Q: The Secret World Chronicles, of which Invasion is the first installment, is quite a vast multimedia project. It includes a creative warehouse of multiple authors, a very nicely produced podcast series, an active fan forum, and now a book. How did this all begin? What's the origin story of this superheroic effort?
ML: It all began when we "virtually met" via the MMORPG City of Heroes (this was before the "City of" games included City of Villains and Going Rogue. Mostly via Steve Libbey and Mike Eastham, we found our way into various "supergroups" on the Pinnacle Server who belonged to a consortium of Role Playing folks called the RPCongress. I should mention here that the majority of us had good jobs, families and real lives; we just found the fun of the improvisational theater and storytelling as much fun as playing the game itself. And because we had families—and very often the kids played on the same account—we kept our RP strictly PG-13 because you never knew who was on the other side of that avatar.
For some of us, the writing and character development became as important, if not more important, than leveling. And for a select few, I started seeing that the level of writing competence was approaching professional. So I proposed that we take our beloved (and now very familiar) characters and do something professional with them. So we sat down and rethought them, created our own 'verse, and put them all back together in an entirely new setting. One thing that was very liberating is that we were no longer limited by the game-powers--so, for instance, the Seraphym can heal as well as deal a supreme smackdown; Bella's powers are now psionic; Vickie can do things with magic that are simply not possible in the game context. Red Djinni is the most changed, since his powers are nothing like the game character, and also are not possible within the game.
VG: Mercedes has the origin story down pat. Our fan forums reside on Facebook, but we also do quite a bit of promotion and interaction through Twitter. Our interaction with the podcast listeners is facilitated through Podiobooks.com.
DL: It began with a great deal of luck. In terms of forging new social circles, any online group that can go the distance for as long as the RPC has can be thought of as a sort of crucible. We were people from various walks of life with really only two initial shared interests—the CoH game and role-playing. Over time, we found ourselves as a group that enjoyed telling stories together, surprising ourselves with how well they meshed at times. We gravitated together or apart as role-players do, as some styles and personalities complement each other well and other do not. Real life kept interfering as well, and people came and went as their schedules and situations allowed. It was a slow distillation process which ultimately brought us to the current group of individuals, a group which has stuck together because, in the end, we're friends who get along fabulously, who appreciate each other and respect the strengths each brings to the table. Still, when you consider all these factors and throw in the odds of one writer being an already established and beloved author and another with interests in podcasting and voice work, I find it remarkable that we were able to find each other in the first place.
Q: Is there an outline or "bible" that Mercedes put together for the saga with the milieu, set-up and characters, etc., or did it develop along the way with different inputs? Is it still evolving and in what ways?
ML: I am only part of the creative team. All of us put together the background, the set-up and the main story arc and we all have input into the individual story arcs. We've put together a five-book brief outline for the main arc, but it is still evolving. Part of that is because we have lost Steve Libbey due to complications of his Cystic Fibrosis; he has had to drop completely out of the project. Because of this, we've added our talented voicer Veronica Giguere as another writer beginning with Book Two: The Hunt and distributed the responsibility for Steve's characters. Veronica will be the primary writer for Ramona Ferrari, Yankee Pride, and Mercurye, as well as adding a character of her own, Mel Gautier, and putting in her two cents on some of the others, like Alex Tesla and the Metisians. I have Red Saviour, People's Blade, Khanjar, and share Verdigris. Dennis Lee is sharing Verdigris with me. And my husband Larry Dixon will be picking up some of the editing duties and story planning.
So while the main arc is still pretty much going to stay the same, the individual story arcs of Steve's characters are going to change according to the plans of the new writers.
DL: Some of the core elements of these stories and characters have existed for years, even before the initial planning stages of the five book arc, and grew rather organically from the role-playing we were doing. The pivotal stand-out moments sort of blew us away so we've tried to integrate them into the series as key turning points of the story. That said, the story is still open to change. We still have moments where ideas just blossom and we share them. When a good idea is proposed and offers much to not just one character but possibilities for everyone, it's sort of hard to ignore.
VG: There are outlines and entities that have been created and set in stone, often through collaboration in chats through the wee hours of the night. The input has gradually increased; I know that we've spent hours discussing each others' ideas and plotlines, with each person helping and contributing ideas that ultimately strengthen the final project. And of course, we're still evolving. The podcasts have allowed us to see how our fans react to certain ideas and then shift direction ever-so-slightly to either meet expectations or blow them out of the water!”
Q: How did the podcasts come about and what went into their making? What kind of listener reaction have they produced?
