Wednesday, August 24, 2011


My good friend Jon Balog recently interviewed me concerning my novel Edge Country.

Jon has written for Bmore Live, Punk Planet, The Sentimentalist, Jive, and  His very enthusiastic article for can be read here and his guest blog for can be read here.

Why is fantasy fiction important?  Why should people care about creatures and places that don’t really exist?

Fantasy can be as important as realistic fiction when it makes points that are relevant to real life.  It’s no secret that the best sci-fi/fantasy isn’t really about spaceships, talking animals or zombies.  These books involve issues such as war and childhood (Ender’s Game), hate and apathy (Rot and Ruin) and the public’s obsession with the media (The Hunger Games).  In a way, sci-fi/fantasy novels act as a funhouse mirror.  They reflect our world but distort them so at first glance they appear to have nothing to do with reality

But let’s be honest.  Most fantasy authors don’t start off writing novels to express ideas.  They start because they have a story to tell, and it just so happens to contain fantastical elements.  Fantasy is important to me personally because it’s the only thing I feel completely comfortable writing.  There are tons of realistic stories I love reading, but ask me to write something grounded in reality, and it’ll go nowhere.  Ask me to write a story that tackles realistic issues but involves talking animals, underground cities and psychotic demons and you’ll get the first chapter in an hour.      

We often tell young authors to write what they know.  This is excellent advice.  However, it is often misunderstood.  For example, young writers often know what it’s like to feel as though the world is against them.  They could express these feelings through a realistic story (which is commendable).  However, a writer could also express these feelings through a story about a lone survivor trapped in a city full of zombies.  The author is still writing about what they know (feeling lost, betrayed, even victorious), they are just using different tools to get their points across. 

You open Edge Country with a quote from Joseph Campbell. How did his ideas about myth and symbolism influence the book?

I would list Joseph Campbell’s book The Power of Myth as one of the top five influences on my novel.  Mr. Campbell was a genius at finding similarities between mythologies.  He could then connect these similarities to pop culture.

My narrator, Lee, spends the story living a double life between modern day America and Edge Country, a mythological world filled with talking animals and ancient spirits.  Throughout the novel, Lee has to deal with backstabbing friends, heart breaking crushes, and a neglectful father.  To a certain extent I wanted him to be an adolescent “everyman.”  However, I also wanted to connect him with mythic heroes.

Odysseus could probably dropkick Lee, but the two share similar qualities.  They are both trying to reach seemingly impossible destinations.  They are both strongly influenced by love for their families.  They both overcome their adversaries using trickery.  In no way did I set out to base Lee on Odysseus (my character isn’t nearly as popular with the ladies) but Joseph Campbell’s book helped me find ways to connect my story and hero with those from other cultures and make them a part of a broader scope.  I would recommend that all storytellers try this.  

You’ve been open about the influence of Calvin and Hobbes. The parallels there are pretty obvious—both chronicle the adventures of young boys as they deal with the horrors of the real world, the horrors of the imagination, and the blurry place where the two worlds meet. One thing I’ve always liked about Bill Watterson is that he celebrated the wonders of youth, but said that he “never understood people who thought of childhood as an idyllic time of life.” How do you personally think of childhood?

I sometimes have a very cynical view of childhood.  While I do have some great memories from growing up, childhood is also a time filled with uncertainty and fear.  Children have little control over their lives.  If an adult is unhappy they can often at least strive for improvement (assuming they are motivated).  Children seldom have this opportunity.  Also, people can get away with being crueler to little kids.  If my boss was half as harsh as my second grade teacher he would be fired.

There are several similarities between Calvin and Hobbes and Edge Country.  They are both about boys who experience the darker sides of growing up.  Both boys are fish out of water among their own peers.  This is in part because they have access to worlds no one else can experience.  Similar to Calvin’s fantasy worlds, Edge Country has both positive and negative effects on Lee’s life.  It offers refuge and friendship but also causes Lee to say and do things that confuse his mother, teachers and friends.  Lee disrupts class to confront an adversary from Edge Country and he is often caught talking or arguing with individuals other humans cannot see. 

