Based on the writer Steve Altes’ own life experiences, GEEKS & GREEKS is a fascinating glimpse into MIT’s Fraternity hacks. Hacks are the preferred nomenclature that follows four basic rules:
1. Hacks should demonstrate wit and finesse.
2. Noteworthy hacks require difficulty in execution.
3. Hacks should be non-destructive.
4. Don’t get caught.
The story follows Jim Walden, a newly enrolled student at MIT with dreams of becoming an astronaut. After getting swept up by a Fraternity intent on winning The Golden Dome Trophy (a campus wide award for the best hack) Jim finds himself in a battle of wits against Luke Bardolf, a senior who will stop at nothing and stomp on anybody to win the coveted trophy. If you haven’t already, you can read my full review by clicking here.
I really enjoyed Steve’s book, and I was fortunate to have the opportunity to ask him a few questions about the real life basis for the story, the production of the book, and what it was life working with artist Andy Fish, plus so much more…Oh! and Steve Altes is also giving FanboyNation readers a chance at winning a copy of GEEKS & GREEKS too! Be sure to check out the details at the bottom of the article.
So without further ado, here we go!
How much of the story was actually based on real events?
About 90% of this story was inspired by actual events that friends, my fellow MIT students, and I lived through. Yes, I’ve taken certain liberties and timelines have been altered. Hacks that occurred decades apart in real life happen in the span of one month in this story, and, of course, some incidents have been fabricated or embellished. To separate fact from fiction I included 120 end notes that document the real-life origins of nearly every event in the book.
There are certain characters that were no doubt based on real people; have you shown them the book? What was their impression of it?
All of the main characters in GEEKS & GREEKS were inspired by real people, but I’ve only told one person that they are the key to that character. My best friend in college inspired the character of Augie. He was the conscience of our fraternity and prone to speaking in the most erudite sentences imaginable. Things like “Do you have time for a rapid-fire ethnographic immersion into MIT living group subcultures?” would just roll off his tongue. Fittingly he became a very successful author.
What made you decide to tell this story with a graphic novel? Were any other forms of media considered?
Pop open a beer and make yourself comfortable because it’s a long and winding road. It all began back in the 1980s when I was an MIT student and I would tell my friends back home about the pranks and hazing that happened at MIT. They were always shocked, amazed, and alarmed. It got me thinking that if I could find a coherent through line and emotional journey to hang these incidents on, I’d have a pretty decent story.
GEEKS & GREEKS started as a screenplay because the events were so visual I felt they had to be seen not just imagined. It’s a kinetic story with lots of chasing, smashing, exploding, climbing, rappelling, and plummeting. It just felt like a movie, rather than a novel, but I didn’t start writing it right away. The ideas needed time to marinate, plus I didn’t really find my voice as a writer until the late 90s. Around that time I started getting bit parts in movies and I viewed that experience as a form of film school. I started the script in 2001 and had a solid draft by 2003.
Of course, it’s really tough to get read as an unknown screenwriter, but I was lucky and got the script in the hands of Dottie Zicklin, the most successful MIT alum in Hollywood. She produced a bunch of hit sitcoms like Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Caroline in the City, and she co-created Dharma and Greg. Being an MIT grad, she immediately got what I was trying to do with GEEKS & GREEKS and she optioned the script. Dottie got the script read by a couple of literary agents at UTA in Beverly Hills. They said casting directors “were doing backflips over the screenplay.” Next thing you know I’m on the Warner Bros. lot meeting with producers from Heyday Films, the production company behind the Harry Potter movies. Those were exciting times; Heyday has more money than God. They could have made GEEKS & GREEKS into a movie for less than they earn each year from Harry Potter Hedwig the owl action figures.
I spent a year rewriting the script for Heyday. Tighten this. Change that. Give this character more of an arc. The downside was all these rewrites were unpaid. That’s the nature of the Hollywood game when you’re a noob trying to break in. But the good thing to come out of this phase was the script got a lot better, and not just because I rewrote it dozens of times. A bunch of really smart story development execs read the script and offered their insight. Their critiques helped make the script faster, funnier, and more focused.
Then I got acquainted with a Hollywood term known as “development hell.” Time passed and a key person at Heyday left to start his own production company, so the script lost its champion. The option expired and Hollywood moved on to the next bright shiny object. Happens all the time. Finally in 2013 I was browsing graphic novels in a bookstore and it finally dawned on me… GEEKS & GREEKS really ought to be a graphic novel. Like film, graphic novels are a visual medium. A graphic novel is a movie shot with ink and paper. So I pivoted. I believe in being persistent about your goals but flexible about your methods.
I turned to Kickstarter to raise funds because illustrating GEEKS & GREEKS was going to be a huge undertaking for Andy. Location research, character design, pencils, ink, lettering, and coloring 184 pages take a lot of time. I couldn’t ask Andy to work full-time for a year and a half for nothing. We were amazed at enthusiastic reception GEEKS & GREEKS got. People really embraced it. In June 2014 our Kickstarter raised $43,000, which at the time was a Kickstarter record for a first-time graphic novelist.
What would have been your dream casting for a GEEKS & GREEKS film?
GEEKS & GREEKS is an ensemble story, so in my dream scenario you cast a group of insanely talented up-and-coming actors to play the students. People no one has seen before. Actors that you don’t have any preconceived notions about. Then you stunt cast the professor role with Ian McKellen or Kenneth Branagh or Robert Duvall. Someone to bring gravitas to the proceedings and up everyone’s game. That’s how Dead Poets Society did it. Robin Williams was the name actor, but Ethan Hawke and Robert Sean Leonard were basically unknowns at that point. That movie made them stars.
