An Interview with Author Mack Maloney by blogger and men’s adventure fiction reviewer Jack Badelaire
I sat down recently with Mack Maloney to talk about his popular WINGMAN series, how the original books were republished as ebooks and about the new Wingman adventure “Attack on Area 51.”
JACK: For those readers not familiar with Mack Maloney, can you provide us with a brief biography?
MACK: I grew up in Dorchester, a working-class neighborhood of Boston. I went to Catholic grammar school and got slapped around by the nuns. I went to Boston Technical for high school, though I’m not technically inclined and hated pretty much all of it. Once I got out, I never wanted to go to school again, but because of the draft and the Vietnam War, I enrolled in college, got a degree in journalism and then a graduate degree in film. I always liked writing; even as a little kid I would send letters to publishers asking them to publish my book. Someone gave me a typewriter when I was in the fourth grade, so I taught myself to type and I would pretend to be an adult and pitch ideas to sci-fi editors. I had the bug early.
I started writing full time in the late 80s; my first series was Wingman, and that went 16 books. Other series I’ve done are Chopper Ops, Superhawks and Starhawk, which is also known as “Wingman in Space,” a more recent one called “The Pirate Hunters.” I’ve also written books under the pen names “Jack Shane,” “Bill Kellen,” and “Hunter Kennedy.” But I’m probably best known for books written as “Mack Maloney.” It’s more than 40 books in all.
JACK: What books, movies, and other media do you consider inspirational to your writing, and if they aren’t the same, what do you consider your favorite, or “stuck on a desert island” books, movies, music and television shows?
MACK: I don’t get to read very much, other than research and magazines and so on. I haven’t read a novel in a long time because I’m always too busy writing them. But my favorite book of all time is “Going After Cacciato” by Tim O’Brien. It was published in 1979. A soldier goes AWOL during the Vietnam War and his commanding officer orders the other soldiers in his squad to go after him and bring him back no matter what. So they follow him, on foot, all the way to Paris. He’s always one step ahead of them, and by following their CO’s orders to the letter, the squad members are able to walk out of the hell that was Vietnam. I know it sounds crazy, but it’s had a huge influence on just about every book I’ve written.
I watch a lot of TV – I have it on day and night – but mostly for the news and sports. TV is really pretty bad these days. There’s too many commercials and I don’t find any of it inspirational. Besides, watching TV for inspiration is too much like work. TV is for chilling out. I watch a lot of the Military Channel, even though they just keep repeating the same shows over and over. I started watching old “X-Files” re-runs on the BBC America channel. Great show when it started out. And we watch a lot of Red Sox, even though my wife is from New York and from a family of Yankee fans.
JACK: WINGMAN is somewhat unique to the post-apocalyptic adventure genre in that not only is the main character a fighter pilot, but much of the action takes place in the air. Can you share with us how you developed the idea for this series? In particular, what was the “Aha!” moment?
MACK: My first book was on the old Alfred Hitchcock TV Show. Then I did one on the Perry Mason TV Show. Somewhere in between, my literary agent asked me to come up with some more ideas to shop around to publishers. I sent him a three-page letter with about three-dozen ideas. I remember one was for a book on “The Flintstones.” Another was on “Dragnet.” TV books were very popular at the time, so that’s what I was hitting them with. At the end of that letter, though, I added, “Or how about a book that would be like “‘Mad Max’ in the air?” The idea was for fighter pilots to be like rock stars, and their planes be like their own personal hot rods.
Top Gun had just come out, and that sort of put an end to the Vietnam hangover. Tom Clancy was already popular, so the military was cool again. People realized jet fighters were sexy, plus the Russians were the perfect villains. So, the “A-Ha” was when my agent called to tell me that Zebra Books had bought the series. The “Oh Shit” moment came when he also told me they wanted four books in the first year. I was working a full time corporate job at the time; I was a flack for GE. So I’d get up at 4am, write until 7, go to work, come home and write from 6 to 10 or 11. Next day, do it all over again. I did that for a little more than a year. It was a lot of work, but it helped make the series a success and looking back I loved every minute of it.
JACK: Did you read much post-apocalyptic fiction (THE SURVIVALIST, FROM THE ASHES, THE GUARDIANS) before you started writing WINGMAN, or were you a newcomer to the genre at the time? Did you explore the genre more as you continued to write WINGMAN novels?
