Django Wexler’s brand new fantasy, THE THOUSAND NAMES, just came out and he was kind enough to answer a few questions about the new book, and more, so please welcome him to the blog!
I frankly, think it’s awesome that you got a degree in Creative Writing and Computer Science, but did you always see yourself as a writer? Will you tell us a little more about yourself and what inspired you to write THE THOUSAND NAMES?
I’ve been writing since high school (before that it was mostly D&D and other RPGs [link: http://www.powells.com/blog/original-essays/how-i-became-a-gamer-and-a-writer-by-django-wexler/] ) but I didn’t think of myself as a writer until much later. My basic life plan was to be a programmer, and do writing as a hobby. I ended up getting the Creative Writing degree as a lark—at CMU, we had to have a minor, and I discovered that the difference between the writing minor and a double major was only a few classes, so I squeezed it in to senior year.
Somewhat to my surprise, the combination of writing and programming has gotten me several jobs. There’s a real market for people who can do programming (and, more importantly, talk to programmers) but can also string a decent sentence together, which programmers are almost universally bad at. When I applied to work for Microsoft, a team looking for Programmer/Writers (that’s actually the job title!) was really eager to have me. I ended up doing technical documentation for .NET for the next five years.
In the interim, I’d written a bunch of unpublishable stuff (either just bad, or fan-fiction, or both) and two novels, Memories of Empire and Shinigami, that I sold to a small press. That was fun, but for the next book I decided I wanted to have a shot at querying agents and getting a big publisher. It took quite a while to get it done (I changed jobs and moved across the country, which didn’t help) but The Thousand Names was the result.
Speaking of THE THOUSAND NAMES, will you tell us a little about it? What made you decide to write a fantasy with military themes?
Originally, The Thousand Names was supposed to be a fictionalized retelling of the life of Napoleon Bonaparte. It’s changed a lot since then—I think that concept was too restrictive in terms of the characters, and as soon as I started getting them down on the page I knew it wasn’t going to neatly follow the historical trajectory. So I kept only a few very broad elements, which left me with a military fantasy set in a roughly Napoleonic timeframe. (In terms of technology, anyway. It’s not set in actual France.)
The original interest came mainly from wargaming, and then reading a bunch of military history. I read David Chandler’s The Campaigns of Napoleon, which is a wonderfully exciting history, and thought “Wow, I want to do that.”
What kind of research did you do for the book?
I’m always embarrassed to call it “research” since that seems like it should be a lot of work. Really it’s just the stuff I read for fun. I discovered an interest in history, and specifically military history, as a result of hanging around with a bunch of historical wargamers in college. After that I just read a bunch of books in the field, and re-read some of them when I started writing The Thousand Names.
The only thing I can think of that feels like specific “research” was scanning through quite a lot of books to get some detail for a “soldier’s eye view” of the battlefield. A lot of the histories are more concerned with the strategic sweep of events, but there are sections or chapters based on first-hand accounts of what battles were actually like. I went through a bunch of those so that I could get my descriptions as “right” as possible.
Some people assume that the “main” character is the author’s favorite to write. Was this the case with you?
In some ways. Winter was (is, since I’m writing the sequels now) a lot of fun to write. She’s sort of dark and a little melancholy, but with a strange sense of humor that leads to interesting moments and fun dialogue. Marcus was often harder, just because I had this image of what I wanted him to be—a kind of bluff, no-nonsense, straight-arrow sort of guy—but in practice that made him a little boring, so I had to go through and change things up a bit.
Janus is always a joy to write, though. He’s got a kind of wordy, erudite style that I find really amusing, and he gets a lot of the best lines.
When you write, are you a plotter or a pantser? Will you walk us through your process a little?
I used to be a proud pantser and hated outlining. Eventually, though, I realized that that process kept running me down blind alleys, which meant a lot of wasted work. When I started plotting on The Shadow Campaigns as a series, I was forced to do a lot more planning than usual, and I found it wasn’t actually so bad once I got the process straightened out. So you might call me a converted plotter now.
Generally I start with a kind of vague outline, and then move on to a scene-by-scene outline. Learning how to get this right was a big step for me, because one of my problems had always been “potholes” —places in the story where the outline says something should happen, but it doesn’t happen in a scene, so I’d get to that point of the story and fall into the hole. (A good example is a spot in the outline that says, “X and Y become friends.” That’s not a scene—you can’t write that. They have to physically DO something, go to a bar together, bond over video games, whatever.)
When I get stuck, I open up another document and just start typing to myself, like “Okay, so this isn’t working. What’s going wrong? I think …” and so on. I have literally hundreds of pages of this. It’s nice because it doubles as notes if I forget something.
What are some of your biggest literary influences?
George R. R. Martin was a big one. What he did in A Song of Ice and Fire, taking a fantasy closer to the historical reality it was based on, appealed to me a lot. I had already been thinking about fantasy worlds that weren’t of the usual knights-and-castles variety, and after I read that I realized the way to do it would be to try something similar to Martin, but with a different historical model.
I owe a lot to Joe Abercrombie for his fighting and battles scenes, and Steven Erikson’s The Malazan Book of the Fallen for large-scale, slow-burn plots. I read and re-read Neal Stephenson, especially Cryptonomicon, because his use of language is just fantastic.
If you could experience one book again for the very first time, which one would it be?
Whoa, that’s a really good question! My instinct is to go with the aforementioned Cryptonomicon, because there’s just so many little moments and paragraphs in that book that I love so much. I was thinking that something with a really great twist would also be a strong contender, but all I could come up with was a bunch of movies.
I would love to be able to read one of my books for the first time, the way a new reader experiences it. It’s always kind of strange as an author that the one thing we can never do is duplicate that experience, which is so basic for everyone else.
When you’re not busy with your next project, how do you like to spend your free time?
I have an almost archetypically nerdy list of hobbies. I play a lot of games: computer games, wargames, tabletop games. For the wargames, I paint miniatures, which is a lot of fun in and of itself. I watch anime and a select few TV shows. (Basically The Daily Show plus anything sci-fi/fantasy.) I read a lot, obviously, fiction and non-fiction. And I waste a fair bit of time poking around the internet.
What’s next for you?
Right now I’m working on the second draft of The Shadow Throne, the sequel to The Thousand Names. In the meantime, I have a middle-grade fantasy book, The Forbidden Library, coming out in April of next year. That’s also the beginning of a series, so the goal is to do one of each every year until I either finish or go completely insane.
I’m also going to a bunch of cons this summer: San Diego Comic-Con, WorldCon in San Antonio, New York Comic-Con, and probably more after that. If anybody is around, come and say hi!
About THE THOUSAND NAMES:
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.