Hugh B. Sterbakov has written numerous screenplays and comics for some of the best companies in film and comic book entertainment. If you watch the hilarious clay animation comedy, Robot Chicken, you may be familiar with his work (Star Wars parody, anyone?). He took some time out of his schedule to answer a few questions for FEARnet about his debut novel, City Under the Moon.
What inspired you to write City Under the Moon?
I had a traumatic childhood fear of werewolves — a phobia, really — and I’m not even sure why. I had this beloved Spider-Man book and record where Spidey fought against a werewolf, and one night I suddenly, inexplicably, made my father throw it away. Maybe I repressed whatever started it. But it still haunts me.
So it’s a personal journey, exploring the primal terror of the transformation of man into wolf — the sensation of your own body turning on you. As one of the characters explains in the book, the vampire is the violator and the werewolf is the betrayer. City Under the Moon explores that theme in so many ways — from the misanthropic blogger ripped out of the safety of his basement, the woman whose faith and humanity are torn away, the citizens watching as the fundamental rules of society break down, and the scientists who are confronted by a disease that defies the basic tenets of biology. These massive concepts all boiled down to my most dreaded childhood fear.
You've written, and had produced or published, both screenplays and comic books. How was writing a novel different?
From a structure and storytelling perspective, the novel format offers an unprecedented amount of freedom. Screenplays and particularly comic books are necessarily slavish to specific lengths. In a novel, I could step outside the flow and explore each character’s backstory and motivation, as long as it didn’t interfere in the pacing. In fact, I learned to use those diversions to mount tension. Character development was extremely important, because this is a massive, fantastical plot that requires the grounding of real people making real decisions.
On the other hand, scripts are written in shorthand — fragmented sentences that ignore grammar in favor of utilitarian description. I had to learn the art of narrative writing — and that means not only understanding the rules but also how and when to break them. However, I did have one advantage over most first-time writers — a natural aversion to adverbs.
How did you get started writing professionally?
Writing has always come to me naturally and compulsively. As a kid, I’d race home from movies and begin writing sequels. I wrote and drew my own comics throughout my teens. In college, I took as many writing courses as possible, because I could write papers in 20 minutes and collect easy A’s.
I wrote my first two screenplays as an undergrad at Ithaca College, and then I moved to Los Angeles and entered the UCLA MFA Screenwriting program. During that time, I won a couple of small screenwriting contests and placed as a finalist in the two biggest ones. My first script, a horror set in the old west, garnered a lot of interest and scored me an agent. The first screenplay I wrote out of UCLA was optioned by Disney. That was six years after I wrote my first one, six years of nonstop, top-notch education.
I hear from a lot of folks who’ve written one spec script and hired a lawyer, and they think they’re entitled to careers. They assume it’s all some kind of luck-based lottery, just because they’ve seen a couple crappy films and think they could do better. And sure, there are always people who fall into success. But it’s not something you just decide to do one day, and most writers, particularly in television, write five or ten scripts before they write a great one.
Any plans to adapt City Under the Moon for the screen?
That’s a goal and it’s in the works, but it wasn’t my primary concern. In fact, getting out of the Hollywood development machine and putting a story into the hands of enthusiastic readers was the reason I wrote the novel. City is well-liked in Hollywood and I’ve had interest from fantastic producers of spectacular blockbusters, but ultimately it’d have to be an R-rated horror film with a massive budget, and that may not be a practical endeavor in today’s market. It has epically cinematic moments that’d make for incredible spectacles on screen, but, personally, I think the novel’s ability to dive deep into the characters makes it the best interpretation of the story.
What's your typical writing process like?
I’ll take my time, letting a story marinate for months or years while I write other things. City Under the Moon, for example, sat at the top of a list of story ideas on my white board for two years before I actively started working on it. It took that long to break the story, which in this case meant finding a motivation for the bad guy. Once I had that, everything else fell into place.
I’ll start with a three-act timeline on my white board and plug in the major plot mechanisms. I’ll continue to populate that until I’m finished, but once I’ve got a solid three-act structure, I’ll turn it into a document and flesh out the details. As a rule, the more time I spend outlining, the easier the process and the better result. That includes collecting quirks for my characters, considering their arcs, integrating themes, conducting research, and weeding out tangential ideas. I do my best work when my mind can wander.
Once I start writing pages, I tend to get laser-focused. I’ll be irritable whenever I have to stop. Before I had kids, I’d write around the clock, my laptop attached like an umbilical cord. I’d have to take shifts in restaurants so I wouldn’t forget to eat. I’ll take breaks, answering e-mails and even playing videogames, but my mind is always in the story — I’ll stop whatever I’m doing, even if I’m mid-conversation, and take notes. And I always stop writing in a place where I know exactly what comes next. I do at least three drafts before I show anyone.
Typically, writing a screenplay should take six to eight weeks. City Under the Moon took six months to first draft and 18 more to rewrite. On top of learning narrative writing, I did a colossal amount of research. Screenplays are shorthand — the production will hire scientists or cops or military advisors for verisimilitude. A limited vocabulary is rescued by set design. But in a novel I had no such support system.
I interviewed a USC professor of microbiology for my scenes at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. She taught me how my scientists would study the werewolf disease. I spoke to a retired colonel and government lawyer to weigh the president’s doomsday options. A retired USMC sniper helped with weaponry, and an active Apache pilot sent e-mails from Afghanistan detailing the helicopters they’d deploy over New York. A friend in Romania helped write Romanian dialogue and conducted research in sources that aren’t available in English. And through the entire process, I spoke several times a week with an FBI agent.
It was exhausting, but it’s all on the page.
Anything you'd like to add about your other works?
My comic book, Freshmen is an action comedy about a combative group of college kids that gain pseudo-useful superpowers. One guy can burp and make people drunk, another can talk to plants, and there’s a spiteful ex-couple who can only use their telekinesis when they’re in physical contact. I created it with Seth Green, and we have two graphic novels available on Amazon or at most comic shops. And I’ve written a R-rated stop-motion animated comedy called Hell & Back that’s now in production. We have an amazing cast, including Danny McBride, Mila Kunis and Susan Sarandon, and it’ll be out next year. Keep your eyes out!
NANCY O. GREENE started writing at the age of nine. Her short story collection, PORTRAITS IN THE DARK, received a brief mention in THE YEAR’S BEST FANTASY AND HORROR 2007. Other works have appeared or will appear in CHIZINE; LOVECRAFT EZINE; CEMETERY DANCE; TALES OF BLOOD AND ROSES; HAUNTED: 11 TALES OF GHOSTLY HORROR; Shroud Publishing’s THE TERROR AT MISKATONIC FALLS; DARK RECESSES; FLAMES RISING; SMILE, HON, YOU’RE IN BALTIMORE!; and others. She has a BA in Cinema (Critical Studies) and a minor in English (Creative Writing) from the University of Southern California, and is a Film Independent: Project Involve Fellow.