“Snazzy looking site! (That’s how we old guys speak.)” was the initial response I received from David Lubar when pitching this interview. During the website’s redevelopment phase, his was one of the first names that came up when we began discussing whom to interview. Why were we so excited to talk to him?
David Lubar is a world famous young adult author. His most popular series of books have “Weenies” worked in the title and he’s recently published two new eBooks. The interesting twist? He’s also a legendary video game developer, creating games for all major systems in the 1980s and early 1990s. From Apple II to Gameboy, he’s done it all.
It was our pleasure to meet up with David Lubar in the Pop Rewind virtual lounge. Here’s what he had to say!
Pop Rewind: Thanks for taking the time to chat with Pop Rewind. The first question I always ask is how would you introduce yourself at a party?
David Lubar: You’re assuming I’ve ever been invited to one. Okay, that’s an exaggeration, but many of us who grew up to be writers missed a lot of parties, and not always by choice. But, to answer your question, first I have a confession. Back in the days when I was a game designer, I’d usually just tell people I was a programmer. That saved me from a lot of long conversations, since games were a bit of a mystery to the average adult back in the 1980s. These days, I just say, “I’m a writer.” But, starting tomorrow, I’ll smile, shake hands, and say, “Read my interview in Pop Rewind. It tells you all you need to know.”
PR: When I first searched online for your contact information, I found several pictures of you with a cat and one picture of you with a giant weenie. How often do you Google yourself? Are you surprised by any results?
DL: I Google myself so often, I find stuff before it’s even posted. It’s bad. I need to cut down.
PR: Let’s talk about your background as a video game developer. You created games for Apple II, Atari consoles, Commodore 64, and Nintendo systems. How did you get your start in the industry?
DL: It pretty much all happened by accident, back around 1979. I violated one of the cardinal rules of freelance writing (the same rule everyone violates constantly) by sending a story to a magazine I’d never read. Happily, they bought the story. As soon as I got the news, I picked up a copy of the magazine to check it out. The magazine was Creative Computing. As a life-long gamer, and a bit of a loner, I wondered whether a computer might be the ideal replacement for a table full of adventurers. I looked at the program listings and realized that I sort of understood what was going on, even though I’d never taken a computer course in college. What I’d taken was every logic course Rutgers offered, including several independent studies. Basically, I’d gotten the best possible introduction to programming without realizing it. (Side note for fans of amazing writers – the first logic course I took was taught by Semour Smullyan, who was the cousin of the amazing writer Raymund Smullyan.) Eventually, I got a job at Creative Computing. While I was there, I got to know Mark Pelczarski at Polarware. When Larry Miller (who later wrote the 2600 classic, Enduro) called Mark, looking for programmers to design Atari games for Sirius Software, Mark put him in touch with me.
PR: Of the games you programmed, which is your favorite? Why?
DL: I’m fond of Frogger 2 because I had very little interference from people who wore suits and didn’t play games. I also tried to push the machine past what it seemed capable of doing. I had two scrolling planes, even though it only supported one. (Note for techies – I did that by scrolling the foreground two pixels at a time, while rewriting the definitions in the character set of the background tiles so they all shifted in the other direction by a pixel.) And I had some huge objects, like giant rolling boulders, which were made of a combination of background and sprites. On top of that, the game was fun. This is important. You can play all the tricks you want, push a system to do new things, and try to amaze your fellow programmers. But if a game isn’t any fun to play, all of that is pointless. We’ve all seen games that are technically brilliant but devoid of any fun.
PR: I heard you were given a list of potential titles to choose from to make a game. Can you elaborate on this?
DL: I was working at Sirius Software. They’d planned to publish Atari 2600 games, but ended up licensing them to Fox Games (a division of 20th Century Fox.) The Fox folks told us we could use any movie they owned as the basis for a game. Being a science-fiction geek, I instantly grabbed Fantastic Voyage. The game turned out pretty good, for its time. Interestingly enough, there’s a fellow who recently broke the high score on it.
PR: When you worked on a movie tie-in game, such as Home Alone, did you watch the movie for ideas?
