A great talk with Michael R.B. Robinson, my final beta reader and a rabid fantasy fan. He brought some things out of me that I hadn’t really thought about in those terms.
If you’re interested in interviewing me and you want some backstory and sample questions, the following should give you plenty of jumping-off points. This will eventually become part of my press kit.
Talking Tech in Fantasy: An Interview with Joseph Malik, author of Dragon’s Trail.
By Michael R.B. Robinson
July 3rd, 2016
MRBR: So, I just reread your draft of Dragon’s Trail. I want to start by saying this is not your typical fantasy fare.
JM: I’ll take that as a compliment.
MRBR: Indeed, it is. So let’s talk about how you got here.
JM: Well, first the Earth cooled. . .
MRBR: Hahaha. The standard “portal fantasy” trope is the character who finds himself in another world and then spends the story trying to get home. A Connecticut Yankee, Alice in Wonderland, the Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe. Harry Potter put a spin on it, used it as a coming-of-age story, and broke the mold. Yet, you took a quite different approach altogether.
JM: I did. Lately, there has been a resurgence of this idea, with that Harry Potter spin: it involves a kid – usually – who discovers he’s secretly magic. Or he’s half-god, or has dragon blood, or inherits his father’s magic sword or magic ring or whatever. He goes over to another world, where he finally fits in, and with a few hand waves he now has super powers and wins for the next 300 pages. That was, actually, an original plot of Dragon’s Trail. The first major revision –
MRBR: First? When did you start writing this?
JM: About thirty years ago, in high school.
MRBR: And it took this long to finish?
JM: No, it took this long to get it right.
MRBR: So, you’ve put some time in. You were saying, an early revision. . .
JM: Well, yeah. In the first major revision, the main character was Ulo, the great sorcerer who’s now the villain. He’s a former Vegas-show illusionist, who was doing it all with real magic. He couldn’t tell anyone it was real magic, of course, and when no one can figure out how he’s doing it and the press starts calling him a fraud, he becomes brooding and resentful. Very goth. He ends up in another world, conjured by another sorcerer. There, he learns that he’s a lost prince, and that his father was not only king, but a sorcerer. In this other world, his magic becomes super powerful, and he uses his magic, plus what he knows from growing up on Earth – macroeconomics, political theory, big speeches with quotes from Plato’s Republic – to win his father’s kingdom back.
MRBR: Wow. Why not just go with that?
JM: It was fun to write, but it seemed too easy for him, so I had to cough up a worthy villain. I had the opposing kingdom go to Earth – they end up at a RenFaire – where they hire an alcoholic, womanizing, smart-assed loose cannon who was a champion in the then-burgeoning world of HEMA (Historic European Martial Arts). In early versions, they hired this guy to kill Ulo. He was fun to write, but I decided this character still wasn’t dark enough, so I added a fictional world of illegal underground dueling, and when I threw him into that, he immediately became more interesting than anyone who’s ever ala-ka-zammed his way to awesomeness.
JM: I kept the original backstory for Ulo. It’s all still in there. Once I approached it from the angle of this drunken, down-and-out swordsman, though, it really came to life. It’s Jarrod’s story, not Ulo’s.
MRBR: So, instead of a coming-of-age tale, this is more of a redemption story, isn’t it? I mean, your characters are already grown up. They don’t blossom into becoming great sorcerers or anything. There’s no adolescent allegory, here.
JM: No, and I think that’s why it’s not a YA series and why I’ve never wanted it to be. My characters already have their skills developed; they’re just underappreciated. They end up in a world that gives them an opportunity to really run on full throttle. They don’t coltishly wobble into a set of alien circumstances and then grow along the way, discovering that they are secretly magic or whatever.
MRBR: You don’t think there’s a market for that?
JM: Oh, there is; it’s just overdone, and so often it’s ham-handed. In a lot of YA portal fantasy the actual development gets hand-waved away, especially with the early introduction of deus ex machina in a lot of first-effort portal fantasy. Time and again – especially in the genre pulps – the portal itself is a chrysalis, transforming the protagonist from grub to butterfly along the journey. Boom. Suddenly he can do magic. Suddenly she’s a werewolf-killer with a sword of invincibility. Suddenly he’s the world’s best whateverer.
MRBR: You do see it a lot. Why do you think that is?
JM: Well, for starters, the market for YA is, well, YA. The readers are still developing and they want to see the world as out there in front of them. They want to know that there’s magic and wonder in the universe, and they can be anything. And that’s great.
JM: Dragon’s Trail is aimed at the adult market, and not just because of fighting and faerie sex and creative swearing. My protagonist has found his thing, and he dedicated his life to becoming the best at it. Really, all of them have, to the detriment of other aspects of their lives.
