Django Wexler Interview
Joining us today is newcomer Django Wexler, author of the highly anticipated The Thousand Names the first in The Shadow Campaign series. Django 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 The Shadow Campaigns, he wrangles computers, paints tiny soldiers, and plays games of all sorts.
I had the wonderful fortune to interview Django despite his hectic schedule and I have to say enjoyed his responses immensely. I hope you all enjoy this interview as much as I did and look for the release of his book tomorrow, July 2, 2013.
First things first, if you were kidnapped by an alien overlord what would you say about yourself to convince him/her/it to spare your life? Assuming of course they had active translators.
I would suggest that my extensive knowledge of Earth history and politics (lying outrageously) would make me an excellent choice for an advisor to help subjugate the rest of my species. Then I would try “accidentally” sneezing on him/her/it and hope that H.G. Wells was right.
That being said, what can you say about The Thousand Names and The Shadow Campaign series that couldn’t be found in the standard book blurb?
The series has a very particular mix of magic and mundane that I personally find very appealing. I did a lot of tweaking the magic system until it felt right; the idea is that magic should be there, and important, and be part of the core of the story, but at the same time I wanted the military stuff to matter, so the magicians couldn’t be too powerful. Some series, like The Malazan Book of the Fallen, are all about pyrotechnic battles between god-like wizards—I love that stuff, but that’s not the way I wanted to go for The Shadow Campaigns, since it would make the mundane fighting kind of an afterthought.
What is your normal writing session like? Do you have any specific rituals or just sit in the chair and start typing?
I have a couch in my bedroom/office with a specific place I like to sit while writing. I usually write on a laptop, which actually sits in my lap—for some reason that’s the posture I’ve gotten used to. Being away from my desktop helps me get away from email, social media, etc. I also have a gallery of plushies on the table across from me to cheer me on!
That said, I have managed to get some good writing done on vacation from time to time. All I really seem to need is my laptop and a comfortable place to sit, and maybe a pair of headphones.
Going forward with that, do you have a tight outline that shows you each step you’re going to take while you write or do you let the story live and breathe on its own, seeing where it will take you?
I used to be much more of a “discovery” writer, and hated outlines, but writing The Shadow Campaigns has forced me to get a bit more disciplined. It’s big enough that it becomes very difficult to just “wing it,” and I ended up doing pretty detailed outlines for The Thousand Names, The Shadow Throne (the second book), and quite a bit of the rest of the series. In the process, I’ve learned to enjoy working from an outline a lot more than I used to.
I think the key is to view the outline as a roadmap, rather than a straightjacket. It helps avoid “potholes,” where you get to a point in the story and realize you don’t really have a way to get the plot from point A to point B—this is easy to gloss over in a vague sketch, but becomes more apparent in a scene-by-scene outline. Finding these traps in advance, while rewriting is still a matter of changing a few lines, is a lot easier than running into them once you’ve already written a hundred thousand words.
Do you have any hidden gems of resources that you cite as a source of inspiration? Whether that’d be a book series, television show, history channel, or some other source?
I’ve written before about using real-world history as an inspiration. I don’t know if that counts as a “hidden gem,” but the idea for The Thousand Names came pretty much directly from my reading of military histories, like Chandler’s Campaigns of Napoleon.
Often, when I read history, I find myself imagining the characters (particularly when painted by a skilled historian) in their emotional or dramatic context. I read about a particular moment, scene, or event, and think, “Oh, man, that sounds really dramatic/emotional/intense/whatever, I want to write something like that!” By the time I get around to actually putting it in a story, the outlines of the original inspiration are completely unrecognizable, but it’s the emotional resonance I’m after.
After reading the prequel short story over at io9, it seems pretty safe to say that you’ve “lived” in this world for a while and have more stories than what we’ll get in the main books. Is there any chance we’ll see any more short stories like this?
I would definitely love to do some! It depends on various boring real-world factors like whether people want to read them and how much spare time I have. I also have plans for some in-universe “non-fiction” for history nerds (that is, people like me) where I can discuss Vordanai history, military organization, etc.
