Saturday, November 21, 2009

Bad news, good news and interviews - John D. Brown

Well, the bad news is that reading is slow going with the intensity of work-life and home-life, so there won't be a book review for a little while yet. Also, I've nothing for a Spotlight this Sunday night. The good news is that I have finished the massive work project for this year and can return to some enjoyable leisure activities again. Which is the segue to the other piece of good news - an interview.

Recently, thanks to Alex Koritz, I was granted a review copy of Servant of a Dark God and interview access to it's author, John D. Brown. I found Mr. Brown to be a very thoughtful man, perhaps best described using words like reflective and introspective. More than that, Brown seems to be a comfortably confident individual - the kind of presence to immediately put one at ease. Read on and see what I mean.

PW: I noted the juxtaposition in the story between free will and compulsion. Will you give your own view of the comparison and contrast between the two?

John D. Brown: Peter, first of all, thanks. I'm so happy to appear on Ubiquitous Absence. I will also say that you're the first to note this aspect of free will in the story. It's a subject fraught with drama and danger, and will become more important in books two and three. I find it fascinating. On the other hand, I never write with the intent of fictionalizing a philosophy ala Ayn Rand or Terri Goodkind. There's nothing wrong with doing that. Such an approach has obviously produced great stories. It's just not how I do it.

Having made that disclaimer, I will say that there are many ways in which people are "compelled." You can physically force them against their will. You can physically juice them so that their will is subjugated to various drives. This is how crack and meth work. You can work on genetic influence. Or you can frame a situation, work on beliefs and attention, so that one course of action cries out to be followed. Yet, in all of this, I believe humans still have moments of choice. And that's the drama, when you have to make choices under such pressures, in ethically complex situations, with incomplete information. Or where you have to choose to compel. And what do you do when you see the results of that choice? All of this draws me, and so it shows up in this tale.

PW: It seemed, to me, that your debut work was strictly contained to the particular events therein. That is to say, I got the impression that it was a ‘set-up’ work designed to acclimate the reader to your world, its culture and its people and avoid information overload. Will you correct or affirm that impression and explain how the debut effort will relate to future installments?

John D. Brown: It's an interesting question. There is, of course, some acclimation that needs to happen in the first book of any series. And it's true I wanted to avoid overload. But the primary goal was not to set up the real story or build background. I knew when I began this book that I wanted it to tell a whole story. I wanted it to be a thrill all by itself.

Of course, I knew I had to raise some questions in the reader's mind at the end to propel them into book two. But I wanted them to feel satisfied—no cliff-hangers. I wanted them to have had a thrilling journey. I really think Star Wars, the first movie, is an excellent example of this effect. You set up a problem (save the princess), complicate it (holy crap, death star!), then solve it (blow it up). But then you also show Darth Vader wheeling out in space, escaping the devastation, and the viewers know that bad boy is coming back. So you feel satisfaction as well as some anticipation. That's what I wanted to do in my own way.

Now another part of this is that the story is told from the point of view of the people who don't really know what's going on. The truth of what's really going on is buried deep. So the book is also limited because my characters are still discovering the truth. They'll discover more in book two. Then I have some humdingers waiting in book three.

So this definitely sets up books two and three--it was plotted and written to be three books. But it was also meant to be its own tale.

PW: Concerning the Dark God series, how many books do you envision it encompassing?

John D. Brown: As I indicated, this story is a three-book series. My editors specifically wanted to avoid using the term "trilogy" just in case we decided to write other stories in this world. But this story with Talen, Sugar, etc. will end in three books. One of my goals with this debut was to write something epic, something that the reader could sink teeth into, but also something they could finish. I like stories that don't take twenty years of real time to conclude.

PW: Looking at your debut book, I can only conclude you’ve been living right. Seriously, how does a debut fantasy novelist get Swanland cover art?

John D. Brown: By sacrificing seven hundred goats to the volcano gods. You have to travel to Hawaii where Swanland lives, but that's the price.

