Interview With Madeleine E. Robins
(May 1999)

Madeleine E. Robins, a former editor of Acclaim Comics, talks about the creation of her new Daredevil novel The Cutting Edge. She has written other novels, including The Stone War for TOR books. Thanks to Keith DeCandido, editor of the Marvel novels for his help.

Kuljit Mithra: You've worked in many industries - editing, writing, banking, software design - so which one do you think best describes what interests you?

Madeleine E. Robins: I suppose writing and editing are my primary interests--when I was in college, I got extra money for typing papers because I'd =edit= them for style and grammar. I'm a compulsive text-noodler (and I come by it honestly; my mother used to make marginal notes in published books where she corrected grammar and complained about bad writing). I didn't start out to be a writer: I have a degree in Theatre Studies, and the thing I was probably best at was stage-management, a mixed bag job that requires being able to balance and coordinate people and tasks and things--preferably with some tact and humor. And these skills have been important in virtually every job I've had, whether it was secretarial, editorial, free-lance, managerial...or child-rearing (maybe especially child-rearing!).

But writing offers me almost all the things I like best to do: I love telling stories. I love working with words, working with their weight and texture. Sometimes the whole impact of a scene can hang on the right word, the right choice of words, and when you get that right, it just sings. I also love writing because it gives me a chance to figure out people's motivations. As a kid, I spent a lot of time looking around, trying to figure out why the adults around me did the bizarre things they did. Now I can rewrite those people and give them motivations and histories that render them explicable.

BTW, I've never done software design, just written users' manuals. Programming is one of those things I don't have the right brain for!

Mithra: How did this opportunity to write a DD novel arise? Did you propose a story, or did editor Keith DeCandido come to you? Were you a fan of Daredevil?

Robins: Getting to write CUTTING EDGE was a happy accident. I was laid off in March '98, and started nosing about for freelance work, and mentioned to Keith (whom I've known for years) that I was available for copywriting and that sort of chore. He asked if I'd consider writing a Marvel book; I said I'd certainly consider it, did he need one done. He asked who I'd want to write a Marvel novel about? I immediately said Daredevil, my hands-down favorite of the Marvel canon. He immediately said..."Damn. Sorry. Have a DD book in the works, maybe next time."

Two weeks later Keith called me up with the news that the DD novel that was in the works was being unavoidably delayed. Was I still interested and, if so, how fast could I come up with a pitch? I guess I was fast enough....

Mithra: Your story revolves around nanotechnology, real estate law, Riker's Island etc.. How much research did you do on these topics?

Robins: As an SF reader and writer, I read a lot of popular science stuff. When I was working at Acclaim Comics, a lot of the continuity had to do with nanotech. So I read a good deal of material about that; similarly, I've worked (as a support staffer) for investment counselors and in the mortgage finance area of the investment bank I mention in my bio, and I picked up a good deal of the lingo and an overview of how some big-money issues work. That being said, a certain amount of what I did in CUTTING EDGE was to take what I knew about the investment industry and layer that over with what most people =believe= about bankers and real estate people...

Finally, about Riker's Island (which in the Marvel universe is Rykers'--the things you learn!): I had a lovely long discussion with a criminal lawyer named Barry Goldstein who explained a whole lot about Rikers'--the procedures for getting on and off the island, what it's like to go visit a client there, the rooms where interviews are held. I think the biggest surprise to me was the fact that attorneys and clients don't get separate rooms for their meetings....

The other bit of research I did was inadvertant: I had my wallet stolen a few years ago, and they caught the couple that did it and ran up a $6500 tab within two hours (=that= is enterprise). I got to go sign an affadavit, and spent a little time talking with the ADA in charge of the case. So I've seen what an ADA's office in NYC looks like.

Mithra: How much research did you do on Daredevil history? There are many points in the book that reflect on past DD continuity.

Robins: I re-read all the Daredevil issues I had around the house (I've wandered in and out of reading comics and of reading specific books over the years). I borrowed books from friends. In some cases I called Keith and asked him things I didn't know (and credit-where-credit-is-due: it was Keith who reminded me that Foggy had put on DD's costume once!). And I read the run of Joe Kelly's DDs, which were just finishing up as I started the book.

