By KatG & Hobbit/Mark (2009-01-10)
Jim is a regular visitor to SFFWorld. He very kindly took time from his busy schedule to talk to us about his writing, his philosophies, goblins and fairy tales.
1. Your first novel, Goblin Quest, is about a young goblin named Jig whose magical mountain home is invaded by a group of adventurers. It offers an affectionate and detailed skewering of role playing and video fantasy games. Have you done a lot of gaming? How did the novel come about?
I played my first game of D&D over 20 years ago, back when the game came in a box and you used a crayon to fill in the numbers in your dice. Back then, "Elf" was a character class, and we liked it! We hiked 20 miles to get to our quests, uphill both ways, though Flumph-infested forests, with--
Where was I? Oh, right. I'm not as hard-core as some of my friends, but I still role-play a bit these days. I tend to avoid the video games, if only because I know I'll end up addicted, and between two jobs and a family I just can't afford the time.
Goblin Quest definitely draws on the gaming, but it's not a gaming novel. It came about as I was reading a fantasy novel written from the monster's point of view, and I hated it. I wanted to know more about the monsters' culture. I wanted more humor. I wanted the monster to be clever instead of just tough. Eventually I got so disgusted I threw the book away and wrote the one I wanted to read, about Jig and his pet fire-spider Smudge. The rest, as they say, is history. Or fantasy.
2. That is one of the great things about the novel – that we get to learn about the world of the mountain, and that Jig, in his being forced to deal with the adventurers, comes to see that world and himself from a different perspective. Plus, kick-ass monsters! Speaking of which, tell us more about Smudge, best sidekick animal ever.
Thanks! I had a lot of fun trying to figure out how these groups could actually survive in such an environment. Think of the scene in the Lord of the Rings films where all of the goblins are swarming out of the darkness of Moria. Does anyone ever stop to think about what they eat? Let alone how they're handling . . . let's call it "sewage-related issues".
I love Smudge. He's kind of a one-trick spider, but it's such a fun trick. As an old-time gamer, I can tell you that setting things on fire never gets old. But Smudge plays an important role in the story. He's pretty much the only character Jig can trust, and the only one who shows any sign of loyalty. Mostly though, he just runs around and burns stuff.
3. So, you wrote the novel. Now you are required by the laws of author interviews to tell us your story of how you first got published. Make it good.
In the tradition of the authors of old, I accept your challenge.
Goblin Quest is actually the fourth novel I ever wrote. I think I submitted it to more than 30 publishers and agents, collecting all kinds of fun rejection letters in the process. Heck, some publishers didn't even bother to send a rejection. Things weren't looking good for poor Jig.
Enter Turn the Other Chick, edited by Esther Friesner. I wrote a story for the anthology, Esther liked it, and life was good. In the process of selling that story, I learned that the person packaging the anthology for Baen was also doing acquisitions for a small press called Five Star. I asked if he'd be interested in reading a goblin book. He said yes, I e-mailed the book, and a few months later I had an offer. I sent out letters withdrawing the book from those few publishers who had ignored me, just to be safe, and that was that.
A year later, I had a beautiful little hardcover with Jig cowering on the cover. A happy ending after all, right? Or maybe not. It turns out that one of those publishers who had never gotten back to me actually liked the book. Not only that, but they never received or read my follow-up withdrawing it from consideration. I knew none of this at the time. I didn't learn until several months after the book came out from Five Star -- two and a half years after I had submitted the book to this particular publisher.
I freaked. I had sold the book to a small press, and here was a major publisher who wanted it. I called up several agents, and one agreed to take me on and try to salvage this mess. The publisher ended up rescinding their offer, but my agent talked me down from the ledge and convinced me to write a second book. That agent then went on to sell both goblin books to DAW, getting a better offer than we had from the other major publisher.
So it is a happy ending. It just took longer to get here. At this point, DAW reprinted Goblin Quest as a mass market and put out the next two original goblin books, and they've also contracted three books in a new series as well. (The first one, The Stepsister Scheme, comes out January 6, 2009!)
Life is good . . . at least for now.
4. That is a pretty good story, and an example of how curvy sometimes the publication process can be. For the sequel, Goblin Hero, you had Jig dealing with the consequences of being a hero to his people, meaning he has to clean up all the messy stuff when they’re besieged, and in the third book of the series, Goblin War, Jig has to manage an all-out war among humans and orcs. Did you plan to cover the trifecta of epic fantasy or did things just sort of flow that way?
Goblin Quest was originally written to stand alone. I had ideas for other books, but no concrete plans. The thing is, I've never believed in endings. Real life doesn't end until you're dead. Have you ever met anyone who really lived happily ever after? Heck, who would want to? Don't get me wrong, I like it when books bring closure to the story, but every story has consequences that stretch far beyond the last page. When I realized we could do more goblin books, it was just a matter of looking for some of those consequences and figuring out how to use them to make poor Jig's life difficult again.
5. I don’t usually buy books based just on their tagline, but I admit that the one for The Stepsister Scheme, your new book, as being fairy tale princesses meets Charlie’s Angels made me instantly want to get it. We’ve had a few tough princesses before, but this series seems to combine the dizzy glitz of modern culture with the darker humor of the original folk stories. How did you get the urge to redesign the story of Cinderella? Or perhaps more accurately, to tell the story of what came after the fairy tale ended?
