An Interview with Dennis R. Upkins

I recently had the opportunity to sit down with author, artist, and blogger Dennis R. Upkins, and ask him a few questions. In addition to having a book coming out on June 17, Denny is an accomplished photographer. He is also a regular contributor to Ars Marginal and Prism Comics.

And if you’re not familiar with his blog, The Chronicle, you should be!

JF: The gorgeous cover of Hollowstone (read an excerpt here) bears a striking resemblance to one of your photos. Is it your photo?

DU: Thank you so much. And yes it is. I actually did the cover for Hollowstone. I have a BFA in media arts & animation. I shot that photo years ago and for some reason it has always stuck with me for having a meaning/purpose but I could not figure out why to save my life. I remember I had an art show a few years back and I understood why my other pieces on display had significance for me. But this one, I just couldn’t put my finger on. And it wasn’t until years later when I used it for the cover, that I understood why.

Because Hollowstone Academy is the setting and in many respects the central silent character in this saga, I wanted a cover where the school was prominently featured. But it couldn’t simply be any school or structure. I wanted something from the romantic period. Most southern architecture during that time possessed a strong gothic influence which would lend itself nicely to the paranormal elements and darker tone of the story.

We had another cover for the book which was great, but while studying it, the artistic wheels began churning and I kept flashing back to when I taught design in college and I had my students create book covers for a project. I decided to take a shot at it and I’m pretty pleased with the result.

JF: How did the idea behind Hollowstone develop?

DU: Ever since high school, I always wanted to write a story that was at least in part an
homage/modern day retelling of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby. The high
school I graduated from was a prestigious private school, and being from a working
class background, I could relate to Nick Carraway entering this strange new world of the elite and the upper class. However for the novel, I decided to base Noah (the Carraway of this piece) on three of my high school buddies.

I began toying with the idea of Hollowstone during my final quarter of art school. I was
taking a film noir class at the time and I had completely fallen in love with the genre. Not surprising, many noir elements permeate throughout the novel.

In 2007 I learned about the National Novel Writing Month challenge which takes place annually in November. The idea is that with 50,000 words, you’ve either completed a novel or have written a good portion of it. Famous novels roughly 50K include Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy and The Great Gatsby, interestingly enough.

I pride myself on being an overachieving perfectionist and an alpha who can meet any challenge so I was determined to win NaNoWriMo. And that’s exactly what I did.

JF: You have a lot of strong opinions about comic books and the comics industry. Why did you choose to write a prose novel instead of a graphic novel? Do you think you might put out a graphic novel in the future?

DU: Strong opinions about comics. LOL!!!! Understatement of the century but yes, you are correct. I’m very passionate about comics. Perhaps it’s because I’m both a writer and an artist and the medium merges my two loves. But I also adore the superhero genre. It’s modern day mythology. And unfortunately because of those in power, it’s retrogressing and becoming more racist, sexist, and homophobic. What’s worse is that the industry is struggling to stay afloat, would sooner face ruin than to consider marginalized dollars. I’ve seen what comics have been when done right and what they could be. And to witness what they’ve been reduced to, it breaks my heart.

I have tried many times over the years to work with others to do a comic and it doesn’t work out, for reasons ranging from something understandable to outright disaster.

Recently, I had been planning to do a comic with a buddy from art school. She’s a freelance designer, an extraordinary artist and one of the sweetest souls you’ll ever meet. Timing was off for both of us. She’s gotten slammed with freelance work. I’m not surprised given how talented she is and in this economy, being a busy freelance artist is epic. On top of that I’ve been busy promoting Hollowstone. But we’ve both discussed perhaps some time down the road when we’re less busy. In legitimate situations like that, it goes without saying she has nothing but my blessing and support.

In other cases however… I had the unenviable task of dealing with fanboys who wanted to play make believe that they were comic book pros rather than doing the work. They swore they were going to take the industry by storm overnight and be comic book rock stars. Of course, they had no concept of deadlines, work ethic or completing anything other than a video game. Which would be fine if they didn’t waste my time and insult my intelligence with ridiculous excuses as to why they couldn’t complete work by the deadlines they assigned themselves. And of course when I tried to actually expect them to work and not sit around and play video games during meetings, this led to nonstop drama. And we’re talking grown men, most of whom were older than me. We won’t mention how many times my sobriety and mental health was threatened by that nonsense.

They say if you want something done right, you gotta do it yourself. I say if you even want something done at all, you gotta do it yourself.

I have considered writing and drawing my own graphic novel but it’s a massive undertaking and it would probably take a few years for me to complete. I have the utmost admiration and respect for Brian Lee O’ Malley for penning and drawing Lost At Sea and Scott Pilgrim.

Putting out a graphic novel is definitely a personal goal of mine and something I would like to do down the road. But I also want to make sure I have the right story for it. Because no matter what medium you’re working in, story is king. It’s the foundation and without that, everything else crumbles.

