“Take one of Richard Stark’s Parker novels and throw it in the blender with DVDs of Mad Max and The Warriors. Guess what? You just broke your blender. Find solace in this book, which is what you should have done in the first place.”
That quote from Rob Hart, author of The Warehouse and New Yorked, aside from being a great blurb, sums up Nick Kolakowski’s latest thriller, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, perfectly. Personally, I’d throw in a little The Book of Eli for good measure, but you get the picture.
Maxine, the star of the show here, comes from a family of outlaws. Set in a world where the United States has collapsed and crime is running rampant, Maxine is a road warrior who earns a living by working as a convoy escort, employed by people who are trying to move goods between fallen cities. Business is good, that is until things take a turn for the south and Maxine finds herself betrayed and left for dead. Narrowly surviving, she goes looking for revenge—and in the process, attempts to pull off the most daring post-apocalyptic heist the world has seen.
From start to finish, Kolakowski dials up the heat, delivering a gritty, adrenaline-pumping thriller that’s unlike anything else sitting on store shelves.
Just before the release of his latest book, I caught up with author Nick Kolakowski and asked him about everything from how he came up with the story idea for this one to what made him want to become a writer in the first place.
TRBS: When did you know you wanted to be a writer, and what finally pushed you over the edge and made you start working on your first manuscript?
Kolakowski: As with many writers, the impulse was always bone-deep; since I learned to write, there was never a time when I wasn’t worrying a sentence to death. And I’ve always harbored a deep love of science fiction and noir, so all my earliest stories tackled those genres.
I wrote a number of manuscripts that ended up in a drawer (the infamous “trunk novels” that every author writes), but I finally came up with something that I really liked (and fortunately a publisher really liked) with “A Brutal Bunch of Heartbroken Saps,” which was a rural noir thriller set in New York City and Oklahoma. That one did pretty well (it’s coming out in Germany in early 2020), so I followed it up with a few sequels, along with a couple of standalone books.
TRBS: Let’s get into your latest, Maxine Unleashes Doomsday, which by the way is fantastic! How did you come up with the plot idea for this one?
Kolakowski: “Maxine” has been drifting around in my head for years. I grew up loving dystopian movies and books, especially “The Road Warrior,” and wanted to do my own version someday. For a long time, though, I couldn’t find a hook or angle that didn’t come off as a retread of something else.
Then I looked at the world around us. Over the past several years, I think we’ve all seen a number of trends changing daily life. There’s been an increasing polarization in our politics, as well as a lot of economic anxiety over wealth, generational poverty, and the demise of the American Dream. It’s easy to see how our current situation could shift into outright chaos.
Maxine, as a character, was birthed from those impulses. She eventually grows into the ultimate dystopian warrior, but she does so not out of a need to conquer the wasteland—she’s just trying to crawl out of poverty. When society becomes too fragmented and nonfunctional, and you’re a teenage girl living in rural New York, your only option is to become an Outlaw Pirate Queen.
From there, I wanted to go big—Maxine just wants to survive, but her decisions end up impacting the entire world in huge ways that she couldn’t predict. Which is usually how things spin out of control. In order to craft a convincing fantasy, I found I had to pull a lot of things from real life.
RBS: What sort of research did you have to do before actually sitting down to write this one?
Kolakowski: In my day job, I’m a tech reporter, which means I’m fortunate enough to talk to a lot of analysts and professional prognosticators. “Maxine” touches on a number of future-tech concepts, from self-driving cars to “generalized” artificial intelligence (i.e., robots that think like humans), so I was able to quiz some very smart brains on the details that would make ultra-advanced versions of those things seem pretty realistic on the page.
By and large, a lot of tech folks’ advice came down to this: we think of things like self-driving vehicles and A.I. as gee-whiz, next-generation things, but at a certain point, it’s all going to become commodities, just like fridges and automobiles went from fantastical to the mundane for our great-grandparents. So with that in mind, I tried to make the tech as gritty and lived-in as possible.
As with my noir novels, I also like to get hands-on. I’m big on firing the guns that my characters fire, for example. With science fiction, though, you need to take some imaginative leaps—I’ve never used a snowplow to rob a beer warehouse in the middle of a drone riot, like Maxine does.
TRBS: What is your writing process like? Do you outline everything before you start officially writing? Do you have a target word count that you try to hit each day?
Kolakowski: I started out as a “pantser,” and after a few books, I discovered the inevitable: writing by the seat of one’s pants (hence the term) is a really, really good way to end up having to do extensive re-writes in order to transform your mess into something that folks actually want to read. Now I outline.
In terms of word count, I used to hold myself to one; but I found that was less important if I simply made a point of writing every day, come hell or high water. Between a day job and family, it’s hard to churn out, say, 3,000 words every day (at least if you’re me) and you start beating yourself up for not arriving at that arbitrary goal; but if you make a point of writing every day, you can take pride in the consistency, and you still make a pretty decent word-count. Right now I manage to write two books a year, with a smattering of short stories, so it’s working for the moment.
TRBS: Lastly, now that this book is finally set to hit bookstores, what’s next for you?
Kolakowski: I’m midway to writing the sequel to “Boise Longpig Hunting Club,” a novel of mine that Down & Out Books published in 2018. “Boise Longpig Hunting Club” was a contemporary update of “The Most Dangerous Game,” with a bounty hunter and his gun-runner sister pursued through rural Idaho by some seriously psycho big-game hunters. The sequel starts literally five minutes after the first book ends, and the biggest challenge is trying to figure out how to rachet up the tension and momentum as much as possible—I want it to feel like my main characters are always seconds from arrest or death.
And once I finish that, who knows? Maybe a “Maxine” sequel. As a character, she still has some miles to go.
Praised as “One of the hardest working, most thoughtful, and fairest reviewers out there” by #1 New York Times bestselling author Lisa Scottoline, Ryan Steck has “quickly established himself as the authority on mysteries and thrillers” (Author A.J. Tata). Steck also works full-time as a freelance editor and pens a monthly thriller column for CrimeReads. For more information, be sure to follow him on Twitter and Facebook. He currently lives in Southwest Michigan with his wife and their six children.