I have to start out by saying how excited I was that Mark D. White was willing to do an interview with me. I read his book The Virtues of Captain America: Modern-Day Lessons on Character from a WWII Superhero and absolutely loved it. It completely changed my approach to comic book heroes, and even my outlook on American society. So thank you so much, Professor White, for taking the time to answer my questions.
- What’s your name? Where can we find you? Blog? Twitter? Facebook?
- Other than writing, what is your favorite hobby or thing you enjoy for fun?
Listening to music—I always have music on, except in the evening when I’m finished working and I wind down with a movie or Netflix. I’d like to say I play guitar too, but I don’t think I play nearly enough to say that!
- How long have you been writing? How many books have you written? They don’t have to be published.
Even though I haven’t written fiction in many years, I remember writing stories as soon as I was able to write (and I hope to return to fiction this year). In terms of my nonfiction writing, I began in graduate school in the mid-1990s, writing journal articles and chapters for academic collections, but I didn’t start writing “pop philosophy” until around 2005 when I first contributed a chapter on Metallica and philosophy to the Blackwell Philosophy and Pop Culture series. I went on to edit seven books in that series, and now I focus chiefly on writing books, of which I have four in print, one coming soon, and another in progress.
- While you’ve written several books and articles, you’ve done a lot on comic book heroes and the like. What exactly draws you to the subject, and why do you see it as so important?
I’ve been a huge comics fan since I was a kid, although I stopped reading in high school and only picked them up again after my daughter was born—which happened to be around the same time I start writing pop philosophy, so it must have been fate! I think that writing about superheroes in this way allows me to introduce people to some basic philosophical ideas while paying tribute to the great characters and stories that so many of us love (including me!).
- I see you’re a professor in Political Science, Economics, and Philosophy. Which covers all kinds of stuff that I’m not going to pretend to understand, but what exactly is the one thing you hope to get across to not only your students, but the readers of the books you’ve written on the subjects?
I’d like my readers and my students to appreciate that, even though superheroes live in a fantastical world with unrealistic powers and often ridiculous villains, when you peel those things away they face the same kind of moral problems that we face in the real world, moral problems that they can’t always solve using super-strength or a power ring. In that way, superhero stories show us how they struggle with familiar ethical issues—while they wear capes and shoot energy beams from their eyes!
Right now, I’m working on a book about a very popular superhero and ethics that I should keep mum about for the time being (in case his arch-nemesis is reading). And I’m excited that my book on Marvel Comics’ Civil War storyline (soon to be the basis for the third Captain America movie coming out in May) is being published soon by Ockham Publishing (after initially being a self-published ebook).
- How do you typically begin your projects? Do you create outlines and goals or jump in head first with the initial idea? And do you focus on just one at a time?
My projects usually begin with discussions with the publisher. I’ve yet to write a book that wasn’t contracted first, which is both a blessing and a curse: it’s nice to know that someone intends to publish your book, but sometimes the contract can turn a labor of love into yet another obligation (and who needs more of those?). After the press and I settle on a topic and approach, then the fun starts. My process is different every time, sometimes using an outline, other times not. In general, I find that outlining too thoroughly takes away the spontaneity of writing that I enjoy, but I need to have some structure in mind to guide me, even if I end up radically changing it throughout the writing process. In terms of books, yes, I’ve found it much easier to focus on one idea at a time, although I will usually work on other projects at the same time, such as academic articles and editing books, or perhaps discussing a future book with a publisher.
- What aspect of your writing do you consider your strength? Your weakness?
I’ve been told I can explain difficult topics in a way that makes them easy to understand; I always like to hear that because I’m also a teacher, which I imagine is where that comes from. I also try to keep my writing light and funny, which is much easier to do with books written for popular audiences, though I try to loosen up my academic writing too. (A friend once told me she could “see” my personality in my academic writing, which I loved.)
My weakness, which is hardly unique to me, lies in process: sometimes I simply find it impossible to write because of issues with motivation and self-doubt. Because I have a foot in both popular and academic writing but don’t fully inhabit either world, I feel like an imposter in both—and if I ever return to fiction, I expect more of the same!
- After publishing, the next trouble facing writers is marketing. What do you typically do when marketing your book? Do you have tips you’d like to share?
Yikes, this is another area in which I fail miserably. I loathe self-promotion; even sending out a tweet about a new book feels like a horrible imposition. I feel better retweeting things other people say about my work, and I love doing interviews like this and blogging on other people’s sites. I try to blog about my books myself, but then I’m reluctant to promote the blogs. I guess the tip I would share, which I’ve gotten from other reluctant self-promoters online, is that it’s OK to promote your work online as long as that’s not all you do there. Make sure you do other things on social media, such as engage with other people, share other people’s work, and make jokes—that way, your social media presence is not all about self-promotion, and there are other reasons for people to follow you online.
- What advice would you give a writer who is starting out?
It sounds trite, but write what you want to write and try not to write what you don’t want to write. But if you do have to write things you don’t want to write—for your job, perhaps, or to make the rent while working on what you love—then treat it as a necessity, get it done, and make time for what you really want to do. It’s something I struggle with, but am trying to get better at.