Django Wexler Interview – The Infernal Battalion
Back in 2013, Fantasy-Faction interviewed Django Wexler as the first book in his Shadow Campaigns series, The Thousand Names, was about to come out. So it’s only fitting that we interview for his January 9th release of the fifth and final book in the series, The Infernal Battalion. And in this interview, in addition to his latest book, we talked about the series, his writing and research methods, what he’s reading, what he’s playing, and where he’s headed next.
And just to be clear, it’s hard to completely avoid spoilers about a series when discussing book five. We do our best to keep them to a minimum. While this interview is not 100% spoiler free, nothing said spoils anything beyond what you’d see in the summaries listed on Amazon or Goodreads. And with that, on to the interview.
I guess I should start with the obligatory question—and I know it’s impossible to answer nearly spoiler free, but can you give the short, spoiler-free version to catch everyone up on the Shadow Campaigns in general and The Infernal Battalion specifically?
Oh man. I hate this question. [laughter] Well, the problem is now that there’s five books, it’s hard to catch people up without being spoilery for books one through four. So the Shadow Campaigns takes place in a world in a roughly Napoleonic level of technology, so you’ve got muskets and cannons and cavalry charges and a little bit of magic. And it follows the career of an officer named Janus bet Vhalnich, who is a sort of up and coming figure who has his own plans for the empire that he is a part of. And the focus of the story is on his subordinates basically and the length to which they are willing to follow him—or not as the story goes on. That’s sort of the central question that I wanted to write about.
And in book five, we get a kind of culmination of that, right? Oh man, it’s hard to say anything without giving spoilers, but we get this sort of ultimate question of how far does loyalty go, at what point are people going to follow a charismatic leader, and at what point are they going to turn away? And that’s what I was really interested in with this series, so I hope it’s kind of captured that.
And hopefully that’s about as hard as it’s going to get as far as dancing around spoilers.
It’s one of those things like if I give a detailed description of book five, then I’m going to spoil books three and four and the rest, so…
I have an e-ARC, and it begins with the acknowledgments section, and one thing that really caught me by surprise was you wrote that you outlined the series in 2011. So basically after you sold the first book in the series, you outlined the whole series, and it more or less stayed true and accurate. And to me, that seems like a modern day miracle. So I was wondering, what was that process like, and how did it all work out?
It’s sort of shocking to me, to be honest, that this happened. I had never done an outline of that length and depth before. And I remember thinking at the time, “I’ll do this for the publisher, but I probably won’t use it.” But it kind of turned me on to doing outlines in general. I kind of got more into it. My outlines have gotten longer and more detailed with every book. The most recent outline I finished was 22,000 words long. But yeah, it’s kind of surprised me.
There are a few things that didn’t quite work out—some plot points that got changed—but for the most part, we pretty much got there, which is good because it means all the stuff that we set up early in the series pays off properly because I knew where I was going.
But I don’t know if it’s a miracle or if I’m just getting more disciplined in my old age, because back in the day, this would not have worked.
You said your last outline was 22,000 words. At this point, how do you know when your outline is done, and you’re ready to move on?
When I get to the end of the book. I write the outline straight through; I don’t add stuff to it gradually. It’s more that my outlines have become a cross between planning and brainstorming, kind of.
So as I’m writing the outline, it’s the important plot points but also anything that occurs to me when I’m thinking about these scenes: “Okay, I gotta make sure to do this, I gotta make sure to do that.” And I guess I’ve just been getting more of that since it’s just been getting more detailed, basically. I feel like I can actually think through a scene before writing it, which is, I guess, a skill I’ve developed.
It’s a change. I used to be a pure panster, just, you know, don’t plan and write the book. I wrote The Thousand Names like that, but it took five years. So maybe that was not the ideal process.
It’s interesting to hear that you have made the switch. I hear that a lot of people are hybrids, sort of a foot in both words, but it sounds like you’ve more or less made the switch from one to the other.
Well, I attribute it to these outlines that I wrote for this series because I really hated doing them. They are really hard, and it’s like the most painful work you can imagine. But then when it came down to write book two, I was like, wow, this is so much better. I’m doing so much less going back and throwing away thousands of words because I decided I needed another direction. And, oh man, it kind of converted me, and I’ve just been going since then.
And what I realized later is that the problem is that the outline is doing all the hardest work of the writing up front. You’re making all the hard decisions and big things, so obviously, it’s kind of painful and hard, but if you do actually do it, then it makes things better. At least for me. I should always clarify that a writing process is personal one. What works for me may not work for everyone.
One of the things that really drew me to the series was that it was a fantasy in a historical period that was not medieval. I have really started looking for that now. What drew you into the Napoleonic era as opposed to, say, end of the Roman Empire or the Industrial Revolution or something like that?
