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Tuesday, February 12, 2019

Interview with M. D. Presley (Interviewed by Lukasz Przywoski)


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Q] Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little bit about yourself. Who is MD Presley? And why should everyone be reading your novels?


MDP: I’m an introvert, so this is my most dreaded question of all times. I swear, I’ve lost more jobs than I can count when I hit the “tell me about yourself” question and I would stutter something like how I’m not a serial killer. Which we all know only makes you sound more like a serial killer. Because who needs to assure you that they’re not serial killers other than serial killers?

Now that the creepiness is (mostly) out of the way, I guess you should know I’m a former screenwriter who still works in the industry and got tired of no producer ever greenlighting the bizarre and budget-busting ideas I had. So I decided to self-publish, which might just be the best retirement plan for all screenwriters who don’t quite “make it.” But I like to think I learned a lot about plotting and characters from my time in the trenches, which hopefully shows in my novels, which is why you should read them.

Plus floating trains. And psychic exoskeletons. Who doesn’t want to read about those?

Q] When and why did you decide to become an author?

MDP: Ugh… I am the writer clich√© that always wanted to be an author. Ever since I was a kid playing with my GI Joes/ Star Wars action figures, which I acted out really, REALLY intricate stories with. Then I would run the scenario again, but changing one event to see how it played out. Not borderline-type behavior at all…

Shortly after college I learned about screenwriting, which embodied everything I loved: Stories that no one ever read. I don’t particularly care for my prose, and screenwriting is a medium where no one but the film crew actually reads your work. So it seemed perfect.

Smash Cut To: 15 years later as I write novels and expose my prose to everyone who will deign to look.

Q] What draws you to writing in the genre of fantasy?

MDP: My mother checked out a single chapter of The Sword of Shannara on tape when I was in fourth grade and I listened to the battle between Panamon Creel and Keltset versus the skull bearer and I was pretty much hooked. Which sort of put me at a disadvantage since I encountered post-Tolkien authors (ala Dragonlance) before actually reading any Tolkien. So it was always a bit of a letdown when I read the source from which all inspiration sprung.

Neil Gaiman’s Sandman was the next real eye-opening moment for me when I realized authors could do anything, be it blending comics with sacred myths, all the while adding our own idiosyncratic mythos in a modern setting. It really was pivotal for me, and probably why I focused on epic urban fantasy during my screenwriting career.

Q] Tell us a little bit about your writing process. What do you start from? Do you start with a character, an image, or an idea? Talk a little bit about how a novel “grows” for you.

MDP: I’m a creative cannibal in that pretty much all my worlds, plots, and characters were begun in a completely different story idea that never panned out. But there were always some kernels of awesome seeded there, so I would keep them in my notes and wait until they found fertile soil. Usually by mixing them with another aborted idea. Sol’s Harvest, for instance, is a variation on a character I came up with in college mixed with a plot for one of my earliest screenplays, painted on a world I came up with as a thought experiment.

But that’s just planting the idea garden with a bit of compost from other ideas. After everything takes root, I’m really disciplined in my outlining phase, bible writing, world building, plotting, and the like. I would talk your ear off about it, but I realize there is nothing more mentally grating than hearing an author go on and on about their process. So I’ll just say visit my blog, where I go into excruciating detail as to the process weekly.

Q] What’s the hardest thing for you during the whole “writing experience”?

MDP: The process is pretty streamlined for me at this point, so I’ll say the waiting and myopia. Even with the great community of fellow self-published authors I get to hang out with online, writing is a very lonely endeavor: I literally sit alone in a darkened room after the rest of the household goes to bed. So you develop an intimate relationship with the material that isn’t always healthy. You (meaning me) get too close to the story, to the point you lose perspective and can’t tell if it’s good or bad anymore. I try to schedule time between the rough drafts and the editing phase so I can approach it with fresh eyes, but you (meaning me) honestly can’t tell what it’s worth until you start getting some sort of feedback, usually in terms of beta readers. Unfortunately, this is several months into the process, while all the while you’re left wondering if you’d just squandered your time and sanity on something no one will ever possibly love.

Which is why, I guess, there’s always such a cliched comparison between writing and raising children.

Q] What made you decide to self-publish as opposed to traditional publishing?

MDP: Like I joked earlier, I see a lot of screenwriters turn to self-publishing as a means to get their ideas out when no one in Hollywood will listen. We come from a world where the screenwriter makes (maybe) 2% of the budget of the film and then has to do rewrites (which are invariably TERRIBLE) based on the director/ producer/ actors’ notes multiple times throughout the process. Now don’t get me wrong, I obviously value others’ opinions (see above answer), but it gets very soul-crushing to be the one whose specialty is the story, yet having the least amount of control over it in the room. So writing novels was my escape from this, the ability to tell the stories I wanted to tell the way I wanted to tell them.