MACK: I’d never read any of those books, though William Johnstone of the “Ashes” series was published by Zebra as well. I didn’t know what went into those series and, later on, I realized that was a good thing because it made Wingman a little more unique. And, as you said, much of the action is in the air, dogfights and so on, so a lot of Wingman takes place in another dimension, if you know what I mean. I also came from the different end of the political spectrum than a lot of men’s adventure authors. I’m not right wing, I’m not a conservative. When I was in college, I hung around with people who were in the SDS and had connections to the Weathermen. But I consider myself patriotic and I’ll support the people in our military until the day I die.
Even now, whenever a member of the military writes me, I tell them, don’t buy any more of my books. I’ll send them to you for free. So I’m a weird combination of politics and I think that comes out in the books, and especially in Wingman. There’s no wanton killing, there’s no racism, and even though there’s lots of X-rated sex, there’s no women getting beat up, or getting killed just for the hell of it. The idea was always that the “ordinary” people of the United States are what make the country great, not the asshole politicians, not the overfed generals, and definitely not the filthy rich establishment types.
JACK: Authors vary a lot in their approach to writing. Some talk about the artistic process and how characters “take control” of the story and so forth, while others have a very professional, workmanlike approach to writing, looking at it as “just another job”. How do you approach the writing process, from creating an idea to sitting down and writing the manuscript?
MACK: I can never look at what I do as just another job because it’s as far removed from “just another job” as you can get. I consider it a privilege to do what I do and I’m lucky I’ve been able to do it for so long. All that said, my approach to writing in not workmanlike. It’s chaos. It’s hundreds of index cards, or sheets full of ideas taped on the wall or scattered all over the floor. It’s dozens of books about airplanes stacked up in my office. It’s a lot of empty Red Bull cans. It’s also continually writing and re-writing. Someone once said: “Writing is re-writing,” and that’s the truth. I re-write every book at least three times before handing it in, and usually more like four or five times. You’ve got to keep going over it, over and over, until it is in the most economical state it can be. People say my books read quick, and so they assume I write them quick, but it’s just the opposite. The quicker the book reads, the longer it took to do it. Everything’s has to flow, from one sentence to the next, from one paragraph to the next, from one chapter to the next. You can’t lose the reader’s attention for even a second or you’ve failed.
As for the characters, I don’t think of them in a way that they could “take control.” I’m not even sure I know what that means. I always just start out with your basic good guy character and he’s either a fighter pilot, a helicopter pilot or a special ops guy. He’s put in a situation where he has to do something to help his country and he goes and does it. He runs into twists and turns along the way, he has friends who help him, he has an archenemy and there’s usually some very attractive female in the mix. But it’s always the story about how he does it, almost as if it’s happening to you personally. And most times, it turns out the way you’d want it to turn out.
JACK: How did you get your professional writing career off the ground? WINGMAN was your first novel, but did you sell short stories or essays before you turned to writing novels? Did you find it difficult to get your first novel in print, or was it surprisingly painless?
MACK: Like I mentioned earlier, I was just in the right place at the right time with Wingman, thanks mostly to Tom Clancy. And the publisher wanted the books as quickly as I could write them, so, I guess you could say it was painless. I was somewhat prepared though. Again, I went to undergrad school for journalism, and then to graduate school at Emerson College for filmmaking, which helped immensely in writing books, because another thing I try to do is look at every book like it’s a movie and storyboard it out before starting.
I never attempted to write short stories or anything along those lines, but when I got out of Emerson, my first job was as a sports reporter. I covered the Red Sox and the Celtics for two years and that was like boot camp. I would recommend to anyone who wants to be an author, try to work for a newspaper first. Work with the deadlines, the crappy pay and the bitter drunken editors. If you can live through that for a couple years, you’ll fit nicely into the publishing world.
JACK: Having read the first of the PIRATE HUNTER books, and the WINGMAN series, what I enjoy the most is how you’re able to blend exciting action and adventure with a little “wink and a nod” humor. Amusing character names, wild hijinks, larger than life plots – do you feel that action and adventure stories are always best served with a side of humor?
MACK: Well, yes — it can’t be blood and guts all the time. There has to be some humor, because life is funny in its own way. Plus, these guys have to be doing something between battles. I mean, that’s why Tom Clancy was such a success because submarines are so slow and things have to happen in between them sailing from Point A to Point B and he knew how to do it. I have to switch it around a little bit because in jet fighters, people get from point A to point B in a hurry, but it’s the same basic model. The challenge is, what to do in those in-between scenes and in my case, it sometimes provides the opportunity to get a little nutty.
