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First Post: An Interview with James Maxey

Hello world! For my first post, I thought I’d post an interesting interview I had with the author, James Maxey. You can see his smiling face on the right.

James Maxey

James is the author of the Dragon Age series of books and since I’m a fan of all things dragon, I read his series and decided to email him about an interview. Not only is James an excellent author, he is extremely nice. He immediately sent me an email back saying that he’d love to do an email interview. Below you’ll find the results. You can also click on the link if you’d like to check out his blog.

Just for clarification, the bold text are my questions and James’ responses are below them.

An Interview with James Maxey

James Maxey was kind enough to take a few minutes to answer a few of my questions. Before we begin, I’d like to thank James for this interview. It’s nice to see an author who is easily accessible to his fans. Besides that, I’m betting there are a lot of people who will find this interview fascinating, especially if they’re an aspiring writer or a fan of James’ work.

If you could give one piece of advice to aspiring writers who want to have a novel published, what would it be?

At the risk of being overly obvious, the first step is to actually write a novel. I talk to a lot of people who want to write a book, and who start books again and again, but never manage to finish one. I think a lot of people are afraid that they will finish their book and discover that it’s not that good. Odds are, it won’t be, but that’s okay. In order to write a good book you first have to write a bad book. My first unpublished novel was horrible, but it taught me a lot about what I didn’t know, and learning I had the discipline to see the project through helped me move on to the next book.

What inspired you to write Bitterwood?

There are multiple inspirations for any project I undertake. First, there’s a geeky fanboy inside of me who played AD&D every week for the better part of a decade and who was mildly obsessed with dragons. I used to spend a lot of time imagining how dragons might plausibly exist in our world. My dragons draw a lot of their traits from pterosaurs and now extinct birds like argentavis. They aren’t fire-breathers, since that trait has never evolved on Earth among vertebrates, and they also only have four-limbs–two hind legs and two wings with foreclaws along the top middle of the wing. All earthly vertebrates have been limited to four limbs since our earliest ancestors crawled out of the muck.

Second, once I had built a plausible template for a “real” dragon, I thought a lot about how well two intelligent species, dragons and men, would coexist. It seemed to me that both sides would possess factions who would never be happy until the other species was wiped from the face of the earth. Bitterwood, my dragon-slayer, and Albekizan, my dragon-king, are mirror images of each other in terms of motivation. Both want to wipe out the hated species that has caused them so much pain. It seems to me to be a cycle of hate that humans fall into over much smaller differences than exist between dragons and men. The Palestinian/Israeli conflict, the protestant/catholic fighting that still unfolds in Ireland, Hutus versus watusis… Grievance breeds grievance in a never-ending loop of bitterness. Bitterwood’s true heroes are Vendevorex and Jandra, a dragon and his adopted human daughter, caught in the middle of the dragon/human war. Is peace possible? Bitterwood ends with a glimmer of hope, but I squash that hope in Dragonforge as full-blown war erupts. I arrive at a possible solution by the end of Dragonseed, the third book in the series. Since it requires a dragon with superpowers, I’m not sure how well it would transfer to the real world.

Both Bitterwood and Dragonforge have a lot of hidden meanings in my opinion. Am I reading too much into the books or did you mean for that to happen? For example, the genocide theme runs through both books. Did you mean for readers to apply the lessons found in Bitterwood and Dragonforge in our day-to-day lives?

I doubt that the target audience for my books will be the sort of folks who are likely to get swept up in genocide, either as perpetrators or as victims. Most science fiction and fantasy readers have pretty good instincts when it comes to moral questions, possibly because so much science fiction and fantasy is built around moral questions. Still, I do hope my books are useful in providing a perspective on events here in the real world. For me, a key scene in Bitterwood comes when Jandra and Bitterwood escape the Free City and he tells her never to let go of her hate. For Bitterwood, hate is fuel, it’s energy and life, it gives him a reason to stand back up whenever he get gets knocked down. He tells her that hate is a hammer that can knock down the walls of the world. It’s actually the exact opposite advice of what I regard as the path to a happy life: You must work every day to maintain your capacity for forgiveness and love. Jandra’s struggle not to fall into the chasm of hate and bitterness, and to rise above her own pain and fears, is a thread that runs through all three books.

Who’s your favourite author, and which author had the most impact on you as a writer?

This is a tricky question. I tend to have favorite books more than favorite authors. For instance, my favorite novel is Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas by Hunter S. Thompson. To me, this is just about the perfect novel, funny, disturbing, dark, and truthful. Yet, I find nearly every other book Thompson wrote to be barely readable. The same is true of Sherwood Anderson. He wrote a brilliant book called Winesburg, Ohio that repeatedly captures profound truths of the human condition, but all of his other books are mediocre and forgettable.

On the flip side of this, I have other writers who I know I can count on to deliver a good read every time. Terry Pratchett is always funny and his books do deal with profound questions about life. Still, I’d be hard pressed to single out any of his books as a truly great book. Perhaps Small Gods comes closest.

