INTERVIEW WITH BARRY REESE, Writer/Editor/Reviewer
AP: Barry, it’s your turn on the other side of the table. Before we dive into your writing career, tell us a little about yourself.
BR: Well, I’m turning 38 on November 11, 2010 and I’m very happily married to my high school sweetheart. Together, we have a 4-year-old son. I was born and raised in Milledgeville, Georgia. I’m currently the Library Director for the Twin Lakes Library System, which is based in Baldwin County, Georgia. I’ve always loved reading and from a very young age, I wanted to be a writer. But somewhere in my teen years, I gave up on the dream and pursued other things… thankfully, things have a way of working out and in 2003 I was approached about writing for Marvel Comics. I jumped at the opportunity and spent the next four years writing various things for them, including a volume in their Marvel Encyclopedia series (the Marvel Knights volume) and quite a few entries in their Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe line of titles. I’m a huge comic book fan, love movies and music and spend far too much time pounding away at the keyboard.
BR: Well, I always loved pulp growing up – when I was very little, my father had all the old Doc Savage and Avengers lying around and the covers really grabbed me. Even before I could read an entire book by myself, I would carry around those Doc novels. But by the time I became an adult, it seemed like very few people remembered those old heroes and even fewer were writing in that style. This wasn’t quite true, of course, but I was unaware of publishers like Wild Cat Books and Black Coat Press at the time.
So I decided that I’d take a break from the Marvel and role-playing game stuff I’d been doing and try to write something different. I decided to do a pulp novel because it seemed like it would be a fun thing to write and I wanted to enjoy the process. So I wrote The Conquerors of Shadow, which was basically my big love letter to the John Carter of Mars series that Edgar Rice Burroughs did. Around that time I came across a copy of Hounds of Hell, a book published originally by Wild Cat Books and written by Ron Fortier. It was very exciting and pitted Doctor Satan against the Moon Man. I was enthusiastic enough to write my first Rook story and from there I ended up contacting Ron Hanna of Wild Cat to see if he’d be interested in publishing them.
So far, my pulp career consists of: five published volumes in The Rook Chronicles (with a sixth coming next year); a pirate novel called Guan-Yin and the Horrors of Skull Island; Savage Tales of Ki-Gor, Lord of the Jungle; Rabbit Heart; and The Conquerors of Shadow. I’ve also completed a novel entitled The Damned Thing that’s awaiting publication from Wild Cat Books. Then there are all the short stories I’ve done for various magazines and anthologies! I won’t list them all but I’ve been included in books like How The West Was Weird, Tales of the Norse Gods and Airship 27’s upcoming Mystery Men Volume One. I’m also currently writing a series of stories starring a new character, Lazarus Gray, for Pro Se Productions.
AP: You are probably currently best known for one of your own creations. Can you tell us a little about The Rook starting with who he is and what he does?
BR: The Rook does tend to be the first thing people think of when it comes to me… The Rook is a masked vigilante who operates out of Boston in the late 1920s and early 1930s before moving to Atlanta in 1936. His real name is Max Davies and in classic pulp fashion, he watched his father die at the hands of criminals. Soon after this tragedy, Max began experiencing painful visions of future crimes. Deciding that he had to do something about these visions, he set off on a trip around the world, mastering almost all known forms of combat, as well as learning about various sciences and the occult. Unlike most masked heroes like The Shadow or The Spider, The Rook tends to encounter actual occult menaces with astonishing frequency. In a twist on things, he later learns that his visions are actually sent from beyond by his own father, who pressured his son from beyond the grave, hoping to create an instrument of vengeance. This places a tremendous strain on their renewed relationship.
BR: The Rook was inspired by a number of sources, most notably: Batman, Doc Savage, The Shadow, Indiana Jones and Nexus. I took all the things I liked about those heroes, added a bit of spice and created something that hopefully stands on its own.
AP: The Rook has a rich, varied supporting cast. Would you share a few of them with us?
BR: Well, first and foremost you have his wife Evelyn. A minor star on stage and screen, Evelyn Gould Davies is introduced in the very first Rook story I wrote (“Lucifer’s Cage”) and they’re married in the second. Evelyn sometimes adventures alongside her husband though she does this less frequently after they begin having children. They have two during the course of the series: William and Emma. Both of their kids end up becoming The Rook in the 1960s and 1970s, respectively.
