Friday, December 20, 2013

Interview with Django Wexler

The Thousand Names is easily one of the best books I've read this year, and a strong contender for debut of the year besides. So it's no surprise at all that I asked Django Wexler for an interview. We covered the usual questions about concept, influences,character, plotting and more. I was impressed by his candor and his sense of humor and quite enjoyed myself as I'm sure you will too. There are some links to other content by this talented author included, be sure to check them out. They're well worth your time. I even bookmarked one for reference later. 

Well, that's enough from me. Enjoy.

52 Reviews:  I'll start with a soft ball question. What can you tell us about the genesis of The Thousand Names? Did the original concept change much through the course of writing? 

Django Wexler:   So, The Thousand Names basically came from my reading two books – George R. R. Martin’s A Game of Thrones (and sequels) and David Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon.  Needless to say, I’m a big fan of Martin, and I really liked what he did with his setting – he took the standard knights-and-castles fantasy and brought it down to earth, so to speak, by introducing a big dose of historical realism and modeling it more closely on a particular time period.  I decided I wanted to do something like that, a secondary world with a strong historical basis and magic with a pretty light touch.  But since the knights-and-castles era was pretty well covered, I thought it would be more fun to base it on a very different time in history.

When I read Chandler’s book, the Napoleonic era seemed perfect.  Big, sweeping battles, lots of interesting political changes, and not something you see much of in fantasy.  Influenced by the old S. M. Stirling and David Drake series The General (military SF retelling the campaigns of Belisarius) I originally planned to do a fictionalized version of the actual life of Napoleon, with Janus as the Napoleon character.  Once I started developing the world a bit more, and working on the characters and their backgrounds, it became clear that wasn’t going to work, and the current version of the story only has faint similarities to the actual *course* of history.

I think Winter’s story was the last part to fall into place.  I knew I wanted the second POV to be female, but for a while it was Janus’ little sister, or Marcus’ girlfriend, or similar.  Once I realized she needed her own story, it worked much better, and the result is that her plot ended up taking over the series to the point where she’s probably the key character!

52 Reviews: While I also loved Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, I was really impressed that none of your viewpoint characters were from the ranks of the privileged few. Did you intentionally choose to focus on the common men and women, or was it more a function of the historical period that provided the basis for the novel? 

Django Wexler: It’s a function of a couple of things, but mostly the setting.  I wanted the viewpoints to be two characters at opposite ends of the military hierarchy – one to give the rankers point of view, and then one at the top to talk strategy and help explain what’s going on at a higher level.  The ranker was obviously going to be a commoner, and that ended up being Winter’s role.  For the officer, I wanted someone who basically knew what he was doing, and the way the Vordanai army is put together that mostly means commoners as well.  (In the Vordanai army, a captain has to rise from the ranks or be trained at the War College to achieve his rank, a colonel just buys his.)  Janus is the exception, of course, but I knew I didn’t want him to be a point of view – that kind of “genius” character works best when viewed from the outside, the Holmes and Watson or Thrawn and Paelleon.

In The Shadow Throne, the next book, the third point of view is Raesinia, the heir to the Vordanai crown.  Fortunately, she is a very long way from the pampered princess archetype, and using her helps us peek into the inner workings of court politics.

52 Reviews: Janus is definitely a fascinating character and I applaud your choice to keep his motives and tactical decisions largely obscured. One of the other things I've noticed is that while the Colonel appears to have a great deal of genius regarding military matters he seems particularly obtuse to more common concerns. Was it necessary to provide this blind spot to allow Marcus a more important role to play? Or was this to keep Janus from becoming too larger than life and this unrealistic as a character? 

Django Wexler:   Hmm, it’s a little bit of both.  As the POV character, Marcus needs a story of his own, he can’t just be standing around saying “Brilliant, sir!” all the time.  But also I think it helps Janus be a more identifiable character.  We all probably know somebody who is a master of one particular field of expertise, but who isn’t too good at day-to-day stuff.  It feels realistic, somehow.  It also fits with Janus’ backstory – mostly unrevealed as of yet, but it’s safe to say that it involved a lot of reading and study at the expense of real-life experience.

