Interview: Bryan Young talks Operation Montauk, writing and future projects

Bryan Young, author of Lost at the Con, weaved a fast-paced, unpredictable tale of lost time travelers in his newest book, Operation Montauk. Young also is Editor-in-Chief of Big Shiny Robot, a screenwriter and writes for The Huffington Post, along with his other writing projects. Below he talks about Operation Montauk, writing and his future projects.

Click here for a spoiler-free review of Operation Montauk.

A warning, this interview does contain spoilers for what happens in the book.

Racheal Ambrose: I read Operation Montauk yesterday and enjoyed it. I was very surprised by the ending.

Bryan Young: It’s gone through a couple of changes to get where it’s at now, but I hope it’s the right ending. It might not be the one everybody wants, but I think it’s the right one.

RA: It was definitely a surprise and then it just ended. I was like what happens next?

BY: I think there’s a couple of choices of what happens next, but I think it’s more fun to leave it to everyone else’s imagination. Because, really the moment of closure is right there.

RA: How did you come up with the idea for this story?

BY: Well it started with my son and his friends. I kind of kept looking at everything I’d written before and not much of it, in my opinion, was appropriate for him and his friends and they’re like 10-ish. They’re obsessed with World War II; they’re obsessed with Nazis. My son and I will watch World War II documentaries together and the Jurassic Park movies and we read the John Carter books together. We’ve done that a couple of times over the last few years.

His love for that and his love for dinosaurs and his love for World War II and things like that sort of coincide with all of my relevant interests also. It sort of all gelled together. I started thinking about how I could combine those things and then I came up with the idea of how time travel worked in this world and you know, put it all in a blender and that’s where it came from.

RA: Jack Mallory shows up at the first from 1943 and Veronica’s from the ‘70s and then you have this man from the end of the 1800s and they arrive before Mallory did. How does that work out in your mind?

BY: In my mind, it’s just how Richmond explained it. When you watch the surf come in, it comes in at a different level every time it comes up on the beach. It’s always a little bit different. One wave will come in a little bit more shallow and another will come in a lot further up and so I think that the timing was very subjective in my mind. Actually, the way I assembled the book, was that I actually wrote down chronologically, the present, as far as the book is concerned, and started with where I thought the most interesting story with who arrived when. Hopefully that comes across in the book that through the course of it you get a sense of who got there when. It was sort of arbitrary in my opinion to tell what I thought would be the most interesting story.

RA: When you were writing the book, what was one of the most difficult parts of the whole process?

BY: The most difficult part of the process was, I’ve got a writing group that I travel to go see every year and it’s like Aaron Allston, Janine Spendlove and a couple of other people and the hardest part is presenting the first 10,000 words of it to those guys. They’re the most constructively critical group that I could ever ask for. It was Aaron that really…It’s always a little bit hard to hear like “Jeez, man, this is a book I think I’d like to read but, these are the kinds of things you need to fix” and then get a laundry list of stuff. It’s never the most heartening thing, but you leave from those battles stronger than you were. I think the book has benefitted immensely from this wisdom of others, particularly Aaron and Janine.

RA: Jack seems like he’s the ultimate 1940s American hero, the Captain America, all about patriotism kind of guy, especially at the end with Dietrich. When he pops up and they ensue in their fight, it seemed like something straight out of a movie. Did you picture it like something that would be in a movie?

BY: That was actually Aaron’s biggest complaint about my book. I’m a screenwriter by trade. I went from 1998 to 2008, 2006 or so, writing nothing but screenplays. I’m a documentarian, a filmmaker. That’s my day job so I think very visually. I think in film instances and so the narrative of the book is very much taken straight out of a movie. That’s just kind of how my mind operates, which is why all of my books tend to run that 50-70,000 word limit. I think other writers have suffered from that where like Kurt Vonnegut or Graham Greene where it’s just like, I think those guys, maybe not so much Vonnegut but definitely Graham Greene, he thought in movie-sized bytes, which is why the movies based on his books are so good, like The Third Man or The End of the Affair. That story structure is what speaks to me as a storyteller. Every scene in that I see it like it’s a movie and it would take me like a week to adapt the screenplay of Operation Montauk.

RA: I was rather surprised by Veronica throughout the whole book. I remember her first description where she’s standing there in shorts and tank top with two pistols in her hands. I was surprised about what happened to her in the end. Was that something you’d planned in the beginning with her character or did it just kind of happen while writing?

BY: I rewrote the ending three times and various characters made it out of the conflict and the one that’s in the book now is the one I felt most happy with. I think it’s the one that has the most impact for all of the remaining characters. The ending that’s there now with her specifically wasn’t what I’d planned for her at the beginning. In fact, that probably happened in my latest revision two months ago. When I read it and the reactions of my inner circle of readers was just that it’s a much more emotionally impacting ending. I was really fascinated by the choices she made.

RA: Richmond seemed very calm about the whole situation. It seemed like a sharp contrast from everybody else that are just like okay, we have to get out of here. I just pictured him stopping when he’d see something neat to go poke around at it. What inspired his character?

BY: Richmond, to me, is almost like a little kid. I think all of the most brilliant people I’ve ever met act like little kids. They just have that blustering wonderousness to everything and that’s really what I brought to Richmond. It’s funny because my son really likes Jack a lot, but I think it’s Richmond he most identifies with. I think it’s because he has that sort of childlike wonder to it. My brother pointed it out to me, “I thought the funniest line in the entire book is like Richmond was doing something , his life was in danger, and he just kind of stops and says something like ‘That’s fascinating’ or ‘I’m a lucky man.’” Everything to his is so wondrous.

