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An Interview with James Maxey

Tuesday, Jan 31, 2012 at 11:01am

I had the pleasure of meeting fantasy author James Maxey while attending World Fantasy Convention in Columbus, Ohio. His new novel Greatshadow, Book One of the Dragon Apocalypse releases today.

CG: What made you love fantasy?

JM: Comic books. I devoured comics as a kid. Marvel published Conan the Barbarian, and DC had books like Warlord and Claw the Conqueror. When I read actual books in my youth, they were heavily weighted toward science fiction; I was only dimly aware of the fantasy genre. (This may have had something to do with small town libraries feeling it was okay to stock books about spaceships, but not okay to stock books about wizards and spell casting.) I didn't read Lord of the Rings until I was in college.

CG: When and why did you decide you wanted to be a writer?

JM: I was a bookish child. I devoured every bit of reading material that landed near me. I felt like books opened up the world to me, and I never left a library without maxing out the number of books I could borrow. Reading came easy to me, and I guess I figured that writing couldn't be that hard, since I started my first novel when I was eight. It ran almost a hundred words. Which was, like, six chapters. I had some difficulty fleshing out my ideas.

As a teenager, I used to write superhero short stories and was quite prolific. Then I was an English major in college and learned what I was doing wasn't "literature." It took me ten years to shake of that education and start writing the kinds of books that I really wanted to read.

Now, my idea of a good book is one that has the fast paced action and humour I enjoyed when I was younger, but also one that grapples with big, thought-provoking issues, such as man's relationship with the natural world. Greatshadow can be enjoyed just as a fast paced romp through a fantasy landscape, but I think it will also be rewarding for folks who demand something a little meatier.

CG: How do you approach your world-building? Do you prefer to outline heavily at the start or fill in the details as you write?

JM: I mostly make it up as I'm going along, though the more I write in a series, the more I break out in flop sweat to explain the inevitable contradictions that arise from my devil-may-care approach. On the other hand, confronting these contradictions often leads me to wonderful stories behind the story. Never underestimate the creative power of panic.

CG: What would you say was your greatest challenge in writing Greatshadow?

JM: This is the longest work I've ever attempted told in the voice of a single character. Stagger's voice is tricky. He's well-read and likes to show off by peppering his narration with large words. He'll say 'inebriated' instead of 'drunk', and 'defenestrated' instead of 'thrown out a window.' He has a dry wit and is, shall we say, generous with his opinions. A character like this could slip easily into obnoxiousness, and I constantly kept having to pull him back from the dark realms of snark and sarcasm so that his humour was endearing rather than off-putting.

The single most difficult scene to write came about three quarters into the book, when the adventures run into an "old god" named Nowowon in the ruins of a temple. Nowowon was the god of destruction of a now vanished civilization, which I guess meant he was a little too good at his job. I wanted Nowowon's method of fighting to be to confront each of the characters with their greatest fears about themselves, the things they've always secretly suspected would one day destroy them. I decided that, since reflective self destruction was Nowowon's gig, that it would be cool if his speech was also reflective and he spoke in nothing but palindromes. Advice for aspiring writers: Don't do this! It was a pain to find palindromes that fit the dialogue and the chapter took three times as long to write as it should have. Even worse for the people around me, for a whole month I went around jabbering things like, "O stone, be not so!" and "No! It is opposition!"

CG: I loved the humour in Greatshadow. Does writing humour come easily or is it something you really have to work on?

JM: The jokes come pretty easily, but take a lot of work to translate into prose. Humour in real life is a matter of timing, vocal tone, facial expression, and body language. These tools are absent or muted in prose. As a result, I'll think of humorous situations that I see and hear clearly in my head, judge it to be funny, then have to puzzle out how to get it onto the page. A single comma out of place can ruin the flow of an otherwise good joke. You can't know how long I agonize over whether or not some lines of dialogue are funnier with an exclamation point!

CG: What was the largest influence on your writing while you wrote Greatshadow?

JM: Most of the big influences came long before I wrote the book. I haven't read Piers Anthony in years, but I read dozens of books by him in the 80s, so perhaps his blend of humour and fantasy adventure are now part of what I consider as a satisfying read.

