Talking with Ti
with Ti Mikkel
Q&A with Marko Kloos
Ti: Hello und GruB Gott, Marko! Thank you so much for taking the time to answer a few questions. I normally start with everyone’s WILD CARDS origin story, but in your case I want to ask about growing up in Germany. Where were you born? When did you move to the United States?
MARKO: Grüß Gott! (I can tell you went to school in southern Germany. That’s a very Bavarian greeting. I’m from the “Guten Tag” part of Germany.)
Ti: Yes! Ich habe an der Universität Regensburg studiert.
MARKO: My family is from Münster, which is sort of the cultural capital of the Westphalia region. I was born in a nearby town called Borken while my father was on job assignment, but I grew up in and around Münster. I moved to the United States in 1996 at the age of 24 because of a woman. The relationship didn’t work out, but I ended up staying, and I became a U.S. citizen in 2004.
That’s a big move. Did your family support it?
MARKO: They didn’t object to it, although they probably thought I was a little rash or dumb (or both). I suspect they all anticipated I’d be back in a year or two. It’s been 23 years now, so I’d say they have gotten used to the idea. My nephews and nieces think it’s super cool to have an American uncle—they were all born after I had already moved to the US—and they treat me like a minor celebrity whenever I visit.
Ti: That’s adorable. Okay, onto your Wild Cards origins. The writers who make up the consortium are people you’ve “known” or “read” since childhood, and the series began when you were in high school. When did you first discover the series? And from there how did you get to know George, or did he just call you out of the blue?
MARKO: I was aware of the series, but I hadn’t read any beyond the first volume when George approached me about writing for Wild Cards, so I had a lot of catching up to do.
I got to know George in 2015 at Worldcon in Spokane. One of my military SF novels had been nominated for a Best Novel Hugo, but the nomination turned out to be part of a slate effort, so I withdrew the book from the shortlist. George came up with the Alfies in response to the slate nominees bumping other deserving writers off the shortlists. We first met at a dinner thrown by my publisher. They had invited George because he’s with them as well through the Game of Thrones graphic novels, and he accepted. Then my author relations manager sat us next to each other for the dinner, and we had a lovely two-hour conversation about books, movies, and all sorts of things. A few weeks after Worldcon, I got an email from him where he wanted to know if I liked superheroes, and things sort of went from there.
Ti: Let’s talk a bit about the difficulty in pitching characters from scratch. The first few ideas you had were shot down because they were used in some form already, right? But eventually you landed on Khan (who’s featured on the cover of LOW CHICAGO). How did you come up with him? Are you a cat person?
MARKO: I like cats, but I don’t have any because we have dachshunds, and they don’t get along with other small animals. As for Khan, I’ve always wanted to put a new spin on the shapeshifter tropes, and he seemed the perfect candidate for that. His Wild Card manifested in turning the left half of his body into a humanoid Bengal tiger, with all the attendant perks, so he makes use of that skill set by taking up employment as a bodyguard. And because he’s sort of flashy and intimidating, he attracts a particular sort of clients—pop culture celebrities and mob bosses. His tiger half is always present, physically and mentally, so he has to navigate his world with this constant sort of duality that makes him a really fun character to write. Plus, he’s just plain cool. I mean, a guy who’s half tiger?
Ti: Oh, for sure. For your next character you created the anti-Khan in Archimedes, but the person I want to talk about now is someone we haven’t met—a young girl from Vermont with a physical disability who discovers that she’s an ace…an ace so powerful she could wipe the floor with Khan in a fight. Can you give us any more juicy details? What’s her name? Did anyone in particular inspire her?
MARKO: After Khan and Archimedes, I wanted a very different perspective, so I decided to tell the story of this young girl from a privileged family whose sheltered existence gets sort of turned upside down when she discovers that she is an ace with great powers. Her name is Tilly, but she goes by T.K. (Not only are those her initials, but they also accidentally allude to her Wild Cards power, which is telekinesis.) Her particular manifestation of it is that she can only manipulate objects that are perfectly spherical. When we first meet her, she is just discovering her talent, and she has to deal with the ramifications of being a super-powered ace in a world where aces are both celebrated and feared.
