Stranger than Science Fiction

...or, How in the world did the creator of Roger Rabbit and the Archbishop of Newark end up collaborating on a sci-fi novel together?

The book is called Space Vulture, and it’s a far-out, one-of-a-kind project, even by science fiction standards. The cover features a throwback, Flash-Gordon-style photo of a caped villain with a ray gun. And next to the picture are the names of the two writers: the first is Gary K. Wolf, a sci-fi veteran and the creator of Roger Rabbit; the second—God’s honest truth—is the Most Reverend Archbishop John J. Myers of Newark, New Jersey.

It might sound like an improbable partnership. But the truth is that these lifelong friends have been looking for a way to work together since their boyhood in rural Illinois. The result is Space Vulture, published this spring (TOR Books, $20.95). In an interview with BustedHalo®, the authors open up about faith, friendship, and flesh-eating aliens.

BustedHalo: This is obviously a pretty unique collaboration. It has to be the only book in world history that has a blurb on the back cover both from the creator of Spider-Man (Stan Lee) and a Jesuit astronomer at the Vatican observatory (Brother Guy Consolmagno, SJ). What’s been the general reaction from the press?

Gary K. Wolf: People in the press have just been fascinated. I explained the project to my agent, and he said “You don’t even have to write the book! I can sell this just based on the fact that you have the creator of Roger Rabbit and the archbishop of Newark collaborating on an homage to science fiction.” The initial reaction is either people saying “This is really cool,” or “This is really cool that an archbishop would do it.” But ultimately the book has to stand or fall on its own merits. And I think we have a good story. The reviews have been pretty good. In fact, we got one from the Barnes & Noble newsletter. It was talking about the four classic “space operas,” and one was by Isaac Asimov and one was Space Vulture. But what intrigues people initially is just the fact that we did this.

Archbishop John J. Myers: I have to say this was an education for me. I didn’t realize how complex, challenging and sometimes filled with drudgery that writing a novel can be. Or how very complex and competitive the whole process is for getting people to buy it.

BH: What was the writing process for Space Vulture? Who wrote what and how did you go back and forth?

AJM: I’d say first that, since Gary’s a professional writer, he was really captain of the team. And a good part of the churning out he would share with me for my comments, suggestions and observations for character development, plot development.

“I explained the project to my agent, and he said “You don’t even have to write the book! I can sell this just based on the fact that you have the creator of Roger Rabbit and the archbishop of Newark collaborating on an homage to science fiction.”

GW: And John did his share. We started off probably in the wrong direction, with a kind of modern science fiction thing. We talked with our editor, Moshe Feder at TOR, and he said we should really consider writing what we would’ve wanted to read in the 8th grade. I came up with a little premise and John said “That’s good, but how about this?” It was fun because, if you’ve read the book, there are a lot of cliffhangers and perils, the sort of thing you’d see in Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon serials.

BH: You two have literally been friends since birth. Could you talk about growing up together?

We both grew up in a little town called Earlville, Illinois. We played together as babies, we went to school together…

AJM: For twelve years!

GW: Yep, for twelve years. I’m an only child, and John is as close to a brother as I have. And my mother treated him like her son. In fact, John would come over after school on Fridays, and we’d have meat and potatoes. Then my mother said “Oh my gosh, John’s coming over on Friday and he’s not supposed to eat meat,” so she started serving fish instead. And John and I kind of gravitated to one another because we seemed to have interests different from everybody else. And I really thank whatever for putting John in Earlville the same time I was there, because my life would’ve been totally different without him.

AJM: And that would be true for me too. We played on some sports teams together in high school, we did a lot of music together—we were in the high school band and jazz band. Something unusual is that Gary’s father had an accordion band, and I played the trumpet in it.

GW: He was the only non-accordion permitted in the band.

AJM: True story! Well at least sort of playing the trumpet. I wasn’t very good.

GW: The thing about John and I growing up in Earlville together was that we weren’t goodie-goodies, but it was always good, clean fun. We always had a higher purpose—I don’t mean that in a religious sense necessarily, just that we were always looking to best one another in a good way. And looking back, it’s why I ended up where I am now, instead of working in a factory in Earlville, Illinois.

BH: How did you two get into science fiction?

AJM: We had a small public library in Earlville. One time I picked out this book called Space Hawk and called Gary and said “You have to read this, it’s like a Western but in outer space.” And Gary checked it out, read it, we enjoyed that, and by the time we were in mid-high school, they had to import science fiction books from the whole state library because Gary and I read them so voraciously.

GW: And true story, John and I can still recite verbatim from passages of Space Hawk. John and I both became science fiction fans. I started writing it, John reads it, he watches science fiction TV and movies. And so ten years ago, I decided it would be fun to track down a couple copies of Space Hawk, which was really a book that changed my life. And I thought it’d be fun to track it down and relive our youths. So I found two copies and sent one to John. I read it, and it was the worst book I’d ever read in my life. It was just awful! It was badly written, cardboard characters—it was just not at all what I remembered. And John’s impression was much the same. And I can’t remember who said it…

AJM: I think it was you, Gary.

GW: Might’ve been me. I said, “You know, it’s a shame we can’t rewrite it the way we remember it rather than the way it actually is.” And John said “Why don’t we do that?” And I was amazed because I never thought that John would take time for a project like that. All of our lives we’ve really looked for something we could work on together. Then John became a priest, I became an advertising man and later a writer, so it looked impossible. But this was just perfect for us.

AJM: We did maintain our friendship though in those years. And one time, if you recall, Gary, we spent time coming up with six possible episodes for…

GW: Star Trek! We spent a whole weekend once coming up with ideas for Star Trek. None of them got used, but I think they were better than the ones they did use.

BH: So why do you think sci-fi had such an appeal for you both?

GW: When I started writing fiction, I just never thought about anything but science fiction. Because it had so captivated me as a kid, and it seemed like a last bastion for philosophers. Every other genre seemed formulaic, but in science fiction, you could do anything you wanted, as long as you made it realistic and rationalized it. You could talk about all sorts of stuff you couldn’t anywhere else. And that gave my point of view an outlet.

AJM: My favorite course in school was geometry. You can state some basic propositions, you can change them, insert theories or whatever. Then you work out the solution from there. And in a certain sense, science fiction gives that possibility with the universe itself, with people, with planets and elements of our daily existence. You can change a few notions and work it out from there. It permits a lot of creativity. One of the things I enjoyed with this—and Gary was kind enough to allow this to happen—is that science fiction by and large isn’t open to transcendence or the Deity, and in this book there are several instances where people pray, and the two boy characters know their father’s in a better place after he died. There are just different ways I think we open up the genre and show some genuine conversion and character development.

GW: It’s a different book than it would’ve been, had I written it myself. Had John not been involved, I think it would’ve been an R-rated book. That’s just the direction I was going before we started doing this. It would’ve had a moral undertone because, even though I’m not Catholic, I’m a religious guy. Everything I write has a moral to it, but I think that’s what John really brought to this even more. Good triumphs in the end, and bad is punished. But I do want to make sure readers understand this is not a religious book. It’s no walk through the Vatican rose garden. There are flesh-eating aliens here, shoot-outs in outer space, all kinds of stuff going on. But religion is a part of these characters’ lives.