Joe Sergi lives outside of Washington, DC with his wife and daughter. Joe is an attorney and a Haller Award winning author who has written articles, novels, short stories, and comic books in the horror, sci-fi, and young adult genres. Joe is the creator of the Sky Girl series of novels and the editor of Great Zombies in History. His first novel, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy was selected Best of 2010 by the New PODler Review. Joe is a life-long comic fan who regularly writes on the history of comics and censorship for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund. A complete list of Joe’s titles is available at www.JoeSergi.net. When not writing, Joe works as a Senior Litigation Counsel in an unnamed US government agency and is a member of the adjunct faculty at George Mason University School of Law.
Would you call yourself a born writer?
I think it’s fair to say that I was a born storyteller (much to my parents’ and teachers’ chagrin). As a child, I spent a lot of my time in imaginary worlds with imaginary friends and fantastic creatures. Luckily, I had teachers and parents that encouraged this behavior. My parents tell me that they used to get notes about my vivid imagination. Some of my earliest memories including laying in the back seat of my parents’ car during long road trips creating comic books based on my favorite Saturday morning cartoons or writing the screenplay for a Star Wars inspired opus, complete with the marriage of Luke and Leah (I had even cast the movie with neighborhood kids when we finally realized that none of us owned a movie camera.) In high school, I often annoyed teachers by taking the most mundane assignment and giving them a unique twist. (For a career fair assignment on employment advancement, I outlined the steps that could be employed by the President to manipulate the Constitution to create a monarchy.) In college, I was once accused of plagiarism because “a business major could not possibly be this creative.” In law school, I wrote articles and edited scholarly journals and magazines. In college and law school, I found an outlet for my creativity through standup comedy and acting. As an adult, I decided that I wanted to be a litigator. Many people think this is because a trial attorney is just a story teller with the judge or jury as the audience (nonfiction of course).Currently, I work as a senior litigation counsel for a government agency. As a litigator, you could say I have been a professional non-fiction writer for decades (and quite frankly earn much more per word than I will probably ever make writing fiction.)
What was your inspiration for Sky Girl?
I think it is fair to say that the entire Sky Girl trilogy was conceived in a comic’s podcast forum project and born out of a father’s love for his daughter.
Let me explain. The Comic Geek Speak Podcast is made up of a bunch of great guys that love comics. I have listened to them and appeared on their show for several years and am still an active member of their forums. It was on those forums that I learned about a proposed prose anthology, which would be written by the listeners of the podcast. I wrote a story called the Return of PowerBoy, a story about a middle aged accountant, who may or may not be a superhero. (The anthology was never produced and the story was later featured in A Thousand Faces, the Quarterly Journal of Superhuman Fiction where it won the Haller for Best Writer in 2010.) The story was a very dark tale of what happens when a super villain wins. One of the very minor characters was the accountant’s four-year-old daughter, CeeCee.
Sometimes writers don’t create their characters, they channel them and that’s what happened with CeeCee. After the story was finished, I kept coming back to that little girl. What kind of life would she live, would she develop her father’s powers, and what would she do if she did? Well, CeeCee became DeDe, and the character of Sky Girl was born.
By this time, I had a daughter of my own. And I can’t help but think that this is what converted the very dark Powerboy story into the light hearted story of Sky Girl. As a proud geek daddy, I wanted to share my hobby with my daughter and looked for characters to inspire her. Sadly, I found very few. With a couple of exceptions, most of the female characters from early comics were merely eye candy fawning with unrequited love over the male protagonist or were relegated to the role of guest star (or even hostage) in their own books. Even the few that started as everywoman characters (like Kitty Pryde or Cassie Sandsmark) rapidly developed into über pin-up babes in the 1990s and 2000s. Thankfully, things have gotten a lot better for the modern female comics character, but the industry still has a long way to go. Female characters should have the same chance to grow, develop, and overcome adversity as male characters do. DeDe is a strong teenager and not defined by the men in her life. The series is really about DeDe’s journey to find herself and become Sky Girl. She makes a lot of good decisions, but she also makes some bad and selfish ones. But, at the end of the day she hopefully ends up in the right place. I hope she inspires my daughter to make good decisions.
At the end of the day, Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures, and the character of Sky Girl is the culmination of reading far too many great comics, finding far too few strong female characters and loving my daughter just enough.
Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures is a fun story that I hope entertains. At a deeper level, it is about taking responsibility and growing up. I hope DeDe will serve as a role model. She is independent and strong and knows what she wants. But, she is also responsible and knows what she has to do. How she handles that, tell a lot about her character.
