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Thursday, July 9, 2009

Interview with James Maxey (Interviewed by Cindy Hannikman)



Fantasy Book Critic was very fortunate to have James Maxey stop by for an interview. Mr. Maxey is well known for his series of novels: Bitterwood (FBC Review HERE), Dragonforge and his most recently published book Dragonseed (FBC Review HERE).

Cindy Hannikman got a chance to ask James Maxey about his recent novel, some of his past writing experiences, and a cause that is very close to Mr. Maxey, a campaign known as Books for Breasts.

For the benefit of those that are unfamiliar with who you are why don't you introduce yourself and tell us a little bit about yourself?

I'm just a geek who's read too many comic books and played too much D&D. It's damaged my psyche in ways that can't possibly be repaired without long and expensive bouts of therapy. As a result, I'm middle-aged and still spend my time daydreaming about imaginary friends. Actually, that's probably not that unhealthy... it's the dreams about imaginary enemies that are worrisome. Anyway, I compulsively write down all my deranged fantasies and by luck they've proven to have some modest economic value. Go figure.

How did you get started in writing? Were there any fantasy/sci-fi authors you think helped get you hooked on sci-fi/fantasy?


When I was a kid there was a series of books featuring a character named Danny Dunn. He'd have weird little sci-fi adventures, like accidentally getting shot into space. I think I read every book in the series. Also influential was a children's TV show called Land of the Lost. I recently watched the first season of the show and was surprised at how great it was. Yes, it's special effects are cheesy by today's standards, but the slowly unfolding mysteries of the lost land were terrific. It had episodes written by SF greats like Ben Bova and Larry Niven. Later, when I was in high school, Hitchhiker's Guide to the Galaxy appeared. I bet I read it 100 times. Oh, and of course, there was Dr. Who. On the literary side, in addition to Douglas Adams, I was also reading the big names like Asimov and Bradbury, and around my senior year of high school I discovered Harlan Ellison and thought he was the greatest writer ever.

When Bitterwood was published it stood almost as a stand alone novel although there were a few threads left that could have turned into more novels. Did you expect Bitterwood to be as popular as it became?

I always had a hunch that the book would do well if it got into the hands of actual readers. One reason I think the book is a success is that I actually bothered to tell a complete story. The book isn't just a set up for the book that follows, it's got a beginning, a middle, and an end. One of my gripes about publishing today is that I feel like some series get padded with books that don't really stand on their own. I try to respect the book as a unit of storytelling. While Dragonforge does end with a hook for the next book, I still think it stands alone on its major plot threads. I want readers to get their money's worth. Dragonseed flows straight out of the events in Dragonforge, but by starting with Shay, a new character, I'm free to bring readers up to speed on what's going on at a natural pace. I don't think anyone would get confused if they picked up the book and started reading without having read the earlier books.

Did you ever expect Bitterwood to turn into the Dragon Age series and if so did you foresee the popularity of the series amongst fantasy fans?

I actually thought about a sequel to Bitterwood a long time ago that was completely different from Dragonforge or Dragonseed. It was going to involve a time jump ahead seven years and feature a teen-age Zeeky riding around on a giant boar and being something of a grim avenger like her mentor Bitterwood. And, who knows? That book may yet come to pass. I've found that the more I've written in this world, the more ideas I have to still explore.

After reading Bitterwood, a lot of readers and reviewers seemed to bring up a lot of valid questions about the storyline, characters and world. Did you take into consideration any of these questions when writing DragonForge?

Definitely. There was a criticism that I had too many characters in Bitterwood; I tried to trim that down for books that followed. Some people were stumbling over the long names of my dragons, so most new dragons I introduce have short names like Hex, Graxen, and Vulpine. A friend of mine pointed out that there weren't that many important female characters in Bitterwood. I feel like I've addressed that in the other books, both as Jandra matures as a character and with the introduction of Anza as a butt-kicker to rival Bitterwood. And, of course, there's Jazz... not necessarily a likable character, but undeniably a strong one.

Dragons are a very popular fantasy/sci-fi theme. Whatever gave you the idea to give dragons such evil streaks and the ability to enslave humans and try and rule the world.