Right now I have a few more novels that I want under my belt–some stories I’m eager to write–and then I might turn my attention to doing a comic.

Why do I chose prose? I guess for me, a story is a story and the medium is secondary. Whether I’m writing an animation script, blogging, doing a comic book, or penning a literary novel. I love writing. I’m a storyteller. It’s what I am. From a practical standpoint, it came down to finishing a novel and knowing it would get done without having to depend on others, work on a visual project (such as a comic or animation) solo and only God knows how long that would take, or keep trying to collaborate with others when clearly that’s not working. And like most writers, penning that “Great American Novel” was certainly on that to-do list for me, LOL.

Not only that but there’s no reason why you can’t have the super hero/comic book genre in the literary novel medium. Writers such as Tom Sniegoski, Christopher Golden, the late Perry Moore, Peter David, Greg Rucka, S.D. Perry, Britta Dennison, Jackie Kessler and Caitlin Kittredge have all successfully accomplished this.

As a matter of fact, the next novel I’m currently outlining is a super hero story which features a young woman of color and a gay man as the primary protagonists.

JF: If an author wants to create a diverse cast of characters, what, in your opinion, are the most important things s/he must consider?

DU: The late Dwayne McDuffie said it best. “If you do a black character or a female character or an Asian character, then they aren’t just that character. They represent that race or that sex, and they can’t be interesting because everything they do has to represent an entire block of people. You know, Superman isn’t all white people and neither is Lex Luthor.”

I would say the most important thing to remember is that characters and people are more than their marginalizations.

There is a difference between true diversity and tokenism. My race and orientation are important traits that define me as a person (as it does straight white people) but they aren’t the only traits that define me, or even the most defining traits. I’m a unique and complex human being.

The cis straight white male is not the default nor automatically the best. And they don’t always have to be primary protagonists. Reality doesn’t work that way. In reality, women of color can prominently be found among the most qualified leaders. It is okay to show that reality in your stories. In reality, queer males can be just as masculine, just as tough and can kick just as much ass as their cis heterosexual brothers. We’re police officers, firemen, soldiers, athletes. It’s okay to show that reality as well.

You may not always get everything right. There are just certain firsthand insights that unless you belong to that minority group, you just won’t get. But as long as you make a genuine good-faith effort to portray your characters with respect, I think for the most part, you will be fine.

JF: There are a lot of ways to fail at writing diversity. Name three authors or works that, in your opinion, get it right.

DU: There have been a few who have gotten it right but for me the three writers who have consistently gotten it right time after time would be my good friend Gail Simone, Dwayne McDuffie and Russell T. Davies.

Gail Simone is an immensely talented and critically acclaimed writer. The fact that one of the best writers in comic books just happens to be a woman is pure gold. The fact that one of the best writers in comic books just happens to be a woman who strives to be inclusive in all of her works is epic win. Birds of Prey is one of my must-read comics which features a disabled woman as the leader of a team of extraordinary heroines. Welcome To Tranquility features a black woman as the central protagonist. The Atom featured Ryan Choi, an Asian male who was a very cool character. The Secret Six, which has Scandal Savage, a lesbian of color as the team’s leader. During her run on Wonder Woman, Simone introduced Achilles, a gay man who was Zeus’s champion. Initially Wonder Woman’s rival, it was through her example, that he was inspired to become a powerful force for good.

What’s really tragic is that Dwayne McDuffie doesn’t get the credit he deserves. Most people believed that he only fought for better representation of blacks. That couldn’t be further from the truth. Not only did he fight for better representation of blacks, but other POCs as well as women and LGBTQs. What’s more is that the founder of Milestone Comics was doing this during the early 90s and was decades ahead of many comic book publishers. Donner and Blitzen, a lesbian couple and prominent members of the superhero team the Shadow Cabinet. McDuffie also released the miniseries Deathwish. It’s one of the first comics to feature a trans person as the main character. How many comics have done that in the meantime?

Both McDuffie and for that matter Bruce Timm, continued this tradition with their animated works.

Between Batman, Superman, Static Shock, the Zeta Project, Batman Beyond and Justice League, epic tales were not only told but they were inclusive and trailblazing in showcasing women, POCs, queer characters in leading and prominent roles but also handled interracial relationships with respect and class. They had no qualms about tackling racism, sexism and bigotry in any form.

I’ve talked in depth about McDuffie’s work, specifically introducing a gay superhero in one Richie Foley aka Gear on the hit series Static Shock. However Gear wasn’t the only example of Timm and McDuffie giving a nod to queer fans.

