Derrick Ferguson: Who is Don Gates?
Don Gates: Don Gates is a 40 year-old guy who has spent way too much time in his own little world and now it’s finally spilling out of his head onto paper. I’m married to the sweetest and gutsiest girl I’ve ever known and we have some crazy pets and a fairly quiet, happy life together. I’m a geek from the old-school who grew up in the 80’s and has a head full of movie quotes and useless trivia. I’m a casual gamer and former casual musician (I once played the bass, although probably not that good).
DF: Where do you live and what do you do to keep the bill collectors away?
DG: In 2012 we relocated from Florida, where I was born and lived all my life, to Canada to be near my Mom after my Dad passed away. I am a dual-citizen of both the US and Canada. My day job is doing network tech-support for a Canadian cell-phone provider: I’m lucky enough to work from home, so I usually spend my workday in my pajamas. It’s not always as nice as it sounds though: cabin fever can be a bitch sometimes, and sitting at home around all of my distractions can make the workday feel like it’s dragging on. The job isn’t the most creatively-rewarding but I usually end my day feeling good that I’ve been able to help somebody fix their problems, so that’s something.
DF: Tell us something about your background
DG: Born in 1974. Dad was a cop who got injured on the job and retired early, Mom was a stay-at-home housewife. I was an only child, so I was probably spoiled. I was (and am) an introvert so I spent lots of time reading or drawing or daydreaming.
DF: How long have you been writing?
DG: I had been creating for years – superheroes and sci-fi tales – but was always limited to my own headspace for that stuff. I’d be pushing carts at Pic N Save or working in the electronics department at Toys R Us or whatever menial job I had at the time but I’d constantly be coming up with stuff in my head. I never thought any of those ideas could be turned into anything worth writing, so I’d never develop them to the point of committing them to paper.
In 2007 I began to come up with my own pulp characters, ones that I felt I actually could expand upon and maybe even start writing and maybe – just maybe – get published. I tossed my ideas around with a few online friends who gave me some invaluable feedback, and I went from there.
DF: What's your philosophy of writing?
DG: I don’t know if I really have one. I try to entertain but to also make the characters human and believable, if not relatable. The best reading experiences to me are always the ones where you can see the main characters as whole people, and so I try to do that a little bit without making them so complex that it bogs the story down. This is pulp, after all, so it’s gotta move fast.
I also don’t have an exact plan of attack when I write: I try to outline everything but I usually end up with a beginning, an end, and a few points between and then flesh it out and connect the dots. I have yet to write a rough draft or a second draft or whatever. I usually write and edit as I go, and let the story evolve while making sure to hit those specific points along the way. I guess I’m a plotter and a pantser… a pants-plotter?
DF: What audience are you trying to reach with your work? Is there an audience for Don Gates?
DG: I want to reach anybody that wants to read an adventure. I’m sure that when it comes to my Challenger Storm stuff, part of me wants to reach the Doc Savage pastiche fans, although I really don’t think of Storm as a pastiche. He’s influenced by Doc Savage a bit, yes, but I’m certainly not trying to write Doc stories with the names of the cast changed or anything. (Not that there’s anything wrong with pastiches, mind you, they just aren’t what I want to do.)
Is there an audience for Don Gates? I hope so. So far I haven’t gotten fan comments from strangers who say “I love your stuff!” or anything, but I can tell there’s a few people out there who do like what I’m doing. I kinda hope there will be an audience one day, actual “Don Gates fans”. That’d be cool.
DF: Why New Pulp?
DG: because it’s so damned fun! Ever since I was introduced to The Shadow when I was twelve years-old or so I’ve had pulp on the brain, because it’s just pure excitement. Adventure in far off lands, devious villains, heroes of action, beautiful dames… there’s such a feeling of glamour and romance to it (not the “lovey dovey” kind of romance but that great “lost golden era” kind). It’s nice that in this day and age there’s a place to escape to where dreams could come true, where there were still places on the map that were blank and unexplored.
And New Pulp as a concept is terrific because it throws in “post-pulp” influences and sensibilities and opens up new grounds for pulp to tread. It keeps it from getting stale but also keeps the familiar and comfortable tropes. Before “New Pulp” became a phrase, I liked to think of it as “pulp remixed."
DF: What writers have influenced you?
