20 Questions with Jeff Norton
Jeff Norton is an author, writer-director, and the founder of Awesome, a creative incubator that originates amazing stories with compelling characters in immersive worlds. A reluctant reader as an adolescent, Jeff created METAWARS, a high-tech action-thriller about two teenagers caught up in the battle for a futuristic internet, to be as compelling and as addictive as the best films and video games.
SFL: Hi Jeff, let's start with an easy one, for the benefit of those who aren't familiar with them, can you describe the Metawars series?
JN: MetaWars is a high-tech thriller about two teenagers swept up in the battle for control over an immersive internet. It’s a four-book, coming of age saga set in a post-peak-oil future.
SFL: So what was the genesis of the series? Did it start with Jonah or was it something else, and how long did it take you to put the storyline together?
JN: The big moment of inspiration was the 2010 Icelandic ash cloud. At the time, I was stranded in Portugal and couldn’t get back to the UK. Suddenly I had to do everything online and I realised that in a world where global travel isn’t easy, then whoever controls the web, controls the world.
SFL: Where did the idea of The Guardians Vs. The Millenials come from, and what side of the divide to you find yourself?
JN: The way today’s technology companies compete is often called the ‘tech wars’ and I’m fascinated and horrified by this militaristic use of language. In war, like in business, there can be winners and losers, but there are also casualties. The two factions in MetaWars are the extrapolation of today’s tech wars: the Millennial Corporation is the dominant internet monopoly (think: Google + Apple + Amazon + Facebook) and the Guardians are like Linux users and programmers. Both sides vehemently believe their world-view is right and is worth fighting for.
SFL: You paint a pretty bleak and dystopian vision of the future - global warming, over-population, fossil fuel shortages - it's a world where the rich are very rich and the poor are very poor - how have a young adult audience reacted to that and do you really see things headed that way?
JN: I’m actually an optimist at heart, but I think we need to explore the darker possibilities for the future in order to consciously choose to avoid them. The younger readers have a very visceral reaction to the story, which is what I intended. I wanted readers to ask themselves ‘what would I do?’ and explore the moral judgments that Jonah makes in the story. I did a school visit the other day, speaking with nearly sixty thirteen-year-olds, and these young people get it. They understand climate change and income disparity, which is a good thing because that generation will have to fix a lot of the environmental and socio-economic issues we have left for them.
SFL: In the first book, Metawars, you introduce us to Web 4.0, a totally immersive virtual world that people kind of 'plug-in' to for everything, education, entertainment, shopping, and often just to escape from the real world. Do you look forward to that kind of advance in web technology?
JN: In many ways, we’re there already. I’m constantly baffled by how people check out of the real world every time they connect with the web. You see it when people walk down the street, holding their £500 computer in their hand (which happens to also be a phone), completely oblivious to the world around them.
I do think the interface between human and machine will make the leap from kinetic to biological in my lifetime. The advances in thought-controlled computing will probably make my science fiction feel quaint.
In terms of doing more and more online, I wanted to explore the consequences to the real world if we all do the bulk of our activities on the internet.
SFL: Given the YA audience for a book like this, you ask a lot of difficult questions - often with no clear cut answers - how do you tread that fine line between a simple story that's easy to understand and making the audience think and work for the answers?
JN: I was a very reluctant reader as an adolescent so I wanted MetaWars to be very accessible, but I never wanted to shy away from challenging themes or difficult questions.
On one level, the book is page-turner, and it’s a fun and fast read, but on another level it poses big questions about humanity, technology, and the way we choose to interface.
SFL: Having said that, you write a lot of great action scenes - aerial dogfights, gun battles, car chases and so - that must have been great fun?
JN: I’m a very visual thinker and I love action and adventure films as a genre. I also have a great respect for the underrated artistry in today’s video games. MetaWars is the kind of book that would have temped the teenage version of myself away from video games long enough to read a book; so I wanted to pack it with thrilling action and give it a relentless pace, both to mirror the best of video games and action films, but also to make the reader feel that he or she is on the breakneck journey with Jonah.
I want readers to feel like they are on a roller coaster ride, unsure if whether the coaster had passed its safety inspection!
SFL: Book one seems to end on an 'up' note, 'people' are saved and things look good, but book two, The Dead Are Rising, deals with the ramifications of that success. It all seems a little unfair on Jonah! Was that always the plan, so that success (or failure) is not so cut and dried?
JN: One of the big themes of the books is the unintended consequences of Jonah’s actions. The sequels see Jonah dealing with his choices, facing them in a very uncomfortable way. The Dead Are Rising is about what happens when your choices come back to haunt you, literally.
SFL: And The Uploaded, they don't even seem to be grateful for what was done for them, in fact they're not very nice at all, it almost feels like a virtual zombie or ghoul novel, much darker than the first book, were you going for that feel?
JN: I’m glad you picked up on that! I wanted the book to fill the reader with a sense of dread. Jonah has unleashed a scourge of digital zombies by giving the Uploaded a consciousness that sparks an uncontrollable hunger for life. And that hunger is an addiction, and the only way to satisfy it is to take over a live user’s life; to usurp their soul. Even Jonah’s father gives into it, putting Jonah in a precarious moral position. He’s happy to have his father ‘alive’ again, but has trouble accepting the terrible price of his rebirth.
SFL: The books seem to be crafted deliberately for young male readers, rich enough to compete with films and pacey enough to compete with video games, has it worked? Have the books found a good readership among boys, who are notoriously difficult to get to read?
