Gail Z. Martin writes urban fantasy, epic fantasy, steampunk and more for Solaris Books, Orbit Books, Falstaff Books, SOL Publishing and Darkwind Press. Urban fantasy series include Deadly Curiosities and the Night Vigil (Sons of Darkness). Epic fantasy series include Darkhurst, the Chronicles Of The Necromancer, the Fallen Kings Cycle, the Ascendant Kingdoms Saga, and the Assassins of Landria.
Together with Larry N. Martin, she is the co-author of Iron & Blood, Storm & Fury (both Steampunk/alternate history), the Spells Salt and Steel comedic horror series, the Roaring Twenties monster hunter Joe Mack Shadow Council series, and the Wasteland Marshals near-future post-apocalyptic series. As Morgan Brice, she writes urban fantasy MM paranormal romance, with the Witchbane, Badlands, Treasure Trail, Kings of the Mountain and Fox Hollow series. Gail is also a con-runner for ConTinual, the online, ongoing multi-genre convention that never ends.
A former accountant, military contractor, firearms instructor, and machine-gun dealer, Larry has been a full-time author for several years. His first novel, Monster Hunter International,was originally self-published. He’s now published in seven countries.
Larry lives in northern Utah with his very patient wife and four children.
The (Lightly Edited) Transcript
So, Larry, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Thanks for having me on.
Now we met very, very, very briefly, at DragonCon this year…last year, I guess, which was my very first DragonCon. I found it a bit overwhelming. There’s a lot of people there.
Oh, yeah. It’s a giant nerd Mardi Gras.
I was at your panel on–I made a point of sitting in the front row, actually, at the panel on monsters that you were on, which was a very good panel, and then introduced myself and asked if you’d be interested being on the podcast and you said yes, and we’ve finally gotten around to it. So, very glad to have you. I’ve enjoyed your books and am looking forward to talking to you about them. We’re gonna talk specifically about The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, your fantasy…I guess it’s going to be a trilogy? Or longer?
Well, I originally pitched it as a trilogy to Toni Weisskopf, my publisher, and she’s…you know, Toni knows this stuff very well, and I give her a kind of a plot outline for the trilogy. And she came back and she gave me a book deal for three books, and then she said, “You know, there’s no way in the world you’re going to fit this into three books, right?” Yeah. So, originally it was a trilogy but there’s probably going to be more than that. I’m working on the fourth one right now.
We’ll call it a series, then. The first book of that was Son of the Black Sword, and so we’ll talk about how that all came about a little later. But to start with, I like to talk with my guests about how they got started doing this crazy thing that they did. So, I guess, take us back into the mists of time. First of all, where did you grow up, and how did you first get interested in in science fiction and fantasy as a reader, and then as a writer. How did that all come about? You have a rather unusual path to publication.
Oh, yeah. Well I’m originally from El Nido, California, which is a little tiny town in Merced County, which is the San Joaquin Valley. It’s the part of California that’s more cows than people. That’s where I’m from. I grew up on a farm in the middle of nowhere, and we were really poor, but there was a little, tiny library, a little, tiny county library. And I was a nerdy kid. I loved reading books and I read every single thing they had there–and then I discovered interlibrary loans. I was always that awkward kid that read books on the bus and read books during recess and I just always loved to read.
I know that kid. I was that kid.
I think that’s most of us. I grew up…it was a pretty rough place, we were, you know, poor dairy farmers, a lot of hard manual labor. It was a lot of of fun, but I read to escape, and I discovered science fiction and fantasy pretty early on. I mean, I started out with Westerns, because…you have to understand, my dad didn’t read. He didn’t appreciate books, he didn’t like books, he thought books were kind of a sissy activity, that was kind of how I was raised. But I got a pass on Westerns, and so I actually started out with Louis L’Amour. My dad thought Westerns were manly and cool and tough, so Westerns were okay. But then, actually, I think one of the first fantasy books I ever came across was Sword of Shannara by Terry Brooks, an old classic, and discovered that first. That was my gateway drug to fantasy.
That’s interesting, starting with Sword of Shannara. Of course, it was very much in the mold of Tolkien. But you came to it first instead of Tolkien.
Yeah. Well, actually, I came to Tolkien later. I went backwards on that. I mean, I got to meet Terry Brooks in person for the first time five or six years ago, and I think I really nerded out pretty hard. No, I kind of got into that and…I read a lot of different things, various genres. I love reading different genres. I pretty much wound up as a fantasy guy just because that was what I was good at and that’s what I enjoyed writing the most, but I’m kind of a multi-genre kind of guy myself, I write in a bunch of different genres, too. But fantasy is my primary thing and I love it.
So, when did you actually start putting your own words on paper and telling your own stories?
Oh, I was really young, actually. I would get like books with paper and I would illustrate the stories, too. And my mom actually saved some of these, so after I die my wife will probably be able to sell these on eBay to my fans for a lot of money. You know, there’s like, really goofy little adventure stories with cartoons and stuff.
My first attempt at seriously writing, I was in college, and at the time I was on a Tom Clancy kick. I had been reading a ton of techno-thrillers, and I decided…the very first book I ever tried to write was actually a thriller. And it was terrible. It just wasn’t very good. You know, the first thing you try to write has training wheels, and it was terrible. I didn’t know what I was doing. And that got shelved.
And then I graduated college and for about ten years I went off and had a career and a family and worked hard and didn’t really have time for it. And then I decided to give it a shot again in the mid 2000s. I started…at the time, the kick I was on was horror movies, and I’m also a gun nut, I was a firearms instructor, and so I took two things I knew a lot about, horror movies and gun nuttery, and I stuck them together, and that’s where my Monster Hunter series came from. And that book actually did really super well. It’s still going well. So, that’s kind of how I started writing, so I guess I’ve always kind of been a writer, but I took, like, a decade off to be a grown-up.
Did you do anything in the way of, you know, writers’ groups or classes or anything in all that time? I know you certainly didn’t study it at university, you became an accountant, eventually.
Yeah, I got my degree in accounting and did a bunch of things like that. I was an auditor and then I was in the gun business for a long time, then I was a military-contractor accountant, and I did that for many years. But the thing is, I never did any writing-related stuff other than business writing. I wrote nonfiction, because I actually wrote technical articles and review articles for gun magazines, and I wrote articles about, you know, I guess the best way to put this for a non-gun-nut audience is tactical stuff, because I was an instructor. And so, I wrote things like that, but I never wrote any fiction during that time. I never had any training. I took the minimal number of English classes required to graduate. I was never in any writers’ groups or anything of that nature. I just read a lot. So, I kind of learned by doing, I guess.
That, in your words, “very bad thriller” that you wrote, did you share it with anybody, you know, at least get a hint that perhaps you could you could tell a story that people were interested in?
A handful of people, a handful of friends. And actually, people liked it and they really enjoyed it and they were kind of surprised that I was literate, you know, being a big dumb knuckle-dragging farm kid, they were like, “Wow, this is actually really good.” But it just wasn’t up to snuff. It’s funny, though, because there’s no such thing as wasted writing. You know, we always save…even our worst stuff has little nuggets in it…so later on, when I was doing the Dead Six series with Mike Kupari, I stole pretty much every line of dialogue, every cool character, everything that was neat or good from that first book I stole and later on, it wound up in other books. But, you know, it was good practice. But, no, I never had a sort of organized group or anything, just, I would hand it out to friends and said, “Hey! Check this out.” But that’s about it.
I wrote novels in high school that I showed to my friends, and they, you know, they said, “This is really good,” and of course, like you, I look back at those now and I think, “No, actually they weren’t.” But at least I learned that, you know, people were interested in reading what I wrote, and that kind of was what drove me into into doing it.
You were talking about writing nonfiction. I was a journalist myself, so I wrote, you know, thousands and thousands and thousands of words of nonfiction. I would say probably–and let’s see if you would agree with me–that even though you’re not writing fiction, the mere act of putting that many words together, even if it’s for gun magazines or whatever it is, still contributes to your writing improving. Would you say that’s fair?
Oh, I would say that’s totally fair. Like I said, there’s no such thing as wasted writing. Honestly, I think that anything that you’re doing that you’re having to put together a coherent narrative is good training. It’s just good practice, just stringing words together, wordsmithing, it’s all useful. Well, I mean, maybe not Twitter.
The great Twitter novel has yet to be written.
Yeah, I don’t know if I want to read it.
Now, Monster Hunter International…it wasn’t published by a traditional publisher to begin with. was it?
No, it was not. I’m with Baen now, and I’ve been with them for about ten years…yeah, ten years this year. But originally, it was self-published, because what happened is, I wrote this book, and best way to describe is, think, you know, X Files meets The Expendables, okay? So, it’s all the tropes of the various horror movies, and, you know, the Lovecraft mythos, because I love Lovecraft, all that’s in there, only, the people…it’s not a horror story, it’s an adventure story, because the characters are not, you know, typical horror-movie characters who scream and run and get eaten. They’re my people. And so, there are a bunch of gun nuts, and military contractors, and combat vets, and all those people, and they dealt with all these monster problems like my people would. (You know, the running joke as if you made a horror movie about the average gun nut it’d be a really short horror movie.)
So, I did this, and I tried to sell it in the traditional manner. Back in those days.. this predates the e-book revolution and Kindle and all that, so I tried to sell it the traditional way, by getting it to agents and then sending it to slush piles, and I collected…it was just over a hundred rejections. I had a shoebox full of rejections, and basically I had a lot of people, you know, agents, well-known agents, come back and say, “Hey, this is really good, this is really fun, but I don’t think it’s sellable. I don’t see a market for this.” And, well, I was a business man, I was a fairly successful businessman at this point, I understood marketing, I understood market, I understood audiences. And I’m looking at this, and I’m thinking, “Well, I think there is a market for this. It might not be a market that, you know, regular Manhattan publishing understands, but I think there’s sufficient number of people out here that I can sell this book.” And so…at that point, self-publishing was kind of more of a vanity thing. You know, you didn’t have e-books, you had $25 print-on-demand paperbacks, which…that’s a pretty hard sell. But I had an audience already from some of my other work, and I was a moderator on a couple of big Internet gun forums. And so, I actually did some online fiction for free, with another guy, named Mike Kupari, who I later on wrote novels with, a great guy, a very good writer, and we put out, you know, free online fiction, and people read it and were like, “Wow, this guy can actually write fiction, this is pretty good.” And so then I launched my $25 print-on-demand paperback, and it actually did really, extremely well, which in those days of self-publishing was like, if you sold 3,000 to 5,000 copies of a print-on-demand paperback, that was huge. It was nothing like it is today, very different. But it was actually a very big success and…Uncle Hugo’s is this big independent bookstore in Minneapolis, Minnesota, great bookstore, great guys. And one of their employees read this, one of their former employees read this, and then passed it on to Uncle Hugo, or Don Blyly of Uncle Hugo’s, who wound up printing out the Word document file on his printer and read the whole thing that night, and then he called Toni Weisskopf, who was the publisher at Baen, and said, “You guys need to buy this book ’cause I could sell the heck out of it.” And that got Toni Weisskopf to take a look at it, and she thought it was great, and she…at that point my self-published book was doing pretty good…so she contacted me and made me an offer to buy it.
And this is where it really is cool. I had to discontinue the self-published version. I signed my contract, but, you know, the way publishing schedules work, it wasn’t going to come out for almost a year and a half. So what happened is, for a year and a half, everybody talked about this great self-published book that they really, really liked to their friends, and their friends couldn’t buy it, because there were no more. And nothing makes somebody want something more than not being able to have it. So, for a year and a half everybody wanted to get their hands on this book, and no one could. So then when the actual Baen version came out, it was just mass-market paperback, that was before I was in hardcover, our little print run sold out in like the first twenty-four hours, it just exploded. And so she did another print run, and it went nuts and it was just instantaneously sold out. And so she did a third print run, and it went nuts, too.
At that point it kind of slowed off, but, you know, she’d given me a contract for a few more books at that point. So, yeah, so that’s how my career got started, and I’ve been doing this for about ten years now. That was back in 2009, is when the Baen version came out, and I’m at twenty-one novels now, I think, and a couple of collections of short stories, and a bunch of novellas and miscellaneous projects. So, it’s been really busy.
It’s safe to say this is what you do full time now?
Oh, yeah, yeah, I quit my accounting job about…I want to say five or six years ago…and I’ve been a full-time writer ever since.
Well, I have to say…I had run across mentions of Monster Hunter international…I think I was actually in the hospital for some reason and I needed stuff to read, and I may have gotten it through…was it in the Baen Free Library? That may have been where I got the first book.
Yeah, once we, I think, three or four books in the series, they added the first one to the Free Library. So, yes, for your listeners, you can get my first book for free, it’s available on baen.com, or you can download a free version for your Kindle on Amazon.
But be warned that that was like a, you know, one hit and then you’re hooked, at least in my case, because then I tore through all the others and I’ve been keeping up with it ever since. Good job, Baen.
That’s why we do it. Yeah, it’s the…we follow the crack-dealer method of product distribution where the first hit is free. The rest of the books cost you.
It’s interesting. One of the things that I often get asked and, you know, I’ve asked…you’re my, what, eighteenth or twentieth interview or something in this podcast?… people always ask, well, “How do you break in, or how did you get your first book published?”, and the thing is, it’s different for absolutely everybody. So, you know, your story is fascinating, but it’s probably not going to help anybody else, because it can’t, it’s not going to happen that way to anybody else.
Well, and technology changes so rapidly now. So even though this was only ten years ago for me, the entire method of how I got into it doesn’t even exist anymore really.
And now self publishing has become so easy the challenge there is, I mean, yeah, anybody can self-publish and it’s a snap, but you have to compete with the hundred thousand other people that also self-published that month. It’s super-competitive, very different than when I did it.
I did want to ask–and the reason is that my first book with DAW had been rejected by them and then through a roundabout way got accepted by them as a paperback–had Baen–you said you had a hundred rejections. Had Baen rejected it once before it came back to them?
This is kind of funny. So actually what happened with them–’cause most of my rejections were agents, and I also submitted directly to every publisher that would let you–Baen does a slush pile. So back in those days you would just mail the manuscript to Baen, and they would have, like, a big pile in their office of typed manuscripts, and they would go through and read them, they would have their slush readers. So, I did actually mail one, I did submit one to the slush pile. However, it disappeared or never arrived, because what happened was years later they were going through their own slush pile trying to find the original Monster Hunter I mailed them, just so they could just have it. You know, it’s an international bestseller for them now, we’ve got millions of books in print, and so they were trying to find this original photocopied manuscript that I had mailed them and they could never find it. And so I don’t know. It got lost at the post office? So, no, I didn’t ever actually get rejected by Baen.
Someday it’ll turn up.
Yeah, I figure it’ll show up on eBay when some postal employee finds it in, you know, the floor boards of his car. So that was just, that was a weird one right there, but, no, I got rejected a lot. But, you know, I always tell aspiring writers, you know, “You’re going to get rejected. There’s nothing wrong with that. Just keep going.” You know, a hundred sounds like a lot, but I’m not even near the top. I want to say Laurell K. Hamilton got rejected, like, two hundred and fifty times, and that was for her Anita Blake stuff, which has gone on to sell, like, 30 million copies. But back then, that was before paranormal romance was really a thing. She’s kind of like the godmother of that genre. And so publishers just didn’t know what to do with it. People were going, “I really don’t know how I’d sell this, I don’t know what genre is this.” Urban fantasy was a weird oddball thing back then and paranormal romance didn’t even exist, so they didn’t know. And now she is super, super successful. You never know. You just gotta keep throwing stuff out there to see what’s next.
Everybody hopes that that kind of a story will be theirs and for most people it isn’t. But the possibility is always there. So that’s what keeps a lot of writers going, I think.
There’s a lot of people, we show up and it’s like, “Wow, it’s like you’re an overnight success!” Yeah, it only took five years.
Well, in my case it was, before I had anything published fiction-wise, I’d been trying to sell for fifteen years, I think, or something like that. My first book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 95, and my second book was Using Microsoft Publisher for Windows 97. So it was like a series, you know, but not quite what I was interested in.
Yeah. I mean, we all come at this from different ways. There’s no one right answer. And it’s funny, because I go to these panels, and people always ask me, like, “What is the trick? What is the secret?” And I’m like, “Dude, I wish I knew, because I would totally like, you know, sell that.”
Yeah, if I’d known, I wouldn’t have taken so long to get to where I am. Well, we’re going to talk about the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior series (not trilogy!). So, we’ll start with talking…obviously, we’ll talk about the first book, because it’s hard to talk about the second book if you haven’t read the first book, which I have, by the way. The first book is called Son of the Black Sword, and maybe I’ll let you give a synopsis, because otherwise I’m liable to spoil something that shouldn’t be spoiled.
No problem. Okay, so Son of the Black Sword is an epic fantasy. It’s set in a world that’s kind of loosely based on India. I won’t say too much about the setting. It’s a world with really brutal caste systems, but it’s not a religious society: in fact, religion has been banned for a very long time. Instead, they have an all-encompassing Law, and everybody in this society has a place. The story’s about…the main character is a fellow named Ashok Vadal, who is a magical super-warrior figure. Think of this guy as kind of a roving, magical Judge Dredd, okay? This guy is the ultimate law enforcer in a land where the law is basically God. But the story is about him and what happens to him, because it turns out he is not who he thinks he is. And that’s…
The problem with epic fantasies is you can’t over-describe them without giving away the plot, but it’s really awesome. It came out super good. I love it. It’s done really well, been very popular. The story is…basically, I describe this guy as, he’s kind of a cross between The Punisher and George Washington. And it’s the story of how he basically turns from this unflinching role enforcer to…the saga’s him becoming a human being. But these are people that have not had religion for a long time, it’s been banned, and the old gods are kind of meddling in the affairs of man once again. This is a world where the seas, where the oceans, are basically hell. And so the culture is developed up around that. No, you don’t want to be by the ocean. The ocean is bad news in this setting.
It’s a fun series. The first one is Son of the Black Sword, which came out a couple of years ago and did really well. It’s my first foray into epic fantasy, based kind of…I’m a huge Robert E. Howard fan, so I kind of think of it as sword and sorcery, but it’s epic fantasy. The sequel is called House of Assassins, and that actually comes out right now. I think by the time this airs I’ll be on book tour for it. So that’s number two. And then number three is called Destroyer of Worlds, and I’m working on that right now. That’s actually what I was typing on when you called, or when you e-mailed me. So, yeah, the series is a lot of fun. I’ve really enjoyed it. (It’s a very dark setting, so when I say fun, to put this in perspective, I’m a writer. We have…our ideas of fun are a little different.
Yeah. You know, I destroy planets for fun.
Yeah, exactly. No, this is…I get to tackle a bunch of issues and have a lot of fun with it, but I don’t…I’m not a heavy-handed message-fiction kind of guy. I’m an action-adventure guy. If a theme sneaks in there it’s usually an accident, and don’t worry, I always put the action scenes first.
So what was the genesis of this? The seed from which this is grew?
