A few weeks ago, the third (and final) book in the MJ-12 series, MJ-12: Endgame, was released (and you can check out my review of it here). It’s a super good, super satisfying conclusion to the series and I fully recommend anyone who’s a fan of superheroes, spies, alternate histories, or speculative fiction check it out. Recently, I got the chance to ask Michael J. Martinez (author of the MJ-12 series and the Daedalus trilogy) some questions related to the MJ-12 series, his inspiration behind it, his process of writing it, and his thoughts and feelings related to certain characters and events that happened throughout the book. NOTE: About 2/3 of the way through the interview, a few of the questions ventured into spoiler territory. Those questions have been clearly marked with a large block of texts that indicates when the spoilers begin and end. If you haven’t finished MJ-12: Endgame, I highly suggest you skip past that section until you’ve read the book.
Thoroughly Modern Reviewer: First of all, thank you for doing this interview. How’s life going for you in the lead up to the publication of Endgame?
Michael J. Martinez: Well, it’s been busy, though not for book reasons. I moved to Los Angeles over the summer for my day job, plus a great school opportunity for my daughter. I’m really proud of this book and this series, and I’m excited to see what folks think of it. But I have to admit, the launch kind of sneaked up on me this year.
TMR: So much of the inception of the MJ-12 series revolves around conspiracy theories, so I’m curious as to your thoughts on them in general. Are there any that have particularly intrigued you? Any that you believe? Aliens, maybe?
MM: Conspiracy theories intrigue me quite a bit – though not really because I find them particularly plausible. The group psychology and sociology behind them is what really piques my interest. I find it fascinating that groups of people get together to explore intricate theories about what’s really going on, and that the contortions of fact and logic that have to occur to make these theories work are just accepted as truth. And sometimes the cracks show, like when the Flat Earth Society boasts they have members around the globe. Isn’t that a tacit admission that there is a globe? At the very least, they need a copy editor. As for my own particular beliefs, there’s no major theory I’ve found really plausible. I think sheer mathematics can lead you to believe that there’s life elsewhere in the universe – there are likely billions of planets in our galaxy alone, and we’ve found thousands of worlds within stars’ habitable zones. But that in and of itself does not prove the existence of extraterrestrial life – I take it as a matter of faith because the facts aren’t there yet to support it.
TMR: In the afterward of Endgame, you talk a bit about some of the history that inspired the Majestic 12 series, but I’m curious as to what made you want to tell this story? I’ve always been interested in the whole Majestic 12 conspiracy theory, so I’m curious as to how you took that idea and turned it into what the MJ-12 series ended up becoming.
MM: The MAJESTIC-12 theory really was a nifty vehicle to tell the story I wanted to tell, rather than the genesis of the series. What I wanted to explore was the notion of really normal people being imbued with abilities, and how government and society might react to that. Of course, the government would want to leverage those abilities, and I wanted to find a time and place in which you could see that happen. My own study of history almost immediately let me to the early Cold War, which is when the CIA was really at its craziest, and oversight was…lacking, to say the least. Tapping MAJESTIC-12 as the framework was, frankly, convenient for the story.
TMR: How much of the story of the MJ-12 series had you planned when you first started writing them? How much of it just sort of happened as the writing went on?
MM: Very early on in the development of the series, I identified several different potential stories based on declassified accounts of covert action in the 1940s and 1950s. America’s intelligence community has a breathtaking range of successes and failures and insane stories during that time. Inception really didn’t hang on one of those incidents, but Shadows and Endgame most certainly came from that research. Shadows explored the absolute batshit covert ops in Syria and Lebanon in 1949, as well as the Soviets’ first nuclear test. And Endgame is very much based on the fallout from Stalin’s demise as well as the end of the Korean War.
TMR: I really appreciated the time jumps that occurred between each book; it really helped make the team feel real, as if they were going on adventures in between the major ones that were shown in the novels. What made you decide to have such a time jump between Shadows and Endgame, in particular? Was it mainly so you could cannibalize those real historical events into your story?
MM: Yeah, pretty much. I really wanted to do Syria in 1949 for Shadows – again, because batshit crazy – and given that I had built up Beria into such a major antagonist, I knew I wanted to finish his story as well, and that ended in 1953. So the time jump was very much based on the stories I wanted to tell, but yes, there’s no doubt in my mind that the Variants were out and about, doing all kinds of covert things, in between books.
TMR: The characters in MJ-12 are so well rounded and fleshed out. Was there any character you really enjoyed writing for more than the others or do you love them all equally?
MM: The four characters that stayed with me throughout the series were Frank, Maggie, Danny, and Cal, and to me, they’re the core of what makes the series what it is. I really wanted to explore different people from different backgrounds during this time period and see how they would evolve and change with the onset of their Enhancements. Religious faith isn’t often addressed in speculative fiction, so seeing Cal come to terms with his abilities and contextualize them within his spiritual life was really rewarding. Watching Maggie struggle with her own emotional life was heartwrenching at times, but felt utterly appropriate for someone with her abilities. Frank was the very first character I came up with, and as his Enhancement evolved, I enjoyed seeing him juggle all the personalities going on inside him, even as he became more competent and deadly as a result. And while Danny’s Enhancement was perhaps the most straightforward, it obviously affected him deeply and made him question his loyalties and choices. I’m glad you think they’re well rounded and fleshed out because really, that was the goal.
TMR: Similarly, if you could choose one of the Variants’ Enhancements to have in your real life, which would you choose and why?
