “wouldn’t it be cool if…” ideas with a level head. These characters have been around for more than 20 years; you don’t want to be the one to do something with them that would prevent other writers and editors from having the same chance to expand on their universes as we’ve had. So we try to work on everything with that eye on respecting the characters’ pasts as well as protecting their futures.
AvPGalaxy – The original Alien and Predator novels were exclusively comic adaptations. Why did you decide to go for original novels?
Rob Simpson – The main reason was to allow new stories to be told. When I was at DC Comics as an editor in charge of The New Gods characters I had the crushing responsibility of asking writers and artists to follow Jack Kirby’s groundbreaking creation of the concepts with ideas of their own. The great thing was watching people stretch, expand, and reinvent the characters and settings with new stories. When I started working on the plans for the new Aliens and Predator novels it seemed to make sense for the same reasons to do new stories first and perhaps later reach back and do adaptations of classic comic storylines. It gives new writers a chance to expand on the work of others. That kind of world-building and universe-building has been a part of science fiction publishing for longer than I’ve been alive, and is a wonderful aspect of this kind of fiction and publishing.
AvPGalaxy – There are still plenty of interesting comics out there that would benefit greatly from an adaptation. Destroying Angels and Hot Water come to mind. Any chance we’ll see any adaptations in the future?
Rob Simpson – Nothing is planned just yet, but we have discussed doing more adaptations around the office. Never say never.
AvPGalaxy – Which of the authors have you had the most fun working with so far?
Victoria Blake – I can honestly say that I love all of our writers. Each is very different, of course, but each is fun. John Shirley has a completely different sensibility than Diane Carey, who is in turn different from Steve Perry. Working with Mike Friedman and Bob Greenberger through their collaboration was interesting, and showed me how two writers can really make a kick-ass book. I learn from all of them, and each of them expands my ideas about the properties a little more.
Rob Simpson – For me it’s been fun to work with folks I’ve known for the better part of twenty years, like Bob and Mike, as well as getting to know writers that I’ve admired for almost my whole adult life, like Diane and John. I can’t imagine it going any better.
AvPGalaxy – At the moment we know of Cauldron, Steel Egg, Flesh and Blood and Turnabout. Are there any other novels in the works you can tell us about?
Victoria Blake – I’m excited to work with Brian Evenson, who is new to the Aliens property, but is hard at work on a novel now. He’s a very smart writer, very, very intelligent and accomplished, and I’m excited to see what he does. Similarly, we have Jeff VanderMeer lined up for a really interesting Predator book, and Steve Perry, who you know about. Also SD Perry, who is working on what promises to be a fantastic Aliens novel.
One of the cool parts of my job is that, even though I know these novels are coming, I’m in exactly the same place as any fan… I’m waiting to see what the writers do and how the novels turn out. I always get a little excited in the days and weeks before a manuscript is delivered.
AvPGalaxy – And finally, before we go, is there anything you’d like to say? Some teasers or excerpts from the upcoming novels maybe?
Victoria Blake – Hmm… I’ll tell you generally, just to whet the palate. We’ve got drug runners. We’ve got Alaskan hunters. We’ve got fake Aliens and a bunch of crooked scientists. And we’ve got a kick-ass girl with a gun.
Rob Simpson – And an Alien whale. Just kidding.