MRBR: That’s a very adult concept.
JM: Well, yes. We all do it, to some extent. That’s part of growing up – you decide what you’re going to be, and then you spend your life getting good at it.
MRBR: Coming from a guy with the weirdest resume in history.
JM: Touché. But when my main character, Jarrod, screws up – and he does; he kills a guy – he loses everything. He gets banned from competition, and crucified in the tabloid TV shows, and his beautiful starlet girlfriend leaves him because she worries about the impact on her career. Getting that good at that one thing that he does – getting better at it than anyone and sacrificing all the other corners of his life to get there – ensures that when he screws it up, he has nothing else. His life is changed in one moment, and it’s gone entirely in a week.
MRBR: Also a very adult concept.
JM: Well, yes. Anyone who’s gone through a divorce, or lost someone to suicide, or been diagnosed with a disease, or had a house fire – if you’ve ever been curled up weeping on your living room floor, drunk as **** and offering to sell your soul for a do-over – that’s who I wrote Jarrod for. Not a lot of children can relate to that. I hope.
MRBR: It’s refreshing. I think he makes a great hero. We meet him climbing out of a hole, and we can see the apex of his life behind him. We know what he’s capable of, and we root for him to get back to that point.
JM: Exactly. He’s a world-beater, but he’s still hiding in his own shadow when you meet him. You want to kick him in the ass to get moving again.
MRBR: I want to go back to what you said about starting this 30 years ago.
JM: About that, yeah.
MRBR: You tried the traditional publishing route, I imagine.
JM: It’s been rejected 47 times.
MRBR: Reading this now, I can’t believe that.
JM: Well, thanks. To be fair, it got close, once: a major publishing house had it for a while back in the late 90’s. They told me it was “being passed around the office,” and asked me for a series outline. Then they kept it for another year and wouldn’t return my calls. In the end, they had it for eighteen months and finally passed with a form letter.
JM: There’s a reason they call it “submission.” Assume the position.
JM: After that I took the Henry Darger approach. I just wrote for myself for the next few years, really fleshed out the world. I started resubmitting after a few more revisions, but it was in the wake of Harry Potter, and nobody wanted portal fantasies. I just quit, around 2008, and put it away for good.
MRBR: What made you finally resubmit? Or did you just go right to self-publishing?
JM: Well, I forgot about it, frankly. I got busy with life. Settled down, got a job. Built a house. A few years later I was in the Reserves, and I did something stupid downrange and woke up in a hospital Stateside. I found Dragon’s Trail on an old hard drive. I had a few months in a wheelchair with nothing else to do, so I took another crack at it.
MRBR: Can I ask what happened?
JM: Yeah, I kept getting rejected. Like, eleven more times.
MRBR: I mean, how were you wounded?
JM: Oh, that. Rookie mistake. One day, my autopsy will reveal that my balls were too big.
MRBR: So, what you’ve written, here, is a lot grittier – a lot grittier – than any of the recent stuff in this genre. Generally, the portal fantasy is the realm of YA readers.
JM: Yeah. Another one of my beta readers called Dragon’s Trail “A Connecticut Yankee in Westeros.” I know “gritty fantasy” is the new sparkly vampires, but this has never been a children’s book. I read a lot of espionage thrillers; I think of Dragon’s Trail as a Tom Clancy or, more recently, Brad Thor novel, just set in a fantasy world.
MRBR: One thing I loved about Dragon’s Trail is how you dig into the nuts and bolts. You don’t see that in the genre very often. For example, I’ve never thought about the physics behind armor, and it sounds boring on its face, but you tell it really well. You make it very funny sometimes, some of the funniest stuff in the book. What motivated you to get so detailed, and where did you learn all of this?
JM: Well, I feel an obligation to keep the technical side of it straight. I feel you’re right; it’s not done nearly enough. My protagonist is a stuntman and a professional fighter, so when you see it through his eyes, he’s dissecting everything. It’s a fun point of reference for me. Touching back on action thrillers, Tom Clancy did this for nuclear submarines. Stephen Hunter did it for the bolt rifle. Someone has to do it for swords and mail, if for no other reason than the collective benefit of the craft.