That’s a good question. I have a less pat answer to that. Basically, I knew I wanted to do something that wasn’t knights and castles, that wasn’t that sort of 12th or 13th century England and Scotland, which is kind of the basis for most of fantasy. Partly because I feel George R.R. Martin had done that, and he did a really good job, and I wanted to do something like that: I wanted to do something historical, but not something in that period.
Basically, it’s just that’s what books I read. In this case, the two books were—David Chandler wrote this wonderful book called The Campaigns of Napoleon, which is just a sort of a military history of Napoleon’s campaigns and his marshals and all the amazing stuff that happened. And I thought this is an amazing story, and I’ve never seen it in a secondary world fantasy. I mean, there have been a few historical fantasies that are set during that time period, but nothing that actually sort of does the war as the main focus. And since I love military history, that was kind of a new thing.
The other one, Simon Schama wrote a book called Citizens about the French Revolution. And obviously that plays into some of the same period, and some of the politics that went on then fascinate me.
The French Revolution is this unbelievable period in politics. It’s like when people played politics for keeps, right? You’d have two people, and they’d get up and give speeches about the direction they wanted the Republic to go, and then the mob would murder whichever one didn’t convince them. That’s politics not for wimps, you know, where you go home to your K Street job if you lose [Author’s Note for non-Americans: K Street is home to many high-paid lobbyists in Washington, D.C. Many ex-politicians often find employment there.]
And so it was those two books really, and I was like, “This seems like a really great world that I want to do something cool in.”
I saw in other interviews that you said you found narrative history books particularly useful, as far as getting a feel for what people were experiencing at the time. I was wondering, what makes a good narrative history in your eyes, and how do you put that into your narrative?
Good narrative history, in a way, is a lot like fiction. It’s basically just good writing. Good writing helps a lot.
It’s interesting because what I get out of history is not necessarily what everyone gets, and in particular, it’s probably not what a historian gets. And so a lot of the sort of pop history I read might be looked down on by your serious historian because it doesn’t use enough sources, and it takes sources but then you have be like, “Well, probably that wasn’t true. It’s too cute to be true.” Or other sources say that these two people didn’t even meet or one died beforehand.
But the wonderful thing about writing fantasy is that you can just take all the cool stuff. You don’t have to be accurate. What you’re shooting for isn’t accuracy but verisimilitude. So you need something that sounds real and has that feeling of reality, but it doesn’t actually matter if it’s true to real history. You know, who cares? So that’s why I love narrative history, and what makes it good—at least for my purposes—is a bunch of good detail. The more it drills down into specific moments, the better off I am, the happier I am with the result. At least in terms of reading for research, that’s what I want.
One thing I was thinking about was that the Napoleonic era has been so explored by historians, by war gamers, and I was like, man, you run the risk of upsetting a lot of people if you mess up, but at the same time, it’s secondary world fantasy, so it does give you a bit of a “get out of jail free” card.
Right. I didn’t want to do that—because first of all, Bernard Cornwell did the Sharpe series, and there’s Horatio Hornblower, and there’s the Patrick O’Brian books. And so there’s all sorts of historical fiction from that period, and you have to do a lot of research and know what you’re talking about to really contribute to that canon. And I’m like, “Well, fantasy is a little easier.” [laughs] Plus fantasy is good because it lets you talk about the things you want to talk about without irritating historical details getting in the way, like oh no, I can’t do this because it didn’t really happen, or these characters aren’t in the same place at the same time, whatever. Whereas fantasy gives you a nice blend of realism and dramatic propriety.
Now shifting a little bit to the characters of your stories. Another thing I saw in your previous interviews you said it was one of your goals to avoid wars where it was two godlike wizards coming together, where you had magic, sort of, downplayed a bit. And yet, to avoid spoilers, there was a moment in this book when Janus has got what every general has dreamed of, he has—like I said, I’m trying to dance around it—I guess my real question is that you have Janus who is very intellectually gifted, very tactically gifted; he then gets a “bonus” in this book. How do you keep him from being too powerful?
Well, that’s tough. I mean, part of it is that in this book he really is too powerful. I mean, you’ll see. Well, we’re getting into spoiler territory here, so it’s hard to know, but this is the big finale, so obviously, you have to have your heroes going up against something that is really dangerous, so in a way, this is kind of a culmination of that. This is the point at which the magic breaks out and becomes too powerful to resist.
But at the same time, I don’t have anything against the sort of godlike wizards slugging it out in books that I read. I love Brandon Sanderson; I love Malazan Book of the Fallen, and et cetera where these demigods fight in the sky. But even in this book where magic is much more prevalent than it is in some of the other ones, it doesn’t make the actions of ordinary humans irrelevant because it’s not that kind of magic. It’s not the kind of magic that makes you impervious to harm and able to level cities with the wave of your hand. It does other things. It means that the characters who aren’t the super wizards get to do something and that the people who are a big part of this story still get to contribute. It’s a little bit more than in previous books but in a way that still keeps the ordinary person in the story.