You know, this is really interesting, because this is the funny thing about how how ideas works. Many years ago, I was a panelist, when I was a new writer, I was a brand-new writer, I was on a panel at a convention called LTUE, which is Life, the Universe, and Everything, in Provo, Utah. Back then it was held on the BYU college campus. And I was the newbie writer, and I was on a panel with Lee Modesitt Jr., Brandon Sanderson, and Dave Wolverton, who, as you know, are three big-deal, big-time, very successful fantasy writers.
So, I’m on this panel and somebody, some college student in the audience, had a question about…something. I can’t remember what the question was, and I had a really good answer for it. And so, I started to answer the question, and this college student cuts me off. He goes, “No, no, no, no, you’re just an urban-fantasy writer. I want to hear from the epic-fantasy writers.” And I was like, “You little bastard.” And I sat there and I was kind of like torqued, right. Like I said, I’d only been a writer for a couple of years. And so, as soon as the panel was over I snagged Brandon Sanderson, and I was like, “Hey, Brandon, what makes something an epic fantasy?” And so, he’s like, “Well, you know, it’s gotta have a lot of characters and a big giant plot and usually world-spanning events and a lot of history and worldbuilding and that kind of stuff.”
I went, “Okay, okay, cool, cool.” And so then I hooked up with Mike Kupari, whom I’ve mentioned before, ’cause Mike’s one of my best friends, and my co-author on my thriller series, and we’re driving home, and we start brainstorming, and actually the epic fantasy that I came up with turned out to be Hard Magic, the Grimnoir Chronicles, which is my Hard Magic series. So, my first attempt epic fantasy turned into 1930s alternate-history superheroes.
And I’d actually call one science fiction. It really has a science-fiction undercurrent.
Exactly. But that was the genesis of my foray into epic fantasy. But some of the ideas I came up with during this process, brainstorming, a lot of this turned into a series, which is actually a very successful one, and critically acclaimed, and it’s won the Audie for best audio book two out of the three novels. It was like number sixteen on Audible’s top 100 audio books of all time, so it’s been really good. But the thing is, this was my first foray into epic fantasy and it turned out not epic fantasy at all.
Then the next year, actually when I was working on Monster Hunter Alpha, I still at this point really wanted to tackle an epic fantasy, just ’cause I read ’em, I enjoyed ’em, and I hadn’t written one–because, like I said, my attempt turned out to be alternate-history superheroes. So, I was like, “I’m going to write an epic fantasy.” So, while I was working on Monster Hunter Alpha…I always listen to music as I write, and I usually listen to movie soundtracks, because they’re instrumental, there’s no words to mess with me, just music. And so, I hadn’t even seen the movie yet, but I had downloaded the soundtrack for Inception, because I love Hans Zimmer, right? Hans Zimmer’s awesome. So while I was listening to Inception, there’s a song called “Waiting for a Train,” and it’s like this eight-minute-long or nine-minute-long song, that starts really, really slow, and then builds up to this just massive crescendo. And before the crescendo begins, there’s actually this woman, there are some lyrics, and this woman comes on and sings one line in French, and having not seen the movie, I had no context at all, right? But I was so struck by this song that I stopped writing the novel that I was working on, and I actually wound up writing this little two-thousand-word short scene that was just a fantasy setting set specifically to that song. Once again, I hadn’t seen the movie, so I had no context of what it actually looked like, right? Or what it was actually for. (Boy, I was off! I was nowhere near what the movie Inception was like. )
So, I wrote that one little scene, and if you’ve read Son of the Black Sword, it’s actually the scene where Ashok is returning home, after he’s learned the truth of his existence, to confront his aunt. Basically, it turned into the dinner-party scene, the dinner-party knife-fight scene. That was actually the genesis of Son of the Black Sword, I was just inspired to write this one scene to correspond with this song. And then when I finished up this, I started brainstorming it out and really came up with a big plot.
The Indian setting was actually kind of interesting, because…I’m not a crusader by any means, in fact that stuff annoys the heck out of me, and this was before the whole big push for non-Western settings because you’re supposed to, or any of that stuff–I just thought it sounded interesting. I thought it sounded fun. Plus, I watch a lot of Bollywood movies, and so I was just looking at this like, you know, that would actually be really kind of a cool setting. And plus, I’d already been thinking through with that initial scene I did, where I’d already, just off that, was using a setting with caste systems. So, at that point it made perfect sense to just kind of borrow heavily from Indian history and mythology for the setting. And so it just kind of expanded out from there, and I actually wound up expanding it out and borrowing from…well, I won’t get into it, but, like, some other elements from Southeast Asia and even East Africa. So I got to throw in a bunch of stuff in there from that for inspiration. But then it kind of morphed into its own thing. So that’s where that came from.
You know, it would be cool to have a Bollywood movie version of Son of the Black Sword. Don’t you think you could have one?
Oh, my gosh. Well, in my head canon as I’m writing this, I always like to have, like, actors or people I actually know playing various characters. That way as I write them it helps me keep them consistent. So, actually, Kumar, in my head, is Ashok. Ashok looks like the actor Kumar. He’s been in a lot of movies. You’ve probably seen him. So, if they would like to make a movie that’d be great. They’d have to add some musical numbers.
I was going to say the musical numbers would be interesting.
My daughter, my oldest daughter, who’s a writer also, she’s watched a lot of these movies with me, and she’s like, at one point, I was saying that would be funny, if they made a Bollywood version of Son of the Black Sword, and my daughter goes, “Nah, Ashok don’t dance.” This is not a man who would dance, he’s not a man given to frivoloity.
She definitely has a point. So, you’ve talked a little bit about bringing all that, all those various things, together–was there a lot of research involved at this point, then, or did that come along as you develop the plot?
Oh, I kind of–that goes in spurts because, you know, there’s always the ever-widening Wiki spiral that all authors, we tend to do as we’re researching. No, I did the basic plot outline first. I’m an outliner.
That was my next question.
Oh, yeah, yeah, I’m definitely an outliner, so…plus I learned my lesson on my earlier books: I would outline, but I didn’t necessarily keep a series bible. Which, when you’re only one or two or three books into a series, that’s not a big deal. But on Monster Hunter I’m, you know, seven books in, with three spinoffs and a short-story collection. So, all of a sudden, this universe has gotten so big. I didn’t originally have a universe guide for it, and so I’m trying to remember, like, “Whoa, did I say where this person is from? Is this guy left-handed? Did I ever say what color this person’s eyes are?” All that little stuff…
It starts to pile up.
Yeah, it does, it piles up. So, what I did from the beginning of this series is, I had my outline, but then, I also have a separate world guide. Especially when you’re writing urban fantasy, a lot of stuff you don’t need a world guide, because it’s just, you’re just taking our existing world and inserting stuff into it. So, I don’t need to, like, have a description of the city of Chicago. It’s just Chicago, right? But for this, when you make up every single city, every single place, every single family, every single culture, cultural thing, you have to have some constant reference, down to like, you know, the calendar: how you know what are the names of the days of the week and the days of the month and what are the names of the month, of the year, and how does the calendar work, and all this stuff. And so, I try not to worry too much about all that stuff up front because it messes with you and it slows you down. So, I usually outline the story first. When I say outline, I’m talking maybe four or five pages, maybe eight or ten pages tops for a book. I’m not a super-religious outliner, it’s a very loose outline, and then I’ll jump in, I’ll start writing, and then when I come to something that I need to stop and research, if I’m on a roll I’ll just mark it–for me, my mark is always XXX, because then I go back and I control-F and search for XXX, every instance of XXX, that tells me this is something I need to figure out or research.
I use that, too, because it never shows up by accident.
Exactly. Yeah. You’re never gonna find that on the middle of a word by accident…well, I guess if you’re writing porn, I mean, that could happen. Luckily that’s not an issue.
So, if I’m not on a roll and I come up with something then I’ll stop and I’ll go and I’ll do research on it and figure out how I’m going to do it. Then I’ll add that to my world guide and I’ll just go ahead and write. But if I’m on a roll and I don’t want to stop to go figure out how calendars work or how does, you know, agriculture in the northern provinces work, I’m going to put XXX and I’m going to keep plowing ahead, and then later on, when I’m stuck or bored or whatever where I’m at, I’ll flip back and that’s when I’ll do my research. I guess I do a minimal amount of research upfront for the outlining and for the opening, and then I just go.
And, of course, research has become much more easy than it was pre-Internet and pre-Google and all these wonderful tools we have now.
Oh my gosh, yeah. Even in the ten years that I’ve been doing this it’s gotten way easier. And, you know, ten years ago we did have the internet. I mean, it wasn’t that long I’ve been doing this. But, yeah, it’s funny. It’s interesting, too. I find that research, especially for fantasy novels, is super-helpful, because it just opens up so many other corridors in your brain that you otherwise hadn’t thought of.
My example of that was, I have a book under a pseudonym, E.C. Blake, I wrote a trilogy called The Masks of Aygrima, and part of it is set in a mine, and I needed some way for them to get up and down in the mine, and I thought, “Well, ladders are boring,” and then I did some research and found this thing called a “man-engine,” which is driven by water and reciprocating beams and two sets of platforms go up and down and as they go up and down they meet momentarily and you can step from one platform to the next and get carried down. And so that made its way in, and it made the whole scene more interesting and gave me all sorts of things that I could do. So, yeah, that sort of thing happens all the time.
Yeah, I love that stuff.
Now, what does your actual writing process look like. Do you write in longhand. for example?
Oh, gosh, no. My handwriting is awful.
I have met, I have talked to authors who do, which blows my mind. But some people still do it.
Yeah, Marko Kloos writes everything originally with just a nice ink pen and a Moleskine notebook. I’m like, “I don’t know how he does that.” No, I type. I was actually mentioning to you earlier I didn’t know if this program we’re using right now would work because I have an eight-year-old laptop that I’ve just never bothered to replace.
As long as the hamsters run fast enough it’ll be fine.
Well, I mean, all I really use my computer for it is Wikipedia, Facebook, and typing. So, no, I work in a pretty much normal…ever since I quit my day job I work in a normal workday, so…I’m not a morning person, I don’t try to force myself to work early in the morning, because my brain doesn’t work that way. So, about eight-thirty or nine o’clock, I will usually drift into my office. I work from home, I have a nice office. I’ll go in here and I’ll usually write until about lunchtime, and then I’ll take a break for a little while to eat lunch, unless I’m on a roll, then I eat while I type. Then I work until, usually, about three-thirty or four o’clock in the afternoon–by then my imagination is starting to peter off. Unless, again, I’m on a roll, because, you know, if you’re having one of those days where you’re on a roll, you just keep working. Then I’ll work until nine o’clock, ten o’clock at night.
If I have a deadline I work however long I need to work. I did a sixteen-hour day last week, or about two weeks ago. I had to do the short story “The Testimony of the Traitor Ratul,” and I had forgotten about that. And so I was up on my deadline and I had to do a 5,000-word short story that day. And so I did, and I was working until like, I want to say eight o’clock at night, and the story was almost done, it was pretty good. Then I went to bed and I lay there and it was about eleven-thirty or midnight, I was still awake ’cause I was so in the zone, and so I had to get back up and finish the story, writing till about two-thirty in the morning, which is always scary, ’cause I have a rule of thumb, you don’t write after midnight, because what happens is then you check it the next day and it’s crap. But this time I checked it and it was like, it was actually really good. I was like, “Okay, perfect!”
But normally, the vast majority of the time, I’m a nine-to-five kind of writer. I actually take weekends off now, which is amazing, because for the first half of my writing career I had a day job, and it wasn’t just a wimpy day job, it was a high-level management and finance-management kind of job with a, I was the finance guy for a military-contracting company. It was a high-pressure job with a lot of hours, a lot of brain, a lot of hard work, a lot of math, and so I would do that all day and I’d come home and I would write for a couple of hours at night and then I would usually do most of my writing on the weekends. So all day Saturday and Sunday would just be these marathon writing days.
It’s kind of funny, because back then I had this goal that I would try to write 10,000 words a week which, you know, that’s a good goal. I didn’t always get it, but I would try. Which is funny because my goal still today, now that I do this full-time, is still 10,000 words a week. The difference is, life is much nicer now. And also, the big thing is, that old stuff that I would cram in, 10,000 words a week here and there, writing on my lunch hour, writing late at night, writing all day Saturday, that stuff, it was funny because I would write all that and then I would have to edit it way more. I’d spend a lot more hours editing it because it was just wasn’t as good. Now I’ll try to write 10,000 words in a week and I just do my nine to five, but then when I go to edit, my editing passes are actually way cleaner, and I don’t spend nearly as many hours editing as I used to. That’s good, because writing is fun, editing is work.
That’s actually the next question. What does your revision process look like, once you have that draft. You’ve mentioned that you might mark things with XXX that you have to go back and flesh out later. So, what does your revising process look like?
Usually what I do is…so, I’ll finish the first draft, and I’m one of those guys that if I’m stuck on a scene I’ll just mark it and move to the next scene. I don’t like killing momentum because I’ve gotten to a hard part. A lot of people, you know, they’ll freeze up and they’ll get stuck on a scene forever, and I think that’s just the kiss of death. I mean skip that, go to the next one you want to do. So, when I get to the end of the book I have to go back and fill in those scenes that I skipped, or parts I skipped, or sometimes it’s just like, I skipped a paragraph because I didn’t feel like explaining how something works. So, I go back and I fill all this stuff in and usually it’s a lot easier when you do that, because by then you’ve written past that scene, so you know absolutely what must happen. That’s why these guys who write longhand on paper, I’m like, “I stand in awe,” because that is not how my brain works.
And then I go through, I’ll clean all that stuff up. I’ll usually do a clean pass, where I’ll read it from beginning to end, I’ll usually do that once or twice. And then–this is very important–I have a group of alpha readers now. These are people that I trust, these are various authors and friends of mine that I’ve gotten over the years, and also a lot of times technical experts, like…so, in this case, I’m writing a book with a lot of sword fighting. I’m not a sword-fighting expert. I’m a gun expert, but I’m not a sword guy. And so I have a couple of people that are, modern or Western martial artists or Eastern martial artists or professional sword people, and I send it to them.
Then, I give it about a month. During that month, I will not look at this manuscript at all. I will walk away from it. Because what happens is, I need to be, I need to get some distance between me and the manuscript. Because if I keep reading a book, I’m too close to it. There’s stuff that’s in my head that’s not necessarily on the page, but it’s in my head, so I don’t catch it. So during that month I’ll go work on another book. I will go outline other projects. That’s usually…I’ve written, like, fifty short stories now, and I think most of my short stories have been written between novels like this. So during that month, I will go to all sorts other stuff.
Then I will go back, I will read everything the alpha readers had to say about it, and then I will start again, and I will read it from beginning to end. And now I have some distance between me and the book. I will catch errors, I will catch mistakes, I’m, like, little things, I’ll improve them, just because a lot of that stuff, when you’re too close to a manuscript, you can’t see this stuff. You’ve got to get some distance, then you have a clean eye. And then after that it goes to my real editors. I’ve had several different editors with Baen, it just depends on which book in which series, and they’ve all been awesome. And I just take their feedback and incorporate it.
Who’s the editor on the these books? The Saga of the Forgotten Warrior books.
This is interesting, because actually, these have been popular, so I’ve had multiple…multiple people have joined in on this. So Toni is our overall publisher, but Jim Minz and also Tony Daniel have been my editors on the series.
What kind of notes do you get back from them?
Actually, apparently I’m one of their favorites because I’m easy to edit. I’m not one of those sensitive artist types, so I’m pretty much open to anything, and usually they’ll tag stuff and they’ll be like, “Hey, Larry look at this.” A lot of times they’ll just let me solve it. They know I’m pretty good at solving a problem, so if, like, a scene doesn’t work, they’ll just put a note that, “Hey, I don’t understand what’s going on here,” and they’ll just kick it back to me and I’ll go over it. Very seldom have I ever had to make any major changes in edits. But just give you an idea, in House of Assassins, the one that’s coming out right now, the sequel to Son of the Black Sword, the biggest edit in there was actually the chapter that I open with was originally Chapter Three. I opened with…Chapter 2 was originally the opening of the thing. And Jim read this, and he loved the book, but he was just like, “You know, I just think this other chapter that you have later on, I think is just a stronger opening. I think if you opened with this chapter instead of this one it would be stronger.” Now, I’d have to change stuff around in the chronology to do that, but I looked at it. The key to being edited is, you’ve got to be humble and don’t be a prideful jerk about, because, you know, your editors are smart people, too. And I looked at this and Jim was right. It was spot on. He was very correct, that that other chapter made for a much cooler, more interesting opening. You know, so stuff like that.
My favorite edit that I ever got was actually one of my Monster Hunter books, and it’s from Toni Weisskopf. Toni is a hilarious edtior. So this scene, for whatever reason, just didn’t work. And so the note on the scene says, the note at the top of the page literally says, “This scene sucks. Make it not suck.” And I looked at it, and she was right. And so I did. You know, she didn’t need to tell me how to fix it. She just said this doesn’t work. Make it work. And I did. So, I’ve had really good editors. I’ve been really lucky there. They’ve been pretty awesome.
I like to point out to writers who are worried about being edited, that, especially if you’re at a big house like Baen, or my publisher, DAW…you know, my editor, Sheila Gilbert, who’s been in the business for 30-some years now, editing…
She’s awesome, yeah.
They have seen more stuff than you have in the field and know, you know, they know when things aren’t working, and they have a pretty good feel for what does work. So, yeah, I’m very humble when it comes to being edited.
One of my favorite editing stories is…just to put this in perspective for most authors, you know, a good editor is mostly there for suggestions. It’s your story. A bad editor takes over and makes you rewrite it according to their every whim, and that’s just bad editing. That’s not a good fit. My favorite editing story, just to illustrate how a good editor works, is in one of my books, I have this scene, where it’s about…it’s from the bad guy’s perspective, and she’s… it’s this kind of this lonely scene, and she’s doing evil things, and it’s just to show that she’s an evil messed-up person, and then at the end, she gets this cupcake out of her backpack and puts a candle in it, because it turns out that today, this day she’s doing all this evil stuff, is her birthday. My editor read this scene, and he said, “No, no, no. This is what you do. How about open with the cupcake and the candle and her singing ‘Happy Birthday’ to herself? And then you back up to how you got there. And it just…all I did was move, like, two paragraphs, but all of a sudden it made the scene like a thousand times cooler. So that’s what a good editor does, you know? They just kind of help you massage stuff to make it better.
Well, we are getting close to the end here, so we will move on to the big philosophical questions I like to ask.
Yeah. This podcast is called The Worldshapers. And yes, that’s partly because my latest novel is called Worldshaper…
Notice how I eased that in there. But I guess the question I like to ask authors is, obviously we all shape, we shape our fictional worlds. Do you ever have…you’ve said you’re not, you know, you’re not focused on pushing a message by any stretch, but do you still hope that in some way you you shape, if not the world, per se, that might be a little grand but, at least have an impact on your readers in some fashion?