DG: I’m pretty sure that anyone that I’ve ever read and enjoyed has influenced me in one way or the other. My first big reading experience was Jules Verne’s 20,000 LEAGUES UNDER THE SEA, I’m pretty sure that stayed with me. William Gibson in his prime (the “Sprawl Trilogy” that began with NEUROMANCER) was very important to me, and I loved his prose: “J.G. Ballard meets Raymond Chandler in cyberspace”. I love Lovecraft and periodically go on Lovecraft reading-binges. And I love the greats from the hero pulps: Walter Gibson for his genius, Lester Dent for his inventiveness, and Norvell Page for his visceral energy.
Probably the biggest influence on my writing has probably been Dave Stevens’ THE ROCKETEER. That comic changed my life and showed me that you can create “new old adventures”. I read a magazine article about the series when I was thirteen and before I was finished reading it I knew that I couldn’t rest until I’d tracked down every Rocketeer appearance I could find. It even influenced me in ways I didn’t realize until after I’d been writing a while: the similarity of the name Clifton Storm to Cliff Secord was entirely subconscious, for example. That’d be a crossover I’d love to write, though. A dream project.
DF: What's your career plan as a writer?
DG: There’s supposed to be a plan?!
Seriously, I don’t know if I have one. I want to write stuff that I’ll enjoy writing and to write as much as I can crank out… which isn’t really that much. I’m a pretty slow writer which is something I need to work on. And should my path somehow take me to “the big leagues” then I’d be cool with that. (REALLY cool, actually)
DF: Do you think it's desirable for us as New Pulp Writers to chase Mainstream audiences or is that just a dream always out of reach?
DG: No, I don’t think it’s out of reach. The other day Annie and I were at Wal-Mart and we came across a display stand filled with those “Hard Case Crime” novels. She hadn’t seen them before and was kinda surprised to see all these books with pulpy covers and big name writers. She said something like “I can see this as a sign; maybe pulp is coming back into mainstream popularity.” This was only a day or so before the news of the Bradley Cooper EXECUTIONER movie and the Shane Black DESTROYER movie news, so maybe she’s right. And that’d be fine with all of us, I’m sure.
DF: Who is Challenger Storm?
DG: Clifton “Challenger” Storm is a guy of incredible potential, a hero who does what he does not only because it’s the right thing to do but because of a burning need for redemption. He was brought up wealthy (because all pulp heroes like him need a big bank account), but while his parents were philanthropic with their wealth he was arrogant, cruel and cold and extremely self-centered and spoiled. At around age nineteen his parents died in a car accident, and while he was returning home to take over their fortunes the passenger plane he was travelling in crashed in the mountains during a freak blizzard. Although the accident left him with three long scars on the left side of his face, he was otherwise unharmed while everyone else aboard the plane was killed. He was left alone to survive in the mountains and he experienced an epiphany, the same kind of soul-searching I imagine a lot of sole survivors go through: “Why was I left alive? Why me?” etc.
The answer comes to him that he’s still around to become the opposite of who he was, to help build the world instead of bleeding it. He throws away his old ways and leaps into a rabid self-improvement regimen to try and become as skilled as he can both mentally and physically. After graduating college at the top of his class and with numerous extracurricular activity achievements, he disappears and travels the world, learning as much martial and esoteric skills as he can manage. When he returns home to the US, he sets up the Miami Aerodrome Research and Development Laboratories (MARDL for short), a collective think-tank of designers, scientists, engineers… All are like-minded individuals who want to make the world a better place through science and technology.
MARDL also has a “troubleshooting” arm, a ragtag group of adventurers and thrill-seekers who join Storm on his missions against the human predators of the world. If someone needs aid and they can’t get it elsewhere, Storm and his troubleshooters will help.
Storm is not as infallible as guys like The Shadow or Doc Savage. When creating him, I always used the mantra “He’s not Doc Savage, but he’s trying to be.” Storm screws up, he gets emotional, he feels guilt or second guesses himself, he has self-doubt. He may know arcane martial arts, can design and build revolutionary aircraft & equipment, and runs a gigantic utopian-minded organization, but he’s also messy and has no idea how many people are on his payroll. His secretary, Marie, is indispensable to him and MARDL because she helps keep everything in check.
DF: Tell us about THE ISLE OF BLOOD.
