Tuesday, January 15, 2008

Feature: Interview with J.M. McDermott

Every Tuesday, I'll have a feature article posted.

Edit: Watch out for the next following Tuesdays as we have more interviews with other Wizards of the Coast: Discoveries authors including Rob Rogers on January 22, 2008 and Melanie Tem & Steve Rasnic Tem on January 29, 2008.

J.M. McDermott is the author of the novel Last Dragon published under the Wizards of the Coast Discoveries imprint and will be released on February 5, 2008. You can find some of his other works at Pseudopod and Coyote Wild Magazine.

How did you get Wizards of the Coast to publish your novel The Last Dragon? Did you win a contest, stalked one of their editors, blackmailed the suits at WotC, or promised the Devil your first-born child? Is this your first novel?

I'll start at the back and work my way to the front.

I started writing this book after I finished my last writing workshop at the University of Houston. I remember distinctly believing that most of what that particular writing instructor was telling us was very narrow-minded and borderline wrong. I was 22.

I finished the book, and began submitting it to publishers and agents at the age of 23.

I got a request for the full book from Wizards of the Coast when I was 24, one day before my 25th birthday.

I got an unofficial offer on the book when I was 25, pending the Hasbro acquisition of Wizards of the Coast.

The official offer came when I was 26, along with the contract.

I commenced and finalized galley proofs with my editor, Phil Athans, when I was 27.

With my birthday yesterday (12/17/1979), I am now 28 when I shall finally see the book in print. I actually got the hot-off-the-press first printing in the mail today. I have a pretty book.

It's been a long journey. I've fallen in and out of love countless times. I've started and ended careers. I've been to four foreign countries, (one of them twice, and two of them for months at a time).

All these years, I've had this book-feeling in the back of my mind, like a baby tooth that won't fall out. This book-feeling has been sitting and waiting and dangling inside of me on that last purple vein. I've been twisting at it and twisting at it.

Daunting no? All I did to get it published was the thing that everyone always tells you to do. I wrote a query letter to an editor that accepted unsolicited manuscripts - in this case, in Wizards of the Coast's very first open call - along with the first three chapters and a synopsis.

And, it worked. No voodoo. No hexes. No incriminating evidence. I did need patience, though. I needed a lot of patience.

Wow! That's a long time. Was there a point when you doubted if the book deal would actually push through? Did the tension motivate you to do anything else such as write other stories or -gasp- another novel?

Of course there were times I doubted. But doubt is not very useful, and I ignored it. What was useful was writing short stories, selling them, and writing another novel or two, and - of course - finding a good literary agent so I would hopefully not have to wait so many years again. It's much easier to get an agent when you've already sold a book to a major publisher. I just sent revisions off to my agent two days ago on the next novel, and we'll see what happens.

Tell us more about you: What's your day job (if you have one)? What else do you write aside from novels? You seem to have some short stories and poetry in your inventory, any other stuff you're interested in writing?

Aside from writing novels, I blog almost daily at http://jmmcdermott.blogspot.com/, and I write all sorts and lengths of fiction. I write a fair bit of poetry, as well. I don't usually publish the poetry. I publish some of it, but most of the time the market research required just to keep up with short fiction keeps me so busy, I usually just post the poetry to my blog. One should never submit to a magazine one doesn't read, after all.

This is the gamer in me: do you play Dungeons & Dragons or any RPGs for that matter? Does it help you with your writing? Or is it a distraction? Any other games you play for recreation? Have you attempted game design?

I played in high school, a little. I never had the patience or the mathematical ability to really get into it hardcore. Also, I discovered video games when I was in the 4th grade, and I usually preferred letting a computer do all that nasty math for me so I could just relax and enjoy the story. My favorites are Planescape:Torment (one of the finest video-game stories ever pixelated, and a real classic of the genre despite the age of the game), and Knights of the Old Republic.I've delved into other video games, but most of them don't have the writing and characterization to hold my attention. Also, I don't have a console anymore. I just have this beat-up old PC. I actually really like to be about five years behind in my gaming. Bad games hit the market like a dead walrus. Good games are like icebergs that never seem to truly sink. Time is an excellent crap filter.