RA: When it was explained that the meteor that killed the dinosaurs was a way to clean up all the time travelers, it seemed so neat and tidy. How did you come up with that idea?

BY: It was a natural progression of if time is going to make sure paradoxes can’t happen, then they’re going to send everyone so far back that they can’t do any damage. Why send them back to that point? All the research I did on the dinosaurs that appear in the book and even the foliage that appears in the book, all of that kind of stuff all came down to what Earth looked like right before the meteor hit—presumably.

Why would they send them there, well everything dies at that point. I kept having this idea in my head that, especially since I introduced this idea that there could be hundreds of stories playing out like this all over the globe at that time, the meteor was there to literally smash every trace of them away and bury is so far down no one could discover it in the future. It was a logical extension of when I was sending them.

I purposely tried to give everyone that was trying to travel through time really grandiose goals because I felt like in the end it wasn’t going to matter because of the way time worked. I mean, you can give yourself a headache trying to think about what if something did change, how would the timeline be affected. Would it be like Back to the Future 2 were they actually skew into a different timeline and it creates an alternate universe how the Marvel universe works or the DC universe. There’s a hundred thousand different ways to play it, but I thought for this book the best way to play it was that there is no way to create a paradox. All of this stuff has happened, will happen and will continue to happen and there’s nothing anyone can do about it.

RA: How would you describe the book to somebody in one sentence?

BY: The thing is with the book is that you get into the time travel, which is a little more, complicated. The sentence I’ve been using on people that’s worked really well is: It’s about time travel, it has dinosaurs and Nazis in it; what else do you need? That’s the sentence that seems to be working but if I had to make it a concise sum-up of the plot, it would be: A solider from World War II is sent back in time to kill Hitler, but times doesn’t work like that and he’s washed up on the shores of the late Cretaceous with a group of other wayward time travelers from every other era and they are trying to get home—but them the Nazis arrive.

RA: What are your future projects?

BY: I’ve got two more books that I’ve written that I just needed to pick one and figure out which one I’m going to start revising and move forward on. I’ve got another book that actually in the last three days I’ve gone to town plotting. It’s a steampunk alternate history of World War I. It’s a mix between Farewell to the Arms and a Graham Greene novel. This is a story I’ve been kicking around in various forms. Back probably five years ago, I read every Graham Greene book I could get my hands on twice. I sat down and I was thinking man, if I were going to write a Graham Green book, this would be the story I wanted to tell.

I’d pitch it to people and they’d be like yeah, that’s awesome but good luck trying to get anyone to read it. I kept thinking about it and it was actually a conversation that I had with someone about another novella that I did where I was like why don’t I make it steampunk and everyone will read it. That’s what I think it would take to get John Q. reader in the geek community to read a Graham Green-style novel.

It’s really the setting. I’ve been researching out how World War I would play out. The Germans are developing rocket power so that they could have crude ballistic missiles that could reach London from Berlin. It’s the plans for that that the hero is after.

There’s this whole love story where he was this war hero who was injured and he meets this nurse. They get married. He’s sent on this assignment after the plans and they’re trying to communicate back and forth. Suddenly the letters stop and he abandons his mission to go find out what’s going on with her. He thinks she’s cheating on him and it’s really melodramatic. It’s very Graham Green.

Those are the kind of books I like to read. I’m not the biggest reader of sci-fi and fantasy at all. I read more Vonnegut, Hemmingway, Steinbach and Graham Green than anything. Moving forward, my types of ideas take stories that I think those guys would want to tell and put them in settings that are more palatable to geek audiences because those are my people.

RA: What advice do you have those wanting to one-day write science fiction?

BY: Start doing it. Right now, is a tremendously exhilarating time to be in publishing, whether it’s traditionally or independently. There’s so many different outlets and opportunities for publishing right now that it’s crazy. With the way digital publishing is working, where books can stay on the virtual shelf forever, there’s going to be an increased demand for stories.

There’s no such thing in my mind as an aspiring writer. You’re either writing or you’re not. If you’re writing, then you need to be working with groups of people that are your peers or people that are better than you to try to figure out how you can be better. I mean I don’t belong in the writers’ group I’m in at all I feel like. That’s the way it should be. If you want to learn how to do it, you need people who are very experienced and knowledgeable and upfront and willing to tell you exactly what you need to fix and make better.

Get an editor that you can trust. The two editors I’ve had on this project have been amazing. They really pushed me to fix all of the problems with the book that I thought were strengths and they helped me turn all the weaknesses into strengths. I’ve got that warrior mentality now where it’s like the book is out; this is the best book ever. I know it’s got its problems.

RA: Is there anything else you want people to know about Operation Montauk?

BY: I hope everyone has fun. I hope there’s something in it for everybody. I think that everybody has a character that they can latch on to. Sure there’s favorites, but I think I tried to turn enough on its ear. The damsel-in-distress sort of girl is the one that does all the rescuing. I really like Captain Valentine. I hope people do too. She’s just a really strong stayed leader. Even though things don’t necessary go her way or in ways that she is even equip to deal with. Or if people just like dinosaurs.

Operation Montauk premiers at the Origins Game Fair in Columbus, Ohio May 31- June 3. Bryan Young will be a guest in the Library. It’s also available for pre-order here and purchasable from any bookstore in June. Visit his website to read information about this other works.

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