Tell me about yourself, and how you got into writing.
I’m a father, a geek, and a former game designer. After leaving the game industry I needed a hobby to fill the creative void in my life, and decided to try writing because it seemed like something I could do entirely on my own. This of course turned out to be untrue, there’s a huge team of people involved, but at least at the beginning I was able to scratch my creative itch and work at my own pace.
I love the backstory behind The Darwin Elevator – aliens leave us both a space elevator and a plague. How did you come up with it?
The core of the idea came from my reaction to the standard argument against building a space elevator: it would be too hard to construct. I thought, “who says we’re the ones to build it?” That’s the moment that everything started to click into place.
The sequels to The Darwin Elevator come out in the next few months, so I assume you’re done writing them. What are you working on now?
Most of my time right now is going into interviews like this, plus guest blog posts and that sort of thing. I’m also working on some pitches for new books, which will hopefully turn into a contract soon. I’m anxious to get started on another novel!
This is my standard question for all genre authors – how do you come up with a plausible and interesting world?
All the usual answers probably apply, but one I thing I did that I came up with on my own is this: For each character I wrote up an activity log of what they did the day before the book starts. This helped me flesh out the characters, but also had a surprising bounty of ideas for the world as well. Mundane things like what people wear, how/when/where they shower or eat, these things really help answer basic questions about the world, and having those kinds of details to sprinkle into the story go a long way toward making it interesting.
Which writers are you most influenced by?
Some of my favorites, in no particular order: Guy Gavriel Kay, Richard K. Morgan, Stephen King, Ian Fleming, John Scalzi, George R. R. Martin.
What is your daily writing process like? What are the easiest and hardest parts?
I usually get up early (before 6) and find a coffee shop. This is mostly to get away from the distractions of home, where I have two young boys who want nothing but to constantly play with Papa. While there I’ll write for an hour, then take a break and do my authorly business: tweet, do interviews like this, read science news, etc.
The easiest part for me is writing action sequences. They flow like nothing else! Hardest part? When a small change is having a ripple effect throughout the story, and each fix is causing it’s own ripple. It makes me wish I had an AI I could assign the problem to.
If Skyler could have a sidekick from any other fictional universe, who would it be and why?
That’s a tough one! I’ll go with John “Black Jack” Geary from Jack Campbell’s Lost Fleet series, for good leadership advice.
What books are you reading right now?
I just finished Nexus by Ramez Naam, which was fantastic. Now I’m reading The Thousand Names by Django Wexler.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
Since you asked, I’d love to also recommend a few other books: The Daedelus Incident by Michael J. Martinez, and Bad Glass by Richard Gropp.
First of all, thank you so much for doing this interview! I really enjoyed Replica; I often get frustrated with the formulaic dystopian young adult genre, but Replica was a breath of fresh air. I haven’t read anything by you before, but I saw that you’ve written a lot of series’ already – what makes Replica new and exciting for you?
Thanks for inviting me!
There are a lot of things that make REPLICA new and exciting for me. One of the things I really love about the series and that made it so fun–and challenging–to write was the juxtaposition of a futuristic world suited to science fiction with a society that is based around a more historical concept of hereditary monarchy. Both the idea to write about exact replicas of human beings and the idea to write about corporations functioning as hereditary monarchies had been floating around in my head for a long time, and it was only when I mashed these two seemingly ill-matched concepts together that an actual story began to form in my head. I also loved writing about a careful, hyper-responsible heroine and a reckless, immature hero who have to grow up in different ways–Nadia needs to loosen up and learn to take some chances, and Nate has to grow up and learn to pay attention to the consequences of his actions.
How long is the Replica series going to be – will it be a trilogy? Do you have plans to revisit the world after the series is done, or is this just Nate and Nadia’s story?
This is a trilogy. The second book, RESISTANCE will come out in March 2014, and the third book, REVOLUTION will likely come out sometime late next year, though a date has not been set yet. I have no firm plans to revisit this world when the series is done, but I do have a germ of an idea for something that might happen in a different state, so it’s always possible.
