MICHAEL A. VENTRELLA: I’m pleased to be interviewing fantasy author James Enge today. James, how did you get started in the business?
JAMES ENGE: I’ve been writing since forever, but I was first published when I saw a newish magazine called “Black Gate” had started up. They specialized (and still specialize) in adventure fantasy at shorter lengths (i.e. shorter than a novel) and that’s what I was most interested in writing, so I sent them something. When the editor, John O’Neill, finally wrote me back after many months I assumed it would be another in a long string of rejections … but, in fact, he bought the story (“Turn Up This Crooked Way”) and told me he was interested in more. So that’s when it really started for me. That was in 2005, if I’m remembering right.
VENTRELLA: Creating a fantasy world is never easy, because it must be rooted in believability. What have you done to make your world both fantastic and believable? Have you found it difficult?
ENGE: I try to maintain a certain tension between free invention and concrete realism. My favorite bits in my own writing are physical descriptions which are probably invisible to everyone else. In my first story, the hero has occasion to peer through “a dark shoe-shaped patch of nothingness”. It makes perfect sense in the world of the story, but it’s not something that you’re likely to see on the street on your way to work.
VENTRELLA: Along those same lines, what steps have you taken to plant your characters in this world? In other words, many fantasy novels tend to have characters that behave like modern-day people, only in a different setting. How do you avoid that while still making the characters likeable?
ENGE: Someone called this the phenomenon of the “vegetarian Viking” — anachronistic modern attitudes grafted onto people in non-modern societies. It is tricky, because whenever the characters may be living, the audience is a modern audience and they’re not likely to laugh off chattel slavery or infant exposure (to name only two unsavory customs of the past). But, in my fantasies, it’s much more difficult to say what’s anachronistic, since it’s a secondary world. Writers can get themselves some oxygen but writing a different kind of society than lords and ladies and dukes and peasants: not every imaginary world has to be the Middle Ages with real dragons. And the actual Middle Ages were more complicated than some people think: one can plunder history for interesting ideas. Your standard Viking, for instance, would not have been a vegetarian… but he may have lived (if he came from Iceland) in a republic strikingly free from all that kingy junk we associate with medieval states. Likewise a Florentine banker (and so on).
VENTRELLA: Is religion in fantasy novels something to embrace or avoid, given the controversy it may bring?
ENGE: I think you have to tell the story that you want to tell, and if religion comes up, it comes up. Religion is a normative part of human society, so a society without any religious expression would need some justification … but that in itself might make for an interesting story or world. The novel I’m working on now is starting to feature one set of deities (the Strange Gods) very strongly. I didn’t expect it, but it’s been kind of interesting to watch it develop.
VENTRELLA: What’s your biggest gripe about fantasy novels in general?
ENGE: I can’t claim to have read a representative sample — there’s just too much out there. But I think the tendency to view multivolume narratives as the norm is really not good. The longer the narrative, the more difficult it is to bring to a satisfying conclusion. I’m not knocking George R.R. Martin, by the way: I read A GAME OF THRONES years ago and loved it. But I have resisted reading the other volumes in “A Song of Ice and Fire” since then: I’ll wait till he’s done and read the whole thing, and I have every confidence the end will live up to the beginning. But not everybody is GRRM. Also, he’d been writing for a generation, producing work of classic stature long before he tackled this heroic project.
VENTRELLA: What are your favorite fantasy novels? Favorite authors? Why?
ENGE: Tolkien, Leiber, Zelazny, Le Guin, Brackett, Vance. Zelazny has a great line in THE HAND OF OBERON. He actually speaks to his main character, Corwin, and he says that he’s writing “a philosophical romance shot through with elements of horror and morbidity.” I think that’s what all these guys do, to some extent, and that’s what I’m trying to do. I coined the term philorohorrmorbmance for it once, but it didn’t catch on for some reason, so I usually say I write sword-and-sorcery.
VENTRELLA: How important is an agent for a starting writer?
ENGE: Key. I mean, if what you want to do is sell stories to zines, you don’t need an agent. And small presses don’t usually demand that the writer be represented by an agent. But if you want to sell novels to even medium-sized publishing houses, I think writers mostly need an agent nowadays. More and more work that used to be done by publishers is being offloaded to agents — essentially, they’ve become the first readers for the publishing houses. I’m not saying there are no exceptions, but I know that my novel-writing career went nowhere until I got an agent (the great Mike Kabongo who runs the OnyxHawke Agency).
VENTRELLA: What is your writing style?
ENGE: I have to know how a story ends or I can’t make much progress on it. So I begin with the end and a beginning, and the stuff between I usually negotiate as I go.
VENTRELLA: My second novel comes out in a few months, and, like your work, it is a stand-alone story but set in the same world with the same characters as the first novel. One of the difficulties I had is in giving enough background for a new reader while not boring someone who is already familiar with the world from the first novel. How do you handle that sort of thing?