Mithra: Which 'era' of Daredevil is your favourite?

Robins: Oooh. That's a tough question. I love Frank Miller's "mythology" work on the book; I liked Joe Kelly's run because he was working with a Daredevil who had made some sort of peace with his demons, who was functioning but still nuts enough to be doing something inherently crazy: running about town hitting people while wearing red tights. Of course, I'm so old, I remember when Daredevil wore yellow tights...

Mithra: Why did you choose to make your story take place in the timeframe after DD's encounter with Mr. Fear (375 of Volume 1)?

Robins: I was looking for a time in the more-or-less current continuity where there was a breathing space. I liked fitting this relatively short, self-contained story in a larger context (and I liked the thought that the long-range wheels of the Mr. Fear storyline were working in the background all during my story, where no one would see or even think about them).

Mithra: Can you explain how some of the characters you introduced in the story evolved from your initial outlines? David Wachtel? Belinda Quayle? Bernard Quayle? Siobhan Sealy?

Robins: I never know exactly what I'm going to find when I start writing. Although I had to outline the plot fairly thoroughly, I was still able to discover things about my characters as I went along. For example, Siobhan Sealy was only sketched in the outline, and took shape as I was writing her; the fact that she was not just of Irish extraction, but had been born in Ireland, I discovered as I worked out why she was so stubborn in the face of threats that might make =me= turn tail.

Being well--or maybe =over= -socialized, I've always been fascinated by people who can act without considering the consequences of what they're doing (really, the Quayles and David Wachtel are very large, well-dressed and glossy two-year-olds). In my first thoughts about the story, Bernard Quayle was a dupe of his nasty granddaughter--and then I decided that was too simple. Better to have the two of them constantly manipulating and backstabbing each other: Belinda's nature has to have been nurtured somewhere. Belinda Quayle's physical description really grew out of my notion that she =enjoyed= the sense of fear and dislike the rest of the staff felt for her (who would you dislike if you were, say, a 45-year-old secretary, plump and stressed out: the perfect blonde Power Girl). And the idea that this girl liked power, physical power as well financial or corporate power, sort of spilled over into the creation of David Wachtel. And one of the things I liked about that was the nearly-sympathetic light it cast on Rosalind Sharpe, who may be ruthless, but is not without heart.

Mithra: What do you think of DD's supporting cast? Karen? Foggy? Razor Sharpe?

Robins: I've always thought DD's supporting cast was superior; one of the ways you emphasize the strangeness, the dilemmas of a character with super powers, is to surround him with people who are in and of themselves pretty normal. That said, Karen, Foggy and Rosalind Sharpe are all distinct. I liked writing all of them (and I was saddened that Karen was killed off in the new DD run...AIDS and then shot to death, just to make sure. Don't see any way they can possibly ressurrect her now!). In writing Karen, the thing that I got interested in was how she could live with a man like Matt Murdock; like a cop's wife, she has to deal with the fact that he's going to be putting his life on the line every day. But she's also dealing with a blind man, a workaholic...and her own demons and rather significant past. That's =riches= for a writer!

I like Foggy because I think it's easy to underestimate him. He's been written as an amiable doofus at times, the equivalent of Sancho Panza. Only this Sancho has JD from Columbia, and if he isn't a stellar courtroom performer, he's a good lawyer. He's not physically prepossessingm, he's not smart about women...but he's a smart man, and a kind man. And he can keep a secret. Or two or three.

As for Rosalind...she's fun. She's all the nasty things you want to have the power and permission to say when people irritate you. DD needs a Rosalind Sharpe in his life--Karen adores him, and Foggy's a great guy--Matt needs the astringent touch Rosalind Sharpe brings to his life. And despite her hard-edge ambitious, manipulative character, I think she has standards. At least the way I wrote her, she does.

Mithra: Do you think DD suffers from an inferior rogues gallery?