DL: Absolutely. The more material you absorb, the richer a game you can make. If I hadn’t watched the movie, and just based the game on my memory of it, I doubt I would have made the furnace into a boss. Any time you’re creating something, it’s good to drench yourself in all sort of other media. Whenever I’m looking for my next idea for a novel, I like to go to museums and concerts.
PR: There are some classic games that just never seem to surface on auction sites. How do you feel knowing your games live on through emulation?
DL: I’m happy about that. Games have a short shelf life. I have books that are selling just as well today as they did ten years ago. Hidden Talents, which came out in 1999, should still be on the shelves in 2019. Kids are still reading stories I published in 1996. But there are very few games that age well. It’s nice to know that if people want to see my very first game, Worm War One, in all its eight-bit glory and lack of depth, they can hunt it down online.
Check out that Devo sound-alike music.
PR: Was programming “just a job” or were you a video game enthusiast? Are you still an active game designer?
DL: I grew up playing pinball, board games, and those tabletop games that used hundreds of small cardboard pieces that represented troops, aliens, or weapons. In college, I could run Bally’s Flip Flop up to 25 free games. I missed a lot of lectures thanks to that machine. When I bought my first computer, back in 1979, I was torn between getting an Apple II so I could play games and write programs, or just get an Atari 2600 for the games (and for the much lower price). Before that, I bought a Telstar so I could play Pong. (I saw Pong for the first time in the Rutgers game room.) When the Vectrex came out, I bought it for Space War. I even have a Virtual Boy. (Yeah, I’m the person who bought the one unit they sold.)
I’m no longer an active designer. But I’d love to get involved in either designing small games or writing the dialogue and story for a large game. While I’m not coding or designing, I’m definitely still an active gamer. At the moment, I’m on chapter 17 of Uncharted 3 on my PS3, at about 50% completion on Saints Row the Third on my Xbox (and loving it), near the end of Shin Megami Tensei, Devil Survivor on the DS, and somewhere in the middle of Wild Arms XF on the PSP. All of that will get put on hold when I download the Gears of War DLC.
PR: Do you think it would be a conflict of interest for you to compete for a world record score on a game you programmed?
DL: Theoretically, I can see where it wouldn’t look good. Realistically, while I’m a pretty good gamer, I’m not a great one. I generally play games on the normal setting, and have no desire to try any of the suicide modes. Unless I stuck in some amazing Easter eggs that nobody else could find, the truth is there are thousands of 12-year-old kids who could beat me at any of my games.
A 12-year-old kid blasting through Lubar’s Space Master X-7 in Revenge of the Nerds.
PR: How has your experience in the video game industry worked itself into your writing?
DL: It’s actually worked itself into my writing in two different ways, one of which might not be immediately obvious. First, the unsurprising way: I’ve written a fair number of stories about games. The next collection, Beware the Ninja Weenies and Other Warped and Creepy Tales, actually opens with a story about a boy who is playing a Gears of War sort of game, and has another story involving a dungeon crawling game. I have an unpublished novel called Dungeon Bugs. It’s about a kid who writes a dungeon game and then gets sucked into the program, along with his friends. He manages to save everyone by exploiting the bugs that are still in the code. Unfortunately, there are some basic flaws in the book. It would take a lot of work to make it publishable. (I don’t feel too bad about having some unpublished – or even unpublishable – books on my hard drive. If you write a lot, and try to stretch as an artist, you’re occasionally going to run off a cliff or into a wall.) I might revisit that book some day. I’m currently working on another game-related novel that is more promising.
As for the less-obvious influence of the game industry, it definitely taught me to put in long hours, and to keep tweaking things until they were as bug-free and enjoyable as possible. When I was coding Frogger 2, I would wake up, start working, and keep going until I went to sleep. These days, if my editor sends me revisions and tells me I have to have them back to her in two weeks, I don’t blink. I can hunker down and work as long as I have to.
PR: Many of your books are a collection of short stories. What is it about the short story format that appeals to you?
DL: I have a short attention span. I also grew up reading science fiction magazines, and they mostly ran stories, along with perhaps one serialized novel. So the short form was my main nutrient during my impressionable years. I love twist endings, and I believe that the shorter the story, the more the reader will appreciate the twist.