Will McKenzie is the Police Chief and is, according to “Kingdom of Blood” (his debut), the youngest police chief in the country. Will has matinee idol good looks and is as brave as they come. Not only does Will help The Rook in his adventures but he’s also a major character in The Damned Thing, which is set in 1939. A few years after that he marries a former Nazi agent, who defects to the Allied side after falling in love with Will.
There’s also Leonid Kaslov, dubbed “The Russian Doc Savage” by many fans. The son of genius Nikolai Kaslov, Leonid is brilliant and capable. He has his own set of aides and battles alongside The Rook in numerous adventures, most notably “Kazlov’s Fire,” which was his debut.
Later in The Rook series (Volume Five), we’re introduced to The Claws of the Rook, which unites various supporting characters like Revenant, Frankenstein’s Monster, Catalyst and Esper into their team. The Rook adventures alongside them and also sends them into the field in his stead. They’re joined by public domain Golden Age heroes The Flame, The Black Terror & Tim and Miss Masque.
BR: I certainly think it helps flesh out the characters, to show them in various relationships and in different settings. Little scenes where we see Max hanging out with his kids or on a date with his wife helps make him a little more human than some of the classic pulp characters were depicted. It also reinforces the notion that The Rook isn’t a one-man army; he needs help and this sometimes makes him vulnerable. One of the things I wanted to do early on was give Max a stable relationship and one in which his wife was treated as an equal. While I love Doc Savage, The Avenger and The Shadow, I wanted a hero who was a little more human.
AP: Now, aside from the Rook, can you pick out your favorite one or two other tales you’ve written and discuss them?
BR: Sure! I love The Rook but I sometimes feel like everything else I do is cast under its shadow.
It’s not out yet but I’m very proud of The Damned Thing. It’s an occult noir set in 1939 Atlanta and is a bit of a kooky love letter to The Maltese Falcon. I had great fun writing it and it’s set firmly in The Rook universe. In fact, the main character (Violet Cambridge) shows up in 2011’s The Rook Volume Six.
Rabbit Heart was released in February 2010 and it’s a slasher horror novel with pulp influences. It’s set in my hometown of Milledgeville, Georgia and is a lot different than everything else I’ve written. It’s violent, it’s dirty and it’s just plain mean-spirited in places. But I’m very proud of it and think the main character (Fiona Chapman) was a lot of fun to write – and her partner in the story is classic pulp hero Ascott Keane (who used to fight Doctor Satan in the old days). I’m hoping that Rabbit Heart will get a few votes for Book of the Year in the Pulp Ark Awards but I don’t expect to win. The subject matter turns some people off and besides, as much as I pimp my work, there are those out there who seem dedicated to mobilizing their voters to ensure their books or their publisher’s books are the forefront of everything. I just don’t have the time or energy to engage in that much effort when it comes to awards.
The Lazarus Gray stories I’m currently writing for Pro Se Productions are good ones, too. Only one has seen print yet but eventually you’ll see the first six compiled into a collection. I’m also planning to team Lazarus Gray with The Rook for the Pulp Ark charity book.
And though I have no real idea when it will be out, I did an Avenger story for Moonstone that I really enjoyed. The Avenger is my all-time favorite pulp hero and to write an official story featuring him… that was a dream come true.
AP: This is a question that ends up in almost every interview ALL PULP does in one form or another. For Barry Reese, what does the term ‘pulp’ mean?
BR: Pulp is not an era. It is not specifically tied to the sort of paper the stories were printed on. That may have been where the origins of pulp came from and the earliest definition but it’s expanded beyond that. Pulp is a mindset. It’s about escapism. It’s about fun. It’s about excitement. Pulp doesn’t hold a mirror up to humanity in an attempt to examine what being human “means,” pulp is about telling you an exciting story that takes you out of your day-to-day life for a little while. I frequently tell this anecdote at conventions: The “point” of a Doc Savage story is this: if you build a crazy weather-controlling machine and try to take over the world, Doc Savage is going to come and kick your ass.
That’s the point of pulp. It’s beer-and-pretzels fiction.
