I’ve been trying to remember how I first came across the name Django Wexler. It was probably via Twitter or a publisher’s catalogue. Since finding out about his next novel, The Thousand Names, I’ve had the chance to chat with Mr Wexler a good deal about fiction and more on the Twitters. With just a couple of months to go before the novel hits shelves (one of my most-anticipated novels of 2013), I thought it would be a perfect time to shoot him some questions. He agreed, so here are his responses…
Let’s start with an introduction: Who is Django Wexler?
That sounds kind of existential. Is the correct answer “I am!”?
Excellent, well done. You’ve passed the first test…
So: I’m Django Wexler, fantasy author. Until fairly recently I was Django Wexler, programmer/writer for Microsoft. I grew up in Westchester, NY and went to school at Carnegie Mellon, in Pittsburgh, where I managed to get degrees in Computer Science and Creative Writing. I moved out to Seattle about five years ago to be where the tech jobs are, which is starting to seem a little ironic now that I no longer work in tech.
Your debut novel, The Thousand Names, will soon be published by Roc in the US and Del Rey in the UK. How would you introduce the novel to a potential reader? Is it part of a series?
The Thousand Names is the story of two soldiers serving at the edge of an empire, and what happens to them when their new colonel reveals the depths of his ambitions. It’s got magic and muskets, cannon, cavalry charges and dark, ancient secrets. I think it’s a lot of fun. (I’m terrible at these “summarize the plot” questions – the back cover copy does a much better job!)
It’s the first book in a series called The Shadow Campaigns, which (as of this writing) is planned to be five books long. The series is set in a fantasy world where the technology is roughly equivalent to Europe of the late 1700s, a wonderfully interesting period you don’t see much of in the genre. The Middle Ages end in the 1400s, and then Steampunk picks up in the late 1800s, but there’s a three or four century gap that doesn’t get as much attention. (Although that may be changing! I know that Brian McClellan has a similar interest, and Leigh Bardugo’s YA series starting with Shadow and Bone is close in terms of tech level.)
Genre-wise, I would definitely put it at least a bit on the gritty and military side, in the vein of writers like Joe Abercrombie, R. Scott Bakker, or S.M. Stirling. Alternately, you can think of it as being like Bernard Cornwall in a fantasy world. (Not coincidentally, those are some of my favorite writers!)
What inspired you to write the novel? And where do you draw your inspiration from in general?
I get inspiration in general from all over the place – fiction, non-fiction, movies, games, really anything with characters. Usually it comes in the form of thinking, “I want to do that,” where that is a particular nuance of character, a type of relationship, a plot twist, etc. Then I start thinking about how I can go about it, and what kind of world would be best suited to showing that off to good effect.
This is what I love about fantasy, incidentally. You can build the world to be what you need it to be for the purposes of the story. Now, that doesn’t mean things should be too convenient for the plot, and the world needs to be self-consistent, but once you have figured out that kind of story you want to write, you’re free to sketch out the kind of world that will serve as a perfect backdrop. (Sometimes it goes the other way around, too – I get an idea for a world, and start to think what kind of story would be interesting to tell there.)
The Thousand Names came from my interest in military history in general, and the Napoleonic era in particular. I had been reading a lot about Napoleon (specifically David Chandler’s fantastic Campaigns of Napoleon, which is more exciting than most fiction) and playing some historical wargames. The books talk a lot about how Napoleon was a military genius, and how he inspired intense loyalty, but when I started to think about how, exactly, that would play out on a human level it all got a little bit misty.
If I was a historian, it might have inspired me to begin a decade-long research project. Fortunately, as a fantasy author, I get to just make things up. I wanted to see if I could create characters who would show off those relationships – the general on the battlefield, the general to his men – and have them ring true for me. The project has mutated over time, as projects do, but that was the start of it.
How were you introduced to genre fiction?
I honestly don’t remember. It must have been when I was very young – I had a subscription to the Science Fiction Book Club when I was thirteen or fourteen, I know. Some of the old SFBC books only barely survived my dogs:
I literally grew up on the stuff. My first part-time job was as a page at the Dobbs Ferry Library, and I think I read through almost everything they had in their SFF collection. It’s been these genres that spoke to me ever since. (And to complete the circle, this summer The Thousand Names will be a SFBC selection!)
I also did a lot of genre-adjacent stuff as a kid: fantasy role-playing games, Magic: The Gathering, video games, anime, the usual roll call of geek hobbies. I can’t imagine not being interested in SFF, it seems like the most obvious thing in the world to me.
How do you enjoy being a writer and working within the publishing industry? Do you have any specific working, writing, researching practices?
So far, so good! I’ve only been “a writer” in the sense of doing it for my primary employment for less than a year. Going through the steps to publication for the first time (with a major press, see below!) has been really interesting, and occasionally nerve-wracking. (And the waiting induces five-year-old-on-Christmas-morning-style anticipation.) Fortunately, I have had a lot of really competent help – my agent, Seth Fishman, is awesome, and my editor Jessica Wade is also awesome. So that’s definitely made it a much more fun experience than it might have been.
As for writing practices, the main one that I’ve found to be helpful is to have a separate space for writing. I have a sofa I use only for reading and writing, and a laptop with just writing stuff on it. Working at home, one of the challenges is always tearing myself away from Twitter, Facebook, e-mail, etc. (not to mention games) and actually putting in solid work. Having a little getting-started ritual (set up drink, boot laptop, recline sofa) seems to help.