Which is why I avoid the traditional process like the plague: It’s the same thing I was trying to escape from the film world. Now this is my personal path, and I do not begrudge anyone who wants to go the traditional route. I just didn’t have the time/ inclination to start the same process over again at this point in my life. And, as advances drop and publishers try to wring diminishing profits out of their authors and new mediums like e-books and audio books, I feel I’ve made the right decision.

Q] One of the big challenges with self-publishing is finding readers. Was that your experience?

MDP: Oh dear God, yes. As wonderfully democratic as it is that anyone can now publish a book and get around those mythical gatekeepers of quality in the traditional publishing approach, the double-edged sword takes effect in that anyone can publish a book… usually of dubious quality. And as much as I am a proponent of self-publishing, I do realize there’s a lot, LOT of crap out there flooding the market. So the real problem in being a new self-published author is convincing a potential reader that you’re not like the rest of those terrible writers.

Which, just like a serial killer, is exactly what a terrible writer/ serial killer would say.

I did make some good early connections with fellow authors early on, but Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published Fantasy Blog Off was really a turning point for me in finding an audience. I ended up here at Fantasy Book Critic, and while I lost the opportunity to bear your banner to the championship round to eventual second-place winner Alec Hutson, the reviews I received here gave me that seal of approval I could tout to others as to why they should give my books a chance.

Q] What advice would you give someone who wants to self-publish?

MDP: Learn the lay of the land. Writing is a great personal experience, but you need an audience. And chances are you’re probably writing for/ in a subgenre. So go find that subgenre and where they hang out ahead of time. Become one of them so your book will have a better chance of reaching a receptive audience when it comes out.

Then make sure to put out a professional product. The reason self-publishing gets a bad rap is because much of it is crap. So rise above and take the extra effort to look like the real deal. That means professional proofreading, editing, and a great cover… all things I made mistakes on in my first fledgling steps.

But there are resources out there for authors now, covering everything from how much you should spend on editing to creating your author newsletter. Learn it and practice it.


Q] As you know, I'm a huge fan of your series. The novels can be read simply for fun and engaging plot, but they also deal with issues of politics, sacrifice and religious zealotry. Why were these themes important for you to write about?

MDP: I joke that the true pitch of my series is The Last Airbender put through the True Detective blender, which is to say I want to take everything that is bright and enjoyable of a fantasy world, then cover it in grit. And as much as I’m riding the current grimdark wave as it crests, I think it’s important that we don’t gloss over these big issues as we write our escapist genre. I’m a firm believer in the anti-hero, which also means that no one thinks they’re the villain in their own story. Which is why it matters so much to me that there’s shades of grey from all perspectives in this series.

Q] What was your initial inspiration for the Sol's Harvest series?

MDP: Oops, I answered that above. It really was The Last Airbender in that I wanted to test myself to see if I could create a world equally as lavish and interesting as that series, and True Detective in that I wanted to do a multiple timeline tale where you get to watch the protagonist(s) arc twice in the telling of each book, so that when you finish one timeline the events that preceded it now offer a different perspective than when you were reading it at the time.

Q] The thing I really enjoyed about the story was how you’ve orchestrated different, but converging time lines and how each book of the series focuses on a different character. Why have you decided to write them this way?

MDP: That’s the True Detective influence again (I should probably read the upcoming questions ahead of time so I will stop answering them in the previous questions). But each perspective adds new insight to previous events, so that knowing what you do about Luca in book two, you would read book one differently. Ditto with Graff from book three. And don’t even get me started on how book four will shift the understanding of the whole series…

Q] One of the things I’m torn about is my favorite character in this series, and that’s a good thing. I am definitely partial to Marta, though I probably find Luca most charming and Graff interesting in a creepy way. Do you have a favorite to write yourself?

MDP: I shouldn’t admit this, but Carmichael and Oleander were probably my favorites. I do like Marta and Luca (and Isabelle) as characters, but I don’t think I’d like to actually hang out with them as people. Not now that I’ve dealt with them for years on end. Oleander gets the benefit of the doubt because she’s remembered as a perfect and loving foil by Marta, which Carmichael is the exact opposite embodiment of. Which makes him so much fun to write.

Is it bad that I always identify with villains?

Q] The characters do develop and change as you read the novels. Did you find your own views of the characters changed as you were writing or was it always your intention for things to be “as they are”?

MDP: All their arcs are mapped out way ahead of time, although the path they take to get to those beats that I’ve planned out sometimes surprise me in the execution. And yes, my opinion of Graff changed significantly before/ after writing book three.