This is a cliche question but it's something I have to ask: what are your favorite books and who do you think are your biggest influences?

I hate this question. There are two ways to answer this question. One is to sift through my entire bookshelf pulling out all my favorites. The other is just to ignore a whole bunch of very worthy authors.

You know what, I'm not going to tell you my favorite authors. I'm going to tell you my favorite genre magazines, wherein you will find all of my favorite authors, eventually. My favorite magazines are Asimov's, The Magazine of Fantasy and Science Fiction, Clarkesworld, Electric Velocipede, and Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet.

I do read quite a lot across the genre walls, but I really don't like the literary magazines outside of the genre very much. Literary short fiction has become so stale, in the magazines. The few true living luminaries we are blessed to have stand out all the more because of the dullness all around them.

I understand. I don't like asking that particular question but it's one of those things in my opinion you need to ask to get a "feel" for the person unless they have a long history you can research on--for the reader's sake if not mine. Those are great magazines (alas, not all of them make it here to the Philippines), any chance we'll be seeing more of your work in any of them? What kind of market research do you do? Also, you mention that you don't submit to a magazine you don't read. When you submitted a proposal to Wizards of the Coast, were you reading some of their books or was it a blind submission to a publisher who had an open call for submissions?

Market research is a very fancy way of saying that I read everything I can get my hands on. I don't submit to every magazine that I read, naturally. I just don't write that much. I've never sent anything to Asimov's, or Lady Churchill's Rosebud Wristlet. I might in the future, but I don't really write anything that would fit into their magazines. That's not to say it will never happen, but it isn't happening at the moment. I do enjoy reading them, though, quite a lot. I have stories (and poetry) either out right now or coming out very soon, in Coyote Wild Magazine, Atomjack Magazine, Pseudopod, New Myths, and the Tipton Poetry Journal (one poetry magazine that I do read). More things will be later, and I'll tell you about them later. If I write something that might be right for one of the magazines that I read, I'll send it to them. I rarely write with any one magazine in mind. The story - or poem - comes out how it comes out, and then I figure out who might like it. Sometimes the editors disagree with me. The only time I'd submit to a magazine I haven't read first is like with New Myths when it was their first issue. I did check out the website first, and I did carefully investigate their contract. Scott Barnes seemed to know what he was doing, he seemed to have decent site design, and I rolled the dice with an older work. He liked the story enough to buy it. I'm proud to be a part of his inaugural issue. I'll keep an eye on where he takes his project in the future. One of the big reasons Coyote Wild Magazine caught my eye, initially, was one author present in their inaugural issue: Elizabeth Bear. She looks like she might become a regular contributor there, what with another story in their latest issue, too. I do happen to like seeing my name in lights next to Elizabeth Bear. I'm probably going to keep sending them things to repeat the experience. What exactly happened with Wizards of the Coast? Well, they were doing an open call for their new imprint, and no one knew what they wanted. In Phil Athans' interview in Publisher's Weekly, he described the experience as "...getting inundated with inappropriate submissions" ( http://www.publishersweekly.com/article/CA6492968.html). Well, I was one of the ones that wasn't inappropriate. Naturally, I couldn't research an imprint that didn't exist, but like with Scott Barnes and New Myths, I made sure they were legit before I sent them anything, and I rolled the dice. When the contract arrived, I read it carefully - with help from Peter Rubie's excellent literary agency and my Aunt Patty, a lawyer - and the rest is about to become history.

That reminds me, some genre authors recommend reading non-fiction. Do you get to read a lot of nonfiction or has it been a steady diet of fiction all throughout? When did you fall in love with reading books and when did you realize that you wanted to be a writer? Did you originally set out to be a genre writer or do you care little for such labels?

