The Explorers Guild
Secret meetings in a smoky backroom. Whispers of buried treasure. Lost maps leading to hidden cities. A healthy dose of nostalgic romanticism hit bookshelves last week in the form of The Explorers Guild, a modern globe-trotting myth set against the backdrop of World War I. Equal parts graphic novel and traditional prose, illustrator Rick Ross pays homage to 19th century cartoonist Winsor McCay, while coauthors Jon Baird and Kevin Costner — yes, that Kevin Costner — invoke the muses of Kipling, Conrad, and Stevenson to spin their yarn. We had the privilege of picking Mr. Costner's brain about his latest story, adventure, and the man's favorite way to unwind after a long day.
Huckberry: What was it about the kinds of adventure stories from The Explorers Guild that you’ve found most inspiring?
Kevin Costner: For one thing, there’s an authenticity to many of these stories that’s in much shorter supply these days. The adventure writers of old — at least the ones I responded to — were often adventurers in their own right, the kind of men who’d sailed the Pacific islands and perhaps hacked their way through the Yukon. They weren’t observers but often true participants. I think it’s also important to note that readers, in those days, didn’t have the range of experiences we’re afforded today. I think it’s safe to say that the world was a bit younger then, and the stories brought back from its dark corners were given to readers who had little access themselves to the wilds of Africa or the violence of the oceans, or to the men who ventured out into them.
"For me the best adventure stories strip away as much as possible of what stands between great challenges and the people facing them, so that we’re looking inward, ultimately, at what we have inside us."
For me the best adventure stories strip away as much as possible of what stands between great challenges and the people facing them, so that we’re looking inward, ultimately, at what we have inside us to pit against the dangers without. We had no true measure as a man unless we’d come right up against another man or the world around us, and that’s what these stories offered up, when they were working at their best. There was really nothing better than seeing our guy in these old stories facing down danger with little more than his own fists, and his wits and his resolve.
The use of language, too, in the genre classics is something of a faded art. That feeling of transport you get out of true, ringing language is an essential part of the experience for me, and [Costner's coauthor] Jon was able to draw on the rhythms and usages of those who came before us, while mixing in his own style. I think you always know when you’re in the hands of a master storyteller, and I don’t feel too off-base saying that I feel that Jon is of that caliber. It’s a bold statement for sure, but an easy one for me because I was beside him from beginning to end over these last eight years.
"Our idea was a simple one: to have our audience listening with that same awed feeling you had as a kid when you were lucky enough sit in on a campfire."
Our idea was a simple one: to have our audience listening with that same awed feeling you had as a kid when you were lucky enough sit in on a campfire. Listening to grown men tell stories while they drank coffee often spiked with a shot of alcohol, or some just sat oiling their guns. You knew the whole time that 1) you probably shouldn’t be there, and 2) that you could only stay if you had the good sense to keep your mouth shut. Drawing any attention to yourself could be the end of it. If you could keep from laughing when it was the most funny, you stood the chance of hearing things that were both wild and exotic but often above your ability to comprehend. Storytelling that made you feel like you knew nothing of the world, and could only dream of being such a man of experience that you could one night take your own turn talking into the night, and no one would say a word until you were done. We wanted that same feeling in Explorers.
The story features a rich diversity of locales, cultures, and characters, all of which are affected in some way by World War I. What interested you about these locations and time period?
KC: In 1914 to 1918, we’re dealing with war on a scale beyond anything we’d seen up to that point. The sense that this could be the end of all things was perfectly real, and widely felt. And the idea that civilization was hanging in the balance was an important element of our story. We also felt that the period and settings were familiar enough — our players speak more or less the same language that we do today, and many of the people and events and divisions on the map will be known to us — so that as writers we’d have a footing already in the reader’s mind. But our settings and historical events aren’t so well-known today that we can’t get away with a little bit of smoke, which serves a purpose, too. What we’ve tried to do is knit our more fantastic elements in with real elements of history. We get to some pretty strange places, ultimately. But looking back we hope it’s not always easy to see where we left the world and the history we know.
"The idea that civilization was hanging in the balance was an important element of our story."
What do you think are some other essential ingredients for an adventure story?
KC: A careful choice of settings, the creation of challenges, the architecture of dilemma; I think surprise and humor are often undervalued, and storytelling never suffers from either. Secrets and mystery, and the willingness to hold back information until the right time — this is the art everyone tries to master. Pacing is important to me, too, in that I’m a fan of long-form storytelling. I never want to bore but I love it when the author is willing to look around before pushing on and advancing the stage picture.
But what really brings it all together and makes your story work is character. Jon has said, “We might not remember everything that happened in The Odyssey or Moby Dick or Mutiny on the Bounty or Heart of Darkness, but we all know Ulysses and Ahab and Bly and Kurtz.” I think a good yarn doesn’t speak at you or just wait to be admired, it throws you a line from the beginning — it makes a connection with you, so that where it goes, you go. I think we agree that’s best done by paying close attention to character.