Another character I was thinking about—or the entire character arc of Winter. When the series started, she was a runaway; she was hiding. In this book, after finding some—Winter has some sort of military success and risen up. I don’t think I’m spoiling anything there.
You’re not spoiling anything that’s not on the back covers.
Yeah, that’s true. At the beginning of this book, she’s hiding again, and she’s running away while also coming to grips with who she has become. I wanted to ask how you viewed her arc over the course of the series or in this book in particular.
It’s one of the interesting things about writing a series. You have to have a character arc in each book as well as an overall series arc. And they have to fit together in a neat way. And that can be hard sometimes. And one of the biggest things that I find in a lot of series that I don’t like is that characters repeat their arcs from book to book, which is actually realistic for most humans—people don’t actually change who they are over the course of an adventure—but like it’s really unsatisfying dramatically for a character to go back to the way they were, to have to relearn the same lesson they learned in the last book. It’s a pet peeve of mine.
So Winter’s overall arc—part of it is about her greater agency, her move from not being able to affect the world to being sort of both confident in her place in it and able to change great things.
And also about accepting greater responsibility. Winter starts as someone who has responsibility thrust on her that she didn’t want and that she doesn’t particularly care for, but it’s always been a part of her character that she can’t ignore it. So they make her an officer in the first book, and she can’t ignore the responsibility that comes with that. And that theme goes on through the series. And in the fifth book, she takes it on again.
I always try to make sure characters have a real choice—that’s another thing that bothers me, when a character’s arc is about accepting something or making some sort of choice, you have to make sure that the alternative is actually valid. It’s not really a choice if you decide I’m going to save the world when the alternative is that the demon will eat you if you don’t choose that. That’s not really a choice. There has to be a point where a character can say no if yes is to have any meaning. And that’s where I feel like we are with Winter in this book. She has to go through this moment where she could refuse the responsibility in a way that is not obviously suicidal.
When you were talking about choices, it reminded me of Queen Raesinia. She gets presented with all of these choices, and it’s always fun to watch her say, “Actually, I want to go for ‘C: none of the above.’” It’s always surprising, thanks to some financial wizardry, if I can say it that way.
I had to cut down on some of that stuff. Because I love economics and finance, and I’m always super interested in it, and every once in a while I put that stuff in and then think, oh no one cares about this stuff but me.
That almost sounds as if you’re putting yourself in Cora’s position.
I wish. It would be great. [laughs]
I mean how she gets so excited and then realizes she lost everyone six steps back.
Yes, that’s for sure.
I had a question in my pocket about the transactions you see in the stories and what has happened recently, and I was wondering if it was something you had been interested in or something you researched because it fit so nicely. But you kind of already answered that question before I even asked it.
I’ve been fascinated with that stuff since the financial crash, actually. That was when I started reading about it. I don’t have any training; I’ve just read a lot of books. It’s really interesting, and part of the reason that it’s in there is because that kind of thing is not modern, but actually goes way back past that period. There was something called the John Law Scandal—which someday I’m going write a book about—which happened during this time period and has all kinds of resonance for the stuff happening today.
Looking at your Goodreads page or your Amazon page, it hasn’t been that long since The Thousand Names came out, and yet when I checked Goodreads, you had three pages of books. It struck me how incredibly productive you’ve been in a very short amount of time. Have you always been that way, or was it like a relief, like I get to write all these great stories now, and I’m just not going to look back now that I’ve got started?
A little bit of both. I certainly have not always been this productive. I was able to leave my programming job after 2012, which was great, and that helps me be more productive, although not as much as you’d think, which is a little weird to me. I used to work like an hour a day on writing, and now, oh man, now that I’m quitting my job, I’ll have like eight hours a day, and I’ll be eight times as productive. And I’m definitely not eight times as productive. I’m maybe like two or three times as productive.
There’s just a limited amount of actual creative work one can do in a given day. Fortunately, for my work ethic, the writing comes with a bunch of other work that’s not creative, like publicity or stuff like this, Twitter, writing blog posts, and all that kind of stuff that’s not actually sitting down and writing books, which I now have time for.
But yeah, I’ve been shooting for two books a year and mostly getting there. This’ll be number nine of my big, published books: five Shadow Campaigns and four Forbidden library. And then some novellas that I snuck in here and there. I’ve got those John Golden books that are now self-published because we split from the original publisher, and now I put them out myself. And a couple other novellas. I did one Shadow Campaigns, one for Penguin.
Now I hope to keep going on that way. I’ve got two new projects, one YA and one adult epic fantasy, and my plan is to do one of each, each year.
Does it help to bounce back and forth between YA and adult?
Yeah, I like having two projects that are different. Not even just YA and adult, so long as they are separate and very different in tone.