JN: These are our most underserved readers and whilst there are some wonderful books for them, I felt something was missing. I wanted to give them the kind of book that would have turned the young teenage version of myself into a lifelong reader. The reception has been fantastic, but not just among that core male audience. Surprisingly, there’s quite a growing following among teenage girls, and I suppose Sam (Samantha) is such a strong character, worldly and experienced, that she’s a great foil to Jonah’s naïve, sometimes bewildered, protagonist. The entire series is about their friendship and how they help each other to become better versions of themselves.
SFL: Did you always want to write professionally?
JN: It took me a long time to get to writing. I always enjoyed it, but certainly buckled under the pressure to get a ‘proper’ job. But I’ve been fortunate to work in the entertainment industry for the past ten years, and I finally decided to make the leap from managing other peoples’ creativity to crafting my own.
SFL: Where and when do you usually write, what’s your routine?
JN: I’m up early and at a nearby coffee shop with my laptop and latte by 7:30 am each morning. I’ll work there for about two hours and then decamp to the local library where I’ll stay, with a sandwich for lunch, until about 3 pm. Then I’ll either go for a run or return to my home office, deal with emails and admin stuff. I pick up my little boy up from nursery at 5 pm. Sometimes I work in the evenings, especially if I have to talk to people in Los Angeles, but usually that’s family time.
SFL: Are you an outliner that meticulously plans everything out or do you just sit down and wing it?
JN: I’m a planner. I outline using words, pictures, and graphs. I think I’d be lost in the woods if I didn’t outline. For me the ending is like a lighthouse, I need to see it to make sure I don’t end up on the rocks somewhere in the middle of the story!
SFL: What is your process when writing? Do you read over the last bit of work and then start from there, do you constantly edit as you go or do stop when you know what’s going to happen next so you can get started easily the next day?
JN: I try to keep moving the word count forward every day and then come back to edit. I never write and edit at the same time. I think they’re different brain muscles and I get tripped up when I do the two in parallel. Most of my writing, however, is rewriting. And rewriting. And rewriting…
SFL: A lot of writers tell me they don't get time to read anymore, Do you still read, and if so what do you read, which writers inspire you?
JN: Having a three-year-old cuts into my reading time more than writing does, but yes, my reading has gone down significantly since I started writing full time. I barely read any fiction anymore, but I enjoy non-fiction. I just finished In the Garden of Beasts, by Erik Larson and while ‘enjoy’ may be the wrong word for a book about the rise of Nazi Germany, it was a visceral, historical account of terrifying time and place that taught me a lot about setting mood and tone.
SFL: What were your writing influences growing up and how have they changed as you’ve gotten older?
JN: I’m a child of the Star Wars universe! I’m very influenced by the way Lucas created a grand mythology, some of which was only hinted at in the films, and feel passionately about creating a world that readers can lose themselves in.
There was a book called ‘After the Bomb’ that I read when I was twelve, about a post-nuclear Los Angeles. Today would called a ‘dystopian’ novel, but at the time, it was a terrifying read that forced me to question ‘what would I do?’ on every page. I’ve tried to channel that imperative into my writing.
Later, I suppose the seminal works like 1984 and Brave New World were a big influence because they so deftly achieved the wonderful sleight of hand that only science fiction manages to pull off: spinning a great yarn set in future world whilst making a meaningful commentary on the state of today’s world.
SFL: You are a filmmaker and producer as well, any news or thoughts on a film version or, even better, a TV series? It has the potential to be a massive success on screen.
JN: There are a few conversations happening on the film/tv side, but it’s a long process and I’m under no illusion that MetaWars would be a very expensive proposition. I didn’t write it to leap to the screen and packed the book with great imagery, like the virtual Metasphere world, that is probably too pricey to film. It’d be a $300 million movie; but the great thing about books is that the ink costs the same no matter if you’re writing about two people talking or two people rushing out of a burning city. I like to think that with the books I’m giving readers a $300 million experience for only £5.99!
SFL: So what can we expect from the rest of the series? What's next for Jonah?
JN: This series is about Jonah growing up and taking responsibility for his actions. In the book 2.0, The Dead Are Rising, he struggles to comprehend the magnitude of the genie he let out of the bottle at the end of the first book.
In book 3.0, Battle Of The Immortal, he finally realises he has to put it back in, and this pits him against his father who wants to hold onto his ill-gotten life.
The fourth book, The Freedom Frontier, is much darker because Jonah discovers a looming threat much more sinister, and more determined, than the Millennials. I won’t give it away, but Jonah has to make one last, ultimate choice and it’s a choice about what kind of world he wants for humanity.
SFL: And what's next for Jeff Norton?
JN: MetaWars is still keeping me busy, and it’s great fun to do events for readers, especially school events. I’m prepping my first feature film right now, ‘The Calling,’ which is a sci-fi thriller in the spirit of ‘Moon’ meets ‘The Breakfast Club.’
I’m also writing my first book for grown-ups, called ‘Cortex’, a speculative twist on the detective genre.
And of course, for something completely different, I have a new book series for young girls coming out in the spring called Princess Ponies, which I co-write with Julie Sykes under the penname Chloe Ryder. I created it for my six-year-old niece who grew out of Dora The Explorer and suddenly had no swash-buckling adventure heroines to aspire to. Princess Ponies is my attempt to give little girls their own Indiana Jones!
SFL: Finally, what would your avatar be?
JN: You need to ask my subconscious! You know that the avatars in MetaWars can’t be chosen by their users; but I won’t use that technicality to avoid the question.
I think I’d like to be a pterodactyl. There’s not much cooler than a flying dinosaur and I think it would help my street cred with my little boy.
SFL: That's it, thanks very much for talking to us!
JN: Thank you so much, it’s been a real pleasure!
Visit Jeff Norton at www.jeffnorton.com