JS Lewis, author and co-creator of The Grey Griffins series
Behind the Grey Matter of The Grey Griffins
In the world of YA (Young Adult) fiction these days, you can't swing a sparkley vampire around without hitting some barely hidden teen erotica that would make any parent blush if they actually read it. Thankfully, Jon S Lewis and his Teen Titans of steampunk, The Grey Griffins can pull us out of this tailspin and give us some supernatural adventure without resorting to the same old cliches. Targeted to the Leviathan and Boneshaker crowd, The Grey Griffins series is sure to entertain the kid in all of us.
Thanks again for taking time out of your hectic schedule to talk with Dieselpunks! We’re always ready to support the authors and artists that make our favorite genre possible, so let’s jump right in and see what’s been happening in the world of The Grey Griffins.
First off, can you give us a little bit of background on the series?
If it were a movie pitch, I’d call the Grey Griffins “Harry Potter meets Hellboy with a dash of Goonies mixed in for good measure. It’s about four young friends who realize the monsters in their closets are all too real, so they band together to hunt the creepy crawlies down before those monsters take over the world.
We’ve been blessed with wonderful support for the Grey Griffins series. The first trilogy has sold about a million copies so far, and we just optioned the movie rights to coincide with the release of the second trilogy called the Clockwork Chronicles, where the series takes an exciting twist into the realm of Steampunk.
Who are the big players in the Grey Griffins tales?
The hero of the Grey Griffins is Max Sumner, the twelve year old of a billionaire industrialist. Max has anything money could by, but more often than not he resents his family’s wealth. He wants people to accept him for who he is, not his dad’s bank account. He lives in a quiet town in Minnesota, and like all the other kids who live there, he thinks it’s boring. Then he stumbles upon a dark family secret, and everything changes.
Max’s best friend is Harley Eisenstein, a bruiser who looks like a roughneck, but is a master inventor. He fabricates a lot of Steampunk gadgetry, like spring-loaded derringers. Natalia Romanov is the sleuth, and Ernie Tweeny is the comic relief. He’s what is termed a changeling – someone who had a transfusion of faerie blood and took on properties of that faerie. Now Ernie can run over 100 mph, and to celebrate his superpower he put together a costume and calls himself Agent Thunderbolt.
The books have a very distinct steampunk setting. What got you interested in steampunk initially, and what are your favorite sources for steampunk inspiration?
In the first three Grey Griffins books, we avoided technology as best we could. We wanted the series to feel timeless, so we skipped terms like “SUV,” “cell phone,” and “laptop.” Yet technology is a huge part of our lives – from instant messaging to texting to email, and countless other outlets. We decided that with this new trilogy, we needed to add technology, but we wanted something classic but still powerful. The name Charles Babbage came up in conversation, and since we already had an affinity for all things Steampunk, it took off after that. It was the perfect solution to our problem.
What other sources are you drawing from to build your worlds and characters?
My favorite part of role playing was character creation, and I approach creating characters for books the same way. I know height, weight, hair and eye color. I have a detailed spreadsheet that even captures things like allergies, favorite colors and pets. The more I know about the character, the more they’ll spring to life on the page. I’m also take elements from friends, family, and favorite characters from movies and television, throw them all in a pot, and then pull out what works the best in any given circumstance.
In terms of world building, I love Google. You can find anything from what New York City would have looked like in 1918, to amazing Steampunk art, fashion and gadgets.
The characters in The Grey Griffins series are trained to hunt monsters, but they themselves are a little supernatural. Do you touch on that irony in your stories?
It particularly plays out with Ernie. As a changeling, faerie blood courses through his veins. And the more he taps into his power, the more his human essence gives way to that faerie. In time, if left unchecked, he’d lose his humanity. In The Brimstone Key, we find that there is a bit of a caste system, where changelings are considered less than human. Yet Ernie’s biggest struggle is his yearning desire to be accepted.
I’m a big fan of supernatural lore, and my library is stocked with tons of research material. When you’re building your characters and their foes, do you tap into traditional folklore at all, or are you building your own mythologies?
All the time. Morgan Le Fay showed up in the first book. Vlad the Impaler appears in the second. There is a particular creature called a spriggan that was inspired by an illustration by master artist, Brian Froud. The “Dell” or “Apple” brand is actually called “Babbage,” so we slip in all kinds of characters from myth and history. I think using those known entities makes stories all the more believable.
The Grey Griffins certainly have parallels with JK Rowling’s wizardly teens. One of the dangers she encountered when Harry Potter was first released was the backlash against the use of the supernatural in a Young Adult book. Have you had any similar troubles publishing your books, or has the world finally embraced “magic” back into the mainstream?
I’m happy to say we haven’t, but we also made a decision in the beginning that “magic” was only used by villains and faerie creatures, whereas humans would be driven by tech. Writing is as much a business as it is an art, and we didn’t want to create unnecessary barriers.
When it comes to penning a new story, is it a solo project or a collaboration of ideas?