I don't think of my dragons as evil. They are merely coming from a different moral perspective. Humans keep some dogs as pets, use dogs for food in some cultures, and in many parts of the world wolves and other wild canines are hunted to near extinction. Does that make humans categorically evil? Dragons are simply better at oppressing humans than humans are at oppressing them. And, why not? They're bigger, they fly, they're just as smart as humans, and they don't spend all their time arguing about religion. It's no wonder they came out on top in the Dragon Age.

There are many fanatical religious prophets throughout your books. On the other hand there are a lot of non-believers and skeptics. Does this stem from any personal beliefs or experiences?


Definitely. I was raised as a Pentecostal Christian, witnessing speaking in tongues, the casting out of devils, etc. I had the Bible drilled into me every week until I was 18. While I'm now an atheist, there's a lot of Christian mythology spread throughout my books, because I think it's a great mythology. Hezekiah and Ragnar are modeled on old testament prophets who were heathen-smiting Ba'al-busting bad-asses. I had one person comment that they thought I was Christian bashing in Bitterwood's opening scene when Hezekiah burns a pagan temple and slaughters the men of the village. This is pretty tame compared with some of the actions of Biblical prophets. I'm not trying to slander Christians; I'm actually drawing inspiration from their foundational myths.

Also, it's not as if my atheist characters are held up as models of moral and intellectual perfection. Burke the Machinist is probably my most prominent and vocal atheist, but he has some rather chilling notions of morality, as revealed in Dragonforge when he tells his daughter all the "good" reasons a man might kill another man. And Burke has a crisis of faith in Dragonseed... the fact that he can feel his phantom limb leads him to contemplate the possibility of souls. If he can still feel a missing leg, does this mean he could still feel himself long after his body is gone? Most readers understand that just because I have an atheist character contemplating his possible soul, I'm not trying to refute atheism. Similarly, just because Ragnar is a book-burning, woman-killing, raving, naked loonie, I'm not trying to make a statement about all Christians. He's just a character who caught my imagination.

From the first book in the Dragon Age series to the latest book, Dragonseed you seemed to have grown as a writer. Your characterization and world development seems to have improved. Do you see a difference in your writing from back then to today and what do you believe has changed in your writing?

Definitely I can tell a difference. I think the biggest difference is that I had years to work on the first book through multiple drafts, and there are many places where it's overwritten. It's not actively bad, it just doesn't have the flow that it should. With the other books, I didn't have time to second-guess myself. I had to get out a first draft, lock down all the story details in the second draft, then polish it and make it come to life in the third. I think the writing is looser and more organic. It seems counter-intuitive that fewer drafts should lead to more fluid prose, but that seems to be my current experience.

A lot of your books have an underlying theme to them. For example, DragonForge seemed to have a lot of self discovery between the characters, and Dragonseed has a huge theme of healing. Is this intentional or is something that seemed to crop up in the writing and is over analyzed?

For the most part, the themes arise organically out of letting the characters pursue their own goals. I didn't consciously start Dragonseed with the intention of giving so many of the characters physical and emotional wounds to deal with. They just got hurt as a natural consequence of the plot of Dragonforge. Because they were hurt, I found myself drawing on my own experience to figure out how they would react to their situations. A few years back, I lost my girlfriend to breast cancer. I spent several years thinking every day about what it meant to be inside a failing body, and a lot of time feeling an almost religious fervor when I thought about the possibility that Laura could and would be healed by some new drug, or by simple spontaneous remission. It was only a matter of time before these feelings found their way into my work.

Some writers like to plot out where the characters in their book are going to go and how they are going to grow. While other authors like to let the characters take on a life of themselves. Which type of writer are you and is there an example of a character developing into something that you never expected.

I'm definitely in the second camp. My characters constantly start as one thing then morph into something else. Anza entered by first draft as a bookish 12 year old boy, for example, then became a girl, then turned 19, then turned into a highly skilled warrior. Later, I wrote a fight scene where she killed someone in complete silence, I was struck by the possiblity of having her be mute, which made her a more challenging character to write, and also led to the realization in Dragonseed that she doesn't think in words, but in movements. Another character that really took himself in a different direction was Hex. In my outline, he was supposed to be a villain, scheming to manipulate Jandra into helping him seize the throne. But, very quickly he informed me he didn't want no *$#@! throne and was instead a radical anarchist who found that violence could sometimes be an acceptable argument. Some of my characters are tough to write. Zeeky, for instance, never really lets me get too deeply inside her head. But others are more than willing participants in their own creation. Any time I write Blasphet, for instance, he's happy to jump in with his own dialogue.

