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.
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. You’ve been writing for a long time, I take it.
JM: Writing, yes; publishing, no. I started creating the world where this series will take place probably twenty years ago Maybe twenty-five. There were different books along the way, all of them happening in the world I’d built, and kept building. This is the first book I published, but it’s probably, realistically, my tenth or maybe twelfth finished novel.
MRBR: You tried the traditional publishing route, I imagine.
JM: Did I ever. I have a pile of rejection slips in a trunk.
MRBR: So, sticking it with it paid off, then.
JM: Well, there was really no choice, back then. To be fair, it got close, once: a major publishing house had it for a while back in the late 90’s or early Oughts. 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, I think, 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 deployed in the Reserves, and I did something stupid 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, ten 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, which is what this is, 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 I don’t write children’s books. 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. There’s a technothriller aspect to it, as well; one of the major themes of the series deals with retaining human agency during a looming technological disaster. The characters from Earth take weapons and armor of modern steel, and modern training and modern education, with them into this other world, and these books are as much about the world reacting to them, and the mess they make of things, as it is them adapting to this new 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? I did that. Boxing, fencing, mountaineering, blacksmithing, horse camping, wilderness survival, traditional 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 so much 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’m Punjabi on my father’s side, but my parents divorced when I was little, and I was raised by my stepfather, who was Piikun Blackfeet; and my mother, who had a Master’s in Native American languages and was a wild-eyed, spinning hippie. So, 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 I also grew up believing in magic and spirits and the power of the wilderness, and I still do. That’s a huge part of the mysticism and honor that holds the society together in Dragon’s Trail and that comes to odds with our modern-day value system later in the series.
MRBR: Tough neighborhood, though. Is that why the book is so gritty?
JM: Back then, the Blackfeet Reservation was a third world country, and a bad place to be a 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. People try to negotiate with their fears, or live their lives around them, which is insane. 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 advanced swordsmanship including rapier and greatsword. 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 armies in the series.
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 something like nine years old before I realized that other people couldn’t name constellations 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: giving the reader the most authentic and believable experience possible.
There’s another piece to it, too, and that is that doing it yourself allows you to develop your own stories about doing the thing that you’re describing. Spend a weekend in a blacksmith’s shop, and you’ll have stories to tell about the weekend that you spent in a blacksmith’s shop. Then, when you’re describing a blacksmith’s shop, you’re not just running down the list of Things In A Blacksmith’s Shop that you found on Wikipedia. You have your own stories about it, and you craft other stories based off of those. It adds a whole other level of authenticity and suspension of disbelief when there are stories behind the facts in your story. Layers of meta, I guess.
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 weird sense that if you don’t research, you’ll only alienate a small percentage of your fan base–those who know when you’re bullshitting them–and 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 most authors seem to 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. The other side of this is when I read a technical explanation of something, and it’s right, but it’s the same process that I’ve read in five other fantasy novels over the past two months, and they’ve all cribbed it from the same YouTube video or Wikipedia article. And again, it’s an explanation, not a story. There’s a scene in Dragon’s Trail where the main characters are armoring up in 15th-Century plate harness. Instead of running down all 37 or whatever steps of putting on a suit of armor, I just use vignettes from my own experiences in armor: a foot going numb under a greave because a boot is laced too tight and now there’s no way to get at it, ramming your shoulder against a tree to seat a pauldron, and so forth.
MRBR: I do like 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. 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–for most of it, 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. 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 years if not decades of writing. 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 half 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 half 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 Dragon’s Trail–my “debut”–is my tenth or maybe twelfth novel, with dozens of revisions among all these old books that eventually died on the vine. And then I’ve got dozens of notebooks from everything from visits to forges, and castles, 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.
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 fifty thousand words to SmashWords and Amazon and call it a “book,” and if you get enough “books” out there, someone will buy them and you might make a few bucks. 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, I read the beta. I think it was your last beta. Any major changes coming?
JM: I get the final edits back this week. 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 idiot 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. I think that 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. Writing is digging beautiful ditches.
MRBR: So it can be done.
JM: It has to be. It has no choice. There’s a reason that young successful fantasy authors still tend to be in their forties. You’ve got to put the time in. A million words on paper sounds like a lot, but it’s nothing. That’s a few 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.
Please follow @jmalikauthor on Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, and Pinterest.