"I think a good yarn doesn’t speak at you or just wait to be admired, it throws you a line from the beginning—it makes a connection with you, so that where it goes, you go."
Why a graphic novel? What attracted you to that medium over say, traditional prose?
KC: This was pure Jon. I was unsure, but he wasn’t. For one thing, he has worked in illustration and design for many years, and his first two books stirred straight text in with graphics. I know he was trying to include visuals so that they weren’t ancillary. He didn’t want them to be skipped; it was important that the story run through them, and that’s how he arrived at panels. In his view — and I found this interesting — there were certain times when he as a reader was happy to extrapolate from text, and to visualize elements himself. He has said, “You don’t always want to see the ghost or the monster or the alien, and even if you do, you shouldn’t.” But there are times, too, when you really do want to see what’s being described. You want to have a look around at where you are, and who’s coming, and how far this guy will have to reach to grab that bottle.
For me, personally, I’ve always loved the work of N. C. Wyeth and Howard Pyle and the great old illustrators, and I always loved what a well-delivered engraving could do for a story. So it was great, with Explorers, to be pacing the art out with the story, and to have them work in conjunction from beginning to end.
Tell us about Rick Ross’ illustrations. How did the collaboration come about? Were you seeking a specific aesthetic?
KC: Strangely enough, we found Rick through a regular old classified search. Jon placed an ad looking for artists who could work in the style of Winsor McCay, which was like fishing a giant river with a specially tailored fly. He felt it would signal the right thing — period comics — to the right person, and we definitely had some excellent artists check in just on the strength of McCay’s name, and what it meant to them. I hope this style and Rick’s achievement in general get the recognition they deserve; Rick sets the tone for Explorers Guild, bringing you right back to that golden age of adventure storytelling with a flair that’s all his own.
How about real life adventures? Do you have any planned this fall that you’re excited about?
KC: It’s a busy fall, but in December I’ve got a Caribbean trip lined up, and part of the idea is that my wife and I are surprising the kids with it. At a certain point, too, we’ll be bringing out the maps for the younger kids, and we’re going to send them on a treasure hunt. We’ll have to bury something somewhere to pay the thing off, but when you’re eight or younger, like my youngest are, that’s a day’s adventure in itself, just hunting around through wild and unfamiliar terrain, with some magical object in mind.
"There’s something deeply satisfying—something very primal—about going alone into nature and being on the hook for feeding yourself and your family."
I’ve also set the challenge for myself, where one of those days I’m going to head into the water and catch our dinner. I don’t know that that’s anyone’s idea of high adventure, necessarily, but there’s something deeply satisfying — something very primal — about going alone into nature and being on the hook for feeding yourself and your family. It will just be me and a Hawaiian sling, and we’ll see how it goes.
On that note, what are some of your favorite weekend getaway locales in the states?
KC: I’ve been very fortunate in that the vision I’ve carried all my life about what would make the perfect getaway spot for me is something that I’ve been able to realize in the mountain home I’ve built in Aspen, Colorado. There’s a stretch of land around a river that I’ve been working on for years, and we’ve carved out our Shangri-la there in the woods. There’s nothing like it for a getaway in the strictest and fullest sense, and I always come back revitalized and clear-headed.
What items are bound to be in your pockets on a normal Tuesday? Notepad? Swiss Army knife? Lucky handkerchief?
KC: I think I’m more of the travel-light kind of guy. I try to get a quick start and keep moving. I figure if I come up against the worst out there, it’s not what’s in my pockets that will save me.
"I have managed in my life to build three canoes—none of them looked very good, but the good news was that none of them leaked, either—and I’ve taken them down many of the rivers that Lewis and Clark traveled."
What time period do you wish you could have a chance to relive? Maybe the time of The Explorers Guild?
KC: I’d like to have been around for the reign, in this country, of the original mountain men. I have managed in my life to build three canoes — none of them looked very good, but the good news was that none of them leaked, either — and I’ve taken them down many of the rivers that Lewis and Clark traveled. The earliest days of exploration in America have always interested me deeply. I’m thinking less here of the men who came to exploit the country and its resources, and more those who came to coexist with it, and who learned how to do that. The land, in the eyes of these men, would have looked something like the garden of Eden — pristine, dangerous, and endlessly beautiful.
Last question: You’ve just come home from a long day. What’s your favorite way to unwind?
KC: These days when I get home the first thing I’m looking at is my two youngest boys, Cayden and Hayes, lined up and spring-loaded, waiting for a good fight. And I’m more than happy to give them all the roughhousing they can take. The benefits of this to all parties can’t be overstated. The boys are always under the impression, at ages eight and six, that today’s the day they’re going to settle their dad; but I’m still, at the time of this writing, able to handle their best. I should say this isn’t always my wife’s preferred way to relax, but the joy her boys get out of it is pure and undeniable, and she’s so far been able to bear with us. [H]
To read an excerpt, see more illustrations, grab your copy, and get the scoop on the book tour, check out The Explorers Guild website.