I didn’t really get the idea for T.K. from any particular source, but she does share a disability with my wife—she has hemiparesis, which means that one side of her body is paralyzed, particularly her left arm. There aren’t many aces with disabilities, and I thought it would be good to have that representation in the Wild Cards world. It was also interesting to think about how a character with a physical disability would react to suddenly being much more capable than any of the non-disabled people in her world, and how that would affect her relationships with everyone.
Ti: Outside of Wild Cards you’re best known for your military science fiction novels, so I’m curious about your childhood. What did you read growing up? Who were your favorite authors?
MARKO: I read pretty much everything as a child. There was never a time when I didn’t have a stack of library books in my room. I got the science fiction and fantasy bug pretty early on from a long-running German SF series called Perry Rhodan, and of course I read Lord of the Rings. I also loved the well-known German fantasy authors, especially Michael Ende, who wrote The Neverending Story. But I also frequently blew my allowance on pulp serials, particularly a horror serial called Ghost Hunter John Sinclair. The guy who writes those, a gentleman called Helmut Rellergert (his pen name is Jason Dark) is pretty much my role model for work ethic. He has been churning out a novella every month for over forty years, using a manual typewriter. Never misses an issue. That’s the sort of workman-like writer I want to be when I grow up.
Ti: That’s inspiring. Often you see people attempting to draw inspiration from a negative (for example, if you’re trying to lose weight you keep a picture of an obese person on your refrigerator). I find the opposite works best for me. Show me someone with abs and an iron-clad work ethic and I’ll take you to Mars.
Moving on, Germany had conscription (Wehrpflicht) for male citizens between 1956 and 2011. Did you serve, or did you have relatives who did?
MARKO: I did serve, but not as a conscript. I volunteered for service right out of high school and joined when I was seventeen, serving for four years in the German army. It was an interesting time because the Cold War ended and the communist bloc collapsed when I was in the military. When I joined, there was still a Soviet Union, and halfway through my service, Germany was reunited. By the time I left, the geopolitical situation had changed immensely. It was a wild and historic time. I have two younger brothers who also served, but only for their mandatory conscription period. I served a longer term as a volunteer and became a non-commissioned officer. Sadly, they served their terms after I had already left the military, so I never had a chance to order them around and really take advantage of the fact that I outranked both of them.
Ti: That seems grossly unfair.
MARKO: There’s no more conscription. The German military went all-volunteer and opened up almost all military jobs to women, so now the system is far more fair than it used to be.
Ti: I meant in the sense that you didn’t have the opportunity to order your brothers around, but yay jobs for women! I spent some time in Germany and while there I learned from classmates that they’re constantly digesting what happened in WWII. There’s tremendous guilt there and patriotism is socially not accepted. In writing military fiction, what effect did Germany’s past have on you, if any?
MARKO: When the new German military was formed after WWII, they incorporated strong principles of command ethics. Every soldier is taught that it’s the moral duty and right of a soldier to refuse an order if they can assume it to be illegal. This came out of the experience of centuries of military tradition emphasizing unquestioning obedience to one’s superiors, and the two world wars that were the results of this tradition. In my military fiction, conscientious objection to questionable motives and orders is a bit of a recurring theme.
Ti: Did you know when you were a kid that writing was the job you wanted or did that come as a surprise?
MARKO: As far as I know, I’ve always been writing. In elementary school, I used to write stories for my brother to take to school with him and read to his class. But I guess it took a whole lot of trial jobs in my twenties and early thirties for me to figure out that I wasn’t much good at anything else, and that I should try to pursue writing as a career.
Ti: I read that you spent time working as a freight dock worker. Please expand. How did that come about?
MARKO: That was after one of the trial jobs I mentioned. After the military, I started a bookseller apprenticeship, but quit after a few months and enrolled in school to get a degree that would enable me to go to a university. I had to wait for the next semester to begin because it was a one-year course that didn’t let you enroll in the middle of a semester, and I needed to make money in the meantime. One of the jobs available locally was night shift freight dock worker. It was truck freight, not ships, and my job was to unload and load freight containers all night—by hand, with pallet lifters, or with forklifts. I got my forklift license and got pretty good at driving and handling those forklifts, but I always knew it was a temporary thing and not a calling.
Ti: And in addition to being a freight dock worker, you’ve been employed as a soldier, a bookseller, a tech support drone, and a corporate IT administrator. All of these things make me very curious as to your hobbies. Tell the truth—you have a workshop in your garage, don’t you.
