The Practice of Creativity

Creating Superheroes, Bad Wizards, Dragons and Being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate: Author Interview with James Maxey

Posted on: December 13, 2015

I’ve always thought that it’s pretty cool that I live in a region of the state (known as ‘the Piedmont’), that names a Laureate each year. James Maxey, the current Piedmont Laureate is the first speculative fiction writer ever chosen to hold that title. His announcement received lots of buzz and many writers and fans of speculative fiction delighted in the news.

James Maxey is the author of the Bitterwood fantasy quartet, Bitterwood, Dragonforge, Dragonseed, and Dawn of Dragons, as well as a pair of superhero novels, Nobody Gets the Girl and Burn Baby Burn. His Dragon Apocalypse series combines both superheroes and epic fantasy, and so far three books have been published, Greatshadow, Hush, and Witchbreaker with a fourth one in the works.  He has also published numerous short stories, the best of which are reprinted in the collection, There is No Wheel.

He writes fast-paced, action-driven pulp fiction with a strong emphasis on character growth and world building. He deals with larger-than-life characters adventuring in exotic worlds. Readers who delve past the dragons and superheroes on the covers will discover stories that explore the deeper aspects of the human condition, from the highly personal—love, hate, grief, anger, faith and hope—to larger societal issues, like the balance between individual freedoms and social order.

I met James last month at the NC Comicon. We had a fantastic discussion about the writing life. I bought his book Greatshadow and have fallen in love with the characters and the unique narrative structure he uses. I encourage you to check out his work as this month Greatshadow is free and his Bitterwood series is only 99 cents!

I’d never met any writer who also had the duties of a laureate and found myself curious about all kinds of things: What does the Piedmont Laureate do? What had been the best and most difficult parts of the year for James? What kind of reception did he receive as a speculative fiction author?

In the midst of his busy end-of-the year schedule, James graciously agreed to an interview. I’m delighted to welcome James Maxey to The Practice of Creativity.

 

-Tell us what it is like being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate.

The Piedmont Laureate is chosen each year by the United Arts Council, the Durham Arts Council, the Raleigh Arts Commission, and the Orange County Arts Commission. The mission of the Laureate is to promote reading and writing, and each one is chosen to represent a particular genre or form of writing. My focus as Piedmont Laureate was speculative fiction, a broad label covering fantasy, science fiction, steampunk, superheroes and many more genres set in worlds not quite our own. I write about these things because I read about these things.

As Piedmont Laureate, I’ve taught several writing workshops, some focused on speculative fiction, others with a broader focus on writing in general. I’ve also led several discussions at libraries and museums, and done readings at Mordecai House, Burwell School, and libraries. It’s been a crazy busy year. I’ve lost count, but I think I’m close to 30 events for the year. It’s definitely kept me busy.

600_JamesMaxey

-You’re the first (but hopefully not the last), Piedmont Laureate that primarily writes speculative fiction. Do you think that your selection, in part, represents an increasing literary respect for speculative fiction?

Hmm. I’m going to parse your question carefully and say that there is definitely an increasing cultural respect for speculative fiction. You’d have to be blind not to see that the box office each year is dominated by movies with a speculative fiction theme, and some of the biggest publishing success stories of the last twenty years have come from the speculative fiction domains. You also see the same themes now making big inroads on television.

That said, I still think there’s some literary snobbishness in regards to speculative fiction. One common prejudice I encounter all the time is the notion that speculative fiction is mainly for kids. There’s also a wide perception in the literary establishment that the genres are kind of trashy, valuing sensation over thoughtfulness. And, I’m sad to say, that’s probably true. 95% of published speculative fiction is trashy. But, how does that make it any different than any other subset of literature? 95% of everything is crap. Still, it does bug me that the undeniably great work that gets done in the genres doesn’t get more respect. When I spoke at the NC Museum of Natural Sciences about science fiction back in October, someone in the audience made a comment that it seemed like science fiction was all about concepts, and not much attention was paid to characters. I think this is a pretty common notion. In the marketing materials for my own books, the first thing that gets pitched is the big idea behind the book, with the characters not mentioned until the second line. In fact, looking at the publisher’s blurb on the back of my novel Bitterwood, it’s the third line before my title character is mentioned! People who actually dive into my work will find it full of unique characters with rich backgrounds and complicated personalities. To develop my protagonist Stagger in my novel Greatshadow, I detailed his family history all the way back to his great-grandfather, showing how choices made almost a century before his birth shaped the type of man Stagger was going to become. The fact that my novels have dragons on the cover doesn’t mean that I haven’t put character development first.

