Echo and the Indestructibles: A Conversation with Matthew Phillion

PhillionMugEvery superhero multiverse has some kind of tangential connection to the lost continent of Atlantis. There are a lot of aqua men in the sea, after all.

Now author Matthew Phillion has added Atlantis myth and magic to his ever-expanding Indestructibles universe. His latest book Echo and the Sea is about a teenage girl from a small New England town who discovers she is actually a superhero sea-ninja warrior princess from Atlantis.

Readers who are familiar with Phillion’s previous efforts (including The Indestructibles, Breakout, The Entropy of Everything, and Like a Comet) know he has an unchecked imagination, an ear for snappy dialogue, and a love of pop culture. If you haven’t noticed yet, he’s busy building an interlocking multiverse that freely embraces superheroes, folklore, fairy tales, and arcana. Read our chat with him below.

SuperheroNovels: Your “Indestructiverse” includes four novels featuring a scrappy group of teenage superheroes. Now you’ve expanded that universe with Echo and the Sea. You must have a master plan. What’s your long game?

Matthew Phillion: You’re right, I do have a long game, but the writing and publishing process can be so organic I haven’t ever taken anything for granted with developing the Indestructiverse, so I’m really laying each brick in the structure I’m trying to build one at a time.

I love shared universes, whether it’s Marvel or DC or the way Stephen King’s stories interweave loosely with each other, or how so many writers have taken a stab at the Cthulhu mythos. I’ve actually had the plot for Echo and the Sea in mind since the original Indestructibles book came out, but I felt like the pressing need was to make sure that series had a strong foundation before I did anything not directly related. But right from the beginning I knew there was a shared universe I wanted to explore and that the Indestructibles were just one part of it.

I’d like to expand that universe in all directions – parallel and concurrent, as well as exploring the past with Doc’s old team, and I definitely have ideas that will take place in the far-flung future of the same universe. I have a sort of loose map of this world and I want to explore all the corners of it and create a prose version of a comic book universe (and if I’m being honest, I really would want to see it evolve beyond just print media – I did come out of screenwriting after all, and would love to work in comics and graphic novels as well). I’d also like to touch on different styles and genres – like the main series is often called YA fiction, but Echo is a little more mature, and I’d like to write the equivalent of an R-rated addition to the shared world as well.

In a perfect world, I’d invite other writers into that shared universe too. I think of some of the old horror and science fiction/fantasy writers who willingly shared their worlds with each other, and want to create a playground other writers can join in with. It’s a different era now and IP rights will always be problematic, but I’ve talked with other writers about crossovers and casual references to each others’ stories, because even just acknowledging those other characters exist builds connective tissue.

I do have other, non-Indestructiverse stories I want to tell, specifically horror and a low-fantasy novels I already have outlines for. But building the Indestructibles world out in multiple directions is the backbone to all writing I’m working on right now. There’s another sequel in the works, and the cast of Echo have more stories in them. I want to tell Doc’s origin story some day.

SN: The events included in Echo and the Sea could easily have filled the pages of numerous books. The courtship of Echo’s parents, for example, would have made a great single novel. And there’s a lot of other stuff that begged for additional details, like Barnabas and his magic serpent, and Artem, the last son of the Amazons. We’re sure many writers would have enjoyed tackling the machinations of complicated Atlantean politics. What kept you from turning Echo’s story into an epic multi-volume series?

MP: Y’know, I never considered writing it in longer form – I knew what it was from conception. I think there are plenty of amazing authors out there who write long-form epic fantasy, and I’d be lying if I said I hadn’t had aspirations to write the next Lord of the Rings (or more specifically, the next Dragonlance Chronicles saga). But right from the beginning I knew I wanted this to be an alternative to the sort of vast, ponderous epic and make it more fast-paced and cinematic (my background in screenwriting causing problems again). Also, I’m a big fan of Joe Abercrombie’s style of fantasy writing – sword and sorcery with the brakes cut.

But that’s not to say I don’t hope to explore those territories further. My initial game plan was a three-part series: Echo saves the surface world from Atlantis; Echo then needs to save Atlantis from a surface world wanting revenge; and Echo needing to somehow reconcile that both worlds can be harsh and violent and figuring out what she needs to do to keep them both safe. I’m not sure that’s the precise arc I’ll follow now that I’ve gotten to know the cast more, but many of the things you mention are things I do want to dig more into. I think Artem, in particular, deserves to headline a book. He’s become very important to me as a character.

I also try to know my weaknesses. I wouldn’t have found a lot of joy in the nitty-gritty parts of Atlantean politics (I think covering real-world politics for a while put me off to that type of writing), and the one thing I tell students when I teach writing is: write what you can’t shut up about. Write to entertain yourself first.

And as with the Indestructibles series, I like a finite story. One of the things I hold sacred in my own life is time; I’ve always felt like we never have enough time, and we never know how much time we have. I often joke that I write the books like I might get hit by a bus tomorrow and I don’t want to leave everyone waiting on a cliffhanger, but I’m not entirely joking. I like an epic and a cliffhanger as much as anyone, but one of my biggest influences in writing is William Gibson and his Sprawl and Bridge trilogies – self-contained books that tell an arc and have a unified message but stand alone on their own. My books are more direct sequels than those trilogies, but I like endings. I write every story with the ending already written in my mind, and with a stinger ready to go if I need it.