Someone in the publishing business once wrote me to say that they’d read a certain part of a Wingman book and couldn’t stop laughing. The part had Wingman talking to some old sea captain who knew information about some bad guys, information Wingman had to get. The sea captain’s tale went on for pages, sailing stormy seas, running into sea monsters, getting captured by the bad guys, then escaping the bad guys, then running into pirates and then being waylaid by hookers, and there’s cocaine and white slavery, gun-running, on and on. But suddenly, he gets shot through a window and as he’s dying, his last words to Wingman are: “Damn — I was just getting to the good part…” I didn’t even think about it at the time I wrote it, but that person thought it was hilarious and looking back on it, I guess it is funny. And yes, the books are full of things like that.
JACK: One common theme I’ve also noticed is how characters are often improvising, modifying, tinkering, and building things, from Hawk Hunter’s ultralight plane and his modified “Super F-16”, to Snake and the gang retrofitting an old DUS-7 freighter and their modified “work chopper”. Are you something of a mechanical tinkerer yourself, or do you just feel it adds an element of inventiveness and resourcefulness to the characters and stories?
MACK: I’ve never been accused of being a tinkerer. I can shine a flashlight on something that’s not working but it ends there. But I know what you’re talking about and I think it comes from the idea that if you do the best with what you have, a lot of times it comes out better than you could ever imagine. On the grand scale of things, a good example is rap music. I can’t say I’m a big fan of rap music, but I appreciate how it started in its modern form. Back in the 80s when Nancy Reagan was running the country, the government cut a lot of social programs to the inner cities. This resulted in a lot of free music programs being killed, programs that would have given free instruments and lessons to kids in Harlem for instance, a place where great music has come from for more than a hundred years. So, this left the kids living there with nothing but turntables and vinyl records. So they took the turntables and the records and manipulated them and that became scratching. And then they started improvising street poetry over the scratching and that became rap. That’s a really short version of what happened, but those are the basics. And look what it’s become. Rap and hip hop music are huge and while I think it’s unfortunate that it’s so caught up in the thug and gangsta culture, there’s no denying that it all began because those kids were making the best of what little they had.
That’s how I like my characters to be. It’s really no fun if you start out with a fleet of the best fighter planes, the best ships, the best tanks, all the supplies and ammo that you need and so on. I think it’s more interesting if the characters have to improvise, fight for every inch of what they have to achieve. So, if you can’t carry automatic weapons because you’re going through the bad guy’s metal detector, then fill plastic squirt guns with ammonia and fight them that way. You have to go island hopping in the Pacific but your Harrier is not available, use an old World War Two amphibious biplane with a bad engine. It’s just way more interesting that way.
JACK: I can’t speak for SUPER HAWKS or CHOPPER OPS, but in both the WINGMAN and PIRATE HUNTERS novels, the main character always carries with him a small American flag. Does this have particular meaning to you, or do you feel it’s simply in keeping with the patriotic nature of those characters?
MACK: It’s just the simplest way of communicating how the character feels about his country. In my mind, carrying a little flag, and not a big one, says it all.
JACK: How do you feel about eBooks and ePublishing in general? Do you own an eReader? If so, how has it changed your book-buying habits?
MACK: Overall I think it’s great. I just read that Amazon is now selling more e-books than regular books. It’s like CDs taking over for albums, and then MP3s taking over for CDs. It’s that sort of big change. Any way that a person can get a book quicker, with less hassle and at a reasonable price is good for everyone, including the author.
JACK: Tell us how the WINGMAN books came to be re-published as ebooks. I know you thought it would never happen.
MACK: You’re right — even as recently as a year ago, it seemed impossible. There were too many legal hurdles with the original publisher, arcane stuff that goes on in the publishing world. But then one day, they suddenly reverted all the rights back to us, so we were able to do whatever we wanted with the books. We got an agreement with Open Road Media right away and they’ve now re-released the original 16 books digitally. It seemed like a long time coming, especially since at one point, I was getting at least a couple letters or emails a week asking me when the series was going to come out as ebooks. Open Road has been great so far — they’re very enthusiastic about getting the books back out there and in promoting them. Plus, they re-designed the covers and everyone has flipped over the new artwork.
JACK: And you’ve also written a new Wingman adventure…
MACK: Yes — again, for the past 15 years or so, I would regularly get emails asking when I was going to start up the Wingman series again, when I was going to write something new. When we did the deal with Open Road, I suggested I could write a novella, basically bringing Wingman back to life, and they really liked the idea. So in addition to the original books coming out as ebooks, there’s a new adventure called “Attack on Area 51.” Wingman is back in “his own world,” basically the same world he was in for the 16 original books, with just a couple twists. Again, it’s a novella — 30,000 words — but it bridges that gap between Wingman #16 and the five STARHAWK books. It was a bit surreal writing it after all these years, but if you liked the original Wingman books because of all the flying and fighting and the patriotic angle, then there’s a lot of the same in “Attack on Area 51.”