-What have you most enjoyed about being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate?

The best part of being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate is that I’ve got to meet and talk with a lot of nerds. When I was growing up, liking comic books, Star Trek, Lord of the Rings, etc. was a pretty sure way of getting yourself branded a nerd and isolated from the rest of the pack. But once computers started infiltrating themselves into our day to day lives back in the mid-eighties, it seems like nerds have gone from social pariahs to a dominating force in popular culture. When I was a teenager, wearing a Superman shirt to high school would have marked me as a loser. Go to Target or Walmart today, and at least half the shirts have superhero logos on them.

Before this year, most of my public events have been at science fiction conventions, and I still assumed that speculative fiction was a modest subset of the culture despite what I was seeing in Walmart. But doing events this year at libraries, the Sertoma Arts Center, Museums, and historical sites like Mordecai House and Burwell School, I’ve discovered nerds everywhere. The nerd stereotype that I fit into in my teens—young, male, white, skinny, and socially awkward—has been completely blasted away. At the NC Comicon where we met, the room seemed evenly split between male and female, and was far more diverse in age and race than Hollywood would have you believe. Nerds unite!

-How has being the 2015 Piedmont Laureate changed your writing schedule and/or relationship to writing?

Definitely, for worse and for better. The worse is the fact that, in 2015, I haven’t actually done much writing. I’ve produced about 100,000 words of new fiction this year, a pretty low ebb. For much of the last ten years, the second I finished one novel I’ve dived into another. Going months without actively working on something leaves me feeling uneasy. It turns out, not writing books is actually a lot easier than writing them. It’s kind of terrifying to discover that I can enjoy my life just fine without constantly being hunched over my keyboard. The best thing is that I’ve had a little time to step back and think about what I’ve accomplished with my writing, and what I still want to accomplish. A dozen books into my career (counting books written but not yet published), I found myself wondering if I was just repeating myself. If you look at my characters Sorrow in Witchbreaker and Sunday in Burn Baby Burn, they both have fairly similar goals and personalities (though vastly different moralities, once you dig deeply into their motivations). In last year’s Bad Wizard, I found myself returning again to some of the faith versus reason themes I’d already explored in my Bitterwood saga. Fortunately, this last year I’ve given a lot of thought to books I’ve read that I consider to be truly great. It’s helped me recognize that there are still huge philosophical questions that interest me that I haven’t tackled in depth yet, and also helped me think about how I can really swing for the fences in the books I have yet to write.

I’m going into 2016 with the goal of writing 366,000 words. I’ll actually be teaching a workshop at the Orange County Library on January 9 called “366: Your Most Productive Year of Writing Ever,” where I’ll be showing how I’m setting my goals and the time management tools I’ll be using to meet them, plus some tricks I’ve learned over the years to help me write even on the days when I feel utterly uninspired and uncreative. (Anyone interested in this free workshop can email me at james@jamesmaxey.net for details or to sign up.)

-What are you working on right now?

Back in the spring, before the bulk of my Laureate duties kicked in, I wrote the first draft of my final Dragon Apocalypse book, Cinder. Rewriting it and getting it out before X-Con in May is my first priority. After that, I plan to write a superhero novel called Big Ape. It’s a companion book for an unpublished novel I wrote a few years ago called Cut Up Girl. The two novels will cover the same years of story from the perspective of two different fledgling superheroes. Some of the plot points intersect, though each book can be read alone without requiring the other to make sense. But, if you do read both books, a fuller picture of the world and both characters will emerge. I think Cut Up Girl is a great book, with a story unlike anything else you’ve likely seen in a superhero adventure. But Big Ape is the book I’m really excited about. Since it stars a character who is half-human, half-chimpanzee, I plan to really dig down into just how much human nature is actually animal nature, and do what I can to search for what it is that truly defines being human. The character is also utterly isolated, neither fully man nor animal, stranded between two worlds he feels he can never fully be part of. Working through this existential loneliness will, I hope, give this book a powerful emotional weight.