JM: As for where I get it, it’s what I consider “method writing.” The way that method actors live like their characters, to give their performances more credibility? Boxing, fencing, HEMA, mountaineering, horse camping, wilderness survival, bowhunting, I was briefly in the SCA but left for the same reason as my main character. I hung out at RenFaires and SCA events but I ended up using it to build the subculture, not as an examination of what it was like back then. Point is, I do as much of it for real as I can. Plus, I have go-to guys. Shout out to Tinker Pearce, my brother and one of the world’s greatest living swordmakers, as well as being one of the authors of Diaries of a Dwarven Rifleman, which has a spectacular technical focus and a brilliant spin on tropes. And also coaches, military buddies, sparring partners, other sword nerds. I have a good friend, my former sergeant major, who was a Special Forces medic and eventually retired with 42 years of service, walked out the door on his last day still wearing his green beret. You want a brain to pick? Holy crap, knock back a few beers with that guy. It goes on.
MRBR: And personal experience, I’m sure. You’ve had a, let’s call it a varied career and a unique history. That has to play into it. Let’s talk about that. Where were you raised? How did you get to this point?
JM: As a boy, I lived in northern Montana, on the Blackfeet Reservation. That’s kind of where this all started, I guess. I grew up in a traditional Blackfeet household, which is roughly analogous to being raised by Klingons. Not only were we staunch adherents to the whole “Way of the Warrior” ethos, but beating the crap out of each other is the Blackfeet national pastime.
MRBR: Tough neighborhood. Is that why the book is so gritty?
JM: Back then it was a third world country, and a bad place to be a freckle-faced, blue-eyed smartass. It’s not socially acceptable to talk about the utility of force in this day and age, but having grown up in a culture of violence, you understand its utility. Violence doesn’t have to be treated as a four-letter word. Violence does solve things; it’s the follow-on effects that get you. People aren’t used to dealing in violence, so they’re unprepared for the aftermath, and that’s when you get the whole thing about, “Violence always makes things worse.” No, it doesn’t. It makes things different. It solves your immediate problem, but it makes things more complicated, so you have to be judicious in its application. That takes experience in a culture of violence, which we don’t have anymore. And around and around.
JM: I really liked fighting when I was a kid, and that’s something that Jarrod takes with him, as well. I found it immensely empowering to take control over the things you’re afraid of, and frankly, I still do. I look around me, and facing your fears has become a dying art. So on that, I had to flip my experiential lens and look at my protagonist through modern eyes, and it’s part of what makes him all the more outrageous and fun to write. He understands how to use violence — not necessarily killing, but calculated levels of violence — to solve problems.
JM: As I got older, I boxed, and fenced, and I even did some stunt work and got into stage combat and martial arts and then eventually European martial arts and swordsmanship. I worked as a high-rise window cleaner for a while. I joined the military with this mindset, and ended up in Special Operations, working in quiet, weird corners of the war with some fascinating people, and learning all these amazing things: human tracking, improvised weapons, survival, austere medicine. I trained with foreign militaries, which was amazing for building my own in the series. Really, you just make “Why the hell not?” your mantra. And then you pay attention when things happen.
MRBR: Beautiful country in Montana. I can see that when I read about the mountains of Falconsrealm.
JM: Glacier National Park was my backyard. I could ride my bike to Lower Two Medicine, which is pretty much where I set High River Keep. I still know all the trails around there. More than that, though, my family used to do what you’d now consider “extreme” or “minimalist” camping: we’d just head out into a hunting area along the Milk River with our bows and some beef jerky. We’d build a shelter — no tents — and then hunt, fish, gather berries, spend a few days out there. I was like nine years old before I realized that other people couldn’t find north or catch fish with their hands. My wife jokes that you could drop me off naked in the woods with a Leatherman tool, and by the time I find my way back to civilization I’ll be fully-clothed, ten pounds heavier, and drunk. So there’s a love of the outdoors in my writing, although it’s often clothed in a deep adversarial respect.
MRBR: Were those experiences the motivation for writing Dragon’s Trail the way you did?
JM: It kind of went the other way around. I sought out a lot of the experiences I write about because I thought that this was what being a fantasy writer was about: in-person research combined with relentless practice of the craft, in order to give the reader the most authentic and believable experience possible. It really wasn’t until this year, when I started getting onto forums for indie authors and introducing myself to the community of indie fantasy authors, that I realized that nobody does this. I mean, like, nobody. There’s a sense that if you don’t research, you’ll alienate a small percentage of your fan base who knows when you’re bullshitting them, but it’s treated as if it’s the cost of doing business; as if those fans don’t matter. I beg to differ, because I’m one of those readers who calls bullshit when the author clearly doesn’t know what they’re talking about. There are far more of us than authors give credit for.
MRBR: So technical mistakes in fantasy make you nuts.