I do, yeah. Actually, this is a really interesting one as a writer. You know, I think how…we hear from people all the time, and I don’t like to…I get a little…I don’t like to share these stories, but I’ll just speak in general here…but we hear from readers all the time how somehow, something we wrote touched them, where they’re going through a hard time and we cheered them up or, you know, they lost a loved one, and they were sad for a while, but the first time they laughed in a month was, they read one of our books, and it made them smile. It made them forget the suckiness of what was going on in their life right then. And so, there’s little moments like that and, you know…I was on a panel one time with Jim Butcher and another author (who I will not name), and somebody asked this question, and Jim was very classy and said, “You know what, I’ve got a lot of my readers tell me I’ve improved their life or I’ve helped them out of a tough spot or, you know, I cheered them up, but those aren’t my stories to tell. Those are theirs.” And I was like, “You know, that was so classy.” And I really respected that. But then the next author went onto this really long-winded story about how he saved the day and how he was so super-important, and I just remember sitting there thinking, “Yeah, Jim’s answer was way classier.”
But as far as message, I tend to write about, I like writing about, heroic people. I like writing about brave, rugged individuals who don’t fit in, who try to do the right thing. I’m old-fashioned, I do believe in good and evil, and I like when the good guys succeed. I like when the good guys fight. They don’t always succeed, because, you know, the bad guy’s got to win sometimes, too, or there’s no tension. But, you know, I like good versus evil, I like these big epic struggles. One thing I really enjoy, and this was kind of like my point in the Grimnoir Chronicles, was, I was writing about these people that were facing all these hard odds, and they were fighting against kind of this, like, totalitarian government. And part of my, part of that was, the big question in that series was, “Do the people own the government or does the government own the people?” Because these were…you know, it was a very American 1930s book, but that was the big philosophical question. In Son of the Black Sword, I’m writing about these people with these really brutal caste systems and this Law where everybody has…what some of the people keep saying is, “Every man has a place,” because in this society everybody has what’s expected of them, and if you go outside of what’s expected of you, that’s trouble. And so, I’m writing about the people that are the oddballs, the people who don’t fit in, the people who, you know, they’re bringing crazy, crazy ideas like liberty or freedom, and how just insane that is. I love touching on that stuff. I love entertaining people. So, if I can accomplish anything, it’s just to give people a good time, you know, make them happy, cheer ’em up, give ’em some cool, fun ,action-adventure. If I brighten somebody’s day, then I did my job. I guess that’s how I look at it.
I had this conversation with Toni Weisskopf, and I was saying basically what I just said, and she kind of shot me down, because she takes a very different outlook on that, because she’s primarily a science-fiction person. She says the job of science fiction authors is to teach people to dream big so they can ry to achieve these great things, and then the job of the fantasy authors is to make people heroic enough to do it. And I thought that was kind of cool.
Well, bringing it back from effect on readers to you, why do you do it? What do you think drives any of us to write and to make up stories?
Well, on the on the very first, most base level, I love getting paid. One of the writing jokes on my blog, when I’m writing about it is, “I’m like the prophet of capitalism, man, I’m all about, ‘Hey, we tell good stories, readers like it, they buy our books.'” But, honestly, a big part of it is, I just like telling stories. I’ve always been a storyteller. I was always that kid with the big dramatic story. I was always the guy that was, you know, just telling everybody else what’s going on, telling jokes, telling tall tales, campfire stories, whatever…oh, speaking of which, when you wind up, when you get drafted to be a scoutmaster and you go on a camping trip, and, you know, you do the thing where you tell the scary stories to scare the teenagers? Nobody is better at that than a professional fantasy author. I’ve written a lot of horror, too, so, man, I can scare the crap out of some teenagers around a campfire. I am legend for that. But, no, I just like telling stories. I enjoy it.
And the fact that I get to do this for a living and get to do this all day for fun is kind of amazing. It’s like the coolest job in the world. I get to just…as my mom says. I love the way my mom, my mom phrased this one time as, “I make crap up and tell lies for a living.”
That’s about it.
Thanks, Mom! Great way to put it. But yeah, no, it’s awesome, it’s the best job ever. I absolutely love what I do and I’m very, I’m super thankful that I’ve got fans that let me do this for a living. I love my fans.
There’s a famous…I live in Saskatchewan there’s a famous author from, actually, the same town that I used to be the newspaper editor, Weyburn, W.O. Mitchell, and way back when I was young, which has been a while, there was a television program that had some of his stories have been dramatized, and he sort of did the Alfred Hitchcock thing and introduced it, but the title of the anthology series was The Magic Lie, which I think is a pretty good description of what fiction is.
Pretty much, yeah.
Now, what are you working on now?
I’m working on a couple of things simultaneously, because that’s how my brain works, but I’m working on Destroyer of Worlds, which is Book 3 in the Saga of the Forgotten Warrior, and I’m also working on another novella, which is gonna be an exclusive for Audible back home. My series is called Tom Stranger: Interdimensional Insurance Agent, which is my comedy series. It’s narrated by Adam Baldwin, the actor from Firefly and The Last Ship. He’s awesome. He’s a great guy, great sense of humor, he does wonderful comedy, and so I’m doing that right now, too. So, one really super-serious project, and one super-silly project at the same time. We’ll see how that works out.
And looking further down the road, what’s what’s still to come that you know about?
Oh, gosh. Well, so after those two I have, later on this year I have a anthology called Noir Fatale, which was edited by me and a great writer named Kacey Ezell, and Noir Fatale is a collection of science fiction and fantasy noir-themed stories, you know, hardboiled detective, femme fatales, murder mysteries. We got some great writers in there. I got David Weber, who did a new Honor Harrington story for us. I got Laurell Hamilton, who did a new Anita Blake story for us. We’ve got a bunch of really super-talented authors in there. I’ll plug my daughter, my daughter actually sold me a story that’s in there, it’s a Japanese ghost-hunting detective story, and she, you know, she had to actually…nepotism is a hell of a thing, but she had to sell it to me and it’s really good.
So I have that coming out later this year and then I also have another collection, the second volume of my collected short stories, called Target Rich Environment, Target Rich Environment Volume 2 comes out at the end of the year. Oh, yeah, Monster Hunter Guardian, the next Monster Hunter novel, this one is a collaboration with Sarah Hoyt, it comes out in August. So this is the sixth book in the regular Monster Hunter series. It’s about a character named Julie Shackleford, who is one of the main, main characters in the series, and it’s awesome. This book is really cool. The best way to describe it is…you know the movie Taken? This is the Monster Hunter version of Taken. Its intense. It’s really good.
So lots to look forward to, then.
Yeah, it’s kind of funny, there’s like a Larry Correia release every quarter this year. They keep me busy, but I like to work, so it works out well.
And if people would like to find you online, where would they look for you?
Monsterhunternation.com is my blog, but I’m also on Facebook. I am no longer on Twitter. I got banned off of there. (Laughs.) No, I’m still on Twitter, too. I gave up on it. I’m on Facebook, just under Larry Correia, but the best place to find me is my blog, monsterhunternation.com.
Ok. Well, that brings us, I think, to the end of the time, so thank you so much for being a guest on The Worldshapers.
Well, cool, thank you so much for having me on. I appreciate it.
An hour-long conversation with California-based fantasy superstar Tad Williams, whose genre-creating (and genre-busting) books have sold tens of millions worldwide, and whose writing has strongly influenced a generation of writers. with a focus on the Osten Ard series that began with the Memory, Sorrow and Thorn trilogy (The Dragonbone Chair, Stone of Farewell, and To Green Angel Tower) and is now continuing with The Last King of Osten Ard (The Witchwood Crown and the forthcoming Empire of Grass and The Navigator’s Children).
Robert Paul “Tad” Williams was born in San Jose, California, and grew up in Palo Alto, the town that grew up around Stanford University. His mother gave him the nickname “Tad” after the young characters in Walt Kelly’s comic strip Pogo.
Before becoming a full time fiction author Tad held many jobs, including delivering newspapers, food service, shoe sales, branch manager of a financial institution, and drawing military manuals.
In his mid-twenties, he turned to writing and submitted the manuscript of his novel Tailchaser’s Song to DAW Books.DAW Books liked it and published it, and DAW continues to be Tad’s American publisher.. Tad continued working various jobs for a few more years, including three years from 1987 to 1990 as a technical writer at Apple Computer’s Knowledge Engineering Department, taking problem-solving field material from engineers and turning it into research articles, before making fiction writing his full-time career.
Since then, his books have sold tens of millions worldwide. He is married to Deborah Beale, a former publisher who is also a writer, and he and his family live in the Santa Cruz mountains in, to quote his website, a “suitably strange and beautiful house.”
The Lightly Edited Transcript
Hi, Tad, welcome to The Worldshapers.
Hello. Good to be here.
I’m very glad to have you. Now, I always like to figure out the connections I have with people and of course, in our case, we share our publisher, DAW Books, and we have met at a few of the famous DAW family dinners over the years as well, at least twice that I know of.
Now, the focus of the podcast is on the creative process, but before we get to that specifically, I always like to take my guests back into the dim, receding mists of time, and find out how they got started. So, how did you become interested in writing, and in particular, how did you become interested in writing the kind of stuff that we both write, science fiction and fantasy?
Well, actually it was a bit of a roundabout path in the sense that I’ve always been a reader, and starting quite young I was always very interested in the fantastical. I was raised on a lot of the classic English and early American fantasy fiction for kids, things like The Wind in the Willows, the Oz books, you know, the the E. Nesbit books, all kinds of things like that when I was young. Including The Lord of the Rings, which I think I probably read for the first time when I was about eleven and actually read before I read The Hobbit. So, I was kind of predisposed.
But when I was in my teens and even my early 20s, I was much more interested in other creative things that I was doing than writing. As I said, I was always a reader, but I was an artist and a cartoonist and I played music and I did theatre and radio in my early 20s. So, there were a number of other kinds of things that I was involved in creatively, trying to make one of them work, and writing only really came about when I got frustrated with always having to work with other people, who weren’t always as serious about this stuff, or at least not as punctual. You know, when you’re playing in a band and the drummer breaks up with his girlfriend and just doesn’t show up for rehearsal and, you know, that that kind of stuff that just drove me absolutely nuts. So, I kind of began to focus more on things that I could do in my own time and control my time and, you know, do it myself.
So, somewhere along in that process I decided to try writing a book. I was probably about 24 or 25 at the time, and I had played around with an idea about cats and kind of making up a mythology and folklore for cats, mostly to amuse myself, because my now-ex-wife, who I had moved in with, had cats and I’d never lived with them. So, I was kind of taken aback by the whole thing. The cat/human bargain was sort of beyond me. So I was just playing with that idea, and then when I decided to try writing a book, that was my first idea, “Oh, I could write a novel from the point of view of cats,” and because I was already interested in fantasy, I thought, “OK, well, I’ll make it a fantasy novel.”
And that was pretty much what happened. I spent a couple of years working other jobs and writing at night on my kitchen table and that was my first novel, Tailchaser’s Song, which I was lucky enough to be able to sell. And once my publishers, you know, asked me if I had some more stuff I wanted to do, I just continued on from there until it became pretty clear to me that this was going to be a career if I kept working at it, or had the chance to be a career. So that’s how I went.
Well, what were some of the other jobs that you were working on,before you became a full-time writer?
You mean, as opposed to the creative stuff?
I mean, every kind of godawful job you can imagine, Ed. I mean, you know, I folded burritos, I sold insurance, I sold shoes, I did a lot of retail management, I worked and managed in a Savings and Loan Company, almost you-name-it sort of thing, because I had not gone to college directly after high school, I was very interested in pursuing my creative stuff. So, although I did eventually go back and do some college, that wasn’t my area of interest, so I was I was not working career-type jobs, I was working whatever jobs I could get, sometimes using my creative side, like, you know, I worked doing technical art and things like that.
You actually did some technical writing, turning engineers’ writing into research articles, which caught my attention because I’m married to an engineer.
Yeah, the last normal job I had was in the late 1980s at Apple, and that’s where I did that, and started out doing purely tech writing, which was exactly what you said, it was taking the engineers in the field and turning what they were doing into technical information like, you know, researchable stuff. But then I got very interested in other things, too, including what was then called multimedia or interactive multimedia and, in fact, later on, that’s where my Otherlaand books came from, was that period of being very deeply interested in interactive multimedia.
Well, just because my wife is an engineer, I have to ask you: Did you find when you were working with engineers that they can spell?
Some of them could. Some of them obviously thought it was not part of their job description. My dad is a chemical engineer, so I had kind of a familiarity with this particular type, anyway, and I always got the feeling it wasn’t that they couldn’t spell, it was more like it was boring and that wasn’t what they were really interested.
My wife actually got a T-shirt that says “I’m an enginer…I’m an engineier… engineer misspelled three ways…and they’re all crossed out, and the last line is, “I’m good at maths.”.
Yeah, right, exactly.
The other thing that I wanted to ask you about is…well, I always see parallels with other writers, and in your case, there’s a couple of them, one is that I’m almost exactly the same age as you–I’m a couple of years younger–I think…
You have my sympathy.
But you had this interest in music, which was also something I had. You did some radio and television and I’ve hosted a TV show and I’ve posted radio shows, and you did theater,, as well and particularly, I wanted to ask you about the theater, because I’ve often found in talking to authors who have been involved in the theater, I always like to ask them if they think that some of the skills of being on stage, acting, creating stuff in the theater, if that is very helpful for writing the kind of stuff that you write now. Do you find any carry-over there?
Oh, absolutely. Both the theater and music. I think that whether those specific things are a big part of how I write or whether those are all facets of me that work together in my writing is hard to say. But absolutely. One of the things about doing live theater or live–I also did improvisational comedy–and one of the things about those kinds of pursuits is that, first of all, it’s live, so you’re dealing with actual people in the moment. And one of the only things I don’t like about writing is that you do not have a live audience. So, sometimes you are literally years separated from getting honest reactions to what you’re doing.
But one of the things, for instance, that theater makes you very aware of is holding attention and what kinds of things hold people’s attention. And I’m not just talking about the obvious things, like chase scenes, sex scenes, I’m talking about things like intonation and pacing, which also by the way is stuff that comes up in the music background and I think is also useful for writing. When you’re on stage and you have people out there and you’re kind of hooked into how they’re responding to you, you’re very aware how things like slowing down, getting louder, getting quieter, all of these kinds of things, affect people in a very physical way, and you can bring some of those lessons over to writing. And there’s a number of other things like that, I mean, that’s a simplistic explanation, but, yes, definitely. I think for me, and any writer who’s done it, doing theater or doing radio definitely becomes part of how you work and how you judge your own work.
It seems to me that many of the skills that you bring as an actor to trying to bring a character to life, inhabiting that character, for me, at least, carries over into inhabiting the characters that I create on the page, as well.
Oh, I think so, absolutely, yeah. And that’s also, you know, that’s getting into a slightly smaller, more specific aspect of it. Yes, absolutely, because again you are trying to create an audience identification–not always a positive one, but you’re trying to get the audience connected to a character quickly. And so, there are certain things to do, and only some of those are what they say. Some of them are little visual clues you’re dropping, body language clues, just the same way you would as an actor. You know things about how they stand, how they talk, when they talk, to whom they speak, and all those kinds of things. So, yeah, absolutely.
Yeah, and I often find when I’m looking at…and I do quite a bit of mentoring and stuff like that is that one thing that people sometimes lose track of is the visuals of the scene and their story, and so characters might suddenly pop from one place to another without crossing the intervening space, and having directed plays, you’re always conscious of where people are standing.
Absolutely. Blocking is a big part of writing, as well, because, you know, if you want people to move around, and that’s either in the sort of granular sense of within a scene or in the larger sense of a story, you have to find ways to describe that or signal that, without necessarily telling everybody everything but at the same time giving them enough information that they don’t feel cheated, they don’t feel like the character is, as you said, simply appearing, you know, after having been somewhere else completely. So, yes, that’s all part of the process. And actually, one of the things that I frequently liken my my job to is it’s very much like being a theatrical or film director, but you have all the other jobs too. So you’ve got to write the script and you’ve got a cast of characters and you have to do props and you have to do the backgrounds and all that kind of stuff as well. But it’s very much a case of telling a story with all of these tools to the best of your ability.
You even have to do the special effects.
So, you didn’t really focus on writing until your 20s, but you were writing when you were younger. I was reading an interview somewhere, something about writing a folktale assignment that was supposed to be three pages long and with really, really long…
Like 17, plus another four or five pages of illustrations. No, I mean, I did write, and one of the actual kind of surprising things for me was, some years back, I found one of my old yearbooks. I remember one or two projects I’d done with my my best friend at the time, sort of parodies and stuff that I’d written, but other than that I thought of my high school days as mostly having done drawing and theater and and music, playing in a band. But a lot of people said, you know, “Keep writing,” so I guess I was writing little funny things for people even back then. I just didn’t remember that as being a major part of my my high school, junior high school years.
And you must have been sharing it with people, too, if they remember you.
I guess so. As I said it was kind of a surprise to me but I mean, yeah, I’m sure at some level we were passing things that we found amusing around to share with people.
Now, coming up this May, you have another major release from DAW Books, so, do you wat to explain what that’s going to be?
Sure. Thank you. What I’m in the middle of right now is, after about 30 years, roughly, I have gone back to…I mentioned Tailchaser’s Song, the book about cats…well, the next thing I did in my writing career, back in the late ’80s, was to write a big epic fantasy trilogy, of which the first book was The Dragonbone Chair. Now, I’ve never before intentionally gone back and written a novel based in anything I’d already done before. But for various reasons I’ve decided that I wanted to do that now. So, I’m in the middle of a another multi-volume story like that one, set in the same world but about the same distance after that as had passed in the real world. So, in my world thirty years have passed since I published those books. In the world of Osten Ard, which is where the story takes place, thirty years roughly have also passed. So, the first book of that series–well, actually there was a very short one, called The Heart of What was Lost, and then the first full-sized volume was called The Witchwood Crown, and now the second of three major volumes is coming out, and that’s called Empire of Grass and that’s coming out in May. And then there’ll be a final volume called Navigator’s Children, and some other short fiction in that world that won’t necessarily be part of the main story.
For those who, unimaginably, have not read any of these books..
Shocking, I know, but it could have happened, could you give a brief explanation of the setting and what the stories are about?
Well, I can’t. It’s hard to explain these in a way that makes them sound any different from most other epic fantasy, but, basically, Osten Ard is a very vibrant sort of pre-industrial world. A lot of the action centers around a castle called the Hayholt that was once the the seat of power for the immortal race which has now largely been fractioned and driven out of human habitations, and specifically a young character named Simon who’s a kitchen boy at the time the story starts,, as these kinds of characters often are going right back to mythology. And then, of course, he winds up in the middle of a world-changing war and supernatural forces and all these kinds of things.
So, on the surface, it’s very much like a lot of other epic fantasies. But I wrote it at the time very much with the idea that I wanted to modernize the genre, and explaining that would take a while. So, I’ll hold off on that for a moment. But in part because of that, say, for instanc,e and here I’m going to brag on myself a little bit, that George R.R. Martin decided that epic fantasy, based on reading my stuff…and he’s said this several times, so, I’m not making this up and he’s been very kind about this attribution…that, you know, “Oh, epic fantasy, you can do interesting things in epic fantasy and not just rewrite Tolkien, you know, over and over and over again. So, that my purpose was to kind of drag epic fantasy forward and keep the stuff that we love about it but also try to modernize its approach, examine some of the tropes of that kind of fiction that had become pretty musty and hidebound because people were imitating Tolkien rather than trying to understand what Tolkien had done. So, in a nutshell it’s that kind of big epic fantasy with many different races and peoples, but I think also with very…I don’t want to say human characters because not all of them are human…but with very complex characters who are not just cutouts but they are people of all kinds who have very complicated inner lives and difficult moral decisions and all the stuff that makes fiction interesting no matter whether it’s genre fiction or not.