AP: There’s the ongoing debate of whether or not pulp creators should be true to the standard set by the original writers of pulp fiction or if they should modernize/tweak/update both characters and concepts to give stories more relevance with a modern audience. What is your take on this?
BR: I think there’s room for modernization but not bastardization. If you’re going to remove the core premise and alter the characters beyond recognition, do something new and leave the old stuff alone. But you can certainly keep the spirit and update things. First Wave has gotten it all wrong but The Spirit stories by Darwyne Cooke got it right. Cooke updated The Spirit to a modern sensibility but kept all the charm of the original. First Wave has people using the names of heroes like The Avenger but nothing else.
AP: What are your strengths as a pulp author? What about your weaknesses?
BR: I think I create interesting characters and have pretty cool ideas. But I don’t think I write action scenes all that well and if you really break down my plots, I don’t think they’re particularly complex. For me, it’s all about putting the characters into situations where I can see what they’re feeling and trying to convey that in dialogue. So I’m good at characterization, not so good at the actual nuts-and-bolts of writing. I always hope that my enthusiasm will pass on to the reader and that will make up for any faults in my style.
BR: I do the occasional interview, book reviews and I seem to have fallen into the role of doing the First Wave news items, just because nobody else will touch them.
I love pulp and I think anything that portrays it as a legitimate genre and community is a good thing. We’re kind of in a ghetto at present – even with the pulp “renaissance,” everyone’s sales are in the toilet and don’t let anyone lie to you. Massive pulp “hits” sell hundreds of copies, not thousands. We need to consistently improve our presentation and our message to get new readers and not just cater to the old ones.
AP: You’re also planning to attend Pulp Ark next May. You’re one of the guests and you’re doing a panel as well. Can you tell us about your panel, if you have it plotted out as of yet?
BR: I’d like to do something about capturing the spirit of pulp on the page. In other words, how do you write in that style? Is it a mindset? Are there specific techniques that can help? Does Lester Dent’s formula for writing pulp still apply today? That sort of thing.
AP: You have a project you’re working on that’s just recently been announced. Mind sharing with our readers a little about TURNING THE PAGE: TODAY’S PULP HEROES?
BR: It was a real honor to be approached about working on the project with Tommy Hancock and with Tom Johnson’s approval. We’re going to be looking at all the original pulp heroes created post 1955. Through fanzines and small press publications, there has been a steady stream of pulp characters created since the golden age ended and we’re going to shine the light on them. Many are well worthy of standing side-by-side with the classics. The first volume should be out sometime next year.
AP: You’re a librarian by trade. Does pulp have a place in our country’s libraries? And if so, why isn’t in more libraries or is it and the pulp community just isn’t aware of it?
BR: Of course it has a place in libraries. The library I run has books on its shelves by Derrick Ferguson, Maxwell Grant, Lester Dent, Robert E. Howard and many more. But why don’t most libraries stock it? The answer’s really, really simple.
Most pulp is published by print-on-demand publishers. Print-on-demand publishers are not generally listed by major resale vendors like Baker & Taylor, Ingram and Brodart. Almost all libraries do their book ordering through those vendors. My own Rook books aren’t listed in them so if I want a library to stock them, I have several routes I could take: I could sell the books to them directly or I could direct them to Amazon or Barnes and Noble or some other online source. But I can say from experience that a lot of libraries (including our own) don’t like buying from multiple vendors. It makes accounting more difficult and it’s easier to simply say “We order books from Ingram.” Print-on-demand works for the small market that is pulp but it is still regarded by libraries as being one step above a vanity press.
AP: All right, what does the future hold for Barry Reese and all his pulpy goodness? Any projects you want to share with ALL PULP?
BR: Both The Damned Thing and The Rook Volume Six are at Wild Cat Books now but I don’t think you’ll see either until sometime next year. I’m continuing to work on the Lazarus Gray stories and hope that eventually they’ll be as popular as The Rook has proven to be. And even though I always think I’m burning out on Max Davies, I’m sure I have more Rook novels in me. Another new character of mine, Dusk, will also debut in Airship 27’s Mystery Men book, so maybe folks will like her enough for me to write more.
Beyond that, we’ll see. Many of my books just came to me out of the blue and I’d imagine my next one will do the same.
AP: Barry, it’s been awesome to talk to you today!
BR: It was a pleasure. Thanks!