DG: THE ISLE OF BLOOD is the first Challenger Storm novel and winner of the 2012 Pulp Factory Awards for Best Cover Art and Best Interior Art, both of which were handled by the legendary comic artist and illustrator Michael Wm. Kaluta.
In the novel Storm and his team are asked for help by an aviation tycoon whose daughter, a teacher on the tiny impoverished island-nation of La Isla de Sangre, has been kidnapped by a vicious group of guerilla warlords known as the Villalobos Brothers. They’re holding his daughter ransom, but soon after the team begins the rescue mission they discover there’s more to the story than they thought. Meanwhile, the Villalobos Brothers begin to unleash a mysterious super-weapon called “the Goddess of Death” upon their enemies and start to set their sights on taking over the island itself.
There’s also a framing device in the book in the form of a mysterious secret agent on his way to Florida to meet Storm to offer him the chance to work for his agency, the Eye, in exchange for government sanctioning of MARDL’s vigilante activities. During the “intermission” chapters we see the agent learning about Storm’s past, and through these scenes the reader also experiences Storm’s “origin”.
The print edition of the book is out of print right now, but there are plans for a newly edited and tweaked edition: while I fix some bugs inside the book, Michael Kaluta is doing some cover touch ups that have been bugging him (what exactly they are, I couldn’t say because that cover is terrific).
DF: Tell us about THE CURSE OF POSEIDON.
DG: THE CURSE OF POSEIDON is the second Storm novel. Ships and their crews are mysteriously disappearing without a trace in the Aegean Sea near Greece, the victims of a rumored “curse” of the ancient sea-god Poseidon. Meanwhile, freak tsunamis are striking coastal villages and weird black-armored beings are spotted at the scene afterward. Storm becomes embroiled in these events through one of his troubleshooters, Diana St. Clair (who Storm has an unrequited crush on). Diana’s ex-lover – a former MARDL scientist – is among those missing aboard the disappearing ships. Storm and his team join the hunt and eventually confront a villain who can use water itself as a weapon and can make mindless slaves out of free men.
The cover and interiors are again supplied by Michael Kaluta, who has done some astounding artwork once more. The response to the art – especially the cover – has been extraordinary.
DF: Okay, so let's get to the question that I'm sure you get asked many times and here's your chance to have it in print so that when you're asked in the future you can just refer them to this interview: How did you get Michael Kaluta do to the covers and interior illustrations for your Challenger Storm novels?
DG: By reading aloud from the Necronomicon while standing in an ancient and powerful magic circle of stones, pledging my eternal soul to the Outer Gods in exchange for Kaluta’s participation.
Actually, what happened was this:
I’ve been a huge fanboy of Kaluta’s art since I discovered his work on The Shadow (through the very same issue of COMICS SCENE magazine that introduced me to the Rocketeer and Doc Savage, I may add… it was a landmark moment for me, and I still have the issue). For years my wife heard me go on and on about his artwork, and eventually she did what I didn’t have the balls to do: she sent him an email to tell him how much of a fan I was, etc. Michael is a very personable guy and he and Annie struck up a friendly email acquaintanceship. She eventually mentioned to him that I had written a New Pulp novel and jokingly asked if he wanted to do the artwork for it. To our surprise, he said something to the effect of “let me see what I can do”. Next thing you know, he signed on and soon he and I were trading emails and shooting the breeze about classic warplanes and art nouveau illustrators.
I’m still not sure exactly what made Michael agree to do the artwork. Perhaps it’s because he has an affinity for the subject matter, or maybe it gave him an excuse to draw classic airplanes (an interest that I didn’t know we shared until he started working on THE ISLE OF BLOOD). One thing’s for certain: he has never “phoned the artwork in”. He has approached every illustration and cover with a thorough, professional attitude and has never settled for anything that he feels is sub-par. Mike is a true craftsman. It may sound biased, but some of his work on Challenger Storm is some of my favorite Kaluta art ever.
And it’s also very cool that one of my idols is now someone I can call a friend. I owe it all to my wife, who I’m sure has voodoo powers now because she was able to somehow bring this all to pass.
DF: You've got prestigious names such as Ron Fortier and Michael Kaluta attached to your books. How does that make you feel?