When you returned to the world after a considerable gap, did you find that you had to do a lot of research into your own world in order to remember what you’d written?
Oh, my God, Ed, I’ve been cursing myself for years. It actually was rather funny because I have been so reliant on some of my best readers, my most constant and faithful readers, because, you know, when I was young, as I said, I read The Lord of the Rings the first time when I was quite young, I fell in love with it and I read it over and over and over again, as so many of us did, you know, back in that era, but, you know, when I wrote The Dragonbone Chair, and Stone of Farewell and To Green Angel Tower, the original series, I hadn’t actually read it again since in those 30 years. So, I was going back to this material, and I realized very quickly there’s like several people out there in the world who know this material far better than I do because they read those books like I read Tolkien, including one of them who actually made an RPG out of my world of Osten Ard, you know, and he was into the geography and, you know, everything. So, I really had to get help from people like that–who fortunately were not only wonderful people but they were already friends due to their being readers of mine–to go forward, because the Osten Ard world is, without a doubt, you know one of the more complex and developed epic-fantasy worlds there is, just be’cause that’s what I like, I like worldbuilding. So, it had a very complete history and, you know, hundreds of characters, and when I was starting these new books, I was suddenly going, “Huh,” and I was so happy that I had someone I could call up and say, “You know, I want to use so-and-so in this new book. Where where was he last?” And they’d go, “You killed him, Tad, you killed him in the second book back there. Can’t use him again.” I’d be like, “Damn! Okay, I’ll have to think of somebody else. Got any suggestions.
So, I was really beholden to these people, specifically two of them, Ilba and Ron, who have been the most help in terms of, you know, just kind of keeping me clear on whether I’m outside of my own canon or not. But, you know, that was the point, obviously, which I did go back and reread the books and reread all my old notes and have reread them at least one times since then, because I think I started this back in like 2015 or something, or 2014, so I’ve had to have a big learning curve of re-learning my own world, because, I don’t know about you, Ed, but I don’t go back and look at my own work and I certainly don’t memorize things I’ve already written because I’m on to something else.
I think a lot of readers don’t realize that for authors, by the time the book has been published, you’ve read it and read it and read it and read it and read it and read it…
…and you can barely stand to read it again, so…
I know. I’m in that process right now. I actually just had a shoulder operation, so my my my wife has been working very, very hard–Deborah Beale, who was a former publisher and is now writing, also, herself, my wife–has been very helpful with, you know, going through the copyedited proofs, but we still have another round of proofs, and of course I read through it like, four or five times during rewrites. So, yeah, you’re absolutely right. We’ve read a book so many times in the last year that most of us writers don’t ever want to see it again.
It is interesting, I found–and I presume your books have been turned into audio books?
It is interesting to listen to somebody else read your books, I’ve found, although I don’t have anything your length, so I don’t have to sit through as many hours of my own stuff read to me, but…
Well, that’s one of the problems is how much time. That’s one of the things I’ve often expressed to people when they’ve asked me questions about this, like, have I heard such-and-such an audio thing or have I done this or that or have I reread this, I’ve said, “You know, honest to God, you guys have to remember, I’m just like you, I’ve got it I’ve got a home, I’ve got family, you know, what little time I have to read is mostly put into reading, doing research. So, I don’t have a huge amount of free time that I can spend. I don’t commute anywhere, so I don’t have dead car time when I could be listening to audiobooks, even my own audiobooks, so, as with everything at this stage of life, it’s about trying to find time to do anything other than just work and, you know, be a parent or a partner or whatever.
There would be something a little creepy about spending all your time sitting in a darkened room listening to somebody read you your own books. That would be just a little odd.
I’m so glad you agree. That’s also the other thing, too, is there’s a limited amount of time I can spend rereading or listening to my own work. For one thing it’s not going to surprise me very much.
Not much suspense left.
No, no. Exactly. So what you tend to do whenever you do that is, you have to spend most of your time trying to avoid worrying about things that you did wrong 20 years ago that, you know, it’s way too late to fix.
But, having but having been forced to read what you had written all those years ago, have you found that your writing style has changed in that time?
I would say a little bit. I would say the main thing that I’ve noticed is I’m probably a little bit less flowery. But you can see that process beginning even in The Dragonbone Chair, where the first 20 or 30 pages of it, which, again this is something that was published back in, I think, 1988, or ’87, anyway, during the first 50 pages it’s more flowery than it is even for the rest of that book. So, I think that what I would call the Ray Bradbury influence has toned down a little bit. And I’m sure that there were some readers who were disappointed by that, but, you know, as I’ve gotten older and written more I’ve also become more interested in telling a story cleanly, and not necessarily stopping to write a beautiful set-piece if it’s not actually necessary. I think it’s like a lot of things in life: you start to say, “What’s the most important thing I can do here?”, rather than, “What’s the thing I can do here that will make everybody say, ‘Ooo, you’re so special!”
Now, we’ll focus on Osten Ard, specifically but in, general…you’ve talked about the theme of it, your take on the Tolkien epic fantasy, but what were the initial ideas that gave rise to it? And is that typical of the way that you start books?
Actually, yeah. Most of my books start with an idea, and oftentimes a kind of a thematic idea rather than a specific character or a specific setting. It tends to be thematic. In the case of the Osten Ard books, I know, when I’d written my first book for my publishers, DAW Books, who are still my American publishers, as we’ve just talked about since we were just at the last DAW dinner together, back then they said, well, you know, “Do you want to write something else in fantasy or science fiction?”
I said, “Oh, I’ve always wanted to write a big fantasy.” So that was my only thing that I went into it with the idea already in place, that I want to write a big epic fantasy, not with any specific story idea, but the story that came to me was very loosely based around the idea that both in fiction and in history, in the real world almost all great monarchies or kingdoms or whatever you want to call them have largely collapsed if they were built around a single very well-known and very powerful ruler. And I said, this is both in mythology and in history, it’s both in King Arthur and the actual Charlemagne or Alexander the Great or,, you know any number of other people. King Arthur, in the folklore, you have this great monarch who dies and the kingdom falls apart because it was not that structurally sound without them and their charisma or power or whatever. So, the initial idea I had about this was that something like that would happen in these new books, that there would be a kind of King Arthur or Charlemagne-like figure who would be dying at the beginning of the book, and then the action would be between two of his heirs, and that would be the fundamental thing,the struggle between two of his heirs for the power. And then, of course, I had to start looking for characters to tell this story, because I had already figured out that I wanted to try and tell the story on a more broad basis than just picking a couple of royal characters.
So, one of the first things I did was create this kitchen boy, who would have a whole kind of plotline of his own, but would have an interesting way of looking into the storyline, and very quickly he and some other characters became the actual focal-point characters. So, while there were still the two royal brothers, and they were, you know, important characters, they were no longer who we as readers were seeing the story through their eyes. (That’s a rather complicated, ungrammatical use of prepositions there, but, you know.) I created characters who would be the viewpoint characters and then they rapidly took over the story and became very important on their own, and the story spread, and more and more of it became about the kitchen boy and the daughter of one of the royal brothers, and et cetera, et cetera. And before I knew it it had kind of metastasized into this very broad and complicated plot. But it started out with that thematic idea, great monarch dies, heirs squabbling kingdom falls apart.
And you actually used the name, at least, of a folkloric character, Preston John, that you know, has his own folklore in the real world. Does he not?
Right, right, absolutely.There are still, especially in the first book, there are still some archeological remnants of, when I started the book, I was going to make it happen in an imaginary country but in the real world. So, it was going to share at least some of its history with the history that, you know, that we all know from Western civilization classes and the mythology that we have learned and all that kind of stuff. So, it was actually originally going to be the semi-historical, semi-mythical Preston John, and then that kind of, for various reasons, fell by the wayside, but I liked the name. The first name of the novel was The Sons of Preston John, and, so, it was a long time before I got to the point where I had to decide, well keep it or get rid of it, it’s not about the world you live in anymore and I decide to keep that aspect, because, obviously, there are many parallels with the real world. It’s not our world, but it’s a world very similar to, say, 13th-century Europe. At least the parts we’re exposed to at the beginning are: it gets weirder and stranger as the characters move out from the beginning of the story.
I think not calling it The Sons of Preston John was probably a good choice in the end.
Ha! It was never a too-serious title but, you know…I don’t know about you, but I hate writing outlines, because I’ve never ready. I’m always kind of solving things in outlines that are terrible solutions to the problems. They’re not organic, you know, they’re just like, “Okay, then I have to tell the publishers that this is going to happen, and why is it going to happen? I don’t know, because blah blah blah.” So I hate writing outlines anyway and I hate titling things before I’m ready for it. So, yeah, it was just kind of like, “Okay, that’s my working title.”.
Because that actually reminds me of the old John Wayne movie The Sons of Katie Elder.
Yeah, yeah exactly.
Well, you mentioned outline, and that was actually my next question. Once you’ve got your ideas, what does your planning look like before you actually start writing. How much do you figure out ahead of time and how much happens organically, as you said?
Well, it’s difficult to have a hard-and-fast rule, because as you know, I’m sure, and most of the other writers out there know, you know, these things are literally organic processes. They are very complicated. Some of them happen in your subconscious. Some of them are conscious decisions, but basically…and the other thing with me, as I mentioned, is, I don’t like outlines, because for me, those are artificial. I don’t know how three quarters of the story is going to work. I need to know something about the ending of it even before I start, or at least before I finished the first volume, if it’s a multi-volume story, because my multi-volume stories are really single stories that are just cut up into multiple volumes. So, I need to be able to prefigure, to, you know, drop hints, to put clues in in the first volume that may not pay off until the end of the story, maybe several years later. So, I have to know at least enough that I can do some of that, but other than that, I’m going to discover a lot of this stuff along the way as I’m writing.
I mean, as I mentioned with this book, I had, you know, some very vague ideas about what the story was going to be about. So, especially in the early stages, it’s a combination of both: a lot of thinking–and that’s unfettered thinking, that’s not sitting at the keyboard being impatient with myself thinking–that’s literally just going away and just walking around with the beginnings of the story in my mind and starting to try out different random connections–or not random, but, you know, different connections of what could happen, which character could go where, which characters we might need that don’t exist yet, et cetera et cetera.
At a certain point, though, you have to start putting things down, because that helps to shape the narrative also, because you’ll be sitting down with an idea like, “Okay, I’m gonna introduce this minor character,” and then by the time you’ve written 10 pages with that character you suddenly realize, “Oh, actually this is a much more major character than I thought he or she was going to be, so I’m going to have to incorporate him or her into more stuff here.”
What I always liken it to is kind of a tightrope act between, on the one hand, knowing too much when you begin and being stale when you’re actually writing it, and on the other hand knowing too little and not being able to prefigure, to drop hints and clues, to do all that kind of stuff. But I do spend a very long amount of time away from the keyboard thinking about the world itself and the history of the place and what it’s like at the time the stories taking place and what the general kind of,you know, political, technological, geographical setup is, and then I fill in details as I’m writing.
So you don’t do an outline per se but a lot of notes about these things as you figure them out, so you can refer to it as your writing and try to be consistent?
Yes, I mean, I definitely do when it’s things like languages and stuff and characters’ names and things, just so I can be consistent. I will also occasionally do, like, a little tiny mini-essay on certain aspects of history that I figured out but that aren’t going to show up again for maybe a volume or so,so I don’t lose what I was thinking about. But I actually write, probably, a lot fewer notes than most people. I’ve always found that for me–and this is very personal and it’s not a recommendation to other writers, everybody has to find their own path–for me, it works better to have as little as possible written down in the way of ideas, that I try not to write things down until I’m pretty certain I’m going to go forward with them. And before that, it’s just all kind of carried around in my head so that I can try different possibilities.
I think of it as like playing a game of chess in my head ahead of the moves. Instead of actually touching the pawn and then having to move it, I spend a lot of time thinking, “Well, this could happen, but then the knock-on effect would be this, and I’m not sure I want that to happen so early, so maybe how about this?” So, I do these very complicated thinking-through processes without writing things down. So, I actually have comparatively few notes. I mean, not only does my story diverge from my outline that I have to turn in at the beginning, because that’s what publishers want, but then I don’t make a huge amount of notes along the way. I suspect I’m one of those writers that if I suddenly pitch over dead at my keyboard it’s not going to be all that easy for somebody to pick up my work and finish it. They may finish it, but it wouldn’t necessarily have much to do with what I thought, because a lot of what I’m planning to write is only in my head at this point.
Well, I think you’re the eighteenth author I’ve interviewed for the podcast so far, and, yeah, it’s all over the place. I interviewed Peter V. Brett, and he writes extremely detailed outlines, like 150-page outlines with every detail in it and then other people like you, and me…I write a synopsis because. you know. as you said that’s what the publisher wants to see, and then I usually don’t look at it unless I’m getting into trouble somewhere along the way.
Yeah, exactly, I’ve never, I don’t think I’ve ever gone back and looked at any of my outlines except long after the fact, just to amuse myself. But I don’t actually use them when I’m writing, because by the time I’ve finished an outline, you know, it’s in my head, what the general thing that I want to do is, and I already, in the course of writing it, have already written down things that I look at and go, “I will never put that in the book. That’s crap.” I have to have it in the outline it because explains how they get from Part D to Part E or something, but I don’t, you know, I’m not going to use that. That’s just a crappy solution.
I suspect, then, you also don’t do detailed character sheets with every detail about the characters life, and…
No, although again, you know, it’s whatever works for you. Whatever works for you. By the time I’m into one of these long things, you know, it all feels pretty real to me. I mean, not in a hallucinatory sense, but I mean just in the sense that I’ve kind of got these characters…and especially with these new books. because. you know many of them are characters that, you know, I was writing about their younger selves 30 years ago, so they are in my system already. So I don’t really have to have a lot of details. Now, of course I will always, you know, forget people’s eye colors, and that’s why it’s so valuable to have friends around to say, “Actually you did mention that in such-and-such a book and his eyes are brown. But other than that, no, I don’t tend to do that, again because, just for me personally, having lots of flexibility and lots of things being open-ended is just what works best.
What does your actual writing process look like, you know, so many hours a day. Do you do it in an office, do you do it in coffee shops? How do you work?.
I’m actually having to think about this for a moment because I just, not too long ago, had a shoulder operation, and before that I had several months where I couldn’t work at all. I haven’t been able to work until just, literally, the last day or so. So, I’m having to remember now, but generally my process is that I get up in the morning, I do my correspondence, I do whatever social media I’m going to be doing, which I try to keep to a fairly low amount. Then I think about what I want to work on that day in terms of what the specifics are, you know, I want to work on this chapter, and that chapter is probably going to have these characters in it and these characters in it and these characters in it, and, you know, it’s a continuation of such and such a plotline, blah blah blah.
So then I will go away, for usually several hours, and I will literally lie on my back if I can, that’s my preferred position, with some earbuds in and some ambient music or something playing to drown out the sound of all of the young people who live in our household. And then I just think about what I’m going to do. And eventually, you know, 2 or 3 in the afternoon I will get up, and then usually write till dinner. But because I have thought it through ahead of time, there’s very little staring at a blank page. I’ve usually pretty much planned in a general sense what I’m going to do that day, what the scene is going to be about, how it’s going to go, roughly, what important notes I want to hit, what little bits, you know, what I hope will be little gems of dialogue that I want to use or whatever, so that when I’m actually sitting down I’m only sitting down at the computer maybe for two or three hours, but I’m doing, you know, six or seven hours worth of work, because I’ve already thought it all through. And that’s generally how my process works.
How does that translate into how long it takes you to write one of these monsters?
Well, it really depends. I try to do a minimum five pages of manuscript at about three hundred and something words per page. I try to do five to 10 pages per day. Sometimes I do more. Occasionally I do less. A lot of it has to do with what kind of thing I’m writing. Obviously, if I’m writing dialogue it will fill up pages faster, if I’m doing something that requires a great deal of research while I’m doing it, that will go slower. Certain kinds of books, say, for instance, these books, or the Otherland books, which are the big multivolume ones, those are a little slower to write because you’re usually, in the course of writing 10 or 15 pages, you’re usually doing at least two different sets of character interactions, it’s like two different segments, whereas when I was writing what I call the Bobby Dollar books, which are this kind of angel detective series, it’s all first-person, he’s the only character who’s giving information. They’re much faster to write. I could do, like, a chapter a day, like a 15- to 20-page chapter a day with those. So, it really depends. So, you know probably a year per book without, you know, medical problems or something like that getting in the way.
You mentioned research. Do you find that you have to do a lot? I think it sometimes surprises people that people writing fantasy have to do any research because they’re making it all up.
I know, it’s amusing isn’t it? I know, people oftentimes have said that to me, like, kind of in a congratulatory tone. “Aren’t you lucky. You know, you’re writing fantasy, you’re just making stuff up!” And I always say to them, “Well, I kind of think of myself as writing what I would call hard fantasy. I’m trying to create worlds that feel very real. So, if I’m writing about a pre-industrial world–and I’m sure this is true for you to, Ed–if I’m writing about a pre-industrial world I want to understand how that kind of world actually works, how the economies work, how the actual mechanism of people feeding themselves and sheltering themselves work, what the different options are among different cultures in the real world, and pick and choose the things that seem to fit best.
So, yeah, it’s actually impinged on my reading of fiction, because I read so much non-fiction, primarily history and science, and, yeah, I mean, I’m researching all the time. There’s more with some books than with others but, you know, I mean, probably again like you, I’ve got, you know, my office is literally full of books that are research books for me on every bloody nonfiction topic under the sun, because I do want these things to feel authentic and I do want these worlds to feel real and it’s more important, I think, for a fantasy writer or a science fiction writer to have a grip on that stuff, because when you know a person who’s writing a thriller or a mystery novel set in the world that we know says, “And a mail carrier walked up the front path and knocked on the door,” you know, we already know what all of those things probably mean. We know what a mail carrier is, we know the kinds of things they tend to be carrying, we know what a front path probably looks like or at least we can invent one in our heads, e know why people knock on doors in our culture, whereas in a fantasy novel or world none of that is written in stone. None of that is necessarily the same. So you need to have a firm foundation underneath this imagination.
Once you have a draft, what’s your revision process look like? Do you have beta readers or do you do it all yourself, or how does it work for you?
