In his debut novel, A Hundred Thousand Worlds (hardcover, digital), writer Bob Proehl follows a mother and son as they travel the comic book convention circuit from New York to Los Angeles. But while the book is steeped in comic book culture, fandom, and comic book convention lore, it’s not just a collection of Spider-Man references and Superman jokes, as I learned when I spoke to Proehl about the book.
I always like to start with the basics. So, basically, what is A Hundred Thousand Worlds about?
It follows a mother and son as they travel cross-country. The mother is a former cult television actress, and she’s making appearances at a series of comic book conventions as they go. Stepping back from that, it’s about the importance of stories, how they shape us even as we’re shaping them. And the core of the book is really this relationship between Valerie and Alex, the mother and son.
Where did the original idea for A Hundred Thousand Worlds come from, what inspired it, and how different is the finished book from that original idea?
It came from my own experiences as a new stepparent, and my concerns and anxieties around that. Becoming a parent brings the “am I being a grown-up?” debate of your twenties to a boil pretty quickly, and that’s very much where I was at when I started the book.
But it was also going to be this sort of anthropological study of comic con culture. I had early outlines for the book with a sprawling cast; people who represented every possible aspect and demographic of contemporary fandom. As I started writing, though, the core characters were the ones that were speaking to me most loudly and clearly, and a lot of that other stuff dropped away pretty quickly.
Comic book and sci-fi conventions vary greatly, and have changed a lot in recent years. I assume you’ve been to some, and modeled the ones in A Hundred Thousand Worlds after them, but I’m curious which cons were the biggest influence and why them?
I’ve been going to New York City Comic Con as a fan for a couple years, so that’s the one that served as the model for the cons in the book. What I love about NYCCC is that you can walk into Artists Alley and talk to pretty much anyone. The first time I was there, I walked by Chris Claremont just sitting at a table. No line, no nothing. A writer whose X-Men stuff I religiously followed as a kid, and I got to chat with him for a while in the middle of this huge convention hall. That’s one aspect of comic cons I love, that interaction between creators and fans.
Getting ready for the book to come out, I’ve gotten to go to a couple other great conventions and do panels and signings. It’s not quite the flip side of that coin, because no one has known who I am or what the book is about, but it’s been great to be out and talking to people to say basically, “Look, I wrote this whole book about people like us!”
What about the character of Valerie Torrey, did you model her — either physically or in terms of personality — after anyone specific?
Valerie started out as Dana Scully [from The X-Files]. I think that’s pretty obvious, and I’m not trying to keep it a secret or anything. There’s maybe one description early on where someone mentions she has red hair. I don’t know if other authors do, but I don’t have little mental pictures of characters in my head while I’m writing. I hear them more than I see them. But yeah, Valerie, and particularly her character on television, Bethany Frazer, started out as Scully and developed out from there, including thinking about the way she’d be received by fans, how they’d react to her. Scully was such a revolutionary character for genre stuff back then, and I wanted to get across how important she’d be to fans, and how those effects she’s created exist totally separate from her own world and her own concerns.
In the book, Val and Alex are going from New York City to Los Angeles. Did you make that journey yourself so you could scout locations and make sure you got the names of local diners right?
I didn’t make the whole trip. I’ve spent a lot of time in Chicago, which is why the second act is set there. Los Angeles, I don’t really know the city at all, so I got help from friends who’ve lived there with questions like “What Chinese place would they order from?” Actually, I can’t remember if we edited it out, but there was a scene I wrote where Alex is being driven around L.A. in a limo and they just circle, and that was my experience of being in L.A. I was waiting to return a rental car, and there had been a bomb threat, so I just drove around the financial district for an hour.
I think it grounds a book to have those kind of physical touchstones. But still, you’ve got to create the world for people. If you’re from Chicago and a building in your neighborhood pops up in a book, that’s fun, but you’ve got to make those places mean something for everyone who’s reading it. You can’t use accuracy as a shortcut or a shorthand for description.
That said, we had a fantastic editor who did stuff like checking driving distances and made sure that menu items were actually on menus. All accuracy points go to her.
Eleanor Henderson, the writer of Ten Thousand Saints, called A Hundred Thousand Worlds is “A Kavalier & Clay for the Comic-Con age.” I assume she didn’t say this because a hundred thousand is greater than ten thousand. But do you think it’s an apt comparison?
Eleanor and I live in the same town, so I really like thinking that we’re going to start waging a war of title numbers.
The Kavalier & Clay comparison is more inevitable than apt, I think. It’s one of my favorite applications of comic books to literary fiction, the other being Emily St. John Mandell’s Station Eleven. Chabon takes up the history of comic books, and he’s looking at it from the industry side, and from the mythology side, and as a way to talk about stuff like ethnicity, and how essential the immigrant experience is to American culture. Mandell is dealing with comic books as physical objects that persist, which is extra fascinating because comics have for a long time been these fetishized collector, speculator objects, but in Station Eleven there’s a kind of post-economic value to them. My book engages more with fandom than with comics directly. To the extent it connects with Kavalier & Clay, it’s like they’re at opposite ends of the same tunnel. But in the same way you don’t need to have read Silver Age comics to understand Kavalier & Clay, you don’t need to be up on current comics, or have attended a convention, to understand my book.
What books and authors do you see as the biggest influence on not just what you wrote about in A Hundred Thousand Worlds but also how you wrote it?