ML: When we put the project together, we knew it would be a hard sell in to a traditional market--I am not exactly known for superhero fiction. Podcast fiction was in its early stages and it was Steve who came up with the idea of doing the project as podcasts to build a an audience; we could then take that audience to a traditional book publisher as proof that we would have a market.
Our listeners are terrific and very loyal; they have stuck with us through a lot of dry spots when for various reasons there were a lot of gaps between episodes. Veronica handles the fan-base interaction, so I will let her elaborate on that for you.
VG: The podcasts began thanks to a suggestion from a longtime SWC enthusiast and supporter, Chris Meadows. Back in 2005, the idea of putting out a free podcast to demonstrate listener demand for superhero fiction wasn't entirely new, but it certainly wasn't all that mainstream. I came on as the voice talent in Spring 2006 after simply offering to help. That evolved to my learning how to edit and produce the podcast, and in 2010 the Secret World Chronicle podcast was a finalist (top five!) in the long form category for the Parsec Awards. We have anywhere from 8,000 to 10,000 listeners from that last season, which isn't too shabby for a podcast these days.
Making the podcast takes time, a quiet studio and, well... time. Most of my recording happens in the late evenings or early mornings in a small home studio that is in close proximity to copious amounts of caffeine. Once a story has made it through the final editing phase, I mark it for episodes based upon word count. When I read for SWC, each character has a unique voice, tone, or mannerism; as you listen, I want you to know the difference between John Murdock, Victoria Victrix, and the Red Djinni. Our episodes run between twenty and thirty-five minutes; it takes about two to three hours to produce each one from start to finish. SWC listeners are wonderful fans and exceptionally kind, and I know that we're grateful for the feedback they've given us over the past five years.
Q: Your cool ultimate villains, the Thule society and its secret Nazi occult conspiracy, has a real Golden Age comic, Raiders of the Lost Ark feel. So often writers have to come up with evil conspirators as bad as Nazis, but here you create an actual occult Nazi conspiracy. Was it fun to be able to use Nazis unapologetically as the villains?
ML: Oh heck yes. I mean, who doesn't hate Nazis? But the series is called The Secret World for a reason, and there are layers and layers and layers behind the Nazis. And we hope we'll be giving the readers and listeners a lot of surprises along the way.
In building the Thulians, it always came down to the prime lesson the late Theodore Sturgeon taught in his writing classes—"Ask the next question." If we have people developing metahuman powers, where did they come from? Why? Why were the first major appearances always paired? What's behind that? Why isn't everyone developing metahuman powers? If you have super-Nazis, where did they go at the end of WWII? Where have they been? Who or what has been happening with them all this time? There are always more questions to answer and that is where the stories come from.
DL: Our bad guys are an interesting bunch to use as villains—you really can't do them wrong. They are so steeped in both myth and reality that their versatility is simply invaluable. They can be as over-the-top or as cold and calculatingas we need them to be, all in service to the story. I suppose the fun will really come into play with unveiling our own take on what makes this wacky group of “big bads” tick.
Q: How is The Hunt, book two, progressing? How far are ya'll along and what's next for our metahuman superheroes?
ML: We are literally in the final editing stages and are almost ready (like within days) of turning it in! There are some MAJOR twists and turns, too! And, as in all projects I am involved in, we make you come to love these characters, then make life hell for them.
VG: Well, our podcasts have always been ahead of the print books. Much of the stuff that appears in Invasion has been tested in the podcasts, but our longtime listeners will be expecting some of the "gotcha!" moments that will appear in The Hunt.There's more character development with the Echo crew, lots of delicious background that makes these metahumans. . .well, even more human. And you'll hate the villains. You'll love to hate the villains.
Q: Anything else we'd love to know about the project?
DL: In addition to the novels and the podcasts, we try to keep close to our listeners/readers with social media. We've got a Secret World Chronicle group page on Facebook maintained by the lovely Veronica. The authors also tweet on Twitter (@mercedeslackey, @v_momma, @DK_Lee) and the characters themselves are even known to interact with each other… sometimes in real time (@VictoriaVictrix, @RedDjinni, @JohnMurdockSWC, @ECHOSpindoctor).
ML: The series is only going to get better. The Hunt builds upon the good stuff in Invasion, and we figure each book is going to get better. More plot twists, more things we hope you won't see coming. And we are already making tentative plans for more, past the initial series. We hope the readers (and listeners) like and support it enough to keep it going!
Invasion, Book One in The Secret World Chronicle, debuts from Baen this month. New York Times best-seller and science fiction and fantasy mistress of adventure Mercedes Lackey and company forge the fires of superheroic epic at secretworldchronicle.com.