Decades ago my father and I tried to make croissants from a Julia Child recipe. It was a complex process designed to turn stratifications of dough and butter into a luscious treat and it was an abysmal failure. But Bob Proehl probably would ace the recipe, considering his prowess in layering elements to create one fabulous concoction.
Proehl combines the story of a mother, Valerie Torrey, and her nine-year old son, Alex, who travel cross-country hopping from one comic book convention to another. The plot lines follow Valerie and Alex, the comic book creators, and the characters featured in their comics. Proehl’s technique facilitates an interesting and fun read that never bores, while deftly avoiding confusion and excess. In addition, Proehl is a skilled storyteller with just the right touch of literary style.
A Hundred Thousand Worlds tells the story of a mother’s love for her son and the complicated nature of all relationships. Alex and his mother do have a destination–Los Angeles–yet the trip itself and the reason for its undertaking also brings the reader on a metaphoric journey well worth taking.
Amy M. Hawes: Not all adults retain the visceral memory of being a child. Because the character of Alex is so believable, likable, and well constructed, I think you must be one of those who managed to. Did you find it easy to conjure up the feelings that accompany boyhood? Was it easy to create Alex?
BP: I had a kid that age in the house while I was writing the book. My stepson was eight at the time. He’s thirteen now. We were still in the ‘getting to know you’ phase and I was really interested in the ways in which his modes of thinking were fundamentally different than an adult’s, rather than being a proto-version of adult thinking. Many times he was very savvy, and other times he could be easily overcome emotionally. I wanted to try to reflect these modes accurately in the book.
AH: You succeeded! I thought all the character building in A Hundred Thousand Worlds was artfully done. You slip in details without making it obvious that you’re teaching us. For example sandwiched in dialogue between a comic book writer, Fred, and a comic book artist, Brett, you write, “Sometimes Fred informs Brett, in detail, what Brett’s opinions are. He’s done it since college. He runs at about twenty percent.” That one made me laugh and it reveals you know your characters very well. How much character development do you do before you begin to write?
BP: I’m a big proponent of leaving a lot of backstory off the page. But, you do need to know a lot about them. With Brett and Fred, you have two characters that have known each other for quite a while. They grew up as fans together, which formed a particular kind of friendship and they become collaborators on a piece of work. I wanted to make sure I nailed the complexity of their relationship–showing that friendship is not always a universally fun thing. It can be complicated.
AH: Writers use different methods to generate backstory. How do you work?
BP: Actually, in its longest form A Hundred Thousand Worlds was about five hundred pages, which is way too long. My editor and I worked on getting it down to around three hundred and fifty pages. A lot of what I cut was either backstory that wasn’t really doing anything important or in-jokes that didn’t serve the story. Things that were really only there as fan service.
AH: You demonstrate an intimate understanding of the world of ComicCons. Valerie admires “the capability of those within it to get deeply and sincerely excited about things.” Do her words convey your sentiments? When were you inspired to use ComicCons in the plot line of a story?
BP: I’ve been a big comic book lover since I was a kid. I’ve been to a lot of cons. But, I also grew up reading comic books by myself. I still very rarely allow myself to read a comic book in public. That’s a weird leftover of growing up at a very different time, when fandom wasn’t the same as it is now. So, cons have always been this place where you can unabashedly be really geeky. Some of what’s at cons is stuff I’m into and some of it is stuff that I’m totally not into. It’s so great even when I go to one and I don’t know what someone is dressing up as, but they’re sure poured their heart into it!
AH: The character names in your novel are fabulous. The Astounding Family, Dr. Right, the Perilous Pentad, the Ferret, and ExSanguina are some of my favorites. Did you have a blast making these names? Have you tried your hand at writing comics?
BP: I did have a great time coming up with names and I haven’t tried to make a comic series. While creating the names I started with the obvious analogues. The Astounding Family is really the Fantastic Four. Outerman is clearly Superman. Some of them were less direct analogues. But, I’ve never tried my hand at writing comics. Comics are a particular medium, as far as the constraints they place on the writer. And, it’s a very visual medium and I’m not a visual writer.
Different writers work in different ways. I am not one of those writers who is seeing the movie of the story and writing it down. I’m hearing words. The idea of switching to working in a visual medium is daunting.
