The Big Idea: Steven R. Boyett

A World War II bomber gets sucked through time and space — and that’s the easy part of Fata Morgana. What was the harder part? As Steven R. Boyett explains, it’s everything else that he and co-writer Ken Mitchroney had to build up around that initial big idea.

(Disclosure: As you can see from the image, I blurbed this book.)


When one creative person and another creative person love each other very very much, sometimes they get together and make a Special Thing that’s a combination of both of them, but that’s also its own unique thing.

It’s an educational and wonderful thing to write a novel with someone you’ve been friends with for a very long time, especially when you are two very different people, with very different sensibilities, collaborating on a book whose core idea is essentially a fusion of those two sensibilities.

Our novel Fata Morgana is basically a mashup. It’s an intensively researched WWII historical novel about a B-17 Flying Fortress crew on a harrowing mission over Germany in 1943. It’s also a post-apocalyptic fish-out-of-water story, in the tradition of A Connecticut Yankee in King Arthur’s Court or The Time Machine. That fusion of sensibilities caused our agent to market it as “Band of Brothers meets Lost Horizon” — a bit marketspeak, but totally fair.

Ken is primarily a movie guy. He’s been a storyboarder, head of story departments, and director for Hollywood studios for decades. He’s a cartoonist and animator, published & illustrated comic books (Space Ark, Myth Conceptions, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Ren & Stimpy), raced NASCAR modified sportsman cars, and rebuilt and run locomotives. He pinstripes cars and did artwork with Ed “Big Daddy” Roth, of Rat Fink fame. The Baltimore Orioles wore his artwork. He’s the voice of Zurg on the Toy Story ride.

He’s also weirdly steeped in Forties American culture: swing music, movies, slang, fashion, cars – and B-17 bombers. Ken is an Old Soul. You talk to him and you realize he’s been around before. He’s the single funniest guy I’ve ever met.

I write fiction. I’ve published books almost literally since I was a kid. I’m a lifelong martial artist. I once made a living as a paper marbler. Through a fairly strange series of events, learning overtone singing led me to playing the didgeridoo, to recording electronic music, to being a club DJ with two very popular music podcasts (Podrunner and Groovelectric). As a DJ I’m enamored of the mashup, and as a writer I’m enamored of the idea of putting music into words. Music has had a huge influence on my writing – the rhythm of the prose, the symphonic structure of a larger work, sometimes the subject matter itself. My fiction is often steeped in postapocalyptic imagery, what Salvador Dalí and Tears for Fears called “the beauty of decay.” Road trips are a big theme with me. Imagine Jack Kerouac writing The Lord of the Rings.

(Oh, God. Now I really want to write that. So in the Shire when the sun goes down and I sit by the Water watching the long skies over Middle Earth, and that road going ever on and on, and in Gondor I know by now the children must be crying just before the night that blesses Mirkwood cups the Misty Mountains and nobody, nobody knows what’s going to happen besides the forlorn rags of Gandalf growing old, I think of Frodo Baggins, I even think of old Bilbo who in some way was the father of us all, but I think of Frodo Baggins.)

Unlike Ken, I am not an Old Soul. I’m a new soul. This is clearly my first time around; I’m still in my shrinkwrap. I have a naive idealist’s outrage at the ways that people and societies can behave toward one another, as if it’s a surprise every time.

So: Old friends. A witch’s caldron of sensibilities, talents, interests. Apply heat and stir. Does it blend, gel, combust? (The truth is, if you saw Toy Story 2, you probably already know what we’re like when we work together. Ken was Senior Story Artist on that movie, and I wrote the second draft of the screenplay. And at this point I won’t exactly be burning any bridges when I opine that most of what’s good about that movie is me and Ken.)

Ken had this mental image of two warring, Braveheart-ish factions about to collide when something stops them. A roaring from the sky. A B-17 bomber smoking in on failing Wright Cyclone engines, crashlanding out of frame. He’d encapsulated our different sensibilities in one image — I was so in.

