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James Maxwell Interview – Iron Will

James MaxwellJames Maxwell is a London-based fantasy author with 47North. He is also here to talk with us today! Maxwell has written two fantasy series: the Evermen Saga and The Shifting Tides series. But before we get into the interview let’s learn a bit more about our guest.

Born in New Zealand, and educated in Australia, from an early age James devoured the science fiction and fantasy classics, his love for reading translating to a passion for writing.

Inspired by a strong interest in history, he decided in his twenties to see the world. He relocated to London and then to Thailand, Mexico, Austria, and Malta, developing a lifelong obsession with travel. It was while living in Thailand that he seriously took up writing again, producing his first full-length novel, Enchantress, the first of four titles in his internationally bestselling Evermen Saga.

Golden Age is the first novel in his highly anticipated new series, The Shifting Tides.

When he isn’t writing or traveling, James enjoys sailing, classical guitar, and French cooking.

Now on with the interview!

When did you know you wanted to be a writer?

There’s no particular memory, a time when I decided: that’s it, I want to be a writer. I do know it’s something that’s been with me since early childhood. I absolutely loved books, especially anything fantastical that transported me to a place where I completely forgot about the world I was in. I devoured books, inhaled them. I loved Enid Blyton. C. S. Lewis. Tolkien. I became quite sad when I finished something. Reading was my number one activity and I always had a novel with me.

I think even as a seven or eight-year-old I understood that books were something that people wrote, and so it seemed natural to come up with my own stories. At age eleven I wanted to go to a well-known young writer’s retreat but you had to win a place. I think everyone wrote short stories but I sent in a 40,000-word fantasy novelette. Spending time with adults who were published authors rubbed off in a big way. I was in heaven.

Can you talk a bit about your journey from self-published author to where you are now with 47North?

Enchantress (cover)I’d been working on Enchantress for years, getting feedback and editing it around my office job as a software developer. I’d also been looking at how to get published, and realized that there were only about ten literary agents in London who said they accepted fantasy submissions, and that with no cred to speak of, the chances of getting picked up were slim, especially with a 170,000-word first time novel. I decided the book was ready and did the rounds, but wasn’t surprised by the rejection letters.

At the same time, I’d been following the developing self-pub scene, reading a lot of blogs and learning what I could. This was 2012, and I thought I was late to the party, but I was far more excited to reach actual readers than agents. I put the book up on Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Apple, etc. and on my first free promo it went to the top of the fantasy charts and I got some great reviews. I had some savings. Two months later I quit my job so I could quickly write a sequel.

It was almost a year to the day after self-publishing Enchantress that 47North, the SFF imprint of Amazon Publishing, contacted me. In that year I’d put out books two and three and was working on book four. I’d sold a lot of books and accumulated several hundred reviews.

How did you kick-start your readership without your books being sold in traditional book stores?

Early on I came to a couple of conclusions. One was that you have to have a lot of titles if you want to write full time. Another was that with a lot of titles in a series, the first book is your chance to grab people, so I happily priced Enchantress as low as possible or gave it away for free.

I also made minor story updates based on feedback, whether it was from people I knew or things I saw in reviews, which is an advantage that indies have over authors with a publisher. The author platforms didn’t have charts at the stage, so I made my own, and analysed the success of paid advertising like BookBub. There’s a lot I could have done but didn’t, like blog tours, Kickstarter campaigns, intensive social media stuff… I told myself that I had to spend my time writing, and making my books as good as they can be; any marketing efforts had to show measurable results. Word of mouth is probably the best form of marketing there is.

Both Ella from the Evermen series and Chloe from Shifting Tides are written with strength and confidence. It’s refreshing to see strong female characters written by a male author. Was there a particular inspiration behind your heroines?

The Hidden Relic (cover)I feel quite strongly that female characters have to be strong as females. And obviously the same goes for males. One thing I see happening particularly in film is a version of a strong female character where she’s just an aggressive man in a woman’s body, someone who likes to solve problems with her fists. I don’t see that as a strong female character.