52 Reviews:  Moving on to Winter, I found myself drawn more to her story than any other in the novel. I love how you placed her so firmly in a man's world and yet she never comes across as mannish. What led you to the decision to have your principle female character live as a man, and what challenges did you face as a result? 

Django Wexler: It’s funny, because I originally made the decision for boring, practical reasons – I wanted Winter to be in the army, rather than a camp follower or something, and having a fully gender-integrated army wouldn’t have fit with the society I’d designed.  But once I made that choice, and worked through the implications for her character, it really helped turn her into a full-fledged person.  I had to figure out why she was the kind of person who would do that, take this big risk, and it made her very interesting.

One thing I *didn’t* want is for the story to be about the mechanics of her hiding her gender.  That can be a good story, especially combined with a coming-of-age plot, but it’s not what I was going for.  So when the book starts, she’s been doing it for two years or so, and I just sort of assume she knows what she’s doing.  Hopefully I didn’t damage anyone’s suspension of disbelief too badly by not going into the details of supportive undergarments and furtive bathroom breaks.

52 Reviews: With the bulk of the novel taken up with the various stages of a military campaign, how much research and planning went into getting the feel if not the specific details just right? What advice would you give to aspiring writers on research and how to avoid using pre-writing to keep them from having to write the actual prose? 

Django Wexler:  Fortunately for me, a lot of the “research” is just the stuff I read for fun.  I wouldn’t have gone for this kind of story if I didn’t enjoy the historical stuff enough to go through it.  So it’s hard to say exactly how much was actually involved – once I started working on it as a book, I did make an effort to seek out some lower-level, first-hand accounts of what battles and marches were like, so I could get that right along with the strategy and tactics.

Research can definitely cross the line into procrastination.  While it’s important to get things right (I think) you can’t let fear of getting things wrong paralyze you.  In particular, relatively minor details are easy to change in a later draft, so it’s not worth giving up your writing momentum in order to figure out some tiny piece of combat drill or military etiquette.  Just mark it somehow (I use Word comments) and move on, take a look on the next pass.

Also, I think a lot of writers fall prey to the idea that, “Oh, it’s epic fantasy, I’ve got to have a big battle in it!”, which is completely not true.  And even if you DO have a big battle, you don’t have to (and probably shouldn’t) give us the blow-by-blow.  I wrote a guest post on this subject for A Dribble of Ink that contains a lot more of my thinking.  

52 Reviews: I noticed that much like Martin's A Song of Ice and Fire, you use magic fairly sparingly and often with a lot of mystery. The magic that is used seems devastatingly powerful and possibly game changing and yet sees very little actual page time. What led you to those choices, and will we see a continuation of that theme, or will future volumes see a dramatic increase in the open use of magic?

Django Wexler:   The lack of magic is definitely a “by design” feature of the world, for a couple of reasons.  First, not having ubiquitous magic means it’s easier to use historical precedents for cultures, technologies, and the like.  (I’ve never really liked the worlds where the wizards only blow things up, and never help with farming or diseases.)  Second, I was interested in the military, tactical stuff, and I wanted that to actually matter, which meant not having real battlefield magic in the style of, say, Steven Erikson.  (Not that I don’t love Erikson’s books!  But having armies always seemed sort of pointless when it usually comes down to which all-powerful demigod beats the other.)  So even the strongest magic we see in The Thousand Names wouldn’t make the user a match for a hundred soldiers in the open.

Magic in the world of The Shadow Campaigns is finicky and poorly understood, so while it can be a 
powerful force it’s hard to rely on.  The Shadow Throne definitely continues the trend of magic being relatively subtle; there’s probably a bit more, page for page, but it’s not so much flash-and-bang fighting magic.  As the series goes along, I think the role of magic will increase a little, though, if only because Winter and the others will find out a little bit more about it.

