As a longtime reader of post-apocalyptic (PA) and dystopian science fiction, ever since I picked up my Dad’s dog eared copy of Alas Babylon by Pat Frank, I’m always on the lookout for new books and new-to-me authors in the genre. (I’m going to stay out of the whole debate about whether the two types of fiction can be considered the same, or subsets of each other or are two separate SF genres.) When I find an entire series with a strong and satisfying arc, I’m in reader bliss. The Flashpoint series by co-authors Mike Kraus and Tara Ellis spans six books, ending with the recently released Mercy, which expertly tied all the plot points and the characters together in a satisfying finale.
Of course now the remaining survivors have to turn to the job of rebuilding civilization but as I closed the book, I felt confident these people could handle the challenge.
I was excited to interview the authors and learn more about the inspiration for the series and other related topics. I focused on the entire series, since Mercy brings all the events which came before to the conclusion, rather than on this specific new novel. The same core group of survivors are followed through all six books. ( thoroughly enjoyed the entire series.)
The book’s blurb (courtesy of Muonic Press, Inc.): All roads lead to Mercy (Montana) as survivors from all walks of life, with intentions ranging from good to evil, meet for the final showdown in Flashpoint Book 6.
Half of the earth’s population has been wiped out. Impossible to predict or stop, the Gamma Ray Burst tore through the Earth like a bullet, its radiation wave killing hundreds of millions and the aftereffects ensuring the deaths of billions more.
Now, as the world crumbles around them, a ragtag group of survivors make for the only home they know – the small town of Mercy. Spared the worst of the GRB’s effects, the town is isolated, safe and self-sufficient – for now. The flash hasn’t just decimated the Earth’s population, though. It’s brought out the worst in many of those who are still alive.
Survival in this new world doesn’t just depend on preparedness – it depends on strength.
And a portion of the publisher’s note: It’s the one disaster no one can plan for. A rogue cosmic event called a Gamma Ray Burst, sending a spike of radiation through the earth like a .50 caliber bullet through a ripe watermelon. It’s speculated that such an event hit the Earth at some point in the past, causing a mass extinction event. With two potential sources for a GRB pointed directly at our heads, the chances of another one happening in our lifetime is remote… but still possible.
Veronica Scott for Amazing Stories Magazine: What were the major inspirations for this series?
MK: I’ll approach my answers to your questions from an author/publisher perspective. I’ve been a best-selling PA author since 2012, and my company – Muonic Press – has, according to K-Lytics, been the top small/indie publisher of PA for the last 2 years. Because of my depth of experience in the genre, I take a “big picture” role when it comes to the co-authoring, so I’ll structure my answers around that.
My first influence when approaching any PA story, including this one, is to find something unique that readers will enjoy and will also satisfy the required genre tropes. Making readers happy and giving them a fun, enjoyable and memorable story is the number one thing on my mind with any book I work on. To make this happen, my main focus is on one thing – making characters who are instantly relatable to the average reader. Stories with one-man-army heroes are fine, but you don’t form a personal connection to characters like that. You form a connection to characters who are flawed, make mistakes, struggle, do their best and look like either yourself or your friends and family. Real people are much, much more interesting to read about than a superhero.
TE: I have to say that when discussing and plotting the story arc for Flashpoint, I was most strongly influenced by the television series, ‘Jericho’. I thought it was so successful and powerful at its storytelling because it was character-driven with flawed, believable people. The town and residents of Jericho were forced together into an inconceivable fight for survival and I wanted to draw the reader in with the same sort of multifaceted storyline. Another inspiration was The Stand, so I was thrilled to have our Flashpoint series compared to it by several readers. I think The Stand is the epitome of an apocalyptic scenario and if I could drum up some of the same tension and breathless anticipation as King, then I knew it would be successful storytelling. Another inspiration is likely to be unexpected. I’m a huge fan of ‘Battlestar Galactica’ (the reboot) I feel it’s the best television series ever made and it’s because of the number of engaging characters. It starts out with an apocalypse and becomes a story of survival, people traveling across vast amounts of space to find a home, much like so many other post-apocalyptic stories. When developing the main players in Flashpoint, I reflected back on BSG, and considered what it was about the large ensemble that made them so captivating. I believe that any story needs a certain mix of conflict, action, energy, and well-developed characters to deliver a winning combination.
ASM.: What made you decide to use a gamma ray event?
MK: Tara really did a fantastic job with the details on this; my involvement in the research was pretty basic, mostly just making sure that the realism didn’t get too out of bounds for what’s expected in a fiction story. Striking a good balance there is really key (and fortunately we were able to stick very largely to realism).
TE: I’m glad you asked this question, because it’s something I love to talk about. Mike wanted a unique event, so I spent over a week researching different types of events that could potentially lead to an apocalyptic setting. I had heard of gamma-rays before, but I had no real grasp on what they were, nor that they could pose any sort of real threat to earth. Mike loved the concept and once that was agreed upon, I delved into the research. With any of my stories, I do massive research. With science fiction, I feel very strongly that as an author, I have to go out of my way to make whatever scenario I’m presenting believable. To do so, I have to have a firm grip on the science involved. I spent over two weeks studying astrophysics and all of the potential effects we could experience as a result of a direct or glancing blow from a gamma-ray. The most surprising aspect was the sheer power involved and how many different and varying repercussions we could see if one were to come from our own galaxy. It’s really a post-apocalyptic writer’s jackpot of goods and I’m surprised it hasn’t been written about more.