Growing up I had two older sisters and three older step-sisters, and my father passed away when I was young. The women in my family are all inspiring, determined people, but that doesn’t mean that they’re not also mothers, wives, and sisters. My wife is also an incredible person and a great source of support. Sure, a great action scene can include sword fighting, but it can also involve rallying people together, or pretending to be passive and then striking when a stronger opponent’s guard is down. The fates of nations rest on the decisions of leaders, who can be from any gender, as much as on the brawn of soldiers.

The Evermen series is beautifully written with a great mix of strong character interaction and action. In your mind, what did you set out to achieve artistically when you began writing such a massive epic fantasy series?

I’ve always been drawn to the epic, whether in music or art or drama. I wanted something big, where different peoples with diverse cultural identities, including customs, architecture, and geography come together to solve world-spanning problems. In a fantasy story, I also wanted to avoid anything too meta-physical. I get disappointed by endings where the wizard/warrior with a magic sword casts a powerful spell or strikes down the dark lord and then it’s all over. To me, what makes a story epic is how many fates are tied up in it, and how everyone, from large player to small, can do something to help.

So I set out to create a world where each nation has a unique, physical form of magic. This nation enchants swords and armour, but also makes magical objects for mundane purposes like cooking food and heating houses. This other nation creates animated constructs like robots, used in fighting but also to haul goods and plow fields. I didn’t stop at a handful, I made nine nations – called houses in the books – in this way. All with specialized warriors, but also with very ordinary purposes for their magic. The more I can combine the fantastical with the everyday, the higher the stakes will feel.

I think relationships between characters are crucial. The bonds between us are what make us go to great lengths, which heightens tension. I wanted my main characters to become leaders with access to the corridors of power, but also for the story to follow more commonplace lives. As everything builds, you sense that absolutely everyone is becoming swept up in a series of cataclysmic events. It’s all the more satisfying when the main characters somehow find a way through.

Who were some of your biggest writing influences?

Golden Age (cover)First of all, the late David Gemmell built amazing, conflicted characters, and that includes his villains. His villains are clearly evil, but you understand their motivations and almost sympathize with them. His books are full of action and are very pacey – you never get bored. There’s a strong sense of adventure; around the corner there’s always a swordfight or a pursuit or an epic battle. The stakes are always high. Normal people make big impacts. Check out The Lion of Macedon for a great Gemmell book.

Stylistically I’ve tried to emulate both David Gemmell and Wilbur Smith. There’s prose in there, but it’s active prose. Objects become anthropomorphised: Mountains loom in the distance; stars gaze from the heavens. Description takes place in verbs. A glaring sun is far more interesting than a bright sun. Wilbur Smith also created incredible female characters: strong, sympathetic, conflicted. River God is a wonderful book by Wilbur Smith.

Jack Vance, another influence, wrote some of the most imaginative science fiction and fantasy I’ve read. The wit in his dialogue is something I’d love to be able to do but I think it’s just beyond me. However he’s the reason that sometimes I’ll spend a lot of time on scenes where people are conducting elaborate feasts, drinking mysterious beverages, or playing strange musical instruments. It’s just fun. And when you write as many battles as I do, it’s good to have some fun in there too. The Eyes of the Overworld is a wonderful example of Jack Vance’s work.

Your Shifting Tides series seems to draw a lot from various mythologies. How much research went into the series? And is research an important step for you as a writer?

Silver Road (cover)Is research important? Yes and no. I think first, when you decide to tell a certain story, it’s because there’s already a lot of material in your head that you can draw on and it’s a story that really excites you. And if something’s already in my head, it might be in the reader’s head too, and I think that’s a good thing.

It’s quite clear in The Shifting Tides that there’s snippets taken from all over the place – as well as a lot of new things that seemed to fit the world and story I wanted to tell. Often in an ancient world story, the creator zooms in on a particular space, for example 300, or Alexander, or The Ten Commandments, or Cleopatra. Writing fantasy, I could instead create a kind of parallel world, where I had a lot more freedom to build an entire universe and cherry pick elements. So I have pyramids, marble-faced temples, a pantheon of gods, a sunken civilization, mass slavery, galley warfare, city states, tyrants… and also plot elements like the rise of democracy and the struggle for dominance of an all-important sea.

