Mike Chen is on his second cup of coffee after finishing up a morning work call. Usually he tries to limit himself to one cup in the dawn hours and one later on, but today is just one of those days. His daughter is downstairs in his Bay Area home, attending virtual kindergarten while he sits on his bed and talks via Zoom. The door remains shut for some soundproofing, though one of his cats is affronted that her peace is being disturbed.
Chen’s hoping for some quiet to discuss his new novel, We Could Be Heroes (Mira, Jan. 2021), a fantastic tale grounded in reality that addresses the perceived dichotomy, in the superhero construct, between good and evil. It’s a theme that has animated him for most of his life.
The son of Taiwanese immigrants, Chen, 41, says that as a kid, “I always ate up science fiction.” Some of that obsession may come from his father. “Star Wars was very, very formative for me,” he explains. “My dad was into Star Trek: The Original Series—so, naturally, I hated it,” he laughs. Trekkies will appreciate the fact that Chen eventually got into Next Generation, but it’s still Star Wars that is closest to his heart.
Set in the fictional city of San Delgado, We Could Be Heroes follows two superpowered archrivals—Zoe and Jamie—as they attempt to recall the past two years of their lives in a memory-loss support group. One is a hero, one is a villain, but which one is which? The answer is complicated.
Chen has had a lifelong fascination with the archetypes of superhero media. His own origin story wouldn’t be possible without them. “I read a lot of sci-fi,” he says. Instead of the “traditional” Asimovs of the genre, though, he devoured middle grade and YA speculative fiction. “In 1985 the big anime series Robotech launched in America. That changed my life—the way it focused on character.”
Robotech’s focus on the internal lives of the people populating these epic fantasy worlds piqued Chen’s interest. “When I get into something, I totally dive into it,” he says. “I need to know every part of it.” Thus began his foray into fan fiction, illustrating his own comic strip mash-ups of the series that followed the minutiae of the day-to-day instead of epic battles.
Chen’s career as a writer follows something of a comic book hero arc. He dons his author mask for half of the day, writing away under deadline pressure, while the other half is dedicated to freelance technical writing. In college he majored in engineering, but one of his teachers suggested creative writing might be a better fit. The thought appealed to him, but his parents would not have approved.
Still, teachers have made an impact, Chen says, noting that one in particular was “life changing.” Wendy Sheanin, who formerly taught creative writing at UC Davis and is now v-p director of marketing at Simon & Schuster, encouraged him to keep writing no matter what job he wound up in after graduating.
Chen’s hero’s journey to fiction took a few turns. After two years as an engineer, he transitioned to writing. Being in close proximity, geographically, to Silicon Valley, he found himself getting work with tech companies, doing a mix of copywriting and technical writing. He also stumbled into a gig as a sportswriter. Some blogging he did about the NHL garnered attention from established online outlets, including Yahoo! and Fox Sports, and he began freelancing sports content for them.
For 15 years Chen balanced his freelance business, his family, and the dream of being a novelist. After toiling away on two different novels for two years—he queried a number of agents for both, to no avail—he began working on what became his debut, Here and Now and Then. In 2015, the manuscript for that novel landed him his agent, Eric Smith.
“So much has happened,” Chen says, since his debut.
The arrival of Covid-19 has made Chen weary. His sophomore novel, A Beginning at the End, dealt with a pandemic and published just as the world was hearing about the novel coronavirus. It received rave reviews highlighting Chen’s personal brand of, as he describes it, “sci-fi with feels.” But the fact that his fiction overlapped with reality has not been appreciated by all. He’s faced a backlash from some readers who’ve suggested, in critiques on blogs and Twitter, that he capitalized on Covid-19. He doesn’t fault anyone, though, as most readers aren’t familiar with publication schedules. (If they were, they would know that the novel was finished long before the coronavirus outbreak took hold.)
Despite the tumultuous time, Chen has found a balance between day job responsibilities, writing, and parenthood. “Things used to be much more structured in my schedule,” he says, noting that after dropping his daughter off at preschool, he’d go to work at the office or a coffee shop. “It is hard. I’m glad that I have author friends who are parents of kids around the same age.” With this support group, Chen’s able to find people who understand him when he says, “Oh my god, I’m not going to hit my deadline. Also how’s your kid doing during the pandemic?”
These sorts of lifelines play a strong role in We Could Be Heroes, which is ultimately a story about an unlikely friendship. “I really wanted to emphasize how two people can discover trust in each other and not on a romantic level,” Chen says. “Those relationships to me are as important as my family.”
In the case of superpowered humans, “you look at the humanity underneath in a really relatable way,” Chen says. “The superhero is really fucked up. The supervillain is a good guy. He returns his library books on time! On paper, they should be trying to kill each other, but they can be friends.”
We Could Be Heroes “felt different” than his previous books, Chen says. It felt “more professional.” Though he admits that he still questions himself, he thinks his instincts “are much better than they were five years ago.” For him, the joy of writing is always there. “It’s a release.” When he’s not playing video games with his wife or spending time with his daughter, he can be found writing.
In his world of heroes and villains, Chen says that he would unquestionably be a “lawful good” guy. In the real world, his penchant for good is manifested in the way he supports other writers, connecting with them online and building a pay-it-forward kind of community. That penchant for helping others probably comes from the influence of his own family. And their influence on the novel became more apparent to him when he was editing A Beginning at the End.
Chen keeps coming back to the subject of those familial bonds. “It’s all about found family,” he says of the book. “When you read it, you’ll see it at the end.”