Finally – launching a book series is tough given the amount of content out there. I wasn’t sure there would be an audience for multiple Echo stories, so I wanted to tell the best, most complete story possible in case it turned out there wasn’t an audience for non-Indestructibles stories. Now that it’s done, though, I’m pulling on other threads. The ocean is vast, and full of were-sharks after all.

SN: According to your website, you’ve been a reporter, a screenwriter, an actor, and a filmmaker. It wouldn’t surprise us to discover you were also a puppet, a pauper, a pirate, a poet, a pawn, and a king. How did this path lead you to superhero prose fiction?

MP: It’s funny, I sometimes forget how random and weird my career path looks. I’ll mention something casually in conversation (“Back when I was in that prog rock band…”) and get the weirdest looks. But I recently found my Sixth Grade yearbook and where it asked what we wanted to be when we grew up, I’d written “author.” I don’t remember it – if I hadn’t seen the yearbook I would’ve thought I’d written “comic book writer.”

But really the entire arc has been about trying to find the best way to tell stories people would care about. I’ve never been particularly picky about what medium I used – I have, to steal a phrase from a Warren Ellis comic, a pathological fear of boredom, so I’ve tried a little bit of everything. I wanted to write books, but then I fell in love with comics; I’m old enough that the barrier to entry for both of those was incredibly hard, but I tried my hand at both novels and comic book scripts but wasn’t a mature enough writer to make that happen yet. I became an actor because I thought that was how you learned to direct (clearly I didn’t do my research there). Acting let me help other people tell their stories, which is something I still love to do in any way I can – storytellers are a weird tribe and I think we need to stick together. Plus having an IMDb page is fun.

I became a filmmaker when the digital video era really opened the door for indie filmmakers to get their work out there. My last big film project (a romantic comedy called Certainly Never) was something I wrote with the intent to pitch elsewhere, but then I realized it would be a great first feature – small cast, low-key locations, no big special effects or action sequences. I ended up producing, directing, and acting in it (I made a joke that I was a “triple threat” and one of those friends who is really good at making sure I don’t get too big for my britches said: “threat is not a compliment”).

That took a few years and I’m incredibly proud of it, but in the end, a film means you’ve got dozens of people counting on you – you’re wrangling cast and crew and seeing things through the post-production process, all of that. Certainly Never turned out great but didn’t make any money or get real distribution, and I felt I let that entire team down, so I wanted my next project to be one where if it failed to succeed, I would be the only one let down. Novels are a pretty solitary endeavor. And after writing films specifically for realism – stuff that could be shot low-budget – I wanted to go big. So I returned to my roots. I had, after all, always wanted to write comics … so why not go back to where it all began and put some of the superheroes I’d been daydreaming about for my whole life on the page?

So unconstrained by a film’s budget, and without the fear and guilt of having a team depending on me, I gave myself a few months to put the Indestructibles together, and I’ve never had so much fun in my entire life.

I will say, though, the one through line that helped me the most through all of this is my background in journalism. It taught me research, work ethic, and deadlines. Deadlines are my religion. You’re writing to be read, and read soon, so you kind of don’t have the option to be neurotic (and, oh, can I be neurotic). My first editor told me “done is good” – get that draft done and we can fix it, but if you can’t finish what you start, you’ll never get your stories out there. I live and die by that lesson.

If I have one regret about turning to prose, it’s that it leaves little time for everything else. I still consider myself a filmmaker and actor … just dormant. And I’m convinced once a journalist, always a journalist. It’s a lifelong status even when you get out of the business.

SN: What can you tell us about the next Indestructibles novel and the next Echo novel? What’s next in the pipeline?

MP: I’ve started work on a fifth Indestructibles novel – the working title is the Crimson Child. All along, Doc Silence has warned the team that magic is the most dangerous thing they’ll ever encounter, to the point where he’s actively tried to keep them away from facing it as a threat. But that’s exactly what they’ll go up against this time. It’s a smaller scale story. Rather than time traveling to save a post-apocalyptic future or stopping an alien invasion, they’ll have to save one person – and the entire town she’s made disappear into thin air.

We’ll also see how the kids have changed and grown after saving the entire world at great cost to themselves. Plus the story brings to the forefront a very bad decision made by the Lady Natasha Grey way back in Breakout. That’s a hanging plot point I’ve always wanted to go back to.

I’ll put out a couple of the “one-shot” stories I try to offer between books – I’d like to get a holiday story out again this year, and I’ve been working on a slightly longer one in which the team gets trapped in what’s basically a cursed board game that’s a mash-up of HeroQuest and Dungeons and Dragons. We’ll get to find out what character class Emily would play which I found way more entertaining than it should have been.

I’m plotting out a sequel to Echo and the Sea that will deal with the ramifications of Reina’s actions. Artem’s emergence from the Island of Unwanted Things will attract the attention of the Amazons, and Yuri’s journey is just beginning. And I kind of see Barnabas as the Han Solo of the Seven Seas … trouble will always find him if he sits still long enough.

And I’ve got a few other irons in the fire that aren’t Indestructiverse-related too – a zombie apocalypse story that started off as a snarky “well, here’s what I’d do” plot synopsis into something I really wanted to write, and a dark high fantasy story from the perspective of the monsters, but those are back-burnered until I get the next Indestructibles book drafted up.

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