What book(s) are you working on at the moment?
Right now, I’m working on what we writers jokingly call a “Sekrit Project.” Generally, the term is used to refer to a work that is not under contract, and therefore one we can’t talk about publicly. Yet.
What do you find to be the easiest and the hardest things about writing?
The easiest thing about writing is writing first draft material when everything is “clicking.” When I know exactly what I want to do with a scene, and the words are coming out fast and furious, and I’m so anxious to finish the scene that I feel no temptation to get out of my chair and do something else. That’s pure bliss. It feels almost like reading a book you’re really in to, when you can’t wait to find out what happens next. It makes the days when writing is a total slog feel worth it. And there are plenty of days when writing is like slogging through mud. The hardest thing for me is diagnosing the reason why I’m struggling in those periods. Sometimes, it’s just because I’m not in a good mood, or I’m tired, or I’m distracted. Times like those, the best thing for me to do is to keep slogging. I may not enjoy what I’m writing, and I may need to do a lot of editing on it later, but at least I’m moving forward. But then there are the other times, when I’m struggling because I’ve made some misstep in the narrative. There’s something “off,” but I don’t know what it is yet. And what’s hard is that I don’t always know the difference between the two when I’m in the midst of it. If there’s something wrong, something I need to go back and change, then continuing to slog forward does me no good whatsoever and just leaves me with more time not enjoying my writing.
It’s gotten a little easier over time for me to figure out whether I’m struggling because of some temporary malaise or whether I’m struggling because there’s something wrong with the book–for example, if that malaise stretches over a few days without letup, it’s a good bet there’s something wrong–but I still sometimes have trouble knowing whether to push through or stop and go back.
Worldbuilding fascinates me, so I’d love to know how you approach creating a world, since you’ve created several.
I often come up with my concepts for a world before I have an actual story to set in it. I have a big picture already created in my head, with very few concrete details. I then come up with my basic storyline, and I begin filling in the gaps of my world, developing some major details that have immediate relevance to the story I’m telling. When I actually begin the writing of the first draft, that’s when I have to start figuring out the smaller details. It’s kind of like I’m looking at my world through a camera lens. At first, it’s little more than an impressionistic blob. When I’m plotting, it comes into a little clearer focus, and I can see major landmarks. But it’s not until I’ve finished the first draft that the picture is fully in focus. Doing my worldbuilding in layers like that is very helpful for me and gives me an enormous amount of freedom. I don’t commit to details until I’m sure I need them–and I’m sure they won’t cause me problems later on in the draft, or even later on in the series.
As an example, with REPLICA I started out with a really big picture idea for what the world was like. I knew the society was stratified, that the story would be set in a futuristic New York, and a little bit about the history of how the United States turned into the Corporate states. When I started plotting the book, I decided the three classes would be the Executives, the Employees, and the Basement-dwellers, with the Executives being like royalty, the Employees like ordinary people, and the Basement-dwellers the poor and unemployed. When I started writing the sample chapters for submission to publishers, I focused very tightly on what life was like for my main characters, coming up with the societal expectations that were placed on both of them. They are Executives, members of the highest of the three strata of the society I created, and I worked on the details of Executive society–while having only a blurry vision of what society was like for the other two classes. I didn’t need details for the other classes yet, so I left them vague. When I got to my first scene set in the Basement, that was when I started pulling together details for what the Basement was like. That was when I decided what the buildings looked like, how the residents dressed, how the territory was divided up. In a later draft, I would seed some of the details back in the earlier parts of the book where I’d left things vague before, but by waiting until I needed the details to flesh them out, I avoided writing myself into any corners and making decisions I would later regret.
What themes do you like exploring in your books?