I have just for these last set of books, these, again, what I call Osten Ard books, which is the new series, The Witchwood Crown, Empire of Grass, and the previous series, The Dragonbone Chair, etc., because that’s the place they take place, Osten Ard. With the Osten Ard books, for the first time I’ve actually done a much, what I would call a dirtier, or a more basic, first draft because, especially, with the first one of the new books, I wanted to get a reaction from some of my most faithful readers of the old books, since it’s been 30 years. I wanted to make sure that people felt like, “Yes, this is the same world. Yes, the writer is approaching it in the same way, no, there’s not a huge disconnect in terms of, like, ‘Oh God, this feels totally different than the old books,'” because one of the shocking realizations I had when I decided to do a sequel was how invested, you know, a lot of readers were in the original set of books, which was a little daunting, to be honest. I realized, like, “Hey, if I screw this book up, I’m not just screwing this book up but I’m screwing up the books that have been a major part of my career.” You know, people will be forever change in their view of those books by, like, “Ah, and then he wrote that horrible sequel,” much like, say, for instance, George Lucas now has to carry the burden of The Phantom Menace around on top of all the affection people had for Star Wars.
So, because of that, with these new Osten Ard books I actually wrote a more basic first draft and sent it out so that people could give me reactions to it. Normally, I do a very complete, quite close to finalized first draft. Then I got them back and I did another kind of a clean first draft and then, you know, that went off to my publishers. We had a, you know, an editorial conference. Unlike most DAW authors, I actually get edited by both editors, both Betsy Wollheim and Sheila Gilbert, so they double-team me. And then I will do, usually, two more drafts. In the old days, I would simply do one very complete first draft, send it to Betsy and Sheila, my agent, my wife, Deborah, who is, as I mentioned, a publisher herself, and then do two fairly quick rewrites because I’d spent so much time…and I still do spend a lot of time… in the first draft because the plots are so complex and there’s so many characters I have to fit them together carefully because they’re not easy to pull apart and fix if something’s drastically wrong.
What sorts of things do you find yourself fixing after you’ve had the feedback?
One of the things is that oftentimes, as a writer, especially a writer of, you know, where you’ve been working on a book for a year or two years or something, sometimes you put in more of something than you really need simply because for you it’s been three months since you last wrote that particular plotline. So, as you go back into it you’ll kind of wind up hitting a lot of notes again that are part of that plotline. I remember, for instance, when I was writing the Otherland books, which are near-future science fiction (but you don’t need to know anything about them to understand this), one of the characters was trying to give up smoking. She was one of the main characters, if not the main character. And so, during the course of, almost every time she showed up, because we’d be a couple of weeks between her parts of the plot for me,, there would be some mention of that again. Well that was fine, because I was essentially sort of reminding myself that that was an ongoing struggle for her. But then when I actually sent the first draft out to my publishers, they went, “Jesus God, every nine seconds she’s talking about how much she wants cigarette,” and I realized, “Oh, Okay.” So, there are issues like that that you look out for where an outside eye will say to you either, “You’re doing too much of that,” or, “This character doesn’t seem very sympathetic,” and you’ll say, “Oh, well I didn’t want it to come off that way. OK. That’s interesting.” You know, you’ll get feedback on things that you probably missed, that you thought, you know, “Oh, this is obvious, and no it wasn’t as obvious as you thought it was, or stuff like that.”
Because I did the first draft faster, there’s been a little more rewriting involved with these books, but generally, I think, compared to a lot of writers, I tend to write a pretty complete first draft, again, just because it’s easier than trying to strip stuff out after the fact.
All right, well, we’re getting closer to the end here…obviously we’re getting closer to the end, we wouldn’t be getting further from the end…so I’ll get to the big philosophical questions here. Why do you write, why do you think any of us write, and more specifically, why do we write fantasy and science fiction? What’s with that?
Well, I always like fantasy and science fiction, first of all because, starting in childhood, the idea of these other places and other experiences that were not available to most of us in our ordinary lives was very intriguing and exciting for me. I mentioned Nesbit. obviously C.S. Lewis. there is a whole kind of tradition in fantasy fiction for kids of this idea that the magic is just on the other side of the door, the walls, the wardrobe, whatever. You find some magic object, blah blah blah, and everything changes. Obviously this was a big part of what made the Harry Potter book so appealing to people, was this idea that, you know, if you go to the King’s Cross Station there’s a track 9 1/2, or whatever it was, that nobody else can get to, but it’ll take you to this crazy magical school, you know, and all these kinds of things. So, that was the first level on which this stuff appealed to me, that right next to us all these exciting things could be happening and we just don’t know about it.
Then, the other thing that really worked for me when I was young in things like The Lord of the Rings was the completeness of the worldbuilding, the idea that this is a very real, real place that has a history independent of the story that we’re currently following. That, for some reason, was really appealing to me, also. I’ve always loved history. I’ve always loved knowing the story behind things.
And then, last, but I think also very critical to me in terms of loving fantasy and science fiction, is I’ve always loved the fact that you can walk the line. You’re sort of making a bargain when you write genre fiction with readers, and that bargain is, as I jokingly say sometimes, it’s like, “I can make it as artistic as I want it to be or as literary as I want it to be, as long as every five pages or so something tries to meet the main characters.” And in a sense, I kind of think was a writing genre fiction a being a bit like any other formalized artistic expression, like, say, ballet. Now, in modern dance you can do virtually anything. And that’s great. That’s absolutely fine. In ballet, you have to observe certain kinds of expected things. In fiction, we call them tropes, in ballet they’re called, you know, positions, and, you know, certain kinds of expressions, and all this kind of stuff. But if you observe those things, you’re still allowed to be as artistic as you want to be, to be as abstract as you want to be. But it sets a certain framework on what you’re doing that you then have to work with, but you also get to play with the expectations of people who like that framework. So, I’ve always loved genre fiction because it allows you to do that, to work with a framework but also to exploit and sometimes even explode a framework. So, all of those things appealed to me.
Why do you think we as humans love stories so much? Not just fantasy stories, but any stories. Why are we driven to to tell stories and to listen to stories?
Well, I think actually that’s a very big question, and I think the answers are are potentially huge. One of the things is that we are human beings. I mean, the fact that, you know, most of how we think about the universe we live are actually constructions that we place on it, you know. Because we die in a hundred years or less most of the time, ee tend to think of the amount of time it takes things to happen on a universal or even a galactic scale is astoundingly long. Well ,that’s our perspective on it, you know, we have this very limited way of looking at things. But at the same time, we, in a sense, because our imagination is what we’re all living in all the time, we’re also creating that reality. We are creating the reality where a billion years is a long time, but a hundred years is only a long time to a single human being. And because we’re creating these realities for ourselves, we’re actually making all of life and all of reality into stories. That’s what human beings do. We recast the universe in our own conception and by our own imagination.
And we’re also applying concepts like beginning, middle, and end onto the universe. The universe doesn’t, as far as we know at this point, we don’t know anything about how the universe began. We only have some very vague ideas about how it might end. We’re in the middle of billions of years of it existing, but that’s not how humans are. So we like to think about beginnings, middles, and ends, and we tend to put those onto things. We make stories out of everything. You ask somebody about the Civil War, the American Civil War, they will tell you a story. It may not be the right story,, it’s the story they know or learn, or feel comfortable with, but it’s a story: you know, it has heroes and villains, it has a beginning, it has an end. And that’s true with everything.
So, human beings like to make things, and we also like to make the universe over into something that we can understand and that we fit into. So all of those are very, very strong driving forces for people who write fiction. We like to have a little more control over that than others. We like to make our own universes, or at least sub-universes. But we’re still doing a very human thing, which is we’re making the universe over in our own image and through our own thoughts and imagination.
Well, that’s one reason this podcast is called The Worldshapers (the other being, of course, that my latest book is called Worldshaper), but, still, it’s a good name for the podcast. What do you hope that readers who come to you work take away from it?
I hope my readers of my books–and fortunately this does happen, I mean, it doesn’t happen with every reader obviously, but it does happen–all I want is, I want readers to have the same feeling of connection with my work that I felt with the people whose work has moved me, has changed me as a person, has given me ways of looking at the universe I wouldn’t have had otherwise. That’s real. I mean, yes, oh, and the practical things, like, you know, I don’t want my children to starve, you know, all that kind of stuff. But primarily I want to make things and share them with other people, and I hope that the things that I make, in this case books, stories, have the same effect of bringing imagination and pleasure into other people’s lives that my favorite books have had me. And if along the way they do some of the other things that my favorite books have done for me, like help them to look at the world differently, help them to think about things differently than they had before, then that’s a plus. But essentially, I just want to make things and share them with people.
And once…you have the Osten Ard books coming up, but what’s after that for you?
That is a real good question, Ed, and for once in my life I don’t have a specific thing lined up. I’ve got a couple of more smaller Osten Ard projects I’m going to be doing. And then, while I’m doing that, you know, I’m also in the stage where a lot of writers are, which is now I’m not entirely in charge of my own destiny. I can’t…I’m not Stephen King. I’m not J.K. Rowling, I can’t literally write anything at this point and a large number of people will buy it. I have an audience that is wanting me to do fantasy and science fiction. I’d be a fool to turn away from that. Beyond that, I’m not really sure. I have to write whatever idea is the one that’s screaming in my ear that it needs to be written. I’m still a couple of years away from that, probably, and I have no idea what it’ll be. I’m thinking more now than I used to about approaching some of my old material, though. So, for instance, I’ve mentioned Otherland a couple of times. I might do another Otherland book, but I have many, many other ideas that are completely new things as well. I’ll just kind of have to see.
There’s never a shortage of ideas. It goes back to time all the time, doesn’t it?
It certainly does. I mean, almost every writer has had the experience of having someone come up to them at a party or whatever and say like, “Hey, I’ve got a great idea for a story,” you know, but “I’m not a writer” or “I don’t have time to write it” or whatever. “Why don’t I give it to you and we’ll split it halfway?” I always just kind of laugh and say, “You know, I’m sorry, but I’ve got more ideas than I know what to do with.” It’s not a lack of ideas. As you said, just now, it’s time. It’s time.
And, for people who would like to find you online, where can they do that?
Well they can find me several places. There is a website that’s embarrassingly all about me, or mostly about, that’s tadwilliams.com.
Well, who else would it be about?
Exactly. Well nobody, but, I mean, we have a very active message board and so, you know, we we learn a lot about the lives of people who are on the message boy, too, and see things that they like to pos,t and sometimes they have their own creative endeavors. So, tadwilliams.com obviously is kind of the best one-stop source of information, but I’m very present on Facebook and I’m also on Twitter, and my wife does a lot of Twitter stuff, including things about my books and writing @MrsTad at Twitter. So any one of those places is a good place to start.
David John Butler is a novelist living in the Rocky Mountain West. He trained in law and worked as a securities lawyer at a major international firm and in-house at two multinational semiconductor manufacturers before setting up in solo practice. He’s also a consultant and corporate trainer. He teaches business acumen to employees of world-class companies.
Dave is a lover of language and languages, a guitarist and self-recorder, a serious reader, is married to a “powerful and clever woman,” Emily Butler, who is also a novelist, and has three “devious” children. He’s been writing speculative fiction since 2010, ranging from fantasy to science fiction to horror, and writes for young readers as well as for adults. He’s published by Knopf, Word Fire, and Baen, and he’s also the acquisitions editor at Word Fire Press.
The Lightly Edited Transcript
Welcome to The Worldshapers, Dave.
Ed, thank you so much for having me. I’m thrilled to be here.
We encountered each other at DragonCon. You were signing–it was actually my first DragonCon, by the way, a little overwhelming–you were signing at Bard’s Tower,which is a sort of a travelling bookstore that shows up at conventions, and speaking of towers, I was shocked by how tall you were.
Oh, yeah, I was once six foot eight. I haven’t measured myself in a long time. You know as a a kid you stand up against the the door frame and get a little pencil mark every year and a half or so. But as an adult you don’t need to. I’m pretty sure I’m shrinking now. I suspect I’m probably six-seven at this point. But, I’m still quite tall.
Well, I’m six-two, which, you know, normally is pretty tall around most people, so it’s always a surprise to me when I meet somebody that’s as tall as you are.
You’re also my third David on the podcast, which is interesting. David B. Coe was the first one, and David Weber, and now you, so…
Well, third time’s the charm.
Well, I’m wondering if I can find an author named Goliath just to get a little balance here.
It’s funny that you mentioned those guys. The editor at Baen, David Afsharirad, is putting together an anthology–and I have forgotten the title of it–in which every single short story is written by someone named David.
I should change my name.
That is a way to get in!
Well, a little later on we’re going to focus primarily on your trilogy, which began with Witchy Eye and follows up with Witchy Winter, which should be coming out in paperback about the time that this podcast goes live, but I’d like to start by–and I always say this-going back into the mists of time. How did you first begin writing? How did you become interested in writing, and also how did you become interested in writing specifically in the fantastical realm?
Yeah. It’s actually the same answer. I was seven years old and my dad, who was a professor, had been at an academic conference and he came home and he gave everybody…he had a gift for every kid, and the gift he had for me was the 25th Anniversary Silver Jubilee edition of The Lord Of The Rings and The Hobbit paperback with the Darrell K. Sweet covers, red, blue, green, and yellow, and I laid down in bed and I didn’t come out until I had read the books, took about a week. I almost burned the house down. I had a little bedside lamp, you know, and I fell asleep with the lamp on and the lamp had just kind of nodded down and laid against the pillow. And when I woke up it burned a circular hole next to my head. Oh yeah. So so much longer that would have been really tragic.
We’re lucky we’re having this conversation, then.
We are. In an alternate universe, you know, the world never got to know the many gifts of Dave Butler because he died at the age of seven. But, yeah, so that was it. So, I was I was convinced from the age of seven that I wanted to be like Tolkien. I read and reread that, I looked for…I think many people did look for a way to recapture the experience of first reading Tolkien. I think a lot of fantasy writers of a certain era got their start basically profoundly imitating Tolkien. By the way, I think that is in some ways a fair characterisation of me, although hopefully I have more self-awareness than people who were writing in the ’70s did about the activity. And as a reader I was looking to recapture that experience. And so, from the time I have thought of myself as a big reader I have thought of myself as a reader of fantasy.
What were some of the other novels that you picked up on? I mean, seven is pretty early to read Lord of the Rings, so what else did you find after that?
It is. Well, you know, there was a limited amount. Really, the the young-adult sections and the middle-grade sections of the bookstore have exploded since that time. There was simply less of it. But there was some, you know, stuff written for younger readers, like The Moomintrolls, or I remember, you know, Pippi Longstocking with fondness. But really I was reading on the science fiction side, you know, Isaac Asimov and Larry Niven, and some of the sort of classic science fiction writers. Edgar Rice Burroughs: I loved the John Carter books more than Tarzan, but I read them all, as well as the the the Venusian series, the Venus books. I did read, over and over again, Terry Brooks, at least the first trilogy. I read..I mean. you know, seven is young for Tolkien, but it was about two years later that I was reading Stephen R. Donaldson. And I think…I don’t know, candidly, if my parents were sort of benignly neglectful and just said, “We’ll let Dave read stuff,” or if they just weren’t aware because they had too many kids. I mean there were like six of us, so you can’t really police six people’s reading. I remember going at the age of 11, walking to the library and checking out the the Gor books, which are really not for children, but no librarians ever bated an eye, they’d just check them out and send me home.
My story there is, our library had two sides, there was the adult side and the children’s side, and the librarian actually did tell my mother that, “You know, your son is checking books out of the adult side of the library.” I was about 11. And my mom said, “Oh, it’s okay, he only reads science fiction,” which made me think that Mom probably didn’t know what was in some of the books I was reading. I was reading the Gor books along about then, too.
Right, having my young mind kind of blown by that and others. So, pretty widely. Anne McCaffrey’s Dragonrider books, Andre Norton, Katharine Kurtz–loved Katharine Kurt’s Deryni books. The Earthsea stuff, Ursula Le Guin, and others. Yeah, widely.
So, you’re reading widely, but when did you actually start attempting to write?
The first teacher I ever had who told me that I should think about being a creative writer was when I was briefly…the beginning of eighth grade, the first seven weeks or so, I was in a middle school in New Jersey, and I I was in a creative writing class, and the teacher said, “You know, I think you have a gift for writing,” which…no one had ever said this before. I’d never really tried to write, except…what I would write as a kid was. you know, the inside of the book was way too big to write, so I would imagine these stories and I would write the outside of the book, the hundred-word blurb on the back, you know, the three-sentence excerpt from the inside front page, front cover. So I hadn’t really written anything. I don’t think that I wrote a coherent short story until I was in eighth grade. Then I was in creative writing classes on and off in the rest of junior high and high school, and then I stopped. And in college I didn’t go that way. I was not an English major. I majored in Near Eastern Studies. Frankly, it was sort of a fast way to get through. And I went to law school. I chickened out. I took the deal. I took the world’s deal and said, “OK, I will go have a job. I will put on a necktie and I will do the necktie thing and be one of the necktie people.”
When you were writing, in school, before you hit college, were you sharing your writing, you know finding out that people liked to read your stories?
In a limited way. You know, the creative writing classes I was in would have publications, and so I published things, and I published a few things for the same reason in college. I wrote a 14-line sonnet, formal sonnet, in Italian about a dog getting hit by a car, which I got published in the little creative writing paper, whatever it was. But really, not very much. The biggest creative outlet I had for shared creative storytelling was actually tabletop roleplaying, and I did an awful lot of that from about the age of 13. And at 13 I had no money, so I was just kind of making rules up, and then I got in high school and had little money so could buy books. So, right through to the end of college, at 23, I played a lot of role playing and then gave that up for about 20 years.
I’d like to say…well, I don’t know that I’d like to say, but it’s quite true…that although I majored in journalism at university, theoretically, with a minor in art, I really majored in Dungeons and Dragons and everything else I kind of fit in around that.
Look, I think that a lot of the interests that I have in life may may have been influenced by the roleplaying I did or, in the alternative, you may say they they manifested in the role playing I did. My interest in history and anthropology and comparative religion and myth and language really are all,,,you see them in the choices of the games I played and the way I played those games, and that’s the stuff that’s sort of then come out again as I have turned to creative writing in the last ten years.
Well, now, you did go into law, and law is very much a word-based profession.
Do you find, now that you have turned back to writing, do you find that that training as a lawyer has had any influence or effect on your writing?
Yeah, absolutely. Several things. First of all, the practice of law is absolutely a profession of writing. Now, it’s a very particular kind of writing. Accuracy, precision, really matter. You know, coming up with a long and colorful list of synonyms to avoid repeating the same word is not necessarily important. (I guess, actually, in some kinds of law practice that is, too.) Two other things: one, being a practicing lawyer gave me a lot of experience in writing as part of a team. In other words, where we are a group negotiating a contract or we are attempting to describe an underlying business that’s going to list its stock on the stock exchange. And I had a lot of experience in me being in a position of proposing language that then got discussed and edited, and me getting comfortable with the idea that, “Hey, I’m not wedded to my formulation, I’m wedded to getting the right response.” So I think that in some ways this has made being edited relatively easy for me. I’m able to step back and say, “Look, the goal here is to get the right description, the right book.” I’m able to detach myself, my ego, from the words on the page.
But another thing is, I was a full-time practicing lawyer for something like 13 years, kind of depending on how you count. Technically, I’m still a lawyer now. I have 13 years of experience being a professional, keeping obligations, being responsive and responsible, negotiating contracts, thinking clearly about business relationships. And I have found that to be very valuable as a writer. My experience is that this is an industry that is rife with people who kind of don’t really think deadlines are a big thing, who don’t really clearly understand what the deal is they’re getting into, who just sort of write a book and then hope they will be J.K. Rowling. And I have not had to be that because I have relevant experience.