My intention was to have Sky Girl represent a strong female character who always tries to do the right thing. She isn’t perfect. She makes mistakes. But, she learns from her mistakes and, most importantly, she never gives up. In Sky Girl and the Superheroic Adventures, Sky Girl has to deal with some heavy emotional things like the death of her father, the fact that her mother is moving on with another man, and the ever-changing relationships around her. But, just because she allows herself to be emotionally open and vulnerable, that doesn’t mean she is weak. Dealing with adversity makes her that much stronger when she triumphs over it.
How long did it take you to complete the novel?
I had a pretty unique writing process when I did Sky Girl. I write all of my first drafts on my Blackberry as emails, which I send to myself and edit later. (I do the same thing on my iPhone and iPad now, with a lot more corrections thanks to the autocorrect feature and fat fingers.) It is a habit I developed during standing room only commutes to an old job and frequent travel on my current job. I can pretty much tune out the world when I write. Sometimes I listen to music, other times I sit quietly, and still others I stand on a crowded bus, train, ferry, monorail, or on a really long line for a theme park attraction. Later I look at these emails and I do my final editing. I should add that I always like to listen to movie and television soundtracks (usually very late at night/early morning). I have a very large collection, which runs the gamut from classic to anime to horror to science fiction. I can always find something to put me in the mood. For example, in the fight scenes in Sky Girl and the Superheroic Legacy, I remember listening to The Mummy Returns, Van Helsing, Superman Returns and King Arthur (I would add the Avengers if I was writing it today). Those scores really create the heroic mood. The score from Dracula or the Exorcist can always inspire horror (and is really creepy in the morning). Alias and the Mission Impossible scores are great for suspense.
Of course, the harder part of the work (and the biggest delay) was the submission process. Right out of the gate I got numerous three chapter and full book requests from several publishers and agents. However, always at the last level, the book would be rejected because 1) it should be written as a graphic novel, 2) the target audience for superhero prose fiction is too small. More specifically, that the there is no audience for superheroine fiction, which is like saying “girls don’t read comics.” (This is clearly not true and sexist in my mind.) 3) My platform wasn’t big enough. Numerous publishers suggested I self-publish the book, which was a route I didn’t want to go. The few offers I got were from publishers that were on the Predators and Editors lists (or should have been). As I will get into, I think I ended up making the wrong choice and learned from it. But, I am grateful that the first publisher was willing to take a chance on the book because I know there is a Sky Girl audience out there.
So, to answer the question, conservatively it took 3 years for each book to come out.
Are you disciplined? Describe a typical writing day.
I’m not sure there is anything such as a typical day. There are two major philosophies that I have adopted for my writing. The first comes from Ray Bradbury, who I had the privilege of meeting at San Diego ComicCon before he died. I asked him if he had any advice for writers. He said the best thing a writer can do is write. The second philosophy comes from Stephen King (in On Writing and not told to me in person), who said something like, “If you don’t have time to read, you don’t have the time to write.”
So, I try to read and write all the time. I get the majority of it done when no one is awake. I’m one of those people that doesn’t sleep very much. I get a couple of hours a night. That leaves a lot of time when no one is around. I used to watch a lot of television infomercials. Now, I use that time more productively and write. At the very least, I have to try to write creatively every day (I also write for my day job, but it is a very different structure). I don’t hold myself to minimum page limits or time limits when I write fiction. Instead, I try to set aside 5am to 7am to write every day and see how much I can do.
So with that philosophy in mind, I will go through today. I got up at 4:30 am and read some chapters in Marty Sklar’s new book, Dream it! Do it! Then, I edited some interviews I wrote last night for the Sky Girl book tour. Next, I started this interview, wrote a comics script, and did some research for my nonfiction book before my daughter got up for school. I dropped her off and, on the way to work, I listened to the audio book for Michael Schumacher’s Will Eisner: A Dreamer’s Life in Comics. I heard something that sparked an idea for a CBLDF article, so I sent myself an email with the idea after pulling in my office parking lot (don’t text and drive it’s a bad idea). During my lunch hour, I did some research for my potential CBLDF article, updated my website, and answered some writing related emails. After work, I listened to the audiobook for David Walter Smith’s In the Shadow of the Matterhorn. (I frequently listen to up to 5 audiobooks at a time, which is while I love Audible). After I got home, I finished this interview, attended to a Comics Experience lecture by Andy Schmidt on working for the Big Two, outlined my ideas for the CBLDF article, reviewed my research on my nonfiction book, read Rise of the First Lanterns, and did some work I brought home from the office. It is now 1:45am and I am finally going to bed. The alarm is set for 4:30 and then I can start all over tomorrow. I’m lucky, there are some nights I get so engrossed that I inadvertently pull all- nighters.
