A HUNDRED THOUSAND WORLDS, the debut novel by Bob Proehl, is a beautiful and quirky book mixing pop culture satire with a compelling family journey. It is published by Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House. Read my review here.
“For all its acrobatic wit and outsize charm, at its heart this is the love story of two everyday heroes–a mother and son–who, like their author, possess the superpower of storytelling. A ‘Cavalier & Clay’ for the Comic-Con age, ‘A Hundred Thousand Worlds’ is a bighearted, inventive, exuberant debut.”
–Eleanor Henderson, author of “Ten Thousand Saints”
BOB PROEHL grew up in Buffalo, New York, where his local comics shop was Queen City Bookstore. He has worked as a bookseller and programming director for Buffalo Street Books, a DJ, a record store owner, and a bartender. He has written for the 33⅓ book series and worked as a columnist and reviewer for the arts and culture site PopMatters.com. Proehl currently lives in Ithaca, New York with his wife, stepson, and daughter. It is my pleasure to share with you this interview.
HENRY CHAMBERLAIN: Your novel is a mix of family drama and satire. I see it in the long tradition of novels. Are you more of a traditional writer?
BOB PROEHL: I’m a fairly traditional writer. I write long form. I write novels. I sat down with this and I knew, pretty early on, that it was a big project, of novelistic length.
HC: Your satire seems to have a gentle bite to it while still being complex. You’re critiquing consumer culture and corporate interest while you’re also celebrating storytelling. Can you speak to that?
BP: It’s written very much from that fan community. I’ve been a comic book fan for as long as I can remember. It’s a community that I see too often portrayed in a really negative light. I think the general public perception of geekdom, or fandom, comes from that “Big Bang Theory” portrayal: nerds living in their mother’s basements. And that’s not true. It’s not true to my experience or what I see at cons or when I talk to other people. So, while I did want to poke a little bit of fun, I also wanted to put out a more positive portrayal of that subculture.
HC: Well, I see a fun satire, like when you have, in the book, the superhero, The Ferret; or your parody of “The X-Files” which you call, “Anamoly.” There’s a certain level of snark, or am I reading that wrong?
BP: Very loving snark. The Ferret is sort of my Spider-Man stand-in. Basically, there’s nothing that much more absurd about a character with magical ferret powers than another character who gets bitten by a radioactive spider and gets really strong and agile. So, if there is some snark there, it’s done with a lot of love.
HC: Share with us the storytelling going on between Valerie and Alex. She recites bedtime stories to her son based on plot lines from the hit sci-fi show she used to star in. That’s her way of revealing. How did that device come about?
BP: That was a device that developed over the course of a couple of drafts. When I first wrote it, it was clear to me that she was just recounting plots. And, as the idea developed, it became more of an interactive thing between her and Alex. I went back and reread Margaret Atwood’s “Blind Assassin” which does this brilliant thing where two of the characters are co-creating a science fiction story. They’re playing it back and forth like a narrative tennis. That same thing is happening between Alex, the boy in my story, and Brett, the comic book creator. They end up collaborating. What I wanted to get across with Val and her son, Alex, is that storytelling drifts that way anyway. The way she tells the stories from these episodes has to do with where they’re at and is very responsive to what he needs and what he needs to know.
HC: Tell us about how the origin story sections in your book came about. Some are superhero origin stories and some are origin stories for the characters in the book.
BP: I really love the phrase, “secret origin.” It’s an old DC Comics term. You knew about the character’s past but they’d then introduce this new bit of information. I saw that as part of the backstory in my book. They were sort of thought experiments, especially for the superhero ones. Just emoting, or empathizing with the high concepts of superhero characters. Backstory can be difficult to organically bring into the story. I wanted these origin pieces to be little stories in themselves. The one for the Idea Man was originally not backstory but the beginning of the narrative. It made for a clunky start so it became a flashback. And the one with Val in the theater was one of the last chapters to be written and it didn’t come together until a third draft. While I was working on it, I called a friend who is a stage actor and acted him about his process for preparing a scene. That actually helped.
HC: What writers are you currently reading?
BP: I had to take a bit of pause from fiction as I started working on another book. But I just started reading “Homegoing,” by Yaa Gyasi, which is fantastic. I’m scrambling to catch up on titles that have come out this month. I find that, when you’re away from fiction, it’s such a treat to return to it. Lately, I’ve been reading Polish history and weird research books for this other project.
HC: From your vantage point, how do you see alternative comics doing? All these “alternatives” to superhero comics, do you see a steady climb in readership?
BP: I think so. I think that’s where a lot of the top talent is going. They are moving away from corporate-owned properties and moving to creator-owned work. I don’t think they’re referred to as alternative comics anymore. It’ not like R. Crumb or the Hernandez brothers anymore. It’s a significant portion of the mainstream and the new readership. There’s a limit to how many readers you can bring in to all the superhero continuity. But, at the same time, there are people doing fresh new stuff that’s more accessible. And that’s exciting. I’ve been reading comics for twenty years and will continue to do so. I’m part of the target audience. But, for new readers, there’s other ways to access Batman.
HC: Do you think it would be interesting for your book tour to crossover to reading in a comic book shop?
BP: Yes, in fact, tomorrow I will be in Philadelphia and I’ll be at Amalgam Comics & Coffeehouse. And then later, in July, I’ll be in Portland at Books with Pictures. So, mostly doing traditional bookstores for this tour. But, there’s those two comic book shops and I’m really excited about that.
HC: You have a significant music background. You’ve been a DJ and a record store owner. Any interest in writing a novel set in the music scene?
BP: I still want to do that. I have something in the que and that may result in something set in New York City, the punk scene in the mid-70s. But this current book, curiously, has no musical references.
HC: For this book, you had comic con experience to draw from.
BP: When I was growing up in Buffalo, I worked for a comic book dealer. It was for one summer. We didn’t do conventions; we did shows. They would be in suburban malls. There would be a dozen other comic book dealers there. And kids like me would come trying to find issues missing from their collections. But I was already there. I got first dibs. I got paid in comics. That worked out well.
HC: What can you tell us about the beautiful endpapers to this book by artist Esad Ribic?
BP: I went down in the fall to meet with the folks at Viking. It was the publisher who suggested that we hire a comic book artist to do an illustration for the endpapers. We decided upon Esad Ribic. I got to describe to him all the visual references like what does the robot look like. It is supposed to be the sort of illustration that the character, Brett, would draw for Alex. It was fun to go back and forth. At one point, I was trying to describe the background, something like the Emerald City or Gallifrey from Doctor Who. And then it occurred to me it was like futuristic cities that Esad was known for drawing.
HC: Would you ever write a comic book script?
BP: I would love to. I have heard that it can be incredibly difficult. There are all sorts of constraints–but constraints can be fun as a writer. I listened to an interview with G. Willow Wilson. She was a novelist before she came to comics. She wrote, for example, the novel, “Alif the Unseen.” Currently, she’s working on Ms. Marvel. She said the technical constraints to writing for comics are mind-boggling: all the mapping out of panels; mindful to have something surprising take place on the left-hand page. I would love to but I haven’t had the opportunity yet. I imagine it would be a challenging transition.
HC: Anything you can tell us about what you’re working on now?
BP: I’m in the middle of projects. After the book tour, I’ll see what might have legs.
HC: Perhaps the book tour will inspire an essay or perhaps more.
BP: I am looking forward to the next big project, that’s what I like best, something big.
HC: Much success to you on the tour and whatever you do next.
BP: Thank you, Henry.
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