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July 15, 2013 / minusbar

Author Interview: Django Wexler (The Thousand Names)

Author Interview: Django Wexler (The Thousand Names)

After having read The Thousand Names and falling hard for it, I knew I had to interview the author! So here it is! Django, the man with the coolest name in fantasy books, was kind enough to pop in and answer some questions.

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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.
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Bold writing – Me       Regular text – Django

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First, thank you very much for taking the time to stop by and answer some questions for me.

Can you tell me a funny true story about yourself? 

Three of my traits, in combination, lead to occasional problems: I have a long stride and walk quickly, I’m easily distracted to the point of absent-mindedness, and I have a terrible (more accurately, non-existent) sense of direction.

In my younger days, my friends and I would often leave some place, let’s say at the mall, and start walking.  I would walk quickly, and end up out front, chatting away, until someone thought to ask, “Hey, guys, where are we going?”  And everyone would say, “I was just following Django,” except of course I had no idea where I was going.  Sometimes it took a couple of laps around the food court before people caught on.

On another now-famous occasion, I was driving on a road trip with friends from my parents’ house in New York back to college at CMU, and I managed to not only miss Pittsburgh entirely but to drive completely out of Pennsylvania and into Ohio before I noticed anything.  To this day, whenever I’m not sure how to find some place, my friends will say, “Next stop, Ohio!”  Needless to say, no one has welcomed the advent of GPS-equipped smartphones as much as I have!

What is the first story that you can remember writing? That scribbled story that you might have written when you were a kid is definitely fair game for this question.

My first experiences with writing weren’t stories, per se, but adventures and background material for tabletop role-playing games.  I played Dungeons & Dragons and later Rifts extensively in high school, and ended up with hundreds of pages of notes, NPC write-ups, plot summaries, and so on.

I think I can remember writing a story for a middle-school English class about chess from the point of view of the pieces, but if I did I’ve never been able to find it.  The first story I wrote that wasn’t a class assignment was for my short-lived high-school writing group.  It was called “Einstein vs. Satan,” and it’s about a guy who uses relativistic time dilation to get out of a deal with the devil.  I think the idea could work, actually, maybe I’ll come back to it someday!

I wrote a piece for Powell’s Blog about my early gaming and writing, too:  http://www.powells.com/blog/original-essays/how-i-became-a-gamer-and-a-writer-by-django-wexler/

It seems that fantasy writers are finally ready to embrace the era of gunpowder, and authors like you and Brian McClellan are leading the charge. Who are some other authors you’d recommend for fans of the style?

There has always been little bits and pieces of gunpowder fantasy if you know where to look.  Naomi Novik’s Temeraire books take place during the Napoleonic wars, as does Susannah Clarke’s Jonathon Strange & Mr. Norrell.  China Mieville’s Bas-Lag books, starting with Perdido Street Station, have flintlock firearms, and Railsea has some of that vibe as well.  Leigh Bardugo’s Grisha trilogy takes place in an analogue of musket-era Russia.

There’s some very similar stuff that’s technically classed under science fiction, too.  S. M. Stirling’s Island in the Sea of Time is part of a whole genre of “modern humans travel to the past/alternate world” books, and usually introducing firearms is near the top of the to-do list.  Stirling and David Drake wrote a series called The General, which takes place on a fallen space colony with roughly 1900-level weaponry, and giant dogs for cavalry!

What type of research went into females secretively enlisting into the military while preparing to write Winter? I definitely got a positive Mulan vibe from her.

Oddly, Mulan is one of the examples of the genre I’m least familiar with, though I’ve heard the comparison from many sources.  The trope is not uncommon in war stories, but it really happened, and not just a few times but all over the place.  It’s actually a type of story particularly common in the Napoleonic period and thereafter (the American Civil War may have been the Golden Age of women-enlisting-in-men’s-outfits) because the era saw the dawn of truly national armies and mass conscription, which offered more anonymity and opportunity than the class-based armies that had come before.

Winter’s role has probably changed the most out of all the characters in the story as I went through various drafts.  She was originally someone’s little sister, someone else’s love interest, and so on, but it just didn’t work out; in order to carry her half of the story, she needed to be a fully independent character of her own.  Once I got the book into roughly its current form, I suddenly couldn’t imagine it any other way—Winter’s gender and history have become a huge part of the series as a whole.

What character was the most enjoyable for you to write about in this book?

Janus is a lot of fun.  He has a kind of dark, snarky streak that gives him some of the best lines.  Once I got Winter in place, I had a good time writing her as well—her relationships with Bobby and Feor are some of my favorite bits in the novel.

On the other end of that, is there a particular character that gave you trouble to write?