When did you turn back to writing, then?
Well, in 2010 a there was a wonderful lovely day in spring. A beautiful thing happened, which was that I got fired, and I got fired in the best possible way. A company was acquiring the company where I was the senior corporate lawyer, and they weren’t going to keep me, but they needed me to stick around for the deal, so I got a parachute. It’s wasn’t a golden parachute, maybe it was bronze, but basically it meant I could get fired and I could do what I wanted for two years.
It which is great. I highly recommend it. You should you should totally do that.
And actually I had been…in the interim, I had gotten the idea of writing screenplays, and so I had written several spec scripts that went nowhere. I also had written a body of, I don’t know, a hundred songs or so, and gotten into home recordings, so I had a studio and guitars and kind of a Dave Butler songbook, but it wasn’t…it took me a few weeks of kind of casting about, thinking about different possibilities before I realized, at the suggestion of a friend of mine who had recently got a big press deal, his first publishing contract, that I thought, “Oh, yeah, this is what I always wanted to do as a kid. Now, of course, I can do it.”
So that was 2010. I wrote full-time for two years, then I had to sort of take up the practice of law for a while again, and eventually moved to the corporate training, sort of a little more stable. And that my day job at this point. I’m self-employed, but I’m a corporate trainer. That’s the majority of my income. But from 2010 to now, I don’t want to shortcut any other questions you may have, but basically in the eight years, I have got five books published by national publishers and, depending on how you count, maybe something like 10 books published by an independent publisher called Word Fire Press, and I’ve got, you know, contracts, I’ve got two books coming out next year and contracts for another four that I haven’t written yet. And on the way my wife decided to get into writing. So getting fired was literally the best thing that’s happened to me professionally in my life. It made me do this.
So what was your first professional sale then?
The first, like, to a national publisher…that’s an interesting question. So, the first thing I wrote in 2010 was terrible, but then the second thing I wrote was pretty good and I got an agent, and I had an agent for a year, and he was a big deal. He’s the head of a kind of mid-sized agency and he couldn’t sell the book. And then he dumped me. And then in the meantime, sort of a year later, my wife got her own agent, initially with a co-written book that she and I had co-written. That didn’t sell, either, but then her agent, the second thing he took out for her was…she did a rewrite of the book that originally picked me up my agent. It is not published. It was a professional sale. The book was called The Case of the Devil’s Interval. It was a middle-reader story about a young, an eight-year-old, genius who is murdered by goblins and finds herself a ghost.
In the first version I wrote it was in Victorian England, and as a ghost she kind of is a superhero, and so the first story was about her solving the mystery of her own murder and setting up as a fighter of crime. And that sold. So, I wrote it originally in Victorian England. Emily and her agent, she did a sort of a revision that reset it in Federalist Boston. And that was bought by Egmont, as part of a two-book deal. And that book should have come out in…let me think about this…should have come out, I want to say, in fall of 2015, but then in about February 2015 Egmont, which is…you may not know their name, they’re Scandinavian, and they were making a bid to try to become one of the top five publishers in the US. And in February 2015…I think I have the timing right…they decided that they were done, and they just pulled out and they orphaned all their books. So the book..we have ARCs. The book had been fully edited. We got paid. We got the rights back. It got all the way to ARC. There are reviews you can find reviews on Goodreads, because copies of the ARCs went out to reviewers, and then the book never came out.
Yeah. Now my wife’s first first debut (Freya and Zoose, published by Crown Books for Young Readers) is finally going to happen in January, which is a huge relief to her, because she’s been working at this since like 2011, and it’s sort of hard to keep going when you feel like no one…you do a ton of work and no one has any idea. So, I think it’s been harder for her than for me but, yeah, so that was my first sale. It was that co-written book, sold by my wife’s agent, and the book never came out. I think it will someday, in some form, but there’s sort of a moral there: all of the horror stories you hear about publishing, are all true. They’re all true.
Yes, they are. I have several of them myself. So, what was your first published book, then? The one that actually appeared.
So, we’re talking about from national publishers?
However you would like to define that.
Well, OK, so let me give you a couple of separate answers then. So, while I had my first agent, whose name was Peter, I realized early on during the year of having him as an agent that he was going to read my stuff at about one-fifth of the rate at which I was writing it. So, I had a call, and I said, “Look, what should I do?”, and he said, “Well, people are doing self-publishing, you should you should try to go self-published.” So I did. So, my first things published at all were self-published. They’re now out from Word Fire Press, but I had a series of novellas called Rock Band Fights Evil, which I wrote to start to find readers, to be a calling card, to get out there, to not wait for my agent. That’s the earliest thing. And that would have come out in…the first one came out something like December 29, just before year-end, 2011, I believe.
Now, my first nationally published book was with Knopf, I have a trilogy, its middle-reader steampunk action fantasy. The first book’s called The Kidnap Plot. I picked up a second agent. So, my first agent dumped me then. Then my wife got an agent and he went out selling her stuff and our stuff together. And then I took this book, The Kidnap Plot out to agents again, and I picked up an agent. Deborah Warren is my agent, still is. I love Deborah, she’s very good. And she said, “OK, I’m going to send this book to…” So this was in March 2014 or something, so about four years I’ve been doing this now at his point. She said, “I’m going to send this to one editor on a sneak-peek exclusive look for a week.” And she did, and that editor bought it. So that came out in June of 2016. So a little over two years later. And the books have come out basically one year since, and that is a completed trilogy. It was fun! Michelle Frye is very, very good. Knopf is a big publisher. I got to have stablemates. Fellow Knopf publishees include people like Christopher Paolini, whom I’ve got to meet and hang out with. You know, he’s infuriatingly young, but he’s a cool guy.
He was even more infuriatingly young when he got published.
He really was. So, that was that was my first.
You mentioned that your first was a middle-grade, or for younger readers, so you’re still writing for both young readers and older readers as Dave Butler I think, is that what that’s what you use for your younger books?
That’s right. So, The Kidnap Plot by Dave Butler is book one of the series. And that’s just a way to signal to people who the intended audience is. I am thrilled if adults want to read The Kidnap Plot and I expect some young readers are going to go read Witchy Eye stuff, too. I certainly would have been one of those who did.
Yeah, I would have to. Since you do write for both ages, I was going to ask you, what do you think is the big difference between writing for the younger and the older readers?
I think less than people often imagine. I think some people approach writing for younger readers and some publishers approach writing for younger readers as a matter of, “Oh, I can’t say certain things,” and there is an element of that, but the truth is young people need to learn about death and they need to learn about violence and so I think the bigger difference is not that you can’t touch certain topics but that you need to be providing an inner journey for your characters or a subplot or a secondary arc or whatever writing lingo you want to call it that reflects the inner journey that your readers are going through. So, the real thing that defines a book is being a middle-grade book is that the character is having a middle-grade type experience in their own life, and that means learning the answer to questions like. “Who am I? How am I different from my parents? What do I need to do to be independent in the world?” Right? Those are the those are the things that 12-year-olds and 10-year-olds are are figuring out in their own life. And the same thing goes for young adults. Young adult is the age of first romance and first jobs and first experience, sort of on the cusp of adulthood, and especially young adult books, at this point, often have fairly gritty content. The thing that really makes them young adult is that there are young-adult journeys happening to the characters.
And the age of the characters is obviously an important element to that, too, usually.
Usually. That’s sort of the external sign, right? But the thing it’s a sign of is that the internal journey is appropriate for that age.
All right, well let’s start talking about Witchy Eye and Witchy Winter and…what’s the third book going to be called?
So, well, I’ll leave it up to you, then, to provide a synopsis of, well, I guess, Witchy Eye, because that’s the first book, so that I don’t give away something that you don’t want to give away.
Well, so, Witchy Eye is in many ways a a straight-up epic fantasy, a straight up quest story, a fairy-tale-influenced story about, well, about a character who comes of age, sort of. It is my bid to be Tolkien, in many ways. Now, the main character’s named Sarah. Sarah is a witch. She is talented and clever and brave and funny and fiercely loyal and paranoid and xenophobic and mean. And the story opens on the day of the Tobacco Fair in 1815 in Nashville, because this is an epic fantasy, but it’s an epic fantasy set in an alternate America, and it’s an America that looks that looks like America in terms of its languages and people, and some of its heroes, but in terms of its power structure operates a little more like the Holy Roman Empire, with a bunch of semi-independent powers and an elected emperor who is, at the time the story opens, Thomas Penn. Penn Landholder.
So, 1815: it’s October, Sarah lives in the Nashville area, she takes the the family young’ns down to sell the crop, and Imperial Army officers try to kidnap her. And she learns that she has a secret history. a history so secret she herself is unaware of it. She is the hidden daughter of the dead Empress, Mad Hannah Penn, and her uncle, who she’d never knew was her uncle, the living emperor Thomas Penn, military hero Lord Thomas, has discovered her existence,, views her as a threat to his wealth and power, and wants her killed. She learns also that she has two siblings, that she had kind of a strange fairy-tale type birth that resulted in her birth and the birth of two other siblings. They’re hidden elsewhere in the Empire, and her quest is to find her hidden siblings, to recover the lost wealth of her mother, Hannah Penn, and the lost royal authority of her father, who was another sort of military hero and semi-legendary figure, the king of one of the seven Mound Builder kingdoms of the Ohio River Valley. So, it’s very questy, it’s very epic fantasy, it’s very fairy tale, but things are playing out in places like New Orleans and Philadelphia and Nashville.
Yes, it’s very interesting in that regard. The term that’s been applied to it I see is “flintlock fantasy,” which is actually not a term I’ve ever seen before, I don’t think. Was that invented for your book or have you seen it somewhere else?
I think it’s been…also I’ve seen black-powder fantasy. I think there is another term or two. People have been trying to find…because this isn’t. I’m not unique in having written sort of epic fantasy in a time when there are also muskets. So while I was writing this, Django Wexler was publishing his books, my friend Brian McClellan’s got, I think, six books out that, again, involve sort of both early modern gunpowder but also epic fantasy elements, and there are others. So I don’t know if there is yet a consensus term. I don’t think this was invented for me. I have seen things words like muskepunk as another one.
It’s just a bit earlier than steampunk seems to be what they’re going for.
Well, I think that’s right. I think the steampunk brand was successful enough that people have invented many other kinds of punks.
Yeah, I had a book from a publisher, which is now defunct and now I’m shopping around again, they decided to call it voltpunk because it involved magic that was vaguely like electricity. It wasn’t my idea at all, and I’m not sure it’s a very good description, but at least I hadn’t seen it before. But anyway, voltpunk was kind of catchy. So, where did the idea come from?
Oh. man. From multiple places or from multiple streams commingling in my heart. So let me let me parse out some of the streams. One of the streams is my own children. So, the three children who are at the center of this story, Sarah is the only one we meet in Book 1, but in Book 2 we meet the brother, Nathaniel, and in Book 3 we get a closer look at Margaret. The story of their birth is is as follows: their father, the king of the Mound Builder kingdom of Cahokia, is riding the bounds of his kingdom on the western edge of the Empire when he dies. In fact, he is murdered by some of his men, acting under orders from from his brother-in-law, Thomas Penn, although that’s not generally known, sorry, spoiler.
I knew it.
There you go, you knew it. With his dying breath he anoints three acorns with his blood and sends them with his Father Confessor priest back to Philadelphia. Hannah, his wife, her response causes people to suspect she has lost her mind. She treats the acorns like they are children. She sings to them and coddles them, and then one day she eats them. And then she gives birth, nine months later, to three children who are variously marked on their head. So, we meet Sarah she’s the title character we see her eye, it’s the subject of the first paragraph. She…at the age of 15, her eye has never opened. She has an eye that has never opened. It looks infected and it’s red and it oozes pus and it’s nasty and she’s already an unattractive woman and kind of a hellcat, and so this gets her negative attention on top of that. But eventually it turns out that that disfigurement is sort of a mark of her birth and her siblings have similar marks, one in her hair and then the other one in his ear.
Now, my kids…so, my son, our first child, was born with his left ear pressed flat against the side of his head and it has never fully relaxed. So, if you look at him straight on, he has one ear…the ear was pressed forward against the side of his head..so he has one ear that looks normal and then one that’s pointing out perpendicular, right? My second child, when she was very, I mean three or four weeks old, she was very young, and my brother Sam was visiting us and playing with her in the crib. And suddenly he kind of called out and said, “Hey, is it normal that her eyes are a different size?” And we rushed in, her eyes, her pupils were dramatically differently dilated. One was wide open, one was very tight shut. Now it turns out there’s nothing wrong with her. It’s a neurological condition that doesn’t hurt her at all, it’s just, I forget what it’s called, it’s got a name. Her pupils dilate at different rates. It’s not an indication…we were worried it was a concussion or something. It’s just, that’s the way her eyes are. So, I have been calling her since she was, you know, five weeks old, my witchy-eyed child. And then our third child has this shocking head of hair. It’s a recessive trait in my wife’s family, sort of one person every generation. The rest of us have kind of ordinary, more or less flat hair, and then kind of one person every generation gets this curly ‘fro, and she’s got it. So, one piece was me wanting to write a story about these children that are sort of marked, as my own children, and a story about them recovering a lost or mysterious heritage from their father. So, really, really, really really at the heart, there’s a story here about me and my children.
Now, there’s other stuff. I was reading several things at the time, I was…you know, I’d finished a book and I was trying to figure out what to write next and I was reading several things. One of them was, I was reading my kids the Brothers Grimm fairy tales, and, you know, i a sort of fairly straight-up translation version where they don’t always make sense and they have very dark endings and lots of death. And at the same time I was reading…and I am not remembering now…I’ve got several different volumes…I was reading a history of the Thirty Years War. And Germany is not something that I ever really studied much in my youth. But reading those two things at the same time made me realize, and I’m embarrassed to say I was, you know, like 34 or 35 or whatever when I realized this, made me realize what the setting of the Grimm fairy tales is, because as an American kid, it’s a very striking setting, because you read something like The Musicians of Bremen and they’re wandering around, these animals, they’re in a landscape where there are princes and there are emperors but there are also mayors and there are people with guns and you kind of go, “Well, what is this crazy setting?” Well, it turns out it’s early modern Germany. It’s the Holy Roman Empire, which I had sort of never made those connections, and I was I was looking for a setting for the story of these three marked children and for a while I thought I might try to set something in, say, 16th century Germany, which would have involved, I think, an awful lot of research.
But then I read another book, which is called Albion’s Seed. It’s a book by a historian an American historian called David Hackett Fischer, who is sort of one of the great figures of American history living today. Albion’s Seed is a history of the English migrations, plural, to North America. We say casually, you know, “Hey, the English came here,” and if we say that we may think about that in terms of Plymouth Rock, but in fact there are at least four major distinct streams of migration into North America at the era of the founding, and only one of them is the Puritans from southeast England. There are also Royalists from the southwest and there are the Quakers from the, sort of the Scandinavian-influenced North Midlands. And then there are the, he calls them the North Borderers, the North British Borderers, something like that. The conventional term in America is usually the Scotch-Irish. That is to say, the people from Northern Ireland and the borders of England and Scotland who, you know, the first emigration, the Puritans came to Massachusetts Bay, the Royalists then came down to the southeast, the lowlands on the coast, the Quakers got a land grant and settled up the Delaware River in Philadelphia, and when the Appalachians arrived, they weren’t the Appalachians then, when the Scotch-Irish came, basically all the good lands near the coast already had white people on them, so they kept going and came to the mountains inland and so they settled a huge band that runs from north all the way down to the south in the Highlands. And it’s this fantastic 900-page book of anthropological history and I read this and I thought, “Man, I wish that fantasy settings were this good. I wish they were this detailed,” and then I thought, you know what, I should just write in this setting. This is it. This is the setting right right here. So, I told the story like I had been thinking in a kind of an early modern setting but I told it in a fantasy America rather than a fantasy Germany.
Well, there certainly are…in a way it’s an alternate history, because there certainly are a lot of historical figures that show up and I have to mention one that leaped out at me. I grew up in the church of Christ.
And so when Barton W. Stone makes an appearance, there was a name I never thought I would see referenced in a fantasy novel. I mean, I knew it, growing up as I did, from Restoration history and all that. But he’s hardly the only one. I mean, there’s a lot of real historical figures with very very different stories: Martin Luther, George Washington, and all these people. So, how did you decide who to throw in there? It just look it just seems like you’re having an awful lot of fun pulling these names in and giving them new backstories.
I really am. You’re the second person to mention Barton W. Stone to me. I got an email from a woman about six months ago or something…no, shortly before Book 2 came out, closer to a year ago, and she said a very similar comment to you. And I said…because in the book Bishop Barton Stone is one of the the leaders of the of the New Light, which is a kind of a Christian…there’s no Protestant Reformation as such in the setting, but there is a sort of a revival going on, which is called the New Light, and in Book 2 the sort of New Light adherents are referred to as Kissing Campbells and Swooning Stones.
So Alexander Campbell’s in there, too.
Alexander and…hold on, is Thomas the father and Alexander the son?
Yeah, Thomas was the father.
Yeah, Thomas and Alexander Campbell and Barton Stone. You know, so, Tolkien, in writing the Lord of the Rings, is writing on multiple levels all at once. He is writing on a level that is philological, he is finding new meanings for words; he is writing on a level that is musical, because he’s putting settings around poems and songs he’s written; he’s writing on a level that is theological, because there is some profoundly–Tolkien was a seven-day-a-week Catholic. He went to Mass every morning with his boys. After his parents died he was raised by a monk, a priest, for a while. And so his Christianity shows up in there and all of it is sort of wrapped up in him finding a mythology for England that is sort of deeply English. But it’s also deeply and uniquely Tolkien, and I tried to do the same thing actually. And so there is a degree to which I am trying to consciously look at different streams of history in our collective past and in the stories of individual cultures. But there is a degree to which, inevitably, this book can only be idiosyncratically me. You know, I set myself the task to write the epic mythology of America. It’s an impossible task. It’s gigantic. America is impossibly vast: hundreds of cultures and hundreds of languages and and ruins we don’t know who lived in there and creatures that have entirely disappeared. And I’m doing kind of a crazy thing. So, at the end of the day, you know, the whole thing has to be bounded by my own my own aesthetic and my own experience. And Barton Stone and Thomas and Alexander Campbell are very interesting people to me, and they fit right in the story, and so they got to show up.
Well, how thoroughly did you plan all this out before you began. What’s your process. Do you do a very detailed synopsis ahead of time or do you find a lot of it as you write?
I don’t have a detailed synopsis. I know what things have to happen. And I have a partial outline when I sit down to write a book and usually a fairly complete outline of the first third of it, maybe. And then I know what the main posts are,, and I know where it has to end, and in each of the books in these series there are a few big things: okay this is this is the book in which X and Y are going to happen. So, as I’m writing I’m writing to sort of macro signposts as well as sort of a few signposts that I know belong, but there is an element of making things up, of finding inspiration along the way.
As we’ve just discussed there’s lots of historical people in here, and yet they aren’t really quite the historical people. What kind of research do you find yourself doing along the way?
