Alex Ziebart talks about his new superhero novel, Rookie Mistakes
Alex Ziebart, Blizzard Watch’s Editor-in-Chief, has just released Rookie Mistakes, the follow up novel to his superhero debut Lady Superior. He sat down to answer a few questions about the inspiration behind the series, the challenges of writing about superheroes, and what’s next for Milwaukee’s superpowered protector.
Note: Some spoilers for Lady Superior.
Q: What inspired you to start the Lady Superior series?
A: I can’t point to any one moment or any one thing that inspired me to start it. That’s rarely the case with the stories I write. Rather, I accumulate ideas and inspiration over time, and eventually things start to click into place and I realize I have a basis for a story. I knew I wanted to write a superhero story, but I didn’t sit down with that concept and then figure out the rest. There was no okay, superheroes, now what? I had some urban fantasy concepts for a more wizardy story scribbled down. I knew I wanted to write a story in my hometown. Memorable people, places, things, and experiences wormed their way into that creative part of my mind, and over time, all of it coalesced into something I felt good about.
Once the inspiration fell into place, I solidified a few goals for the story. First, I wanted to skip the traditional origin story. People have read enough of those. Lady Superior didn’t get doused with crazy chemicals or have an isolated tragedy that kicked it all off. There’s no Uncle Ben. When the first book begins, she already has her powers. Her origin story is in how she comes to use those powers, how she stops being simply Kristen Anderson and transitions into her identity as Lady Superior. It being a transition was important. Second, I wanted the story to be grounded without losing the bombastic fantasy of a superhero story. Lady Superior and the people around her can do incredible things, but at the end of the day, they’re still people. They have questions and concerns real people have. But she can still go toe-to-toe with a dragon. (Disclaimer: Rookie Mistakes contains no dragons. Maybe next time.)
Q: What was the biggest surprise for you as the series began to take shape?
A: I take an organic approach to writing. I outline my plot and major story beats so everything makes sense, but I give the characters room to breathe. I have their basic traits in mind, but who they truly are manifests during the writing process. As a result, sometimes characters I expected to be relatively minor end up being my favorites, or fitting into roles I didn’t expect. Bernice is one such character. I don’t know how readers feel about her, but she became one of my favorite characters. She proved — to me — that she’s a powerful person. Her friendship with Kristen was always intended, but there’s a strength in that friendship that wasn’t quite anticipated. In a way, the two of them complete each other, and I don’t think Kristen Anderson could have become Lady Superior without a friend like that. Bernice is strong in ways Kristen isn’t, and given Kristen’s superpower is strength, how that played out in the writing process fascinated me even though I’m the one who wrote it.
Similarly, I was surprised by reader reactions to Todd after they went through the first installment of the series. A whole lot of people thought he was a crazy person. I suspect they’d be in for a shock if they ever paid rural Wisconsin a visit. He’s just a guy. I’m not going to change who he is just because people interpreted him differently, though. If that’s how they perceive him, maybe that adds to the fun of it all.
Going in a completely different direction, the positive reaction to the first installment of Lady Superior caught me by surprise, too. It was just a fun story I put out there because I wanted to write it. I didn’t know what other people would think. It’s a superhero novel. People read comic books and watch TV and movies for superheroes. They don’t read novels. I didn’t think people would get on board with that. But they did, and they enjoyed it, and I’m happy they did.
Q: Why does the series take place in Milwaukee, Wisconsin?
A: There are two reasons. First, I got sick of every superhero movie/show taking place in New York City or Fictional City That Isn’t Called New York But Totally Is New York. Yeah, I know New York City is iconic, but the United States is a big place. There are tons of potential locations to use. But, conveniently, every superhero in the country lives within a 1-mile radius of one another in New York. Every city in America has its own unique look and feel. Using the same place over and over again gets a bit old. I’m biased given where I live, but I think the Midwest in particular is criminally underutilized in the genre. I mean, come on. Chicago is in the Midwest. Chicago is an enormous city with an impressive, metropolitan skyline. Why nobody uses Chicago as a setting, I’ll never understand it. And while nobody thinks of Milwaukee as a sizable city, its population is roughly on par with Boston.
