Author Interview: R. L. Ullman, Author of the Epic Zero Series, the Monster Problems Series, and Other Books
This is the fourth installment of my interview series with independantly published authors of middle-grade books. During this interview, I was pleasantly surprised to discover that, among other things, that R. L. Ullman is a fellow comic book fan--which should come as no surprise considering the books he has written. Enjoy the read!
Who were some of your early inspirations as an author?
I read across many genres, and there were many authors I admired. When I was young, my absolute favorite book was Watership Down. Richard Adams really captured my imagination with his band of rabbits, and I still go back and read it every few years. Growing up, I also read a ton of comic books and lots of fantasy. I absolutely loved David Eddings’ Belgariad series and all things Terry Brooks. Of course, when I got older and wanted to write professionally, I spent a lot of time studying J. K. Rowling. Her immersive world building is incredible.
How did you get started as an author? Did you start by writing books or something else?
I actually started by writing screenplays in my late twenties. At that time I was very focused on writing the next big comedy blockbuster. I had some interest in my stories, but nothing ever landed. Nevertheless, the tight confines of writing screenplays taught me how to economize words, develop story structure, and create compelling characters. It was a valuable experience, and everything I learned translated well to middle-grade books where you want to keep the action moving.
What was your inspiration for the Epic Zero series?
Epic Zero actually started as a screenplay. I’m a huge comic book guy. I used to have over 10,000 comics, but I’ve pared that down over the years. On top of that, when I was growing up I felt pretty ordinary. I wasn’t great at sports, like my siblings. Then one day, an idea came to me about a boy who grows up in a family of superheroes, but he doesn’t have any superpowers. Talk about being ordinary to the extreme! I wrote it up as a screenplay but couldn’t find any takers, so I put it away. It was only after my son was born that I remembered that screenplay and thought it might make a fun book for kids.
How about Monster Problems?
After I’d written the first three Epic Zero books, I thought I’d try my hand at something new. As they say, “write what you know,” so I thought I’d create another unlikely hero I could base a series off of. Then one day while shaving, I had the idea of an orphan kid who thought he was just quirky but comes to realize he’s half-vampire and destined to save the world from Count Dracula. That series was a lot of fun as I was able to create my own unique twist on classic monster mythology.
What draws you to write for middle-grade readers? Do you plan to write for other audiences too?
I love writing for middle-grade readers. I really enjoy creating characters that kids can relate to. My eleven-year-old son is a great audience and helper. I also just released a picture book called The Day the Screens Stood Still that encourages kids (and the thumb-scrolling grown-ups who love them) to be more mindful of screen time and family time balance. That was a fun project, and I hope to do more picture books in the future.
What motivated you to publish independently rather than going the traditional route?
There is nothing wrong with either route, and I can see myself going traditional with future projects as well. However, I really enjoy developing all aspects of the finished product, from the title to the cover to the interior illustrations. Publishing independently give you more control over the full reader experience. Also, the marketing aspects can be fun as well.
Do you do this full time, or is writing more of a part-time gig?
Up until recently I was working a full-time job and writing as a side hustle. Unfortunately, I lost that job, and now I’m considering writing full time. I think I can get more books out and do a better job of marketing them if it’s my sole focus.
What are some of the biggest benefits of being an independent author?
I think having complete creative control over the final product is one of the biggest advantages of being an independent author. I also think you can keep your books evergreen as an independent author. There are always new readers entering middle grade, and I’ve seen quite a few traditional books that were hot a few years ago fade away as publishers move their focus and marketing investment into newer titles.
What are some of the biggest challenges?
I think the #1 challenge is visibility. As an independent author, you are putting the marketing investment behind your books, and there is a lot of competition out there. Your books may be flying high one week, and then sales sag as a new crop of traditional and independent books hit the scene. Ensuring your books stay visible is a critical and ongoing challenge to attract new readers.
What are you working on right now?
Right now, I’m working on Epic Zero 9, which is coming along great! As mentioned, I’ve also just launched my debut picture book, The Day the Screens Stood Still, so I’m trying to get the word out about that one. Then I have a bunch of new middle-grade concepts I’m working on and will dive into one of those soon. Since I now have the time, I’m planning to use it wisely!
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