Let’s kick things off with a rundown of you and your books. In other words, tell us about yourself and what you write!
Hey, thank you. My name’s Joe, I’m a fantasy writer. (Everybody: “Hi, Joe.”)
At least, I’m trying to be a fantasy writer. I have one book, Dragon’s Trail, that comes out on September 30th on Kindle Unlimited. I write fantasy but I read a lot of thrillers and espionage fiction. So Dragon’s Trail is something new: an epic fantasy spy thriller with a crossworlds trope. It involves people from Earth who travel to a fantasy world and get caught up in a web of intrigue: corruption, murder, espionage, treason, looming war. It’s the first in a series, and they’re all going to be thrillers. I try to use a narrative style that’s more true to a modern thriller, and thriller pacing and subplots.
How long have you been writing? And how long have you been publishing?
I’ve been writing most of my life. I started with the initial idea for this book back in high school, about 30 years ago. I still have the original manuscript. It’s gone through many changes – this book has almost nothing in common with earlier versions. I played with writing as a hobby for a few years and then went down the traditional publishing route once I had a finished manuscript – this was 25 years ago, remember. It’s been rejected a total of 47 times, through 10 total rewrites, in the past 25 years. There was a point back around 2000-2001 where one of the majors had asked for the manuscript, and then asked me for a series outline, and everything was looking great, or so I thought. They held on to it for a total of 18 months and then passed with a form letter. Finally, this year, I decided to self-publish. I started my own imprint, bought my own ISBNs, got a business license. I mean, why not, at this point? The book comes out today.
What “kind” of writer would you describe yourself as?
Definitely self-published. More than anything, though, I’m a professional, white-collar writer who writes fantasy on the side. I work in strategic intelligence, and before that I worked in tech writing. So, I write. A lot.
How did you decide what publishing route to take for your books?
“Decide” is kind of a strong word. Being a new author with zero track record, I decided to go with KU for the first 90 days. I’ll be going wide on January 1st.
What one piece of advice would you give to anyone looking to do the same?
Don’t listen to me. I could be totally wrong.
If you could make one decision differently in your publishing career so far, what would it be?
I would have done this ten years ago.
In terms of writing and publishing, what’s something new you’d like to try in the future?
I’d like to clean my office.
Seriously, though. I’d really like to quit my job, build a cherry-paneled office out behind my workshop with a view of the farm next door, and just write spin-offs for this series for the next 50 years. That’s really what I want to try in terms of writing and publishing.
Your book Dragon’s Trail is set on Earth but contains magical mythological elements – what appealed to you about combining the magical with the modern reality of Earth?
It’s actually the opposite way around. It takes people from Earth and puts them into a magical realm.
What appealed to me about it is that, once you throw off the YA clichés – my characters are all adults, and this is a redemption story, not a bildungsroman – it opens the door to some fascinating philosophical territory. In particular, the trope gave me a chance to write a polemic about the increasing obsolescence of the warrior caste in modern society, and with it, an examination of our social misunderstanding about the utility of violence.
When I first wrote Dragon’s Trail, back in high school, it was the same story that everyone writes, I think: a group of gamers go to another world and use their knowledge of the game to survive.
A few years later, in college, I tweaked it into the story of a young stage magician here on Earth who could do real magic but couldn’t tell anyone. He learns that he’s actually the son of a great sorcerer from another world, and he’s a lost prince to boot, and he ends up winning back his father’s throne and fulfilling a prophecy. Which is pretty much every YA crossworlds story, ever.
When this all seemed too easy and I needed a worthy adversary, I brought in a drunken, violent, down-on-his-luck stuntman from Earth to kill him. When I added his backstory as a fallen-from-grace Olympic fencer, and then developed a fictional world of illegal underground dueling, I realized that the real story was about the drunken swordsman’s personal struggle for redemption instead of the magician’s “coming of age” in a magical world. The swordsman became the hero, and the boy-king sorcerer from Earth became the villain.
The crossworlds trope offers a number of interesting angles that I don’t see explored in fantasy, and especially not in YA. It allows a writer to look at some fairly heavy questions, specifically, meta-ethical moral relativism and the whole nature-vs.-nurture argument; i.e., if we were still human but raised in a different world, what values would we still possess? Later in the series, I look at the unwitting damage that rulers can do when they possess a disparate and alien intellectual history from the people they’re responsible for.
