Twenty Questions with L.T. Vargus and Tim McBain
L.T. Vargus and Tim McBain are the authors of the novel, Casting Shadows Everywhere, which we reviewed in Issue 8. In this issue, we review the first two novels in their new series, The Grobnagger Chronicles, and talk to them about their writing process, food porn, and how dying over and over again ”totally blows.”
Empty Sink Publishing: Thanks to you both for participating in this interview. We first met you in our last issue when we were talking to L.T. Vargus about her fantastic debut novel, Casting Shadows Everywhere. In that interview, we found out L.T. was actually two people, the other named Tim McBain. Now, you’ve re-released Casting Shadows Everywhere under both names, and the Grobnagger Chronicles are written under both names as well. Tell the truth now: are there actually two of you, or does L.T. have multiple personality disorder and is off her meds at the moment?
Vargus: I’m taking my meds right now. I like the red ones. Oh wait—these are Skittles…
ESP: In all seriousness, L.T. wrote on her blog that acting as one person made engaging with fans “a little less personal.” How has your engagement with your fans changed since the split?
V: I think we were a little more guarded before, because even though the intent wasn’t to hide that we were a writing team, it wound up feeling like we had to tailor what we said to fit the photo that went with the author bio. Basically, now Tim is free to talk about boobs and stuff.
M: Yeah, there’s boob talk, there’s football talk. I guess before I felt like I could only show one side of my personality, which was making jokes. But there are all of these other sides to my personality, such as my interest in football and boobs.
ESP: People are used to seeing two authors for a novel, but it is typically disingenuous. For example, if we see that a book is by “James Patterson with [insert random author name here],” we know that Patterson came up with the concept and may have written the first chapter, but the other author did most of the heavy lifting. That’s obviously not the case here. Tell us a little bit about your collaborative process and how you work together to take your novels from concept to reality.
V: It usually starts with one or the other being inspired by a particular idea. We’ll work on the outline together, and then the inspired party will take the lead. If we get stuck on a section, we just skip to something else, knowing the other person can usually pretty easily fill in the gaps. So far, it has made us pretty impervious to writer’s block. Sometimes you don’t even need the other person to say anything out loud. If I’m stuck on something, I’ll start talking through it with Tim, and a lot of the time, just saying it out loud makes everything fall into place.
M: I think of it as a Lennon/McCartney thing. Almost all of the actual work is done independently, but because both names are on everything, we’re both that much more invested in making the final product as good as possible. And I think the other side of that is that no one person ever feels all of the strain. I feel like I can take chances and loosen up because between the two of us, we’ll get it right in the end.
ESP: L.T., on your blog, you say that Tim is your “special man friend.” I don’t want to assume anything about your relationship, but will ask: how do you both balance your non-writing relationship with your working relationship?
V: We’ve been living together since 2003, and we started a business in 2005, so we’ve been blending the work/personal relationship for a long time. We’re around each other pretty much 24 hours a day, and a lot of people say they could never do that with their spouse. I don’t know. For some reason it just works for us. Maybe because neither of us ever needs to be “The Boss,” both in terms of the work and the relationship.
M: I think going through the writing process and submitting things and being rejected over and over again kind of stripped the ego part out for me. It made me realize that the only thing that matters is making the piece of work awesome. The satisfaction comes from that, and it no longer matters how it gets there. I don’t know if other people are approaching their work like that, but if the focus is on the work and not anybody’s ego, it’s pretty easy to work together.
ESP: Tim, on your website, you state that you write because, “…life is short, and I want to make something awesome before I die.” I find this to be a common thread with some of the authors I know, myself included: they are driven to create by their sense of mortality. I don’t want to call it “fear of mortality,” because sometimes it’s more complicated than that. Sometimes it’s more like disgust. How do your own views on mortality shape your compulsion to create?
M: For me, it’s despair. I think intellectually we all know that everyone is going to die, but I feel like other people have some defense mechanism to keep that idea at a distance. They have denial or something that I don’t have. Anyway, I feel like my mind perpetually trying to grasp mortality gives me this desperate energy – to be constantly aware of death means that you’re also constantly aware of life, you know? So writing is where that energy is going right now for me. It’s like a constant reminder that time is running out, and I should try to do things that mean something to me while I can.
I don’t see much meaning in working a job to acquire physical things, but writing is an inward task, so that makes some sense to me. I can spend my time looking inside for meaning instead of outside. I like that.
I actually don’t like to think about it too much, though, because I’m scared that I’ll realize that writing is just the carrot dangling in front of me, which is no different from a guy working his way up the corporate ladder somewhere. He has his dangling carrot that’s more squarely in the physical realm, but is it really any different?
V: Lot of carrot dangling going on in here. I’m not judging.
ESP: Your new novels, Fade to Black and Bled White, are the first two books in a planned five-book series, The Grobnagger Chronicles. The main character of The Grobnagger Chronicles, Jeff Grobnagger, loves him some good food. L.T.—you write on your blog that you fantasize about food, so I’ve got to imagine that Jeff’s relationship to food and “tasty beverages” took some inspiration from that. There are even a few passages where Jeff’s descriptions of food could be described as food porn—at one point in the story, I had to stop what I was doing to go get some Mexican food. So question for both of you: if you could choose one thing to eat right now—right this second—what would it be?
