Wednesday, January 23, 2019

Interview with Joseph Malik, author of The Outworlders saga

Today the Speculative Fiction Showcase take great pleasure in interviewing Joseph Malik, author of The Outworlders Saga, whose first book, Dragon's Trail, became a bestseller in 2017.

What sparked your interest in epic fantasy?

I don’t know that it was epic fantasy as much as sword and sorcery that sparked my interest.

I loved the idea of one person’s actions changing the world, which is definitely an epic fantasy riff, but I wanted to get as far away from the “Chosen One” trope as I could. In that respect, we follow Jarrod Torrealday, a modern-day stuntman, as he takes what amounts to the gig of a lifetime as a hero for hire in a fantasy world. His actions, which he sees as just doing what he can in the moment, end up having these sweeping, world-changing consequences.

However, I see these books as much more sword and sorcery (I guess technically they’re “sword and planet”) in that the story is lensed tightly on one character. It’s an epic fantasy storyline, but told with a sword and sorcery narrative, which I think helps evoke the feeling that he’s in far over his head.

Tell us more about the concept of a Fantasy Technothriller. What does it mean to you and how do you see it developing?

One of the major themes of the series deals with falling back on our humanity to overcome a looming technological disaster, which is one of two bases of the modern technothriller. The other factor that defines a technothriller is that the plot has to revolve around technical details—say, the caterpillar drive in The Hunt for Red October, or cloning technology in Jurassic Park.

In my series, the characters from Earth take weapons and armor of modern steel with them into this other world, as well as modern training and modern education, which are what we in the military call “capabilities multipliers.” The results send everybody scrambling, the characters included. This series is as much about the world reacting to them, and the mess they make of things, as it is them adapting to this new world. In that respect, I take that fundamental trope of portal fantasy—the fish-out-of-water finding his way—and knock it down in the first book and then spend the rest of the series kicking it in the head every time it moves.

Your author bio reveals that you have lived a life of real-world action, fighting in the US Army and much more. How has this informed your writing in Dragon’s Trail and The New Magic?

It’s really kind of been everything.

I grew up on the Blackfeet Reservation in northern Montana, and I was an adventurous, outdoorsy kid. I could ride a horse, hunt with a bow, track, stalk, catch fish with my hands, and so on. I was about ten before I figured out that other kids couldn’t do all this stuff. So my bullshit-o-meter was pretty low when I started reading fantasy in probably middle school. I kept reading books that had these just howling errors in them that even I, as a kid, knew better. So that kind of planted the seed.

About halfway through writing my first novel in high school, I remember building a sheet of chainmail out of coathanger wire and hitting it with an axe, working out a fight scene. I got it in my head that the best way to write the kind of fantasy that I wanted to read was to get out there and learn the rest of it hands-on to make sure I got it right. For about ten years or so, while I was also learning to write and going through the submission process, I learned swordsmanship, blacksmithing, mountaineering, and linguistics; I traveled to Europe to pace off castles and ruins; I learned to do stunts on horseback. I like to joke that I do all my characters’ stunts.

Later in life I joined the military and ended up in a weird corner of Special Operations, which opened up a whole world of really cool training: battlefield medicine, improvised weapons, human tracking.

I used this to build the technical points for the plots of the books and for the series arc. I ended up with fantasy novels that have the level of technical accuracy that you’d normally only see in historical fiction.

A big piece of this, too, is that by having done most of this stuff myself, I have my own stories from learning it and doing it, and I can fall back on these for expository narrative. There’s a scene where the characters are armoring up in 15th-Century harness, and instead of listing all 137 steps of the armoring process or getting really into the details of how it all goes together, I describe one guy ramming his pauldrons against a tree to seat them and the other guy’s foot going numb under his sabaton because the laces are too tight. It’s those details that you can only get by doing it.

Reviewers have commented that my books set a new bar for suspension of disbelief, and I’ve even been contacted by readers who suspect that my job in the military was as part of a Black Ops program that has traveled to the world in my books. Their reasoning is that there’s no other way I could know all this stuff at this level. My inbox is a voyage of discovery.

What made you decide to combine Science Fiction with Fantasy?

