By Gary Kriss
HURAKAN by Michael F. Stewart is definitely a novel designed to tug at the heart strings of innocent young virgins while at the same time catch the FIFTY SHADES OF GREY crowd by catering to the sublimated erotic fantasies of unfulfilled suburban housewives. Stewart manages to—
Excuse me? Yes, this most certainly IS the right piece: the write-up on HURAKAN for the Romance Writers of America’s June newsletter.
The International Thriller Writers? What about the International Thriller Writers? The write-up on HURAKAN for the International Thriller Writers’ June newsletter? Yeah, right—in the proverbial pig’s eye! Look, the assignment e-mail clearly reads—
Ahemmmmm. . . .
HURAKAN by Michael F. Stewart is definitely a novel designed to yank the heart out of innocent young virgins (on stone altars, no less),while at the same time catch the FIFTY SHADES OF BLACK AND BLUE crowd by catering to sublimated kick-ass fantasies of unfulfilled suburban housewives (and anyone else who loves a fast-paced action/adventure yarns).
Or, in other words (in this case, the author’s), HURAKAN (Overmountain Press) is “an action adventure, a romping read with a little bit of everything” crammed into “a family saga in which parents are caught on either side of a battle between a brutal gang and a Mayan tribe with their children and the fate of Central America at stake.”
The idea for HURAKAN came to Stewart, a 37 year-old resident of Ottawa, Canada, after watching a National Geographic documentary on the Mara Salvatrucha 13, more commonly known as MS-13, a violent gang born in the Los Angeles barrios of Central American immigrants, which has spread throughout the Americas and beyond. Stewart found the MS-13 “fascinating” and says that “the more I researched it, the more sympathetic the gang became as an antagonist. I like sympathetic antagonists as much as I enjoy a flawed protagonist.”
Armed with his “sympathetic antagonists,” Stewart engaged in some “what if” plotting considering what would happen in Guatemala if the government followed other Central and Latin American countries and implemented Plan Mano Dura (Strong Hand), essentially a zero-tolerance to gang activity. “The MS-13 at this point are entrenched and powerful in Guatemala,” he notes. “Would they scatter? Or would they rise up?” Then Stewart added another element to the mix: the natural enemy of the MS-13—the indigenous population of Guatemala—“and you can’t get more indigenous than a forgotten Mayan city.”
All that remained was a catalyst. Enter Samantha and Robert and their three children, teens Bill and Lynda and four-year-old Tommy—an all-American family, unhappy in its own way—New Yorkers who find themselves in Guatemala. (BTW, Robert, who joins his family later in the trip, which allows Samantha a few “well a girl can dream can’t she” moments with a handsome guide, is Stewart’s flawed protagonist.)
Then there’s the hurricane, not to be confused with HURAKAN, the seven-foot tall Mayan warrior who has escaped from prison.
Talk about your wow and wallop!
“To me, HURAKAN’s an action adventure,” Stewart says. “And I love that category. THE COUNT OF MONTE CRISTO fits there. All of the Indiana Jones movies are there. Action adventure tends to draw from romance and thriller, and often enough includes a touch of magic. They’re fun. And fun is important.”
That’s one reason Stewart, who has three daughters, considers the book “a family read,” noting that “I think young adults would enjoy it, in part because they can relate to Bill and Lynda, but also because they can relate their parents to Samantha and Robert.”
“All families have their ups and downs, he adds, “and I think young adults are good at considering what it would be like if their family was on a battlefield in the middle of the jungle in a hurricane.”
Since HURAKAN has a heaping dollop of both characters and plots, where does Stewart fall on the classic literary equivalent of the chicken and the egg? “How about theme?” he offers as an alternative. “I’d start with theme actually, and let everything else fall out of that. The theme of HURAKAN is cycles. Everyone, everything, even the weather is at an inflection point in HURAKAN, one way or another. The decisions that they’re making don’t just affect Guatemala, or the Maya, they affect who they will become in life. These are life defining moments. When I start a novel I consider theme and who would best represent that theme. I decided to use a family, a broken family on the cusp of collapse. A son and daughter, both on the cusp of adulthood.”
Like all of Stewart’s works, HURAKAN is steeped in myth. Where his first novel, 24 BONES, is infused with Egyptian myth, HURAKAN incorporates two mythologies, that of the Maya and of MS-13. “Gang culture has fascinating mythology,” Stewart says. “It has a creation myth, ritual, ceremony, tenets, oral traditions, everything you’d expect in a religion.”
In researching HURAKAN, Stewart did what you might expect from a man who has, among other things, led Antarctic expeditions, crewed on tugs in the Baltic Sea and paddled the Zambezi River. (He also sang while lying in a sarcophagus in the King’s Chamber of the Great Pyramid, but, hey, everyone does that.) “For setting and verisimilitude I traveled to Belize and Guatemala and did many of the things that the family does,” he says. “I learned some herbal lore, spoke with a shaman, and researched the major Mayan ruins. I also studied many Mayan texts including the POPUL VUH, the bible for the Quiche Maya.”
Delving into MS-13 was, however, slightly less hands-on. “I was given a lot of information from a Texan correctional officer that was crucial,” Stewart says. “And I reached out on forums to members of the MS-13. That gave me a sense of language and style I couldn’t have otherwise developed.”