MM: I’m not sure I’d want them! I think that’s the point. The superhero genre doesn’t always deal with the side effects and emotional trauma that such power can inflict on a person, and I wanted there to be a cost to these Enhancements. Some of those costs were pretty dire. Honestly, I’m not sure I’d want any of them, especially with the price involved. Those Enhancements are too involved and scary to really want them, at least for me.
TMR: It’s hinted at a few times, especially in Endgame, but would you like to confirm that Danny is gay?
MM: Yep. Danny is gay.
TMR: Was it important to you that there be LGBT representation in the story? Do you wish you could have explored Danny’s sexuality more?
MM: It was definitely important. You know, the Daedalus series got an Amazon comment from some dude – it’s always a dude – who was like, “Why do writers put gay people in my fiction all the time? They’re everywhere!” Well, you know what? LGBTQ+ people are everywhere. So why wouldn’t they be in my fictional worlds? Even if you take the lowball approach and say maybe 3% of the population is LGBTQ+, and I think that’s super low, that means in a cast of 30+ characters, it’s highly likely that one of them would be LGBTQ+. And you know, while there’s representation, Danny’s sexuality really doesn’t take center stage in the series, though it does inform his choices. Being gay in the 1950s, by all accounts, was utterly horrible. Being a Variant in this series was, likewise, pretty horrible at the end of the day. Of course, Danny would see the parallels. With that said, because of the time period and because of Danny’s commitment to his fellow Variants and his military career, I felt that Danny would probably eschew any meaningful explorations. He would rightly think that he was too important to his fellow Variants to get sidetracked and potentially endangered by trying to find a partner.
TMR: On the note of representation, I really appreciate how diverse the characters in the Majestic 12 series were – not just in terms of ethnicity, but also in terms of gender and even age. How important to you was it that the core characters of the series were so diverse?
MM: Also important! If there’s a mysterious force randomly Enhancing people across the world, why would they all be white men in their 20s? I mean, you could probably find story reasons for that, but it would be really weird. It felt authentic to really have a diverse group of characters. The intelligence behind it all wasn’t picky. Plus, as a writer, I simply enjoy writing from different perspectives.
These next few questions will be potentially spoilery. If you haven’t finished reading MJ-12: Endgame, then scroll down until you see the end of the spoiler warning.
TMR: At the end of Endgame, we find out what the intelligence behind the Vortex is. Did you know from the beginning just what was behind it? Could you elaborate any on how it all works (or how you imagine it works)?
MM: Yeah, I knew from the get-go. Basically, it turns out that the whole series is kind of a ghost story, which amuses me. I’m not the first writer to posit that the use of nuclear weapons, and the subsequent deaths on such a horrible scale, would weaken the barrier between the living and the dead. And I’m not the first to further posit that industrial-scale death would get the dead folks on the other side pretty angry. What I hope is unique is the way that it worked in the books. Long story short: the massive number of deaths in Europe during World War II, combined with the use of an atomic bomb in Japan, ripped a hole between the barrier separating the living and the dead. The dead couldn’t really push through yet, but they could pair themselves with the living in a kind of low-level possession, which allowed them to subtly influence events while giving their living hosts Enhancements. The ultimate agenda was to push the superpowers into an all-out nuclear conflict, which would completely tear down the barrier between worlds, allowing the dead to fully possess the living and get the heck out of limbo.
TMR: How far in advance had you decided Danny’s fate? Was this your plan all along? I love his character so much that it broke my heart how his story ended. Do you wish there was a way he could have survived?
MM: Danny’s fate wasn’t really settled until I started writing Endgame. It wasn’t the plan going into the series, but I always saw him as a kind of tragic figure to begin with – the shepherd, the secret-keeper, the guy struggling to protect himself and his fellow Variants while trying to square that with his sense of duty and honor. He didn’t do what he did in the books because there was a ghost trying to influence his actions – he did what he did despite that. In the end, I think this was absolutely the best resolution for him. I thought about maybe having him survive after all, but that felt cheap. What he discovered as he passed on was too important, and he would’ve readily made the sacrifice to protect his friends from the real threat from the other side.
TMR: While you tied up the story pretty neatly with Endgame, would you ever consider returning to this world, even as a short story, or have you said all you want to say with these characters?
MM: Never say never, right? I mean, I could go back to these characters in a heartbeat and tell more stories. I could also go back to the Daedalus universe and tell all kinds of fun tales. Maybe I will. I love the MAJESTIC-12 series. And Daedalus for that matter. I could say a lot more on both. But there’s a lot more stuff out there I haven’t done yet, and I think that’s more of my focus right now.
End of spoilery questions.
TMR: What has been the most memorable part of writing the MJ-12 series? What will you miss most about writing these books?
MM: I really feel I leveled-up as a writer on MAJESTIC-12. The memorable bits are the characters and their development. I’m really proud of that. And I’ll certainly miss writing those characters. They really became fully realized personalities during the course of the series, at least to me.
TMR: What’s next for you, if you can say?
MM: I can’t say, only because I’m not done with anything yet! I’ve had a heck of a run – six novels published in six years, along with a novella and five published shorter pieces. Pretty good for a part-timer, I’d like to think. But with the move to California and other sorts of personal and career stuff, I just haven’t been able to find the time to sit down and make the words happen. I have three novel-length projects in various stages of development, and all three are pretty nifty. None of them are historical fantasy or alternate history, either, which is exciting. Once things settle down somewhat, I think I’ll be able to take a look at them, see which one really captures my imagination in the moment, and then get cracking. I’m pretty certain that you won’t see a novel from me in 2019, but I’m nowhere near done as a fiction writer.
TMR: Thank you so much, again, for agreeing to do this! I wish you all the best with your future stories and look forward to what you do next!
MM: Thank you! Really appreciate the opportunity and the support. It means a lot.