Late last year I chatted to Steven Lochran about the release of Vanguard Prime: Gold Rush, the first in a high-octane series that blends the pacing of Percy Jackson with the superhero cred of X-Men. The second in the series has just been released, and it’s a glorious ride of explosions, super-sonic travel and some very grey moral decisions. Having zoomed through the book (reading fast is my superpower), I caught up with Steven to find out a little bit more about what makes his characters tick.
One of the elements that struck me while reading was protagonist Sam’s yearning for a normal life. A newly recruited member of Vanguard Prime, Sam has all sorts of cool gadgets, nascent superpowers and top-secret missions at his fingertips—and yet he finds himself thinking wistfully of his friend Zachary, who is still living Sam’s old life of high school classes and basketball games.
This seems to be something that crops up among superhero characters: a longing to be normal in a world where everyone else wants to be abnormal.
Steven admits to having been, like Sam, quite wistful as a teen—and still being so even today.
“I also think it’s reflective of how everyone is at that age, when your emotions run extreme and you’ll often feel five different ways about the one subject. I think you sum it up perfectly as ‘longing to be normal’; I very distinctly remember wishing for exactly that when I was a kid.”
Steven tells me that he was an only child whose parents divorced very acrimoniously when he was 9, and that he spent a lot of his time wishing that he had brothers and sisters and a functioning family.
“We also moved around a lot, leading me to wish for the stable household I often saw in TV and movies, where grown-up characters would return to their childhood room, just the same as it was when they were young.”
That said, Steven can understand how a child who had the stability that he himself longed for might wish for more change and excitement.
“It’s a fundamental element of humanity that we’re always longing for what we don’t have. We always think the grass is greener on the other side,” he says.
He adds that what Sam feels is that same sense of yearning that so many of us feel so acutely as we approach adulthood, only “magnified and made much more operatic”.
“Ultimately, the arc of this series is all about getting Sam to feel confident about his role as a superhero–much as we all have to grow comfortable with the process of transitioning into adulthood, and being happy with what we have and who we are–with every book getting him that one step closer.”
A good deal of that transition involves learning to make difficult decisions, and in Wild Card, the second in the series, ethical dilemmas and moral shades of grey abound. The responsibility of the individual to engage with these is touched on explicitly by The Knight of Wands, who says that the very idea of a superhero is a “call to evolution, a symbol that demonstrates how we can be better to each other”.
Having grown up in an agnostic household, Steven’s moral compass was largely guided by what he read in books.
“Someone a generation or two before me would have had the Ten Commandments; for me it was Spider-Man’s ‘with great power comes great responsibility’,” he says.
The “personal evolution” speech mentioned above is his way of trying to sum up why he thinks that superheroes are not only relevant, but important.
“There’s been more than one time in my life that I’ve drawn on the idea of strength as embodied in superhero fiction to get me through a rough time; not physical strength, but a strength of character. And in those times that I fail that test, I’ve also learned to pick myself up and keep on trying.”
Superhero fiction is often casually dismissed as “nothing more than an adolescent power fantasy”, but Steven argues that it’s something that young people can turn to when they feel confused, insignificant and overlooked. What better way to show that, despite what others might think, a young person might have something special to offer?
“It was superhero stories that comforted me when I was a lonely, uncertain kid, and they gave me something to aspire to–that I could be a happy, confident adult. That’s something that I really wanted to pass on in the writing of this book, and this series.”
Hearing this, I’m curious to know how much of the “power” of a superhero comes from their actual superhero powers, and how much merely relates to the decisions that we make as individuals. Does everyone have within them the power to be a superhero—rather like, I can’t help but add, the Planeteers’ “the power is yours” call to arms?
“Ah, the Planeteers. They must be just about due for a reboot, surely?” says Steven.
“As far as what it takes to be a superhero–whether it’s about superpowers or the choices we make–I definitely think it’s all about the mentality of the individual. You don’t need to be getting involved in clashes with supervillains to be a hero. It can be as small a thing as acting with integrity, honesty, and compassion. That’s also what I wanted to try and encapsulate in the “personal evolution” speech. It’s easy to be complacent. It’s superheroic to strive for more.”
Steven further looks at the idea of complacency with his character the Emperor, a man whose power is “tactile osmosis”. The Emperor is able to learn from anything he touches, and has the capability to absorb whole libraries’ worth of understanding quickly and without effort.
But there’s a difference, points out Steven, between knowledge and true understanding.