I would say the writer who had had the most impact on me was probably Harlan Ellison. I discovered his short stories when I was a teenager and they were just so good I knew that I would feel I had accomplished something if I could just write even half as well as he does.

How do you create characters? For instance, some authors say they take different aspects of the people they know and amalgamate them into a fictional character. Do you have a different technique?

This will be a very gooey, pseudo-mystical answer, but my best characters always seem to create themselves. When I introduced Hex in Dragonforge, I had a very clear notion in my outline as to who the character was and what his role would be in the book. As the king’s disgraced son, I imagined him as a two-faced schemer who would manipulate Jandra into helping him overthrow Shandrazel so that he could seize power. Yet, from the second I actually began to write his dialogue, the character simply refused to go along with my plans. He wasn’t a schemer; he was actually one of the most honest and open characters in the book. And he was the precise opposite of power-hungry: He revealed himself to be an anarchist who distrusted all authority. Of course, this makes his actions near the end of the book all the more shocking, yet all the more plausible.

There’s a character named Anza who is introduced in Dragonforge. She started out as Burke’s bookish 12-year-old son who had been sheltered from the realities of war. Instead, the character quickly revealed herself to be a 19 year old butt-kicker who’d been training as a warrior since she was a toddler. As her character emerged, I learned more about Burke, her father, as well. What kind of man captures a baby dragon so that his five-year-old daughter can kill it? Burke’s rather complicated morality revealed itself to me slowly. He kept surprising me with what he was and wasn’t willing to do. Both Burke and Anza have much more central roles in Dragonseed, by the way.

Who is your favorite character in the Dragon Age trilogy and why?

It’s tough to choose. Can’t they all be my favorites? In the overall series, Blasphet was consistently fun to write. He was vile and detestable, yet he seemed to be enjoying himself as he wallowed in wickedness. I think he has some of the funniest lines, and some of the most thought-provoking. When he tells Metron that there’s a rush of energy in destruction that mirrors the orgasmic thrill of creation, I felt like he was offering genuine insight into why evil exists.

In Bitterwood, I found myself admiring the dragon Zanzeroth. He was definitely one of the bad guys, but he was smart, competent, and had a sense of pride in his work. What saved him from arrogance was that he was growing old; the character is deeply aware that he has passed his prime and I think that his worries and self-doubt make him interesting.

In Dragonforge, I’d say that Hex was my favorite among the core protagonists, but some of the minor characters also captured my imagination. There’s a sky-dragon named Sparrow who only shows up in a couple of scenes. She has a solo scene in which she has to fight her way past a gauntlet of assassins to reach the mechanism that will open the gates of the Fortress and allow her sisters trapped outside to attempt a rescue. I kill a lot of characters over the course of three books, but something about this scene makes me tear up when I read it.

Finally, in Dragonseed, I introduce a new character named Shay who is an escaped slave who believes that books and education are the key to the rebirth of a new Human Age. Shay is one of those characters who wrote himself. At the climax of the book, I had planned out a variety of heroic actions for him to take to save the day. When the big final battle unfolded, Shay refused to follow the script. He wasn’t a classical fantasy hero who was going to jump in with a sword and beat the villain due to his unflagging courage and toughness. Shay revealed his own path toward solving the problems that faced him, and I think it turns out to be a much more satisfying solution than anything I’d had in mind when I started the book.

When you wrote Bitterwood, did the final product match with what you had originally envisioned?

Nope. This never happens for me. I’ve now written seven novels (only four of which are published), and every book has proven to be a surprise in its final form. I know that there are writers who meticulously plan every scene and action in their books before they write them. I generally have an outline when I start, though not a detailed one, just more of an idea of how the book starts, what the complications in the middle will be, and how the book can end in a satisfactory manner. Usually, by five or six chapters in, my outline is shot. My characters develop their own agendas, and there is also something like the butterfly effect going on. Some minor detail I toss out without fully thinking it through early in the book later becomes essential for resolving the book. It’s a very chaotic process, yet somehow order emerges.

What were your profession(s) before you became a novelist?

Pretty boring stuff. I used to be a bill collector, I’ve done prepress work (getting files ready to print on digital presses), a long time ago I was a projectionist at a theatre. I’m grateful that I’ve never had a job I really loved; discontent with a day job is a powerful motivator for any creative pursuit.

Do you read mostly fantasy novels, or are there other genres you enjoy more?

I read a lot more fantasy when I was younger. I tell people that the Dragon Age trilogy are the sorts of books I would have loved reading when I was sixteen. I think there are some good things coming out in fantasy today–check out Lamentations by Ken Scholes. But I also think the high fantasy genre has gotten stuck to some degree in templates laid out back in the 70’s and 80’s.

I’m hoping to one day see the birth of a new genre: Superhero novels. Superheroes arguably got their start in novels, back in the era of pulp fiction. Then, they became so synonymous with comic books, they vanished from other media until recently, when they began to seep back into television and became a major force in movies. We’re just now seeing books like Perry Moore’s, Hero or August Grossman’s, Soon I Will Be Invincible. If I could read a new book every month along the lines of Mur Lafferty’s novel Playing for Keeps, I’d be a happy man.