When it comes to the Grey Griffins series, Derek and I plot them together, and then we each own a portion of the story. But by the time we turn in the final draft, we’ve edited each section several times.
I’m really excited about my first solo novel (Invasion) that comes our January 4, 2011. Collaborating can be a lot of fun – especially since Derek and I have been friends for as long as I can remember. He was at my sixth birthday party in 1978 and gave me my first Star Wars Action figure – Obiwan Kenobi – and I still have it. Yet there is something very freeing about writing my own story as well. I guess it’s a bit like moving out of your parents house and getting your fist apartment. And this new book also has a heavy Dieselpunk influence, where the main character’s grandfather wore a jet pack and hunted Nazis during WWII.
I’m sure having some backup helped get the series off the ground. What kind of hurdles did you have to jump to break into the writing business?
They say the hardest part of getting published is finding an agent, and it may be true. A good agent has relationships with editors and those relationships are what you pay an agent for (agents generally get a 15% commission). However, the landscape of publishing is rapidly changing to the point where self-publishing is a viable opportunity for skilled writers who are having a tough time breaking in. I’ve started a series on self-publishing on my blog (http://www.jonslewis.com), and Dean Wesley Smith’s blog (http://www.deanwesleysmith.com).
For people looking for a good book on how to find a literary agent, I highly recommend How to Write a Book Proposal by Michael Larsen. And there are some great books on how to become an author that an agent can’t resist. I think the best are both written by super agent, Donald Maass: Writing the Breakout Novel and The Fire in Fiction. Anything by agent, Noah Lukeman is fantastic as well.
Has there been any talk of adapting your stories into other media, like movies or comics?
We recently optioned the movie rights for the Grey Griffins series, which is really exciting. We had been developing a graphic novel with WildStorm and a trading card game with WizKids, but both became victims of the economy. There have been talks of a web-based TCG though, so we’ll see what happens.
Tell us all about your latest book, The Brimstone Key.
The Grey Griffins are transferring to Iron Bridge Academy, a school that that exists in a strange world between the Earth and a place of powerful magic called the Shadowlands. Iron Bridge Academy is in the heart of New Victoria, a city caught in time that looks a lot like Victorian era London with cobbled streets, gas lamps and men in top hats, but there are clockwork butlers, steam powered carriages and flying aerocars.
Changelings from the school begin to disappear, and there are rumors that someone who goes by the name of the Clockwork King is sucking out their souls to power his clockwork soldiers. When Ernie’s best friend disappears, the Grey Griffins decide they have to do something before Ernie gets taken, too.
After The Brimstone Key, you had mentioned going into a more dieselpunk direction with your work. Since the dieselpunk aesthetic covers everything from down-to-earth noir tales to high flying pulp adventure, what kind of dieselpunk influences do you plan to bring into this new masterpiece?
I am a HUGE fan of the dieselpunk genre. I think Tom Brokaw had it right when he called the WWII generation the “Greatest Generation.” I can never thank those men and women who sacrificed for us enough. My grandfather was captured by Nazis in the Battle of the Bulge, and I want to keep his memory alive as best I can. What better way to do that than through a dieselpunk story?
Dave Stevens left us too early. I wish there was a library of 500 issues of the Rocketeer, and at least a dozen movies. I can’t get enough of it. I’m also a huge fan of the first Hellboy movie, as well as Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow. For Invasion, I created a pulp hero called The Phantom Flyer who was a part of an experimental Nazi hunting unit. They used him as the face of the war, including a series of comic books and pulp stories. Well, the Nazis are back, and now it’s up to his grandson to finish what his grandfather started.
Where can people find your work on the ‘net?
My blog is http://www.jonslewis.com. It has info about my books, but there is also a big section on the “how to” of writing and getting published – and it’s not just me. I’ve asked a lot of my friends – many of them New York Times bestselling authors, as well as agents and editors to chime in as well. I think it’s important to help people make their dreams come true, and this website is a small part of that. My twitter account is @Jonslewis and there is a lot of great info on writing there as well. You can also follow me on Facebook at http://www.facebook.com/jonslewis.
What can we do at Dieselpunks to help with the new series?
If any of this sounds intriguing to you, I’d really appreciate it if you could help spread the word. There is nothing more powerful than a recommendation of a friend – someone you trust. Likewise, if you have questions about writing or getting published, don’t hesitate to email me (email@example.com). I love to help whenever I can.
Oh, and keep posting those amazing images – like this one >> http://www.dieselpunks.org/profiles/blogs/knights-of-the-air-wwi . I mean, that image alone could inspire a novel. It’s incredible and I had no idea soldiers trained like that. It’s incredible.
Have any extra words for your fans?
Just that I’m excited to become a part of this dynamic community. I love that the web can facilitate communities of people from all over the world who share similar passions. That’s really exciting.
For more information about Jon, check out his website at http://www.jonslewis.com/.
Pick up the latest adventures of the Grey Griffins in our steampunk book store.
Special thanks to artists Javier Burgos, Travis Hanson, Simone Kesterton, and Mike Dubisch for their awesome Grey Griffins artwork!