“We have so much access to information these days thanks to the Internet, but it’s not often information that’s absorbed and channelled into wisdom.”
Steven says that when researching a book, it’s easy to turn straight to Wikipedia for a quick overview of a topic.
“The Emperor came from that, as well as the idea of the guy who’ll memorise a bunch of facts to give the appearance of being smart at a pub quiz, but doesn’t actually have any true expertise or understanding behind any of that memorised knowledge.”
The concept is in a way a personal warning note for Steven to take the time to properly digest the information that he reads rather than reflexively parroting it. But it’s also a warning against taking shortcuts in general, which is where he thinks that many of us can easily “turn to the dark side”.
“We’re often faced with the choice of doing the right thing or doing the easy thing. It’s hard to be brave, it’s hard to take ourselves outside our comfort zone, to stand up for someone at our own cost. But the more we strive to do that, the easier it gets.”
Although perhaps not quite on the same level as saving the world, becoming a published author certainly involves stepping out of one’s comfort zone. Writing after all, is often perceived as a solitary endeavour. And yet, having taken note of the many people thanked in Steven’s acknowledgements pages, I was curious to know just how many people are involved in the production of a book.
There’s a hugely collaborative effort involved in the publication of any book, says Steven. This is not just on the editorial side of things, but along every step of a way.
“As an author, so many people have to unite around your vision that it can be quite humbling.”
Steven’s wife, who works in publishing (for a different company) is always the first person he asks to read anything that he’s written, and Steven finds her insights invaluable.
“There’ll often be an essential piece of information that I’ve taken completely for granted that she’ll point out is missing. It was because of her input that I realised I had to define the difference between telepathy and telekinesis in the first book, because you can’t take for granted that your core audience will already know the distinction between the two.”
Steven also has a circle of friends who will read the raw manuscript and offer their advice. This is essential, he says, as having “lived with the story in your brain for so long” an external viewpoint Is needed to ensure that the information needed for the story to make sense is actually being conveyed.
“Once I’ve gotten their notes and made any changes, I’ll then send the manuscript onto my publisher and my editor, who’ll have their own feedback which will get incorporated into the rewrites. Often, they’ll have to reel me back in when I go too far with the depictions of violence. I’m not always immediately receptive to that, but it’s always proven to make the story stronger when I’ve had to work out an alternative.”
After all this it’s a relief to be able to switch gears a little to help work on elements such as the cover design (a great post on the design process behind Steven’s books can be found here).
“Generally, the author is invited to provide any ideas they may have but the publisher reserves the right to have final say over the direction that’s taken. I actually make a bit of a nuisance of myself by putting together copious notes and image references for how every character looks and what I imagine the cover could look like.”
Steven has been thrilled so far by the extent to which Penguin has incorporated these ideas into their designs, and the expertise that book designer Karen Scott and illustrator Chad McCown have provided.
Even then, says, Steven, there are many more “unsung heroes” of publishing working behind the scenes: the marketing staff, publicists, sales team, the customer service staff and even those in the distribution centre. Though they often go without recognition, each of these are just as integral to a book’s success as any other department.
“Maybe later in your career you take it for granted that people actually want to read your books, but when you’re starting out you’re just so grateful that anyone would take the time and effort that you want to write up a hugely glowing essay on everyone’s contribution,” says Steven. “But you end up being limited to a single page that a lot of readers still feel is self-indulgent, so you try to be as succinct as possible when it comes time to thank them.”
But though he worries that the acknowledgements page might be seen by some as self-indulgent, he knows that there are others out there like himself (and me!) who pore over such pages, hoping for a glimpse into the arcane world of publishing.
“When I was an aspiring author, I’d always read the ‘About the Author’ and the Acknowledgements pages, looking to see if I could get any insights into getting published. In writing up my acknowledgements pages, I really wanted to sprinkle some breadcrumbs in there for other aspiring writers to pick up on and follow for themselves.”
Wild Card: Vanguard Prime 2 is available now from Penguin Australia
About Wild Card:
Elite superhero team Vanguard Prime has a new mission . . .
When a villainous organisation puts out a Kill Order on the Knight of Wands, Goldrush gets caught in the crossfire. What dark secrets lurk in the Knight’s past? And will the two heroes survive the night?
About Steven Lochran:
Steven Lochran wanted to be either a superhero or a writer when he grew up and has now found a way to combine the two. He has a Bachelor’s Degree in Creative Writing and has worked as a film critic, a projectionist, a DJ and as a sales rep in the publishing industry. He lives in Melbourne with his wife Simone.