I read a ton. I mean, I’m sitting right now in my office. I’m looking at a bookshelf that has about a third of a bookshelf worth of books on India, including the Punjab and Sanskrit and Punjabi languages, and then about two thirds of the bookshelf is Native American stuff, and it’s got language and culture and history about the Iriquois and the Ojibwe and the Delaware Indians and the Navajo, and that’s that’s one of something like 30 bookshelves in the room I’m sitting in. So, I read an absolute ton. I do read a fair amount of biography. So I’ve read…I don’t know, two or three biographies of Benjamin Franklin and I’m looking at one, actually, now, Walter Isaacson’s that I haven’t read yet, that’s sitting on the shelf in front of me. In Book 2…there are references to this stuff in Book 1, but in book 2 one of the characters we get is a hedge wizard. He is a sort of a low practitioner of magic. He’s a guy who doesn’t have the natural gifts Sarah does, and so his skills are not the high art of Gramarye where you’re imposing your will on the cosmos. It’s traditional spells. And so I’ve got a shelf full of actual medieval and early modern magic books. John George Hohman’s The Long Lost Friend and The Picatrix and the three books of occult philosophy, which I have read. And you know, all of the language in there, I am sure I have made mistakes, but all of the Dutch or the French or the German or the Ojibwe or the Eno that you encounter in there has been read by me, written by me. So I do language studies, too.
Stephen King, in his On Writing…you have to take any book that any writer writes on writing with a grain of salt, because no one keeps all their own advice and writers are all full of crap. But he does say, and I think that is absolutely right, he says, if you don’t have the time to read, you don’t have the tools to write. And so, I read obsessively, and then if I have an individual question, you know, directed research is easier than ever because the Internet will help you find resources. You know, if I want to know, well, what does place X look like, I can probably find photographs online or or go there with Google Maps Street View and take a look. YouTube is also great, because…well. for example there’s a scene in Book 1 where Calvin Calhoun is casting bullets. He’s got a bunch of lead and he’s got a bullet mold and, you know, a pair of clippers, and in the conversation he’s making bullets and. And I didn’t know how to make bullets, but it turns out you got on YouTube and say, you know, hey somebody casting bullets, and you can watch people do it. Enthusiasts will show you exactly what it looks like to shoot an anvil or to make a bullet or to, you know, whatever. So, that that piece in a sense is easier than it has ever been before. But also a lot of fun. I love writing. I love reading.
How do you develop your characters? Just how do you decide who you need in the story and then how much work do you do ahead of time to pen them down in your head before you start writing? Or does that also happen on the fly?
Well, the answer is both, right? It sort of depends on how important the character is. The more important the character is, the more I will upfront say, “Hey, let me write a little backstory for this person, let me, you know, write about kind of their motivation or their thoughts or here’s a little vignette of something that happened to them when were back studying at Harvard that was formative…” But, you know, the truth is that a lot of your characters in a novel are spear carriers. They walk on stage, they deliver a couple of lines and then they get shot or, you know, they they walk off stage again or whatever. So, for a central set of characters, yeah there there is backstory. And then for much larger number, no, they’ll be quicker sort of characterizations or, you know, thinking about, hey, what do I what do I need here? Well I need a guy who’s good at accounting and totally despicable. And then I’ll assemble that character kind of on the fly.
What does your actual writing process look like? Do you work direct from the computer? I still know people who write longhand. I can’t imagine it myself, but…
Yeah, I can’t either. My 10-year-old likes to write and if we won’t let her get on the iPad, so she can’t access her Google Docs, she will…she has two stories going in all time, she will turn to her longhand legal pad story if we won’t let her type. I do not do that. I write on the computer because I’m making a living doing other stuff, my writing process is sort of either I’m doing little bits now and then when I can because I’m busy, or I’m all in working at it for 12 hours a day because I have the time. I will start usually by…if you look in my files on my hard drive, for any novel that’s finished you’ll find initially some kind of scratch documents. Usually my experience is I get one idea that comes to me for free, if you will. There’s a medieval book or a poem called The Conference of the Birds, written by a Muslim poet named Farid ud-Din Attar. And the conference is an allegory for for Islam, or for religion or faith, but there’s a group of birds meeting and a feather falls from heaven. And the appearance of a mysterious feather from heaven starts the birds looking for the rest of the bird. What else is there, right?
And that’s kind of how I experience writing. There is a feather from heaven. There is something that is free, and that is a an idea about a character or an idea about setting or an idea about a conflict or an idea about a scene. And then my scratch documents are me working out the framework that goes around it, where I say, “Oh, well if I want to get to a climactic scene that looks like this, what do I have to, you know, what has to go with it? What kind of conflict would lead to such a climactic scene? What kind of characters would participate in it? Okay, which of these is my protagonist? Who’s, you know, who’s experiencing the most interesting story here?” So, I experience an initial piece of inspiration and then a lot of craft and a lot of forcing yourself to do the work, and along the way then you find lots of other smaller bits of inspiration. So the trail is, you look back at the beginning and there is a document with me just, like, asking and answering questions to myself, and then I build that into these charts that map out some main subplots.
And then I do an outline of the book, where I’ve got sort of a rough outline of the whole thing, and a detailed outline of the beginning, and then I just start writing. Now having said that, I recently co-wrote my first book…well, no, I recently co-wrote a book with a new strategy with a guy named Aaron Michael Ritchey, this will come out from Baen next November, the novel is called The Cunning Man, and we knew we wanted to split the writing of it, so, in other words, rather than have someone write the first draft and the other guy edit, ee wanted to each write half of the first draft. To do that we had to have a really detailed outline. Neither he nor I ordinarily writes this way. So for the first time we spent about a month meeting one to two hours a day on the phone talking our way through the outline and the main characters and the backstories and the sort of magical aspects of the story. And we had a detailed chapter-by-chapter, beat-by-beat outline and then sat down and each wrote half the book. And it worked! The two halves fit together totally. So this is…all my answers are long-winded, Ed, I’m sorry, I apparently am a very long-winded guy…but the point is this is a change from my past process, but it’s one that at least Aaron and I will use again, because it made writing the rough draft shockingly easy. It was all there.
Well, and speaking of drafts, what does your rewriting process look like and what does. I presume…is Toni your editor at Baen?
I’ve had Toni Weisskopf and also Jim (Mintz) edit my books. They both asked to look at Book 3. I haven’t got notes back from either one yet. I think Jim is looking at The Cutting Man. With both books that Baen’s published I got basically one…Toni gave me an email with some comments. Some of them came from the initial reader. Some of them came from her. Not a long list of comments. The biggest comment was, it needs to be shorter. And that was a wonderful comment, because I had turned in a 240,000-word draft, and she just said needs to be shorter. And I said, “OK.” I did not want to cut any characters or scenes, and I found that by just tightening the language I could cut out 35,000 words, and that experience made me a much tighter writer, even as I’m composing, not just in the way I edit, but I just write more tightly.
Before it gets to sending it to the editor, how much rewriting do you do you find yourself doing? Do you have a fairly clean draft when you get to the end? Do you sort of do rolling drafts, where you’re fixing things along the way, or do you go back to the beginning and start all over? Do you share it with your writing group? How does that all work for you?
During the time when I was writing full time for a couple of years, what I did and what I liked very much is I would read yesterday’s chapter. I had a page-count goal every day, depending on the book it was eight or fifteen pages, somewhere in there, eight, 10, 12, fift15 pages. Easy, that’s no problem, that’s like two to four hours of writing. So I would always edit the day’s chapter before, which is great, because then I’m totally in it, and then write today’s chapter. And as notes occurred to me I would go back and revise them in the earlier chapters as they occurred to me. So, in the first several books I wrote, by the time I had a first draft it was quite complete. I was quite quite polished. I just don’t have the consistent time now. I hope to get back to that process. Now, I tend to…comments occur to me and I write them in a note. I have an Eevernote. And, by the way, this happens, I turn the book into the editor, and things are still occurring to me.
But while I’m writing, things occur to me and having written it I let it sit for a few weeks and then I go back and I go through and I read it and make all the revisions that occurred to me and more revisions occur to me and I go through a couple of passes. Then while the book is with the editors, more things occur to me, and so I build up a set of notes again and so I’ll do anothe couple or three passes whenever I get the comments back from from Jim and Toni, and that’s kind of, you know, they’ll probably give me a month or two on it and I’ll probably procrastinate half that time and then it’s been a few weeks.
So, this is a lot of work, obviously. And, you know, I know this, being a writer, as well. So, here’s my big philosophical question as we come close to the end here. Why do you do it? Why do you write? Why do you think any of us write?
Yeah. So, there is a spiritual pattern that seems to be a very, very widespread inheritance of humanity, that finds its purest expression in the sort of Siberian steppes, which is usually called shamanism. And you’ll hear anthropologists say, you know, the Midewiwin medicine men of the Ojibwe are not quite shamanism, but they have shamanistic elements, and you hear that kind of language a lot. A shaman, the distinguishing characteristic of a shaman was that the shaman left his body and travelled…so, the technical term for that is ecstasy. Ecstasy is standing out, stepping out of your body…and in a trance, he would travel to the realms of the spirit, where he would be killed and reborn, where he would find spirits that would bring healing into the tribe, where he would learn the direction they needed to go to find the elk who were not at their usual summer pastures.
And I think that that a novelist is the contemporary descendant of the shaman .I think there is a craft aspect that we talk about ad nauseum, there is a business aspect that we sort of pretend to talk about once in a while but few of us really understand what’s going on, and by the way, that’s true of editors, too, so we don’t talk about it very much, but I think the core activity is shamanistic, or if you prefer, it’s prophetic. It’s leaving your body, it’s finding the muse, it’s encountering things of the internal world, things that are meaningful for you and your tribe, and then coming back and presenting them. And just like the shaman, you have to be part visionary. But you also had to be part entertainer, you had to be a showman, because you had to tell your story as a poem or act it out to get people to listen to you.
I do it because it’s a beautiful way to try to share and communicate meaning in the world. It’s a terrible way to make money. As a money-making proposition, it’s kind of like lottery tickets. Yeah, you might be J.K. Rowling, but almost certainly not. Almost certainly you’re going to make a very tiny amount of money and that’s it. If you want money, you’re better off just getting a government job and saving your money and you’ll retire as the millionaire next door. But as a way to make beauty and make meaning it’s absolutely terrific.
Well, and on that note, in what ways are you…now, this will come out just about the time that Witchy World comes out in paperback, so looking ahead to that from when we’re doing the interview, what will you be working and focusing on in 2019?
Well, so, we just turned in the first book…Baen bought two books, and so we’ll write at least two books of them. The first book is called The Cunning Man, and that’s set in the 1930s. A cunning man is an old English. but not, now I don’t mean Anglo-Saxon, I mean like it’s just, it’s old and it’s English, word for a kind of magician A witch was somebody who was malevolent to you. A witch cursed you and was a bad person. A cunning man, the research shows that they were mostly middle class. They were business people. They were like gunssmiths, or tanners, who also had a magical practice, and because they could read and they could gather enough kind of knowledge of spells, you know, when you wanted someone to fall in love with you or you wanted to heal your cattle of the murrain or whatever. you’d go to the cunning woman or the cunning man. So, this series is set in the 1930s, about a practicing cunning man who is dealing with some of the practical problems of the Great Depression, and finding that behind the bankrupted businesses and played-out farms there are demons and curses, and he battles them with his traditional magical law. So late next year we’ll write Book 2 of that.
What I’m working on now and I think will probably hopefully be finishing up about the time…well, that’s optimistic. I’ll be working on this about the time that Witchy Winter comes out in paperback…is a standalone fantasy novel. And I think I have finally settled on the name The Other Jack for the title. I’ve had various ideas, none of it felt right, I think The Other Jack does it. This is a a secret history of the life of J. Pierpont Morgan, and the idea, the opening chapter or the prologue is in the 1830s in Cairo. There is a group of Jewish scholar-magicians, including, there’s an old man who learned in his youth that, at night, he dreams the future, one hundred years in the future. And so, in the early 1830s he’s dreaming the rise of the Nazi party. And so these scholars are trying to come up with a way to try to prevent this, to stop the rise of German fascism. And their plan is, ultimately they what they want is they want the US to forgive the debtors of World War One, France and the UK, so that France and UK will forgive Germany’s debts, so that Germany between the wars does not become an economic basket case, so that Hitler does not have fuel to to light his bonfires. Right? That’s the plan. And they want to do it by taking over the House of Morgan.
So it’s about…in the real world, J. Pierpont Morgan’s life, he was sort of the great banker of his day, of the Gilded Age, is full of all kinds of fascinating little details, including an obsession with Egypt–he would go every year and sail up the Nile–but also including, in the Civil War, after Gettysburg, his number was called up in the draft, and he did not go. He paid somebody else and that guy, in real life, he then took care of him his whole life, I mean, not as a dependent, but he just made sure the guy was OK, if the guy was out of a job or something, Morgan would help him. And he jokingly referred to him as the other Pierpont. And so, this idea of kind of a vicarious personality is already embedded in Morgan’s life, so this story is going to be about a three-way switch that happens at that moment in 1863 where J. Pierpont Morgan’s soul is put in the body of that substitute, so they can replace it with a with a body of someone who’s part of this conspiracy to try to stop 20th-century Naziism. So it’s about a three-way body switch and about these three men kind of learning what’s happened then and trying to get their own bodies back or decide what to do about it.
Sounds ambitious and very interesting.
Yeah. Should have a climax aboard the Titanic. J. Pierpont Morgan had a cabin scheduled to be on the voyage of the Titanic and then didn’t go at the last minute. So you know that’s got to be in the book.
And where can people find you online so they can follow along and see what all these things are that you’re working on?
I have a Web site but it’s pretty static. I only rarely post, www.davidjohnbutler.com. It’s easy to follow me on Twitter @DavidJohnButler. And also on Facebook, Dave.Butler.16, there’s a lot of Dave Butler it turns out in this world. David.Butler.16. Usually my profile picture has me wearing a tricorn hat.
Seems appropriate. Well, thanks so much for for being on The Worldshapers.
Ed, thank you very much for having me. I really appreciate it.
An hour-long conversation with David B. Coe/D.B. Jackson, award-winning author of more than twenty books, including epic fantasies, urban fantasies, historical fantasies, and more, and as many short stories, with a special focus on Time’s Children, the first book in The Islevale Cycle, published by Angry Robot Books.
David B. Coe is the award-winning author of more than twenty books — including epic fantasies, urban fantasies, historical fantasies, media tie-ins, and a book on writing — and as many short stories. His work has been translated into a dozen languages. As D.B. Jackson he writes The Islevale Cycle, a new time travel/epic fantasy series from Angry Robot Books. The first book, Time’s Children, is just out. The second novel, Time’s Demon, will be out in May 2019. A third book, Time’s Assassin, is also in the works.
D.B. also writes the Thieftaker Chronicles, a historical urban fantasy set in pre-Revolutionary Boston. The first volume, Thieftaker, came out in July 2012 from Tor Books. This was followed by Thieves’ Quarry (Tor, July 2013), A Plunder of Souls (Tor, July 2014), and Dead Man’s Reach (Tor, July 2015). In addition to the novels of the Thieftaker Chronicles, D.B. has written and published several short stories set in the Thieftaker world. Many of these have now been gathered in a collection called Tales of the Thieftaker (Lore Seekers Press, 2017).
David B. Coe was born in New York, and has since lived in New England, California, Australia, and Appalachia. He did his undergraduate work at Brown University, worked for a time as a political consultant, went to Stanford University, where he earned a Master’s and Ph.D. in U.S. History, and finally returned to his first love: writing fiction.
D.B. is married to a college professor who is far smarter than he is, and together they have two beautiful daughters, both of whom are also far smarter than their father. Life’s tough that way. They live in a small college town on the Cumberland Plateau.
David grew up loving stories and knew early on in life telling stories what he wanted to do for a living. He got interested in Fantasy after being cast as Bilbo in The Hobbit at a summer camp. He became totally enamored of the genre and Tolkien after that.
He took a workshop-style writing class in high school which enjoyed, and went to college intending to be a creative writing major—but then found himself in a workshop where everyone hated genre fiction and picked on the kid who was writing it, so he got away from writing for a while, to the tune of four years of college and six years of graduate school getting a PhD in history.
After that he had several months to apply for academic jobs, and his wife, who had already taken an academic job, said, “You have all summer, why don’t you try writing and see if you prefer that to history?” He ended up writing the first five chapters of what became Children of Amarid, the first book in the Lontobyn Chronicle, which won the Crawford Award and launched his career.
One Thursday in March he was offered a job teaching history–and the very next day he heard from Tor, wanting to buy his novel. He had the weekend to “decide what I wanted to do when I grew up.” He decided he wanted to pursue a writing career, and hasn’t looked back.
He says it was a hard choice at the time, but absolutely the right choice, and he continues to find his academic background in environmental U.S. history valuable in worldbuilding.
He creates his own maps, and mentions when he was still a newbie he ran into George R.R. Martin at a convention and told him he was working on something new. Martin asked to see his map, looked at it for about two minutes, and then said, “That’s a good map.” David says he was “flying for the rest of the comvention.”
The world of Islevale in which Time’s Children is set is a world of islands and archipelagos, meant as an homage to Ursula K. Leguin’s Earthsea, one of the earliest fantasies David read, and one he fell in love with.
After synopsizing Time’s Children (you can read a synopsis here), David explains where the D.B. Jackson pseudonym came from. He’d been writing epic fantasy for Tor, and when he switched over to the Thieftaker books, urban fantasy with a historical element, Tor was concerned about branding, so D.B. Jackson was known. Now he’s probably better known as D.B. Jackson than David B. Coe. Angry Robot was given the choice of bylines for Time’s Children and liked the critical response he’s received under D.B. Jackson. so went that route.
D.B. are, of course, his first two initials. His late father’s name was Jack, so Jackson is his way of honouring him.
David says he’s unaware of another fantasy novel dealing with time travel, which is usually done in a science fiction setting. There’s the Time Turner in the Harry Potter books, but David says (as a fan of the books), it’s a terrible device, used poorly. “If time travel is that easy,” he says, “why are Harry Potter’s parents dead, and why is Voldemort still alive?”
He sought to make time travel difficult–physically costly for the person doing the travel–and incredibly rare. There are not a lot of “Walkers,” they pay a terrible price, and the process i harrowing. (The main price is that they instantly age however many months or years they travel back in time–and again when they return.)
David thinks the book started with the idea of being a child in a man’s body, of intellect and emotion being out of sync with the body. He remembers holding his infant daughter worrying about the fact he was no responsible for her when he felt barely more than a child himself.
“I wanted to tap into that sense of taking on responsibility that we’re not ready for.”
David says his process of worddbuilding is to ask questions of himself in a stream-of-consciousness fashion. Although he usually outlines very closesly, Time’s Children resisted that. “The process was more fraught and more difficult and more harrowing than any other writing experience.” He says he was winging it much of the way, and “winging it” in a time-travel story meant “my brain nearly exploded.” It also meant a huge rewrite at the end because “I’d fouled up so much of it.”