What’s your favorite part of the publishing process, and why?

Getting paid. Money is always fun.

When writing a book, do you plan the process extensively, or do you just write away?

Mostly, I just plow ahead and go where the story wants to go. Sculptors can look at a stone and see a person waiting inside of it. I sometimes feel like my books have always been out there, waiting to be written, and I’m just incidental to the process.

Do you have a writing routine or do you just write whenever you feel like it?

I don’t have a fixed schedule, but I also have learned to write even when I don’t feel like it. My most important thing is to set a goal for a week, then meet that goal. If I want to write 10,000 words in a week, it doesn’t matter if I reach it with lots of little writing spurts, or if I give up a Saturday and bang it all out at once. The key is to treat a writing goal with the same seriousness that you would give to a goal at work where you have a boss breathing down your neck. If you only write when you feel like it, you won’t produce much.

Once the Dragon Age trilogy is complete, is that it for Bitterwood and his friends, or do you think you’ll revisit the age of dragons again in the future?

This is a tricky question. I have more stories to tell in this world, but the economic turmoil that has hit the economy has hit publishers as well. My current publishing imprint is up for sale by the company that owns it, so they aren’t buying anything right now, though they are going to put out the books they already have in the pipeline, like Dragonseed. If they find a buyer, the Dragon Age may roll on, probably following the adventures of Graxen and Nadala in exile.

What do you feel are your strengths and weaknesses as a writer, and how have you evolved since you first picked up pen and paper?

My strengths are probably pacing and characters. I know how to keep a story moving forward, and my imaginary friends are so far proving to be of interest to other people. My weaknesses would be anything that includes research. I could never write a historical novel like Caleb Carr’s The Alienist because I would never have the attention span to collect all the facts and trivia needed to make a real historical setting come to life.

As far as my evolution goes, I think at some point about five years ago I crossed a boundary where I began to be aware of the readers who would one day be reading my books. I couldn’t make the automatic assumption that they would know the same things I did, or have the same reaction to events that I did. I began to write not just for my own satisfaction, but in a deliberate attempt to communicate with people I would probably never meet, and have them take away at least some of what I intended to say. At the same time, I also learned I can trust the reader to assist me in helping bring my story to life. Good readers are skilled at bringing worlds and characters to life. Learning that the readers are sharing in the act of creation has helped shape the sort of details I feel I need to put onto the page.

Why did Bitterwood and Dragonforge seem to be written by two different authors?

I wrote them both, but there was a huge time lag between the two projects. I actually wrote the first draft of Bitterwood over a decade ago, and some of the clunkiness of the book comes from my inexperience when I wrote it, overlaid with at least a half dozen rewrites, all at varying skill levels. So, while I think Bitterwood is a fine book on its own merits, I can spot the seams where I kept cutting it up and pasting it back together with new parts.

With Dragonforge, I actually only had eight months to write if, from first word to final draft, due to the desire of the publisher to get a sequel to Bitterwood out no more than a year later. It’s actually a less polished manuscript, in the sense that I didn’t write a dozen drafts. But, it was written in a state of mild panic to meet the deadline, and I’ve discovered I actually write better when I’m writing quickly. My first published novel, written after I wrote the first draft of Bitterwood, was a superhero novel called Nobody Gets the Girl, which I wrote in 45 days just to prove to myself I could do it. Dragonforge incorporates a lot of the lessons I learned writing Nobody, the main one being that momentum matters. With Bitterwood, I have a lot of jumps in time, and I think that slows the forward motion of the story. With Dragonforge (and Dragonseed, the next book), the story is linear and urgent, even though the storyline is actually more complex.

Finally, what can fans of your work expect to see from you in the future? Do you have any projects or events scheduled that we should be aware of?

My next big event is, of course, the release of Dragonseed this July. I’ll be posting updates on my blog at dragonprophet.blogspot.com for signings and other promotional events. My next writing project is a superhero novel I started a few weeks ago. Right now it’s called “The Good Men,” taken from the quote, “All that is necessary for the triumph of evil is for good men to do nothing.” After that, I’m hoping the publishing world will be settled down enough that I’ll have a new home, or perhaps several new homes. One of the roughest realities of publishing today is that many writers get locked into writing the same books over and over again. It’s increasingly difficult to build a career where you can jump back and forth between high fantasy, hard SF, and hard to categorise stuff like superheroes. On the other hand, traditional publishing models are in a real state of turmoil at the moment, and it may be that once everything shakes out, there will be even more paths to publication available than there are today. I was at a con a few weeks ago discussing Playing for Keeps with Mur Lafferty, and someone who overheard our conversation whipped out her I-phone, clicked on the Kindle app, and thirty seconds later had the book downloaded on her phone. I got to play around with the app for five minutes, and found it to be a completely sensible way to read the book. We live in interesting times; it’s tough to say what the publishing world will look like two years from now, let alone ten.

Also, for fans of my fantasy work, I do have a dragon-centric novella coming out soon in an anthology called Blood and Devotion. I’ll post details on my blog once the final publication date is announced.

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