ASM.: How did the co-authorship process work?
MK: My role in this series, as it is in all of the other series I co-author on, is as a genre expert/advisor/big-picture type of person. I’ve been a best-selling PA author since I launched my first series in 2012, and I really enjoy helping bring new series to life through my publishing company, Muonic Press.
Generally speaking, the way co-authoring works for us is that we start by brainstorming ideas of various world-ending events, plotlines, characters, etc. Once something good appears out of the swirling mass, we’ll refine it some, then I have my co-author write the first two chapters of what they’re thinking the story should be. I then do an in-depth review/critique/commentary on those chapters, helping to refine them in all sorts of ways. Once that’s done, I send the chapters to a selection of beta readers who I trust who give the final verdict.
If the beta readers like the story, we get off to the races, so to speak. My co-author will send me anywhere from a few chapters at a time to a whole book at a time, which I’ll then go through and make sure it’s following genre conventions, make suggestions for changes to the story/characters/situations, etc, do fact-checking and make sure we have a healthy balance of exposition and action.
For Flashpoint, it was no different. The initial writing/review/rewriting process was slower at first since I was giving a lot of detailed feedback, but as Tara and I got used to each other’s expectations and vision for the story, the process got streamlined *very* quickly.
TE: I thoroughly enjoyed the writing process with Mike, and feel that I’ve already grown as an author, because of it. The whole process took approximately seven months. Once we had the series idea and first few chapters hammered out, I wrote one novel a month, for a rapid release.
ASM.: Did the two of you have the entire series plotted out before you began?
TE: Essentially. I’m a plotter. Like, obsessively. Having said that, while I’ve written a trilogy before, I’d never taken on a six-book story arc and it was a huge challenge. I was honestly afraid that I might get burned out on it but I ended up loving this story, the characters, and the process. I was sad when it ended. I had the overall conflict and basic stages of the story plotted from the beginning, so that I already knew essentially how it would end from page one. I also write mysteries, so I’m used to having several storylines, plot twists, and reveals at the end. I incorporated some of that into Flashpoint, I feel successfully. Although I plot, I always leave room for things to develop on their own. At a certain point, the characters and their stories take on a life of their own, and I have to listen to that and be flexible to allow things to evolve naturally. I love it when I’m surprised by a scene and they often end up being some of the best stuff.
ASM.: Did any of your characters ‘surprise’ you while you were writing?
TE: Chloe. While first plotting, her character and circumstances changed a few times and I even briefly considered tossing her out because I was getting so many points of view. She ended up being one of my favorites, and I feel is the most relatable/believable character. There’s an emotional scene between her and one of the other characters late in the story that totally took me off guard and I still cry every time I read it.
ASM.: Which was the most difficult character to write and why?
TE: Russell. Hands-down. At the same time, he was also the most compelling. I love psychology and getting inside his head was both fascinating and terrifying. I scared myself with some of his scenes.
ASM.: What do you feel the appeal of post-apocalyptic and dystopian science fiction is to the readers?
MK: From a demographic standpoint, Post-Apocalyptic and Dystopian are two entirely different beasts. I have little to no experience in the Dystopian realm, so I can’t speak to that, but I can definitely speak to PA.
Readers of PA – and I say this based on numerous reader surveys and market analysis that I’ve performed over the years – love, above all else, to see themselves reflected in a story. Stories about one-man armies marching across a wasteland are all well and good, but what readers love even more is a story where a family – who’s just as imperfect and rough around the edges as they are – makes mistakes, struggles, experiences loss and eventually triumphs, in some form or fashion. When they can look at what a character does and say “hey, that’s me/my child/my grandmother/someone else they know,” then they form a real connection to the character and the story, and it takes on a personal meaning for them.
TE: Most people love a good survival story, which is really what post-apocalyptic and dystopian science fiction is. Even more, it’s about studying the human condition. What would we do when faced with certain challenges? What would you do? A good post-apocalyptic story will make the reader examine their own reactions and perhaps even question what they thought they knew or believed.
ASM.: What was the first post-apocalyptic or dystopian book or movie you encountered and what was your reaction?
MK: The Book of Eli wasn’t the first, but it was definitely one of the more thought-provoking in my younger days.
TE: I read The Stand at a very early age (probably too young), and it gave me a hunger for that type of survival story. I also consider Star Wars to be a type of dystopian story, if you look at its origins. Then, there’s the Terminator franchise and The Matrix. I grew up in the 70s/80s, so I love those classics.
ASM.: Is there a TV show you’ve recently binge watched?
MK: ‘The Dragon Prince’. That was a great show. I’m looking forward to Season 4!
TE: ‘The Expanse’, and I’m currently re-watching ‘Battlestar Galactica’.
ASM.: What’s next for each of you?
MK: My publishing company is in a constant state of growth, which is both daunting and exciting. In the post-apocalyptic realm I’m continuing to work with Tara on a new series, and I’m continuing to work with multiple other co-authors on series that aim to give readers something enjoyable and thought-provoking to read.
TE: We’re currently working on another series (TBA), that I am very excited about. Once again, I think we’ve found a unique event that will fascinate the reader and it will be full of engaging characters you’ll root for.
ASM.: What’s on your To Be read lists?
MK: The next work-in-progress manuscript that gets sent over!
TE: Inbound, E.E. Isherwood, Edge of Collapse, Kyla Stone, Winter World, A.G. Riddle