V: Well, you brought up Mexican food, so now I’m hankering for Chiles Rellenos. Our favorite Mexican restaurant used to have a side dish called Papas Fritas. It was basically French fries and guacamole. So delicious.
M: Pizza. I don’t know. I like pizza.
ESP: What the hell kind of name is Grobnagger? Don’t get me wrong—it fits Jeff perfectly, but where did it come from?
V: It was the name of some kids that rode my bus in school.
M: We had just started working on Fade to Black, and she was looking at her high school yearbook. I happened to glance over and see a caption with the name Grobnagger in it, and I was like, “Okay, that’s the name of the main character.” It’s just the perfect mouthful. I could immediately hear a gym teacher yelling it, too. I guess I liked that quality – that though I’d never heard it before, it was somehow immediately identifiable as a surname, almost familiar in a weird way.
ESP: Jeff is a complicated man. When we first meet him, a hooded man is trying to kill him in a dark alley, and it’s really annoying for him, because it’s not the first time this has happened. He gets killed in the first chapter, which is a bummer, because we just met the guy and kind of like him. But in the next chapter, we find out that this is all happening in his head (maybe) when he suffers from seizures. It’s a fantastic opening. Did you guys always envision the opening like this, or was it something that took form as you fleshed out the rest of the story?
M: We’ve been talking about different versions of this story for years. I remember writing some seizure scenes in 2008, for example. It has changed a lot in that time. And no, I think the opening was conceived just before we wrote it. We came up with that hook, those first two sentences, and then wrote the scene.
That said, I’m a believer in doing it that way. Writing an opening and then fleshing out the story. Let yourself be inspired and let your right brain come up with something awesome, and then go back and figure out what it means, why you were drawn to it and develop it based on that. So from the outset, you might know some of the biggest story moments and where it’s all going, but you have to let it breathe, too. You can’t tell the story. You have to let the story tell you. If you do, it will put lots of awesome bits in there and connect things you never would have connected.
ESP: One of the things I love about your writing, in general, is that you have tons of quotable lines. As I read both Fade to Black and Bled White, I highlighted and took notes about some of my favorites. One that struck me was something that Jeff’s friend, Glenn, says toward the beginning of Fade to Black when talking about one of his cats who overeats and throws up all the time: “Thing is, I don’t even mind cleaning up the cat vomit. Not really. It just kills me that he’s tearing up his esophagus and can’t keep any food down, and the poor guy is still hungry after all that, you know?” The note I took for that passage says, “This is how God must feel about humanity.” Did you intend for a quote about cat puke to take on such significance?
M: Hahaha. It’s funny. That was not intended. But I have thought a lot about how there’s a nagging fatalism to having pets. The day you get a puppy, you know how that story ends. And it seems even more unfair than our own impending deaths because animals are so innocent. Cats and dogs provide a really clear look at the existential crisis that plays a big role in Grobnagger’s story. Maybe that’s why all that cat stuff is in there, but like I said, it wasn’t conscious.
V: We also happen to have a cat that consistently eats until he vomits and steals the other cats’ food. Write what you know.
ESP: Jeff doesn’t work, partly because he tries to avoid stress, and partly because he made some good money playing poker online. Do either of you have experience with poker, online or otherwise? BONUS QUESTION: if you do, what kind of similarities do you see between poker and the writing process?
M: Yeah, I’ve played some poker. I won a few tournaments online. I think the most I ever won in one sitting was $950 or so. But I didn’t have the heart to stick with it. Tournament poker in particular is really volatile. No matter how good you are, you’re going to go through stretches where you lose 10 or 20 times in a row based on cold cards, bad luck, etc. And I couldn’t take that, so for me it was never serious, just something fun to do every so often.
I think the biggest similarity between poker and writing is that both reward patience, discipline, intuition and sheer tyranny of will. Really, the last one might be the biggest factor in both. A lot of poker success is predicated upon picking spots to assert your will, be the aggressor and bully the other people at the table a bit no matter what cards you have. In writing, the single biggest factor is having a strong enough will to sit down and do it. You could say that’s discipline, but I think desire matters more if the writing is going to be any good. Discipline alone doesn’t deliver words with some energy to them.
V: For me, it’s the differences between poker and writing that stand out. It’s easy to see how people can get addicted to poker, because you really do get a crazy adrenaline rush when you’re winning. But I actually kind of hate that. Then you throw in that when you start losing, it feels like the whole world has stopped making sense. I could never play professionally, because I’d give myself ulcers from the stress. Writing is so much more of a calming process.
ESP: At one point in the book, Jeff laments that “The world is really sucking at the whole leaving me alone thing lately.” I know the two of you value your privacy as well. How do you reconcile your need for privacy with the need for promotion and branding?