I absolutely recommend reading Non-Fiction. My recent favorites from the last three or four months are "A Short History of Byzantium" by John Julian Norwich, "Into Africa: the Epic Adventures of Stanley and Livingstone" by Martin Dugard, and "The Broken Fountain" by Thomas Belmont. I tend to read a lot of anthropology, and history books. I read all across the store. For a while, I made a point of going to the poetry section every time I set foot in the store to find a book by a poet I had never read, and reading a couple of the poems in the book. I'm building a list of business management titles right now that I'll be delving into in the spring and summer. I read quite a lot of literary fiction, and not-so-literary fiction. I don't read a lot of graphic novels, but this is only because I have a lot of difficulty walking and chewing gum at the same time. I can read the words, or I can read the pictures. I quickly stumble all over myself and get lost if I try to do both.

I read in the blurb that your work is best described as "a literary fantasy novel in the tradition of Gene Wolf and Gabriel Garcia Marquez". Was that something you set out to do consciously or is that merely a label slapped on by your publisher/reviewers?

When I started this book, my goal was to map out a giant, multi-volume fantasy series and then use literary and post-modern techniques to condense the narrative into just one, heartfelt, (hopefully) moving narrative. I wasn't thinking about being like anyone. I was thinking about being completely different, and writing in a whole new way.

My editor, Phil Athans, wrote that stuff about Gene Wolfe and Gabriel Garcia Marquez without consulting me. I asked him to take it down before anyone saw it. He wouldn't do it. Recently, I got wind of a review by a very highly-esteemed reviewer that agrees with the comparison to Gene Wolfe.

Basically, though, I want to say again that I didn't write that, and I asked that it be changed, and I was summarily ignored.

I do read a lot across genres, and one author I adore is Gabriel Garcia Marquez. I know he is an influence, but I don't really know how much of one, and I don't think anyone but my editor has embraced the comparison. I also know Lloyd Alexander is a strong influence, as well as Michael Ondaatje and Italo Calvino. Early William Gibson is somewhere in there, too. Anne McCaffery is flying around the rafters. Hey, someone really needs to get James Merrill another martini. Middle English Literature is definitely hanging around the bar, quaffing mead and pouring vinegar on everything. You can smell Middle English Literature everywhere. It smells like wet wool, bone dust, and peat, and the smell lingers for centuries after the guests have gone.

By the way, ever read the anthology Twenty Epics? Do you think you've found a permanent voice and style?

I heard of the anthology, sure, but I never picked it up. By the time I heard about it, I was already waiting on my contract to show up, and working on quite a different little book, with very different reading lists. We are blessed with so many wonderful books to read, that it gets easy to miss out on a few worthy titles.

I don't really know if I've found a permanent voice or style. I certainly hope not. I'd hate to think of myself as the proverbial one trick pony. My short fiction seems to wander off in many different directions, and I know the novels I'm interested in writing are wildly divergent in style, location, and influence. All I can suggest is that you keep reading my writing and watch what happens for yourself.

Before I start asking the questions with regards to your novel, how would you briefly describe it? Who do you think your work will appeal most to?

I would describe it as 8.25 inches tall, 5 inches wide, and 1.1 inches thick, mostly white and covered completely in ants, inside and out. Henry Higginbotham and Matt Adelsperger both did an amazing job with the sculptures (Henry) and the book design (Matt). Even if you don't like the book, the layout is gorgeous enough that it will look very dapper on your mantle, or your coffee table.

I think the work will appeal to all of us folks that are looking for something "new". We don't want to see the same comforting tropes over and over again. We value creativity, and artistry, and we also think dragons are cool. In Library Journal's review of my book (12/15/2007), they suggested that Last Dragon belongs in libraries where Gene Wolfe, A A Attanasio, and Gabriel Garcia Marquez are popular. That's probably the best way of explaining it. I can get to you if you like high quality fantasy, and I can get to you if you like high quality literature. I can get to you anywhere in between those poles.

