As part of the process of writing The Guide to Writing Fantasy & Science Fiction, I interviewed a few key players in the SF/fantasy community. Their wisdom and generosity is liberally sprinkled throughout the book, but I couldn’t use every word—and wanted to do some follow-ups. What follows is an expanded interview with groundbreaking fantasy author J.M. McDermott.
J M McDermott is the author of Last Dragon, which was featured on Amazon.com’s Year’s Best Science Fiction and Fantasy 2008, shortlisted for a Crawford Prize for first fantasy, and founds its way to Locus magazine’s Recommended Reading List. His second novel, Never Knew Another, is coming in February 2011 from Night Shade Books, and Maze, which he was kind enough to share with me, is forthcoming from Apex Books in the spring, along with a reprint of Last Dragon. His short fiction has appeared in numerous venues including Fantasy Magazine, Weird Tales, and Apex Magazine, among other places. His next publication is the short story “Death’s Shed” upcoming in Lady Churchill’s Rosebud Wristlet, No. 26.
Philip Athans: Please define “fantasy” in 25 words or less.
J.M. McDermott: When a story’s plot, character(s), or setting could never possibly exist in the real world, and does not pretend otherwise, the work is a fantasy.
Athans: What was the first fantasy novel you remember reading? Was that the novel that made you want to be a fantasy author yourself? If not, what was the novel that made you want to write fantasy?
McDermott: The first actual novel I remember reading involved raccoons. That’s all I can remember of it. It didn’t make much of an impression, really.
When I was a wee lad, I was addicted to the prose stylings of Lloyd Alexander. The first novel that left my mind on fire for days was The First Two Lives of Lukas Kasha. I will not spoil the ending for you, fair reader, but I do know I will never read that book again because I am afraid that the powerful impact it had on me will be diminished by my jaded, adult eyes. I think that’s the first time I really “got” what this art form was capable of doing to a reader. I don’t think I’d be here today if not for that lovely little book.
Athans: How old were you when you first sat down to write a fantasy story or novel? And how old were you when you made your first professional sale?
McDermott: I was a mad scribbler of terrifically bad poetry all through junior high school and high school. I think the first fantasy story I wrote was called “Faithful Dog,” and I was sixteen or seventeen when I started working on it. I kept revising it until college. It was set in East Germany after the World Wars, at a train station where an exceptionally long-lived dog kept guard over a trinket. Actually, I’m rather fond of that story, and others were too. I wouldn’t try to sell it, but I do think I could show it to people without being embarrassed. I may have dumped it on my blog sometime. A quick search of my blog does not reveal that I have. Someday, I will. Maybe.
Honestly, it would be better to focus on the mature work. Everyone begins roughshod, and strange. It is what we do later, when we have developed our craft that matters most.
My first professional sale was my novel, Last Dragon. I actually think it’s easier to professionally sell a novel than to sell short stories or poems. There are numerous markets for novels, compared to the handful of professional short story markets, and a good novel is so hard to find in all those submissions. A good short story is a dime a dozen. Great short stories are exceptionally rare gems. Good ones, though, are everywhere.
Athans: Do you read your own reviews? And if so, have you ever read a review of your work that you thought made you a better writer? Have you ever read a review of your work that shook your confidence or even made you reconsider your choice of careers?
McDermott: I do read reviews. I think it is wise to know how readers that take time to write reviews responded to my work. I haven’t read any that have changed what I do with my fiction. I have very thick skin, and I really don’t mind if people hate what I do. I always assumed, from the beginning, that I was writing a very specific sort of thing that was going to get mixed reviews if I was doing it correctly. If anything, the numerous good reviews I received had me a little worried I wasn’t doing it right. I wasn’t offending enough people’s preconceptions of what fantasy ought to be!
Athans: Is there a particular source for ideas you find yourself going back to? Mythology, current events, history, your own life, etc.?
McDermott: Yes, to all of those. I actually find most of my inspiration from the people around me. To me, art is a celebration of being human among humans, and a way to make sense of the whole, messy affair. I often quietly steal my friends and close relations for stories—though you’d likely never know if I didn’t tell you. For instance “Fest Fasen” [a character from Last Dragon] was loosely based on my friend Ben Fasenfest. Ben was definitely not anything like the character Fest Fasen in age or action or goals, but Ben was a way to start thinking about the character. Once a few lines had been written I got wildly, wildly different. But, starting with that core of someone I felt like I knew gave me the Claymation skeleton upon which I could pile exceptionally thick layers of clay. Since my first novel, I’ve really gone out of my way to make the names more obscure. I’m fortunate that I was able to look up Ben (and Stephen Tsui, my college roommate) and get their permission to use their names.
If you want to appear in one of my novels, hang out with me long enough and you will. I’m much better at hiding who is who. You’ll probably never know. I certainly won’t tell you.
Athans: What advice can you give an aspiring fantasy author on how to convey a sense of place?
McDermott: Sight is the least useful sense for a writer. Graphic novels and movies do it better. Fiction is the only form that layers the veil of the real over the mind. We are the only form that has all the senses of the body, and all the ways those senses can be interpreted in the mind. Use more than just how things look.
