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Thursday, August 6, 2020

Interview with John Bierce, author of The Wrack




Thank you for agreeing to this interview. Before we start, tell us a little about yourself.




I'm a 31-year-old digital nomad who, up until the current pandemic, traveled full time while writing. (I started traveling as a digital nomad last summer, after I started making a full-time living from my novels.) Now I'm stuck in Vietnam hiding from the virus for the foreseeable future, since I'm at-risk and Vietnam is currently COVID-free. I went to school for, variously, English, History, and Geology. I have seven years of undergraduate study (not all at once) under my belt with no degree. I was close to getting my geology degree when I dropped out to focus on my writing, and the risk paid off! I'm a huge history and science buff, and, ironically, a bit of a home-body, considering the whole world traveler thing.

I can also burp the alphabet, and have heterochromatic eyes. 

How old were you when you first sat down to write a fantasy story or novel? And how old were you when you made your first professional sale?

I basically purely wrote science fiction until my... mid-twenties? I think I had one fantasy short story I wrote for a school assignment in high school. My first major fantasy project was a comic book script I started when I was... 26, 27? Something like that. (It was also, looking back, my first project that was really ready to be published- I'm still proud of it, and looking for a home for it.)

And I've never made a professional sale, actually! Never even pitched a book or short story to any publication- I've been indie as an author since day one. I do pretty well for myself regardless- I live entirely off my writing, and comfortably, at that. (I am, however, seeking to go the traditional route with my comics projects under my secret identity.)



In your own words, what is The Wrack about? 

The Wrack is an exploration of what happens when societies and individuals are forced to confront the fact that they're still at the mercy of nature, and must choose whether to turn to or away from their traditions, faith, and communities to get them through.



Or, a little more concretely, it's about what happens when a plague kicks in the door of your civilization.



What inspired you to write this story? Was there one “lightbulb moment” when the concept for this book popped into your head or did it develop over time? 

There wasn't really a lightbulb moment, no- I just knew I wanted to write a novel about a plague. From there, it was a long, slow development process of what I thought it would be. And once I started writing, of course, it turned into something else entirely.


I'd been fascinated by the Black Death since childhood, and as I got older, that fascination turned into an interest with epidemiology in general, especially as it relates to environmental history. The history that most of us are taught in school has a massive blind spot when it comes to non-human factors driving history- it's actively painful for many societies to consider themselves as still vulnerable to nature's whims. As such, you barely get any exposure in school to historical events like the Plague of Justinian, the Columbian Exchange epidemics, or the Spanish Flu, and only a brief overview of the Black Death. Often, when examining historical events, the role of disease gets left out- the common narrative about Napoleon's invasion of Russia is that winter defeated his army, but in truth, typhus was what really stopped his invasion. 



So I started talking about the "plague theory of history" in conversation with friends, and that eventually transformed into a desire to write a plague novel. Not just one, really, quite a few- I'd say around 20% of my story ideas are heavily epidemiological, though few as much so as The Wrack. 

If you had to describe The Wrack in 3 adjectives, which would you choose? 

Depressing, hopeful, weird.

Would you say that The Wrack follows tropes or kicks them? 

Both? I generally prefer to execute a familiar trope well than to subvert a trope just for its own sake, but I highly enjoy subverting tropes when there's a good reason. Not to mention, so many trope inclusions or subversions in a book tend to be unconscious on the part of an author- often, we don't even realize we're doing it, or that we're working with a specific trope.

Tell us about The Wrack’s protagonists. Who are they? How would you describe them to someone meeting them for the first time? 

The Wrack doesn't exactly have protagonists- it's structured as a novel-in-stories, where the individual chapters all peek into separate windows of the house that is The Wrack's story, rather than just watching the whole drama through one window. (A full novel-in-stories would have different characters for every chapter, but I chose to revisit and follow many of my characters throughout the book.)

I suppose if I had to pick, the disease itself would be the protagonist.



Alright, we need the details on that gorgeous cover. Who's the artist/designer, and can you give us a little insight into the process for coming up with it? How does it tie to the book?

Isn't it amazing? I'm so happy with that cover. The artist is Amir Zand, and I can't recommend his work highly enough. I definitely have plans to commission more covers from him in the future, he's ridiculously good. Check out more of his stuff at https://amirzandartist.com/

As for coming up with it- I offered Amir Zand a couple of ideas I had for the cover art, he chose the one he'd prefer to create, and we set to work! The cover depicts Castle Morinth, which guards the mountain pass leading up to the Maze of Mist, which regularly spits out all sorts of nasty creatures that like to cause trouble for the country side. It's also where the titular plague of The Wrack first appears.

How did you come up with the title The Wrack?

So, it sort of hinges on the mixed up etymological history two words, "wrack" and "rack". In noun form, "wrack" refers to seaweed- usually seaweed washed up on a beach, forming the "wrack line". A "rack", meanwhile, is a medieval torture instrument that stretches people out to the point of pain and injury. In verb form, however, the two words got repeatedly conflated until it became permissible to use them interchangeably- "he was wracked with pain" or "he was racked with pain". (Also see "(w)racked her brain".) However you use it, though, there's a sense of something being twisted or stretched unpleasantly, and that's a big part of what the Wrack does to the human body.

I should note, however, that this linguistic conflation doesn't exist inside the language of the books- they don't speak English. So as far as the characters are concerned, the name is purely derived from the seaweed bit, not the torture instrument bit. (I had fun having many of the characters be baffled by the origin of the plague's name.)

Also, it just sounds really ominous and cool, to my mind.

How does it tie with the plot of the book? 

Pretty straightforwardly- the Wrack is just the name of the disease.

What do you hope your readers take away from this book? 

Ultimately, I'd say my desire to write epidemiological fantasy was heavily inspired by my goal of convincing people that, yes, our civilization is still at risk from plagues, epidemics, and pandemics. Which, uh... turned out a bit unnecessary. Thanks, coronavirus. Still, though, I'd like to help remind people that our technology has in no way made us immune to nature's whims- if anything, it's left us more vulnerable in some ways.

Still, the spread of COVID-19 has made me reassess the way I think about my own book in a big way- it first showed up in China midway through the writing process, and the WHO declared it a pandemic four days after I sent my manuscript to my editor.

Can you tell us about your editing process? Do you proofread and edit your work on your own or hire professionals?

All of the above! After drafting is done, I do a few developmental edits through the book a few times, then send it off to my beta readers and editor. Though I should definitely note that I'm awful at catching a lot of my own typos and misspellings and such, so I'm seriously dependent on my beta readers and editor to catch those.

Thank you again for taking the time to chat with us, John. Anything else you has going on right now that you'd like the world to know about?

As I write this, I'm finishing up my final edits to the fourth novel in my Mage Errant series, The Lost City of Ithos. It should be out sometime in August! I also have a Patreon where I release a monthly short story (usually set in the world of Mage Errant) at patreon.com/johnbierce .

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