All the books have a scientific flare to them, while at the same time having a fantasy feel to them. Is it a challenge to balance the two different types of genres? Do you have any scientific background that you pull from for the sci-fi part?


My only claim to a scientific background is my ability to read and my fascination with science. As far as blending fantasy and science, it comes naturally to me. I'm something of an evangelist for the church of science and technology. We live in a world of casual wonders. I carry around a cell phone that lets me call anyone in the world from any place I happen to be standing on the eastern seaboard of the US. This same phone has a tiny chip that stores thousands of songs and books and photos. It's a jukebox and a library and an art gallery small enough to hide beneath a postage stamp. We take for granted the fact that we have light at night, comfortable air in our houses, and food in our freezers. Most of us have a steel box sitting in our driveways that can carry us hundreds of miles in a matter of hours. Any reasonable observer who came to us from before the year 1850 would assume we live in a world of magic. The truth is, we have something better than magic: We live in a world of matter. Matter is wondrous because it is inherently understandable. It rewards our study in concrete ways where the study of spirit has failed us. We can heal the sick, feed the hungry, and clothe the poor, not through prayer, but through our ever-increasing collective mastery of the material world.

One of the scientific aspects is that of being able to find out what is wrong with someone that is sick, by just touching them and being able to heal them. Personally do you feel that some day in the future this is a possibility?

Yep. Admittedly, this is technology that is far in our future. But, all human physical ailments can be traced to a cellular level; they arise either due to the interference of outside agents, like viruses, trauma, or toxins, or else grow from flaws within the body's own genetic code. All of these problems are problems of matter; they may be complex, but they aren't infinitely complex. We can and will build increasingly powerful tools to deal with them. A few centuries from now, nanotech will have reached a stage that a healer will be able to touch someone who's ill, have the microscopic robots in his sweat and breath invade the patient and discover the source of the illness, then adapt to become tiny engines of repair to fix whatever is wrong. I can think of many difficulties in bringing this to pass, but humans have shown a remarkable ability to confront difficult problems and triumph over them.

Do you have any plans for the characters after Dragonseed? Any chance that the series might continue if you can find a publisher that'll either pick up the series or buy Solaris (as many readers may know Solaris has been put up for sale a few months ago)?

If I can find a publisher who's interested in publishing more Dragon Age books, I'm certainly eager to write more books. I'm awash in ideas. Unfortunately, the publishing world is suffering from the same economic woes as the rest of the economy and Solaris isn't the only publishing imprint that may disappear. I'm just one of scores of writers now looking to get picked up by another publisher. However, I intend to keep writing books no matter how much the publishing world contracts. Since I have an existing fan base, it may be economically viable for me to look to a small press publisher. And, five years ago, I didn't think ebooks would ever be a major segment of the market. Now, I regularly read books on my cellphone, and my hunch is that e-books might be the dominant form of publishing a decade from now, just as online magazines are now more popular than printed ones. One beauty of e-books is that they can be published pretty much as quickly as they can be written, and the economic model for them yields far more dollars per book for the author than printed books. Right now, I'm in limbo, hoping that someone buys Solaris and that future Dragon Age books would be an element of their line up. By the end of the year, if this hasn't happened, I'll start weighing my other options on how best to keep putting books out for my fans.

Out of all the characters in your book, who is the most facinating for you to create/write about?

Ooh! A tough call. My books really are ensemble efforts by the characters; and everyone has their value, even Poocher. I had no idea when I started Bitterwood that one day I'd have a pig with a back-story demanding his own character arc. Still, if I had to pick the single character from Dragonseed who I found most compelling, it has to be Shay. He's the dreamer of the cast, imagining a new Human Age, certain that the way to launch it is with books and education. I love him because he's brave and honest, and feel a connection with him because his dreams far outstrip his abilities. He gets his butt kicked in almost every fight in the book, but he keeps getting back up. And, without giving any spoilers, I think the scene in the big fight near the end when he's holding onto Jandra and has to decide whether or not to let go of her hand is one of those moments that any writer dreams of writing. The scene only works because Shay is Shay; I couldn't swap him with any other member of the cast and have it succeed.