Second, I know Milwaukee. It’s my home. This might run contradictory to what I wrote above, but I have a pet peeve about people writing cities they don’t know. If I’m reading or watching something that claims to be in a city but is obviously not that city, it does ruin the story for me a little. If a book is describing Chicago, I can usually tell if they’ve never been there before, because the entire feel and aesthetic of the city will be missing. Similarly, when a TV show claims it’s in a certain place but it’s the exact same set in Vancouver you’ve seen on a dozen other television shows, I get pulled out of the story they’re telling. I understand why all of those shows are filmed in Vancouver, but they’ve hit serious critical mass. You can’t claim the same set in Vancouver is from Los Angeles, West Virginia, and New York City all in the same night.
I want Lady Superior’s setting to feel genuine. I want to present superheroes living in and experiencing a real, genuine place. The characters are authentically Milwaukee/Wisconsin, shaped by the experience of living in this city and, by extension, this state. If a reader lives in Milwaukee, or has been to Milwaukee, I want them to be able to see something familiar in the story. If I describe the four faces of the Allen-Bradley Clock Tower or the flame light of Wisconsin Gas illuminating the night, I want them to be able to recognize that. And for readers who have never been here, I want to describe the city well enough that they’ll get a clear picture of the place I call home.
If Lady Superior was a comic book, the illustrator would be able to reference Google Maps.
In some miraculous future where Lady Superior hits the mainstream and I have access to big bucks, I’d love to bring other authors into this universe. I’d love to see what the heroes from their town would look like. That’s the idea behind all of this. Heroes aren’t one-size-fits-all. Sometimes a personal story needs to be told at home.
Q: What inspired you to write a sequel to Lady Superior?
A: I always knew I could expand upon the story told in the first installment if the opportunity presented itself. Luckily, Lady Superior had a warm enough reception to justify it. That’s generally my approach with my work: write a good enough ending to the first installment to be satisfying, but leave myself room to do more if it’s desired. If one was enough, that’s fine. The story had a conclusion. If more is desired, I’ll gladly provide it.
The basic act of writing Kristen inspires me to do better, work harder, and always try to improve. I’m glad people have enjoyed her story so far, because it means I get to spend more time with that sort of influence in my life.
Q: What did you want to accomplish with Rookie Mistakes?
A: The first installment of the series had Kristen becoming Lady Superior. It was the beginning of a longer journey. In Rookie Mistakes, I wanted to establish that her role as a hero was still new to her. She still has a lot to learn. She needs to discover the right and wrong way to do things. She’s going to make mistakes. In many ways, she’s quite naive, simply because she doesn’t have the experience to know better. She’s not a seasoned veteran like some of our comic book favorites are. She doesn’t have all of the answers. But maybe she’ll learn, and maybe she’ll get there.
Q: Is there really no Justice League or big city superheroes already paving the way for Kristen?
A: No, but also yes. There’s no league of heroes, but that doesn’t mean there are no larger organizations in play. The first book introduced the Templars. In the modern era, they’ve transitioned into a global financial institution. Ultimately, it’s a (dubiously moral) front to fund their true purpose as guardians against the darkness. Up until this point, they’ve mostly dealt with the realms of magic and the supernatural. They understand that stuff. They have the supernatural side of things on lock. Superpowers? They haven’t been able to figure out what that’s all about, it doesn’t play by the rules, so they’ve mostly kept powered people quiet. They exist, but they exist in obscurity. Either they learn to keep themselves hidden or they take a long walk off a short plank. That doesn’t necessarily mean the Templars eliminate them. They’re just unorganized and untrained. Someone walks around with laser hands, they’re gonna get shot before a camera crew shows up. Someone discovers they can create fire from thin air, they might spontaneously combust instead. Accidental self-immolation is a bad way to go.
For one reason or another, the Templars have decided powered people are needed now. It’s time to organize and train them. They’ve chosen Kristen Anderson as their face. She’s the pioneer. She’s the experiment. They see her as an inoffensive choice in a city that isn’t going to make as many waves as a superhero in New York City would. She’s the start of a movement. If she does her job well, the rest will follow. Nobody is paving the way for her. Lady Superior is doing the paving.
That said, the first book had a subtle hint or two readers may or may not have picked up on. To be more obvious about it, within the story, the pseudonym Lady Superior was pulled from an in-universe comic book. Kristen had to ask permission to use the name as her alter-ego. When she meets the aged illustrator who created the character, he says, “I’ve been waiting for you for a very long time. I think you can fill Lady Superior’s shoes just fine.” It’s significant.