JM: Like you can’t believe. I’m really tired of opening fantasy books and clicking out of them again with my head in my hands five pages later. The hero gallops his horse all day, or has a sword that cuts through armored bodies like a lightsaber, or everyone has a suit of shiny steel armor in a world without blast furnaces and buffing wheels. I was reading something recently where a character picks up a sword that’s floating on a pool of lava. Go home, author. You’re drunk.
MRBR: Yeah, but magic.
JM: Yeah, but physics.
MRBR: It’s brilliant how you balanced the magic with the technical side. You obviously took great care to not make the world too magical.
JM: Well, that was a stylistic thing. I mean, my world has elves, and dragons, and pegasi, and monsters and sorcerers and telepaths. But I wrote the magic as a limited resource, and I put hard limits on its applications. You have to draw the line. If everything becomes possible, nothing is remarkable.
MRBR: Low fantasy, then?
JM: Not really. The magic is there. You just have to know where to look. In that respect, it’s just like real life. I firmly believe, too, that you have to get the mundane details correct first in order to build that suspension of disbelief that will allow you to introduce the magic.
MRBR: You didn’t write this in the standard epic fantasy voice. This reads like a commercial thriller. You used an omniscient POV, with a lot of – I hate to call it head-hopping, but it’s what you did. You did it really well, though, and it’s a great read. You’ve got a masterful touch for it. You just don’t see this very often.
JM: Well, you can’t write a thriller in limited third. You just can’t. I mean, okay, you could, but unless you’re a genius, it’s going to plod. There’s too much going on; the flow is all wrong. You have to let the readers know the whole story, or there’s no tension. You can set frames with POV, but the thing has to move. And once you get to the final few chapters, when everything’s going to hell and the characters are all spinning plates – in thrillers you’ll get scenes near the end that are a few sentences long – the narrator has to be able to get out of the way or he’s going to get run over.
JM: Also, chapter breaks for every character’s thought process makes it really hard to be funny. At least for me. You need to change perspectives quickly in portal fantasy because misunderstandings – which are what fish-out-of-water stories are all about – drive both your comedy and your story.
MRBR: It’s an older technique.
JM: Fantasy and sci-fi used to be written in omniscient. The Princess Bride, The Hitchhiker’s Guide. Omniscient is the author sitting in your living room with a drink in his hand, telling you a story. Then Harry Potter was written in a very tight third – you only know what Harry knows – and for a lot of people that was the first fantasy series they’d ever read.
MRBR: For a lot of people it’s still the only fantasy they’ve ever read.
JM: Roger that. And because of that, it’s what they expect when they pick up a new fantasy novel. And then GRRM called the omniscient voice “antiquated” a few years ago, and that pretty much put the stake through its heart. He’s king right now; I guess he gets to make those calls. Somebody else will come along, though, and write something new, and everyone will adopt that voice as the “correct” one.
MRBR: This could very well be it. Again, masterfully done.
JM: Thank you. Also, to touch back on the self-pubbed fantasy market right now, there’s a lot of unpolished — and unresearched, as we’d said — fantasy writing getting released into the wild. In that respect, steering young writers away from omniscient is prudent. To make omniscient work, you have to have your narrative voice locked down, and that only comes with decades of daily writing. To get that voice, where you’re telling the story instead of just typing it out, you have to tell the same story again and again until you can tell it right. Like a comedian working his routine in front of a mirror. For that reason, I would discourage omniscient among first attempts. But then, first attempts should never see the light of day.
MRBR: You don’t think?
JM: Sweet Jesus, no. A finished book is a million words. You’re sending your editor the last hundred thousand or so, and then you’re rewriting a third of those, anyway. Maybe only a third, if you’re lucky.
MRBR: You think it takes a million words to write a book?
JM: I think it takes as many as it takes. And frankly, I think for a first effort, you’ll be lucky to get it right in a million words. It may take two million. It may take ten million. You need to put words in a row until you find your voice. Get comfortable in your own head; it’s scary in there, but you have to look in all the corners. Finding your voice takes years. But take your time. We’ll still be here. Looking back through my notes, it appears that I’ve done ten total rewrites – not edits; I mean relegating the last manuscript to reference material and starting with a blank page — at about a hundred thousand words a pop, with two more where I threw out at least half the book and rewrote massive blocks out of the ether. And then I’ve got dozens of notebooks from everything from visits to forges to museums, and a hundred-page hand-written conlang. On top of that, I’ve got a good twenty years of fixes, deleted scenes, false starts, sequels, side projects, professional writing, and freelance gigs under my belt. And I’m still not done with my first book. I’ve got at least one more content edit coming.
MRBR: There are no short cuts, is what you’re saying.