I’m almost embarrassed to say that I don’t really do much “research” in the conventional sense of the word. What I do is read a lot, both in the genre and in non-fiction. The big advantage of non-fiction, as a fantasy writer, is that you’re free to steal interesting tidbits; a marriage custom here, a bit of cuisine there, a description of a skirmish from somewhere else. (Of course, one must be careful about consistency, lest one end up with tropical jungle clothing in the Arctic.) I find that stuff fascinating anyway, so it doesn’t really feel like “work” to me, but it certainly comes in handy.
When did you realize you wanted to be an author, and what was your first foray into writing? Do you still look back on it fondly?
I’ve written a little bit about this before, but I got my start GMing for SFF RPGs. Then I got into writing short fiction, trying desperately to emulate either Isaac Asimov or Neil Gaiman by turns. Before too long I moved on to longer stuff, both because I loved the epic fantasy sagas (in those days Robert Jordan was just getting started) and because I was used to that kind of story from my role-playing days.
This was back in the Dark Ages, so discovering the world of internet fiction was a revelation to me. I did a bit of online critique-group writing and contributed to a few web-zines, and spent a while doing fan-fiction before deciding I should move on to something original.
So my very first story was a piece called “Einstein vs. Satan”, about a guy who tricks his way out of a deal with the devil using the relativistic time dilation of a black hole. I definitely look back on it fondly, although these days I don’t think I could really make the physics work out.
My first novel was called The Reality Hackers, and it was a terrible mish-mosh of pieces stolen wholesale from other works, most notably The Matrix and Rurouni Kenshin. There are some bits of it that still make me smile, and some other parts that make me wince.
The first piece of writing I got paid for was my novel Memories of Empire, which was released in 2005 by Medallion Press. They’re a small press, and the book is out of print now, but it was a really exciting first step. Getting a genuine check for writing a book was a big thrill, and to this day I still get the occasional e-mail from people who liked it or my other Medallion book, Shinigami (2006).
What’s your opinion of the genre today, and where do you see your work fitting into it?
Usually whenever I see people talking about the “state of the genre” it’s to bemoan how terrible it is – the latest trend is always going to Ruin Everything, whether it’s giant epic doorstoppers, vampire romances, urban fantasy, steampunk, wizard school, or whatever else comes along. Frankly, though, I think the genre is in pretty good shape. There’s a lot of variety, a lot of neat, interesting stuff that we haven’t seen before alongside excellent new entries in the old, reliable sub-categories.
As for myself, I think there’s a group of fantasy authors inspired by people like George R.R. Martin to write what might loosely be called more “realistic” fantasy. Nailing down definitions is always tricky, but what I mean by the term is fantasy that is more informed by history – not that it is always true to history, but that it uses history to help think about what a fantasy world might be like.
So, in A Song of Ice and Fire, you have this fantasy world where the seasons last for years and are highly variable, and clearly a lot of thought has gone into how their society adapts to that. In Brandon Sanderson’s The Way of Kings, he shows us a highly detailed fantasy world and the society that has developed there. It’s not about “low fantasy” or “grimdark”-ness (although I love that the term has gained currency) but more about using historical examples to think about how real people live with the conditions they face, be they mundane or magical.
What other projects are you working on?
I have a middle-grade novel called The Forbidden Library coming out early next year. It’s about a little girl who goes to live with her weird uncle and discovers she can use his magical library to enter books and pull magical creatures out of them. That’s also part of a series, also planned to be five books (my friends joke I can’t touch anything without turning it into an Epic Saga) so I’m just getting started on writing book two. (The sequel to The Thousand Names is waiting for my editor’s attentions!)
There’s a few other things bouncing around, too. I’m going to try to do some fiction set in the Shadow Campaigns universe, so we’ll see how that goes. And I’m terribly vulnerable to being distracted by a good idea. (We call them plot bunnies, because you try to sweep them under the bed, like dust bunnies, but then they breed down there.)
What are you reading at the moment (fiction, non-fiction)?
I have a bad tendency to read about five or six different books at once, so this is a long list. I just finished the audiobook version of Peter F. Hamilton’s Great North Road, which I loved – very long, but worth it. I’m in the middle of another non-fiction audiobook, Robert Massie’s Castles of Steel, a naval history of World War I. It’s also very good, although the same author’s book Dreadnaught retains its place as one of my favorite pieces of non-fiction ever.
In actual print, I started reading Rick Atkinson’s An Army At Dawn (about the Allied invasion of North Africa in World War II) just recently, and I’m in the middle of Luke Scull’s The Grim Company, which I’m enjoying. I read pretty fast, but not fast enough, as you can see by my to-read pile!
Django’s TBR Piles
What’s something readers might be surprised to learn about you?
I really have no idea. I think of myself as a kind of walking stereotype. I mean, just imagine a fantasy and science fiction fan who likes role-playing and video games, anime, miniature wargames, and computers. And cats! Shocking.
On the non-fiction side, apart from history I read a lot about economics and behavior. Some people might be surprised to find me reading, say, a history of central banking in the interwar period. (Liaquat Ahmed’s Lords of Finance, which is so good. Trust me!)
What are you most looking forward to in the next twelve months?
Well, the release of The Thousand Names in July is obviously up there! Just after it comes out, they’re sending me to San Diego Comic-Con, which is both exciting and terrifying. Sometime early in 2014 The Forbidden Library comes out, and that will be a whole new experience in terms of publicity and communicating with fans. And somewhere in there I have a lot of writing to do…