Before you introduce the magical elements of your worldbuilding, you have to first suspend disbelief in the mundane. This is a hundred times more critical when writing for an adult audience. People will believe in flying horses if the saddles make sense.

Publishers Weekly described the hero of Dragon’s Trail as “James Bond in tarnished armor”. How accurate is that description?

Spot-on, if I do say so myself. As I said above, it’s a thriller. I work in strategic intelligence, and there’s an espionage subplot that I built using elements of intelligence tradecraft that could plausibly function in a pre-industrial society. I used modern action thriller voicing and pacing, and hired an editor who had a great feel for the voice I was going for. So, it really does read and feel like a modern thriller, which I think resonates well with the main characters being from Earth and seeing this fantasy world through the eyes of 21st-Century adults.

What are your plans for The Outworlders - will there be another installment, or are you planning to write something different?

I’m writing Book III, Coin of the Realm, right now. I’ve planned a five-book series. I’ve also begun work on a new series taking place in the same world with different characters, which will have a much different flavor and feel. The working title for the new series is Stonelands. I’m shooting to have both books out in 2020.

If you could choose weapons for a fight, would you go for modern or medieval?

It depends what you mean by “fight.” My go-to for 99% of things that would ever try to kill me is a cut-down 12-gauge with a recoil-suppressing stock and hollowpoint slugs. If you ever find yourself in a fair fight, you deserve to lose.

So, yeah. Point modern.

Why are we as a culture so fascinated by the weapons and armour of the past?

I think there’s an impression that things were somehow more honorable or noble back then. I don’t actually believe that really that much has changed, at least insofar as the day to day fundamental mechanics of soldiering. I mean, we have modern weapons today, sure. But soldiering is soldiering. I believe that you could take a modern-day Army Ranger and a Roman salararius—an elite Roman soldier—and if you sat them down over pitchers of beer and found a way to break the language barrier, in half an hour they’d be slapping each other on the back and toasting absent friends. They’d both have the same problems with asshole officers and idiot underlings and crap equipment, and they’d both have the same kinds of friendships and the same sense of duty and love of the job. I think we get enamored with the past because we believe that things were somehow different, but I doubt they were. Weapons change, but soldiers don’t.

What are you reading at the moment?

It depends where I am. At this chair, I’m reading a language atlas of the world, Sartre’s Existentialism is a Humanism, and Richard Pevear's translation of The Three Musketeers. On my phone I’m finishing Elliott Kay’s Wandering Monsters, which is just unbelievably funny. I have piles of books on my desk, at every chair, by my bedside.

Do you read within the genre or do you prefer different kinds of fiction (or non-fiction?)

I don’t read much fantasy anymore. Generally, it has to be a recommendation by someone I know, or something new that’s really just blowing the lid off of the genre. I read a lot of military and espionage thrillers and a lot of lit fic, but most of my reading is nonfiction.

Tell us a little about your experience of self-publishing. Not everyone becomes a bestseller!

It wasn’t that hard. On your Kindle dashboard, there’s a “BESTSELLER” box you can check when you submit your book.
If only.

This is going to be long. Apologies in advance.

I’m a huge advocate of going big or going home. I don’t do half-measures, and I believe—and my experience has been—that craft and production value trump everything.

That said, I had a few things on my side going into this. I’d been writing for nearly thirty years before I published my first book. I wrote my first manuscript in high school, majored in English, and then tried the traditional publishing route for about 15 years with several different manuscripts. Finally, I got a big publisher to bite, and they held onto a manuscript for over a year and a half before they passed with a form letter. (There’s a reason they call it “submission.” Assume the position.)

That was the book that became Dragon’s Trail.

They’d tipped their hand, though I didn’t see it at the time. They wouldn’t have hemmed and hawed all that time—at one point, an editor had asked for synopses for all five books in the series—if it hadn’t been commercially competitive.

We’re at a point now where the same editors, cover designers, graphic artists, typesetters, publicists—everybody, really—that household-name authors use are available for hire. I decided to produce a novel that would be indistinguishable at a glance from anything a Big Five publishing house would put out, because everything was there to do it. This was the hill I was prepared to die on.

