Q: So how did this novel come to be? Was it envisioned from the start as a bigger canvas, or did it expand organically out of an idea? Please tell us a bit about the origin.
A: It’s been said that great literature changes the reader’s perception of the world; I want my readers to see the world as funny. I thought, what if all the things we consider false—urban legends, internet hoaxes, conspiracies—are actually true, but have been covered up? That’s a rich source of funny secrets, perfectly suited for a conspiracy thriller. And while many of the revelations in The Urban Legion are absurd or downright silly, they’re all just plausible enough that readers can imagine them in the world around them. I’m sure they smile when they walk into a food court or an airport restroom.
Q: Did you start with the germ of an idea and start writing to see where it went, or did you map a good deal out in your head (or even outline) before crafting?
A: The first thing I did was come up with a list of urban legends (microwaved poodles, alligators in the sewer) and conspiracy concepts (tin foil hats, 200 mile per gallon cars), and added new, funny underground “knowledge” about familiar things (trans-fat, irradiated flour, sharp plastic packaging). Then I created quirky characters (granola mom/Zen food critic, armed French waiters) and the general outlines of the thriller plots for all three books in the trilogy. The characters and funny concepts suggested how they fit into the stories, and from that I created detailed outlines. Of course, as I write and revise, I change the outline as needed to make The Urban Legion compelling, mis-informative, and funny. I also change proper names everywhere to avoid trouble with conspiracy assassins.
Q: What do you feel is the main theme(s)?
A: Everything you thought was false is actually true.
That said, there are other themes that grew organically out of the story: art versus commerce, natural vs. fake, Zen vs. ego, and the business of addiction.
Q: Why do you feel this is important, and what would you want a reader to take away from reading this book?
A: People need laughter in their lives, and they can get that by blaming funny conspiracies for everyday annoyances. I hope my readers finish the book a little less serious and a lot more amused.
Q: What makes a good book or engaging story?
A: It has to make me laugh. (I suppose there are a few great books without humor, but like the obituaries, I prefer not to read them.) Beyond that, all stories need distinctive characters with understandable goals (even the bad guys), battling it out in new and interesting ways. The reader must care what happens next.
Q: Are there writers with similar themes to yours? Who are your influences (can be writers, or even artists, musicians, or others) and what is it about their work that attracts you?
A: I’m a fan of anyone who creates funny material.
My writer hero list includes Douglas Adams and Dave Barry for being totally silly; Carl Hiaasen for great characters and hilarious turns of phrase; Christopher Buckley for witty satire; and Tom Robbins for fantastic metaphors and healthy cynicism. I have a special love of Christopher Moore and Jasper Fforde for doing what The Urban Legion does—creating a hidden, funny world beneath the surface of everyday life, so we can imagine that all that stuff is actually true.
I generally avoid serious movies; my favorites are the silly ones like the Airplane and Naked Gun series, anything by Mel Brooks, and Men in Black (which also reveals absurd hidden “truth” beneath the surface of a totally normal world. I can totally believe that Dennis Rodman is an alien.)
I learned satire and deadpan comedy from Mad Magazine and Get Smart. I like the intelligent humor of the xkcd online comic. Just to exercise my funny bone, I read The Funny Times every month and my Argyle Sweater page-a-day calendar every day (it used to be a Far Side calendar until Gary Larson retired).
(Editor's Note: I had a piece in The Funny Times, alongside work from Garrison Keillor and Dave Barry. Pretty good company for a writer!)
Q: Is storytelling mostly entertainment, or does it serve other functions? Do you have particular goals other than telling a good story?
A: Ah, the age-old question “Is it art, or just entertainment?”, best accompanied by a glass of red wine. But let me grab a beer and crudely insist that entertainment—in particular, comedy—is a noble art form. “Serious” writers try to illuminate the dark corners of the human condition; I just want to help people lighten up.
Q: Any other goals you've set for yourself, professionally or personally?
A: My dream is to make The Urban Legion trilogy part of the culture. (I’ll know I’ve succeeded when people make jokes about it.) Along the way, that means writing the second and third books (working titles: The Urban Legion Breaks the News, and The Soul of the Urban Legion). It also means a lot of marketing, which any author will agree is difficult and time-consuming. I suppose I’d like to be able to quit my day job and write/market full time—or at least, half time, and spend the rest playing golf and softball. And reading funny books.
