When does a novel need a Big Idea? Sometimes an author starts with one, but then other times, as Michael Mammay tells you regarding his new novel The Misfit Soldier, it arrives on its own schedule.
I didn’t start writing The Misfit Soldier with a big idea. I think part of that is due to when I started it. I started writing this back in 2016, while I was waiting for my first novel, Planetside, to sell. At that time, all I really had was the idea that I wanted to write Kelly’s Heroes in space. And the novel featured two
jackass somewhat immature soldiers who did things their own way and told a lot of jokes. Basically it was something fun for me to write while I waited to see if publishers wanted my other novel. Turns out, they did.
And so things went the way publishing things do, and I ended up writing two more books in that series because, well…I like to eat, and somebody wanted to pay me to write them. Uh…I mean, because I have artistic integrity and those were the books that were speaking to me at the time. Ahem.
When I finished my three-book series, it came time to pitch something new to my publisher, and I thought, what the hell. I’ve got the first act of this thing and it’s a lot of fun to write. I’m going to pitch it. And they bought it.
But then reality set in. I had to write it. And it turns out, you can’t write an entire novel just about soldiers making jokes and doing ridiculous things. Or can you? (Spoiler: No. You can’t. You do, at some point, have to have a plot. But you can mostly do it.) What I needed was a big idea. So it came that in 2020, four years and several pandemic months after I first started the book, I figured out what that was. And sure, it’s a heist novel in power armor, and sure, the Kelly’s Heroes echoes are still there. But the big idea of the story is this: soldiers are people, not uniform constructs.
One of my favorite scenes in The Force Awakens is the one where Kylo Ren is angry and going off and two storm troopers see it and then immediately slink off in the other direction, as if saying, “Yeah, no, I’m not getting my ass force choked today.” It was a gag, but it also made stormtroopers so much more interesting to me. Because those are real soldiers. Yes, soldiers are trained to follow orders. But they’re also human, and they’re going to look out for their own best interests a lot of the time. And that’s not a bad thing.
There’s an old joke—and I say joke, because I don’t know if it’s true or not—that a Soviet general during the cold war said that “One of the serious problems in planning against American doctrine is that the Americans do not read their manuals nor do they feel any obligation to follow their doctrine.” On a related note, I worked for a general once who liked to say that if you left ten infantrymen in a room with an anvil, you could come back in fifteen minutes, and it would either be missing or broken. I suppose one could see that as an insult, but it wasn’t. It was a statement of reverent awe for the raw power of soldiers and their imagination.
And that’s the big idea underlying The Misfit Soldier. I tried to create real soldiers. They aren’t badasses (well, one or two are, but there are outliers in every group.) They’re a bunch of individuals with different skills and different desires, and one guy, Gas Gastovsky, who recognizes them for what they are and builds them into a team. The thing is, Gas is a con man with no particular allegiance to the military, so he doesn’t build the team to win the war. He builds it to get rich. That there happens to also be a war going on at the same time is, at best, a secondary concern to him.
And that leads to the second half of the big idea: The idea that militaries aren’t contiguous entities with one overarching goal but are instead a bunch of individuals with a million different little goals and maybe one larger goal for which they’re somewhat aligned. But not always. It always cracks me up when some media pundit says, ‘the military feels this way about <insert topic>’ Because…no. Maybe a majority of the military feels that way. Maybe much of the military leadership feels that way. And maybe the reporter is just full of crap. Organizations don’t feel. People do. And at the heart of it, that’s what I try to capture in The Misfit Soldier. The people.