JACK: Can you tell us a little about the plot of “Attack on Area 51?”
MACK: Well, I’d recently written two non-fiction books on UFOs. One is called “UFOs in Wartime,” the other is “Beyond Area 51.” I wrote “Beyond Area 51” towards the end of 2012 — then my next project was doing the new Wingman adventure. I think it was my editor at Open Road who said, “Why don’t you put Wingman at Area 51?” because she knew I’d already done a ton of research on the place while writing “Beyond Area 51.” That’s really all I had to hear — everything just sort of started clicking after that. Hawk Hunter is back in “his world,” but he doesn’t know how he got here. The answer lies deep under Area 51, but the Asian Mercenary Cult has control of that part of America. So Hawk has to figure out a way to get into the place and get what he needs without starting World War Four — which almost happens anyway. Area 51 is a strange place — I guess that goes without saying. But when doing the non-fiction book, I read about all these theories and rumors about what’s buried underneath it and in the mountains nearby and it was just freaking wild stuff. I mean, it just begins with UFOs. UFOs are almost the mildest part. So, that was a good place I felt to wrap this new adventure around. It’s just a coincidence that I had two books come out at the same time with “Area 51” in the title. I’m sure the NSA is thrilled.
JACK: And this new adventure can be bought along with the original Wingman ebooks?
MACK: Yes — wherever ebooks are sold, but I think I’d start at Amazon.
JACK: How do you think your original fans will take to ebooks?
MACK: I think many of them already read ebooks and let’s face it, digital is the way of the future. Plus, for those people who don’t own a Kindle or a Nook, most ereader stores, for example, Amazon’s Kindle, have something called a Desktop Ap. This can be downloaded to a person’s computer, similar to any other application such as Microsoft Word or Adobe, and read on their computer this way.
JACK: You are known to the world as a writer of action-adventure novels. However, I know most writers feel that writing isn’t who they are, or even all that they do in their lives. Can you give us a few of your other hobbies and interests outside of your novels?
MACK: I feel like I’m a writer 24/7, especially with a deadline hanging over me, which is just about all of the time. Once I’m in that deadline mode, I’m either actually sitting down and writing or I’m thinking about what I’m going to write, or I’m writing down stuff in my idea book. Even when a book is finished, there’s always the deadline for the next one. Luckily I have a very understanding wife, because it can really get nuts at deadline time.
But I also have a few side interests. I do PR for members of a few classic British rock bands like YES, The Moody Blues, King Crimson and others. It’s a nice diversion because I’m a big fan of a lot of the artists. I was a big fan of the band YES years ago, and now I’ve been working with Jon Anderson and Rick Wakeman, two of the most prominent members of YES. It’s very strange now when the phone rings and it’s Jon Anderson calling. You just never know what’s going to happen in your life. I’m also very good friends with Patrick Moraz who also played in YES, but also in The Moody Blues. Great guy and a genius musician. I’ve come to know people like Matt Malley, bassist for Counting Crows, very nice guy, Trey Gunn of King Crimson, also a great guy. Merrell Fankhauser – he’s the guy who wrote the original “Wipe Out” years ago and he was recently nominated for a Grammy. Very funny, interesting guy.
JACK: It appears that music is a passion for you, and a couple years ago you released a music CD – SKY CLUB – can you talk a little about that?
MACK: Yes, as you can probably tell, music is a big part of my life. My grandfather owned a record store, so even as a little kid I always had records and had music playing. My wife once pointed out to me that all my heroes are musicians and not writers — and she was right. Anyway, I have a lot of good friends who are musicians, so a few years ago I got this idea. I always listen to music when I’m writing, and one night I thought maybe it would be cool to create a soundtrack for a book, just like a movie has a soundtrack and some TV shows. We quickly realized that doing a soundtrack for a book would be a huge project, but doing one for a short sci-fi story might be workable. So we came up with this idea about a spaceman stuck on a deserted planet with only his iPod to keep him sane. He listens to twelve songs on this iPod over and over, songs that have a bearing on his somewhat hopeless situation. He finally dies and his iPod is found a million years later by an alien race that has never heard music before. They recreate the songs on the iPod – and that’s what the CD is. It’s us playing the songs as reconstructed by the aliens.
