Florida native Don Gates has produced one of the outstanding New Pulp novels of 2011, with “Challenger Storm: Isle of Blood.” Published by Airship 27, with cover and interior illustrations by legendary artist Mike Kaluta, this is non-stop action in the traditional pulp mold. Gates has his pulp chops down, but he brings to these characters a depth that was absent in the early days. He recently took some time to tell us about his inspirations, his new novel, and his plans for future projects.
All Pulp: How long have you been writing, and at what point did you decide you wanted to write a book?”
Don Gates: Writing is actually pretty new to me. I did a LOT of creating in my head- daydreaming and stuff like that- but I usually never got things on paper beyond just a rough outline. Before working on this book, I’d start to write things that usually fizzled out before chapter 3. I always loved pulps and always wanted to do a pulp-style story or series, I just never felt I had the right mix of elements, characters, etc. I asked some friends online to let me bounce some ideas off of them, and after finding out what worked and what didn’t I had a handful of ideas that I wanted to try my hand at, all existing in the same pulp “universe”. Challenger Storm is the first of those ideas.
AP: What do you like to read, and how did it lead you into wanting to do it yourself?”
DG: I like to read the classic pulps (of course) along with newer pulp-like fiction like the Dirk Pitt novels and the Agent Pendergast series, and I love the Destroyer series of paperbacks. Outside of that, I like classic sci-fi & adventure like Jules Verne and HG Wells, and I absolutely love William Gibson’s earlier cyberpunk novels. I’m a huge fan of HP Lovecraft, and in the last few years I’ve come to enjoy JRR Tolkien as well. And of course, I try to read as much of the “New Pulp” crop of authors as possible… there’s a LOT of really amazing work out there!
As far as being led to create my own pulp, I can sum that up in one instance: the first time I read Doc Savage. I was home sick from junior high school, laid-out on the couch with the Doc Omnibus #6. Even though I know now they’re kind of sub-par Doc Stories when compared to the earlier ones, I didn’t know that at the time. All I know is for a few hours I was transported away from home and into an incredibly fun adventurous world. If I can bring any of that feeling to my work, I’m happy.
AP: What were some of your inspirations for Challenger Storm? In some ways, he is a very conventional character, and in other ways he is not.”
DG: A lot of the major influences came from Doc Savage of course, but I wanted him to be more human and less godlike. As much as I enjoy infallible heroes like The Shadow, I always appreciate when a series’ hero is more vulnerable, and even though you know they’re going to win in the end you still worry about them getting into scrapes. I also wanted him to have a motivation beyond the simple pulp-hero credo: “I’m rich, smart, and fit… let’s get the bad guys!” I wanted it to be about redemption with Storm: he wants to make up for a past in which he was an awful, selfish, and self-important jerk. The three scars on his face aren’t just there as a visual-cue to make him stand-out from other square-jawed adventurers, they’re also tied in with his “origin” and serve to remind him of where he comes from and what he went through to change his life.
AP: It’s obvious that you have more than a passing interest in aircraft. Tell us a little about that, and how it informs your work.
DG: I am interested in vintage aviation, and it’s something that I’ve always been into for some reason. Now I’m not so into it that I can tell you what kind of horsepower the engines on a B-17 Flying Fortress had, but I love the look and elegance of pre-war and WWII-era aircraft. It was a national and worldwide fad during those days, a relatively new science. It’s so fascinating to compare that era’s air-travel with ours. In those days, they were focusing on comfort, designing airplanes and airships that were like ocean liners in the sky… these days, they pack as many people possible into a cramped, over-sized tin can and shoot you across the country. Sure it’s faster, but it’s lost a lot of the personality that the golden era of aviation had.
It was during the art process of the book that I found out that Michael Kaluta, who is the legendary artist who did the cover and interior illustrations, is a bit of an aviation-nut too, even more so than I am. I’ve always been a huge fan of his, and when I found this out it was just another example of a perfect fit for the book. It’s funny: when I had come up with the MARDL pursuit-plane (the Witch), I was inspired partially by an old racing plane, the De Havilland DH-88 Comet, but never mentioned this to anyone. Later when I wrote to Michael and asked what he had in mind for his version of the Witch, he emailed me back and told me his design was influenced by the Comet too. It was pure synchronicity, hahaha.
AP: How did “Isle of Blood” come about? Did you write the whole thing and submit it to publishers? What brought you and Airship 27 together?
DG: I had the cast of heroes created and ready before I had their first story. “Isle of Blood” evolved from 2 things: an idea I had about a lost valley of floating rocks and an old photograph of a wealthy-looking man and his daughter that I found in an antique store. Those elements came into play as plot points A through Z, then it became a matter of coming up with B through Y to bring them together. I wrote the book off and on from mid 2007 through the end of 2009, experiencing the longest setback after my father was diagnosed with terminal cancer. He died before the book was completed, and of course the book is partially dedicated to him.
As far as publishing it through Airship 27, I’d actually wrote the book with them in mind. I really like their books and their production values, and so they were on the “short list” of potential publishers. I sent them the book a few days before Christmas of 2009, and it was accepted shortly thereafter.
AP: What do you have in mind for the future of Challenger Storm? Do you have any other characters or comcepts you’re working on?
DG: I have quite a few Challenger Storm stories in the works, all in various stages of outlining and plotting. I’m working on the second book now, “The Curse of Poseidon”, and had a major idea for a new book that will probably become the third novel. Without giving too much away, it’s going to play in H.P. Lovecraft’s funhouse a little bit, and if I can pull it off it’s going to be kind of epic.
I have lots of other series and characters I’d like to work on. One is a vigilante series called The Cipher and has a secret-identity hook that I hope will grab people, and another is a character I’ve had in my head since I was about 13: a man-of-mystery character called Codename: Shanghai. There’s also a one-shot story told from a Challenger Storm villain’s point of view, as well as a stand-alone lost-world adventure. Challenger Storm’s legacy involving his son and grandchildren is another thing I’d like to work on a bit also, along with a sword & sorcery book… Like I said, I have a lot of ideas. Finding the time to do all that writing is the thing I have issues with, but I’m trying.
AP: When did you first learn that Michael Kaluta would be doing the illustrations, and how did that make you feel? That’s a pretty big deal.
DG: The Kaluta thing was something absolutely crazy… I’m still shocked that it happened. I’d been a fan of his for years, ever since discovering his work on The Shadow. My wife Annie contacted him a few years ago with questions about commission work and something about their personalities just clicked and they became email-acquaintances. When Airship 27’s Ron Fortier was trying to find an artist to do “The Isle of Blood”, Annie said to me “Why don’t you ask Mike Kaluta to do it?” at which point I seriously began doubting her sanity. She’s not a fangirl, though, and to her he’s just a regular guy so she had no trepidation about asking him. Long story short, he said “yes” and he and Ron hammered an agreement out with regards to fitting it into his busy (and I mean BUSY) schedule, and here I am with not one but two dreams fulfilled in a single swoop.