Your main character in the book is described as an ‘unlikely hero’ – despondent, volatile and alcoholic – how do you go about writing a balanced hero, complete with believable flaws?
Well, as I said earlier, he was originally my villain. So I had the luxury of making him unbalanced. He was a lot more fun to write that way, and he’s still fun to write as an unbalanced hero. He’s an outrageous hero, and he constantly surprises me.
When we meet him, he’s crawling out of a very dark hole. At one point, he was on the cover of Sports Illustrated, he had a History Channel special on medieval combat, he was dating a starlet, he was headed for the Olympics. He had the whole world at his feet. Then he killed another fencer in a drunken duel and lost everything. Like I said earlier, it’s a redemption story. We can see the apex of his life behind him, so we know what he’s capable of and we’re yelling at him and kicking him in the butt to get back up there, but he spends most of the book hiding in his own shadow. He’s not your typical fantasy hero and definitely not a YA hero; I wrote him for anyone who’s ever been drunk on their living room floor, crying till you puke and offering to sell your soul for a do-over. Not a lot of kids will be able to relate to that. I hope.
How much has your background with technology influenced your novel?
I don’t know that technology has impacted it, but I work in strategic intelligence. Specifically, I work in theater-strategic conflict analysis and asymmetric warfare (guerrilla warfare and terrorism) analysis.
I had put the book down and shelved everything, just given up and put it all in boxes, several years ago. About ten years ago, I think. I’d literally forgotten about it.
Five years ago, I was injured downrange and medevac’d to the States, and while I was convalescing I discovered the book on a hard drive and started to work on it again. At that point, I’d seen real, living nations completely torn down by war, and I’d seen nations emerge from warfare, as well. I mean, I was on a working group in Africa that helped operationalize South Sudan. I could see that what I’d been writing was a load of juvenile, wishful crap and had no basis in reality. It made for a good story, but nation-states and societies don’t react that way. So I revisited the series arc with a completely new appreciation for the impacts of various levels of conflict on a society, and really took a hard look at where that was going to take me.
I think that, even with the emphasis on worldbuilding that some fantasy authors put in — not to denigrate the fine work that a lot of authors dedicate to worldbuilding — the secondary and tertiary strategic-level effects on their fantasy worlds often don’t ring true, at least to those of us who work in this area professionally. In some cases the effects are very obviously hand-waved, which is a shame, because these events and their consequences drive the larger story. This is particularly true when you have an epic hero, whose individual actions have profound strategic-level (or, in fantasy terms, “epic,” i.e., world-changing) consequences. This is very much the kind of war that we’ve been fighting right here for the past decade and a half, where the snap decision of one junior officer or even a team sergeant can shift the entire battlespace.
I’ve gone to lengths to ensure that the series arc reflects the impact those levels of conflict – from slow-burn intractability in Book I all the way through global war in Books IV and V – will have on the world that I created. And also, that it will be fun as hell to read.
The characters from Earth are essentially superweapons that shift the balance of power among the realms, so there’s an arms-race allegory in there, too, I guess. That touches back on balancing out the heroes; they’re not balanced. They’re superweapons.
What’s next for you?
At this exact moment, I’m on standby to go back on an Active Duty tour, which would involve deployment. I’m still in the Army Reserve. I’ll know in a week or so, like, literally the week after Dragon’s Trail launches, if that’s going to happen. If it does, then that will cut into my writing time so we’ll call it a hiatus. If that doesn’t happen, then I’ll likely be a panelist at Norwescon in the spring and Book II should be out next summer.
Joseph Malik writes and lectures on advanced intelligence theory and asymmetric warfare for the Defense Intelligence Agency. He has worked as a stuntman, a highrise window washer, a freelance writer, a computational linguist, a touring rock musician, and a soldier in the United States Special Operations Command. His hobbies include boxing, fencing, Historic European Martial Arts (HEMA), traditional archery, and linguistics. A veteran of Operation Enduring Freedom, he lives in the Pacific Northwest along with his wife and their two dogs, and currently serves in the Army Reserve. Dragon’s Trail is his first novel, slated for release on September 30th, 2016. A sequel, The New Magic, is scheduled for summer 2017.