The next four years came from that single image.

I’m a firm believer in a fantasy or SF novel’s feet being planted on real ground, and I did a ton of research on bombers (including buzzing my neighborhood in one, woo hoo!), the US wartime economy, the European theater, the Biosphere 2 experiment in Arizona, and self-sustaining ecologies in general). Ken loves ensemble movies & shows, from Jack Benny to Frazier, and put our bomber crew together. We logicked the living crap out of the storyline. It has a ton of twists and surprises, and judging from the responses so far, they seem to have worked. It has sections written in bullet time and dialogue you’d expect to hear on a Philco Cathedral radio.

The surprising thing was how seriously we began to take the whole endeavor. We’d started out wanting a rollercoaster ride, a summer tentpole movie. But in the wake of Band of Brothers and Saving Private Ryan it seems a disservice now to look back on that war as an excuse to tell a Ripping Adventure Story. What those frighteningly young men went through was simply unbelievable, and the more we learned and the more the book took shape, the more we felt the awful weight of duty thrust upon an entire generation. Such that the book became about the price of duty over desire.

I think no matter what you write about it’s good to take your subject matter seriously. I think it makes you go the extra mile, do your due diligence to your characters and your world. It was just as true for the post-apocalyptic aspects of the novel: They went from plot device to holy crap, this is what it’d be like to live like this.

I jokingly describe Fata Morgana as a novel about a WWII bomber crew who fly into another novel. But we didn’t treat it as a joke at all.

And when all is said and done we have before this creature that combines our creative DNA to become its own unique self. Ken and I have done our best to comb its hair and make it overall presentable, and now we’ve sent it out into the world all on its own. We hope you’ll find it a valuable member of the good society it has entered, and that it does us proud. They grow so quickly, you know.


Fata Morgana: Amazon|Barnes & Noble|Powell’s

Read an excerpt (pdf link). Visit Boyett’s site. Visit Mitchroney’s site.

25 Comments on “The Big Idea: Steven R. Boyett”

  1. Wait, what? Oh, that’s going on the reading list. And that was just from the introduction. The actual article did absolutely nothing to make me change my mind. It’s just possible that I might be a bit of a sucker where “modern” people displaced into another world/time are concerned.

  2. OK, John, I get that you liked it, but what does it mean to “stick the landing?”

  3. Most Time Travel books state on the cover where in time people go. This one seems to play it as a big secret. That is a bit bizarre.

  4. “Sticking the landing” usually means to have a great ending, as well as a great performance up to that point. Many creative works do great throughout, but then end disappointingly–John is saying that this one does not suffer from that problem.

    Ryan Gaffuri, I don’t think this is necessarily time travel, but may be alternate universe instead. For time travel, you can give a simple label (Stone Age, Middle Ages, Victorian era, whatever), but for alternate universe, “strange other world” may be the best you can do without getting bogged down in details (though if it’s a fantasy, magical universe I’d expect that to be mentioned). Post-apocalyptic is mentioned, so it’s possible it’s far future, but it could be post-apocalyptic in another universe entirely.

  5. Sold. Can’t decide if your concept, other descriptions or enthusiasm got me. So, all of that. Loved this especially, “the book became about the price of duty over desire.”

  6. I didn’t know Steven R. Boyett worked on Toy Story 2! Now I’ll have to watch it again.

  7. Thank you all so much for your support!

    Jim C: Thank you! Our publisher is taking a look at the B&N links to see if they can be combined.

    Ryan Gaffuri: It *does* play their destination as a big secret, doesn’t it? :)

    chukg: I wrote the second draft but was denied credit (an old Hollywood story, really). My understanding is that the overall structure remains mine, and Jessie the Cowgirl (she was named after my friend Jessie Horsting). I haven’t seen the movie.

  8. “Sticking the landing” comes from gymnastics, and it means the gymnast completed their terrifically difficult dismount without bouncing (let alone falling over). In other words, it’s a good thing, meaning a successful completion.