In the end, though, the challenge was worth it, even though at the time it was deeply frustrating. He mentions that when it comes to creative process, every writer works differently, and on every project the writer is forced to kind of reinvent that process. He also says that while there are things you can teach students of writing (he teaches writing quite often), when it comes to process, all you can do is offer suggestions and describe what works for you.
He says Time’s Children was the hardest book he’s ever written. He spent six months trying to outline it, until his wife said he should just write it; then, when he sent it to his agent, his agent said, “It’s not there, here’s what missing.” It took him another several months to tear the book down and rewrite it, but all that hard work makes the finished product more gratifying: he believes it’s the best book he’s ever written.
He adds that even when he’s doing his most detailed outlining, maybe a paragraph per chapter, the outlines remain fairly loose because he knows that when he gets halfway through he’ll have to re-outline because things have changed. “I like to create in the moment.”
Still, he says, “I need to know where I’m going,” and with Time’s Children he felt hw as “groping through the darkness.”
David has written novelizations (like the novelization of Robin Hood). For that he was working from a script and given very little creative leeway. He calls it “color-by-numbers” writing, and while he was thankful for the work, he didn’t find it fun: it was slog (but a fast one–he only had five weeks).
He’s now working on a novel-tie in for the History Channel series about the Knights Templar, called Knightfall. That one, he’s finding fun.
He does a fair amount of research for any project. For the Islevale books, he had to research boats, since he decided to do an Earthsea-style world, and things like weaponry and sea currents and navigation.
He remembers once spending hours to research wheelwrighting because he’d decided to make a character a wheelwright. In the end, it was only a one-page scene. “But I wanted to get it right…even if we don’t include all the things we learn in our research, the weight of that knowledge can be conveyed in just a few lines…One detail can bring so much authenticity to the entire scene.”
He sees character work as another form of worldbuilding, and researches them the same way. He creates detailed character sketches, and sometimes writes short stories (which he can sometimes sell) to develop them further.
For example, there’s a non-human character called Droë in the Islevale books, a time demon. He wrote a short story about her called “Guild of the Ancients” which was published in ana nthology.
David believes the ability to step into the emotions and thought processes of characters is the same thing that makes us good fathers and husbands and friends and siblings. “That’s what makes us helpful to the people we love in our daily lives, that ability to stretch our empathy to the point where we’re taking on their emotion.”
Because of the ages of the characters, Time’s Children might at first glance appear to be a young adult novel, and David was fine with that. “Write the novel you want to write, and when you’re done, then you figure out how you market it. ..I was aware with the romance, and even a romance triangle of an odd sort, I was writing something akin to YA novels.”
However, while there are themes that cater to a YA audience, there are also themes that an adult audience is drawn too. And, he adds, the second book, Time’s Demon, is not a YA novel at all: it’s serious and dark and also sexual in a certain way. “My editors were aware of this, they knew not to market it as a YA.”
Returning to the notion of feeling young in an old body, David says he and his wife have biologist friend who, when he was young, studied mating habits in birds, and as he got older has started studying aging patterns in birds. “Our professional lives often mirror our emotional interests and concerns.”
David is “a middle-aged guy,” and he remembers thinking, when he was in high school, that when he was his parents’ age he would feel very different because they were so old. But now that he is that age, he doesn’t feel all that different. ” I feel I’m the same person I was twenty or thirty years ago. Certainly still immature…This idea of aging but still feeling the same internally was speaking very powerfully to me.”
Baby Sofya is a major character in Time’s Children. David says that, for all the demons and assassins and time travel and magic in these books, they’re also very serious to him because they’re about family: creating family out of the ashes of chaos and loss and tragedy and violence. They’re rebuilding family in order to keep this infant alive.
He says there’s something about the uncompromising needs of a baby that creates exigencies with which your protagonists cannot negotiate: the baby must be fed, changed, carried. It both creates intense stakes for the characters and yet also offers a certain lightness. “I’ve loved writing Baby Sofia in these books and making her central.
David says there was a lot more rewriting of this book than he usually has to do, but it was not so much a matter of the writing as the plotting. Almost all of the notes he got back from his agent had to do with narrative structure, and that was one of the best lessons he learned in this book. He was proud of the prose, which he thought sparkled: the trouble was, it didn’t “crackle.” There was no energy in it: it was all about his main character, Tobias, hiding, and it needed to be more about him being proactive. In the end, David cut 40,000 words, and then added back 60,000, totally changing the feel of the book.
Members of his writing group (the first he’s ever belonged to) provided valuable feedback, especially since none of them are fantasy writers and only a couple of them even read it. “They were able to show me places where my worldbuilding wasn’t clear enough or magic system bogged down in details too heavy for non-genre readers.”
Some of that advice was contradictory, but as he tells students, in the end, the book belongs to the writer. “There are going to be mistakes. They’re going to be my mistakes.” He says he’s all for the idea of “killing our darlings,” but ultimately the book has to speak to him as the author. “When I got contradictory advice I followed my heart and followed what my characters were telling me.”
Angry Robot is a new publisher for David, so he had a new editor, Nick Tyler, who also provided valuable input, although by that point the book was so clean “it didn’t need a lot.” He expects more editorial developmental work on the second book. “I’ve been working on it for a while, but I need fresh eyes.”
David agrees that literary fiction worlds are every bit as made-up as genre fiction worlds. “Every time we create characters and circumstance for those characters we are venturing into make believe. The distance between what I do and someone who writes realistic fiction isn’t that great.”
He says the prejudice against genre fiction has to do with either the notion that genre fiction is formulaic (which David rejects) or that somehow genre writers using plot tools like magic and time travel in place of character, setting, or narrative cohesion, as if writing is a zero-sum game, so that if you add in these other elements you have to take out something vital. He rejects that, too. “I don’t think if I add magic I have to take out something vital from the work.”
He says, “We’re still writing about people, still dealing with human emotion, conflict, tension, all the things that make day-to-day experience something we want to write and read about. I do think its an unwarranted denigration of our genre and other related genres. Writing books is hard.”
If writing books is hard, why does he do it?
Davie laughs. “If I don’t, those voices in those heads are going to keep talking to me, and Im going to go from being a professional to being an out-patient.”
He says he has stories, characters, and ideas he wants to share. “For all the struggles, for the bad pay and the poor reviews and all the other struggles, I love, love, love what I do. I can’t imagine doing anything else, I can’t even imagine wanting to do anything else. Every day I get to sit down at a computer and say lets pretend. What job could be better than that?”
He also feels speculative fiction can have an impact on the real world, by holding up a mirror that allows us to explore issues of race and gender and environmentalism and class and social injustice and all sorts of other important political and social and cultural issues in ways people have never thought of before. He mentions Neil Gaiman’s American Gods, a prescient book that predicts the rise of social media in our society, and Nora Jemisin, who is writing about social issues, gender, and race “in ways that can teach us so much about our world and how we can make a better world for our children.”
He’s written about environment, race, and mental illness, not because he’s trying to send out a social message or bludgeon his readers with politics, but because he believes writing should be about a lot of different issues.
Up next for David: Time’s Demon, the Knightfall novel (out in March), and editing an anthology, Temporally Deactivated, for Zombies Need Brains. Later this year he’ll be starting work on Time’s Assassin, book three in the Islevale trilogy, and he’s also got a couple of short stories to write. “I’m busy, and busy, for a writer, is good.”
Arthur Slade was raised on a ranch in the Cypress Hills of Saskatchewan. In addition to the award-winning novels mentioned above, he co-created the graphic novel Modo: Ember’s End. An interesting fact that the Art likes to point out is that he does all of his writing on a treadmill desk while listening to heavy metal, and the strangest thing of all is he does it in a place called Saskatoon, Saskatchewan, which, I can assure you is not as fictional as it sounds.
Art says he was inspired to write fantasy by The Hobbit. His Grade 4 teacher read it out loud to his class, and he says it was the first book read to them that he really “fell into.” In fact, he was so “agog” at it that when his parents took him away from school for a week to go on a family trip to Disneyland he actually felt kind of sad he was going to miss a whole week of the The Hobbit.
He was a creative kid who always wrote “bits and pieces,” but it wasn’t until Grade 11 that writing really took hold: “I love to blame my English teacher for my career,” he says. She had the class write a short story, and Art wrote, “Under Heaven, Over Hell” (“If you want to get your teacher’s attention, make sure you put a swear word in there!”). He got a grade of 100, which he found “kind of astounding.” That was his “first big reward” as a writer, and he carried on from there.
Art wrote six novels that were never published. His sixth, a novel for adults, he sent to the Saskatchewan Writers Guild, which offers a manuscript evaluation service. The reader wrote that Art had written an amazing novel for young adults, which incensed him: he felt insulted that he’d been accused of writing for young adults. And yet, that was a moment that changed the direction of his career.
Art notes that he has a kind of “sparse style,” perfect for writing for young adults and for children, so once he got over the “insult,” he decided to try it, and the next book he wrote, the seventh, was accepted right away. “So I’m really glad that that reader insulted me so deeply, because it really opened up all these doors for me that I might not have thought about.”
One reason he likes to write for young readers is that he loved books the most between the ages of eight to thirteen. “Back then, I could just disappear into a book. It was really an amazing immersive experience.” So now, when he’s writing, he’s often thinking about that younger version of himself, and it’s natural to make the characters that age.
The other reason he likes writing for young readers is that “everything is fresh to them, they’re learning everything for the first time, even if they’re sixteen or seventeen and they believe they know everything—and believe me, the real teenagers do—it’s all new. They seem to have this new energy.”
As part of his ongoing experimentation with self-publishing, Art has written a novel called Amber Fang with characters a little bit older, twenty or twenty-one, still young, but a bit more knowledgeable about the world, so they can make jokes about Shakespeare and other references that wouldn’t work for a thirteen-year-old.
Art says he had the original idea for Crimson (and even wrote a novel based on it) when he was seventeen. He threw out all of that original book except for one character, Mansren, who, although bound at the beginning of the story, was “almost a God,” a being of pure magic, completely malevolent and yet capable of being charming. What would happen, he wondered, when someone like that was suddenly unleashed?
Crimsonis about Fen, who is thirteen when the book starts, and fifteen a couple of chapters in. In the very first scene, she loses her hand because she has stolen something, leaving her able to perform only odd jobs around her village.
Fen lives in a world that has been controlled by a Queen for a thousand years. The Queen uses magic that she mines from the ground, in the form of red dust, to control everyone. She can make people into whatever shape she wants, so she has soldiers who look just like her, and she can also control what people think.
Every once in a while, there are people who go “crimson”: their hair suddenly turns red and they acquire magical ability. This happens to Fen: her hair suddenly goes red, which means she has an immediate death sentence. She has to flee the village before the Queen’s guards come after her. What she gradually learns is that there is something new growing where her hand was, and that’s the magic that she has. Eventually she runs into Mansren.
Art notes that he’s never really tackled a full-fledged fantasy novel until now: he’d mostly moved into dark fantasy, real-life stories where fantasy squeezes itself in. He found writing a full-blown fantasy challenging. “It was so hard to think about the magic and think about how you make everything feel real. I can write a book set in 1930s and do all this research and really make that feel real, but when I’m making this other world, how do I make people believe that they are someplace entirely different? That was kind of a major step for me.”
Art says if he’s going to spend a year on a story, there has to be something in it he really cares about. “Part of that the idea behind Crimson is this queen, because she’s so powerful, has basically destroyed all the cultures and is trying to reshape everything to her. She has even made it so that people only have first names, because it’s too complicated to have last name.”
The Queen wants the world to be perfect and simple. As a result, all the world’s cultures are being lost. It’s against the law for people to speak any languages than the language the Queen has decreed.
“When I was thinking about character Fen,” Art notes, “I was also thinking about my own daughter. My wife and I adopted from China in 2010, so it’s a while ago now, and I realized I’d never written anything where she could go, ‘You know, that’s me in the story. That’s someone just like me.’”
So Fen is a character who comes from a Chinese-like culture. (Although he made sure to say to his daughter that Fen was not her, “because some horrible things happen to the character.”) That feeling of doing something that his daughter would read and that would reflect her culture was really important to Art, and helped energize him while he was doing the research.
Some of that research, he says with a laugh, “is in my house all the time, walking around.” He’d also read about China for a long time because of adopting from that country, and in fact, the place where the book begins is based on the part of China where his daughter comes from, and where he spent a week. “I really wanted to re-create what it felt like there….to be a reflection of my daughter’s character.”
Art says he writes very much by the seat of the pants, rather than plotting things out in detail. He knows the basic story, but a lot of his process begins with the first chapter. “I sit down and start writing it.” He says it takes forever because he’s thinking about what the world will look like, and he’s trying to put everything together in that first chapter. “It’s like my brain is unlocking all these little kind of mysteries about what could happen next. I follow the breadcrumbs, in a way, that that I’ve left or that I’ve discovered just by the process of going through that the first chapter.”
After that, he tends to write a few little scenes that he know will appear somewhere further along. Getting to a scene he’d first thought about three months earlier is like a reward, although the reward is, “Now you have to make it to the next place that you dreamed about sixmonths ago!”
Eventually, he says, after many words and often many mistakes, he gets to the ending, which usually comes to him about the halfway point, once he has a lot of the characters and events in play. He says he’s learned it’s okay to have a wrong ending: you can fix it later.
The only time he tried to do a really details synopsis was for his novel Flickers, and he says he found that book the hardest to write: working like that seemed to mess up his process, so he’s kind of scared of it now, even though, “I’d love to do it. That seems to make more sense to me. Everything is all laid out and you just write this much every day, but that’s not how my brain works so far.”
Everyone works differently, Art agrees, and when he teaches writing, he always starts by saying, “This is what works for me, take whatever is helpful for you, but it’s not necessarily going to work for you.”
The magic system in Crimson unfolded as he wrote, and solved problems—like the magical armour of the Queen’s guards, a kind of second skin that they never take off. He had to figure out how that worked. In the process, he wrote some 30,000 or 40,000 words that ended up cut from the novel, from the point of view of one of the Queen’s guards. While writing that helped him understand how the process worked and its effect on the men involved, in the end, he didn’t need all that detail. “It was really kind of exploring.”
Another problem: Fen has lost her hand, and something new is growing there—what is it? It’s magical, but what kind of magic. “It’s that whole process of finding the words that make it sound real, finding a way to make himself and the reader believe that the magic is real, and indicate what the limits are, and how uncontrollable it can be. “It’s someone who is learning, not sure if the magic is even part of her or if it’s something else working through her, partly because it just doesn’t work when she wants it to.”
Waking up one morning and find you’re a completely different person is a terrifying idea for young people, Ed suggests, and Art agrees: “In some ways it’s like puberty, except overnight, and people are going to kill you.”
One reason so many words were cut was that originally the book was going to be a back-and-forth between Fen and Marcus, but when his editor read it, she said, “Oh, this is amazing, this is great…and by the way, we should cut out that character, you know, the one that takes up half the novel.”
Art likes stories that “just don’t slow down,” and realized the editor was right. The actual rewriting didn’t take that long: he likened it to a woodcarver cutting a sculpture out of wood. He says he could quickly see, “This is how the book was meant to be.”
“I’m just really thankful, because that’s what editors can do. A good editor will look at it and go, ‘You know, this is actually what you meant to do,’ and you go, ‘Oh yeah, you’re right, I am that smart.’”
Art notes that when you’re self-publishing, you have to pay for an editor, and they’ll typically only take one pass through the book. He notes that working with an editor from a traditional publisher can be extremely frustrating if they don’t “get” your work, but a lot of the time, they’ll actually find out what’s missing, something to do with a character, maybe, or the overall tone. “That’s what a really good editor does.”
He adds sometimes editors will say something mysterious (he thinks maybe they take a course in how to say mysterious things to authors to motivate them). For his novel Dust, the editor said, “You know, there just seems to be something missing from that second last chapter.” He looked at it, trying to figure out what she was talking about, and suddenly a new aspect of the chapter came clear to him, a whole scene that wouldn’t have appeared if she hadn’t made that comment.
Art says he tries to make his submitted manuscript “as clean as possible” so his editor doesn’t have to do a lot of work, but he doesn’t do the really fine line-by-line polishing until after the editor has seen a draft. He says he’s sometimes amazed by the themes editors find in his work, though afterwards he says, “Oh, yeah, that is what it’s about, that’s exactlywhat I was thinking.”
Writing is a collaborative art, a conversation with readers, in a way, Art says. Rather like editors, “They’re bringing all their own experiences to the book, so they will see things in a different way.”
He likes the term used for his podcast, worldshaping, rather than the more commonly used term worldbuilding.”It’s a process of taking what you already have, the clay of this world we live in, and shaping it into something else.” He notes that in Crimson, the Queen’s realm is based on the Roman Empire, and his main character has a Chinese-like background. “I’m not building something new, I’m taking something that already was there and shaping it so that it can fit into this other world that I’m imagining.”
Art says the reason for writing these kinds of stories ultimately boils down to “Because it’s there…because I can, or you can.” He says when the first image of a story comes to him, like that of Fen knowing she’s about to have her hand cut off, “there’s a kind of rush to it…It’s not a real event in terms of a memory, but it feels almost as real as a memory, and so I want to create it and make it as real as a memory of something that has really happened.
Creating a novel, and feeling like it worked out, “that you made this new thing,” he says, is the real pay-off for him. (Although he’s not averse to “cold, hard cash,” either.)
“I like that whole experience, and I get a high from it,” he says. “I can’t imagine not doing it. I can’t imagine just watching movies, I have to create my own movies. I can’t imagine just reading books, I have to create my own books.”
He thinks one reason people like his books is because they often include characters who are fighting against something larger than themselves, while coping with a disability or something else that holds them back. “People respond to that.”
They also respond to his style of writing: it moves ahead quickly, but still has emotion in it.
Art says is first and main goal is to entertain, but, he adds, “I guess I like making people think of different things, or perhaps getting to them to look at the story or the characters in a different way.”
He gives as an example the hunchbacked main character from The Hunchback Assignments. “I really loved the idea of him not being this beautiful handsome prince who conquers all the dragons. I love that idea because it kind of twists the normal Disney version on its head, and says, ‘You can be unattractive and you can be a powerful, thoughtful, intelligent character, too. To make it more interesting, he does have this ability to change his shape and look like other people, so he can become beautiful, and is always trying to, not only just battle the outside forces, but the forces that are inside him, saying, ‘You kow you’re not good enough, you’re not attractive.’”
Art says it’s important for him to crate characters that are different in some way. “Anybody who’s a geek or a nerd like me, you always felt a little different growing up, and you felt like you were in a different place, and so that’s why I enjoy that process. And if that makes somebody who feels like they’re on the outside a little bit better, then that’s great.”
Ed notes that it’s quite common for people interested in science fiction and fantasy to feel like that, and Art wonders if that will continue to be true in, say, twenty years, since it seems like nerd culture is so much stronger now, and so much more normal, than wen he was a kid. “You can find your tribe a lot faster.”
Art is playing with an idea for a sequel for Crimson, which he hadn’t expected. He’s also continuing on with his Amber Fang series, and just finished writing a shorter piece of fantasy, currently called Dragon Assassin.
Those interested in his ongoing experiments with self-publishing can follow along on his blog at arthurslade.com.