When people first heard we were doing this, they just assumed it would be a little boutique record made on home equipment in a basement somewhere, but it’s not. It cost a ton of dough to make, it’s highly produced and sounds great on the radio. Ten of the 12 songs are cover versions of songs by bands like The Who, Cream, Jars of Clay, Journey and others. We blew up these songs and re-arranged them to tell the story of this spaceman stranded on this planet. We mixed it at Bristol Studios in Boston, a famous place right across the street from the Berklee School of Music and there’s some great musicians on it. The main guy is a good friend of mine named Mark Poulin. He plays 80% of the guitars, all of the bass, all of the drums and does all of the vocals. It’s really his album, a real tour de force. The other musicians are Rich Kennedy, another great guitar player who just happens to be my wife’s brother, Chris Billias, a fantastic piano player who is also our producer at Bristol, and Amadee Castenell, whose played sax for Paul McCartney, Paul Simon, the Neville Brothers, Fats Domino, Bonnie Raitt, the Eagles, on and on. He just got off the road with Elvis Costello when we first met him and his playing really brought the CD up to another level. I play the synths on it, but anyone can do that these days. The rest of the guys are really what makes the album go.
Plus, as another result, a band in San Francisco called Spirits Burning is doing a rock opera based on one of my Starhawk books. So the music and the writing have merged in a couple ways, which is very cool. And yes, the CD is called SKY CLUB and it can be bought just about anywhere, but I’d suggest Amazon.
JACK: During your writing process, do you find yourself driven by music while you work? If so, do you have a specific “writing soundtrack” or is it just background noise to help you think?
MACK: Before I start a book, I think about what music might serve as the “writing soundtrack,” as you say. It might be just what I’ve been listening to at the moment or something else entirely. I’ve been getting into house trance music in the last few years. Some of it is really good. Lots of percussion, which I like, artificial as it may be. And a lot of it is surprisingly melodic. While I was writing the Superhawks series, I listened to nothing but dance music coming out of the Middle East, especially a 2.5-hour long continuous track called “Om: Dubai.” It’s by Andy Caldwell and Charl Chaka. Wild, crazy stuff. It worked somehow. While I was writing the Starhawk sci-fi series before that, I listened to nothing but jazz from the 1950s. It seemed to be the right music for writing space opera books. All this goes on mostly during the first draft, I’ll have earbuds in and be banging away on the keyboard while this music is blasting away. I know it sounds crazy, but again for some reason, it works.
JACK Finally, what is your…Dream Car?
MACK: Up until a few weeks ago it was 1966 or 67 Corvette, blue, convertible, 4-speed, 350 engine. But my wife and I were out the other day and we saw a 63 Vette for sale and it was such a great looking car. So, now I’m on the fence.
JACK: Favorite Alcohol?
MACK: For years it was Jim Beam and Coke, but you know, that Coke can kill you. Too much sugar and caffeine. So I switched to Jack and Ginger, which is a great combination when you’re out and about.
JACK: Getaway Vacation Spot?
MACK: My wife and I had our honeymoon on Block Island and it was the greatest time ever. It’s such a strange little place. Everyone says it’s Nantucket and Martha’s Vineyard without the attitude, but it’s more than that. It’s only a few miles long and barely a mile wide, but it has 350 lakes and ponds on it. There’s a lot of high hills so you can see the sunrise and sunset from the same spot. Great beaches. Great bars and places to eat. Very slow pace. Eccentric people. We try to go back as often as we can.
JACK: Comfort Food?
MACK: Hand’s down, spaghetti & meatballs.
JACK: Favorite Art Object?
MACK: A paint-by-numbers painting my father did sometime in the 1950s. I was too young to remember why, but at some point he started doing paint by numbers, even though he really wasn’t an artistic guy. This painting is of a water wheel in a very nice bucolic setting. It might have been the only one he did. But it was always hanging in our house when I was growing up and now it’s hanging in my office.
JACK: Favorite Album?
MACK: Sorry, I’ve got to give you my top five: Sergeant Pepper, for what it meant to civilization, ie elevating pop music to an art form, no easy task. Close to the Edge by YES, the perfect progressive rock album. Straight or high, it sounds just as good. The Story of I by Patrick Moraz. People think Peter Gabriel or Paul Simon were the first to do World Rock? They’re wrong. Moraz did it in 1975 and a lot of it sounds like it was recorded yesterday. The soundtrack to the film, “The Good, The Bad & The Ugly” by Ennio Morricone, which is also my favorite movie, and finally “Do You Dream?’ by Markus Schulz. It might be dance/ trance/ house/ chill music, but it’s great dance/trance/house/chill music.
Jack Badelaire is a blogger, movie and book reviewer, and author of several men’s adventure novels. He can be found at postmodernpulps.blogspot.com