Last Dragon, it seems to me that your main protagonist is the female character Zhan. Was she always your main character when you started writing the novel? Where there any difficulties writing her?

I actually think the main character is Adel, believe it or not. But, that was a decision of many years and drafts ago, and everything has been changed and upended a billion times. Why does a book have to have a main character at all? Italo Calvino's Cosmicomics was brilliant, and each of the little short story chapter-type things has new sets of mathematical characters and quandaries with similar confused relationships. I've read excellent books with no characters. Isaac Asimov has a famous short story about a robotic house that continues on despite the nuclear death of the owners, and the house is arguably the only character present. I've read books with a canvas of characters that each vie for the role, and steal scenes from each other constantly - Ghormenghast by Mervyn Peake.

If people like the story enough to keep reading, then it doesn't matter who the "main" character is.

I had plenty of difficulties writing every character, but I think the hardest one to write was Korinyes. She was always at the fringe of the events, so I couldn't just let her be like I did Partridge. I had to work very hard to make sure her presence was felt as strong as the rest. Also, I had to work very hard to create a character that would have a personality appropriate for that one special detail about her you'll discover along the way.

The narrative in Last Dragon isn't in sequential order. In fact, it jumps around a lot of times. Why did you choose this particular form of narrative? When you wrote it, did it follow that order or did you shuffle some events around when the editing phase came in? Did you have an outline, an end in mind, or did you write it as you went along?

This technique - called fractured time - is so common as to be expected in literary fiction. It's seeped into the thriller genre through cinema - for instance "Pulp Fiction" - and has even made multiple appearances in other genres. However, this has not been prominently done in fantasy. Fractured time's a perfectly acceptable literary technique, and one that can add a density and intensity to artful prose.

I'm writing fantasy that aspires to the highest echelons of artistry. Time will tell if I hit the mark or not.

I wanted to take fantasy places she rarely gets to go. I want to dance with her at the finest balls, and stay out with her even after the midnight bell tolls and the carriage turns into a pumpkin and her dress turns into leaves and rags. All I had to do was use some literary techniques to mess with father time, and use some poetic techniques to flatter her into the courage enough to dance longer into dark where art spreads music over the black unknown.

My early drafts disappeared into old computer hard drives, and the old computer disks that litter garages and attics. The notebooks filled with my rough drafts are mostly yellow at the edges, weather-damaged, moth-eaten, and illegible. I outlined, but long ago my outlines faded into the gaps.

I'm intrigued by the variety of cultures you throw in the novel. What kind of research did you do beforehand?

I read everything I could get my hands on. Also, I made up stuff. Lots of stuff. Lots and lots of stuff.

Do you think you'll be re-visiting the cosmology of
Last Dragon in the future?

Never say never, but I don't see it happening anytime soon.

Right now I've got some very different projects on my plate. I try to keep myself artistically diverse. I believe my shorter works' sales are some indication of my flexibility. Right now, I have poetry in issues #4 and #7 of the Tipton Poetry Journal. I have a flash story up from the Horror podcaster "Pseudopod". I have a classic-style sci-fi story in Coyote Wild Magazine. I have an Old Wave Fabulist-style story in New Myths. I have some literary-urban-fantasy-style science fiction (if that's possible) coming up in Atomjack Magazine real soon. We'll see what else happens.

Novel-wise, I have another literary fantasy book sitting on my agent's desk that's about to start making rounds at editors' desks. This next one is all about children of demons living in a dirty/beautiful city that would burn them alive for the crime of existing. For social outcasts and the working poor, it takes heroics just to lead a normal life. (Editors of the world, please extend your interest to Matt Bialer of Sanford J Greenburger and Associates...)


J M McDermott said...

This was fun!

Good luck with future interviewers, and let me know if you want another!

hnu said...

that's very informative, thanks!