Actually, I'm glad you share my appreciation of Swanland. He's an amazing artist. We luvs him, Precious. I actually had no say in the artist or subject matter of the cover. I was so pleased when I found out he’d been commissioned. With someone like Swanland you know you're in good hands. The neat thing is that not only did he read my book, but he told me he actually enjoyed it! So the fan boy in me was thrilled.

PW: I’ve seen it written that magic is fantasy’s substitute for sci-fi’s technology. Your debut flaunts that assumption and incorporates magic into the cultural faith. Due to the power held in such knowledge, it then became a contentious political point. Will you detail your development of this cultural point/”magic system?”

John D. Brown: I don't want to give too much away, but as you noted, it all revolves around power and the keeping of it. Magic is indeed like technology in that it allows you to do things you couldn't otherwise. Things beyond your own physical power. So how do you keep your enemies at bay? You can smash them head on. Crush them. You can make the cost of coming against you so terrible they elect not to do it. But another way is to steal their base of power, steal their knowledge. Wipe it out. And then make seeking it so abhorrent that they never threaten you again. So when humans are being ranched, well, what would the overseers do? My answer was all of the above.

PW: What is the current status of the follow up works in the Dark God series?

John D. Brown: Right now I'm working on the third draft of book two. The first draft was exceedingly rough. But this one is shaping up very nicely. I've got a lot of stuff in it that has just got me excited. As for book three, I know how it ends, know a few key scenes and have the bones of an outline.

PW: Do you have any other projects in the hopper for your post-Dark God days and may we have a teaser?

John D. Brown: I do. There's another epic fantasy series that's structured in a more episodic manner. There's a thriller about a man who went to jail for bank robbery, reformed, but gets dragged back into crime. And maybe a young adult. I don't know exactly which will be next. Or if it will be something else. I know career wise that I should keep it in the same genre. But we'll see. Sometimes I've found I need to do something different to recharge me. But they're all cooking in the story stew.

PW: I’ve been to your site and read about your journey to this point. What was it that put you ‘over the top’ in terms of confidence and kept you from the fate of so many would-be writers?

John D. Brown: I think most writers have doubts long into their careers. For example, I've read a few Sue Grafton interviews where she shares from her writing journal. There are moments when writing her novels when she thinks she's writing drivel and has seemingly no confidence at all. And then she pushes on, finishes, and sells to hundreds of thousands of happy readers. I've heard other authors, big names, do and feel the same thing.

Of course, it does help to get a sale or two to provide yourself evidence that you can write something people enjoy. Selling my short stories did this for me. On the other hand, sometimes you read something, professionally published, that's so bad you know can do better. But I think the most important thing is not to focus on obtaining confidence.

You might be having distorted thoughts. If so, then you need to work on that. I'm not talking positive mental attitude. I'm talking cognitive therapy, David Burns and his book Feeling Good. That stuff is the real deal. And I can’t tell you how many writers it affects. Every conference I go to I hear the distortions over and over.

But if you're thinking right, then the most important thing is work. Butt-in-chair work. Not drudgery. Although sometimes it might be. But joyful work. Work finishes product. Work brings insight. Work develops skill. Part of that work will lead you to seek out others who are working just as hard as you. And you'll grow together. Confidence will come as a by-product of work.

I struggled for years to figure out what made stories tick and how to write them. But I kept going. And because I kept working I finally burst through the things that were holding me back. Work is the key. Smart, hard work.

That doesn't mean every writer can become a best seller (alas). But work is the only way to develop the skills to their maximum level.

Once again, all thanks to Alex Koritz, John D. Brown and Tor-Forge for this opportunity. It's always very interesting to get the take of the author upon the story you've just consumed.

For now, here at Ubiquitous Absence, it's back to the reading of Gene Wolfe's Severian of the Guild - the omnibus edition of Book of the New Sun.


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