Q&A with Steve Altes
1. What is Geeks & Greeks?
Geeks & Greeks is a love letter to my adopted home of Boston. It's based on my experiences going to college at MIT and the bizarre situations my friends and I got ourselves into.
2. What's the storyline in one sentence?
Blackmailed into helping a gung-ho fraternity commit high-tech hijinks at MIT, an underachieving freshman becomes ensnared in an escalating prank battle with a gruff alpha-nerd senior and, in the end, learns the art of the truly elegant prank.
3. When did you first start thinking about writing this book?
When I was an MIT student in the 1980s I would tell my friends back home about the pranks and hazing that happened at MIT and they were always shocked and amazed and alarmed. It got me thinking that if I could find a coherent throughline and emotional journey to hang these incidents on, I'd have a pretty decent screenplay.
4. Why did you initially write Geeks & Greeks as a screenplay instead of a novel?
I wrote it as a screenplay because the events were so visual I felt they had to be seen not just imagined. It's a kinetic story with lots of chasing, smashing, exploding, climbing, rappelling, and plummeting. It just felt like a movie.
5. Did you start writing Geeks & Greeks immediately after leaving MIT?
No, the ideas needed time to marinate, plus I didn't really find my voice as a writer until the late-90s. Around that time I started getting bit parts in movies and I viewed that experience as a form of film school. I started the script in 2001 and had a solid draft by 2003.
6. What did you do once you finished the screenplay?
It's really tough to get read as an unknown screenwriter, but I was lucky and got the script in the hands of Dottie Zicklin, the most successful MIT alum in Hollywood. She produced a bunch of hit sitcoms like Grace Under Fire, Cybill, Caroline in the City, and she co-created Dharma and Greg. Being an MIT grad, she immediately got what I was trying to do with Geeks and optioned the script.
7. What did she do with the script?
Dottie got the script read by a couple of literary agents at UTA in Beverly Hills. They said casting directors "were doing backflips over the screenplay." Next thing you know I'm on the Warner Bros. lot meeting with producers from Heyday Films, the production company behind the Harry Potter movies.
8. How did it feel to get that meeting?
It was very exciting. Heyday has more money than God. They could have made Geeks & Greeks into a movie for less than they earn each year from Harry Potter Hedwig the owl action figures.
9. What happened with Heyday Films?
I spent a year rewriting the script for Heyday. Tighten this. Change that. Give this character more of an arc. The downside was all these rewrites were unpaid. That's the nature of the Hollywood game when you're a noob trying to break in. But the good thing to come out of this phase was the script got a lot better. And not just because I rewrote it dozens of times. A bunch of really smart story development execs read the script and offered their insight. Their critiques helped make the script faster, funnier, and more focused.
10. What was the end result of Heyday's involvement?
I got acquainted with a Hollywood term known as "development hell." Time passed and a key person at Heyday left to start his own production company, so the script lost its champion. The option expired and Hollywood moved on to the next bright shiny object. Happens all the time.
11. Was that a letdown?
I never lost hope. Dorothy Parker said, "Hollywood is the one place on Earth where you could die of encouragement." And the encouragement kept coming. The script kept getting read and producers would say, "Geeks & Greeks was amazing. Best over-the-transom script I've read in years. It's intelligent, it's funny, it has heart..." Then they'd write "... but we only make broad Seth Rogen type comedies so we wouldn't know how to market it. Pass." For years the script was stuck in limbo.
12. What was the inspiration to turn the story into a graphic novel?
In 2013 I was browsing graphic novels in a bookstore and it finally dawned on me... Geeks really ought to be a graphic novel. Like film, graphic novels are a visual medium. A graphic novel is a movie shot with ink and paper. So I pivoted. I believe in being persistent about your goals but flexible about your methods.
13. What attracted you to illustrator Andy Fish?
Andy had three things I was looking for in an artist: talent, passion, and proximity to Boston. His talent is off the charts. He immediately committed to the project. And the fact that he lives near Boston meant his drawings could be informed by visits to the actual sites of these actual events.
14. Why did you use Kickstarter to raise funds for the graphic novel?
Illustrating Geeks & Greeks was a huge undertaking for Andy. Location research, character design, pencils, ink, lettering, and coloring 184 pages takes time. I couldn't ask Andy to work full-time for a year and a half for nothing, so I turned to Kickstarter.
15. How much did you raise?
We were amazed at enthusiastic reception Geeks & Greeks got. People really embraced it, especially MIT alums. In June 2014 our Kickstarter raised $43,000, which was a Kickstarter record for a first-time graphic novelist.
16. In Geeks & Greeks the story revolves around a fraternity called Alpha Zeta Omicron. Which frat is really AZO?
The fraternity as the center of this story, Alpha Zeta Omicron, is fictional. There is no AZO fraternity at MIT, nor does it stand for any one particular living group. AZO is an amalgamation of all that is excellent and all that is excessive within MIT's living groups. AZO represents the creative, adventurous, hack-loving dynamism in the MIT community – people who delight us with their ingenuity and irreverence, but sometimes take things a little too far.