AH: You intertwine your narrative with plot lines from a fictional TV show Anomaly, along with several storylines from fabricated comic series. I enjoyed how you incorporated so many worlds into one book and I’m thinking that’s one of the origins of the title A Hundred Thousand Worlds. The fact that Anomaly is based on the concept of multiple universes seems like another one. You offer the reader an array of delicious stories, but did your head spin while preparing our feast?
BP: Actually, no. I charted them all out. My notes are so geeky. I made entire season arcs for Anomaly. Every issue of the comic book that Fred and Brett work on I have plot synopses for. And, almost none of that work ends up on the page. It’s the kind of thing you do on days that you want to get work done but the prose just isn’t clicking right. Instead, you work on something like a Wikipedia entry for the television series in your book.
AH: Are any of those stories going to be fleshed out to become scripts, comics, or future novels?
BP: I’ve forgotten the name of the show, but somebody sent me a trailer for a show starting in the fall, which is eerily like the plot of Anomaly. It’s a little weird because Anomaly is basically The X-Files and Fringe thrown into a blender. But this guy wrote me: isn’t this your story?
One thing I would like to do is a Lady Stardust comic [this is one that Brett and Fred work on]. I have extensive notes.
AH: I learned so much new vocabulary from A Hundred Thousand Worlds. I especially liked the phrase heel turn, where a character dies then comes back evil for a little bit. This piece of vocabulary and others give the impression there are formulaic ways of writing comics. Have you evaluated those ways and did they have any influence on the way you put together your novel?
BP: Actually, for a heel turn the character doesn’t have to die. It’s just when a character becomes evil. A couple weeks ago Captain America was revealed as a bad guy, which will probably only last for two more weeks. That’s a heel turn. However, it can often occur around a plot line of death and destruction.
I don’t know if I would want to use the word formulaic when talking about writing comics but there is a certain amount of that. Comics are constantly ongoing, yet there is a period when things frequently return to status quo. Often you see a writer who runs the story’s course over several years of writing a title and they put all the toys back in the box at the end.
Now, the things that work for serial narratives work really poorly for fiction. Sometimes I will read that a writer is structurally inspired by something like The Wire and I cringe. The Wire is great for what it’s doing but some of things it does are in service to its being a serialized medium. Novels don’t necessarily work that way.
AH: Amidst the ComicCons, the comics writers and artists, and cosplay (costume play) women, the story you tell is a serious one, which shows the emotional journeys paralleling Valerie’s and Alex’s physical one. As they travel across the United States, the stories of their pasts and potential futures are slowly revealed. Do you find books that are too simplistic boring?
BP: That’s a very difficult question. I actually like boring books. If it were up to me I’d never write plots. Characters would have a series of lovely emotional scenes and I would just go on for six hundred pages. But I do understand that a lot of readers actually enjoy plots that have motion and develop, so that’s what I do. However, I do like a lot of books that spin wheels or take time with small details rather than rushing you from one plot point to another.
AH: What’s the most recent book you’ve read that you really loved?
BP: I just read the Middlesteins by Jami Attenberg while I was traveling. I was actually at a ComiCcon this past weekend. The book is a couple years old. It was fantastic. And, it’s exactly the sort of novel I was talking about–very much a character study. She does wonderful things with the flow of time, changing points of view, and the writing is lovely.
AH: What would be your dream job? It can be a real or imagined.
BP: I kind of miss bookselling, which was what I was doing just before I quit to write A Hundred Thousand Worlds. I had a record store before that. Bookselling and record selling are a dying art. You connect people with stuff they’re really excited about. It’s not entirely dissimilar from the kind of enthusiasm I’m talking about in the book. I miss it. If money was no object and I could do anything it would probably be something along those lines.
AH: Thanks for taking the time to chat, Bob. BCB wishes you every success!
Bob Proehl grew up in Buffalo, New York, where his local comics shop was Queen City Bookstore. He has worked as a bookseller and programming director for Buffalo Street Books, a DJ, a record store owner, and a bartender. He was a 2012 New York Foundation for the Arts Fellow in Fiction and a 2013 resident at the Saltonstall Arts Colony. He has written for the 33 1/3 book series and worked as a columnist and reviewer for the arts and culture site PopMatters.com. Proehl currently lives in Ithaca, New York with his wife, stepson, and daughter.