If dragons really existed in the world, do you think they would be able to live peacefully side by side with us humans or would we be battling and fighting for control like your stories have it?

I think all evidence argues that we'd wipe them out, or at least reduce their numbers so far that they'd be greatly endangered. Humans have co-evolved with other intelligent beings--various hominids like Neanderthals, for instance. There's evidence (if not proof) that we wiped them out and possibly ate them in the process. Some people argue that whales are intelligent, with complex language and social structures that we've not been able to decode. We nearly wiped them out, and they aren't competing with us for the same resources of land and food. And, plenty of big animals, like mammoths, were either driven to extinction or at least nudged in that direction by humans. Climate change may have been the real killer of mammoths, but human hunters chasing them over cliffs in herds couldn't have been helpful.

I don't want to paint humans in nothing but a negative light, however. Some species do really well by us. The world no doubt has far more dogs, cats, rats, horses, chickens, pigs, and cows than it would without us. It's interesting that some animals thrive specifically because humans like the way they taste. It's survival of the yummiest. So, perhaps if dragon meat is even better than bacon, they'd endure.

You recently started a project called "Books for Breasts" which is a really great cause. Why don't you tell us a little about this project and what motivated you to get involved with something like this?

As I mentioned, I lost someone I loved dearly to breast cancer. Laura was only 39. While I've given privately to cancer charities, I've never used my blog to solicit money until now. Several things converged: First, in US political debate, there's been a lot of discussion about controlling health care costs. I wrote a blog post where I argued that the smartest investment of money the US could make right now would be to declare a War on Cancer. Throw the sort of money at fighting cancer that they do at fighting terrorism: After all, on US soil, terrorism in the past decade killed three thousand people, and this has justified a trillion dollars in spending. Cancer kills 3000 people on American soil every two days. It is a constantly unfolding 9-11 happening all around us. If we invested even half of the money to combating it that we do to fighting terror, I think we could cure the most common types of cancer within a decade. Think of the long term economic benefits we'd reap if cancer became no more fearsome than treating the flu.

Around the time I wrote that post, I participated in the Susan G. Koman Race for the Cure, a charity run/walk to raise money for breast cancer treatment and research. When I signed up for the race, I noticed that they had made it really easy to set up a donation page for individuals to form teams to raise money, even after the race ended. Then, two days after the walk, I came home and found a huge stack of books waiting for me, my promotional copies for Dragonseed. Normally, I'd be sending these out to reviewers, family and friends, and running contests on by blog to give away copies. Instead, the overlapping of my War on Cancer musings, the Koman walk, and the big stack o' books converged to give me the idea to use the books to raise money to fight breast cancer. I've put links on my blogs at jamesmaxey.blogspot.com and dragonprophet.blogspot.com. Anyone who makes a donation through the links can email me for a free copy of Dragonseed. I've set aside 50 books for this effort. As of the end of June, I've given away about 30 books and raised over $1000. If the current fundraising pace continues, I may look at giving away another 50.

Thank you so much for your time, are there any parting words you'd like to leave to our readers?

If you're a fan of the Dragon Age, be sure to check out the fan site www.bitterwood.net. It's a completely unofficial site set up and run by fans who've gathered to discuss my books, and I try to drop in at least once a week to add to the conversation.

Thanks!

3 comments:

The Reader said...

Hi Cindy

This was a very good interview, those were some really wonderful questions.

I'm def. going to give this series a try.

Mihir

rachelhestondavis said...

Yes, an excellent interview. I especially liked what he said about the publishing industry putting out "padding" books just to fill up space in a series. As I'm working on a series myself, I've had to make decisions about how much I will "pad" and how much I will pare down the series to avoid literary fluff.

Rachel Heston Davis
www.rachelhestondavis.wordpress.com

Cindy said...

Thank you both for the nice comments. I was very very excited for this interview as I really loved the series.

Rachel: You are right about the padding and such. When reading books sometimes I wonder if the padding is there because the author wanted it or other pressures. As for stand alone vs series, a cliff hanger can be a nice thing in a series, but sometimes I wish single books would give me a slight sense of completion.

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