Thanks! I love the Charlie's Angels pitch for this one. I've got a young daughter, so for a while my house was overrun with princess merchandise: movies, dolls, pajamas, even princess tissue boxes. I eventually grew fed up enough to write my own princesses. I knew from the start they would be able to take care of themselves, but I didn't want them to be caricatures, either. I've read stories where, in order to avoid the stereotype of the helpless damsel, the author goes too far in the other direction and ends up writing the stereotypically cold, unstoppable butch warrior woman. I wanted to write my characters as real women, with strengths and weaknesses and personalities all their own. As it turned out, my versions of Cinderella, Snow White, and Sleeping Beauty make a remarkably good team.
6. Snow White seems pretty tough to me! But I like how the women are complicated and not always certain, yet funny and facing conflict head on. In The Stepsister Scheme, Cinderella's embittered stepsister acquires magic, causing Cinderella to have to rescue her prince, which definitely gives a different view of fairytale relationships. Without giving too much away, what was your favorite part of the story?
That's a hard question. There's a lot I like about the story, but I think one of my favorite bits is the fight scene near the end. No spoilers, but if there was a Hugo for the best use of silverware in melee combat, I'd be on the shortlist for sure :-)
7. And The Stepsister Scheme comes out this month, in January. The next book in the series, The Mermaid's Madness, comes out a bit later in the year, in October. Any hints about that story and what’s going to happen to the princesses?
The Hans Christian Anderson tale is a lot darker than the Disney version of The Little Mermaid. Anderson's mermaid is forced to choose between killing her prince or dying herself. She chooses to die. My mermaid makes a different choice. There's lots of sailing action, intrigue, some new characters (the dryad captain is my favorite!), and plenty of Snow, Talia, and Danielle. And also a three-legged ship's cat.
8. What do you think is the attraction for an author in writing or reimagining traditional fairy tales? You've mentioned wanting to write strong female characters, but was there anything else that attracted you?
Fairy tales are universal enough to give you a connection with your reader from page one. Especially for new readers of SF/F, fairy tales provide a sense of familiarity, of knowing who these characters are are and what to expect from the story. Of course, that means the author is in a better position to totally mess with those expectations.
9. You've been writing for a while now as a professional writer. It's often said that writing professionally is something that you can only understand when it actually happens. What do you know now that you wish you'd known when you started?
I'm still not entirely sure what "professional" means. I'd call myself a pro these days, but when did that happen? Was it the first book deal? The third pro short fiction sale? When I got my 500th Facebook page?
There's definitely a lot to learn, things that would have made my life easier ten years ago had I known them. Things like:
-Rejection is normal. It's painful, and it sucks, but every successful writer I've ever met has hundreds or even thousands of the things.
-Publishing is slow. Really slow. Slow like an arthritic tortoise on pot in the middle of winter. So aim high, and be patient.
-There is no one Right Way to break in (though there are some Wrong Ways). Learn from those who have made it, but don't feel like you must follow that exact same path.
10. Humour's usually one of the hardest things to get right for writers. Despite this, you and your books have a reputation for being funny. How difficult do you personally find writing it? Is it something that is 'just your thing' or is it something, in your opinion, that a writer has to work at?
Light-humored stories have always come pretty naturally to me. "Blade of the Bunny" was a fun little tale, and got me into Writers of the Future, but then I told myself I had to stop goofing around and write "real" stories now. So I tried to write serious, deep, moving literature. (I still remember the first time one of my stories made my writing group cry.) I eventually learned to do serious, but light & humorous is so much more fun for me.
I don't know how other writers do it, but mostly I just let the characters be themselves. A lot of my characters tend to be a little quirky, so they usually bring the funny without me having to work too hard at it. I'm no Terry Pratchett, not by a long shot, but I have my moments.
11. Generally though, the future's looking good, Jim. Let's think a little while about future ambitions. Thinking further ahead, beyond the present series, have you any other ideas on the go? Care to spill the beans?
I don't think my brain is big enough to hold too many ideas at once, and right now I'm still thinking about the characters from Stepsister Scheme. I'm hoping to do at least five books in this series, which should keep me busy through 2011 (if my publisher likes them). But I'm sure I'll have something ready by the time I wrap up with my princesses. I'm not one of those writers who has more ideas than he knows what to do with, but I haven't run out of stories yet, either.
12. With that in mind, is there anything you really want to write that you haven't had chance yet?
So far, I've had remarkable luck with my career. I have a full time day job, which means I don't have to write. That gives me some freedom to write whatever I choose. I wanted to do goblin books, and then this princess series, so I did. I'm still doing a little short fiction as well, when inspiration strikes. So let's see here ... I suppose a Nebula acceptance speech would be nice. I've always wanted to write one of those....
We'll keep our fingers crossed and our nomination papers handy. Thank you, Jim!
where you can also read the first chapter of THE STEPSISTER SCHEME.
"These princesses will give Charlie's Angels a serious run for the money, and leave 'em in the dust." -Esther Friesner