Q] The setting of the books is excellent. Though we’re not told everything, there feels like a rich backstory of history, myth and legend. What challenges did you face not just in making it accessible, but in incorporating all the information that needed to be conveyed to make the story work?

MDP: This is a tough question in that I’m currently doing research on a book on fantasy worldbuilding and will talk your ear off on the subject. But I do think it’s something we should discuss as fantasy fans/ authors because I think, along with plot and characters (and maybe prose), worldbuilding is one of the table legs that support our genre.

Personally speaking, I wrote something like 100 pages of worldbuilding spanning from their creation myth to the different factions currently vying for control before I even began outlining the books. But worldbuilding is a lot like backstory for characters in that, while the author needs to know it all, the audience doesn’t. It’s all about context and what you think is necessary for the story to make sense. I tried to show-not-tell the bits I could, but didn’t fear the infodump when I couldn’t. How well I accomplished creating audience context is entirely up to the readers to decide though.

Q] What sort of research did you do for Sol’s Harvest?

MDP: I hate to admit, but most of my research was Wikipedia. I mean, I read some books on the Civil War as well as a lot of myths, but mostly relied upon my memory of high school history and used my imagination (it is fantasy after all). Wikipedia was for moments where I needed specific details like how many troops are actually in a brigade.

Q] What was the most difficult part of writing this series? What was the most enjoyable part?

MDP: The most difficult part was the starting out as a self-published author and not knowing a damn thing. It was like being a newly blinded person let loose in a mob and told to go purchase a train ticket from a machine a half-mile away (I don’t know where that simile came from). Needless to say, there was a lot of fumbling and some skinned knees.

The best part, I hope, is yet to come when book four comes out and people see this unholy monstrosity I’ve wrought over the last several years.

Q] If you would be given the chance to rewrite any of the scenes in The Woven Ring before publication, would you do it? If yes, what and why?

MDP: I would rewrite it from page one on until the final punctuation mark. Not the story beats, mind you, but the prose. As I’ve said, I hate my own. But I hate what I’ve recently written less than I hate what I wrote long ago. Which is why I only read what I’ve already published to find specific details I need for the current story. Otherwise, reading it pains me since I want to correct it to fit my current style.

Q] Would you say that Sol’s Harvest series follows tropes or kicks them?

MDP: Well, it kicks the farmboy with a sword trope in the balls right out the gate with an aristocratic female with all the gifts who has already failed at life as the protagonist. Although I guess she does have a sword. There’s also no immediately obvious prophesy or dark one, and I do sort of end the initial quest in book two of four.

Which might be why this series isn’t that popular: People like tropes and I don’t think I included nearly enough.

Q] Which question about Sol’s Harvest series do you wish someone would ask? Ask it and answer it!

MDP: Will character X be the final POV for book four? I love that question because it shows that people are engaged enough to care. And I can’t really answer because that would give it away.

But that was sort of a cheat. So I’ll leave you with this creepy question I got once: Will Marta and Carmichael ever make out?

Short answer: No.

Long answer: Noooooooooo!

Q] Do you have a plan for your career as an author? At the moment you are wrapping up Sol's Harvest tetralogy. Do you have any other authorial goals that you are striving towards that you want to talk about?

MDP: As I said, I’m going to try my hand at a non-fiction book on fantasy worldbuilding when this is through. Then I’ll kick off an urban fantasy series that’s been living in my head rent-free for almost two decades. And I’m also considering returning to the world of Ayr with a series of novellas exploring the other continents and their particular magics with one of the surviving characters from this series. But we’ll see how much energy I actually have.


Q] Can you name three books you adore as a reader, but that make you feel inadequate as a writer?

MDP: Neil Gaiman’s The Wake: I had so many feels for this one that I don’t think I’ll ever produce in anyone ever, even if I live to be 100. 100 Years of Solitude: Just plain lush. And I’ve always wanted to make a movie out of Peter Hoeg’s Borderliners because of the way he captures alienation in a way I’ve never been able to. Although I’ve certainly tried.

Q] Thank you so much for agreeing to this conversation, MD! We greatly appreciate your time and thoughts.

MDP: You’re kidding, right? You appreciate my time?! How often does an author, especially a self-published one, get to go on about themselves on a stage like this without having to pay money (or perhaps an organ) for? Seriously, much of the success that I do have comes from Fantasy Book Critic and the support you’ve shown me, an unknown author with no connections. You opened the doors for me and I will never forget that.

So if you ever need a body buried west of the Mississippi, you got my number.

East? Well, I know a guy…

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