On a more immediate level, I listened to a lot of Decemberists albums when I was writing this book. They have several songs about ghosts, which provide a hidden soundtrack to the book. "Yankee Bayonet" is a duet between a woman whose husband died in battle and his ghost. While the setting doesn't match between song and book, I can almost imagine Infidel and Stagger singing the lines. Another pair of songs "California One" and "Youth and Beauty Brigade" aren't about ghosts, but in the musical bridge between the songs a woman whispers story about good ghosts who guide soldiers out of danger. Her whispers end with "If I were such a ghost, I would stand so close you could feel my breath on your cheek." It was a sentiment I tried to capture with Stagger's ghost following Infidel around like a guardian angel.

The whole book is a highly romanticized take on love surviving death, and whether I was drawn to songs on this theme because I was writing the book, or whether I was putting the theme into my book because I was trying to capture the spirit of the songs, I suppose I'll never know.

CG: Greatshadow features a unique cast of ultra-powered adventurers. Do you have a favourite among the book's characters?

JM: A tough question. I really loved them all. Leaving aside Stagger and Infidel, I would have to say I really enjoyed writing Father Ver, the Truthspeaker. He's such a dark and complicated character, with a system of values that makes his life difficult. He tells the young Stagger, "Truth is hard. Truth is harsh. Truth is all that matters!" His dedication to his faith places him on a direct collision course with pretty much everyone else in the world who need a few fibs and secrets in order to move smoothly through their days.

Of course, I can't mention the Truthspeaker without mentioning his polar opposite, Zetetic the Deceiver. Having a character whose superpower is that any lie he tells becomes true was just a blast. I also enjoyed writing him since he's the only member of the dragon hunt who's a coward at heart. Writing only brave characters would be a little dull. You need someone to be the voice of reason.

CG: The sequel to Greatshadow, Hush, is due out in the summer. Is your Dragon Apocalypse a finite series or ongoing & open-ended?

JM: It's almost certainly finite unless those immortality vitamins I ordered off the internet work out. But, unlike my Bitterwood trilogy, where I wrote the first book without thinking of what came next, I've got a master plot for the whole series. Each book stands alone, but each book also changes the dynamics of the larger relationship between men and my godlike elemental dragons, until the dragons finally decide they've had enough of us pesky humans. Then, the fate of mankind will depend on characters and ideas I've woven into the series from the first book. If I were the sole arbiter of the length of this series, I think I would tell the story over eight books. But, publishers and readers get some say in the matter as well. Perhaps I may tell the whole epic in five or six books. I doubt I would take it beyond eight books. I've got too many other stories I'd like to write one day.

CG: Dragons are also featured prominently in your Bitterwood novels. What is it about dragons that appeals to you? Do you have a favourite mythological or literary dragon?

JM: While today I have no fear of snakes, as a kid I was definitely given the heebie-jeebies by all things reptilian. I firmly believe evolution has hardwired us with certain instinctive fears. The little monkeys we descended from had strong evolutionary pressures to be constantly on the watch for big snakes, big birds, and big cats. Blend these three predators together, and you have a dragon.

I think one of my favourite portrayals of dragons was in Terry Pratchett's Guards! Guards!, where the dragon exists in a spiritual dimension beside our own until he breaks through into our reality, at which point he's so large that the guards hunting for him are actually standing on him without realizing it. And, speaking of otherdimensional dragons, one of my all time favourite science fiction stories is Cordwainer Smith's "Game of Rat and Dragon." Here, the dragons are beasts that exist in the area beneath ordinary space that ships must cross to make faster than light travel possible. They are creatures of pure fear that humans perceive as dragon, since dragons are the apex predator on our food chain.

CG: Finally, is there anything you'd like to share with your readers?

JM: A plate of hot wings and an adult beverage. Actually, I probably wouldn't want to share the beverage. Drinking from the same glass is unsanitary. Plus, booze is expensive. You understand. Nothing personal.

Categories: Interview, SciFi & Fantasy, New Releases

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