If a reader wants to try your work, what do you recommend?

If a reader wants to get a taste of my work for free, through the end of the year my novel Greatshadow is available as a free ebook. Greatshadow is one of my personal favorite books, featuring what I think is my best love story, some of my best humor, and a cast of quirky and unique characters. And, did I mention it’s free?

However, while I love Greatshadow, there’s no question that my most popular books by far are the four novels of my Bitterwood saga, now collected in a single volume as Bitterwood: the Complete Collection. The collection is also my best reviewed work. As of this morning on Amazon, it’s got 15 reviews, and 14 of them are 5 stars, with a single four star review in there, because there’s no pleasing everyone.

bitterwood

And, for the month of December, Bitterwood: The Complete Collection, is available as an ebook for only 99 cents at most major ebook retailers. I think people respond well to the entire series because it does tell a truly epic story of a war between dragons and mankind. It features my most troubled protagonist in the character of Bitterwood, and a huge cast of other great characters, both human and dragon, as they struggle to survive in a world descending into anarchy. And, whenever people come up to me at cons and tell me what they enjoyed about the books, they always mention the dragon Blasphet, who is probably the single best villain I’ve ever managed to create. He’s so enthusiastic in his wickedness that he completely takes over the book every time he’s on the scene. Usually my antagonists are under the illusion that they’re the true hero of the book. Blasphet knows he’s the villain, and just runs with it.

-Would you share with us your best writing tip?

Momentum matters. Going back to my last answer, the biggest trap beginning authors can fall into is to write only when you feel inspired. If you practiced piano only when you felt inspired, would you ever master the piano? If you only went out and ran when you felt inspired, would you ever build the endurance and mental stamina needed to run a marathon? A key thing to understand is that any time you sit down to write, you aren’t working only on the story or chapter in front of you. You’re working on your entire career. If you want to “make it” as a writer, odds are you will write millions of words over the course of decades, maybe tens of millions. To get there, you’ve got to put your butt in the chair and slog out the words on days when you’re tired, or a little sick, or worried about your family or your job. You’ve got to keep tapping the keyboard when you are certain you are writing the worst sentences ever recorded onto a hard drive, when you hate every last character in your novel and can think of not one original idea for where you’re taking the plot. Because, you know what? Writing is where the magic happens. You can sit around daydreaming all you want, but until you start typing, you don’t actually know what’s going to emerge. Again and again I’ve discovered that, as I’m slogging through something I don’t want to write, something will spark and the next thing I know I’m on fire. I start out telling myself I can quit for the night if I make to 500 words, and the next thing I know it’s 3 a.m. and I’ve got 5000 words that just sparkle.

 

James Maxey’s mother warned him that reading all those comic books would warp his mind. She was right. Now an adult who can’t stop daydreaming, James is unsuited for decent work and ekes out a pittance writing down demented fantasies about masked women, fiery dragons, and monkeys. Oh god, so many monkeys.

In an effort to figure out how Superman could fly, James read books by Carl Sagan and Stephen Jay Gould and Stephen Hawking. Turns out, Superman probably wasn’t based on any factual information. Who would have guessed? Realizing it was possible to write science fiction without being constrained by the actual rules of science proved liberating for James, and led to the pseudo-science fiction of the Bitterwood series, superhero novels like Nobody Gets the Girl, the secondary world fantasy of the Dragon Apocalypse series and the steam-punk visions of Bad Wizard.

James is a graduate of the Odyssey Writing Workshop where he studied with Author in Residence Harlan Ellison, as well as a graduate of Orson Scott Card’s Literary Boot Camp. He honed his craft over many years as a member of the Writer’s Group of the Triad and continues to be an active part of the Codex Writers’ online community.

James lives in Hillsborough, North Carolina with his lovely and patient wife Cheryl and too many cats. For more information about James and his writing, visit jamesmaxey.net.

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Michele Tracy Berger

Michele Tracy Berger

Author, Academic, Creativity Expert I'm an award winning writer.

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