Q: Some writers write fast and claim not to rewrite much. Do you do this, or painstakingly revise? When you send the book off to the publisher, are you happy with it, or just tired of it?
A: I’m a perfectionist, and when I read something that seems a little off, I dive in and fix it or cut it. I’m totally happy with the results when I deliver the manuscript; if I I’m tired of it, it’s not good enough yet, and I’ll revise it.
Q: Do you have good editors, and if so, how do they help you? Do they look for particular things? Do you have different people for different editing levels?
A: I absolutely have good editors; I can’t imagine producing a manuscript without them. It woold be awfull. (sic)
My story editor looks at the big picture, such as plot flow, characterization, dialog, and themes. Her thorough feedback helps me hone the story and tighten up the plot. I use a few trusted friends and family as beta readers, which gives me fresh “first time reader” perspectives. A line editor finds and suggests fixes for any less-than-stellar sentences. I’ve also played with a few editing tools that identify complex sentences and overused words. A proofreader goes after the minor errors, but I proofread the final manuscript again myself. I don’t think typos are funny at all, except when I mean to type “type” and it comes out “typo.” That amuses me for a moment, and then I fix it.
Q: If a writer came to you for advice, how would you help?
A: Tell them to keep their day job.
If they were writing a novel, I’d recommend a few books: Story by Robert McKee and Save the Cat by Blake Snyder, even though they’re aimed at screenwriters; and Writing the Breakout Novel (or better, the Workbook) by Donald Maass, even though I know you (Dale) are not a fan. They’ll help writers get the structure right, so their imaginations and voices can soar without getting lost in the clouds.
I would also encourage them to join one or more writers’ groups, read a lot, keep writing, and get feedback from as many people as possible. I would pass along some advice about feedback that was given to me by a successful playwright; “The story does not take place on the page, or on the stage, but in the audience’s heads. You need to find out what happened in there.” Worry about whether what you intended was what the readers got. Don’t worry about what they say you should have written—unless you really like their idea.
(Editor's Note- on not being a fan of Donald Maass- when one writes a book of advice *as an expert* (as he did), one ought to have actually done the thing one recommends. Since, to our knowledge, Donald Maass has never had a "Breakout Novel," i.e. the kind he's telling you he can help you write, this is, to say the least, disingenuous. Worse, rather presumptuous. And then he went on a public forum and referred to writers as "cattle." So yeah, kind of a dick, and I'm certainly not a fan of someone like that. All that being said, there is some good advice in his book. One can learn things, even from people who are dicks.)
Q: Stories can be told by using a different medium. Can you see your book as a film, audio, etc.? How would that alter the telling?
A: I can’t see it as an audio book, but I can hear it—it’ll require a few accents and perhaps a sound effect for the italic inner monologues.
I can see it as a great film, with the emphasis on the sillier action scenes and funny repartee. Just as the revelation of absurd underground knowledge worked for Men in Black, it would work for The Urban Legion. You’ll want to read the book first, however, just so you can proclaim at cocktail parties that “the film did not do the book justice.”
Q: What's the next step in your writing world?
A: Finish book 2; I have a detailed outline and a few chapters written, and a lot of funny falsehoods to put in. And book 3 is so wonderfully satirical and silly I can hardly wait to get started on it.
Q: Tell us a fun fact about yourself.
A: Once, I stuck out my thumb and hitched a ride on an airplane. It was still taxiing, but I think that counts.
Q: Any other information you'd like to impart?
A: Don’t take life too seriously. Make people laugh, especially me. Read funny books, especially mine.
Web page: www.TheUrbanLegion.com and www.DaveAgans.com
On Facebook: TheUrbanLegion and authorDaveAgans
Where to buy:
Short link to Amazon.com (Kindle or paperback): http://amzn.to/1S7oEvV
Also available at BarnesAndNoble.com, or order it through your local bookstore.
If you’re in the southern NH area, I will gladly sign your copy if you get in touch via the website. You can also look there for notices of upcoming events at local bookstores and libraries.