Interview with James Maxey

James MaxeyJames’ story “Message In A Bottle” appears in The Clockwork Jungle Book (Issue #11).  You can read James Maxey’s self-described “uninformed rants about politics, religion, and circus freaks” at Jamesmaxey.blogspot.com – but if you want news and information about his writing, you’ll have to go to Dragonprophet.blogspot.com.  Or you could simply email him at  Nobodynovelwriter@yahoo.com.

Q: Did you ever want to write “just like” someone else?  Who?  Or was there any book that made you say “I can do better than this!”?

A: Definitely Harlan Ellison was my model when I was younger. I shifted to wanting to be Hunter S. Thompson later on.  But, really, for the last decade or so I’ve focused on learning to write like James Maxey.  I could only go so far trying to imitate other writers.  I’m haunted by my own peculiar demons, and chase after my own odd dreams. No one else’s voice is ever going to be able to express these things.

Q: Do you have favorite characters?  Any characters, yours or others, are applicable.

A: Brainiac 5 from the Legion of Superheroes. I like him because his only superpower was that he was just really smart.  Of course, the problem with liking a comic book character from either DC or Marvel is that the personalities and even the histories of the characters morph and change with every new writer. I stopped reading most mainstream comics a few years ago because I got so frustrated with seeing characters I loved warped into people I barely recognized.

From my own work, my favorite character is usually whoever I’m writing at the moment.  In my most recent novel, Dragonseed, I think I most enjoyed writing the character of Shay.  He’s an escaped slave who’s well read and full of big ideas about liberty and honor and heroism, but is really just an average guy when it comes to being able to act on these ideas.  He loses most fights he gets into, he makes a lot of mistakes and questionable choices, but he keeps on standing up for what he believes.  He’s willing to fight the good fight, even if he doesn’t have a lot of hope of winning.

Q: Do your characters talk to you?  Do you ever argue with characters you hadn’t planned?

A: All my best characters are chatty, even the mute ones.  I have a character named Anza in Dragonforge and Dragonseed who can’t speak due to a tumor on her vocal chords, but whenever I would write her, she would tell me what it was that she wanted to do.  She’s an excellent example of a character who took control of her own destiny.  She started the book as a 12 year old, bookish boy, the son of Burke the Machinist, one of the major players in the books.  But, as I was writing, I felt like I had too many male characters and decided that it would be easy to switch this relatively minor character to female for a little balance.  As I fleshed out Burke’s back story, I soon realized that Anza would need to be older, closer to 19, to fit into Burke’s timeline.  Then, as I was writing a scene between Burke and Anza, Burke revealed a chilling secret to me:  When Anza was five, Burke captured a baby earth-dragon and had her kill it.  My books feature dragons as the oppressive rulers of humanity, and Burke is a rebel who hates dragons.  Anza is his only child, and, while he might have wanted a son, he’s decided to turn his daughter into a dragon-killing machine.  After I decided that Anza had been trained since she could walk to be a fighter, I wrote a battle scene where she kills someone in complete silence.  It was then that the character revealed to me that she never talked; she’d been mute since birth.  I had to go back and rewrite all the scenes where she spoke, which was a pain, but completely worth the effort.  With a lot of my best characters, I don’t so much design them as discover them.

Q: How did writing a theme story work out?   Is it more complicated than not having to adhere to a theme — or less?

A: I actually enjoy writing to a theme or a prompt.  I have a nearly infinite pool of story ideas, but a finite pool of time; I sometimes get paralyzed because I can’t choose which one to write about.  My imagination is like a grand buffet, and I drool over every dish I look at, but I’m afraid to put anything on my plate because then there won’t be room for something else.  When I’m asked to write a story to a theme, I can shed my paralysis and just focus on the challenge at hand.

Q: What piece of writerly advice do you wish someone had given you?

A: Quantity is more important than quality in learning to write.  Some people will agonize over a single story, or even a single sentence, wanting it to be perfect before they can move on.  But the surest path to one day writing a perfect sentence isn’t to spend a year sweating over producing a handful of words.  You need to write tens and thousands of words, and if they aren’t any good, write more.  I figured out once that I’d written about a half million words of fiction before I finally broke into print. It took me ten years to write them.  I think I would have got into print in half that time if I’d been writing 100,000 words a year on average instead of 50,000.  The most valuable part of a writer’s anatomy is his butt.  You’ve got to just put it in a chair and keep it there while you crank out words if you ever want to get good at what you’re doing.