Despite its heavy influence, there are some differences between the two works.  There are few examples of Calvin having positive interactions with characters outside his personal world.  While this was perfect for the strip, Lee spends most of Edge Country very aware of how his actions must look to others.  Also, a great deal of the story involves Lee trying to find balance between Edge Country and the human world.

Another work I’d compare Edge Country to is Sam Kieth’s comic book The Maxx. The Maxx told the story of a man who spent half his life in an alternate reality. While definitely a work of fantasy, it addressed some very real-world issues, like homelessness, rape, teen suicide, and avoiding reality.  Edge Country, likewise, deals with things like bullying, self hatred, double lives and abandonment. Was this at all in the back of your head while you were writing?

I would say that these themes were bouncing around in my subconcious, but I wasn’t completely aware of them until later rewrites.  I’m always a few drafts into a project before I realize what the underlying issues are. 

The only exception I can think of is that Edge Country was always about a boy leading a double life.  I have read a lot of novels where the hero goes through the wardrobe/looking glass/train station platform and spends the rest of the book in the other world.  I love these stories but wanted to write a novel where the hero moved back and forth between the mundane and fantastical and had to face challenges in each.

You say writing fantasy is the only thing that comes naturally to you. I'm always surprised to hear people say that, because it seems to me it should be the other way around. When you write something set in the real world, the pieces are already set up for you. With fantasy, you have to reinvent the whole game. Why do you think you're wired that way?

Keep in mind that I only write fantasy set in the modern world (or “contemporary fantasy”).  Writing something in a Tolkien universe feels just as unnatural to me as writing something completely grounded in reality. 

All of my stories are set in modern America with cars, laptops and iPods but the characters just happen to have access to talking animals and hidden worlds.  As I mentioned earlier, the double life theme is enormous in my stories.  My characters often have both grounded and fantastical sides of their lives.  In a way I’m not completely creating my own worlds.  I’m building them on the foundation of our world. 

I honestly don’t know why I’m wired to write this way.  What happens is that when I’m driving my car, hiking in the woods or staring into space, a story will hit me.  It just so happens that almost all of these ideas belong in the contemporary fantasy genre.  I guess you could psychoanalyze me but that always open up a messy can of worms.  My best guess for why I write stories like Edge Country is because I love the juxtaposition between the mythic and the mundane.    I can have my hero be tormented by bullies and face demons in the same chapter.  In a way, having a down-to-earth setting will make the fantasy more relatable.  Also I can draw connections like those between the demons and the bullies. 

You said on the phone that there's nothing you love more than "spending a few hours at the end of the day working on my own world." Do you think there's something godlike in wanting to create your own fictional universe? Do you ever feel overwhelmed by the responsibility that entails, knowing that if you screw up once the whole thing could come crashing down?

To answer your first question: yes, I absolutely think there is a godlike feeling to creating my own universe.  I don’t mean this as blasphemy, I’m just admitting that at times writing a novel does provide a sense of complete control.

However, when my writing is going well, the story controls me.  I very often feel like the story is being told to me, and I’m just the one writing it down.  For example, I recently wrote a chapter where the narrator is standing on the edge of a cliff.  I planned for him to back away, but he jumped off the edge before I could stop him.  I had no choice but to follow through.  The jump was officially a part of the story (at least in this draft) and taking it out would be a lie.

As for your second question:  I often feel overwhelmed by the complexity of plots and characters as well as the publishing world.  However, I never feel overwhelmed by responsibility toward my universe.  Early drafts won’t be perfect, there’s no way to get around that.  There are moments when the universe does come crashing down, but I always build it back up again.  I have complete faith that if I keep on working I’ll eventually get it right.

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