Sometimes it’s hard for a writer to see the themes in his or her own books. In a lot of ways, theme is in the eye of the beholder. That being said, I do feel that I have some themes I tend to revisit, even though I’m not making a conscious choice to do so. One theme I’ve explored a lot in my adult books is that of redemption and hope. Many of the characters in my adult books have dark pasts, either because of bad things that have happened to them or bad things they have done. I love taking these characters who could so easily spiral down into misery for the rest of their lives and finding a way to redeem them and give them hope. I want the message to be that no matter how bad your past, no matter how many bad things have happened to you, it’s possible to have a fulfilling and happy life–but it’s up to you to get yourself there.
I don’t particularly see that theme popping up in my YAs (though it’s possible it’s there and I just am not aware of it), maybe because my teen characters just haven’t lived long enough to sink to the depths some of my adult characters have. With the YAs, I definitely see a theme of taking control of and responsibility for one’s own life. This is particularly true for the heroines of my two teen series. In the Faeriewalker series, Dana spends a lot of time feeling powerless, feeling like a pawn in other people’s games. (And to some extent, she is.) But over the course of the series, she learns to recognize her own power and through that gains a kind of emotional independence. There’s a moment at the end of the final book, SIRENSONG, when Dana thinks: “I might be in the room with two of the most powerful people in Faerie, but thanks to my unusual magic, I was one of the most powerful people in Faerie, too.” That do me was the endpoint of Dana’s character arc, the point where in many ways she became a full adult.
I definitely see some of the same theme in Nadia’s character arc, although she has a different set of problems in that her choices involve so much risk to people she loves. In the beginning, she’s almost crippled by her need to protect her loved ones by doing what those in power tell her to do. As for where she goes from there . . . Well, you’ll have to read the whole series to see.
Your website’s tagline is “Romance with an attitude, fantasy with an edge”. Could you elaborate on that?
My first published books were paranormal romances (the Guardians of the Night series, which is being re-released in 2014). I have a love for characters who have a sarcastic sense of humor, which might not be the first thing people think of when they think of romance novels. Hence, “Romance with an attitude.” The second series I wrote was the Morgan Kingsley series. It has some romantic elements, and my heroine is certainly a queen of sarcasm, but it didn’t really fit into the romance genre, so I decided to modify my tagline to include it. The Morgan Kingsley series is by far the edgiest series I’ve ever written (with scenes that make me hope my teen readers don’t pick it up), and that’s where “Fantasy with an edge” came from. I have not modified the tagline since I started writing YA, partially because it would get cumbersome, and partially because the tagline I have still applies to some extent to my YA books. There is certainly an edge to the REPLICA series.
If Replica was made into a movie, who would you want to play Nate and Nadia?
Embarrassingly, I am completely clueless when it comes to questions like this. I’d say it’s because I don’t watch enough shows with teens in them, but I don’t do very well answering this question about my adult books, either. I guess I just don’t think in movies.
John Marco is a fantasy author who’s written eight books so far, including the Bronze Knight series of which I reviewed the fourth book, The Forever Knight. You can visit his website here.
On to the interview!
The Forever Knight was my introduction to Lukien’s world, but I know that there were three previous books. It stands alone very well, but are there any things that people who are starting off the series with The Forever Knight should know about the story so far?
People who have seen the previous books knows how big they are, so there actually is a lot that happened in the first three books. They set up the land that Lukien inhabits, but really The Forever Knight introduces almost all new characters, and the only one that really has any play in this book from the previous stories is Lukien himself. That was done deliberately, because as much as I care about the previous books I really wanted to make as clean a break as possible from them. Of course it’s definitely helpful to read the previous books; there’s just no way around that. Thankfully, most people have said they had no trouble following this new story.
I read that this is the first book in the series that is written in first person – is that true, and if so, why did you make that switch?
The switch to first person was all part of trying to make this Lukien’s story, and to break away from the previous books. The three books that came before it are more typical “epic” fantasy, with lots of different characters and plot threads. I wasn’t interested in doing that again with this book. Lukien’s “voice” came through too clearly for me to want to concentrate on other characters. I wanted to capture that voice and tell his story alone. It was a bit of a challenge at first, because I had never written in first person before. It will be up to readers to decide whether or not I succeeded, but personally I’m quite happy with the results.