[Author’s note: at this point, I received a call on my cell phone, interrupting the recording. Django had continued to talk a bit about how he enjoyed going back and forth between projects and how it allowed him to keep making progress and stay fresh.
Note to self: that is what “Do Not Disturb” or “Airplane” modes are for.]
Since [at the time of this recording] we are gearing up for the holiday season, what books are you hoping to receive that will jump to the top of your To Be Read pile, and what is the most exciting non-book thing you have your eye on? I know you’re a big gamer as well.
So in all honesty, no one gets me books as gifts because they know I just buy them compulsively, so chances are if there is a book I’m interested in, I’ve bought it or pre-ordered it, probably on Amazon. It’s like Christmas gifts to myself because I pre-order things, and then I forget I’ve done it, and then they just sort of turn up. And I’m like, “Oh, sweet!”
So right now I’ve got the new Alex Marshall book, A War in Crimson Embers, I think?
I just wrote a review of that.
I just started reading it, and I’m enjoying it a lot. Ironically, Alex Marhsall/Jesse Bullington recently moved to Seattle, so we’ve been hanging out a little bit, and he’s a cool guy, so that’s been a lot of fun. After that, I have the new James S.A. Corey book, Persepolis Rising, which is sitting right next to me, and I’m super excited about.
I’ve also been reading some self-published stuff. I’ve been following Mark Lawrence’s Self-Published [Fantasy] Blog Off thing that he does. He gets a bunch of book reviewers to go through and pick the best self-published books of the year from the ones that get submitted. So I’ve been looking through the finalists and ordering the ones that pique my interest and reading those. I read Jonathan French’s The Grey Bastards, which was great. And I’ve got a couple others on my stack. Oh, I just finished reading—this isn’t new, but I finally got to N. K. Jemisin’s Broken Earth trilogy. I guess the third book just came out this summer; I’ve been shamefully behind. I mean, it’s great. And everyone knows it’s great because it won all the awards and various things, but it is, in fact, great. And I super enjoyed it.
As for non-book things, I don’t even know. I’m turning into my Dad. When people asked him what he wanted for Christmas, he would say, “I need socks and underwear. I don’t need more stuff.” I don’t know what I need anymore.
Are you the same way with games? Where if you see a new game, you just buy it?
Yes. Well, not quite so much because I don’t buy as many games. So I don’t have a giant pile of games that I’ve never played in the way that I literally have a giant bookshelf in my office that’s full of books I haven’t read yet. I’ve accepted the wall of shame as a permanent part of my life. But yeah, usually I just buy games.
Right now, I’m still playing Star Wars Battlefront, oddly, which had a whole controversy about it. And I’m terrible at the shooter parts, but I really love the spaceship parts. So I’ve just been playing their starfighter assault mode and shooting down TIE fighters over and over again, which is amazing and fun.
Yeah, the commercial made me think of the old X-wing and TIE fighter games.
Can they please just remake the old X-wing vs. TIE fighter? It would be amazing, and I want it so badly. We haven’t had a good flying game in god knows how long. That would be great, and I would support that.
But there’s probably some board games out there that I don’t know anything about, so maybe some of that will come my way.
The classic two final questions: Anything else you’d like to plug, and where can people find you online?
Finding me online, go to djangowexler.com, or I’m most active on Twitter at @Djangowexler. I have a Facebook feed too, one that replicates my Twitter feed and one is things where I actually post things on Facebook.
As to other stuff I’m going to plug, well, this book. And my YA books comes out next year in January 2019. That’s what I’m working on now, and I’m very excited about. It’s going to be great. I’ll probably have my new epic fantasy that will come out from Orbit in the summer of 2019 or sometime later in the year.
So there’s not going to be much from me over the course of 2018 as we switch gears to these two new series. But if you go to my website, if you’re looking to just have some fun, I’m doing a Disney battle royale of all the Disney-owned characters—well not all of them because that’s literally thousands of them—but a hundred and fifty or so that we’ve put in a giant bracket, and we’re voting on individual matches to see who will win. The premise is that after Infinity War, they’re going to need an even bigger crossover to keep everyone happy. So this week, we have Iron Man vs. Boba Fett and Chewbacca vs. Riley from Up. And all kinds of exciting match-ups. If you go to my website, under the blog section, or I post a lot about it on Twitter.
I’m hoping to do more cons next year  too. Or different cons, anyway.
Well thank you for your time, and thank you for the series. I think I happened to pick up my copy of The Thousand Names on your birthday a few years back—it just happened to work out that way—and I’ve been reading them ever since, and I’ve really enjoyed them. So I’m very glad I got to talk to you on the eve of the last one coming out.
Well, I glad to do it. I’m super excited that people are going to get to see this ending and read it. It seems crazy. It’s been so long I’ve been working on it for so long. A million words. [laughs]