A 'novel' approach: Marjorie Liu on writing prose, <i>Astonishing X-Men</i> and other matters

Marjorie Liu is the sort of writer other writers envy. We in the comics world know her for her Marvel work, including X-23 and Black Widow and, most prominently, her just-announced gig as writer for Astonishing X-Men, but she has a whole other life as a prose novelist. Her latest books are Within the Flames, the tenth in a series of paranormal romances about shape-shifters, and The Mortal Bone, an urban fantasy novel about a woman whose body is covered with demonic tattoos that come to life. I talked to Marjorie this week about her work in all three genres, and her plans for the near future of the X-Men.

Brigid Alverson: You were writing prose novels before you wrote comics. What sort of adjustments did you have to make to your writing (both style and process) when you moved from one medium to another?

Marjorie Liu: I had two great mentors when I first started: my editor, John Barber, and editorial assistant, Michael Horwitz. Both of them "held my hand" through the process, giving me sample scripts and a lot of wonderful advice. What I found that helped (sometimes, not always) was focusing just on the dialogue. I'd imagine these characters caught in the moment, and write down their conversations. Then, I'd break it into panels.

But yes, it was an adjustment. When I write a novel, I'm responsible for every aspect of storytelling: I have to provide the visuals, all the emotion, through my words. Plus, the story is a lot longer—upward of 100,000 words. Comics are much shorter, and I have a partner-in-crime: the artist, who tells the story through his or her illustrations. It's such a privilege to participate in that kind of storytelling.

Alverson: What have you learned along the way—how would you say your current comics are different from your earlier ones?

Liu: That's hard to say. I'm still terrible at plotting ahead, so maybe nothing has changed!

Alverson: Listening to you describe your prose novels, I got the feeling that there are a lot of parallels between your novels and superhero comics. The types of characters and the action you describe don't seem that different from superheroes, yet paranormal romance and urban fantasy are perceived as totally different genres from superheroes. As someone who writes in all three genres, how would you compare them?

Liu: Paranormal romances and urban fantasies are seen as totally different genres even from each other (though, in my opinion, there's quite a bit of overlap), so I'm unsurprised that parallels to superhero comics aren't typically drawn. The most basic and superficial difference between a paranormal romance and urban fantasy rests within the focus on relationships—in one genre, the relationship between hero and heroine is of paramount importance—while in the other, it's the personal journey of a singular protagonist that matters most.

In both genres, however, the characters are usually not human, and must learn to deal with immense power (and obligations) that make them total outsiders. For example, the heroes and heroines of my Dirk & Steele paranormal romance series are psychics, mermen, shape-shifters, witches, gargoyles....basically, humans and otherworldly creatures who inhabit our modern day world and struggle to keep their existences secret. Similar to the struggles of some superheroes in comics.

Alverson: How did you first become acquainted with the Marvel universe in general and the X-Men in particular? What do you like about them?

Liu: I became familiar through the X-Men cartoon of the 90's, which I suspect inspired a lot of kids to take a rather feverish look at the comics. What I loved then, and what I still love, is that strong sense of family that ran through all the stories and relationships. This wasn't just a team of random superheroes, this was a group of men and women committed to one another despite their dysfunctional relationships, occasional insanities, and the added burden of a world out to get them. Along those same lines, the X-Men were always outsiders, on the fringe. I identified with that.

Alverson: As a novelist you invent your own characters, but when you write for Marvel you are working with pre-existing characters who have their own histories and personalities—and who will continue to exist after you move on. How much control do you have over the Marvel characters you write about, and how have you made them your own?

Liu: As a writer who has a great deal of respect for Marvel's superheroes, my goal is to stay true to the spirit of who these characters are. If I had decided to give X-23 a bubbly, talkative personality—obsessed with boys and clothes—that would just be odd and wrong. In fact, it would be a slap in the face of all the trauma she's endured.

On the other hand, I've been given tremendous opportunities to make these characters my own. Being allowed to write Black Widow as a young mother was huge, and no one has ever pulled me back from putting a twist on relationships—making Gambit a mentor to X-23, for example, and exploring how that might change them both. That's the key part, I suppose...that I've been able to explore.

Alverson: What about your storytelling style—are there ways in which you consciously depart from the other comics you have read?

Liu: Not consciously, no. I just sit down and write. My storytelling style is continuing to evolve.

Alverson: Now that you are taking over on Astonishing X-Men, which characters are you looking forward to writing about most?

Liu: Every single one of them listed on that roster. If I'm not excited about a particular character, I won't waste my time on him or her.

Alverson: Were there any plot threads you didn’t get to in X-23, any stories left untold? And if so, will you be looking for ways to pick them up in Astonishing X-Men?

Liu: Oh, sure. I wanted to follow up with the NYX kids (Kiden, Bobby, etc), and also bring Black Widow into the book as a female mentor to X-23. Those aren't story-lines that will be making it into Astonishing X-Men, though.

Alverson: Your first story arc will involve The Marauders, who are a pretty bad ass team of villains. Given their history and their power, how do you plan to portray them as menacing while holding back enough to keep the story balanced and interesting?

Liu: That's difficult to discuss without giving too much away. What I can tell you is that no member of this new X-team will come away unscathed. I'm not talking physical wounds, either. The scars will go deep, and the Marauders will be part of that. On the other hand, the Marauders are not the main focus of the story -- and they might not even be the ultimate villains.

Alverson: I'm impressed by the number of books and comics you have written in a relatively short time. What does your work day look like? Do you usually focus on one project at a time, or do you switch between novels and comics when you want a break?

Liu: This has been a particularly crazy month. I've had two novels come out—Within the Flames, which follows the adventures of a young pyrokinetic who rescues a beautiful dragon shape-shifter from the witches hunting her—and The Mortal Bone, part of my Hunter Kiss series, about a woman covered in living demonic tattoos that peel off her body at night to form her own army. On top of that, I've been writing my next novel, working on the last issue of X-23, and hammering away at Astonishing X-Men. I need to start using a kitchen timer to keep track of my hours!

So, my work day. Basically, I get up early—around first light—eat breakfast, feed the poodle and cats, then sit down and get to work. I usually work on two different projects at once—I'll write one in the morning, and then switch gears to tackle the second project (novel or comic) after lunch. When I take breaks, I watch television, read, go for walks.

Alverson: As a writer, are you still able to enjoy reading comics for pleasure? If so, which ones do you like?

Liu: It's completely random. Not long ago I picked up Christian Slade's Korgi (Vol. 1-3), which is wordless, adorable, and full of flame-breathing dogs, aliens from outer-space, faeries, swamp monsters, and other delights. I love it! I also read Jason Aaron's Wolverine and the X-Men (because it's red hot fun), and Bill Willingham's Fables. Also, recently—Love & Rockets: Poison River by Gilbert Hernandez—breathtaking, brilliant and totally traumatizing.

Alverson: Have you considered adapting your prose work to graphic novel format?

Liu: Yes. Every now and then Kalman Andrasofszky illustrates scenes from the Hunter Kiss series, which is fun because it gives a hint at what the books would look like as graphic novels. You can see two scenes here and here, as well as a sample "cover" he worked on for one of my romance novels, The Fire King.

Alverson: What about doing a creator-owned graphic novel with new characters?

Liu: I would love that. It's been on my mind for quite some time.

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