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  • Writer's pictureG R Matthews

Ten Quick Questions with James Cormier

Today, we welcome James (Jim) Cormier to the Ten Quick Questions. Jim entered SPFBO #1 like me, and 298 others, with his book Exile. You might have seen it reviewed on Fantasy-Faction. I've read it, cover to cover, and enjoyed every moment. This is an author with a good imagination and a great turn of phrase.

GMA: Tell us about your book.

JIM: My first book was Exile: The Book of Ever, a young adult post-apocalyptic science fiction novel. It’s the story of Ever Oaks, a young woman struggling to save her people from encroaching violent tribes. She’s part of an insular community of religious extremists who survived “the Fall” by reverting to 19th Century levels of technology and building walled holdfasts. Ever, like many of the young people in her little society, has superhuman abilities that the Blessed, as they call themselves, believe are gifts from a benevolent God. Ever and a group of companions end up departing their village in the wake of an attack in an attempt to find a new place to call home. They end up, as you might imagine, encountering more than they bargained for.

Exile was one of Fantasy Faction’s final three choices in Mark Lawrence’s first Self-Published Fantasy Blog-Off (#SPFBO).

Right now I’m working on finishing up an entirely unrelated novel titled The Doktor’s Spyglass. It’s fantasy noir with a heavy helping of steampunk. I’m serializing it on Wattpad, so it’s free to read.

After that I’ll be working on an adult epic fantasy that I’m around 70,000 words into. It’s a bloody, graphic sword and sorcery novel that’s starting to turn a little bit grimdark.

GMA: Where did your inspiration come from?

JIM: Exile was the last book I ever intended to write. I never thought my first novel would be a YA book, let alone a YA book about a group of far-future Mormons convinced they’re God’s chosen people. But it was topical, so to speak, because at the time I was attending a Mormon church—another thing that, ten years ago, I would have sworn was not only impossible but downright ludicrous. I’ve been an avowed atheist for my entire adult life, before which I was raised Roman Catholic. So converting to Mormonism seemed about as likely as riding a surfboard to Mars. But then it happened, because there was family involved and because I was desperate for a new perspective in the wake of struggles with anxiety and depression.

And it was an eye-opening, often shocking experience. A different culture in every sense of the word. I’m not sure people realize quite how conservative and arcane and insular Mormon thought can be. I stayed for about a year, before realizing that I had always known it was rubbish and that dogma was not for me and that if I stayed I was going to end up becoming—or at least living like—a person I didn’t want to be.

In hindsight, I view it as a constructive experience, because it served as a sort of crucible, and I came out of it feeling galvanized, like I had tested who I thought I was against its polar opposite and found that I was right.

And in the process, I wrote Exile. It occurred to me relatively soon after meeting so many Mormons that they might have certain advantages when it came to surviving a major devastation: a common, strictly enforced doctrine to hew to; clearly defined (if unequal) gender roles; clearly defined community roles and expectations; a strong focus on preparedness, food storage, and self-reliance; a strong belief in abundant procreation; and unquestioning obedience to church leaders, among many others.

Whereas many (myself included) might rightfully consider these traits to be limitations in any civilized society—not to mention downright intolerant, in some cases—in a society that is by its very definition uncivilized, they could be strengths. At least insofar as survival is concerned.

I tried to give the sense of an undercurrent of suspicion, of the other shoe being about to drop, in the book, because even then I was questioning it all myself, and I always intended the characters to discover that many of their beliefs were simply convenient, magical explanations for phenomena that had very clear scientific causes. But in the as-yet-unwritten sequels, Ever and co. will discover a definite dark side to everything they hold dear.

The other things I’m working on, on the other hand, seem much more familiar to me. The Doktor’s Spyglass is my attempt to combine fantasy and detective noir. It’s got murder and detectives and a magic system and a big, old, creepy city in the middle of a big, old, creepy world that’s seen far better days.

The epic fantasy—working title Karthanas the Lesser—started out as a writing experiment. I sat down and deliberately tried to write the most self-indulgent fantasy story I could. You can read a very early version of the opening chapters on my website. They read like an epic fantasy opening written by the editorial staff at The Onion. But it turned into something more, and I’ve been having a lot of fun with it.

GMA: Why did you choose to go Self-Published?

JIM: Because it seemed to me, then and now, that self-publishing was going to revolutionize the publishing world, in one way or another, and I wanted to get in on the ground floor. I’m also not convinced of the long-term viability of the traditional agent model. I’m not convinced it’s scalable, and I’m not convinced it’s even practiced the way it’s supposed to be, at least for the majority of authors.

As an attorney, I was also a bit appalled, when I first started researching the traditional process, at the general lack of qualifications and professional oversight for literary agents. For every qualified, experienced, competent agent, there seem to be at least three who are either woefully incompetent moonlighters, outright scam artists, or recent undergraduates who think a B.A. in English qualifies them to negotiate a complex contract with a major publishing house. I sound bitter and pompous, I suppose, but the truth is I was never rejected by agents because I never submitted anything to any of them. I decided early on I wanted to do things on my own terms. Which is not to say I see no value in the traditional model—there’s nothing like a Big Five publisher for getting physical books shelved at Barnes & Noble. It’s just that I think doggedly adhering to a set of rules that has existed fundamentally unchanged since before the advent of the integrated circuit is, perhaps, a bit short-sighted.