DG: Bluntly, I’m living the dream. I grew up reading Ron’s terrific work in THE GREEN HORNET and looking at Michael’s awesome and intricate artwork, so to have these guys participating in my project is an incredible feeling. I’m honored to be working with them, and I’m standing on the shoulders of giants.
DF: How many Challenger Storm novels do you have planned?
DG: Approximately 14. Now, it sounds like I’ve got an awesome lineup in the works, but some of these are fleshed out into plot germs while others are just a line or two in a notepad file that I want to expand upon further.
After THE CURSE OF POSEIDON comes WHITE HELL, currently “in production”. Anyone who has read the epilogue in CURSE… can probably tell where WHITE HELL will be going. After that I definitely know the next 2 books I want to do but beyond those I’ll need to do more expanding of my plot ideas. I also have some ideas of where the world of Challenger Storm will be headed into the modern era. There’s a heroic legacy brewing slowly here…
Keep in mind too that I’m a super-slow writer and have other projects going at the same time, so whether I ever hit my goals or not depends on how well I can beat my procrastination and laziness.
DF: What's a Day in the Life of Don Gates like?
DG: I get up about an hour before my workday starts and begin drinking my requisite dosage of coffee. I work my shift, the length of which can vary, and when I’m done I usually relax with the Missus and the dogs & cats and watch something on TV. If any writing is gonna get done, I either need to force myself to do it during this time or wait until I have no distractions whatsoever. I usually end my night watching Japanese tokusatsu shows for a while in bed before going to sleep and probably getting less shut-eye than I should be.
DF: Recommend a movie, a book and a TV show.
DG: Oh damn… see, I suck at this kind of thing because I’m really behind and I’m constantly catching up. We started watching BREAKING BAD a night or two after the series finale. Okay, I’ll try to recommend stuff that isn’t the norm and that folks might’ve missed.
For a movie, I’d recommend BEYOND THE BLACK RAINBOW. It’s a very oddly-paced sci fi film from Canada involving an esoteric clinic and institute gone wrong. There are psychics, sinister New Age stuff gone awry, and a weird ALTERED STATES-esque sequence in which something comes back from the “other side” with an acid tripper who took it too far. It looks and feels like it was made in the 80’s, and not the fun-time 80’s either but a weird technophobic underbelly of the era instead. I’d probably throw it in the same loony bin that VIDEODROME came from.
For a recommended book, I’d say to check out THE ARCANUM by Thomas Wheeler. It brings together Harry Houdini, Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, HP Lovecraft, and Marie Laveau in an epic fictional crossover. Folk who enjoyed Paul Malmont’s fictionalized pulp writers’ adventures will probably dig this. It was a lot of fun.
And for a TV show, folks who’ve never seen THE PRISONER should watch it (and stay away from the AMC remake). Hell, folks who’ve already seen it a million times should watch it again. It’s not just entertainment, it’s thought-provoking televisual art.
Derrick Ferguson: What can we look forward to from you in 2015?
DG: Hopefully a lot more than what I’ve been able to crank out so far. I’ve got a short story in Airship 27’s upcoming 2nd volume of TALES OF THE HANGING MONKEY, which was a blast to write and led me to creating a heroine who’ll probably show up again elsewhere. I’ve also just completed a short story for another publisher that’s unlike anything I’ve written yet. Not only is it a modern-day story, it’s also in a genre that doesn’t really have a lot of prose material out there. Beyond that I’ve got another short story slot in one of Airship 27’s future volumes of MYSTERY MEN & WOMEN, a tale featuring a character I’ve wanted to do for a long time and only recently was able to flesh out. And another short story slot in an anthology I can’t talk about yet: very top secret right now.
Apart from all this short story stuff (which is proving to be really fun and liberating), I’d also like to get around to finishing the Challenger Storm web serial I started on my blog a long time ago: that’s been really neglected. I’m still cooking up Storm #3, WHITE HELL while making sure it hits the right notes it needs to hit. There’s also a dream novel I’m working on that focuses on a favorite public domain superhero of mine. And I’d love to go ahead with plans of the “Storm legacy” novel, where we catch up with his grandchildren as they find their own way into adventure.
Yikes, that’s a lot. As long as I can kick myself in the butt hard enough, I can deliver on all of that. Wish me luck: I’ll need it! And thanks for this interview: it’s been fun!