  9. Looks like I have another book to add to my reading list….and I am extremely envious regarding that bomber flight out of Buchanan Field…

  10. Read the excerpt and enjoyed it; I’ll definitely look for the novel. I as a different branch, but flew what is among the latest four-engined propellor aircraft in operational military service. Fun stuff…

    The only thing I read that gave me a question in the excerpt was the mention of the 8.8 cm AA; my impression is American shorthand for this weapon was generally “88” as in the mm caliber.

    No one ever called an Oerlikon a 2 cm piece, or a Bofors a 4 cm… And what became the US standard calibers (FA and AA) were always 20 mm, 37 mm, 40 mm, 75 mm, 76 mm, 90 mm, 105 mm, 120 mm, 155 mm, etc.


  11. @P.I.Neapplw: We call them eighty-eights throughout the book. In order for the reader to know what that is, we describe them as what they are — 8.8 cm — on first mention.

  12. @P.I.Neapplw
    The Germans generally referred to their guns in centimetres- I.e 8.8 cm, and the Allies used millimetres, 88 mm.

  13. @MikeM: Jah, it’s why the narrative in Fata Morgana refers to the Bf 109 Messerschmitt (the Germans’ name for it), while the Americans call it the Me 109. I’m not remotely pretending that we are military experts, and there are bound to be mistakes and inaccuracies, but I researched heavily and did the best I could to make it as concrete and accurate an experience a I could.

  14. This one is already on the ol’ Amazon book wish list. I got to fly in a B-17 a few years ago to do a web story for the TV station I worked for. An amazing experience, especially when I got to be in the bombardier’s position! It was like being Superman, flying with only a bubble of glass in front of you.

    Oddly enough, though I’m not usually a big fan of flying, I wasn’t nervous at all aboard the B-17, because I reasoned it had flown for seventy years or so without crashing. What were the odds it would that day?

    The next year, I saw on a live CNN feed in the newsroom a B-17 on fire after it crash-landed near Chicago. Fortunately, no one hurt. I checked the number on the tail against the one I flew in — and it was the same one! Kinda scary after the fact.

  15. Mr. Boyett – Fair enough, use of a different voice. I missed that on first read, but understandable.

    Either way, it’s on the list – and as reader, your effort to be true to the historical equivalents of your characters is both noted and welcome. Too many writers of alternate history or speculative fiction fall far short of doing justice to the men and women they base their characters upon, preferring instead to create ahistorical puppets. Well done.

  16. It’s on my list of “To Buy”
    But just to nit-pick. In the prologue (start of page 4) the “Voice of America” is described as flying over the North Atlantic, not the North Sea.

  17. Charlie (my husband) and I search for engaging read alouds. We downloaded this to our Kindle and are really enjoying it so far. Extremely well written, evocative of its era, and entirely engaging. We want to know what happens next! Thanks for the introduction, John.

  18. @steveboyett.
    Yes , the designations and names for WW2 hardware can be very confusing, as often one side used a name or designation the other didn’t, as with the German Panzerkampfwagen VI Mk 2, which the Allies called the Kingtiger or Royal Tiger tank, and the Germans just referred to as the Tiger II. The waters are further muddied by the servicemen themselves, who often used unofficial names of their own , which none the less stuck It sounds like you have done a lot of research for the book, and I am sure any errors are minimal.Looking forward to reading it!
    (And I envy you the flight in the B-17- I have flown in a C-47 and a Tiger Moth, but never a bomber)

  19. @KiwiSteve: What I have on p. 4 is “The North Sea was whitecapped….” The samples went out before final edits — maybe that was one of them. Not that, you know, I’m incapable of what we’ll call, for purposes of conversation, geodyslexia. If not, thanks for the catch, and we’ll correct in digital!

  20. John, as one of our best practioners of alt-world views pounded into very readable SF, I can see why you would review this novel. So, I will pick it up. By the by, when are you going to take on the Deep State directly and wake up a bunch of folks? I think you have the following to do it.

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