Folks, it is with great pleasure that I have James Maxey visiting today. I have enjoyed several of his books such as Nobody Gets the Girl, Hush, and Greatshadow. His latest book, Bad Wizard, is also pretty freaking awesome. Interviewing him was truly entertaining for me and I expect you shall be entertained as well. Enjoy!
Myths and beliefs that we would consider fiction or fantasy in modern literature once upon a time shaped history (think of all the hunts for unicorns & dragons). Do you see modern fantasy fiction affecting human cultures today and how?
You only have to turn on the TV to see that fantasy is permeating our culture. I mean, ABC has an oxymoronic “fantasy reality” show called The Quest. It’s jocks and models running around pretending to be paladins and talking about how to fight dragons. High fantasy has definitely moved out of the geeky, nerdy niche it used to occupy into the mainstream. That said, I think there’s a distinction between fantasy fiction shaping popular culture and enduring fantasy beliefs still deeply rooted in our core culture. The elves and goblins and witches of past eras have morphed into the Men-in-Black and ETs and psychic advisers of the modern age.
This is a terrific question because, as it happens, I’ve been going back in recent years and reading a lot of classic novels that I first experienced as a child or teenager. Sometimes, my differing perspective now that I’m 50 years old lets me see the true power of a work that was perhaps lost on me when I was younger. Hemmingway’s The Old Man and the Sea meant nothing to me when I was 15. Now, I get it.
That said, I sometimes wish I could travel back in time and regain the sense of wonder I had when I first experienced some of my favorite works. For instance, in my late teens/early 20s, when I first read Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns, I thought it was the best comic book ever written. When I reread it recently, though, I was surprised at how simplistic and one dimensional it seemed. The reliance on talking heads on TVs to deliver page after page of backstory was kind of grating. This isn’t to say that The Dark Knight Returns wasn’t an absolutely amazing and groundbreaking comic in it’s time. It’s just that part of the power was it’s freshness, the fact it hadn’t been done before. But after three decades of people imitating it, it’s lost it’s power to amaze me on a reread.
There are obviously traits a hero might have possessed at one time that would render him creepy now. Randal McMurphy in One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest was an idealized free spirit who couldn’t be made to conform to a corrupt society. But, reading the book today, the horrible misogyny of the character makes it difficult to root for him. And if you ever go back and read the original Tarzan books, the underlying racism will leave you cringing. On the flip side, at one point it was acceptable to hint that a character was homosexual if you wanted to make him seem villainous. Now, you’d be more likely to see homosexuality presented as a sympathetic trait.
Of course, the biggest change is probably in the proportion of male and female protagonists. Female protagonists were once restricted to romances and children’s books. Today, a book like The Hunger Games can give us a complex female action hero who has a role to play in the world other than falling in love.
Hmm… I honestly don’t read that much about other writers and creators. Until this moment, I don’t think I’ve even noticed it as a gap in my education. I’ve always engaged with authors through their books. Their personal histories, politics, etc., don’t hold much interest for me.
What has been your worst or most difficult job? How does it compare to writing?
Bill collector. Ug, that was just horrible, hounding people for money. It doesn’t compare well with writing. It doesn’t compare well with anything. Back when I was a bill collector, I stopped at a fast food restaurant and as I was leaving an old man in dirty clothes came up to me carrying bags of fast food and asked if he could get a ride back to his house, since he’d just picked up dinner for his kids. I said sure. When he got in my car, he said he was happy to be in air conditioning, that the sun had been killing him all day. I asked what he did for a living and he said he swept parking lots. He asked me my job, and I told him I was a bill collector. He wrinkled his nose, shook his head, and said, “I would never do that.”
Music plays a huge part in fueling my creativity. The Mountain Goats, Rasputina, The Dresden Dolls, The Decemberists… I’ve always got a soundtrack running through my head. Keen readers will be able to spot song titles and other references woven into my books and stories.
My biggest non-writer influence, if I may be a bit pretentious, is reality. Seriously, I absorb every odd little fact I can find about biology, geology, archeology, history, politics, food, art… you name it. I’ve read books devoted to the history of salt, and came away with a greater understanding of the world. For me, all good fiction–especially fantasy fiction–has to be built on a foundation of knowing as much as possible about the real world.
What reboots (or retellings) of classics have you enjoyed? Are there ones that haven’t worked for you?
I have the same answer for both! The greatest example ever of classics adapted and given new life has to be Alan Moore’s The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. The worst example ever of something adapted and utterly mangled has to be the movie version of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen.
Easy! I’d go to the Restaurant at the End of the Universe and nibble on whatever food came by to offer a taste.
If you were asked to create the syllabus for a college class in SFF literature, what books would be on there as required reading? As passing discussion?
I could do an entire semester on H. G. Wells. The Invisible Man, The Time Machine, The War of the Worlds, and The Island of Dr. Moreau are amazing books that stand up well to modern literary tastes. Wells was an amazing visionary, and even though he was working from a lot of flawed assumptions (for instance, thinking that Mars could support life), you still see his fundamental grasp of how the world works. It’s not a cop-out that microbes defeat the Martians in The War of the Worlds. He understood that humans weren’t the true pinnacle of earthly life–single celled organisms are the earth’s true dominant life form.
So, back in 2012, I was invited by Orson Scott Card to help teach one of his writing classes. Of course I said yes. As it happened, my novel Greatshadow had just come out, and I thought, hmm, I’ll take him a copy and maybe he’ll read it and say something nice about it eventually. But, when we got together, he’d not only already read the book, he’d already given it a glowing review online! That was a big thrill.
I would say that one of by biggest geek out fanboy moments came when I met John Darnielle of The Mountain Goats. He’d just done a concert and I was leaving the venue and, suddenly, there he was, just standing on the sidewalk out front. I went up and told him how much I’d enjoyed the show, asked him a few questions about some of his older albums, and left feeling a bit magical. I felt as if I’d just run into a unicorn or something.
Oh lord. From the age of 11 to sometime last week, my cousin Tony and I could argue endless about who was stronger, Thor or the Hulk, and sometimes take the argument to another level by bringing in Superman.
But, by far, the geekiest thing I’d ever heard discussed was in the hall at ConCarolina’s. A group of geeks were discussing their favorite podcasts, and one of the guys said that such and such show was his favorite World of Warcraft podcast. This caught my attention and I said, “Favorite implies you listen to more than one. Just how many World of Warcraft podcasts can there be?” Dozens, I was informed. But most weeks he only listened to three. I consider myself a pretty big geek, but, damn, that’s hardcore.
Places to Stalk James Maxey