MARKO:I do have a workshop in the garage, but that’s just for fix-it stuff around the house. My tinkering is limited to computer stuff—I’ve been building and repairing my own PCs since my IT days. But my hobbies are mostly things that get me away from the computer because I spend all day in front of one for my writing work. I like archery and target shooting (both hobbies I can safely do at home here on our ten acres in rural NH). I also have more fountain pens and fancy notebooks than I probably should admit to owning.
Ti: Okay, but do you own a forklift? Please say yes. How fast do those things go?
They’re pretty quick. We had electric and propane-powered ones, and the propane forklifts were a little faster, although the electric models had better acceleration. (On slow nights, we may or may not have used those things to do unsanctioned races around the dock.)
Ti: Back to writing. You’re a graduate of the Viable Paradise writers’ workshop, so I’d love to get into a few questions about the craft itself. Do you have any tips for aspiring writers?
MARKO: Writing fiction is like any other form of mental or physical exercise—the more you do it, the better you get at it. Write a lot so you can get better at it, then submit your work and keep submitting it. Everyone gets rejections, even seasoned pros. It’s never personal, so don’t get discouraged. If you get rejected, at least you are submitting. And try to find a support group of peers—a workshop like Viable Paradise or Odyssey, or even a local critique group in your area. Be kind, don’t use people as a means to an end, and remember that every sub-genre in this industry is pretty small. Writers know each other, and so do editors and publishers. We talk and compare notes all the time, and if you get weird or rude with an editor or agent, word will get around.
Ti: Good advice. How about your writing schedule. Do you write seven days a week?
MARKO: I generally write every day, but I am not militant about it. There are days when life intrudes, or there’s family business to attend. And sometimes it’s nice to just take the day off and go for a long drive and out to lunch with friends. Writing is my day job, but I enjoy the freedom that comes with not having a set schedule.
I usually write from eight in the morning to about lunchtime. The afternoons are mostly for editing, making notes, worldbuilding, Internet research, and all the sort of stuff that doesn’t require full brainpower. These are the sort of activities that would sidetrack me during writing time, so I don’t touch them until the second half of the day. (I set my router to disable the Internet connection on my work laptop until noon just to make sure I keep the distractions away.)
Ti: Oh, wow — disabling the internet! That’s a game changer.
MARKO: It’s a self-defense measure. I can get my work done just fine even with an Internet connection, but the constant stream of emails, messages, and news alerts is extremely distracting, and I work better when I just disconnect from all of that completely so I can stay in the zone.
Ti: Outside of WILD CARDS, you’ve written quite a few solo novels. AFTERSHOCKS, the first book in a new series entitled “The Palladium Wars,” comes out in July. I know you prefer working alone as a general rule, but did writing for Wild Cards change that?
MARKO:I don’t like playing in other peoples’ playgrounds, but I made an exception for Wild Cards, and I’m glad I did. It’s a bit humbling to work alongside so many wildly talented and experienced writers, and to have George and Melinda as editors. It definitely forced me to step up my game and get out of my usual comfort zones. My Wild Cards contributions so far have been novelettes and novellas, and I really had to hone my short-fiction skills for those because I write novels and don’t really dabble much in shorter stuff at the moment. A good short story or novelette is harder to write than a novel in many ways because you have less room for your plot and pacing. So Wild Cards has improved my skills in that area, and it has made me more open to the idea of doing other collaborative work.
Ti: Do you ever suffer from writer’s block?
MARKO:I don’t really believe in writer’s block. I think that if you’re stuck on a piece of writing, you’re writing the wrong thing. If I get stuck on a chapter, I go for a walk to think it over, and the problem usually unravels after an hour out in the fresh air. If it doesn’t, I work on a different scene or chapter and then revisit the stubborn one later, but I always try to keep the momentum going.
I try to have a professional attitude about this because it’s my day job. Whenever I am just not feeling it for the day, I remember the wisest words I’ve ever heard someone say about writer’s block. “My daddy was a plumber, and he never had a day of plumber’s block in his life.” So I grab the plot wrench and the word spackle and get busy.
Ti: In Wild Cards, different authors often write for someone else’s creation. Outside of your own, do you have a favorite character?
MARKO: There are so many remarkable and fun characters in Wild Cards that it’s really hard to pick a favorite. But as an immigrant, I feel a great deal of affinity with Dr. Tachyon, whose story is basically an immigrant narrative. He leaves behind his native society and makes his way in a literal new world. The reception he gets is not always a positive one, but it doesn’t deter him from sticking with his choice and using his abilities to make his adopted home a better place.