I’m really fascinating by world building, and I’d love to know more about how the process of creating Lukien’s world worked, and what you find most interesting and unique about the world.
For a lot of people fantasy is all about world-building. No matter how much writers concentrate on things like character, world-building is an essential part of fantasy story-telling. I don’t really think it’s the thing I’m best at, but I do try to make the world feel as “alive” as possible. Often, my stories are about culture clashes. There’s usually two very different kinds of societies that are at war or meeting for the first time, and that means accenting the differences between them. It’s those differences that I wind up concentrating on—like the different religions, architecture, social values, and so on. In any one of those topics there’s a ton to exploit and build upon, and that’s usually what I do. If it’s a religious society, for example, I concentrate on that and build around it. Then, the details kind of fall into place.
The Akari are fascinating characters – long dead magicians conferring power to humans. Do we learn more about their history and motivation in the previous books, or is that something that still needs to be explored? Everyone has an agenda, and I’m really curious to see what theirs is.
Oh, the Akari are hugely important in the previous books, and I had to give something of an introduction to them in this book so people would have enough information to understand what was happening. They’re a long-dead race that was wiped out in a genocidal war, but they understood the spirit world and that life continues after death, and they use that knowledge to help less fortunate “mortals.” Usually they help blind people to see, crippled people to walk, that sort of thing. In Lukien’s case, however, his Akari has given him a kind of immortality. It’s definitely a blessing and a curse for Lukien.
What other projects are you working on at the moment? Is it a new Bronze Knight novel? How long do you think the series will be?
Right now I’m working on a novel called The Bloody Chorus. It will be the first of a planned trilogy that takes place in a brand new world from all my other books. This will be a return to the more traditional “epic” kind of writing that my readers expect from me, and I think they’re going to enjoy it. There will be more Bronze Knight novels, though, probably two more. They’re already under contract, and I’ll get started on the next one after I finish my current book project. I also have a short story to write for a military fantasy anthology, and I’m jazzed for that because I love writing short stories.
What is your writing process like, both when conceptualizing a novel and day-to-day?
I sometimes refer to myself as a “journeyman writer.” I love it and I do think of it as an art, but I don’t sit around a lot waiting for inspiration to hit me. I look at it like a job, because when I don’t approach it that way I procrastinate, and that’s no good to anyone. Even when I’m conceptualizing a new book, I usually have some idea by then what I want it to be about, so I have something to build on. Then I break out the notebook and pen and start scribbling down some broad strokes. After that I start outlining. My outlines are always a mess, but it’s the kind of thing that I alone can follow. They’re not really linear, if you know what I mean. They’re kind of like a cluttered but familiar desk.
As for the actual writing, I take it one step at a time from beginning to end. I don’t jump around as some authors might, writing scenes out of sequence. That would be too confusing for me. I like to plow straight on through.
What ideas and themes do you like exploring the most in your books? (Somewhat relatedly, the end of The Forever Knight hints at a whole new world of possible ideas to explore, and I’m really looking forward to seeing where that goes.)
I love this question, because every book I’ve ever written has had a theme. I’m not sure that readers know that or pick up on the themes, but they’re always there and always keep me on track. A favorite theme of mine is revenge. It comes up in a lot of my books, and especially in The Forever Knight. All other themes take a backseat to revenge in this story! But I also like more positive themes such as redemption, which is another idea I lean on a lot in my stories.
A fun one: what character from another fantasy universe would you want to team Lukien up with? He seems like a perfect character to have a sidekick, just because he’d be so annoyed by one.
You’re right—that is a fun question. Lukien does tend to get a bit irritated by others, and it’s hard to think of him with a sidekick because he’s such a loner. But I think Aslan from the Narnia books would be a good companion for him, because Aslan is so cool and calm and Lukien is so hot tempered. I bet he could learn a lot from Aslan. I could definitely see Lukien walking along with a lion as his side.
Is there anything else you’d like to add?
I always like to say how much I appreciate the help of book bloggers like you, Kriti. Thank you for the opportunity to talk about my book on your site.