Besides the production of the book, I threw down for a professional website, hired a graphic designer, licensed artwork that was consistent with the branding, brought in a business development consultant, hired a publicist; all in all, capitalizing a boutique small press that turned out commercial-quality fantasy novels. Keep in mind the average startup cost for a small business in America is about twenty thousand dollars. Comparatively, this was still a bargain.

I released Dragon’s Trail on September 30th, 2016. For the first six months after release, nothing happened. I made maybe a hundred dollars a month. Maybe less. I put it all back into marketing and hung in.

And then, at about the six-month mark, I did a series of panels and demonstrations at a fantasy convention in Seattle, demonstrating and talking about all this stuff that I had learned: swordfighting, hand to hand combat, creating fantasy languages, training with foreign militaries, etc.

Readers who are into the nuts and bolts of worldbuilding—those hyper-critical fantasy fans that so many authors fear, the ones who cite inaccuracies and inconsistencies chapter and verse and even call authors out on them—turned out to be my crowd. Getting up in front of them as an author who’d served in Special Operations, who can fight with a rapier and speak Elvish and use celestial navigation on an alien planet, I won their trust and developed a following. And I do mean following; dozens of people followed me literally from panel to panel all weekend. I sold every book I’d brought, and the bookstore consigning Dragon’s Trail at the con became the first store to sign a deal with us to keep it in stock.

Online sales from that first weekend propelled Dragon’s Trail into the Kindle Top 20 for Military Fantasy, where it exploded. It got enough reviews in the next month that I was able to land a BookBub, which pushed it into the Top 100 on Kindle overall, and from there it got reviewed by major fantasy sites around the world, and then Publishers Weekly, and it just kept going. It’s still going. We crossed ten thousand sales in the summer of 2018. This is with only one book out at the time, and a debut at that.

This is where it’s really paid off to have produced Dragon’s Trail at a commercial level, and also to have put in nearly thirty years of writing before launching a debut. Had this been one of my early attempt novels, and especially if it hadn’t been professionally edited and proofread, it wouldn’t have stood up to mainstream reviewers. It wouldn’t even have been selected for review, sure as hell not by Publishers Weekly. It would have folded after the BookBub, which is where most indie books fold, frankly. BookBub is considered the end-all, be-all, but it’s really just a door.

We put out The New Magic at the same level, using the same team—two years later, mind you—and it launched with mainstream support and landed in the Kindle Top 50 Epic Fantasy New Releases. GoodReads currently has it ranked 25th for the Hugo Award, which is insane for an indie author.

I’m about to head back out onto the convention circuit here in a couple of weeks with my longsword and my laser pointer and do it all again. It’s become a cornerstone of my marketing and part of my author brand.

I guess this is telling you quite a bit more than “a little” about how I did it, but I did a lot of things differently. I apologize for the length, but I hope it helps someone.

TL; DR: My experience has been that craft and production value trump everything else. Don’t scrimp and don’t hurry.

Thanks for the interview. Great questions. This was really fun.

About Joseph Malik:

In addition to fiction, Joseph Malik writes and lectures on advanced intelligence theory and asymmetric warfare for the U.S. military. He has worked as a stuntman, a high-rise window washer, a computational linguist, a touring rock musician, and a soldier in the United States Special Operations Command. He has been a longtime panelist and demonstrator at fantasy conventions, speaking as an expert in swordsmanship, hand to hand combat, and military tactics and strategy. He has also lectured on writing and publishing at schools and colleges across the Northwest. His first novel, Dragon’s Trail, became a bestseller in four countries in 2017, reaching #1 in Epic Fantasy in the U.S., Australia, and Canada and #1 in Sword and Sorcery in the UK, making him eligible for the 2019 John W. Campbell Award for Best New Writer in Science Fiction and Fantasy – one of very few independent authors to ever qualify with a debut novel. Its followup, The New Magic, is eligible for the 2019 Hugo Award. A veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, Joseph Malik lives in the Pacific Northwest along with his wife and their two dogs. He serves in the U.S. Army Reserve and is a member of SFWA.

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