In the Justice League Unlimited ep This Little Piggy, Batman and Wonder Woman are on a stakeout on a Saturday night. While waiting, the conversation turns to spending romantic time with a significant other. Below there are three couples in front of the Iceberg Lounge, each dressed up for a night on the town: a man and a woman, two men and another man and a woman. To the astute observer, it was clear that Timm, McDuffie and company were making a statement that LGBTQs do indeed exist. And in a Y7 rated cartoon, that in itself is progressive. Unfortunately with FCC regulations being what they are, LGBTQs are not allowed to exist in a children’s cartoon. Nevertheless, it didn’t stop these storytellers from standing tall and doing what they could to represent and fight back against institutional oppression.

As a friend (DCWomenKickingAss over on Tumblr) accurately stated, McDuffie made Vixen just as popular to many fans as Black Canary. To a hundred thousand comic book readers, Green Lantern is a white guy. But to millions of TV viewers worldwide, Green Lantern is black man.

While many are quick to claim that diversity and success are mutually exclusive, executive producer Russell T. Davies have proven the naysayers wrong time and time again. This is the genius that gave us Queer As Folk and made Doctor Who a hit. And he did so by being inclusive and showcasing POCs, interracial relationships LGBTQs in a respectful matter-of-fact manner. And while I didn’t always agree with every choice Davies made, I do believe that he made a good-faith effort to be inclusive in his work. And for that he has my respect and my gratitude. This is the man who gave us the iconic Dr. Martha Jones, a phenomenal black heroine as well as a progressive queer action hero in one Captain Jack Harkness. Speaking of Harkness, his spinoff series Torchwood has consistently become a bigger hit with each season. The Sarah Jane Adventures was one of the most underrated television series on the air. Not only did it feature a a woman as the lead but the POCs actually outnumber the white cast 4-2. And the POCs have prominent stations and the show is a hit! So that diversity kills sales nonsense, so dead on arrival. It can be done and when done right, it can be a monumental success and these three (A woman, a person of color, and a gay man no less) have proven it.

JF: Writing diversity poses a unique set of complications for historical fiction. Do you have any suggestions for writers of historicals regarding writing realistic characters of a non-dominant group that are neither victims nor stereotypes?

I think the most important thing an author can do is go directly to the source. Read the stories and works written by members of the marginalized groups, particularly those who discuss that time period or lived through it. We know our stories, our history and our culture better than anyone. I’ll also caution, to be ready for some inconvenient truth because what gets taught in mainstream as history is vastly different from the reality of what actually happened.

For example, liberal whites were expecting Frederick Douglass to give them a feel-good speech about the Fourth of July and how proud he was to be an American. When he gave the (in)famous speech about What the Fourth Of July Means To The Negro, said liberal whites were stupefied and nonplussed. Douglass called out the hypocrisy of a nation that touts itself to be a land of freedom and democracy yet simultaneously oppresses a group considered to be 3/5 subhumans.

Mark Twain’s light-hearted, romanticized, and warped version of the South is going to be a complete contrast from Alex Haley’s Roots which pulls no punches in regards to the dark realities of slavery and racism in this country.

In her autobiography, Wilma Mankiller, the first female chief of the Cherokee nation, not only shared the hardships horrors that her people faced at the hands of whites (and we’re talking from colonial times to present-day), but she also spoke out on the oppression that blacks, Asians and Latinos have also endured in this country. As a woman of color, she was most candid about the racism and misogyny that she’s faced in her life.

The knowledge and information is out there. It’s just a matter of educating one’s self.

JF: Do you have any advice for aspiring writers?

DU:Writing is not for the faint of heart or the thinned skin. No matter how talented a writer you are, you will receive rejection. Endless amounts of rejection.

At times this can be a very cutthroat industry. So you have to be prepared for that. I don’t say this to discourage aspirants or make them jaded but to equip them with the knowledge so they can go out there and be monumental successes.

If writing is your dream and this is your passion, keep fighting for it. It may take some years. Keep churning out those manuscripts until one of them takes.

But lastly, a mantra that has served me well over the years both professionally and personally is: Stay Hungry, Stay Humble.

Stay Hungry: Always strive to raise your A-game. You owe it to your readers. Always hone your craft. Be the best you that you can possibly be each day and then tomorrow be better, do better.

Stay Humble: Be appreciative of the blessings you receive, no matter how great or how small. Be it an interview on someone’s blog with a readership of 6 or a six figure advance. Because you didn’t have to receive that blessing and the same people you see on your way up will be the same people you see on your way down. Stay humble enough to remember that you’re a work in progress and always strive to do better and be better.

And to my POC and LGBTQ writers out there, please, I humbly beseech you to share your stories. Whether it’s through publishing or posting your works on a free blog for all of the world to see. We desperately need your voices. Especially in a world that works tirelessly to erase us from existence. Don’t let it happen. You deserve better. Be seen, be heard, be tall, be strong.

JF: Thank you so much for sharing your thoughts and advice. I’m really looking forward to reading Hollowstone, and I wish you every success.

You can read another excellent interview with Dennis R. Upkins at the blog of author Ankhesen Mié.

Published by jfaraday

Jess Faraday is an award-winning author of historical suspense.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: