Truth is stranger than fiction. My new Milligan Creek novel, Quiet on Set, features a washed-up action movie star who made a bit of money endorsing products in Japanese. The commercials were never supposed to air in North America, but somehow word got out.
I was going to make up a strange product for him to endorse, but when I was doing some research in that regard, I stumbled across this thing and realized I couldn't come up with anything stranger than this. So, I merely gave it a new name.
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!
Seeing as my office is open to the rest of our house, I often listen to music as I write to drown out background noise and conversation. However, it can't contain lyrics, or I find it too distracting. So, I tend to listen to classical music, opera (Wagner's Ring Cycle is one of my faves) and, more often than not, film scores. The music I listen to has to suit what I'm writing, helping put me in the correct frame of mind. Seeing as Pumpkins is a scary story, I listened to a lot of horror/sci-fi/fantasy film scores while writing it. In case you'd like to put yourself into the correct frame of mind for reading the book, here's a brief list.
After making some minor revisions following my beta readers' input, I just finished typesetting Pumpkins, book 1 in the Uncanny Icons series. It's a completely new design that has a classic feel, and I can't stop looking at it! Now to do a final round of proofreading before sending it off to my advance review team. I love this stage!
You never know where--or when--inspiraction will strike. In this case it happened late one night when I was listening to a podcast, which I often do in the middle of the night due to my ongoing battle with insomnia. (I have no problem falling asleep, but from about 3:00 a.m. on, staying asleep is a challenge. Podcasts help pass the time and also lull me back to sleep--eventually.) One night a podcast had a historical minute inserted as a commercial, and it was about a guy named Windwagon Smith who supposedly invented a wind-powered Conestoga wagon back in the mid-1850s. Seeing as this new novel involves a big Hollywood production coming to film a movie near the town of Milligan Creek, which is located on the Canadian prairies, I thought a film about Windwagon Smith would be a natural fit.
While doing some research today on Smith, I discovered that Walt Disney released their own version of the story back in 1961. You can watch it below. It's pretty terrible, but I'm definitely going to riff on some of these ideas in the book.
I'm already having so much fun on this book. One of the best things about writing fiction is making little discoveries along the way that you never planned but which your characters present to you. In this case, it's one of my characters, Dean Muller, who's a movie buff. Seeing as this book is about movies and making movies, I thought it would be fun to slip as many lines from iconic movies as possible into his dialogue throughout the book. His first line comes from The Empire Strikes Back, which I point out in the narrative. From there on in though it'll be up to readers to identify them on their own. In fact, I think I'll run a contest and give away a prize to whomever can identify them all. Stay tuned!
It's from the Canadian Review of Materials. A brief excerpt:
The only thing that mystifies me is that although the reviewer praised the novel throughout, she only gave it 3/5 stars. Hard to square that rating with the review, but I appreciate the encouraging words as I dive into the first chapter of the next book in the series, Quiet On Set! this week.
To celebrate the book being in print for five years, I decided it was time to do a new cover, so I commissioned Hannah Doerksen, who did such an excellent job on Randolph the Yellow Snowman, to do it for me. Here's what she came up with. New cover soon to be available on Amazon.com and Amazon.ca.
After completing a solid first draft of Pumpkins, the first book in my new Uncanny Icons horror series for YA readers, on March 29, I was feeling pretty good about it, but I decided to set the book aside and not even think about it much for two weeks, so I could come back to it with fresh eyes. I started on Friday and just finished this morning, and I'm more excited about the book than ever. So, now it's off to my two beta readers.
Once I receive their feedback and make revisions, it's on to typesetting. The cover has been ready for a couple of months. (I keep it open on my desktop as inspiration.) I'll go through the manuscript one more time after that (things always come across differently once the manuscript is in its "final" form), and then it'll be time to print up some copies for my advance review team. It's been a while since I launched an entirely new series, so I am pumped to get this out there. I already have most of the story worked out for Brooms, book two in the series. But before I get going on that, I'm getting started on Quiet On Set!, book 6 in the Milligan Creek series. Meanwhile, I have also "secretly" been pecking away at book 1 in a time travel sci-fi series, so we'll see how and when I can get that out as well.
Seeing as I spend a LOT of time in my office, over the years, I've filled it with all sorts of things I enjoy to make it a fun space to be. Here are a few shots I snapped this morning to give you a sense of what it's like.
Brief thoughts and updates on writing, publishing, and life