Q: Is there something you do that no one ever asks you about?  This can be anything — something unusual you eat, playing poker as a day job, a hobby, whatever you like.

A: You know, I’ve given this question a lot of thought, and I’d say the most unusual thing I do is write.  For instance, at Dragoncon this year, there were 40,000 people wandering around in costumes, standing in line to see celebrities like Shatner and Nimoy, chatting merrily with friends—and on Sunday at the con, I found an empty table at the Hyatt bar, pulled out my laptop, and worked on my latest book, oblivious to the swirl of people around me.  I write because I have imaginary people talking in my head, and I spend long hours of my life tuning out the real world in order to hear them. This is almost certainly evidence of some deep-seated psychological problems, but the voices in my head tell me not to trust psychiatrists, so what can I do?

Here’s an addendum to my interview, discussing the origins of my story:

My specific inspiration for this story spins out of a minor plot element of the novel Dragonseed, the last book in my fantasy trilogy that began with Bitterwood.  In the course of the trilogy, I slowly unveil the underlying truth that my fantasy universe was, in fact, a science fiction universe.  The dragons were the product of genetic engineering; the magic was nanotechnology.  (I don’t regard this as spoiler information, by the way.  A lot of prominent reviews of the books—including one by Orson Scott Card—have mentioned the science underpinning the series.  And, it’s not like Planet of the Apes, where everything builds to one big reveal; the clues are there all along for readers to put together.)

Anyway, I have a race of wingless, bipedal, warm-blooded reptile-men called earth-dragons.  In Dragonseed, we learn that, rather than being a product of genetic engineering, the earth-dragons are highly evolved dinosaurs with a 65 million year head start on their technology that has allowed them to come to the Bitterwood universe from an alternate reality where the comet that wiped out the dinosaurs never hit the planet.  This was a fairly minor plot thread in the book, but I was writing it very close to the idea that I heard about the Clockwork Menagerie issue of Shimmer.  I decided to explore the issue more:  What if dinosaurs had evolved into a high tech society, capable of visiting the moon, before they were wiped out by the comet?  How would we ever know?  60 million years would completely wipe out evidence of human civilization.  Ice ages would grind most northern cities to dust.  California really would fall into the ocean.  The rise and fall of the ocean would wash away all evidence of our existence from the coast.  The constant build up of soil would bury our interstates.  If a race of squirrel men rose up 60 million years from now to a level of technology similar to our own, would they find any record of us?  Our foot print isn’t as big as we’d like to think it is.

However, if the squirrel men went to the moon, and managed to stumble onto the right few square yards out of the millions of square miles available to them, they’d find our foot prints, our moon rover, the US flag, dozens of satellites scattered over the surface, and even a few golf balls.

With this in mind, I found myself imagining a group of modern humans (relatively modern, at least) stumbling upon the remains of a dinosaur moon base and not knowing what to make of it.  I decided to place the story in the civil war era to pay tribute to some of the roots of SF, the early stories that imagined men reaching the moon by way of bullet ships or other low-tech high-tech.  I also knew that, unlike today when we revere our astronauts, if scientists in the 19th century was going to seal up someone into a big bullet and shoot them at the moon, it wouldn’t be wealthy white men making the trip (as was usually the case in Victorian era SF).  The idea of involuntary explorers who would wind up just as forgotten as their discoveries resonated with me on some deep level.  We all want to be remembered when we’re gone, but time and fate will wipe out most of us from the world’s collective memories.  On the other hand, since the message in the  bottle has been discovered, there’s a glimmer of hope that what the men in the story have done will be revealed to the world.  They may yet have the triumph of being remembered as the first men to reach the moon.

One last note:  I went to Dragoncon this year and on their science track they had a panel discussing this very idea.  There was a scientist making the case that, if the dinosaurs had evolved to be tool users, it was unlikely we’d ever know it, and, if we found evidence—a stone hammer in a dinosaurs claw, for instance—it’s highly unlikely any scientist would ever acknowledge the evidence.  I was really tempted to jump up and tell the room that I’d already used this idea in a short story and a novel.  And, it just goes to prove that no matter how original a writer might think an idea is, someone else out there is working on the very same idea.

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Speculative fiction for a miscreant world

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