Admittedly, there are times that it is very hard to fit in the writing. My position as a Senior Litigation Counsel is more than a full-time job. Add on to that I still try to take comic classes and do workshops with Comics Experience (which I highly recommend by the way), and the fact that I have an eight-year-old daughter (and a wife that travels for a living), and time gets pretty tight. When I’m traveling, I do the majority of my writing on commutes or while waiting.
What did you find most challenging about writing this book?
The hardest part of writing Sky Girl, or really any work of fiction, is the editing–especially if you decide to cut something. For example, in the original draft, Dianne (DeDe’s mom) had remarried and DeDe had a little brother. Because of this, I had a completely different role for Michael Valjorge–he was going to be a school janitor that DeDe and Jason tried to avoid while they tested DeDe’s powers. In early edits, it became apparent that these extra characters only complicated the plot and didn’t add anything. So, they were cut from the novel and Valjorge came in as the boyfriend.
Another thing that causes a problem for me is motivation to edit. I write because I have stories to tell. Far too frequently, I get the story on paper and that satisfies the need to get it out. So, I have to force myself to edit and then edit and then edit. If this occurs, I have to put it aside until the muse calls me back to it. Of course, that’s easier to do when you aren’t on deadline. However, if something is due, I just struggle through it and hope for the best. The other thing that occurs when you put your work aside for months is that you may lose the connection to the characters. This happened in a recent story I did called “The Tube” (in Indie Comics Horror #2 available in comic shops now). By the time I got back to the story, I had to rework the main character (from a school girl to a secretary) because I didn’t feel her anymore. I liked the way it turned out, but the original version was very different.
What do you love most about being an author?
While it is true that a writer is anyone who writes, it’s pretty cool that I can look at my shelf and see all the books I’ve written on my shelf and say, “I made those.” To know that after I am gone future generations will have the ability to see my imagination is pretty awesome. But, by far, the best thing about being a writer would have to be the readers. I mean sure, authors are a pretty dedicated lot, who provide entertainment. But at the end of the day, I write for me—because I have a story to tell. I would write if no one ever read it. (For evidence of this, you should look at the sales figures for some of my earlier work). Readers on the other hand, have no such compulsion. They spend their valuable time and money on someone else’s work. There are a lot of great books out there by some amazing authors (living and dead). As a result, these people don’t need to take a chance on me (or any other unknown), but they do. I really appreciate that. So, the most rewarding part of being a writer is a no brainer. It is the people. I love going to conventions and meeting people to tell them about my books. I love the people that take the time to read my books and just come by and say hello and tell me they liked it. I just finished two days at Baltimore ComicCon. I am exhausted, worn out, and have no voice. But, you know what? I would not have traded that experience. I got to meet some great people and introduce them to my book. Some of them bought it and some of them didn’t. Nothing is more rewarding than someone coming up to me at a show and telling me that they really loved my book, or that it is their daughter’s favorite book, or that they made (or had someone make them) a Sky Girl costume for Halloween or a ComicCon. At my last comic con, two little girls told me that Sky Girl was their favorite book and they can’t wait for the third book. These people tell me their theories and guess at what will happen next. It is humbling. If you want to know a secret, book festivals and comic conventions aren’t that lucrative for me (I rarely ever make my table cost). But, writing is pretty solitary, so the chance to meet people is priceless.
To these people, I say “Thank you!”
There is a second, less tangible benefit of being a writer and that is the moment when you realize that your characters have come to life. For example, a major character doesn’t make it through the current book. I never intended for this event to occur. But, when I wrote that part of the story, I realized that there was no other way the tale could be told. Someone once said that a writer doesn’t tell stories, they discover them. When that happens, it is a great feeling.
Where can we find you on the web?
My author site is www.joesergi.net; Sky Girl can be found at www.SkyGirlNovel.com, and the official site for Great Zombies in History is www.GreatZombiesinHistory.com; my monthly articles can be found at www.cbldf.org.
Thanks for having me. For those interested, Sky Girl is available at all online booksellers and can be ordered in brick and mortar shops and chains. It is also available directly from the publisher at www.martinsisterspublishing.com. I will also have copies and be signing the book at some upcoming show appearances, some of which include: The Collingswood Book Festival (October 5), New York ComicCon (October 10-13), and the Festival of the Book (October 19).