January 26, 2015

Spilling Red In the Green Hell: an interview with Mel Odom, author of "Master Sergeant"

Mel Odom is the bestselling author of many film and computer game tie-ins, including Forgotten Realms, Mack Bolan, Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. He won a prestigious Alex Award for his YA fantasy novel The Rover. He currently lives in Oklahoma.

About Master Sergeant: They call it The Green Hell. A maze of tangled jungle, the planet Makaum is one of the most dangerous places in the universe. And for Terran Military Master Sergeant Frank Sage, it is now home.

The war between the Terrans and the Phrenorians rages, and both sides have their sights set on Makaum. If the planet's rich resources fall into enemy hands it could mean devastation for the Terran Army. To ensure that doesn't happen, Sage is sent to assess the Makaum troops and bring them in line with Terran Military standards. But soon after arriving at his post, he realizes the Phrenorians are not the only threat. Heading up a small but fearless unit, Sage must stop a brewing civil war with the power to unleash a galactic cataclysm unlike anything ever seen.

Master Sergeant (The Makaum War: Book One) by Mel Odom

Gef: With MASTER SERGEANT, you've got a soldier tasked with getting troops in fighting shape for a war over a resource-rich planet lovingly nicknamed The Green Hell. Any winks and nods to Earth's present-day resource exploitation in this new novel? Where does the impetus for this story come from anyway?

Mel: Resource exploitation has been a subject of every war I can think of. The early Roman wars were fought for trade routes, ports, fertile ground, water, and slaves (which many countries/corporations call the “labor pool” these days. Case in point, when the Berlin Wall fell, many West German corporations located in East Germany or hired employees from there because the labor price differential took ten years to even out. Across the border in Mexico, a lot more violence against women has erupted because many of them were hired in place of men, which disrupted the gender roles.

War, occupation (also called industrialization) in other countries, has always been about natural resources, trade, and labor. In MASTER SERGEANT, it’s the same story, but I worked hard to develop the world and the cultures, and I think military SF readers are going to have a good time with this one. The Green Hell is just one of those names that immediately echoes in a reader’s mind because many places have been called that.

Gef: We recently watched a satellite land on a comet. How likely is it that outer space could wind up humanity's next gold rush?

Mel: Outer space WILL be the next gold rush for the simple reason that we’re overpopulating this planet, and one of the drives that manifest within humanity is to go into underpopulated areas and set down roots. The United States is known for that. There is a land grab coming once everyone figures out how to make the technology work so the profit & loss statements are in the black. And, again, once you have people in colonies on the Moon or Mars or in the asteroid belt, you’ve got a labor population waiting to be exploited because they won’t be able, at first, to pick up and leave.

I don’t mean to sound pessimistic. I still believe there’s a lot of great things that we can see and learn in space, but given the present corporate and national thinking, profit is going to have to be the thing that lays the tracks and powers the steam engine. When I was a kid, I loved the idea of traveling into space, and I still do.

Gef: Whether this new series fits in the military scifi genre, or maybe space opera, who am I to say? But your talents have you writing in multiple genres. Is there any kind of gear shift in your approach when going from one story to the next?

Mel: I read widely. I’ll drift from SF to mystery to horror to suspense to Western to Brit crime to whatever catches my eye. I grew up in rural southern Oklahoma. You had to learn to be a storyteller there if you wanted to take part in family discussions. I love stories. I grew up on Edgar Rice Burroughs, Robert A. Heinlein, Andre Norton, and Isaac Asimov. And comic books. Lots and lots of comic books. I was a comic nerd back when that was a BAD thing! Now we have THE BIG BANG THEORY. I wear comic book tee shirts to teach in at the University of Oklahoma and many of the students congratulate me on my shirts.

I don’t really think about the “gear shift” when I write. I know how a certain genre is supposed to go and I play around with those tropes. If you think of stories as potatoes, it doesn’t take long to realize that you can prepare potatoes several different ways: baked, mashed, hash browns, scalloped, etc. I start with a story idea (a potato) and figure out how I want to serve it, then just get to it. I love stories of all kinds.

