Joseph Staten. Man. Myth. Legend. Grunt voice. He is all of these things and more. When Tor asked us if one of Bungie’s legions of writers had the chops to write the next Halo novel, we shoved Joe through the castle gates and slammed them closed behind him. For a year, he wore a cravat and a smoking jacket as he penned a heart clogging work of drunken indulgence. We kid. Contact Harvest, coming this fall, is AWESOME. Joe tells us why.
Q: This is your first novel, but you’ve written a lot of Halo fiction before. Can you tell us about that?
A: Sure. I headed up the writing for Halo and Halo 2, and I’m currently working on Halo 3. After Halo 2 shipped, we realized there was enough work to support a whole team of Bungie writers. Over the last few years I’ve been helping with the fiction on a number of external projects including the Halo film and Ensemble Studios’ “Halo Wars.”
Q: What’s the premise of your Halo novel?
A: The title says it all: it’s the story of “first contact” between the Covenant and us. The book’s an ensemble piece – tells the story of how the war began from multiple points-of-view, human and alien. But the lead character on our side is a young UNSC Staff Sergeant named Avery Johnson.
Q: Not an unpopular guy with Halo fans.
A: That’s the idea!
Q: Without giving away any juicy details, what can you tell us about the book’s plot or other characters?
A: Well…maybe the safest way to answer is to tell what won’t be in the book. [Ed. Note: JERK!] As folks familiar with the fiction know, first contact occurred in 2525 – almost 30 years before the events of Halo. At that point the Master Chief and the rest of the Spartans were in their early teens, getting prepped for a fight against other humans (the “Insurrection” in Epsilon Eridanus). So there won’t be any Spartans in the book, but…Oh, all right. I can’t resist: in addition to Avery, there will be some major Covenant characters from Halo2. Can you guess which ones?
Q: “Crazy Grunt #1”?
A: Now that’s a strong possibility!
Q: Speaking of characters from Halo2, how does it feel to go back in time? To explore characters you created in ways you can’t in a video game?
A: Honestly, this book’s been the most difficult mental challenge I’ve ever tackled. That includes anything I wrote in college or grad-school and even the Halo game scripts. But it’s also been really liberating. Games and books both have the power to immerse – to draw you deep into compelling fiction. But as rich as the Halo games’ stories are, they’re bound by pretty rigid constraints. I’ve wanted to tell Avery’s back-story for years, knowing that the tale I had in mind was probably too complex for a game to support. I’m very happy I get to write it with all depth and detail a novel allows. But I’m also humbled too.
The world's greatest living scribe. Yesterday.
Q: Yeah, I was going to ask. How’s it feel following in the footsteps of Nylund and Dietz?
A: Do you mean the writers of the previous “New York Times Bestselling” Halo Novels? Given that this is my first book, I’m pretty nervous about anyone reading it. The world where it actually turns out to be an OK read and lots of people pick it up? That scares the -blam!- out of me.
Q: What do you think are the dangers and benefits of expanding the Halo universe?
A: As long as we don’t outstrip our ability to manage the process – to make smart choices about the projects we pursue – I think any expansion is terrific. Inviting outside writers and artists into the Halo universe has forced us to put our canonical house in order (so we can offer good direction). And from a personal motivation point-of-view, knowing Peter Jackson, for example, is going to read one of my story treatments definitely lights an improving fire under my prose.
Q: Speaking of fiction wrangling, I heard the guys who control the story bible are tough to work with. Can you elaborate?
A: They roll their eyes every time I even mention writing a love scene! They’re philistines, I tell you! Seriously though, I can’t tell you how helpful it’s been to have the support of my writing team colleagues. Frankie and Robt gut-checked my crazy ideas early on, and will be wading through multiple drafts helping me polish. On the management side, Sketch and Harold have been nothing but supportive from the get-go.
Q: Who are some of your favorite writers, sci-fi and otherwise – and how have they influenced your process?
A: I’ll try to keep the list relatively short (and limited to the 20th century). Sci-Fi: Heinlein, Niven, Ian Banks, Vernor Vinge. Fiction: C.S. Lewis, Graeme Green, Haruki Murakami, Cormac McCarthy. Oh man, so many more – in so many different categories! Barbara Tuchman, Tom Stoppard, David Milch. On and on… Most importantly, these exceptionally talented writers have taught me the importance of honing a strong, consistent voice. Not that my voice is settled by any means, but I hope I’ve at least leaned the lesson that aping greatness pretty much guarantees mediocrity.
Q: The book’s set to release in the Fall. Excited?
A: See my previous note about terror-induced bowel release, but yeah. Absolutely. I’ll have spent more than a year writing this book and much longer than that thinking about the characters, settings etc. My only hope is that fans of the Halo universe – and with luck, fans of a good Sci-Fi yarn, generally speaking – enjoy what I’ve done.
Q: One more question: David Scully audio book?
A: No promises. But if it were up to me? Hell. Yes.