Robins: I think DD suffers from one really superior villain, against whom most of the other villains pale. The Kingpin is so much DD's defining villain--and despite the comicbookiness of his size and his empire, he's a 'real' guy, in much the same way that DD is one of the most 'real' superheroes. Next to Wilson Fisk, bad guys in funny suits are faintly apologetic. No other rogue in DD's gallery really says as much about who Matt Murdock is or why he does what he does. And I do like the way some characters (Natasha Romanov springs to mind) wander back and forth across the good guy/bad guy line.

Mithra: Who is your favourite DD villain?

Robins: Wilson Fisk...though he can be overused. He's not good for duking it out, but as the gray eminence of Why Things Are Going Bad, he's it.

Mithra: In your bio at the end of the book, you mention that it should be a requirement for someone who writes a DD novel, to be a born and bred New Yorker. I've always felt one of the best characters in Daredevil is New York, specifically Hell's Kitchen itself. Are these the kinds of stories you think work best with the character, where he is down in the alleys protecting his neighbourhood?

Robins: I love New York, and tried to communicate that in the book--it's one of the things Matt Murdock and I have in common, and it made it very easy to enter that part of his head. And I absolutely agree with you that NYC is one of DD's best supporting characters. When I think of Daredevil in New York City, oddly enough, it's not so much Hell's Kitchen I think of, but Matt at Columbia, stealing out in the middle of the night to go romping around town with Elektra, bouncing off buildings, filled with the gorgeous energy that New York can generate. But in terms of stories--I think the stories that work best with DD are the ones where the stakes are personal. And because Matt Murdock has a strong psychological link to the city, and specifically with Hell's Kitchen, anything that threatens the city =is= personal.

Mithra: Was there anything specific about the novel that you had trouble with initially - be it characterization, references etc.?

Robins: It took me a while to find a narrative voice I was happy with--one that was not adulatory or too flippant.

Mithra: I noticed that you frame the book with the sentence 'It was a perfect June evening'. Just a coincidence or some other meaning to it?

Robins: Just trying to get a little rhythm going. One of those writing things.

Mithra: Why was the book published without your name on the cover? Or even the title?

Robins: It was a design decision. The publisher was trying for the same look as CAPTAIN AMERICA: LIBERTY'S TORCH, which was a completely text-free cover. But since Daredevil is less well-known to the general public, Marvel insisted that the logo, at least, go on the front in addition to the image. It was a bit disconcerting at first (one likes to have ones name on the cover, one does) but it's such a strong, gorgeous image I really don't have the heart to complain about it. And they spelled it right on the spine, on the back, and everywhere it showed up in the book.

Mithra: Will you be writing any more Marvel novels?

Robins: We're talking about a project right now. Dunno what will happen, but I'd like to. The Marvel universe is a fun playground.

Mithra: Any other upcoming projects of yours that you can discuss?

Robins: Yup. I have an original novel coming out in August from Tor Books: THE STONE WAR. It's a dark fantasy set about 20 years from now in New York City, where the city has become polarized, filled with a kind of dark, angry energy that, one day, is set loose to destroy it. The lead character is a man like Matt Murdock who has a strong emotional dependence on, and love for, the city. It's a cool book: lots of weird destruction, a feral kid living under Central Park, crazed refugees fighting their way out of the city. It'd make a great movie (wish*wish). And right now I'm working on an historical fantasy called POINT OF HONOUR which, if I do it right, should read a bit like THE MALTESE FALCON as written by Jane Austen. Swordplay, period diction, and historical intrigue!

Mithra: And finally, back to your bio - how does one become a professional swordfighter?

Robins: In my case, I took a stage-combat course as research for a book I wanted to write someday. Fell in love with the form. Kept taking classes, working up fights with class mates, practicing in Central Park (nothing like mayhem in the open air). After a year or so I got certified as an actor combatant by SAFD (the Society of American Fight Directors). Worked some renaissance festivals, belonged to a troupe that went around to schools doing Shakespeare scenes with fighting and slapstick mayhem. In my prime (which was before I had my kids) I could handle a broadsword, rapier, rapier and dagger, quarterstaff, and court sword, and I can still throw a decent fake punch.

Well, you did ask!

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(c) Kuljit Mithra 1999
Daredevil:The Man Without Fear
http://www.manwithoutfear.com
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