Gef: How intensive was the research process for you? What little tricks have you picked up with approaching the research phase of writing?

Mel: I guess the best trick I’ve picked up is to research your new project while working on an old one. I read a lot of nonfiction, talk to people that have specific knowledge/ideas about the area I’m going to be working in, and let it kind of seep into the back of my mind. Then, while I’m writing, I might touch the research again, but a lot of it is already there, shaped into the story by my subconscious. I’ve learned to trust my subconscious and let it do most of the heavy lifting, but the subconscious is ALWAYS ravenous. Kind of like the plant in LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS. “Feed me, Stanley!”

Creating alien culture can be the most difficult. The Phrenorians in the Makuam books are a lot like scorpions. I read about scorpions (a group of scorpions is called a cyclone) and so on, then extrapolated that to an alien race with its own myths, legends, pecking orders and drives. I do that for all of the cultures I create. They have to be interesting and believable.

Gef: What do you consider to be saving grace of speculative fiction?

Mel: Speculative fiction takes readers out of the “here and now” and launches them into the worlds of “maybe” and “what if”, which are POWERFUL landscapes if you’ve got a reader willing to go with you. I love opening a book because if the writer has done it right, I’m sucked into a new and wonderful (and potentially fearful) world.

You can work in serious issues and cover them with adventure, or you can jettison today’s issues and pick up a light saber without worrying about overt ramifications. Speculative fiction makes people daydream, and sometimes think.

Gef: What's the worst piece of writing advice you ever received? Or what piece of writing advice do you wish would just go away?

Mel: I don’t think there’s any “worst” piece of writing advice. A writer has to figure out what applies to his or her work and use that. A writer writes the way a cook cooks. You start with basic ingredients, which I think most of us can agree on, and then you season to taste (genre). For every rule or “writing advice” you can throw out there, I can find you a book where that rule is broken or advice is ignored successfully.

Gef: What kind of guilty pleasures do you have when it comes to books or movies or whatnot?

Mel: Lots of guilty pleasures when it comes to cinema! I just watched TAKEN 3 today and enjoyed it. I love THE WALKING DEAD, FLASH, NCIS, JUSTIFIED, CONSTANTINE, there are a number of good television shows on these days, and Netflix is great for binge watching series. When I’m not writing, I’m reading or watching television/movies, and I squeeze in extra books in the car on audiobook. I’m a media junkie.

Gef: Everyone and their mama have been furiously writing year-end lists, since that's what folks do once the snow starts to fall. So what book, movie, game, show, song, or dirty limerick has found its way to the tippy-top of your favorites last year?

Mel: I just read THE SWEETNESS AT THE BOTTOM OF THE PIE by Alan Bradley, which features one of the best narrators you’ll ever see on the page. I’m catching up on Chelsea Cain’s Archie & Gretchen novels, John Connolly’s Charlie Parker books, THE AMULET series by Kazu Kibuishi, Scott Snyder’s Batman and Superman graphic novels (which are amazing), anything by Geoff Johns, handfuls of science fiction and fantasy novels, Bernard Cornwell’s history novels. LOVED GUARDIANS OF THE GALAXY, and that has spawned the greatest soundtrack ever! LOVED THE WINTER SOLDIER! With all the writing I’m doing, I don’t have a lot of time for video gaming, but DESTINY and DRAGON AGE: INQUISITION are two that I want to sit down with soon, as well as the new CALL OF DUTY.
As I said, I love story!

Gef: What projects are you cooking up that folks can expect in the near future, and how can folks keep up with your shenanigans?

Mel: I’ve always got a lot of irons in the fire. I’ve still got one more ROGUE ANGEL book coming out sometime this year, I think, and I’m working on another Makaum trilogy. I’m also laying out a new military SF series that involves all kinds of intergalactic upheaval and alien war mechs that are mysteriously haunted by US Marines that went missing in Afghanistan.

People can catch my blog at www.melodom.blogspot.com or check in at www.melodom.net.

Thanks for your time!

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