Also, a sense of place is more than just where a table is standing, or whether the walls are blue or orange. Sense of place is really about a sense of meaning felt about the place. That can come from the physical reality of the space. Even better is when the sense of place comes from the meaning that the space has for the characters.
Place and worldbuilding are not as important as person and character building. If people wanted to read about cool places or weird monsters they’d read D&D manuals. (And many do!) Characters are the most important piece of the fiction world, and what makes the world fiction instead of prose. The world exists as your characters move through it. Focus on that interaction between the character and the place, and there you will find the sense of place you are desperate to convey.
Athans: Who comes first, the hero or the villain?
McDermott: I hate the simple alignment of good and evil. I hate it when I read, I hate it in movies, and I hate it when I game. A villain is just a hero whom the reader isn’t supposed to be rooting for. He or she or it is certainly the hero in their own tragic story. To Prince John, Robin Hood was the criminal that fooled the masses into a rebellion so some adventurist king with no regard for his responsibility could continue raping and pillaging a bunch of innocent people thousands of miles away. Lucifer is the hero in a struggle against the unfairness of God’s Plan. Dracula is a victim of circumstance making the best life he can in his eternal undeath, where the rules require nightly feedings to survive.
Can’t we move beyond these categories?
There are only people, who yearn for better lives. These people reach out to the people around them for love and support. Sometimes things work out. Sometimes things don’t. Regardless, villains in heroic fiction generally are the ones who abuse others for their own self-interest. It’s a symbol of their fundamental disconnection from the love that drives human society. Heroic figures, in heroic fiction, tend to put the good of others before their own good, as a symbol of the fundamental connection to the love that drives human society. It’s a simplistic equation, and ultimately, a tired and overdone one.
The explosion of anti-heroic protagonists is a sign, to me, that readers want more complexity, too.
I hope to get to a point, in fantasy fiction, where there is neither a hero nor a villain. I hope we get to the point where there are just people, doing the best they can with what they have, and building or destroying the world around them and the people around them as part of the things that make that character who they are.
Athans: If you could give an aspiring fantasy author one piece of advice on the subject of world-building, what would that be?
McDermott: Excel spreadsheets are a marvelous way of collating vast seas of notes and information. You can build whole “books” of spreadsheet data to quickly sift through your world and your notes, and keep it open in the background while you write. Simply “Alt-Tab” over, and check or update your notes and “Alt-Tab” back. You never even take your hands off the keyboard.
Athans: Do you take detailed notes before and/or during your writing? Does the bulk of your worldbuilding take place before you begin writing, or does the world take shape as you go?
McDermott: Despite my response to the previous question, I often don’t. My notes actually suck. If I’m writing really well, I don’t even know what I’m doing, and my notes about it suck afterwards. Generally, I world build while going for walks, or working on something else, and somewhere in my head the goblins are giggling and drawing up the maps. I scribble it up later, and use those times when writing is not coming easily to me to update the notes. It, at least, keeps me engaged with the narrative and typing when I’m otherwise uninspired.
Of course, this does depend on the complexity of the novel. Maze didn’t require copious notes beyond the outline. The Dogsland Trilogy [Never Knew Another is the first book] has copious notes across about five computers. I’ll have to sort through them all and reorganize the spreadsheets.
Athans: What is the one novel every aspiring fantasy author has to read?
McDermott: I don’t think there’s any novel ubiquitous to the form. The field has really exploded and become incredibly diverse. I certainly hope there isn’t one book that defines us all. That’d be a terrible book, combining urban fantasy, epic fantasy, new weird, steampunk, and all those other strange destinations and strange lives.
I probably haven’t read it, if there really is one.
Read what interests you. Write what interests you. Write the novel every aspiring author in your little corner of what you’d like your genre to be has to read.
Athans: Give me some general words of warning for the aspiring fantasy author.
McDermott: Different processes produce different results.
I know how to write like J.M. McDermott. That’s all I know how to do. I could not tell you how to write like P.N. Elrod, or Jeff VanderMeer, or Stephen King. I only know my way. If you ask ten writers how to write, you’ll get ten answers. They will all be correct.
The people to listen to are the people who write what you like to read. Their processes create the sort of thing you like, and are likely to help you produce the sort of thing you like. Asking me for writing advice is not useful for someone who aspires to write urban fantasy mystery novels.
Also, writers tend to know less about writing, in general, than agents and editors. Writers tend to only work with one type of writer: themselves. We are masters at editing our own material, but not masters at editing yours. Certainly, writers are not the people to ask about how to get published. We sell, if we’re prolific and incredibly lucky, one book in a year or two. Agents sell far more than one book a year, or they’d be out of business. Editors buy far more than one book a year. To know how to sell books, go talk to agents and editors.
My process has nothing to do with selling my books. My process produces the results demonstrated by my prose. That’s all I really know, and all I can help you with.
If you like my books, then my answers to these questions might be useful. If you do not like my books, then I am of little to no help to you. Good luck, to you, with your writing.
And good luck to you, sir. Thank you!