The Thousand Names is being described as gunpowder and even military fantasy. What drew you to writing in this particular style/subgenre? Are each of The Shadow Campaign books going to have a heavy military focus or will the stories branch out as we go along?
Military fantasy is probably an apt description. It’s a subgenre I’ve always liked—people like Glen Cook, S.M. Stirling, David Drake, and Bernard Cornwell are some of my favorite writers. With a title like The Shadow Campaigns, I think it’s fair to say we can expect a fair bit of campaigning to go on.
There’s a lot more to it than that, though. In the second book, The Shadow Throne, we go back to Vordan and dive into the politics surrounding the succession to the ailing king. And there’s supernatural action afoot as well. Hopefully it will have something for everyone!
The use of guns and gunpowder in fantasy is a relatively rare occurrence, compared to the frequency of swords and bows. What drew you to set your world in an age of technological advancement and what did that mean for your worldbuilding?
It has always seemed a little strange to me that, with all of real-life history to draw from for archetypes, the tropes of traditional fantasy focus on a very narrow area—basically Western Europe in the 13th and 14th centuries. After I read A Song of Ice and Fire, which can be taken as George R. R. Martin’s attempt to put some realism back in fantasy, I got really excited about the idea of doing a pseudo-historical piece. But I definitely didn’t want to do the knights-and-castles world that he and others had already thoroughly explored.
Once I decided I wanted it to have a military theme, the Napoleonic period was the obvious choice. Not only was I originally inspired by books like The Campaigns of Napoleon, it was just a really interesting period of history, especially militarily. Napoleon’s re-introduction of grand tactics to the stagnant battlefields of the 1700s seemed like it would make for a good story.
Worldbuilding-wise, I think it helped me get away from a lot of over-used fantasy tropes, since you definitely can’t just crib from Tolkien once you’ve left that basic milieu behind. There’s an almost unconscious tendency to reach for the old standards, and starting in a different place makes it harder to be lazy without realizing it.
(A warning: once you start thinking outside the knights-and-castles box, it can become addictive! My books-to-write pile has stories set in analogues of the U.S. Civil War, WWI, WWII, and on and on…)
Bill Gates or some other ludicrously rich person offers to fund an adaptation of your world. Which would you prefer, an HBO series such as Game of Thrones (which seems the popular choice over a feature-length film) or a video game produced from a major studio?
The TV series would be fantastic with unlimited money behind it; I imagine all those marching armies and charging horsemen would cost a fortune. I would love to see it, though I suspect it’s unlikely. I’m not against the idea of a feature film, either, but there does seem to be widespread agreement these days that trying to compress six hundred pages of novel into two hours of movie rarely works out very well.
A video game, though—that’s an interesting proposition. You could go a couple of different ways with it. I could see a high-concept RPG with lots of character interaction, maybe along the lines of Mass Effect in a fantasy universe. Or, as a war game, you could put together something like the Total War franchise or Crusader Kings II. (To be honest, you could probably build a pretty good mod for The Thousand Names on an engine like Empire: Total War. If anyone wants to do this, I’d love to see it!)
Finally, those same aliens from question one come back, only this time they’ve also traveled from the future. What do you hope they say about your series as it stands 5-10 years from now?
Well, first of all, that it’s finished! I didn’t quite realize, when I was pitching the series, quite what a massive undertaking it would be. I had a moment where I suddenly thought, “Wow, I’ve committed to writing something like a million words over the next five years for this…” It can be a little terrifying! (But fantastically exciting, too, of course.)
Obviously I’d like for it to be well-received, too. I also sincerely hope that people point to this period as a time when fantasy broadened out a little bit, retired some of the ancient genre tropes, and explored some new ground. A lot of other authors I know are doing just that, and it’s fun to be a part of it!
We’d like to thank Django again for taking the time to talk with us. The first book in The Shadow Campaign series, The Thousand Names, is out tomorrow (July 2, 2013). The Shadow Throne, book two in the series, is due out July 2014. You can learn more about The Shadow Campaign series on Django’s website or follow him on Twitter.
Also, if you would like a chance at winning a copy of The Thousand Names, Tor.com is running a giveaway that ends July 3rd.