PR: Some of the entries in your Weenies books have haunted my dreams. In one story, an amusement park ride turns its guests into sausage. In another, a kid is eaten alive at a roadside attraction. Do you ever hear from parents or teachers that your books scare children?
DL: When my first book came out, I braced myself for some sort of backlash. Happily, nobody seemed to mind the dreadful fates some of my characters experienced. I think the fact that the stories are fantasy, science fiction, or horror helps reduce the potential for outrage. People don’t object to the horrible endings in Grimm. If I wrote a realistic novel where a boy was eaten by piranhas or a girl was drenched in liquid nitrogen and shattered, I might get scolded. In all the years since the first story collection came out, I think I might have heard from three parents. When I’m signing books, I always warn parents of younger children that they should preview the stories. I don’t care if a second grader is reading at a fourth-grade level. I still don’t think he should be reading all the stories.
PR: It’s probably safe to say I am outside the intended age range for many of your books, yet I thoroughly enjoy them. Do you hear often from adult readers of your work?
DL: Much to my delight, I not only hear from adults who like the stories themselves, but I hear from parents who read the stories aloud with their children. I’ve even heard from a celebrity or two. Okay, that’s a slight exaggeration. I’ve heard from one. The thing is, there’s nothing childish about the stories. The plots, language, and structure of them would entertain any adult who enjoys speculative fiction. I’d invite anyone who is curious to pick up a copy at a book store and read a story or two, or download an eBook sample, which should include at least one or two complete stories.
PR: One feature I enjoy about your books is the bonus section explaining how you got the ideas for your stories. What prompted you to include that?
DL: My editor suggested that. It was an excellent idea.
PR: You have a new eBook aimed for adult readers titled It Seemed Funny at the Time: A large collection of short humor. How does writing and publishing an eBook compare to the traditional way of doing things?
DL: The writing is the same. In this case, the book was compiled from humor pieces I’d had in magazines, or online. The publishing was fun. Rather than pay somebody $50 to format everything, I decided to squander huge amounts of time and do it all myself. (I’m always in search of good means of procrastination.) Much to my amazement, it was an excellent decision, even though I spent about a month getting everything ready. I felt like I was programming again, and debugging. (Debugging is one of my favorite parts of programming. I love figuring out my mistakes. Happily, I have an endless supply.)
And while I have your attention, let me plug the book. It has a lot of humor that would appeal to pop culture fans, such as your faithful readers. There are pieces about television, movies, and cultural icons. There’s also a section of computer humor.
PR: How has social media, such as Twitter and Facebook, benefited your writing career?
DL: Hard to say. If I’d spent all the time I squander on social media writing books, I would probably have filled another shelf by now. But I’ve met some amazing people online, and it is very easy to keep in touch with my fellow writers, as well as teachers and librarians. I think social media is spectacular in a crisis of any sort, whether it’s a natural disaster, man-made fiasco, or anything that could benefit from a lot of attention and rapid dissemination. And I’ll have to admit I felt huge waves of fanboy giddiness when Judy Blume rewteeted me.
PR: Do you have any more reading material for adults on the way? Any new young adult books on the horizon?
DL: I don’t have anything else for adults at the moment. I might write more humor, since I enjoy it, and since it is a great way to procrastinate when I’m supposed to be working on a novel. My next Weenies collection, Beware the Ninja Weenies, comes out in June. I have a very dark collection of older YA stories coming out in 2013. The working title is Extremities: Stories of Death, Murder, and Revenge, though we’re toying with calling it Hacked to Pieces. And I’m trying to decide which of two YA novels to work on next. One is about video games. The other is about philosophy and magic. I think the former would be easier to write.
I just made my second eBook. This one, Pulling up Stakes and Other Piercing Tales, is a collection of eleven stories that originally appeared in young adult anthologies. Making eBooks is turning into a dangerous addiction. I’m going to try to slow down. Though I do have huge quantities of bad poetry on hand from my college days…
PR: Is there anything else you would like to get off your chest?
DL: There’s an unsightly amount of hair.
Thanks to David Lubar for taking the time to give Pop Rewind a totally rad interview! (That’s how we 80s folk speak.) Be sure to check out his website which features a list of every book and every video game he’s made. For a good time, follow @davidlubar on Twitter.