JM: No. Okay, I mean, sure, the market is such right now that you can type for a month and upload it to SmashWords and Amazon and call it a “book,” and if you get enough “books” out there, someone will buy them and you will make money. And that’s great. But that’s not writing. That’s typing. Typists don’t change the world. Authors do.
MRBR: What are you reading right now?
JM: I’m just going to pan around my desk, so you can see:
JM: An Astronaut’s Guide to Life on Earth, a dog-eared copy of The Journal of Strategic Security, Horowitz’s Chess Traps, Pitfalls, and Swindles, and A Bouncer’s Guide to Barroom Brawling.
MRBR: I also see a pistol target – nice group – and a Time Magazine special edition on the CIA’s Secret Army. You should be writing thrillers.
JM: I do. We covered this.
MRBR: So, that’s your desk. What’s your process?
JM: My process blows. I stop and revise every few pages, and then read through for a running start at the next couple of pages. It’s exhausting — intellectually and creatively, it’s like smashing through brick walls all day — but it works for me. It makes me feel better about my writing to have something readable as a jumping-off point, though; I think if I knocked out an entire shitty first draft and then had to go back and shovel through 400 pages of flaccid writing I’d never get around to the revision. I’d quit and go to truck-driving school or something.
JM: Critical to the process, though, is fuel. I’m fueled by cheap Safeway Chinese food, I have a sweet spot for their two-dollar Chow Mein and overcooked egg rolls dipped in hot sauce. Also, old fashioneds with rye and a slice of grapefruit. I need a locked door, a blank legal pad, and Spotify set to 50’s hard bop or one of the Celtic playlists depending on the scene. I still hand-jam my beat sheets and dialogue, usually while revising something else at the same time, and I only start typing when I’m damned well ready. Also, high fiber, fish oil, planks, and Allen Edmonds Daytona driving loafers.
MRBR: So, I read the beta. I think it was your last beta. Any major changes coming?
JM: I get the content edits back this week. But I love what my editor did with the samples. I’m excited to read her notes. I’ll shoot you a final when we’re done.
MRBR: Who are your pop-culture heroes? Anybody you associate yourself with?
JM: Henry Rollins, Sterling Archer, Lisa Simpson, and Ron Swanson.
MRBR: Any advice for young authors?
JM: Young authors? Write. All the time. If you’re not writing, you should be reading. Get educated in writing. Major in English, linguistics, philosophy, comparative lit, theology; something that requires you to learn how to read critically and write effectively. Learn another language, because it will help you understand the rules of ours. You have to know the rules before you can know where to break them and how much. Perfect your craft before you worry about contributing to the art. Then get a job writing, even if you’re not writing something you want to write.
JM: Also, fuck Wikipedia. Don’t just write down how something works. Any asshole can look that up. Get out there and do it and write about what you felt. Get your ass on a horse. Pick up a sword and learn a few moves. Get in the ring and take a punch.
MRBR: And if they can’t afford college?
JM: If you can’t afford college, read. Holy shit, read. Read, then write, then read, then write, and write more. Write everything. Review products. Write guest blog posts. Magazine articles. Market everything you write until you start getting paid. Then keep getting paid until, as above, you land a day job writing, or at least a job that requires you to read and write a lot. It’s going to be a lot harder for you, but I know people who’ve done it. A writing job is the lynchpin, though, because it’s crucial that you write things that get reviewed by people who don’t necessarily like you. And personally, I recommend taking at least one writing gig where you have an editor whom you’d like to hit in the face with a brick some days. You’ll thank them later.
MRBR: That’s a lot of writing.
JM: That’s the job, though. And it’s not that hard. It beats digging ditches. My team at DIA, three people, turned out 700 pages of finished research last year on just one subject. We put out over a thousand pages altogether. That’s not first drafts; that’s half a million words of finished, edited, peer-reviewed content out the door going to executive-level consumers. That’s two, maybe three finished novels’ worth of writing per person per year. That’s a page or two per day; maybe three pages of shitty drafts cut down to two. Every day. Plus time to research all of that, and also teach classes and lecture. And two of the three of us write for fun on top of it when we get home.
MRBR: So it can be done.
JM: It has to be. It has no choice. There’s a reason that young successful authors still tend to be in their forties, especially in fantasy and sci-fi. You’ve got to put the time in. A million words on paper sounds like a lot, but it’s nothing. That’s three years of two pages a day. But there’s no other way. The world has been here for a long time, and it will continue to wait for you. Take your time. Get it right.
Joseph Malik’s website is www.josephmalik.com. Please follow @jmalikauthor on Facebook and Twitter. Dragon’s Trail will be released on September 30th, 2016, and is available on preorder at select retailers. See website for details.