Where research becomes useful is in the detail. I’d already lived in Malta and travelled in Greece and Turkey, but I also went to Morocco and to Greece again, this time with a writer’s eye. It’s easier to describe terrain and architecture if you’ve seen it! The same goes for the experience of sailing on the Mediterranean. I read a lot about ancient ship-building techniques, swords and armor, political organization, and of course, general history.

With Evermen being such a success, did you feel pressure moving on with a new world instead of offering something else in the Evermen universe?

There’s a slight pressure from the publisher – if something has done well, then doing more of the same is a safe bet. I think a stronger pressure comes from yourself: There’s so many examples of musicians, film-makers, and novelists making a change and their earlier audience hates it.

I did leave a few hooks in the Evermen Saga so that I might pick the storyline up again one day. But at the same time I think I’m still quite young (I’m 37), and I have a lot of stories I want to tell. I decided that if I could break the mould, and do something a bit different from Middle Ages fantasy, then if I’m lucky my readership will understand that while I’ll always have certain elements in my books, I’ll also let my imagination run free each time I begin a new project. I’m pleased with The Shifting Tides. So far so good.

Your books are very successful, yet compared to many authors, your online presence is somewhat enigmatic and limited to infrequent posts when a book goes live. What’s your feeling about social media interaction as an author?

The Path of the Storm (cover)That made me chuckle! I certainly don’t feel enigmatic. I suppose I know a lot of writers who write a few books a year, but none of them write chunky epic fantasy, and maybe it’s a time thing. I’ve set myself the goal of always writing at least two books a year, and there’s a lot of planning that goes into each world and the storyline of each novel. I’m certainly contactable – anyone can email me directly, straight from my web site, which is generally the best way to reach me. I’m just not in the habit of using social media. I have an author Facebook page, but I don’t have a personal one. After a day’s writing, I love to get some face to face contact. Conventions are great. I just went to one a few weeks ago and had a fantastic time.

My feeling about social media for authors has always been that one should do what comes naturally. I’m a long-form writer. My emails can often be quite verbose.

How often do you write and what takes up your time when you’re not writing?

I write every day, whether it’s for planning material or the text of a novel. Walking in the English countryside is a regular activity, and even when I’m at home, I go for a big walk in the woods, in between two long stints of writing. I don’t travel as much as I used to, which means I still take five or six international journeys a year. I’m a keen cook. I play guitar. I enjoy live music and London’s theatre scene.

Your covers are striking and beautiful. Some of my favorites in the genre. Do you have a specific artist for all of the books?

The Evermen Saga covers took a lot of work, with plenty of back and forth with the publisher, but the good thing was that after then we had a style. We used a different artist for The Shifting Tides covers, yet it helped to see what we had before. The books are very vivid, and I love having bright covers that convey that tone.

Having just released Iron Will, book four of The Shifting Tides series, can you talk a bit about what’s next for you in the coming year?

Iron Will (cover)I’m now working on a trilogy, with all three books written back to back. I’m really excited about the story, and it’s going to help immensely with plotting the overall series arc to write it in one big hit. If you’re familiar with my work, you’ll know that it’s best to read all the books one after the other. Writing three books together means they can be released in the same way. My readers say they hate waiting for the next book. I’m listening!

I won’t say much about the new story, other than that it’s epic, it’s fantastical, and it’s very different again.

Have you read any good fantasy this year and if so, any recommendations?

I’ve actually just moved house and finally, I now have space to take my fantasy collection out of storage (London properties are small). So I’m revisiting some old favorites like The Wheel of Time by Robert Jordan, which I reached book ten of but never finished. I really admire Brandon Sanderson and I can’t wait to see what he’s done with the ending.

Thanks again to James for talking with us today! If you’d like to learn more about Iron Will and James’ other works you can visit his website.


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