This may not be the first attempt at bringing superheroes into the light. If it was attempted previously, it must not have gone very well. Whether or not it works out this time around is up to Lady Superior.
Q: What is Kristen dealing with personally in Rookie Mistakes?
A: As is often the case with superheroes who have secret identities, she’s learning how to live a dual life — or if it’s even realistically possible. How do you maintain two social circles who know you as someone else? How do you maintain friendships? Or relationships in general? Being two people takes its toll, and which identity is which becomes harder to keep straight. Her foe in this installment of the series has a deeper, more personal impact on her than what she’s faced previously, too. In the first installment, she fought mythical beasts, magical creatures, and other people with powers. In Rookie Mistakes, she’s up against something she didn’t know she signed up for. It’s a problem strength alone can’t fix and the effect it has on her bleeds into her personal life.
Q: How hard is it to write about an invulnerable superhero?
A: If I may argue semantics for a moment, Lady Superior isn’t invulnerable. On an arbitrary scale from 1 to 10, 1 being human and 10 being invulnerable, I’d say she’s around a 7. She’s tough as hell, but she has limits.
That said, I don’t find it particularly difficult, it just requires some thought. In most cases, the danger she faces doesn’t come in the form of physical harm. This isn’t a character where someone with a pistol is a dire situation. Direct, physical confrontations are her ideal scenario. If someone wants a fight, she’ll fight. It’ll be a grand ol’ time and that’s the vibe I go for in those sorts of encounters. She’s thrilled if someone wants to throw down. But the life of a hero is more complex than that. She can survive some extreme scenarios and come out in one piece, but she’s still one person. She can’t be everywhere. She can’t protect everyone. And ultimately, she isn’t perfect. Even someone with her powers can leave herself vulnerable by making the wrong move.
She’s also in a world where other people have powers, too. If someone had the power of flight, what could she do about that? She can’t fly. If someone could turn to smoke? If someone could blast her from a block away? These are all possibilities in the world she inhabits. In the grand scheme of things, what she can do is downright mundane. And maybe that’s why the Templars put her forward first.
Just for fun, if I may do some authorial theorycrafting, I’d go as far as to say between Lady Superior and her powered allies thus far, she might be the one at a disadvantage. Todd has the power of teleportation. How would she deal with that? Could she even land a punch? Then there’s the archer who managed to hurt her in the first book. His power is to muffle sound. He’s the kind of guy who would take a good, long time making plans before taking on an opponent. If he lured her somewhere dark where he could silence all sound, how would she handle a fight in complete sensory deprivation? He made her bleed when he wasn’t in his ideal situation. What could he do if he was?
Maybe she’d find a way to beat them. Maybe she wouldn’t. My point is she lives in a dangerous world and even relatively unassuming powered people are a threat in their own way. Brawn alone won’t get her through those situations. Brains are just as important, if not moreso. And in Rookie Mistakes, Kristen realizes early on you don’t even need powers to be dangerous.
Q: What’s next for Lady Superior after Rookie Mistakes?
A: Her adventures, and/or those of her teammates, will continue. If all goes well, and people continue to enjoy this series, Rookie Mistakes is the first of a serialized Lady Superior. To try to come up with a familiar analogy that hopefully makes some sense, if this were television, the first installment of Lady Superior was an extended proof-of-concept pilot. Rookie Mistakes is the first episode of the TV series. The first installment was a self-contained story showing the potential of the world. From Rookie Mistakes onward, each story will have its own contained arc and conclusion, but be part of a larger arc, too. Each story will have ramifications, all of it eventually leading to something larger. After all, Delphi keeps going on and on about some sort of apocalypse. Someone should probably look into that.
Rookie Mistakes is available on Amazon for $3.99 and other ebook retailers as well. I’ve also just launched a Patreon where I’ll be releasing short stories and vignettes set in the world of Lady Superior among others. For those who enjoyed Rookie Mistakes, my Patreon currently features a piece of content cut from the final novel as a bit of bonus material for my patrons. You can also sign up for the Otherworlds Publishing newsletter to get updates on upcoming releases.
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