I also think that the differences between the two—traditional publishing and self-publishing—are narrowing to the point where they’re going to become almost non-existent. I laugh whenever I see traditionally published authors calling out Amazon for being an evil corporate tyrant—as if their own publishers weren’t owned by a handful of multinational corporations increasingly indistinguishable from one another.Authors, agents, and editors alike cast Hachette v. Amazon as David versus Goliath, but in reality it was a case of Goliath versus Goliath.The only underdog was the authors—or maybe the readers.

GMA: What was the hardest part about taking this route?

JIM: The hardest part is undeniably the marketing. I’ve got some experience with graphic design and web design, so making things pretty and functional online was never a problem for me, as I know it is for many others. But identifying an audience, successfully getting the word out, actually creating a fanbase, knowing how to get your book in front of readers—that’s tough.

GMA: Morning, afternoon or evening writer?

JIM: Afternoon and evening, generally. I do most of my writing either in the early to late afternoon, stopping for dinner and to actually speak to my wife and son, and then later on I’ll sit in bed with a laptop and write for as long as I can stay awake. There may or may not be whiskey involved, at that point.

GMA: Architect or Gardener? Planner or Pantser?

JIM: Gardener & Pantser. That sounds like a law firm: Gardener & Pantser, LLP.

I to outline, I really do. I fill notebook after notebook with stuff: ideas, plot summaries, sketches, character outlines. But I seem constitutionally incapable of truly preconceiving a story in its entirety, and I typically won’t get any real work, useful done on a book until I sit down and just start writing. The characters, and usually the plot, don’t completely crystallize for me until I’m well into the first draft. I’m in awe of those who can sit down and set out the skeleton of their story in outline form—to me it seems like being able to see the future.

For me, it’s a process that reminds me a lot of a really dumbed down version of quantum mechanics: I’ve got all these ideas orbiting in my head, sometimes interacting with each other and making sparks, but never coalescing into anything coherent until I actually start writing. My brain is a trapped cat, is what I’m trying to say, simultaneously alive and dead, waiting desperately for my fingers to open the hatch.

My God, that’s awful stuff.See what happens when you don’t outline?

GMA: Silence, music or what when writing?

JIM: Music.For the most part it has to be instrumental, though, or it’s too distracting, so I play a lot of ambient electronica and classical and strange, atmospheric stuff like Robyn Miller’s Riven soundtrack. Pre-war jazz, if the mood strikes me.

GMA: What’s the weirdest fact or piece of information you had to research in order to write the book?

JIM: I remember doing a lot of research on how long it takes plant growth to overtake and destroy asphalt, and how long wood-frame houses last, if left untended, which was disconcerting. It’s not as long as you’d think, especially in New England.

I’m also always doing etymology research, for inspiration with fantasy names and words.I like to incorporate fantasy languages into some of my work, though preferably without all of the apostrophes and preferably with extreme discretion.The great thing is, though, that studying the origins of real world languages is so much weirder than even the most off the wall fantasy languages.Reconstructed languages in particular are fun: Proto-Indo-European, for example, the theoretical ur-language from which most if not all modern western languages derive.Fascinating stuff.

GMA: To steal (paraphrase) from Rod Stewart, what do you wish that you know now, you knew when you started the journey to a finished and published book?

I wish I knew that the only way to do your best writing is to free yourself from self-doubt, imagined readers’ expectations, and any personal rules about what you “should” be writing.

Good luck with that, by the way. Let me know if you figure it out. Drinking seems to help.

GMA: You’re on a deserted island with enough food and water to survive. There no building materials around so you must wait for rescue. What three books would you have with you, to help you pass the time?

JIM: Only three? What hellish islet is this, that I’m only allowed three books?

The Lord of the Rings, for obvious reasons. I try to reread it once a year, and every time I discover new things. I’m one of those strange people who actually loves how slow-moving the books can be. The tension and build-up of the first hundred pages of Fellowship, for example. They haven’t even left the Shire yet, and it’s got this pot-boiler feel to it….

Memory, Sorrow, and Thorn by Tad Williams. My favorite epic fantasy. Also a slow starter, which turns some off, but which hooked me immediately. Williams doesn’t get enough credit for what he did with that trilogy, and when he did it. A lot of younger fantasy writers have gotten a lot of praise for “inverting the tropes” of epic fantasy, but he did it first, in a grand way, when there was a dearth of inspiring fantasy being written. Years go by between rereads and many of the images and characters in those books remain crystal clear in my mind. Tolkien got me started with fantasy, but Tad Williams got me obsessed with it.

Neuromancer by William Gibson. Reading this was the first time I remember feeling like my mind had been blown after reading a novel—reading fantasy produces a different kind of awe and wonder, for me—and it was the first book that really made me appreciate science fiction. I’d been a diehard fantasy reader, before that, but I hadn’t tackled much sci-fi. This changed all that. It also got me really fascinated with artificial intelligence, which features in some of my own work.

I should point out that I’m something of an unreliable narrator when it comes to this type of question. My answer is entirely true—today. Tomorrow it might be something entirely different. But these three are undoubtedly on my all-time top ten.

I also realize that two of these (all three, really, since I view the Sprawl trilogy as one big novel) are in fact trilogies, not single books, and thus my answer is somewhat non-responsive. But this is my island, and I am claiming it and declaring myself its sovereign, and I’ll be damned if I can’t bend the rules a bit.

Seriously, though, thank you so much for the interview!

Find out more:

Thanks to James (Jim) for taking the time to answering these questions... even if we stuck him on a hellish isle!

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