Ti: What did your parents do for a living? Did they encourage your writing?
MARKO: My father was a cook and (badly) managed a series of pubs. My mother managed the household and did the waitressing in whatever pub my father was running into the ground at the time. My mother thought I was a bit of a prodigy, but I think my father was disappointed that my interests weren’t more traditionally manly. I think he would have preferred for me to take up soccer or boxing instead. But at least he didn’t oppose my writing.
Ti: Did you have a favorite teacher or role model growing up?
MARKO: Not as far as I can remember. We moved around a lot when I was a kid, and I switched schools practically every other year, so I didn’t really get to stick around anywhere long enough to make the sort of connections that would make me see someone as a role model. I think mine were all fictional characters from books.
Ti: George R. R. Martin has been a part of the genre fantasy community for years. Do you attend conventions?
MARKO: I do attend conventions, but I’ve pared down my calendar quite a bit because every time I go to a convention, I have to step away from the writing work for almost a week. But I try to attend Worldcon every year, and I also go to my two ‘home turf’ cons, which are Boskone and Readercon. Other than that, it depends on where I get invited as a guest.
Last year I did Emerald City Comic Con in Seattle at the invitation of my publisher, and I went to DragonCon in Atlanta because I was nominated for a Dragon Award in the Military SF category. I do like cons, but mainly for catching up with friends and socializing. The really big ones, like NYC ComicCon or DragonCon, are just too large for my taste, even if the cosplay is amazing.
Ti: Reading anything interesting right now? Watching?
MARKO: Yes and yes! I am currently reading Ann Leckie’s first fantasy novel, THE RAVEN TOWER, and R.F. Kuang’s excellent THE POPPY WAR. And while we are waiting for The Expanseseason 4 andGame of Thrones season 8, we are catching up onStar Trek: Discovery, which is surprisingly great and probably my favorite Trek reboot so far.
Ti: That’s the second time I’ve heard that recently about Star Trek: Discovery. I have some catching up to do, but you would rank it above Deep Space Nine?
MARKO: Deep Space Nine was the edgy Trek of its time, but it still had its share of camp. Discovery has managed to keep the original and TNG spirit and turn up the darkness a little. It feels like a properly modernized Trek that hasn’t forgotten its roots.
Ti: You and your family live in New Hampshire. How do you balance being a husband and father with getting words on the page?
MARKO: It works out really well, actually. I do this writing thing full-time from home, and the success of the Frontlines series has enabled my wife to retire from her job and act as my business manager and household majordomo. She keeps the day-to-day distractions away from me. And when there’s parenting work to do, we can switch on the fly and address the responsibility in whatever way works best at the time. And when the kids are home and I have to do writing work, I close the office door and put on noise-canceling headphones. Life (including family life) isn’t supposed to stop for art, it’s the other way around.
Ti: Does your wife get to read your first drafts? Is she allowed to give you notes?
MARKO: She has an M.A. in English with a literature and creative writing bent, so she works as my beta reader and first editor. I give her all my drafts to read, and I’ll often bounce around ideas with her and talk out plot issues and worldbuilding. I usually keep a copy of each draft on Google Docs so she can make notes for me to address.
Ti: I love that. Let’s go back to your upcoming novel AFTERSHOCKS. Tell us a bit more about it.
MARKO:It’s the first book in a new series called THE PALLADIUM WARS. The story takes place in the distant future, in a star system that was colonized by humanity a millennium ago. There are six planets, all with their own distinct offshoots of Earth society, and they just had a crippling interplanetary war between the original first colony planet and an alliance of the other five. The series deals with the aftermath of war, and what happens when you are on the losing end of a conflict, and you were on the side of the bad guys. I used post-war Europe as an inspiration, particularly the status of Germany after WWI and WWII. It has quite a bit of military SF in it (two of the four POV characters are active military, and a third is a former soldier), but it also has a space opera slant: political intrigue, assassinations, conspiracies, resource conflicts, and power struggles behind the scenes.
Ti: Sold! Vielen dank and thank you so much for taking the time to talk today, Marko.
MARKO: Vielen Dank! This was fun, and you asked the most interesting questions I’ve ever had to answer in an interview.
Narrator: And then Ti’s heart grew three sizes.