They say you should write what you know. And while no one has any idea who “they” are, it’s still good advice. Take writer Clifford Royal Johns, who — in the following email interview — discusses how both he and the hero of his neo-noir sci-fi novel Velocity Blues (paperback, Kindle) are rather restless souls.
To start, what is Velocity Blues about, and when and where does it take place?
It’s is set in near-future Chicago, maybe 25 or 30 years out.
Zip is genetically engineered to be brilliant, creative, active, and healthy. But as he matures, he transforms into a different person: a teenager who is ridiculously energetic and erratic and also a bit odd looking. And he’s not alone. There are a few thousand young genetic mistakes like him in Chicago, trying to survive. They call themselves Energy, but most everyone else calls them Fleas.
Many of the Energy get their food and some money from the non-Energy crime bosses who use the Energy’s speed and desperation to support criminal activities.
So, Zip works as a courier. A crime boss hires him to deliver a small package, which may contain something enormously valuable to both the Energy community and to the crime bosses, but for different reasons.
There are murders, surprises, and a lot of frustration while Zip tries to concentrate on what to do with the package and how to avoid getting killed. Energy have trouble staying on-task even when no one is shooting at them.
I don’t think I can tell you much more than that without revealing too much.
Where did you get the idea for this story, and how, if at all, did that idea evolve as you wrote this novel?
Zip and the other Energy suffer from a complete lack of focus. I got this idea from my own inability to focus for long without moving. I can’t seem to sit in one place and focus on anything for more than about fifteen minutes. I get restless.
I’m getting antsy even answering this question. Well, not really, but you get the idea.
So, I thought, what if my protagonist can only focus for a few seconds at best? Just like me, only taken to the extreme. And what if he had a life-threatening problem and really needed to figure out a plan and focus on a solution to his predicament?
So, the book started with a character who has a problem, like most of my stories do.
The rest of Zip’s character and the other themes in Velocity Blues — being part of a visibly different and despised group, coming of age, a sense of family that’s not who you grew up with — were drawn out and exposed by the story itself as I wrote.
Velocity Blues has been called a neo-noir cyberpunk sci-fi story. Is that how you’d describe it?
Neo-noir I’m good with. Sci-fi, of course. I’m not so sure about cyberpunk — I mean it has the feel of cyberpunk, but not some of the common the tropes, so I have a mixed reaction to that. Still, cyberpunk is in the eye of the reader, isn’t it?
I tend to think of Velocity Blues as noir mystery action suspense sci-fi. I guess I have trouble sticking to a definable sub-genre.
In researching you for this interview, I read that you originally wrote Velocity Blues as the thesis for your MFA. How different is this version of the story from your MFA one, and why did you make those changes?
Because I was experimenting with changes derived from critiques and comments from several instructors, the novel was a bit rough, uneven, so I mostly polished it up, made the story consistent and smooth, that sort of thing.
Are you at all worried that your professors or faculty advisors will read this version and get mad at you for making those changes? Or worse, be disappointed in you?
Ha! That’s a good question. The simple answer is no. I doubt any of them remember the specifics of the advice they provided anymore. Also, analysis and critique are always opinion, and I don’t think any good teacher expects a student to implement their suggestions without consideration. A writer still needs to decide if a change is right for them. Also, such input is not prescriptive, it’s more directional, like, try this strategy, or consider that as another option — like that.
Velocity Blues is your second novel after Walking Shadow, but you’ve also published a number of short stories. Are there any writers or specific stories that had a big influence on Velocity Blues but not on anything else you’ve written?
No, I don’t think so, at least none that I can pull out of the pile.
How about comic books? Because Zip kind of reminds me of The Flash.
I haven’t read comic books, and I haven’t seen the TV show or movies The Flash is in, but speed has been a special attribute since at least Hermes and Iris and Nike. I think it’s pretty easy to think that since The Flash and Zip are both fast there must be similarities, and there might be, I don’t know, but Zip is not a superhero by any means. I’m not even sure you could call him heroic. And his speed is not a benefit to him. It’s a debilitating problem, partially because he can’t control it and partially because it affects his mind, too.
Makes sense. But are there any movies — or TV shows, or games — that had a big influence on Velocity Blues? Because the name is awfully close to that movie Varsity Blues.
I don’t know what Varsity Blues is, but if I were to find an influence, perhaps more unconscious than purposeful, I’d say Naruto, the anime version. I hadn’t watched much anime, but someone suggested that I would like the show, and I did. His character is impetuous and athletic like the Energy in Velocity Blues, so I think it might have had some influence. I even tip my hat to Naruto in the book.
Now, given Zip’s superhero-ish abilities, it seems like Velocity Blues could be the first book in a series. Is it?
It is certainly a stand-alone novel. If the inspiration hits me, if an idea grabs me and insists that I write the book to find out what happens, I’ll write a second book, but I don’t have any specific plans to do so.
I asked a moment ago if Velocity Blues had been influenced by any movies, TV shows, or games. I’d like to flip it around, if I may, and ask this: Do you think Velocity Blues would work as a movie, show, or game?
While I was writing it, I thought it might work as graphic novel or comic book, but I know very little about those genres so that’s just a guess, really.
As a movie? Maybe. I wonder how well the high-speed thought processing would come across on the screen. Still, I would love to see the characters in other art forms. I think it would be fascinating to work on something like that.
And if someone did want to make a Velocity Blues movie, who you would want them to cast as Zip: Ezra Miller, who plays The Flash in the Justice League movie; Grant Gustin, who plays The Flash in The Flash TV show; or James Vanderbeek, who played Mox in Varsity Blues? Or do you have someone else in mind?
Well, I don’t recognize any of those names, and haven’t watched any of those shows or movies, so I can’t say one way or the other for them, but Velocity Blues would require an actor who looks like a teenager and appears kind of gentle or naive to work as Zip. I can’t think of anyone like that.
If a movie was made, the actor would need to be about fifteen or sixteen now to be the right age for filming, wouldn’t he? I mean, Millie Bobby Brown [Stranger Things] would have been great as Bang in the story, but I think she’s too old already.
Finally, if someone enjoys Velocity Blues, what neo-noir sci-fi novel of someone else’s would you suggest they read next and why that?
Elisabeth Hand’s The Book Of Lamps And Banners. I like the way the story doesn’t feel orchestrated by the writer, it feels more natural. The protagonist isn’t really under control and neither is the story — it feels wild, kind of feral. And there’s a fascinating technology element that puts the “cyber” in “cyberpunk.” I’m not sure if she would call it cyberpunk, but I would. It’s actually the fourth book in her Cass Neary series. I don’t think you have to read the previous three to enjoy it, although you should.