I think influence fades a lot as you get older, the sense that you have this handful of authors looming over you and you’re typing away in their shadows. I write a non-fiction book [33 1/3: Flying Burrito Brothers’ The Gilded Palace Of Sin] that is painfully, embarrassingly, under the influence of David Foster Wallace. It’s a hundred pages long and has a hundred fifty footnotes. I have another novel which has not and will probably never been published that has Pynchon and Vonnegut’s fingerprints all over it.
This book feels like coming out from under a lot of shadows. I wrote it just as I was turning thirty, and just as things were starting to pick up for me with my writing. The first draft was written at a residency in upstate New York where I was living for a month, and it was more or less me locked in a room with the book. At least it felt that way. I remember I brought a bunch of comics with me: Grant Morrison’s All Star Superman and the Kirby and Lee run of Fantastic Four. At some point I went into town to find a copy of The Blind Assassin by Margaret Atwood, because she does brilliant stuff with storytelling as a mode of communication in that book. But I didn’t have the feeling of heavy influence the way I’ve had with previous stuff.
Despite what some of my previous questions may have led you to believe, it seems to me, from what you’ve said, that A Hundred Thousand Worlds is as much, if not more of a road trip, a mother/son story, and a tale about coming to grips with who you are and where you came from than it is about conventions and comics and sci-fi. Am I wrong about this?
No, you’re spot on. The conventions are really the backdrop on which Val and Alex’s story plays out.
Okay, given that, why do you think sci-fi fans who go to conventions would like this book?
I think, and I hope, that I’ve rendered that world with love and respect. Because it’s my world too, it’s a bit of culture that’s important to me. I wanted to portray it in a way that communicated to people outside of it how amazing it is, and how great it is to be a part of it, to have these place to go and celebrate things you love.
We’re at a weird point culturally where even as the objects of “geek culture” — which is not a phrase that I like — are becoming cool and even ubiquitous, there are stereotypes of what “geeks” look and act like. It’s still seen as the guys from The Big Bang Theory. I don’t think that’s reflective of a lot of fans’ experiences, so I wanted this book to move away from that. I hope fans and con-goers look at this book and say, “Yeah, that’s kind of what it’s like.”
Now, on the flipside of this, you are a fan of comic books. Why did you decide to write A Hundred Thousand Worlds as a novel instead of as a comic?
The simple answer is, because I can’t draw. But that’s kind of a cover up for a more complicated answer, which is that I’m not a super visual writer. I’m hearing the words on the page rather than seeing the book as a series of pictures. In the hardcover, the endpapers are drawn by this amazing comic book artist, Esad Ribic. He drew a piece that one of the characters, Brett, draws in the book. I had to give him all these visual references, like “the robot is kind of a Wall-E, Asimo type robot rather than a C3PO type” or “the city looks a little like the Emerald City or maybe Gallifrey.” It was a lot of fun to do, but it was the first time I’d thought really visually about that drawing, and of course this was after the book was written. I would love to try my hand at writing comics, but it would be a big jump to try to think visually about how a story works.
But do you think A Hundred Thousand Worlds could work as a comic?
It might. There’s a lot of talking and reflection and that sort of thing, which is not always great comic book fodder. I would love to do an actual comic of Lady Stardust, the series that Fred and Brett are working on in the book. That’s one instance where I did a bit of visual thinking to figure how Brett was drawing, and the artist I’ve always wanted to draw Lady Stardust is Cliff Chiang. He does these figures that are lithe and strong, and his line work is solid without feeling blocky or stiff. And he has that Kirby-derived design sense for space gadgetry, which is how I imagine Brett would draw alien ships and lasers and whatnot.
What about as a movie, do you think A Hundred Thousand Worlds would work as a movie?
I think it would, sure.
Has there been any interest in making a movie out of A Hundred Thousand Worlds?
Nothing yet. I have a film agent, but nothing is happening so far. Fingers crossed.
If A Hundred Thousand Worlds was being made into a movie, they would never let you have any say in who would direct it or star in it. But if they do, who do you see playing Alex and Val, and who do you think would do a good job as director?
I’m aware I would get zero say in things, and that is totally fine by me. I’m hoping if someone picks it up for film, they really make it their own. I’m not precious about that kind of thing, and I would love to see someone interpreting the book in a way that’s completely different from what I had in mind.
I’m also awful at the fantasy casting game, and I am ten times worse when you throw in child actors. The only kid I can think of for Alex is the kid who plays Carl in The Walking Dead, circa season one. And I freely admit that is a terrible choice, along with being temporally impossible.
For a little while I imagined that Gillian Anderson and David Duchovny would both read the book and decide they loved it so much they wanted to get back together to play Val and Andrew. But then they got back together to do more X-Files, which I guess makes more sense.
Someone at some point suggested Amy Poehler as Gail, which made no sense to me at first. But now I can’t get around how great she’d be. So those are my casting picks: Amy Poehler as Gail, and Kid Who Plays Carl circa Season One as Alex.
Lastly, if someone really enjoys A Hundred Thousand Worlds, what book would suggest they read next and why that?
Either Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandell or The Interestings by Meg Wolitzer. They’re both amazing, and they’re both beautifully written. Station Eleven plays with some of the same ideas about the importance and persistence of stories. The Interestings is one of the best books I’ve ever read about growing up “creative,” and hitting that point where the pressure to become a “real person” kicks in. Also, Eleanor Henderson’s Ten Thousand Saints, which captures the beauty of being a fan of something, in this case music. You should read all three of those, as soon as you possibly can.