M: It’s interesting. Because of the internet, I think we can promote really aggressively without having to do anything uncomfortable. I definitely channel the same desperation that goes into writing into getting people to read the book.
But we’ve had a couple offers to do radio interviews, and I just can’t see us ever doing something like that. I never talk on the phone, so it’d be uncomfortable. And I could be totally wrong, but I don’t see the radio as a great place to sell novels.
We really keep to ourselves in real life. I pretty much only talk to my family.
V: The first writing project we worked on together was a script. We really did it just for the hell of it, but we were so happy with the final product that we sent it around to production companies and agents to see what would happen.
We actually got a call back from a manager who was interested in possibly representing us, but he started mentioning things like going to meetings and pitching ideas to executives and stuff like that, and it basically killed the dream on the spot. We were listening to this guy talk over speakerphone and looking at each other going, “Nope. Not gonna happen.”
Writing books suits us because we can stay at home and be our weird hermit selves and dictate how and when we interact with other people.
ESP: Jeff’s got this very black sense of humor, and when juxtaposed with the serious nature of all the shit going on in his life, it comes across even funnier. How much of Jeff’s sense of humor is similar to your own?
M: That’s definitely our sense of humor. I mean, Jeff is a really exaggerated side of a personality in a lot of ways, so the tone is something specific and unique. And then the situations he’s in add another layer of irony, but I can see a lot of myself in there.
V: I think Jeff gravitates towards the darker end of the spectrum and tends to stay there. We’re plenty dark ourselves, but we also mix in a lot of silly stuff too.
ESP: Let’s talk a little bit about the story itself. The books are very much like both the TV show Lost and the Harry Potter series, in that the protagonists are just as ignorant of the universe they inhabit as we are. Both J.K. Rowling and the Lost creators have spoken about not having all of the answers—and not knowing how things would end—when they started writing their stories. Are you on a similar journey, or do you know exactly what’s going on in the story and how it will end?
V: For me, leaving some things unanswered as I write is a motivator. If I can get myself on the hook with some little mystery, then I have to think the reader will be even more so.
M: I think George R.R. Martin said it best when he talked about it being a road trip. We know where we’re going in the big sense, but we don’t know what restaurants or landmarks we’ll stop at along the way. So as we write, the details will fill the story out and pull it in some new directions even though the destination is unlikely to change. I do think part of the fun is seeing which way it pulls.
Like I said, we’ve been talking about various versions of this story for years. We have an abundance of ideas and possibilities we could turn to, so you never know how plans could change. But we laid down a clear plan for all five books as the first was finished up. I think in a lot of ways Grobnagger and his voice and his flaws sort of dictated the particular route we’re on, so I’d be surprised if anything major changed.
ESP: The story involves a lot of supernatural themes: astral projection, cults, magic. And yet, it is also a book about a young man’s struggle with becoming the person he is meant to be. Did you set out to do that, or did that part of the story evolve along with the characters?
M: Well, we definitely planned for it to be a story about a character struggling to become “an actualized self” (for lack of a better term) with the paranormal aspects bringing the existential questions to the forefront and making them concrete. So yeah, that was the blueprint all along: to balance those two things and let them play off of each other. Again, though, the particulars came from the character. I imagined the story being more fun. I wanted it to be lighter than Casting Shadows Everywhere, and in some ways it still is, but it has a lot of sad elements that I didn’t foresee.
V: I think the “coming of age” element is a recurring theme for us. In some ways, I can’t imagine writing something that doesn’t focus on that kind of character development. For us, I think that’s what makes a story worth writing.
ESP: Jeff also has a love interest, Louise. I’ve got to say, I’m not a big fan of Louise—at least, not right now. When Jeff is finally ready to commit to her, she rejects him because she doesn’t want anything serious. Can you tell me whether Jeff and Louise are truly through, or whether she’ll be back?
V: Let’s just say… wait… That would be telling.
ESP: What about Jeff’s parents? They are absent from the first book, except for being mentioned now and again. Do they have a part to play in Jeff’s story (you know, aside from being the reason he’s here in the first place)?
M: I don’t think his parents will play a role in the story. I guess to me he has a new family in some ways with Glenn and Babinaux playing the mother and father roles to varying degrees.
ESP: Can you tell us when book three of the Grobnagger Chronicles will come out? I kind of need a date—I’ll need to take the next day off of work so I can stay up reading all night, and would like to schedule it in advance, if possible.
V: I think it will be out in the first quarter of 2015, but we’re not ready to set a date. We’re considering releasing the next two together, too, which could push it back a bit, of course.
ESP: What comes after Grobnagger? Any other projects in the works?
V: We have a standalone novel that will also likely be released in 2015. It’s a mystery with magic realism elements.
ESP: Thanks very much for taking the time to answer our questions. Please don’t stop what you’re doing. If, for any reason, you don’t finish the Grobnagger chronicles, I’m going to go all Annie Wilkes on you guys and chain you up in a basement somewhere until you do. So let’s just try to avoid that, shall we?
M: The entire series should be finished in 2015, so it won’t be long. Please don’t hurt me.