As a writer, what comic books inspired you? Do you currently keep up with any series?
Growing up in the Silver Age of Comics I just devoured comics. Mostly DC. Batman, Superman, Detective, Action, Adventure, Legion of Super-Heroes. I slept with towering stacks of them on my bed until I was 15. I haven’t followed the titles in recent years, but I appreciate the growth and evolution of the art form. The complexity of the stories, and the eye-popping art, etc.
What is your all-time favorite prank, or “hack” in MIT’s history? What was your favorite hack you were involved with personally?
My favorite MIT hack has always been Alpha Tau Omega commandeering the SHERATON sign in downtown Boston to make it read “ATO” during Rush Week. It was so creative and gutsy and terrific advertising for them. That hack features prominently in GEEKS & GREEKS.
Personally I did a lot of roof and tunnel hacking, exploring places that were off-limits at MIT. You could find yourself in some pretty gnarly places. It was at MIT that I learned how to lock-pick.
How did your collaboration with artist Andy Fish begin? What was your creative process like?
Andy had three things I was looking for in an artist: talent, passion, and proximity to Boston. His talent is off the charts. He immediately committed to the project. And the fact that he lives near Boston meant his drawings could be informed by visits to the actual sites of these actual events.
I sent him the script, complete with thumbnail layouts of the panels, and he drew the pages and sent them to me for notes. We spent months polishing and revising the art because Andy was always finding ways to add more humor to the panels. And we were determined to squash any errors since techies are bug-finders by nature.
Exactly how long did it take for you to complete the book, from start to finish?
Writing the screenplay version took about a year for a first draft. Then I revised it about a hundred times and polished it for at least six years. It was a process continually adding humor and trimming fat. Taking a joke and making it funnier. Then it took me about a year to transform the screenplay into a graphic novel script. They are two very different animals.
How is a screenplay different from a graphic novel script?
A screenplay has a definite structure and a certain set of beats but essentially it can be thought of as one very long page of writing since movies unspool in a continuous runtime. Graphic novels have discrete pages and I’d rather not end a scene in the middle of a page if I can help it. You have to do it sometimes, but if it’s a six panel page, I don’t have to have five panels set in a bedroom and then transport the reader to a classroom in the last panel of the page. It’s jarring and inelegant.
Then there’s the issue of cliffhangers. In a graphic novel you want to keep giving your reader a reason to turn the pages and they way to do that is by putting mini-cliffhangers at the end of the odd pages (the right-side page as you read it).
What was it about Andy Fish’s art that convinced you he was perfect for the project?
Andy Fish cannot draw a boring panel. Doesn’t know how. His vivid colors jump out at you right away, but when you study his panels, you just see that his choice of angles and perspectives are just as interesting. He should have been a movie director. Plus he and I just have real similar tastes. Right from the get-go we bonded over a common love of things like the original Dark Shadows, Adam West’s Batman, James Whale’s classic horror movies, macabre Batman comic issues, MST3K, Orson Welles, and film noir. He’s my brother from another mother.
Are there any Easter eggs hidden in the background that most readers might have missed?
Does Ursus Arctos defecate in a deciduous forest biome? This thing has more Easter eggs than Augustus Gloop in a Cadbury factory! Sorry! I think I just channeled Dennis Miller for a second. Dozens of Easter eggs are revealed in the endnotes. Some of them you need to zoom in to see. Like on page 61 there is a shelf of MIT course notebooks. If you read the spines closely you’ll see things like Lycanthropy, Elvish, Alchemy, and Tony Stark thesis.
Do you have a particular favorite panel Andy did?
So many come to mind. The exploding watermelon panel is a hoot. Natalie’s Goneril monologue panel is inspired. But I think Andy just knocked it out of the park with the underwater panels at the Quincy Quarries. I’m struck by the masterful interplay of water and waves and bubbles and light in those.
What’s coming up next for you?
I’m making plans to Kickstart a new graphic novel, called THE SKEPTIC. It explores the question: “What if the world’s most famous skeptic and debunker of paranormal phenomena suddenly started seeing UFOs, Bigfoot, the Loch Ness Monster, and other supernatural creatures?”
Plus I’m working on a sequel to GEEKS & GREEKS. Working title: GEEKS & GREEKS, VOL. SQUARE ROOT OF 4.
Can you give us a little tease of what GEEKS & GREEKS, VOL. SQUARE ROOT OF 4 might be about? Is it a direct continuation, or will it introduce new main characters?
I can’t say much yet, but I will say that the first book used humor to address a serious college issue, hazing. The sequel will do that too, for a different serious college issue. Many of the main characters will continue, but it will also introduce a few new ones. And it’s going to have more women. That’s a promise.
Where can people find you online?
My digital coordinates are as follows:
Steve Altes site: http://stevealtes.wixsite.com/stevealtes
Andy Fish site: http://www.andytfish.com
GEEKS & GREEKS site: http://stevealtes.wixsite.com/geeks-and-greeks
GEEKS & GREEKS Twitter: https://twitter.com/GeeksGreeks
THE SKEPTIC site: http://stevealtes.wixsite.com/the-skeptic
Thanks Steve! Oh, and just for our readers, Steve Altes is giving away a FREE copy of Geeks & Greeks!
One FanboyNation reader will win a digital copy of GEEKS & GREEKS.
To enter, please send an email with the subject header “Gimme, gimme!” to [email protected].
One entry per person.
Winner will be chosen at random.