Writing Marcus was challenging.  The tricky part is that he’s a very straight-man, earnest type of character, and there’s always a risk of that becoming just deadly dull to read.  He tends to be closed-off emotionally, so getting his inner life on the page without resorting to tons of monologue took a lot of work.  At one point I had to resort to getting him really drunk.

Your action scenes are extremely well thought out and felt very genuine. Can you tell me a bit about the steps you took while writing them?

This was probably the area where I did the most deliberate research.  I wanted the action to feel as “realistic” as it could, given the limitations of time and place.  (i.e. that I’ve never personally been on an 18th century battlefield.)  So I did a lot of reading on the very small-scale side of the battles, which various authors have tried to recreate from the personal accounts the soldiers have left us.  A lot of military history is too high-level for things like that—it will say, “the 18th Regiment attacked successfully,” but not explain what that means, or what a successful attack looks like versus an unsuccessful one.

In your SF Signal interview, you mentioned that you could envision your series animated. Personally, I love the idea of your series in an anime style. Why do you think people have embraced the concept graphic novels, movies and TV, but are hesitant to explore animation?

Good question.  I have been watching anime since high school, just because I love science fiction and fantasy and there’s so much more of it in anime.  Animation in the US is still stuck in a bit of an “age ghetto” where anything animated is automatically assumed to be for kids, which makes it a tough sell for serious stuff.

I think that will change, though, or rather is changing already.  A generation of nerds like me grew up with Japanese imports that actually address serious issues, and you can see that the people who do animation in the US are itching to follow suit.  Avatar: The Last Airbender is my go-to example, but on the movie side Pixar’s stuff and films like The Incredibles are a lot deeper than the typical kiddie fare.  Eventually we’ll come to a tipping point, particularly as the technology makes animation cheaper and cheaper to work with.

Was there anything included, an alternate scene maybe, in A Thousand Names that ended up not making the final cut? If so, can you share a bit of that?

Quite a bit was cut, actually.  The initial draft was about thirty thousand words longer than the final version.  Some of it no longer makes any sense, but I wrote a blog post called The Butchers Bill: Kill Your Darlings at ScifiChick.com, which has a long excerpt from the cutting room floor.

If given the opportunity to co-write a story with any author, living or dead, who would you choose to write with?

I’d love to work with George R. R. Martin, because I’d be fascinated to see what his process is like.  It feels like he has a giant tome that contains every detail about every person who ever lived in the Seven Kingdoms; like any great magic trick, it makes me want to see how it’s done.

If you could meet any character from a fantasy novel, which would it be and why?

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This seems like one of those questions where you have to be careful what you wish for—a lot of my favorite fantasy characters aren’t exactly nice guys!  From a purely selfish standpoint, I’d like to meet one of those old men who goes around handing out Epic Destinies and Hidden Powers, like Merlin, Gandalf, Dumbledore, etc.  I may be a little bit past the typical Farmboy of Destiny age, but you never know.

Lastly, an entirely silly question. If the zombie apocalypse happened tomorrow, what would be your survival plan?

Barricade myself in the house and wait.  If the zombies begin collapsing from starvation, then I’m in a science-fiction universe that obeys physical laws, and I just need to wait them out.  If they stand around and show no signs of rotting or falling over, then I’m in a fantasy universe, and I’ll start trying to figure out how to do magic.  Maybe I can become a necromancer and build a zombie army!

Thanks so much for taking the time to come chat!

My pleasure! Thanks for having me.

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A must-read for fantasy fans!

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The Thousand Names is available now! Synopsis is included below. Read it, and if it at all sounds interesting to you, buy the book! I promise, this will not be a reading choice you are likely to regret.

Captain Marcus d’Ivoire, commander of one of the Vordanai empire’s colonial garrisons, was resigned to serving out his days in a sleepy, remote outpost. But that was before a rebellion upended his life. And once the powder smoke settled, he was left in charge of a demoralized force clinging tenuously to a small fortress at the edge of the desert.

To flee from her past, Winter Ihernglass masqueraded as a man and enlisted as a ranker in the Vordanai Colonials, hoping only to avoid notice. But when chance sees her promoted to command, she must win the hearts of her men and lead them into battle against impossible odds.

The fates of both these soldiers and all the men they lead depend on the newly arrived Colonel Janus bet Vhalnich, who has been sent by the ailing king to restore order. His military genius seems to know no bounds, and under his command, Marcus and Winter can feel the tide turning. But their allegiance will be tested as they begin to suspect that the enigmatic Janus’s ambitions extend beyond the battlefield and into the realm of the supernatural—a realm with the power to ignite a meteoric rise, reshape the known world, and change the lives of everyone in its path.

Amazon buy link here!

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