17. How much of this story is true?
About 90% of this story was inspired by actual events that I, my friends, and fellow MIT students lived through. Yes, I've taken certain liberties. Timelines have been altered. Hacks that occurred decades apart in real life happen in the span of one month in this story. And, of course, some incidents have been fabricated or embellished. To separate fact from fiction I included 120 endnotes that document the real-life origins of nearly every event in the book.
18. Is this story going to appeal to people who didn't go to MIT?
You don't need to attend a Vermont prep school to enjoy Dead Poets Society. Likewise Geeks & Greeks was written to have broad appeal.
19. Is it difficult to write "smart humor," to put words in the mouths of geniuses?
I mostly tried to channel the personalities of the actual people who inspired this story. The challenge is making jokes out of things like Schubert's last symphony, Archimedes Principle, supernovas, cryogenics, kinematic viscosity, Shakespearean characters, and Einstein's theory of relativity while still keeping everything accessible. Lin-Manuel Miranda, the Hamilton playwright, nailed it when he said, "The secret to being called a genius is write about actual geniuses. If you write it even halfway well, people will confuse you with the real thing."
20. If hazing is banned at MIT, why did you include so much of it in Geeks & Greeks?
Fortunately, hazing is a relic of the past at MIT. But when I was a student, hazing was quite common in the fraternity system. I included hazing for two reasons. First, because it really happened. I think art has a responsibility to illuminate the truth and not sugarcoat life. Second, as a writer looking to tell a dramatic story, hazing is a fertile source of conflict between characters. And conflict equals drama. Characters need obstacles to overcome, people or things getting in their way. Conflict keeps readers turning pages and it keeps moviegoers in their seats. Nobody wants to see Alexander and the Terrific, Happy, Wonderful Day. They want Alexander and the Terrible, Horrible, No Good, Very Bad Day.
21. Are you concerned that some may view this book as pro-hazing?
Geeks portrays hazing, but it doesn't justify it. There's a big difference between depicting something and glorifying it. I think the fact that the book's chief hazer is the villain makes it clear that hazing is reprehensible.
22. Why do you think hazing was so prevalent at MIT in your era?
Due to MIT's high-pressure environment I think certain students sought novel ways to blow off steam. They took the "work hard, play hard" mentality too far. Playing hard is wonderful as long as it's channeled into non-destructive pursuits like sports, the arts, hacking, or something creative. Anytime you get a bunch of high achievers together there's a risk hazing will break out. Look at the medical profession. What are 80 hour work weeks during medical residency if not an institutionalized form of hazing? Military units and sports teams are also prone to hazing. It's an issue for society, not just colleges.
23. Of all the hacks in Geeks & Greeks do you have a favorite?
My favorite MIT hack has always been Alpha Tau Omega commandeering the SHERATON sign in downtown Boston to make it read "ATO" during Rush Week. It was so creative and gutsy and terrific advertising for them. That hack features prominently in Geeks & Greeks.
24. MIT's male/female ratio is close to 50/50, so why are there so few female characters in Geeks & Greeks?
When I started at MIT it was still 80% male and there were no sororities. The events in this graphic novel largely reflect my actual experiences living in an MIT fraternity, dealing with a large group of guys with a penchant for pranks. To their credit, the women I did know at MIT were far too levelheaded to be involved in many of the absurd events dramatized in Geeks & Greeks.
25. Let's say I'm the parent of a high school student considering MIT. Based on raucous events in Geeks & Greeks, should I be concerned?
Absolutely not. The atmosphere at MIT has changed completely since I was a student. It's true some MIT living groups had an Animal House mentality in the 70s and 80s, but that era is long past. While the playful spirit of hacking continues to thrive at MIT, many of the more abusive impulses of its living groups have toned down. Fraternities in particular have been forced to adapt to changing societal norms. The worst offenders have had their charters suspended or revoked and, across the board, a more mature attitude has taken hold. Today's MIT student is more concerned with inventing the Next Big Thing, starting a company, and changing the world than engaging in some of the more destructive hijinks recounted in Geeks & Greeks.
26. Who's the audience for Geeks & Greeks?
Geeks & Greeks is a graphic novel for you if any of these apply:
you enjoy stories about perseverance and creativity
you're curious about how ingenious MIT students pulled off some of the most infamous college pranks in history
you're an engineer or techie
you were ever in a fraternity or sorority
you have some connection to Boston
you enjoy top-notch illustrations coupled with elevated dialogue
you like to laugh
27. How did you study engineering, but wind up becoming a writer?
It's a surprise to me too. When I graduated from MIT, writing was the last occupation I would have ever imagined for myself. I was more interested in careers that got people rich. And trust me, the answer never came back, "Essays, Steve. Yep, see that dude getting off the Learjet over there, he amassed a huge fortune in essays. He’s that essay tycoon from Texas." I guess the short answer is engineering led to technical writing. And technical writing led to creative writing.
28. Why did you dedicate the book to Sean Collier?
An MIT campus police officer features prominently in Geeks & Greeks, so it's only fitting that the book be dedicated to Sean Collier, the MIT campus police officer who was killed in the line of duty in 2013.
Under the Creative Commons CC0 ("No Rights Reserved") specification, I waive all copyright to the headshot and book cover image found at the top of this page. They may be republished without restriction.