Friday, 12 July 2013

Interview with Django Wexler

I'm in the middle of reading Django Wexler's debut novel, The Thousand Names, right now and am extremely impressed so far. My review will be up in the next week or so, but for now, enjoy this interview with the man himself. 

Hi Django, welcome to Wilder’s Book Review! And a big congrats on the publication of your debut novel, The Thousand Names!

Thanks so much! I’m very excited.

So, first up, give us three words that best describe The Thousand Names.

Hmm. I’ll go with “military”, “muskets”, and “magic”, because it’s nicely alliterative!

Can you give us a little more detail on the series the novel belongs to? How long will it be and what was your ultimate inspiration and motivation behind writing it?

The series, The Shadow Campaigns, will be five books in total. It got started when I first began getting into military history and read a really excellent book about the Napoleonic wars. I thought, “Man, I want to do that!” So originally, it was supposed to be a fantasy retelling of the career of Napoleon, but as I added stuff it diverged pretty wildly from that.

I wrote about this in a little more depth over at the Del Rey UK site: 

Much has been said about this being one of a few debut novels in 2013 that have started a new wave of epic fantasy with settings that feature fantasy worlds based in post-industrial societies. Was this always a particular focus you had when planning The Thousand Names, or did the setting grow more organically in the writing?

Well, for me, the setting came with the basic idea of the books -- if I was going to do the life of Napoleon, I need the Napoleonic trappings, with muskets and cannon and cavalry charges and so on. But after George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire, I got really excited about the idea of a “realistic” fantasy world drawing heavily on actual history (as his does) and I definitely didn’t want to just do the usual knights-and-castles setup.

The idea of an epic fantasy world which has moved on from swords, knights and medieval values is one which, I think, has serious potential for authors when telling some of these vast fantasy stories. Post-Industrial fantasy aside, it seems to me that even eras such as early-modern Europe and the Renaissance are ripe for fantasy authors right now, looking for a slightly different take on epic fantasy settings. Would you agree, or is there still plenty of room for more medieval-based fantasy?

It has always seemed a little weird to me that with all of history to choose from, so many fantasy authors model their secondary worlds on a pretty narrow slice of time and space -- basically Western Europe in the 13th or 14th centuries. (Or, more accurately, that time and place as filtered through Mallory, Tolkien, and Gygax.)

Even without leaving Europe, there’s a huge amount of variety to be had -- I’d love to see a world based on Byzantium in the 1200s, or Swiss republics during their heyday -- and that’s not even counting the entire rest of the world. So I think authors are realizing there’s a lot of rich veins for world-building and mythology out there that have barely been tapped.

It’d be unfair of me to represent it as something that’s just starting now, though. It’s been a steady undercurrent in fantasy throughout the years (check out the works of KJ Parker, Ellen Kushner’s Swordspoint, Elizabeth Bear’s Range of Ghosts, Guy Gavriel Kay’s Under Heaven, etc) that’s just getting a lot more attention. But I hope the trend continues -- as a history buff, this is the kind of thing I love to read!

In The Thousand Names you focus particularly on two main point-of-view characters. For such a large epic fantasy story, was this a stylistic choice, to narrow down the focus, or are you likely to broaden the POV cast in later books?

In general, I like to keep the number of points of view down to a minimum, because I think every page the reader spends with a particular point of view helps build sympathy and depth for that character. Spreading the narrative too thin can really hurt the character development, and over the course of a series lead to a kind of narrative fragmentation. (Because we want to know what happens to everybody we care about, but there isn’t a good reason for them all to stay together, so the story wanders all over the place.)

In The Thousand Names I knew I needed at least two POVs -- one to hang around with Janus and help talk about command decisions, and another “in the ranks” to show what things were like looking up from the bottom. I toyed with including another one, but ultimately, with a few short interludes from side characters, I thought I could get away without it.

The second book, The Shadow Throne, will introduce the POV of Raesinia Orboan, Princess Royal of Vordan and heir to the throne. (And bearer of a nasty magical secret.) But I think that should be it for the series -- if things go as planned, I shouldn’t need any more in books three, four, or five.

My post last Monday at Anne Lyle's blog talks a bit about POV, and why it can be a mistake to spread it too widely. See it here

What were some of your main genre influences in writing the series?

George R. R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire was a big one, as I said. I loved how he put a little
bit of the grit back into fantasy, brought it a little closer to its historical models, and I have always wanted to do something similar. S. M. Stirling and David Drake’s series The General gave me the initial idea of taking the framework of historical events as the basis for a story.

I’m a big fan of how Joe Abercrombie does his battles and fighting in the First Law series, and a bit of that definitely made it in. A lot of the magic and more fantastical elements were influenced by Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen, with its gigantic, ambitious world and very slow build-up. In particular, I love the way he gets you into the story but only hints at the ultimate very quietly; I’m definitely hoping to achieve something similar with The Shadow Campaigns.

You’re quite heavily into the study of history. What were some of the particular eras of research you looked into for The Thousand Names?