52 Reviews: One of my favorite aspects of the novel was that everyone seems to have secrets. Not only are they present in the story arcs of the characters, but there also are many hidden agendas and secrets that are kept from the general populace as well. Even the title of the series seems to hint at this theme. What led you to this overarching aspect of the story, and how do you manage to not telegraph the numerous reveals in the novel?

Django Wexler:  Hmm.  I actually find this a hard question to answer, because I think that’s a basic part of how I write – a story is always more interesting when the characters have secrets, even if only little ones.  In this book in particular, for the reasons we talked about regarding the magic system, I knew I wanted the reality of magic itself to be a secret at the beginning of the story – as far as the characters are concerned, it’s a myth.  Then Janus has secrets, both because of his goals and because that’s the kind of guy he is, and once Winter’s story fell it became kind of a theme.

The tricky part is giving appropriate hints without giving the game away.  It’s very hard to do, but the perfect reveal is one that completely blindsides the reader when they first see it, but then is totally obvious in retrospect.  That’s a pretty narrow range to calibrate too, though, and it’s different for each reader, so I just did the best I could.  A couple of the biggest secrets, the READER is privy to all along, but not the characters – Winter’s gender is revealed in the first chapter, and the fact that magic is real in the prologue.  Then the trick is making maximum use of the dramatic tension provided by the reader knowing something the characters don’t.

The title of the series definitely plays into the “secrets” theme.  I sort of imagine it as the kind of thing that won’t make it into the official version of history, so that the Shadow Campaigns are the hidden, true story.

52 Reviews: Switching gears a bit, I'd like to talk a little bit about your experience as a debut author. With your first novel under your belt what was the most challenging aspect of the process, and what advice would give to aspiring writers attempting their first novel?

Django Wexler:  I always feel like a little bit of a cheat being called a debut author.  My book Memories of Empire was released by Medallion Press in 2005, and another book, Shinigami, in 2006.  Medallion is a small press, so I qualify for various debut-author things because the pay wasn’t pro-rate, but it was still honest-to-goodness advance-paying publication.

The main advice I would give to aspiring authors is a) keep writing and *finish projects*, and b) don’t assume that your first completed novel will be your first publication.  Very few people end up selling the first thing they’ve written.  It’s certainly worth trying, but you send it off and then start something else.  I finished at least four novels before writing Memories of Empire (it depends how you count), and The Thousand Names was #8 or #9 total.

The hardest part, for me, was actually finishing the stories.  Starting new projects is always more fun than banging the last few nails into old ones, and without a clear goal it’s easy to drift in a sea of half-completed manuscripts.  Actually getting a piece into final, submittable form and sending it out is a big milestone, and worth working toward.

52 Reviews: Continuing along this vein, what's been the most rewarding aspect of your experience as a writer considering the critical success of The Thousand Names? 

Django Wexler:  I’m not sure if we’ve got “critical success”, but I guess the response has been reasonably positive.  For me, talking to people who enjoyed the book is always wonderful.  It’s a bit of an ego-trip, obviously, but it’s also great to see how you made people happy.  For the same reason I like responding to mail, signing copies, and so on; it’s little things that take me a couple of minutes, but it can make someone’s day.  That’s a really rewarding feeling.

I’ve also been privileged to meet quite a few other writers, either on Twitter or at cons, and they’ve been pretty uniformly awesome.  Getting to be a part of that community is a lot of fun.

52 Reviews: I like to end my interviews by giving the authors a chance to talk about whatever strikes their fancy. Feel free to pimp upcoming projects, recommend other authors, or just share something you think might interest the readers. Or you could talk about your secret pact with Napoleon's ghost made on a crossroads on the island of Elba. The choice and the floor is yours.

Django Wexler: The next big event for me is the release of my middle-grade fantasy, The Forbidden Library, in April of next year.  I’m really excited about that one, it’s a new area for me and I hope people like the book.  The Shadow Throne, sequel to The Thousand Names, releases in July.  I’ll probably also have a novella and some short stories out in there somewhere, either in e-bookstores or on the web.

And completely off-topic, for anyone interested, I’m now writing a regular anime column for SF Signal.

Thanks for having me on!

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