ENGE: It is hard. Mostly I’ve solved that so far by sending my hero, Morlock Ambrosius, to new places. But, in general, I think that writers have to develop a sense for what exposition is genuinely necessary for the story and what isn’t. A writer should always know more about his or her world than will fit into a story, and because the world is our creation we’re often eager to fill the audience’s ear with excessive detail. On the other hand, new and different worlds are one of the reasons people read sf/f, so what’s excessive for one reader will be just an hors d’oeuvre for others.
VENTRELLA: How has your educational background influenced your writing?
ENGE: I steal stuff from it constantly. My degrees are in Classics, and I studied a few medieval Germanic languages in school, too — all because I was (and remain) nuts about language, mythology and history (three fields that overlap more than one might think). This stuff is a tremendous storehouse for story ideas. For instance, Morlock’s move to defeat the Big Bad in BLOOD OF AMBROSE will seem a little familiar to people who know the myth of Hercules and Antaeus, and when Morlock is confronted by a stone beast in THIS CROOKED WAY he again takes a leaf (or limb) from Hercules’ book to save himself. The trick, when you steal something as blatantly as I do, is to make the borrowed element native to your work. You don’t need to know the Herc myths to read the Morlock stories, but if you do you’ll get an extra smile of recognition sometimes.
VENTRELLA: All authors these days spend a large amount of time on self-promotion, from posting a regular blog to producing podcasts to appearing at conventions. What’s your opinion on the relative value of each?
ENGE: I have no idea. There are so many forms of online community these days, one could spend a working week every week just keeping up. One thing I do feel strongly: online and offline communities may be useful for self-promotion, but they shouldn’t be used solely for that. The communities are meant to be conversational exchanges among people with common interests, and that’s really their primary value.
VENTRELLA: Do you advise aspiring novelists to begin with short stories?
ENGE: I would have said “yes” a few years ago. Now I’m not so sure: the markets are very different in what they want to see, and the forms themselves are diverging radically. When the standard novel was sixty or seventy thousand words and magazines regularly published novelettes and novellas of tens of thousands words, writers with the same skill-set could comfortably operate on book length and short-story length. Now stories seem to be getting shorter and novels are certainly getting longer (at least in sf/f). No doubt a credits-list of stories in reputable publications increases the likelihood that an agent or an editor will take a chance on a new writer. But if novels are what people want to write, maybe they should head straight for that — likewise with stories.
VENTRELLA: Of what work are you most proud?
ENGE: You force me to tell you! Okay, since I have no choice in the matter (not that I want one), I really like my second book, THIS CROOKED WAY. The story begins with Morlock’s horse, Velox, being stolen by an unknown enemy. In tracking down the horse, he has a number of adventures that turn out to be clashes with his veiled enemy. When unmasks his enemy, he finds that he’s already involved in a struggle that hinges on someone else’s life-or-death. The book is an homage to the episodic novels of sword-and-sorcery past (like Fritz Leiber’s Lankhmar books, or Vance’s Cugel books, or Moorcock’s Elric books). I got to sneak in some elements that one doesn’t usually see in a heroic fantasy, like robots (i.e. golems), the internet (a.k.a. Whisper Street) or alien species (e.g. the buglike Khroi or the wormlike dark gnomes). There’s an antiheroic dragon-fight that I’m particularly fond of. And there’s some emotional resonance for me in the over-arching plot, which deals with the death or non-death of Morlock’s mother. THIS CROOKED WAY has not, in fact, made a big splash, but even if it never sells another copy it’s the book I’m likeliest to point to and say, “That’s what I do; that stuff.”
VENTRELLA: What’s your opinion on self-publishing? Do you advise new authors to go this route, or is it better to not publish at all than to be self-published?
ENGE: Self-publishing is risky because there are so many people involved who really don’t have a realistic sense of their work’s merit. Everyone, but everyone, can afford to take a hint every now and then, and the self-publishing route usually involves trimming out all the gatekeepers who might say, “This bit doesn’t work” or “Your hero looks like a jerk here. Is that what you want?” The process of traditional publishing may keep some work from being published, but it unquestionably improves the stuff it does let into the light of day. I’m not saying that everyone involved in self-publishing is engaged in self-deception: it provides an outlet for lots of stuff, like local history, textbooks — niche work that would always have trouble with a commercial publisher but may still find an audience. But so much self-published fiction is so problematic that I think it’s a hard sell for most readers.
VENTRELLA: Any last minute words of wisdom for those wanting to break into the publishing business?
ENGE: Write the kind of stuff you’re interested in reading. This seems like obvious advice, but lots of people get involved in writing work they would never look at twice if it were written by someone else.
I’m not sure if those were words of wisdom, but at least they were words. Thanks for the chance to bend your and your audience’s collective ear!