A lot of my ‘research’ never really felt like research, because it’s just the sort of thing I read for fun anyway. The Thousand Names is rooted pretty closely in the period of the Napoleonic Wars, from around 1790-1815. So I obviously read a lot about the French Revolution and the wars that followed.

In particular, I’m always on the lookout for books that bring together first-hand accounts to give a soldier’s eye view of things. It’s (relatively) easy to grasp the higher levels of a campaign, but finding out what it was actually like to be on the ground is surprisingly difficult.

The nice thing about fantasy is that you don’t have an obligation to be 100% accurate. An actual historian reads a neat story or telling detail and has to go look at other evidence to see if it’s true or not; as a novelist, I can just say, “That sounds great, let’s go with it!” I grabbed pieces from quite a few sources outside the period proper (from the American Civil War, for example) and fit them together, hopefully without introducing too many anachronisms.

When did you decide you wanted to become an author, and can you tell us a little about your first attempts?

I knew that I liked writing by about the end of high school. (Before that, my creative efforts were mostly limited to RPGs, as detailed here) I tried my hand at short stories and sent a few to SF magazines, but never really got anywhere with it. Then I drifted into fan-fiction for a while and ended up writing some really long pieces. Around my junior year of college, after three novel-length fan-fics, I decided I was going to write something that I could potentially sell.

I still wasn’t planning to be a full-time author, at least not until the distant future. The book I wrote was called Memories of Empire, which I sold to a small publisher called Medallion Press. I wrote one more for them, Shinigami, but between them they only sold a few thousand copies total. The next book I wrote, Gaze Into Shadow, was part of an absurdly over-ambitious fantasy project, intended as Book One of Seven Million, and I never managed to do anything with it.

After messing around with that for a while, I ended up putting it aside and starting a fresh project with the explicit goal of getting an agent and a “big” publisher -- that ended up being The Thousand Names, though it took a while to get it there.

What kind of writer are you? Do you plot down to the last detail, or just start writing and see where the words take you?

I used to be very much a “discovery” writer and hated outlines, but a couple of years ago I had something like a conversion experience. My agent said that before he could sell The Thousand Names, he needed outlines for the rest of the series, so the publisher could see that I knew what I was doing. Over the course of about a month, with much grumbling, I wrote four outlines, and somewhere along the way I came to appreciate how amazingly helpful the process was. When the time actually came to write book two, it was so much easier because I didn’t keep running into blind alleys.

I still don’t plot out everything, especially character development. A lot of that arises naturally from the twists and turns of dialogue, and I don’t want it to seem forced. My outlines are pretty flexible, too, and sometimes the finished product only resembles the plan in broad strokes. I’m still very much working on my process, so in a couple of years I’m sure I’ll have learned a lot more about it.

What’s next in the pipeline for you Django? Is it Book Two of The Shadow Campaigns, or is there anything else to come in between?

It really is a pipeline -- there’s a long stretch of time between when I finished The Thousand Names (in this case, in fall of 2011) and the final release. While I was waiting to see if it sold, I decided I wanted to write something a little lighter and simpler, which turned out to be a children’s fantasy. (I have no idea how to write a children’s fantasy. It’s just the same writing I always do, without sex, gore, or swearing.) Long story short, my agent sold that one as well, and it comes out in April 2014 as The Forbidden Library, beginning another five-book series. 

After that I started work on The Shadow Campaigns Book Two, now called The Shadow Throne, and finished a first draft of that around summer of 2012. Then I did the second Forbidden Library book (which still doesn’t have a title), a novella (which is still searching for a home) and Shadow Campaigns short story (which ended up on io9 as ThePenitent Damned ). Now, finally, I’m back to work on The Shadow Throne, which needs to go through rewrites and editing over the summer so we can get it ready for (hopefully) a release next year.

What’s something the people reading this interview might be surprised to learn about Django Wexler?

A lot of people have been surprised to hear that Django Wexler isn’t a pen name. I’m named after Django Reinhardt, a famous jazz guitarist. Other than that, though, I’m an almost archetypical SFF/software geek -- computer games, D&D, anime, cats.

And, finally, what are you reading right now?

I tend to have several books going at once, usually one fiction, one non-fiction, and one audio. At the moment, I’m reading Daniel Abraham’s A Shadow in Summer, which was recommend to me by Aidan over at A Dribble of Ink and which I’m really enjoying. Non-fiction-wise, I’ve got Rick Atkinson’s An Army At Dawn, about the Allied invasion of North Africa in WWII. And on my MP3 I have Joe Hill’s NOS4A2, which is fantastic even if I have no idea where he’s going with it.

Thanks Django! 


Django Wexler graduated from Carnegie Mellon University in Pittsburgh with
degrees in creative writing and computer science, and worked for the university in artificial intelligence research.  Eventually he migrated to Microsoft in Seattle, where he now lives with two cats and a teetering mountain of books.  When not planning Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.

The Thousand Names is Django Wexler's first novel, and is available now. You can find him at his website, or follow him on Twitter at @DjangoWexler

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