Speaking of style and language, Stewart has some very definite views, which constitute a mini-manifesto of sorts: “My novels are short. Typically 80 to 90 thousand words each. And you may not like my writing. I switch points of view. I don’t linger in the heads of my characters. Why? I know how powerful the mind of the reader is and I respect it. You have an imagination and who am I to hijack that with descriptions that don’t fit your image of the characters? Oh, I give you snappy dialogue and a great high concept, but for the most part I don’t reiterate key clues or plot points and you can be sure that everything that happens–no matter how mundane–is there for a reason. So if you’re interested in novels that bend the genres, grab a seat, relax and read on…”
And while it may seem so, Stewart says that this approach isn’t really a break with conventional writing wisdom. “In THE ART OF FICTION John Gardner talks a lot about respecting the reader and keeping the appropriate narrative distance,” he points out. “In my view there is too much that goes on in the heads of many first person narrators, which is extremely close in terms of narrative distance. This slows pacing and it breaks all the rules of show don’t tell. When I do write in first person I actually write the novel in third person and then change it to first. This way I make sure I don’t use the crutch of diving into the protagonist’s head in order to communicate to the reader. I show it.”
“What makes novels so magical is the collaboration between writer and reader,” Stewart continues. “Television and film require very little effort to watch. Novels on the other hand ask a lot of the reader. We demand that they use their imagination. It’s my contention that if the writer provides too much detail, they lose the reader. They break the dream because the reader stops and thinks ‘Really? In my head he’s wearing cowboy boots and you just put him in Birkenstocks’. As for audience, I wouldn’t want to put any limits on who my audience is! Readers of thrillers will enjoy HURAKAN.”
Stewart’s clear about the writers he’s drawn from to develop both his approach and his skills. “I learn from every novelist I read,” he says, “but more specifically, Steinbeck is brilliant with the art of description. Neil Gaiman makes me strive to be more creative. Stephen King tells me to focus on the small stories within the big. Alexandre Dumas gives me the structure for brilliant epic as does James Clavell. Frank Herbert taught me that epic doesn’t have to mean long. Tolkien showed me that it can be long and also to strive toward helping the reader lose themselves. Jonathan Maberry for great action. And finally Thomas Harris and Brian Lumley for suspense and horror.”
But some of Stewart’s other influences are less obvious. Remember the Antarctic expeditions and the tugs? “Living aboard a ship is akin to being in a friendly prison,” Stewart notes. “It’s comforting in some ways, but relationships soon become strained or inappropriate. You lose touch with the real world and a new political structure is created, much like a dictatorship. This human aspect is wonderful to carry over to novels. All thrillers are pressure cookers, so is a boat; if you leave everyone on it long enough the top will blow off. Add in ship board fires, running aground, high seas, and you’ve got fireworks.”
And then there’s venture capitalism. Until about five years ago, when he decided to focus on being a writer, Stewart was a venture capitalist (he still dabbles in it as an advisor) and says he “gained a great deal” as a writer from the experience. “All investments start with research as do most of my books,” he explains. “In some ways, the skill of taking and synthesizing information to form a coherent narrative is the same, whether it’s a novel or investment thesis. Secondly, in venture capital you look for disruptive technologies, big ideas, just like in writing where you seek high concepts. Finally, you work quite independently, which for actually getting the words on a page is absolutely critical.”
Some of Stewart’s adventuresome nature that was honed by venture capitalism also comes out in some other of his projects such as Klikables. “I like to apply technology to storytelling,” he says. “Klikables was built to house a story I wrote that takes place on a fully functioning social network. Students in Canada, Australia and New Zealand use it to learn about cyberbullying, social networking and other new media risk. It’s distributed via Scholastic.”
His current venture is Narr8r, a social storytelling application launching this July, which allows users to create ad hoc social networks in reference to place, event, or interest, using a collaborative-storytelling paradigm.
“Narr8rs create stories using dozens of connected photos, videos, audio/music and text (and combinations) both on the web and mobile device,” Stewart explains. “Not only can stories be shared to any social network but they can be linked to by other Narr8rs, allowing them to add their media contributions by relating stories, thereby forming highly engaged communities with vested interests in a greater story, such as a wedding or a music concert. I hope writers and musicians will use it to show the research they conducted for their books and music, or to engage with fans, outlining tours, readings and, gigs.”
But, of course, Stewart’s writing comes first and presently he’s working on two major series and has already outlines BLOOD IN BLOOD OUT, a “much darker” sequel to HURAKAN, which he “takes place largely in a prison and includes the rich culture of many different gangs.”
Meanwhile, a note of caution. You might want to get ahold of HURAKAN by December 21, 2012, the day that some believe the Mayan calendar marks as the end of time, AKA Kiss Your World Good-Bye! Stewart doesn’t subscribe to that belief, although he does concede that December 21, 2012 “is certainly a great excuse to have a party or a book signing!”
After crewing ships in the Antarctic and the Baltic Sea, Michael now injects his adventurous spirit into his writing with brief respites for research in the jungles of Sumatra and Guatemala, the ruins of Egypt and Tik’al, paddling the Zambezi and diving whatever cave or ocean reef will have him. He is a member of the International Thriller Writers and founder of Narr8r.com, a social storytelling platform.
Michael lives in Ottawa, Canada with his wife and four daughters. He tries very hard to keep life an adventure both on and off the page. Learn more about Michael on his website.